Challenge: 50 Books discussion

Finish Line 2013! Yay! > Naomi is reading in 2013

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message 1: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments i read 70 books in 2012, and a number of shorter works that i didn't count. some of my favorites were:
11/22/63 by Stephen King
my re-read of The Great Gatsby
the classic Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which i'd never read before
the amazing Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
and the sublime Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, one of my new favorite authors (who i discovered thanks to Nick Hornby's mention in one of his collections of Believer's columns.)

other than the times i was (unwillingly) unemployed, i don't think i've read so much in a year's time. unfortunately, i noticed that i put off reading books that i really, really wanted to read until i had hit my goal of 50 books. i didn't want to start on a long book (i.e. 11/22/63 and 1Q84) and not meet my goal of 50 books. well, i don't want to do that this year. i think this year i'll record my books, but i'm not going to number them until at least half way through. i have some really big books on my to-read list and i don't want to be hindered by an arbitrary goal.

Happy New Year, everybody! i wish you a great year reading great books.

message 2: by Naomi V (last edited Jan 14, 2013 11:42AM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

3-1/2 stars

this is a re-read. Amsterdam is the first book by Ian McEwan that i ever read. one reason i decided to re-read it is that i just returned from Amsterdam and wanted to see if i recognized anything in the book; the other is that i wanted to revisit the novel that compelled me to become a fan of McEwan.

set at the end of the 20th century, Clive has been asked to write a musical piece to commemorate the occasion. his friend, Vernon, is a newspaper editor of a failing paper. the book starts as they attend the funeral of a woman who both can claim as a lover in their past. the exact illness isn't specified, but she quickly descended into a state of dementia, the idea of which Vernon and Clive find abhorrent. they pledge to each other to prevent such a thing from occurring; they promise to help the other person commit suicide (or perform a mercy killing) if they are ever struck with such a debilitating illness.

you could only ask somebody really close to you to perform such an act, so it's surprising that their friendship is soon in trouble because both are guilty of appalling behavior, and neither sees fit to apologize or forgive.

what happens next; how this is resolved, is engrossing. while not my favorite McEwan book, it's right up there.

message 3: by Naomi V (last edited Jan 19, 2013 08:02PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Potsdam Station by David Downing

Potsdam Station (John Russell, #4) by David Downing

3-1/2 stars

i wasn't sure i'd read any more of David Downing's books because his last book was a little fantastic; John Russell and his girlfriend Effi miraculously defying all odds to track down and rescue a missing Jewish girl (held by the Nazis in a brothel) and finally escaping Germany.

having recently read A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary piqued my interest again and coincidentally, Potsdam Station covers the same time frame: the Russians were clearly winning the war and headed for Berlin.

Potsdam Station is a series of mixed connections in the chaos of the invasion of Berlin. Effi didn't actually leave Germany when Russell did; she stayed behind and worked to hide and evacuate Jews. John's son, Paul (from his first marriage) stayed in Germany also and was forced into the military. the three of them keep missing each other by minutes. while this may seem too fantastic again for my tastes, i considered the confusion and disarray in Berlin at the time.

Potsdam Station was compelling enough that i immediately started the next book, Lehrter Station. unfortunately, this is the last book that's already published. after Lehrter Station, if i want to continue, i'm going to have to wait for the next book to come out.

addendum: i should note the unusual number of errors in spelling and usage in this Kindle version of the book. i think i'm unusually distracted by such things and it slows me down (i have to go back and re-read the sentence with the correct word/s, usage, whatever before i can continue. yeah, i know...) surely we should be able to expect that a book is properly edited before publication.

message 4: by Naomi V (last edited Jan 19, 2013 08:04PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Vlad by Carlos Fuentes

Vlad by Carlos Fuentes

2 stars

this is a modern-day retelling of the Dracula legend, set in Mexico City. Perhaps something was lost in translation, but i didn't find this version different enough to be very interesting. i understand that Carlos Fuentes is considered a very fine author but i didn't see enough of that here to look for any more of his books.

message 5: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Lehrter Station by David Downing

Lehrter Station (John Russell, #5) by David Downing

3 stars

John Russell and Effi are back in Berlin, which is not the Berlin they loved before the war. it's divided now between the Americans, Russians, French, and British. amid the ruins they renew old acquaintances, they try to find people, mostly Jews, who may or may not have survived the war, and they try to track down Nazis. Russell is working for both the Soviets and the Americans, and trying to stay one step ahead of both. i had trouble putting this down because i was so interested in finding out what would happen next.

message 6: by Kelani (new)

Kelani | 205 comments You could always do a goal based on pages you've read instead of number of books so you can count the big books!

message 7: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Kelani wrote: "You could always do a goal based on pages you've read instead of number of books so you can count the big books!"

true. i'm not going to decide until later in the year. i'm happy for now to just read without having any numerical goal.

message 8: by Naomi V (last edited Jan 30, 2013 08:00AM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch by Thomas Thwaites

The Toaster Project Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch by Thomas Thwaites

3 stars

At first glance this seems like a book about a rather silly idea. The photo on the cover doesn’t help; it’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a toaster – bad seams and lumpy contours – you might not recognize it as a toaster if it weren’t for the title. The author, David Thwaites, is a design student and has the idea to build a toaster from “scratch” for his postgraduate project. (By “scratch” he intends to mine the minerals, make the plastic, and ‘create’ all the other materials that make a toaster.) What the author has done, in addition, is to use a very familiar household object to explore consumerism, capitalism, and the true cost of what we buy, among other things; and all with the dry English wit that I love.

He buys a very ‘cheap’ toaster as his model. It cost him £3.94 (about $6.10 at that time,) which is pretty damn cheap. I didn’t even know that they made toasters that cheap.

He gets guidance on his project from a professor of mining who tries not to discourage him, but recognizes that finding ores, mining them, and processing them is a bigger task that David perhaps imagines. And the plastics are even more difficult to work with.

He disassembles the toaster into its component parts and finds that it has over 400 parts. I had no idea it took that many parts to make a toaster, although with some thought I guess I would have guessed at most a couple hundred. So how uninformed am I?

He determines the make-up of the components and comes up with a minimum of steel, nickel, mica, plastic, and copper. His “rules” are that he stays within the UK to obtain the raw materials, but he soon finds that many of these items are not readily available in the UK. Nickel, for instance, is most proximally available in Russia (Siberia) in the most polluting smelter, or in Iceland, in the most environmentally responsible smelter. The interesting thing is that both plants are owned by the same company. Smelting nickel doesn’t have to be so harmful to the environment, but in Iceland they care to regulate such things, while in Russia, they don’t. (He ended up buying Canadian commemorative coins on e-Bay that were 99.9% nickel and melting them down.)

