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A suggestion a day from the Williamsburg Regional Library
Updated: 2 min 9 sec ago

Inferno, by Dan Brown

13 hours 2 min ago

Inferno, the movie, is expected to begin filming in Florence next year. If you haven’t read the book yet, Benjamin recommends that you do:

Harvard’s extraordinary Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon, returns as the central character in this fast paced, intellectual, thriller.  As the story opens, Langdon is waking up, disoriented, in a hospital.  The people around him are not speaking English, but Italian. While it makes one wonder if Langdon actually keeps office hours on campus (he never seems to be there), it also grabs your attention. From the initial scene there are twists, turns, surprises, danger, and discoveries. Inferno introduces readers to an entirely new cast of characters including Dr. Sienna Brooks, Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, The Provost, and Bertrand Zobrist, who keep readers turning pages late into the night.

This is Dan Brown’s fourth Robert Langdon novel. With each book the stakes seem to grow, and as this plot unfolds the potential consequences of not solving the puzzle quickly expand beyond the lives of a few people. As the title will suggest for some, crucial to Inferno’s story is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The author has Langdon using his unique knowledge of symbols to examine and analyze Dante’s work, extracting clues, revealing truths, and saving lives. Langdon’s expertise and his eidetic recollection of art serve as key factors in the story.

Dan Brown’s smooth writing and attention to detail make for exciting story-telling. Brown engages his reader with vivid descriptions of historic architecture, art, geography, and society. The places, art, and history he includes in his novel are largely factual.  The narrative Brown weaves into the fact is a big part of what makes Inferno so entertaining for me.

Another part is the protagonist. I find myself awed by Langdon’s superhuman personality. He embodies a combination of being unpretentious, ethical, brilliant, driven, analytical, and confident.  Because Langdon has no significant character flaws, I think we need the suspension of disbelief that fiction allows to make the character convincing. I still can’t quite visualize Dr. Langdon, since I’ve never met a middle-aged, brilliant academic who also is extremely physically fit, and stands firm in the face of certain death. Indiana Jones showed us that archaeology and adventure are inseparably linked but, before Robert Langdon, who among us had included symbology in that cosmology?  Is it a leap to expect that someone will soon write about the exciting exploits of a suave, globe trotting, death-defying librarian? After all, librarians are pretty cool too.


The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Thu, 2014-10-23 01:01

In a feat of near-superhuman endurance, Benjamin powered through and finished The Bully Pulpit. Here’s his review:

Including the endnotes, this is a tome of 900 pages (30 CDs).  Starting with the book on CD, I knew I would not have enough time to listen to the whole book before its due date, so I put a hold on the printed copy also. Shortly after returning the CDs, I checked out the printed version and finished the book. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit concurrently provides detailed biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, exploring their fundamental contributions to American history from the end of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Woven into the narrative is the fascinating history behind the rise of McClure’s Magazine, complete with intricate biographies of S. S. McClure and his famous journalists: Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William A. White.  That all of these characters converge is not coincidental. These men and women were at the pinnacles of talent, dedication, and intelligence of their age.

Theodore Roosevelt is a household name. TR, as he is often referred to, had a tremendous influence on this country. William Howard Taft, although not as well known, also used his prodigious knowledge and skills to impact the direction of America. Contemporaries, both men rose above their peers with growing reputations, responsibilities, and national recognition. Although different in temperament and style, they were close friends for many years. Both were moderate progressives who enjoyed affectionate marriages, and were utterly dedicated to their families. However, after Taft became President in 1909, the men became estranged.

Taft did not crave the limelight.  If it were not for his wife, who aspired to live in the White House, he would have served as a distinguished Federal judge most of his career.  He sought equanimity and impartiality in his judicial decisions. His colleagues loved his amicability, intelligence, and fairness.

Roosevelt was a born leader. Anxious to excel and adoring attention, he held interests in every topic under the sun, and was knowledgeable about most of them.  He had boundless energy and enjoyed a good debate. Unlike Taft’s spouse, TR’s wife shied away from civic life. Yet, Roosevelt was happiest when he was inordinately busy and extraordinarily public.

Goodwin’s scholarship is excellent.  In The Bully Pulpit, she brilliantly combines all the lives of the characters to retell this fascinating history of the triumphs and tragedies of two American presidents.  Goodwin’s title reflects her underlying thesis that Roosevelt’s rise to prominence was aided by this masterful stewardship of and relationships with journalists.  However, this book goes a great deal beyond that one focus. Goodwin provides an amazing biographical history of Taft and Roosevelt that not only illustrates how these men lived, but also sheds light on the birth of modern politics.


Zealot, by Reza Aslan

Wed, 2014-10-22 04:01

Today, we get Benjamin’s take on one of the most talked-about biographies in recent years: 

Zealot was a number one New York Times bestseller. The book has been vilified by some and praised by others. This comes as no surprise, as Zealot looks for the historical Jesus, a search that invariably causes uproar.