He travels to the English border with South Wales for steel; to Scotland for mica; to a recycler in Manchester for plastic (he carves the mold in a block of wood for the plastic shell of the toaster, which by the way results in the lumpy shell of the toaster); to the isle of Anglesey for copper (actually in the form of water, from which he uses electrolysis to extract the copper). He tried to make plastic from potatoes, but the results were dismal.

Thwait discusses the UE’s directive about recycling electronic equipment. The law was supposed to make it easier to disassemble and recycle electronic equipment, but ended up only in electronic companies paying third parties to handle the recycling for them. I’m not sure how the electronic equipment ends up with the recyclers (assuming that they do.)
Thwaite determines the final cost of his toaster at £1,187.54. He considers, for example, the cost of travel (or shipping,) the raw materials, as well as the cost of manufacturing the parts. The final cost doesn’t begin capture all the ‘externalities’ involved in his toaster, such as damage to the environment or the cost of disposal.

I am interested in the preserving our environment, and believe that I try to do what I can to minimize my impact on it. I don’t have a car; I take public transportation (I *should* bike, but I don’t.) I’m not a very big consumer. On the other hand, I, like many others, tend to discard appliances that don’t work anymore. I’m old enough to remember “fix-it shops,” where you would take a broken toaster to be repaired. (Also, televisions and other small appliances.) I don’t know if they exist anymore; I haven’t seen one in years. It’s too bad, because I have a two-slice toaster and a coffee maker that I would love to replace. Now I’ll have to be sure that I keep them in good working order.

This book has been a real eye-opener. I’m going to be more conscious of what I buy and what I discard. I’ll also be recommending this book to others, whether they’re interested in the environment or not. They’ll learn something as they read it.

message 9: by Kelani (new)

Kelani | 205 comments Makes sense!

message 10: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin

Standing in Another Man's Grave (Inspector Rebus, #18) by Ian Rankin

3 stars

Rebus is retired. does that mean that he stops investigating? not likely. he is now a civilian attached to a cold case unit, so he spends his days at a police station, looking for new clues in old cases, but without the clout he had as a cop.

one day a woman whose daughter has been missing for many years comes to talk with another cop who is retired (and not working any more.) out of curiosity, Rebus talks to her and find that she has a theory that a number of abductions have occurred along the same road where her daughter was last seen. Rebus is intrigued, and everybody knows what happens then...he is not capable of letting things go and this woman's hunch turns into a real case. Rebus is allowed to tag along since he's the one that verified the woman's hunch that there was a link amongst a number of missing persons cases.

the Complaints' Fox at the same time, has Rebus in his sights. he doesn't like Rebus's relationship (they're not friends, Rebus tells everybody) with a known mobster, Big Ger Cafferty, and wants to take Rebus down. this part of the story was pretty much a non-starter; it doesn't really go anywhere and doesn't actually add any tension to the story. for all his faults, Rebus is a more sympathetic character than Fox, who seems like somebody's prim aunt.

it's good to have Rebus back and i'd look forward to more; however, i don't think Fox adds anything to the Rebus novels and they should be kept separate in future.

message 11: by Naomi V (last edited Feb 07, 2013 06:20PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

4 stars

Tristran Thorne lives in the village of Wall; so named because there is a very large wall separating the village from the meadow beyond it. in this meadow every nine years a faerie market is held and that is where Tristran was conceived; his father had a bit of a tryst with an enchanted/enslaved shop girl at the faerie market. Tristran is delivered to his father’s door nine months later and has no idea of his origins.

Later, Tristran, the love-struck young man, promises to retrieve a fallen star for the object of his admiration. Victoria sends him on this quest without much thought and soon Tristran has departed from the village, outside the wall of Wall, into Faerie.

Meanwhile, the Lord of Stormhold and one of a trio of very, very old sisters wants the star as well. Tristran meets many odd people/creatures on his way, suffers some hardships, and grows up. When he returns to Wall he is a very different person.

This charming fairy-tale for adults enchanted me completely. The story is familiar, but not told in the way you might expect. Gaiman handles it all very gently and sweetly. I enjoyed this so much that I already ordered another edition that has more, colour illustrations.

message 12: by Naomi V (last edited Feb 09, 2013 08:06PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There by Richard Wiseman

Paranormality Why We See What Isn't There by Richard Wiseman

'Why We See What Isn't There' is the subtitle of this book and the author, Richard Wiseman, delivers. He is a psychologist that studies paranormal phenomena. Specifically, he studies why we believe in paranormal phenomena.

Interspersed in the stories of fakery and scientific evidence are fun activities and tests. You can measure your level of gullibility as well that of your friends and family.

i really enjoyed the QR tags that link the reader to interviews, video, audio clips, and other information that adds to the experience of reading the book. i would look forward to reading more books that offer this feature.

the information in this book has given me a lot of ammunition when discussing 'paranormal' events with people who actually believe in them. and it was a lot of fun to read.

message 13: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

4 stars

i had a little trouble getting into this book. *somewhere* it was billed as a sequel to Oryx and Crake (which was very compelling) and i kept waiting for this book to continue the story. it's not a sequel. it's a story of the same time period, same events told from different perspectives. not until two-thirds into the book did i find the characters that connected this to Oryx and part of the problem was my expectation. so, don't expect a sequel! you don't even have to read this after Oryx and Crake. in fact, i think i would have liked this better if i had read it first; and as i was reading this i wanted to go back and re-read Oryx and Crake.

that means that Atwood has created a world that's absorbing and i'm looking forward to the third book (not a sequel, i'll bet.)

message 14: by Naomi V (last edited Feb 28, 2013 09:14AM) (new)

message 15: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson

Isaac's Storm A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson

4 stars

Erik Larson once again writes about a historical event in a way that makes it as exciting as reading a novel. The event in this case is the hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas in 1900, killing thousands and destroying much of the city. The weather service was in its infancy, and struggling to predict the weather at a time before satellites and sophisticated computer modeling. Isaac Cline, in charge of the weather station in Galveston, is a competent professional who took his office seriously. Unfortunately, not enough was known at the time to allow him to predict a storm that was seemingly unprecedented.

Larson tells us the scientific history of air and wind; he tells us of the strained relationship between Isaac and his brother Joseph, who seems to always be in Isaac’s shadow; how wind creates waves; the rivalry between the War Department (under which the weather bureau was organized) and the meteorologists of Cuba who were frequently more accurate than the US Weather Bureau. The War Department went so far as to “ban from Cuba’s telegraphs lines all cables about the weather.” Even weather is subject to politics.

As the storm intensified and moved toward Galveston, Larson reports the observations of Bureau employees and civilians, both scientific and personal. You feel as if you are there with them as the waves wash over the streets and the wind gets more and more powerful. And his descriptions of the deaths and aftermath are disturbing and heart-rending.

There are a few things lacking, however. There is a detailed map of a section of Galveston that shows structures mentioned in the book and the destruction, and a map of the western hemisphere showing the path of the storm. I would have liked to see a larger map of Galveston that shows it is surrounded by water. Galveston is a spit of land between the Gulf of Mexico to the south of it and Galveston Bay to its north. No matter how good the descriptions are in the book, a map would have brought that point home more effectively.

Toward the end of the book, Larson refers to some photos, but these photos are not reproduced in the book. In fact, there are no photos in the book at all.

These are minor quibbles, however: All in all this was an excellent read.

message 16: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Phoenix by Chuck Palahniuk

Phoenix by Chuck Palahniuk

3 stars

What will Chuck think of next?
truly creepy tale

╟ ♫ Tima ♪ ╣ ♥ (tsunanisaurus) Naomi wrote: "Phoenix by Chuck Palahniuk

Phoenix by Chuck Palahniuk

3 stars

What will Chuck think of next?
truly creepy tale"

Ooo, I just got this last week, need to read it!

message 18: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Tima wrote: "Ooo, I just got this last week, need to read it!"

it's very short, but typically creepy Palahniuk.

message 19: by Naomi V (last edited Mar 05, 2013 10:53AM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments i'm not counting these, but wanted to mention them:

Cinnamon and Click-Clack the Rattlebag by
Neil Gaiman

Click-Clack the Rattlebag by Neil Gaiman Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman

i listened to these two short stories on Audible and enjoyed them immensely. i've become a bit addicted to Neil Gaiman and love to hear him read his own books.

i am now listening to him read A Study in Emerald A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman which is a clever take on Sherlock Holmes.

considering the weather conditions today in Chicago, i'm sure i'll have time to hear all of it on my commute home.

message 20: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr

Track of the Cat (Anna Pigeon, #1) by Nevada Barr

3 stars

Anna Pigeon works for the park services in West Texas. when one of the other rangers turns up dead, she can't seem to help herself and takes a lot of risks to investigate. her character isn't unlike any number of detectives: independent, stubborn, foolish when it comes to her own safety. in spite of the similarities with other detectives, the other aspects of Anna's character make her interesting enough to check out the next book.

message 21: by Naomi V (last edited Mar 10, 2013 12:22PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

The Bucolic Plague How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers An Unconventional Memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

3-1/2 stars

wow, talk about a franchise! Kilmer-Purcell was in advertising and he really knows how to sell. not that i'm complaining. halfway into this book i looked for his website and bought a bunch of stuff.

Kilmer-Purcell is a former drag queen (yes, i read his first book, too -- I Am Not Myself These Days: A Memoir) who cleaned up his act (so to speak) and is now in a committed, long-term relationship with Dr. Brent, apparently of Martha Stewart fame. I never heard of him myself, because i don't think i've ever watched an entire episode of Martha Stewart's show. on vacation in upstate New York, they spot a country mansion with a picture-perfect barn and are absolutely smitten. they end up buying the place and try to turn it into a perfect country get-away. accent on the perfect.

perfection, however, is not easily come by and causes a strain on their relationship, which only gets worse when they both lose their high-paying jobs.

so, whence comes the website? before things get ugly, they started to sell the home-made goat-milk soap (from the goats on their farm, natch.) they turned their lovely little picture-perfect farm into a real franchise and i loved every minute reading about it. i am sure that this is not Kilmer-Purcell's last book (and i was glad to see on the website that he and Brent are still together.)

we'll see how that soap is when it's delivered

message 22: by Ann A (new)

Ann A (readerann) | 775 comments Naomi wrote: "The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

[bookcover:The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers:..."

Yes, I want to hear about that soap!

message 23: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments We Live in Water: Stories by Jess Walter

We Live in Water Stories by Jess Walter

4 stars

these stories by Jess Walter are mostly about desperate people. people looking for redemption. even in the shortest stories (one was only two pages) you get a real sense of the characters. after the two-page story, i had to put the book down and think about it for a while.

at the end of the book he has a section titled "Statistical Abstract for my Hometown, Spokane, Washington." he mixes stark facts with short paragraphs of stories about his life in Spokane and in his neighborhood. it helps you understand where he gets all the great ideas for his stories and books, but, of course, his writing style makes all the difference.

message 24: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
(and for good measure, i HAVE to add the photo of Mr. Gaiman:)
Neil Gaiman

3 stars

this is another lovely little fairy tale by Neil Gaiman; "inspired by traditional Norse mythology." i don't know much (if anything) about traditional Norse mythology but it was a good story and i enjoyed reading about the bear, the fox, and the eagle -- and a boy named Odd.

message 25: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Tending to Virginia by Jill McCorkle

Tending to Virginia by Jill McCorkle

no stars, because i just couldn't force myself to finish it

i'm going to see this author at a book signing soon, and i'll have to keep my mouth shut and just listen, i guess. too bad. i really did try

message 26: by Naomi V (last edited Mar 31, 2013 05:15PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments now that March has ended, i'll count the books that i've read so far this year:

1. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
2. Potsdam Station by David Downing
3. Vlad by Carlos Fuentes
4. The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch by Thomas Thwaites
5. Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin
6. Stardust by Neil Gaiman
7. Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There by Richard Wiseman
8. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
9. Positron, episodes 1 - 3 by Margaret Atwood
10. Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson
11. Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr
12. The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell
13. We Live in Water: Stories by Jess Walter
14. Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

not too bad for 3 months' reading...

message 27: by Naomi V (last edited Jul 01, 2013 02:21PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 15 How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

4 stars

this is not a book i would have picked up if my daughter hadn't recommended it; and i'm tremendously grateful that she did.
Caitlin Moran is a home-schooled brat. in the US that usually (not always) means that she’s been schooled by a right-wing, ultra-conservative family that isn’t really interested in teaching so much as indoctrinating (sorry, if that’s you; it’s true and you should come to grips with it.) in the UK, apparently, that’s not so much the case. Caitlin (she pronounced it Cat-lin, ‘cause it’s not really her name, so she can make up how you say it, too) was really precocious or her family was really, really interesting and creative and intelligent because by the time she was 15, Caitlin was getting assignments to write for magazines and newspapers. or both. she doesn’t really go into her home-schooling at all.

this book is her feminine treatise, written with pluck, humour, and direct honesty. in interviews, she mocks the idea that she has been “brave” to write about menstruation, pregnancy, sexual harassment, childbirth, and abortion. she just tells the truth. she just writes about what she knows; from her own perspective, and from a truly honest (and funny) place. if you look at the quotes i’ve copied, you’ll have an idea of how funny and observant she can be.