Aslan produces a readable exegesis on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.  He informs his reader at the start that he is not writing to question anyone’s faith or beliefs.  He is, however, presenting a view of Jesus as a man who lived at the beginning of the Christian Era. Jesus gained a following in the rural areas of Galilee and Judea, went to Jerusalem to rail against the establishment, and was executed on a small hill named Golgotha.

Alsan methodically explores who the man Jesus of Nazareth was in the context of the world in which he lived. This is possible because a great deal is known about how the Romans treated criminals, what constituted a crime against the Roman Empire, who had power, and who did not.  There has been extensive discussion and analysis about the Temple in Jerusalem and the Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes (the major Jewish sects during that time). Numerous narratives of Jewish messiahs exist, including accounts of their anti-Romanism, aversion to the hypocrisy of Temple priests, nationalism, and executions.  Despite this, there is limited hard evidence for many portions of the history to draw on, so Aslan spends much of his book reaching conclusions based on interpretation and correlation. Aslan carefully and systematically forms his thesis based on what he can suppose, infer, and theorize.

Zealot does not actually contain much history that has not previously been explored. The difference between this book and other discussions of the historical Jesus may be one of style and accessibility.  As a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, it is cogent, clear, and understandable.The author’s extensive research is documented through his 50 pages of endnotes.

For me, Zealot is a book primarily about a man who lived two thousand years ago and what that person’s experiences may have been, given the culture, political reality, and existing religious environment. Aslan has crafted a well researched, thought provoking history. While Zealot is not a book for everyone, it does offer an interesting perspective that will lead many readers to contemplation the topic and perhaps some lively discussion.


Still Foolin’ ‘Em, by Billy Crystal

Tue, 2014-10-21 01:01

In yesterday’s review of Furious Cool, Benjamin commented on the dark side of a famous comedian’s character. Today, things lighten up with this review of another comedian’s life story: 

My first memory of Billy Crystal was his character Jodie Dallas on the sitcom SOAP.  Crystal’s sense of humor, genuine intelligence, and honest delivery were evident then, as they are throughout this autobiographical memoir.  In this book he is both funny and poignant.

Crystal’s writing style is relaxed, delivered much like a comedian’s stage act.  There are jokes aplenty, and if you are familiar with his comedic style, you will recognize his characters weaved into the book.  Crystal recalls a childhood surrounded by musicians and the entertainment industry, his lifelong addiction to sports, the career impact his impressions of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell had, his rising star as a standup comic, and his numerous friendships with individuals whose names any reader instantly recognizes. The book is a combination of one-liners, personal and professional experiences, and commentary on getting older.

Among the vagaries of advancing age, Crystal talks about the challenges of staying physically fit, the inability to stay awake in theaters, the loss of loved ones and friends, and the joys of family.  None of this is earth-shatteringly new in concept, but Crystal’s take on it all is lighthearted and fun to read. He’s clear that he’s not done living.

Crystal notes that from a young age, he relished garnering laughs from any appreciative crowd, be it family, friends, or unknown onlookers. He recounts his career highs and lows, although his career lows are few and far between. Crystal’s dedication to craft and excellent performance, combined with his intuition and innate talent, has resulted in a nearly uninterrupted climb to the top of his profession.  If Still Foolin’ ‘Em has a flaw, it is Crystal’s constant references to well-known celebrities and not as well-known individuals with whom he has developed close and lasting friendships.  Not everyone is his friend, but through the book, he gives the impression that most people are.

Still Foolin’ ‘Em is a light memoir, examining the life of a likeable comedian. Billy Crystal has enjoyed tremendous success while staying out of the tabloids. His successful marriage, well adjusted daughters, good health, and lack of obvious foibles might make you think his memoir lacks the dirt and dish of a “good” memoir. But, really, it’s a crystal clear look at what’s right in this world.


Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, by David and Joe Henry

Mon, 2014-10-20 02:01

Our regular contributor, Benjamin, a connoisseur of pop culture, is blogging all this week. Today, he reviews an appreciative biography of Richard Pryor:

I was born too late to experience Richard Pryor in his prime. I only recall news stories about him as I was growing up, and seeing many of the movies he did during the 1980s.  So, this biography offered me the opportunity to learn a great deal more about the man.  His life was full of laughter and success, but also turmoil and violence.

While the Henry brothers are not biographers by profession (one is a screenwriter and the other a songwriter/singer) they are Richard Pryor aficionados. Furious Cool is really a tribute to Pryor. The Henrys do not offer excuses for his deviant behaviors, but rather a recounting of the high and low points of his life. Pryor was not a role model. He was not even a nice person much of the time. He was a comedian who could take his audience anywhere and everywhere using just his voice, physicality, brilliant delivery, and agile mind.