Caitlin’s account of her first period was so real, so similar to my own experience (i.e.: nobody told me ANYTHING and i had no fucking idea what was happening) that i had an immediate and visceral reaction to what she experienced. i’m sorry – men can never, ever, in a million lifetimes, understand what it’s like to have your body suddenly start bleeding and have people act like it’s normal and even a “blessing.” Caitlin captures and describes this reaction vividly.

the most heart-felt chapter was the one where Caitlin, already a mother of two, becomes unexpectedly pregnant and has an abortion. so many women have abortions; but nobody, nobody talks about it. Caitlin quite calmly describes the decision making process (easy) and the procedure (not as easy) and the fact that she is completely unrepentant about it. women have the right (and obligation, actually) to make this decision; Caitlin made this decision and carried it out, and she is not at all concerned that pro-life, right-wing assholes want to deprive her of this right. she’s not ashamed, she’s not afraid, and she knows that this decision was the right decision to make and nobody should make this decision for other women. just like atheists and gays, if women who had abortions “came out of the closet”, more people would feel compassionate toward the women who have abortions.

i enjoyed every page of this book and would recommend it to all women. men should read this, too. as Caitlin says, feminist men are the best.

i want Caitlin to write another book when she hits menopause. please, please, please make menopause understandable for everybody.

message 28: by Naomi V (last edited Jul 01, 2013 02:21PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 16
Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

3 stars

In Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe takes on Miami. Wolfe is a social critic like no other, and in this book, he gets into Cuban (immigrant and second-generation) culture, Haitian culture, cop culture (yes, there is such a thing), Russian immigrant culture, as well as clueless and ineffective but entitled rich white men...he covers a lot, and yet in the end i was disappointed at the lack of story. i thought there was a problem with my e-reader when it said i was at the end of the book. in other books, Wolfe's critiicism is far more biting, and the story more interesting.

some readers will be bothered by Wolfe's style in using '::::::::' to indicate somebody's thoughts. it didn't bother me, but i imagine that not everybody will be able to overlook it.

message 29: by Naomi V (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments Ann A wrote: "Yes, I want to hear about that soap! ..."

oh, the soap is wonderful
i've given soap to several people now as gifts, too, and they all just love it.

message 30: by Naomi V (last edited Jul 01, 2013 02:21PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 17
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne

3 stars

eleven- (soon to be 12) year-old Jonny Valentine, pop star, narrates this story (complete with the poor grammar of kids his age.) he seems pretty self-possessed for an eleven year old who’s been kept apart from the ‘outside world’ for at least a year. outside of concert arenas, buses, hotel rooms, and the land of Zenon. he knows a bit about singing, a bit about merch, and demo. he talks a good game, but he’s only a kid. his mother, who he calls ‘Jane,’ not ‘Mom,’ is a ball-breaker who controls him and his career, although she’s uneducated and was a supermarket checker before managing her kid’s career. it's a bit of a coming-of-age story, told from the perspective of a super-spoiled, yet also put-upon kid.

this is not a book i would have picked up under normal circumstances, but there was a review of it by Jess Walter in the New York Times Book Review.
it piqued my interest enough that i picked this up and read it pretty quickly. it was worth the time. thanks, Jess.

message 31: by Naomi V (last edited Jul 01, 2013 02:21PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 18
Truth Dare Kill by Gordon Ferris

Truth Dare Kill by Gordon Ferris

2 stars

what a shame. this turned out to be a cliche ridden mess of a book; down to the comely and mysterious client and a villain who "twists his mustache." i was relieved when the inevitable reference to Raymond Chandler came.

message 32: by Naomi V (last edited Jul 01, 2013 02:22PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 19
The Pyramid: And Four Other Kurt Wallander Mysteries by Henning Mankell

2 stars

this is the first book by Henning Mankell i have read. i know how popular his books are and this was billed as "the first Wallander cases" so i thought i'd start at the beginning. but it isn't. this book was published in just 2008 and has five stories that take place before the novels that Mankell wrote. the only story that was worth reading was the title (and last) story, The Pyramid. i felt it was the only one that was a complete and compelling story. the others were ... not. i kept thinking to myself that Mankell had certainly captured the tedium of detective work. not really a recommendation to keep reading his work.

message 33: by Naomi V (last edited Jul 01, 2013 02:22PM) (new)

Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 20

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

3 stars

Grace finds herself in a lifeboat after the ship she and her husband are sailing from England to America explodes and sinks. once the survivors reach land, Grace is among the women arrested and charged with a horrible crime. is Grace a villain or a victim? (or both?) can others really understand, not to mention judge, what people do in a life-or-death situation? Grace, who has without compunction poached another woman's fiance to avoid going to work as a governess, narrates this story. does her remorselessness on that situation tell us the truth about her character?

this story was skillfully told and it gave me a lot to think about after i finished it.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 21

Last Friends by Jane Gardam

Last Friends by Jane Gardam

3 stars

not as engaging as Old Filth or God on the Rocks.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 22

Life Itself by Roger Ebert

Life Itself by Roger Ebert

4 stars

This is a nostalgic and bittersweet memoir by the movie critic and writer Roger Ebert. Having suffered from cancer that robbed him of his ability to speak, eat, and drink, he remained extremely upbeat and positive, writing more in his last years than ever before. I read his blog and loved his twitter feed but didn’t read this until he had already died earlier this year.

Ebert grew up in Urbana, in downstate Illinois. He writes lovingly of his parents, especially his father, and his catholic upbringing, which he withdrew from as he got older. He was older than I and lived in a smaller town, while I live in Chicago, but I recognized and identified with many of his references of his early years.

I really enjoyed the sections about what he referred to as the “front page” years of newspaper. As a culture and society, we have lost so much as newspapers have consolidated, purging ‘real’ news and real reporters in favor of entertainment ‘news’ and profit, instead of serving the public. Ebert lovingly relates his years at a college newspaper and then the paper he started. He writes of later knowing people like Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, giants in reporting. He also talks about the camaraderie, and drinking, that went on after hours.

Ebert took great pleasure in traveling and recounts his favorite places, in London in particular. Unfortunately, most of those places are gone now, a fact that he relates with resentment at the homogenization of architecture and culture. I agree with him completely and I’m sorry that I’ll never be able to stay at or see some of his favorite places.

I watched Siskel and Ebert from the start, when they were on our local PBS station, WTTW. Watching them bicker and even make what I considered to be very hurtful comments, I never understood their relationship. It’s still hard for me to understand how they could be so close, such good friends, and still zing each other about being fat or being bald. Ebert makes it clear that they had a really deep friendship that lasted until Siskel’s death from brain cancer, and I have a somewhat better understanding of their love for each other and their competitiveness.

One of the things I loved best about this book, tho, was Ebert’s writing about his wife, Chaz. He married rather late in life (primarily, he admits, because of his mother’s catholic-inspired rantings against sex and his previous girlfriends.) Chaz, as he tells it, is his angel and his partner. She sounds like such an amazing person that I have great admiration for her after reading this book.

If I have anything negative to say about this book, it’s that even though enjoyable, whole chapters of it are taken directly from articles and interviews from years ago. There is also some repetition, probably from the fact that he used blog entries as a basis for the book. A better editor would have corrected that. All in all, though, a great read and a wonderful story of a man who lived his life fully right to the end.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 23

Little Green by Walter Mosely

Little Green Men by Christopher Buckley

4 stars

finding out that Walter Mosely has written a new Easy Rawlins book is like anticipating meeting up with an dear, but deadly, friend.

Little Green did not disappoint; Mosely, after 11 years, was able to get right into Easy Rawlins' character and world and i was right there with him.

Easy wakes up after having been declared dead and then being in a coma. of course, that doesn't mean he's going to be laying around trying to get well. as soon as he's on his feet he's asked by his friend Mouse to find a boy that's gone missing.

nothing is ever as easy as it should be in Rawlins' world. looking for Evander turns into a whole bunch of other mysteries to solve and gangsters to outsmart. Mouse, of course, is invaluable to Easy -- one is the few people that Mouse respects and isn't interested in besting.

this was a highly enjoyable read and i'm hoping to see more of Easy Rawlins in the near future.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 24

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

3-1/2 stars

set in Post WWII Japan, Ono, a once well-regarded artist mulls over his past, his career, his friends, and his family. his house is damaged in the bombing, but has survived. his wife and son have not. his two daughters are somewhat of a mystery to him, and the changes in his relationships with his friends and colleagues is puzzling.

Ono narrates this book in the same way that a person would talk -- he diverts from his main purpose, he interjects, he meanders, but these little side-trips are entertaining and ultimately enlightening, and add to the story. his descriptions of nature are stunning.

i enjoyed this book quite a bit and thank a colleague who loaned it to me. i may have to buy a copy of my own, because i think this is a book i would read again.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments book 25

Chicago: The Second City by A.J. Liebling

Chicago The Second City by A.J. Liebling

1 star

I’ve lived in Chicago all my life. I understand from others who have moved here that this is a city where they meet a surprising number of ‘natives.’ That, for instance, if you live in New York, you meet a lot of people who aren’t from NY; they’re from any number of other cities and countries. May this is why Chicagoans are so protective of their city. We truly are from here and have internalized the city in some way.

I was introduced to this book when it was mentioned in a recent New York Times Book Review, "Chicago Manuals" (one of which took its title from a passage in this book: “You’ve Never Been to Chicago.”) The reviewer received a lot of ‘feedback’ from Chicagoans regarding her review of the three books and I have the same reaction to Chicago The Second City.

Mr. Liebling originally published this book in 1925, so it’s quite dated. However, some of the criticisms in this book continue to this day; warranted or not. ( Yes, the city government is corrupt. You’ll get no argument from me on that. Just look at the recent deal that our ‘reform’ mayor made for expressway billboards: )

However, the social criticisms in this book are specious at best. Mr. Liebling is from New York and this is little more than a New Yorker’s screed against a city he feels is inferior to New York (I would bet that he could have written this book about any other city on earth. New Yorkers don’t think that any city measures up to their own. ) Many of these criticisms stem from an isolated interaction or event and he extends that as a universal truth about the entire city and its population.

Mr. Liebling also says that he had “a considerable circle of Chicago acquaintances [some of which he enumerates] …whom my wife and I had met at cocktail parties in New York.” Apparently a primary activity of this group was to get together and complain about what Chicago lacks. Our architecture isn’t any good (the Tribune Tower should have been “finished …off with a gigantic scoop of ice cream, topped by an illuminated cherry.” Our theatre is horrible, but when it’s good, our audiences didn’t recognize it and “laughed in all the wrong places.” Our sports fans don’t have good teams to cheer for and we also lack the heart of Brooklyn fans, who again and again revive their spirit. Our restaurants are no good, yet the restaurateurs complain that Chicagoans don’t go out to eat.

Again, this is an old book, and maybe some of these complaints were valid, but it seems to me this is just a diatribe by somebody without the capacity to enjoy life outside New York. Because of his limitations, the narrative is pretty snide and therefore not pleasant to read. Because of the date of the book, the language is formal and old-fashioned.

Not a book I would recommend to anybody.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments book 26
Fool on the Hill by Morgan Hunt

Fool on the Hill (Tess Camillo, #2) by Morgan Hunt

3 stars

Tess Camillo is an amateur sleuth; she has a curious nature and seems to find trouble that she can’t walk away from. The author, Morgan Hunt, has a way with words. The language that she uses is clever and playful. This was a fun read.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments book 27
American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics by Dan Savage

American Savage Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics by Dan Savage

4 stars

I did something with this book that I have never done before. I first turned to the last chapter, Bigot Christmas, to read why Dan says that his husband, Terry Miller, is the winner of the debate with the president of NOM (‘National Organization for Marriage’, which is not about marriage; not about keeping people married – they don’t oppose divorce; but is, of course, completely about preventing gay marriage.) It was immensely satisfying to read how that day ended. And I agree that Terry won the debate. [I’m not going to be the one to spoil it for you – read it for yourself; there’s plenty of other good stuff to make buying the book worthwhile.)

Dan Savage; sex and relationship advice columnist, gay activist, co-founder of the It Gets Better Project, coiner of "DTMFA", whose readers came up with the appropriate definition for santorum (creating "Santorum's Google problem) – I’ve been a fan for several years and have read his other books; so of course, I immediately bought his new book to see what’s new with Dan.

He covers many subjects that concern him: Health care (why don’t we have a public option?), gun violence, gay rights, reproductive rights (as he says: the same people trying to prevent marriage equality are the same people trying to restrict your right to an abortion and even contraceptives), marriage equality, bullying, religion (or lack thereof) and so on.

Savage isn’t for everybody. He’s blunt and he’s sometimes profane. He can even be mean at times (not so much lately, actually, and not in this book.) I would call him honest and forthright. I would say that he doesn’t pull punches; especially when it comes to dealing with bigots and bullies.