Richard Pryor was born into poverty, physical and mental abuse, a culture of drug use, and an anger toward mainstream society.  He grew up a user of hard drugs, an alcoholic, and a violent man, who surrendered to his demons, even embraced them, rather than battling them. Furious Cool also reveals that he was a comic genius who revolutionized standup comedy.  By all accounts, Richard Pryor was so brilliant live on a stage that his performances are considered the best of the best by comedians and enthusiasts. To this day, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979) is heralded as among the best-ever recorded comedy concerts.

In some ways, Pryor’s lifestyle was a testament to how much self-destructive abuse a person can absorb and still survive. It seems that most “modern” celebrities who go down the path of drug addiction either come back repentant or never come back.  Pryor spent his entire life a junkie and was never particularly apologetic about it.  Although his demons had definitely gotten the better of him before he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it was that disease that ended his life, not his questionable activities.

Readers should be aware that because Pryor’s act was irreverent, disturbing, and filled with expletives, this book includes many examples of stand-up routines laden with swears and difficult subject matter. It contains stories of drug use and other deviant behavior that were part of Pryor’s everyday life. It also reveals a tormented individual and a comic genius. That noted, Furious Cool is a well written biography for anyone looking to learn more about Richard Pryor. While reading this book you may laugh, you may cry, but you will never think of Pryor in the same way.


Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick

Fri, 2014-10-17 01:01

Leonard Peacock, age 18 today, doesn’t connect with anyone at school except for Herr Silverman, his social studies teacher. He spends his free time with a chain-smoking elderly neighbor watching Bogart films, and surfing the subway dressed in a suit, observing the workaday adults, and looking for any sign that “it’s possible to be an adult and also be happy.” He sometimes writes letters to himself from imagined loved ones from his future, as suggested by Herr Silverman to get through the daily life of his teenage experience.

Leonard is a loner, to say the least. His self-absorbed failed rock-star father is gone, and his aging model mother, pursuing a mid-life career as a fashion designer, spends most of her time in New York with an insidious “Jean-Luc.” None of these are the reasons Leonard has decided to kill himself and his once best friend Asher Beal today.

Leonard Peacock has a bitterly funny and painfully sincere perspective reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, questioning the norms of a world in which so much seems wrong. He laments a world lulled into the habit of accepting or ignoring everyday evils. But he harbors hope for the better: “Call an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Roll up your pant legs and walk into the sea. See a foreign film. Do anything! Something! Because you start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take. Just don’t go back to that miserable place you go every day.”

This book is swiftly-paced, darkly humorous, and probably for the more pensive reader of realistic fiction. The darker themes may resonate more with older young adult readers, but adult readers shouldn’t miss out on this YA gem. (Quick also wrote The Silver Linings Playbook). The characters are flawed, real, and sometimes lovely. Several long footnotes/sidebars annoy at first, but seem to drop away once the main story and characters are established. Quick offers a perspective on hope and happiness in spite of terrible events, rather than for lack of them, and that happiness can require work. I really connected with this book and feel compelled to read the rest of his works–all of which have been optioned for film.

Read-alikes for Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock include Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher, Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky.

Check the WRL catalog for Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock


The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy

Thu, 2014-10-16 01:01

As human beings we are all connected, even across time. Small acts of kindness or a single act of brutality may have repercussions down through the years and perhaps even across generations. During World War II, a baby was placed in a girl’s arms in Paris. She raised the baby as her own son and told him a romantic version of his origins. Almost two decades later as a young man in the United States, he realizes that his circumcision means that he was almost certainly Jewish and learns what that meant for his chances of survival in World War II Paris.

Simon Van Booy’s haunting novel starts in 2010 with a series of coincidental meetings. An elderly man in California cradles a new rest home patient as he dies. Then the story jumps around through disparate people in different decades and on different continents and at various points in their lives. The people portrayed in the first decades of the 2000s are largely unaware that they are connected to horrific and sometimes heartwarming events in the battlefields of WWII France sixty years earlier. It is a compelling story told through vignettes painted in sparing poetic language.  It only as you read on that you can build up the picture of the connections between the characters, in many cases connections that they themselves will never know. There is the mystery of what happened to John during the war and minor characters who suggest or carry out small acts of kindness that show how lives are entwined  throughout the decades.

The Illusion of Separateness is a quick read and a memorable story that raised the possibility of redemption, the power of love, and the healing in human connections. I recommend it for fans of  literary fiction. Read it in a quiet moment to savor the language, the story and web of connections as they build up.

Check the WRL catalog for The Illusion of Separateness.


Hideous Love: The Story of the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein, by Stephanie Hemphill

Wed, 2014-10-15 01:01

As a longtime fan of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, I picked this up as soon as I saw the subtitle. The book is told in free verse–but don’t be thrown if you are not a poetry lover–from Mary’s perspective about her young life from age 14 through her early 20’s, during which she ran away with the charismatic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to travel Europe with his coterie of fellow intellectuals and artists, and she wrote Frankenstein, before she was even 20 years old.

I fear this book won’t be very popular for those not inclined to pick up historical fiction, poetry, or the gothic classic, Frankenstein, but it is full of romance, scandal, and adventure in a format that doesn’t keep you waiting. The brief but dense poetic format offers one scandalous tidbit after another, and the title of each of the poems/entries make it easy to flip back to earlier moments in the story or character introductions. I would almost call this a celebrity gossip special, 19th-century style, if it also weren’t so beautifully written, and didn’t so carefully explore Mary’s joys and struggles as a young woman who is intellectually voracious, determined to write, and in love with an inspiring yet unstable man (did someone say “bad boy?”)

I think young women will be able to relate to Mary’s growth as a young woman, as a writer, and in her relationships with others and the world; her strength and frequent acts of informed fearlessness also make her a character to admire. Hemphill’s choice to write this book about Mary’s formative years as a writer offers the additional benefit of exploring the often raw and complicated formative years of young adulthood, and the strength and genius that can emerge from them.

Although this book seems limited to the historical fiction and YA genres, it has much wider appeal characteristics. Teens who gravitate toward gothic and/or historical drama will find this an interesting and fast read, as will anyone who enjoys celebrity drama and scandal without a lot of excess prose. This also offers appeal to both teens and adults that appreciate YA realistic fiction about the struggles and revelations of young adulthood. Young women will also admire Mary’s self-determination, even though Mary’s love affair with Shelley may be questioned by today’s higher standards for the marital and gender equality in relationships. Adult fans of Philippa Gregory and 19th century English literature will enjoy this, as well as literature buffs who may enjoy the insight that this biographical fiction may offer into readings of Mary’s written work (I couldn’t help but constantly comparing the monster/creator relationship in Frankenstein to the strained relationship between Mary and her adored yet rejecting father).

This book was interesting, packed with drama, and nicely written. I will share that there is a character list at the end of the book that may be helpful as one needs refreshing about the large cast of characters that populate the story. Enjoy this on a rainy day.

Check the WRL catalog for Hideous Love


In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides

Tue, 2014-10-14 02:01

Armchair explorers, add this to your bookshelf of travel and survival narratives in the cold and lonely north.

The USS Jeannette set off in search of the North Pole in 1879. Manned in large part by men who had just missed the “glory” of service in the Civil War, the expedition boasted the latest innovations, including Edison’s lights and Bell’s telephones, and was spurred on by scientific theories that the Kuro Siwo, a Pacific equivalent to the Gulf Stream current, would sweep the ship effortlessly north to a temperate polar sea. Unsurprisingly, this was not their experience.

Instead, the Jeannette was locked in a vice of pack ice for two years before its hull was crushed, and the expedition was left to make its way 1,000 miles across more ice and unexplored territory to Siberia—before winter, and before their provisions would run out. At one of the lowest points in their journey, they learned that despite days of grueling slog to the south, hauling their boats, the drift of the floating ice over which they were travelling had dragged them north, even farther from rescue than when they started.

Author Sides delves into the background of the expedition, setting the usual narrative of cold and deprivation in its Gilded Age context. Vivid descriptions, many from the letters and journals of the men involved, add to the account.

Possibly the most striking character in this story wasn’t even on the expedition: financier James Gordon Bennett, Jr., editor of the New York Herald, whose journalist was embedded with the crew. In a book filled with colorful personalities, Bennett is still, as Sides writes, “spectacularly weird,” having once abducted a musical theater company, broken off an engagement by urinating into his prospective in-laws’ grand piano, and boosted newspaper circulation by printing a fake story about New Yorkers mauled by escaped zoo animals in Central Park (“A Shocking Sabbath Carnival OF DEATH!”)

Check the WRL catalog for In the Kingdom of Ice.


The First Phone Call from Heaven, by Mitch Albom

Mon, 2014-10-13 01:01

Mitch Albom, author of the best-seller Tuesdays with Morrie, continues to write inspirational books exploring faith and humanity.  I find his books easy to read with simple plots and sympathetic characters, but each also has a message that lingers.

The First Phone Call from Heaven takes place in a small Michigan town. One morning three different people receive phone calls from family members who have passed away. A short conversation–maybe just a phrase–but sending the message that they were communicating from heaven.

That same day Sullivan Harding is released from prison.

The plot jumps from the history of the telephone to Sully’s story of why he went to prison to the growing interest in these heavenly phone calls.

Sully is is trying to carve out a normal life–a life shared with his young son, Julian, but without his beloved wife; a life as an ex-convict, not a respected Navy pilot. The calls intersect directly with Sully when Julian starts questioning when he is going to get a message from his mom. Julian doesn’t see the difference between Sully going away to prison and coming back, and his mom dying and not coming back. Sully determines to get to the bottom of where these calls are really coming from so his son doesn’t hold out false hope for his mom’s return.