If you’re a Dan Savage fan, like me, you’ve read his weekly column, listened to his weekly podcasts, seen him in person, watched his online videos, read his other books, read his letter of the day, seen him comment on current events on news programs…and you’ve heard and read most of the stuff in his book at some point. If you aren’t totally immersed in Dan Savage’s public world, this is an excellent way to get started.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 29

After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story by Michael Hainey

After Visiting Friends A Son's Story by Michael Hainey

4 stars

Michael Hainey's father died when he was 6. His mother rarely, if ever, spoke of him again. Questions Hainey and his brother had about their father's death went unanswered. Finally, as an adult (and a newspaperman like his father) he decided to find out what happened to his father.

This is a journey fraught with anxiety. He’s afraid of upsetting his mother, who has been so opaque about all this. He’s afraid of what he’ll find out. He gathers clues from the time he’s a child, ferretting them away in a box under his bed. An obit from a paper (one his father didn’t work for) reveals that what he was told may have been false. Hainey uses his journalist’s skills to track down old friends and colleagues of his father; former classmates; public records.

Hainey’s mom reminds me a bit of my own. She’s aloof, self-contained, some would even say cold. “My mother is the half-hugger. Whenever I see her, she can only give me a one-armed hug. It’s like having that guy from The Fugitive for a mother.” You know when the conversation is over. She doesn’t even have to give you ‘the look’ or say anything. You can sense it. “She trails off like she does, ends her answer without answering. After all these years, I still don’t know if this means she has nothing to say or she doesn’t want to reveal anything more. I end up thinking what I’ve always thought in these moments: Don’t ask her any questions. Don’t upset her. This is why I spend thirty years afraid to ask her about The Night.”

The beginning of the book, telling about his childhood and the day he learned of his father’s death is written in short, declarative sentences. Just like a child would speak. But later his writing is quite eloquent.

One of the reasons that I was drawn to this book is because Hainey grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, so i recognized many of the local references. Resurrection Mary, the local cemetery ghost myth. And I learned some Chicago history that I didn’t know: that there were film studios in Chicago and that Thorek Memorial Hospital (where Michael's father was pronounced dead) was a hospital for actors making movies. Chaplin made some early films at Essanay Studios in Chicago.

I also found out that the way my mom made eggs when I was a kid is referred to as “Polish style.” (Strips of bacon cut into 1/4 inch pieces, fried, drained, and then added into eggs as they’re scrambled. Or at least this is Hainey’s reference – nobody in my family referred to them as Polish style.)

Hainey eventually finds the "truth". It takes him a while to come to terms with it and tell the story to his brother and his mother. I found myself nervous about the conversation with his mother, as if I would have to deliver bad news myself (and, actually, I disagreed with his decision to do it.) It’s a bittersweet story that I found completely compelling and Hainey told it well.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 30

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops  by Jen Campbell

3 stars

very funny, quick read. most of the stories are from UK book stores, with some from the US thrown in.

some of the anecdotes made me wonder if later the customer thought, "oh! i see what they meant." or "maybe i was wrong..." and a few of them reminded me of the Travel Book Shop scenes in the movie Notting Hill.

here's one of my favorites:
Bookseller: Can I help you find something?
Man: Yes, we're looking for a vocabulary book. It's either called The Soars or The Sars.
Bookseller: Let me look it up and see what we have.
Woman: Oh, it's okay. I made a note of the title.
(Customer pulls a napkin from her purse and lays it down for the bookseller to read. Written on it is: "The Saurus.")

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 31

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

4 - 1/2 stars

I've read Mrs. Dalloway before and admit I didn't get as much out of it as I had hoped. This time, I listened to the audiobook, as read by Annette Bening. Oh, my. I feel like I've finally experienced this novel as it should be. Bening's voice is so wonderful, and her performance is amazing. (Actually, I think I may have a little crush on her now.)

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 32

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

FIVE stars

i simply loved this fairy tale/horror story for (almost) all ages. i wouldn't recommend it for very young children, but certainly 7 - 8 year olds would enjoy having it read to them. while it is frightening, it's not violent. Gaiman creates a very neat story and tells it brilliantly. no wonder it's received wonderful reviews.

the narrator is now an adult. upon returning to his childhood home for a funeral, he goes to the house at the end of the lane and recovers a vivid memory of Lettie, her mother and grandmother, and what happened there when he was eight. it was a scary experience, and it's no surprise that he wouldn't want to remember it. but there's so much more to it than that. i recommend this for everybody that likes a good story.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 33

Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed

Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed

4-1/2 stars

Renn Ivins is a big, big star – an actor, a screenwriter, and a director; nominated for and winner of many prestigious prizes. But like many people who achieve the fame and fortune that they dream of, his life is less than perfect. He’s twice divorced, his relationships with his adult children are sometimes strained, and like all actors, he worries about his career, his appeal…and his girlfriend, who is younger than his children.

Each chapter is told from a different point of view: Renn’s first ex-wife; they married young and she became a pediatrician as he climbed the ladder to acting renown. His daughter, Anna, who is in med school, and pursuing an inappropriate relationship of her own. Billy/Will, the son who can’t seem to find his way; and Danielle, Will's girlfriend. Renn’s second ex-wife, who writes a memoir, revealing their unhappy marriage to everyone. Elise, the too-young girlfriend who is just approaching fame in the movie Renn is directing. The only chapters that I don’t think worked as well as the others were the faux-interview of Renn by the frustrated screenwriter/propmaster and Renn’s supposed journal. The journal revealed some things about Renn that made him more accessible, more sympathetic than he might have been otherwise, but I didn’t think that the format was the best.

Christine Sneed took a subject that so many of us think we’re familiar with (after all, we all see People, Us, and the National Enquirer at the checkout) and put a new spin on it. Instead of being facile and superficial, you know and understand and care about these characters. It’s a brilliant piece of work.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 34 The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner's Handbook Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

3-1/2 stars

I really enjoy a good forensic medical mystery. Bones (based on the Temperance Brennan books by Kathy Reichs), CSI, and, of course, my favorite, NCIS, where Dr. Mallard and Abbey reign supreme. The Poisoner’s Handbook is about the beginning of forensic medicine, near the beginning of the 20th century in New York City.

Poison was a very effective way to get away with murder. Usually there was no way to prove or disprove poisoning as the cause of death and so many times a murderer would get away scot free. It’s no longer so easy to get away with poisoning someone as this case and this case show.

This book focuses on two very dedicated professionals, brought in to correct the corrupt coroner’s office of Tammany Hall. The ceaseless work of Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler changed the professionalism of the department and brought about new techniques in identifying poisons.