Meanwhile the calls themselves are gaining national attention.  A small-time reporter gets the first interview with a women who received a call from her deceased sister. The video goes viral, throwing the small town into chaos as more and more people come to witness the miracle phone calls.

The plot reminds me a little bit about the movie Heaven is for Real, which Chris reviewed a few weeks ago. The phone calls are either real or a complete hoax depending on what you believe. Albom explores the ramifications from many different angles–the individuals receiving the calls, the religious community, the news outlets, the believers, the unbelievers, the  curious. And like I said, it will leave you thinking long after you finish the book.

Check with WRL catalog for The First Phone Call from Heaven


The Dead Zone, by Stephen King

Fri, 2014-10-10 01:01

If you read this blog regularly, and I hope you do, you may notice that I like to read about politics. Strangely enough, Stephen King, who I really like, wrote a book about politics and my first response to it was less than enthusiastic. I read it again a few years later, and it really drew me in. Just goes to show that the same book won’t be the same every time you read it. Since then, I reread it several times and it’s one I suggest to people when they dismiss King as just another scary writer.

The basic story: John Smith is a young teacher, a nice guy falling in love with a nice girl. Then an accident puts him into a coma, and years of that good life just melt away, along with all its possibilities. When he recovers, he has gained a frightening ability. Just by touching something or someone at an emotional moment, he gets flashes—visions of the past, intuitions of the present, knowledge of the future. Some might think it a wonderful power, except he can’t turn it off and can’t get people to believe him.

Johnny has no idea what he is to do with this ability and no interest in exploiting it. He wants to go back to teaching, to pay off his enormous hospital bills, and to find that nice girl he’s still in love with, but word of his ability spreads and he becomes infamous. He also becomes sensitive to the reluctance that people—even the ones he loves?—feel towards touching him. And through a powerful experience he learns that he does have a purpose, even if it isn’t one he believes or wants. He sets off on his own to avoid it and to rebuild the wreck of his life.

Johnny’s story is populated with memorable characters: Sarah Bracknell, his girl; Greg Stillson, the ambitious salesman intent on riding the winds of change; Sam Weizak, Johnny’s doctor and friend; Sonny Ellison, a reformed biker; Sheriff George Bannerman, a desperate cop; and Chuck Chatsworth, the student Johnny finally connects with. Each becomes a reminder to Johnny that he cannot escape his purpose and it becomes more and more apparent that this good and sensitive man is the only person able to prevent an apocalypse.

Politics is the background Johnny’s struggle is illuminated against. From the radical disturbances of the early Seventies to the post-Watergate cynicism of the American public, Johnny is a witness to public life. The story becomes a lesson in political history as told through the eyes of a time traveler adrift in a culture he doesn’t recognize. People have become personalities, character has become charisma, ideas have become ideologies. But Johnny’s struggle is an eternal one—can the ends ever justify the means?

Check the WRL catalog for The Dead Zone


Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis

Thu, 2014-10-09 01:01

Capitalism is great. When it works, it transfers money from people willing to take risks to people who have risks worth taking. Sure, the eventual payoff to both is in proportion to the risk, and the risk is in proportion to the vision, but the overall purpose is to move idle money to the places that can put it to use. Capitalism is great. When it works.

And then there are the parasites.

In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis tells the story of a bunch of regular guys who decided to drag one group of parasites into the light so the markets could understand how and why they had become hosts. The parasites had a simple business model. Someone sends out an offer to buy United Widgets at $1.00, the parasite would see his offer, and go buy the available shares at $1.00. Then he’d offer them to the buyer for $1.01. A penny a share of pure profit, no risk, no real value added. But how did he see the spread between the two?

He figured out that placing his computer server just a little closer to the server that executes trades would buy enough lag time that he could spot the opening and get the jump on real investors. The smart guy and his cronies started at milliseconds and wrung every angle until they were down to beating legitimate investors by nanoseconds. These weren’t the small-time investors, either—institutional investors managing billions of dollars couldn’t figure out why they were constantly paying higher prices when the computer said right there that they should have gotten it for less. They’d scratch their heads and pay the higher cost.

But there were people in the system who caught on to the parasites. Instead of cashing their knowledge in for a few million bucks, these regular guys decided they were going to put the markets back on an equal footing. (Well, as equal as it could be.) There are too many for me to credit in this post, but basically they were organized and inspired by Brad Katsuyama, a low-key guy working for the low-key Royal Bank of Canada. For my money (what’s left of it after the markets got hold of it), he should be recognized as a genuine hero. But his discovery about lag time was only the tip of the fraud, and his real courage came out when he brought his findings and his solutions to those institutional investors. Their reaction—and the way he finally convinced them that he had a viable solution—shows that sometimes heroism doesn’t happen in a flash. Heroism takes work.