I always thought of the ‘roaring 20s’ and prohibition in movie terms. Flappers, long beaded necklaces, the Charleston, boater hats, ‘bathtub’ gin, speakeasies. What I didn’t know and what I don’t remember ever seeing in any of those movies was that people were dying for a drink. Literally.

So-called bathtub gin was probably distilled from some other type of alcohol – whatever was available – and that was often dangerous. Even though drinking was dangerous, people continued to do it and as long as there were people willing to drink, there were entrepreneurs willing to make alcohol for them. The government, to try to end this, would have additional poisons added to various alcohols to make them even more difficult to distill and to make the alcohol less appealing to drink. They added benzene, kerosene, and brucine (similar to strychnine.) This didn’t seem to work. (Does any of this sound familiar? The more I read history, the more I realize that as a people, we learn nothing from our mistakes.) In 1926, years after prohibition went into effect, twelve hundred people in New York were sickened or blinded by drinking some kind of poisoned alcohol.

Amongst the continuing stories of alcohol poisoning, there are stories of all the other poisons. There’s at least one chapter for different poisons examined in the book: chloroform (which I hadn’t known was a poison; I had only thought of it as an anesthetic,) cyanides, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, radium, and thallium. Blum intersperses various cases with the kind of processes perfected by Norris and Gettler to prove that poison was used. She describes the grinding of brains and livers, the solutions used -- it's a bit gruesome.

The FDA existed at this time but had no ability to end the use of harmful chemicals in household products. Even then, there was a reluctance to allow banning of certain poisonous substances because of potential harm to business in the depressed economy. (Some things never change! In the meantime, many of these substances had been banned in England and Germany.)

It wasn’t until hundreds died from a cough syrup that contained Diethylene glycol (used in antifreeze) that the FDA was given the power to demand safety testing and accurate labeling.

I found this book very thought-provoking: the time in history, the personal stories of Norris and Gettler, the cases that Blum uses to illustrate the various poisons.Kathy Reichs

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 35 More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

3 stars

Quick read. Funny and sometimes so very, very sad (because people can be so stupid sometimes it makes me want to cry.)

Customer to her friend: I only like books that I can really believe happened, you know? Like Twilight

Customer: These are used books?
Bookseller: Yes
Customer: Do you have the Stephen King book that comes out next week?
Bookseller: ....No.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 36 Under the Dome by Stephen King

Under the Dome by Stephen King

4 stars

Under the Dome is classic Stephen King. A supernatural event occurs: a dome of no known origin or construction suddenly drops over a town in western Maine. Anybody (or anything) straddling the town line is separated from the body part(s) crossing the town line. A plane crashes into the unseen dome; a car and then a truck smash into it at speed. Birds fly into it. This small town of Chester’s Mill is thrown into chaos.

The people of Chester’s Mill, however, are basically decent, level-headed people and the situation probably would not have been quite so dire if the town’s second selectman, Big Jim Rennie hadn’t decided to tighten his grip on the throat of the town and throttle it into total submission. A small-town tyrant is the worst kind and Rennie is the worst of small-town tyrants: petty, scheming, greedy, power-grubbing, and a religion hypocrite who wouldn’t say a cuss word but also wouldn’t hesitate to steal from you if it was for the ‘good of the town.’ (Which, incidentally, almost entirely translates into something that’s good for Big Jim.)

Big Jim runs the town as second selectman because the first selectman isn’t that bright and doesn’t really want the responsibility. The third selectman (or –woman, if you please) has been an oxy addict for years. And thus a conniving, evil man is allowed to run roughshod over a town’s government and populace.

(view spoiler)

The good guys are an ex-Army Lieutenant named Dale Barbara, known as Barbie, lately short order cook at Sweetbriar Rose’s, who just misses getting out of town as the dome falls. Julia Schumway is the third-generation newspaper owner/editor/reporter who admits that at first she supported Big Jim. Rusty, a physician’s assistant, ends up being in charge of the town’s medical needs, as the doctor is caught outside the dome; his wife, Jackie, is one of the town’s cops, who finds her job endangered when Big Jim decides that younger, uneducated thugs are more reliable and loyal as his own private police force. Three very brave and precocious teenagers, Joe, Benny, and Norrie round out the main opposition to Big Jim.

At over 1,000 pages, there’s plenty going on in this book. King ratchets up the anxiety, the suspicion, the fear, the aggression, and the machinations of Big Jim into a grand finale of horror. As a novel, it works spectacularly well.

But there’s more going on here than a Stephen King horror novel. This is our world in miniature. You have a tyrant running the government behind a puppet head of state. His interests are not in providing good government; his interests are purely selfish – power and control, money and favors. He surrounds himself with people who can get him what he wants and take the blame when there is trouble. When a crisis occurs, he doesn’t seek to correct it or even mitigate it. He uses fear, even creates chaos and fear, to control the populace. He covertly starts a riot so that people look to him for more police, more ‘protection.’

On a bigger scale, with the dome in place, the environment begins to suffer. Within a week the temperature in the dome begins to be unseasonably hot. Outside the dome it’s October in Maine – fall foliage, crisp air. Inside the dome the air has a hazy yellow appearance and the air quality has deteriorated. People continue to run their cars in spite of this and don’t seem to make a connection between the two. I think there’s a message in this book if we pay attention.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 37 the bat by Jo Nesbo

3 stars

A bookseller told me that there was no reason that I had to read the Harry Hole books in order. Well, I didn't take that advice; I simply waited until The Bat was available in English and now I've started reading Jo Nesbo's series.

I've never read any interviews with Nesbo, but I'd like to know why a Norwegian writer with a Norwegian protagonist decided to set his first book with that character in Australia. A very odd choice, but perhaps there's a very simple explanation.

Harry Hole is sent to "observe" the murder investigation of a young Norwegian girl but, of course, as these things go, he can't avoid getting involved. He's partnered with a very engaging Aboriginal detective, Andrew, who tells amazing stories and introduces Harry to many people(view spoiler).

Harry becomes involved with a Swede named Birgetta, a co-worker of the murdered girl, to whom he reveals quite a bit of his history and thus we learn about his past.

About half way through the book, Harry does something horrible and I wasn't sure I wanted to continue reading. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming, but isn't hindsight always 20/20?

Whether Harry is a bad detective or if he just suffers from personal demons in this book that affect his abilities, his attempts at solving this case reminded me of watching an episode of House. Gregory House has theories, conjectures, and hypotheses one after another until 50 minutes into the hour he finally has the right answer. (Or not -- in which case the patient dies.) Harry finally gets it right, but not until at least two more people lose their lives.

I'll go onto the next Harry Hole book (after all, before I reached the Awful Thing, I had already bought the next one) so it remains to be seen if Harry is a good detective who had a bad time in Australia or if he's going to keep bungling cases.