As for the parasites? A friend once told me, “Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered.”  When I look around, it seems that the parasites, and the pigs, are actually doing better than everyone else. Capitalism is great. When it works.

Check the WRL catalog for Flash Boys


Dear Daughter, by Elizabeth Little

Wed, 2014-10-08 01:01

It’s an easy comparison: picture Paris Hilton getting out of prison ten years after murdering her own mother. Even better, she’s only free because the LAPD forensics lab screwed up evidence collection in a bunch of cases, so she doesn’t even have the shelter of a presumption of innocence. Swap Paris for the fictional Janie Jenkins, and you’ve got the premise for Dear Daughter.

With her conviction overturned, Janie wants to do two things: hide from the paparazzi and crime shows and blogs, and find out whether or not she killed her mother. True, they had a rotten relationship, and yes, Janie had stolen some expensive stuff, and she was found in the closet of an adjoining room, covered with her mother’s blood. Oh, and her mother had written Janie’s name in her own blood on the wall just before she died. Not even the Dream Team could get her off that one.

With the help of her faithful and hunky appellate lawyer Noah, she grabs handfuls of cash from her inheritance and sets out to disappear. She’s got exactly one clue to go on, one way to lose the rabid searchers, and one chance to clear her name. Off into flyover country she heads, towards Wisconsin (!). Or so Noah thinks.

Janie finds a way to get to the one place that might offer some answers, but has to completely transform her personality to fool the locals. Plus, she’s deliberately deceived Noah, to his increasing consternation. And a sensationalist blogger has turned his reader base into a nationwide dragnet, and they’re getting closer to finding her. Time is running out.

What Janie learns confounds her. She knew her mother was a gold digger intent on turning Janie into a retro 20th-century heiress, but she had no idea how much of a gold digger she was. She knew her mother had no family, but Janie learns why she was alone in the world. And she learns what her mother really thought of the child who derailed her plans for success.

There isn’t much more I can say, because the plot becomes so twisty that to proceed would untangle the whole thing, and you’d miss out on the fun. The best part of the book is Janie herself—deeply sarcastic, seemingly superficial, struggling to hide her killer persona under the mask of a meek academic. And traumatized, institutionalized, and full of self-doubt as she tries to understand why she’s still running, and where it will get her.

Check the WRL catalog for Dear Daughter


A Foreign Country, by Charles Cumming

Tue, 2014-10-07 01:01

It’s a staple of spy thrillers that your friends are sometimes as dangerous, if not more so, than your enemies. After all, the main survival mechanism in espionage is paranoia. Is this colleague a spy? Is that one undermining my missions, going rogue, or threatening my budget? Is the agent from an allied power spying on me? The advent of women in both real world and fiction espionage has increased that problem geometrically and given thriller writers a new topic to explore.

Could woman, that most domesticated and docile of creatures, turn on her former masters and take her revenge in ways a man can’t comprehend?

That’s the problem that dominates the minds of the top administrators at Vauxhall Cross, headquarters of Britain’s MI6. A new chief has been named, and it’s (gasp) a woman! Amanda Levene has mastered every challenge at MI6 and has succeeded to the office no woman has ever held before. Well, some of the old boys say, it’s political correctness. Others say that she’s a lightweight incapable of shifting her parochial interests to the larger picture. Some hint that maybe she’s slept her way to the top. In short, every rationalization successful women everywhere have faced is thrown at Levene, with the added element that these resentful men have the intelligence resources of an entire nation ready to take her down.

Unfortunately, they have ammunition. Six weeks before taking the chair, she’s disappeared, taking with her the highest-level knowledge the agency has. And those who may or may not be loyal to her can’t turn their assets loose to find her without airing the dirty laundry. So they go outside MI6 to recruit their searcher.

Thomas Kell is perfect for the job. One of the most experienced field agents they had, he was let go in the wake of a prisoner torture scandal in Afghanistan. For seven months he’s drifted along, promising himself that he’ll start writing that book, that he’ll apply for that security job, that he’ll take up a hobby. But his days have passed in drinking and feuding with his estranged wife. So the prospect of going back out into the field is his shot at personal and perhaps professional redemption, and without bureaucrats peeking over his shoulder he has a chance at doing the job his way.

Using whatever assets he can muster, Kell picks up Levene’s trail and follows it to a surprising end, one which offers an understandable explanation for her disappearance, but also carries within it the potential for destroying Levene’s career. And in clearing up some of the minor details, he turns up a far deeper threat than anyone, including Levene, can imagine.

The path Cummings creates in finding Levene is interesting and somewhat exciting, filled with the kind of tactical planning and surveillance that espionage thriller readers have come to expect. He also mixes in a group of secondary characters who provide some comic relief in their efforts to help Kell, and does a brilliant job describing Kell’s journey across the Mediterranean aboard an overnight ferry crossing. But once the main plot takes off, A Foreign Country moves into the big time, and Cummings handles both plotting and characterization with confidence. Plus he shows that a woman can unquestionably do the job as well as any man.

Check the WRL catalog for A Foreign Country


Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian

Mon, 2014-10-06 01:01

There’s no easy way to put this. Chris Bohjalian has written a book that is almost too difficult to read. Not because of the language, which is spot on. Not because of the characters, which ring true. Not because of the structure, which easily shifts between past and present. Not because of the plot, which is both frighteningly plausible and the everyday experience of too many people. When you add them all up, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands becomes unbearable even as Bohjalian demands that you bear witness.

The setup is simple enough. A 16-year old girl, rebellious and unfocused, has nonstop fights with her parents and well-meaning but ineffectual teachers. She’s fairly new to the area, having been dragged to northeast Vermont by her parents’ jobs, and she hasn’t made the transition well. The only thing she’s got going for her is her love of Emily Dickinson. (Side note Emily shares with us—take any Emily Dickinson poem and sing it to the theme from Gilligan’s Island. Perfect match!) Then the nuclear power plant where her parents work suffers a catastrophe, and Emily Shepard, with thousands of others, is forced to evacuate. Unlike them, she carries the burden of her name, because her father is blamed for the disaster.

Emily makes her way to Burlington, where she stays on the edges of the relief efforts, unable to make up a coherent story. Eventually the aid runs out and Emily is forced onto her own. She has few options, so her life quickly spirals out of control. She finds shelter wherever she can, stealing clothes and food and turning tricks at the local truck stop for cash. Other homeless girls give her advice, but one especially changes Emily’s life when she teaches Emily how to cut herself. The catharsis that this self-punishment brings doesn’t last, but razor blades and Bactine are cheap and plentiful.

Emily experiences an awakening when she finds a nine-year-old runaway boy and takes him under her wing. Cameron has been shuffled from one foster home to the next and suffered one beating too many, so he’s set out on his own. She makes it look like he’s in the company of a responsible adult, and helps provide little extras, like food, to him. In turn, he teaches Emily how to build an igloo out of trash bags stuffed with leaves, and the two live together on the lake ice with other homeless people. But the lake won’t stay frozen forever; nor can Emily keep Cameron forever. Eventually Emily is drawn home, traveling into the radioactive zone that surrounds the plant.

The meltdown offers a metaphor, a reason why a seemingly privileged kid would set out to live in squalor and degradation. It unfortunately stands in for the conditions that cause so many teens to run away from home and cast themselves into a world where no one ultimately cares if they live. Bohjalian doesn’t spare the reader any of the details of that life. It is a life he is too familiar with, working as he does with community agencies that serve homeless teens in his town. It’s a life he opens our eyes to, even when we want to close them.

Check the WRL catalog for Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands


Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think, by Viktor Mayer-Schonburger and Kenneth Cukier

Fri, 2014-10-03 01:01

We are ending the week with this sobering view of technology from Connie of the library’s Outreach Services Division.

I was watching a TV show called Blacklist when the main character started talking about “Big Data” and how someone with the right skills can find out just about anything about anybody and track them. I had only a vague idea what this meant.

What is “Big Data” and why should we care? I turned to the library for answers.

The authors of Big Data interpret this to mean processing vast amounts of stored data very quickly in a way that can’t be done on a smaller scale. Algorithms applied to this data have a predictive capability that will “change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments and more.”

This book develops that concept in a very understandable way with interesting examples of how our world had already changed by the large amount of data stored.

A positive example of the way big data has already helped consumers is Farecast, which predicts when air fare will be cheapest to buy. And future ways big data may benefit humanity is by predicting where outbreaks of disease will occur.

The negative implications of the predictive quality of “Big Data” are thought provoking (think of the movie Minority Report). Not only does everything we do on the Internet never go away, but that information can be analyzed over and over again for different purposes without our knowledge or consent. Even if the data is anonymized, it can still be traced back to a single individual!

The authors state that the amount of data will continue to grow along with our ability to process it. It is “the dark side of big data” that I found most alarming – more surveillance of our lives, less protection of privacy, and loss of anonymity. I found myself marking sections in the book and going back to re-read it. It also sparked a lot of discussion in my book group. Technology is a part of all our lives whether we love it or hate it and this book was a fascinating peek into our future.

Check the WRL catalog for Big Data


Hinterland, Series 1

Thu, 2014-10-02 01:01

Ann Marie of the library’s Outreach Services Division shares this review of a television show.

A hinterland is defined as the often uncharted areas beyond a coastal district or a river’s banks, or an area lying beyond what is visible or known.  In the new Welsh detective series, Hinterland, the characters both literally and figuratively have to travel into the dramatic outlying areas of coastal Wales as well as into the outlying areas of Welsh society.