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Naomi V (naomi_v) | 562 comments 38 The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story . . . with Wings by Mark Bittner

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill A Love Story . . . with Wings by Mark Bittner

3 stars

This summer, my husband and I were in San Francisco visiting his family and we went to Forest Books in Japantown, which has a great selection of used and rare books. I’ve been to SF a number of times now, and thought it was about time I read a book “about” San Francisco, so I picked up a copy of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. My husband insisted that I should read The Parrots of Telegraph Hill by Mark Bittner, and since he was buying, I got it and read it.

Mark Bittner was hanging around San Francisco, waiting for a sign to tell him what to do with his life. He’d been squatting, he’d been homeless, he’d lived in a van, he’d been working odd jobs, and lived on the largess of generous people who gave him a place to live and gave him food. He’d studied Buddhism, the I Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, Confucius. He’d been a musician, aspiring to be a rock star. This sounded typically hippie-ish to me.

Bittner happened one day to see some parrots outside the window while working one of his odd jobs. He was intrigued – after all, how do tropical birds survive in San Francisco? It’s too cold. And there were four. Were they escaped pets? That seemed unlikely. Or had they bred in the wild? That seemed even more unlikely. After all his aimlessness, something had finally piqued his interest. He bought bird seed and fed the birds, soon finding out that there were actually 26 parrots in the flock. He was interested enough to go to the library and start reading up on parrots.

Two of the birds had blue heads; the rest had red heads. The library books revealed that they are cherry-crowned conures and blue-crowned conures. Bittner starts to be able to identify individuals – their color patterns are distinctive, and their size. He begins to identify pairs. He names them. Bittner’s captivated by their animation. They are loud, they fight, he also believes they have individual personalities.

He fed the birds daily and then several times a day. If he's not outside when they arrive, they screech until he goes out to feed them. They are lively and fun to watch. He enjoyed their antics and went to the library whenever their appearance or behavior or health warranted investigation.

He decided that he wanted one of the parrots to be his ‘friend.’ This is a vague wish; he didn’t want a pet exactly; he claims to want a special bond with one of the parrots. He entices the birds to come to him for food. They sit on his hands, arms, head, and shoulders. The birds that he brings into his house when they are sick aren’t interested in hanging around though. As soon as they’re able, they go back to the flock, although some of them retained enough of a connection to Bittner that they will fly right to him when they come to feed.

Soon people in the neighborhood know that he is the parrot guy. His downstairs neighbor complains because of the feathers and bird shit that fall onto his balcony and into his open windows (who can blame him,) as well as the noise that the flock causes several times daily. When people find an injured bird they go to him with the bird or bring him to the bird. The fledglings are susceptible to a type of virus that’s hard to identify and he nurses them back to health, after sometimes bringing them to vets who are willing to look at the birds for free.

One sick bird he brought in he named Dogen and had her wings clipped to prevent her hurting herself while flying indoors. Because she couldn’t fly, she waddled around the floor and pulled herself up with her feet and beak. Bittner allowed her to climb up into his lap and eat rice from his own dinner bowl. He tried to train her to step onto his finger by saying “up” when he offered his hand. Between allowing the bird to eat from his dish and then trying to train it, I was annoyed with Bittner’s behavior. This is not how you treat a wild creature. He was trying to make Dogen his pet. So this next passage was really distressing: “Dogen was enthusiastic about my food, and since it brought us closer, I allowed her to eat from my plate whenever she wanted. One evening after we’d finished dinner…I slowly lowered my face toward her until my nose was just grazing the silky feathers on the back of her neck…Soon I was delicately tracing the contours of all the muscles and joints in her body. I paid such careful and close attention that she allowed me to do whatever I wanted. But birds are sensitive about their backs, and out of consideration to Dogen, I refrained from doing what I wanted most: to pet her with the flat of my palm.

“I needed a girlfriend,” he concluded. Oh, my. This was more disturbing than parrots grooming his hair and beard or when he allowed one of the parrots to search around inside his mouth for food. Bittner’s lack of boundaries gave me the creeps.

Another of his annoying practices is trying to interfere in the social behavior of the flock. He tried to punish or temper the actions of perceived bullies; he even tried to interfere in the pair-bondings. At times birds would leave one partner and pair with another. If he didn’t approve of this, he would attempt to break up the new pair. He soon realized that this was ridiculous, but that didn’t make it less frustrating to read about.

Amidst all this parrot fuss, Bittner was in a precarious position personally. He continued to work odd jobs, but didn’t make much money. He was living rent free, taking care of the place for a woman who’s hospitalized. But she was going into a care facility and her place was to be sold – he would have to move and wasn’t able to pay rent.

As his concern about the flock’s welfare increased and he became more well-known as the “parrot guy” he wrote an article for a local paper about the flock that brought more interest, and some donations. A documentary filmmaker contacted him and after a time they started to make a movie about the parrots and his interaction with them.

There’s an interesting turn at the end of the book that I won’t reveal here. I was amused at a conversation Bittner had with the filmmaker who told him that when she met him and went to his house that it smelled. He replied that there was mold and he was squatting and there was nothing he could do about it. No, she said, it smelled like bird shit. “Aha!” I thought. That’s exactly what I suspected! Apparently he was so accustomed to the smell he didn’t notice it.

This story about the parrots on Telegraph Hill is fairly well-known to San Francisco residents. Everybody I mentioned it to knew about it to some extent. I didn’t want to know any details before reading the book, so imagine my surprise when I finished it and found out that the book was actually published in the 1990s, not the 1970s. Considering his lifestyle (and the fact that Bittner was able to live on next to nothing in what is now a very, very expensive city), I concluded that it took place years ago. One of the other reasons that I had trouble with the chronology was that near the middle of the book, Bittner mentions that he started keeping a journal, and he never does mention precisely over how many years his observations of the flock took place, so his reporting isn’t very clear.

The penultimate chapter is titled “Consciousness Explained,” which is a pretty ambitious title for an eleven page chapter. Great philosophers and scientists have been trying to explain consciousness for ages; believe me, Bittner wasn’t able to accomplish it here. He mashes up Buddhism, philosophy, Christianity, cross-species ESP, Darwin…It’s obvious that he’s striving mightily to come to a grand conclusion that wasn’t really necessary.

This was a light read, and aside from being annoyed by his decidedly unscientific approach and the general gross conditions of the author’s life, I did enjoy his narration of the parrots’ antics. It's touching how much he cared for the parrots and how much time and effort he expended to feed them and keep them healthy. I hope the next time I’m in San Francisco to go to Telegraph Hill and maybe catch sight of the wild parrots.

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