Hinterland is the first TV mystery series based entirely in Wales. The main detective is DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) who comes to the coastal town of Aberystwyth, Wales, after working for 10 years with the Metropolitan Police in London. His team consists of DI Mared Rhys (Mali Harries) a local woman who had wanted Mathias’ position, DS Sian Owens (Hannah Daniel) and DC Lloyd Ellis (Alex Harries).

The series begins with a murder of an elderly woman, and Mathias arrives at the scene where he first meets his team before he has a chance to even report to the police station. Mathias and the other detectives have to learn to trust each other and learn each other strengths and weaknesses while working the case.

Eventually the case leads the investigators to a former children’s home at the waterfall called Devil’s Bridge. Adding to the atmosphere of the dramatic waterfall, there’s also some intriguing folklore associated with the waterfall that involves an old woman, a loaf of bread, and Satan. Mathias discovers that the reasons for the murder lie in the past of the children’s home as he uncovers the home’s secrets.

The personal lives of the detectives are not explored, but there are intriguingly brief glimpses into their present and past. As the lead detective, the series spends the most time with DCI Mathias. The DCI is a loner who seems to have some issues in his personal life. The reasons for his transfer to Wales from London are not explained, at least in series one. The issues surrounding the cases often force the detectives to travel to their own personal hinterland as they deal with their own reactions.

Filmed entirely on location in the county of Ceredigion, Wales, the winter landscape provides a haunting backdrop to the gothic story lines. Whether it’s the stark rolling hills, the dense forests, or the crashing waves on the shoreline, the Welsh countryside is an important part of the series and helps to give the series an ominous and dark feeling. Each scene of the series was filmed in two languages—Welsh and English. The Welsh language version of the series aired in Wales in 2013 as Y Gwyll which means “The Dusk.” The BBC aired the English-language Hinterland this past winter, and series 2 is in production.

This Welsh crime noir drama will appeal to those who enjoy mysteries of the dark and complicated type. A different case is solved in each of the four episodes.

Check the WRL catalog for Hinterland, Series 1


The G Free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide, by Elisabeth Hasslebeck

Wed, 2014-10-01 01:01

Take a look at today’s review from Eletha of the Outreach Services Division:

I have always had a complicated relationship with food. As of the latest count, I have nine food allergies. I am allergic to beef, pork, beets, grapes, mushrooms, chocolate, crab, lobster, and shrimp.

My relationship with food became even more difficult when I discovered that I am gluten sensitive. I dreaded any gathering where food was involved until I read The G Free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide by Elisabeth Hasslebeck.

This book is a biographical self-help account of Hasslebeck’s journey to become gluten free. Hasslebeck states, “I learned about gluten the hard way. I wrote this book so you don’t have to.”

Hasslebeck provides educational information, gluten-free recipes, and practical tips on how to avoid gluten in many different aspects of life —especially in social situations. She provides strategies that gluten sensitive people can use to avoid gluten without offending the host and making others feel uncomfortable.

The G Free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide is truly a survival guide for the gluten sensitive person.

Check the WRL catalog for The G Free Diet


Heaven is for Real

Tue, 2014-09-30 01:01

Today’s movie review is from Chris of the library’s Outreach Services Division.

I recently viewed Heaven is for Real over the weekend. Four-year-old Colton has a near death experience and describes with childlike innocence what it is like in heaven. The way Colton describes heaven and recounts family history that he should not know about brings skepticism and criticism not only from his parents, but also from their church.

Greg Kinnear gives a solid performance as the father who must find the courage and conviction to share his son’s story while dealing with his own personal issues. Connor Corum gives a good performance as Colton by capturing the innocence that so many children display.

The movie is rated PG.

Check the WRL catalog for Heaven is for Real

 


July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer

Mon, 2014-09-29 01:01

This week’s reviews are from the library’s Outreach Services Division.

World renowned, critically acclaimed, and prolific South African author Nadine Gordimer died in July 2014. In honor of her I share with you today one of her most famous works, July’s People, a story that asks the question “What happens to people when they experience a shift in power?”

July’s People is the story about the Smales family, Maureen, her husband, Bam, and their three children, who live a typical, middle class life in a suburban South African community, complete with their house servant, July. When the rumblings of anti-apartheid erupt into violence in their community the Smales family flee their comfortable life, with July in tow, and seek refuge in July’s village. Soon the tables are turned and the Smales are living in an unfamiliar environment, looking to July for his benevolence and guidance for their safety, sustenance, and survival.

Gordimer eloquently explores the challenges of racial divide in her native South Africa, putting a face to the complexities of life in an apartheid world. A thought provoking book that draws in the reader with strong characters and interesting relationships, July’s People should be included in your book group’s list of reads this year.

Check the WRL catalog for July’s People