Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Nevermore Nonfiction Picks: Washingtons, Astronomy, Laura Ingalls, Microbes, Poverty

Reported by Ambrea

Our readers brought a great selection of nonfiction to Nevermore this week, looking into the life of a favorite childhood author, digging deep into the history and the relationships of the Washingtons, America’s First Family, and delving into the natural world.  Starting out, one of our readers volunteered $2.00 a Day:  Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer.  A startling exposé of poverty in America, $2.00 a Day provides insight into the families who struggle to make ends meet and, in some case, resort to desperate measures to keep food on the table and a roof over their head.  Edin and Shaefer interview dozens of impoverished families, compiling research and individual stories to illustrate a startling fact:  1.5 million American households subsist on just $2.00 per person per day—which includes almost 3 million children.  According to our Nevermore reader, $2.00 a Day offers a glimpse into the lives of people who are homeless, who are living from hand to mouth and holding on by the tiniest threads.  It’s illuminating, she said, because it shows readers the truth behind families that struggle financially in the United States.  It’s eye-opening and jarring, but it’s definitely worth reading.

Next, our readers looked at a classic children’s author with Pioneer Girl:  The Annotated Autobiography, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and edited by Pamela Smith Hill.  In her newly published autobiography—which disappeared in the 1930s—Wilder recounts her childhood:  she recalls their journeys from Kansas to Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and even to the Dakota Territory; she recounts the unforgettable stories of her childhood; and she puts into words the pioneer life experienced by millions of others.  Our Nevermore reader was quite pleased with Pioneer Girl, saying it was full of interesting information and quite candid as it showed all the struggles that Wilder and her family faced in their journey through the western states and territories.  However, she wished it would have offered more about Garth Williams—a prolific artist who illustrated dozens of classic children’s novels, including Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie—and delved a little deeper into the publication and creations of the “Little House” series.  Altogether, she said it was an interesting book and deserved to be looked at by fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or any interested in pioneer history and lore.

Switching gears, our book club looked at the natural world—and healthy eating—in The Hidden Half of Nature:  the Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé.  Montgomery and Biklé are on a mission to bring life back to their yard, feeding the soil a steady diet of organic matter and compost, planting new crops that will help bring their soil back to life—and it works.  Impressed by results, the authors begin to chronicle their adventures with bacteria and microbes found in soil (and the human body) and show how both can benefit from a little organic TLC.  Our Nevermore reader initially thought The Hidden Half of Nature was mostly a book on gardening and imbuing new life to one’s garden, but she found it had much more to do with health and building human immunity through the cultivation of beneficial bacteria and microbes.  While it wasn’t quite what she expected, she said she found The Hidden Half of Nature to be highly technical and very interesting.

Our Nevermore group also took another look at science (and technology), but in a very different context:  religion.  In God’s Mechanics:  How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion, Brother Guy Consolmagno records how a handful of people who love science—who may even be scientists and engineers or “techies” (as Consolmagno dubs himself)—reconcile their scientific/technological mindset and their religious practices.  Consolmagno, a Jesuit Catholic planetologist, shows how he comfortably brings together his profound, unprovable religious beliefs with his love of theoretical planetary science.  Our reader said he found the author to be much less dogmatic than he expected, giving the reader a very different view of religion and religious practice than he’d seen.  Overall, God’s Mechanics was a very fine book and very enjoyable, offering a glimpse into religion without being overbearing or “preachy.”

Last, our readers checked out The Washingtons:  George and Martha, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love” by Flora Fraser.  In 1759, George Washington—then a young bachelor and the newly appointed owner of Mount Vernon—wed Martha Dandridge Park Custis, a charming and (incredibly) wealthy widow, officially beginning their forty-year marriage and the tumultuous saga of their lives.  Fraser provides insight into the public face that the Washingtons present, as the Revolution waged and the politics of early America enveloped them, and the domestic bliss that the Washingtons cultivated at Mount Vernon, New York and even Philadelphia.  The Washingtons is, according to the cover, “a remarkable story of a remarkable pair as well as a gripping narrative of the birth of a nation—a major, and vastly appealing, contribution to the literature of our founding fathers…and founding mother.”  Our Nevermore reader couldn’t have agreed more.  He said Fraser’s book was incredibly detailed and precise, offering an intimate look at the first First Family of the United States and the relationship of George and Martha Washington as the suffered under the strain of a Revolution—and the politics of early American republic; however, it was also very good.  He called it a “delightful book,” saying it provided a comprehensive and enjoyable look at the Washingtons and the early United States.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith

Reviewed by Jeanne

Precious Ramotswe, founder and chief investigator of the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, is going to take a holiday.  This comes somewhat as a surprise to her, as she’s never before taken a holiday nor had she planned on doing so this time, but somehow or other she agrees to take one.  This leaves her assistant Mma Makutsi to handle the detective work and while Mma Ramotswe knows she is diligent, she also knows that Mma Makutsi is sometimes not the most diplomatic person.   On the other hand, business has been very slow, so perhaps there will be no cases at all--or so she hopes.

Left to her own devices, Mma Ratmotswe vacations by cleaning cabinets and becoming involved with the plight of a young juvenile delinquent. Then she hears that the Agency has an important case involving a late government official and Mma Makutsi doesn’t seem to be handling it well. Should she step in or trust that her friend and colleague can handle it on her own?

If you’ve read any of the other entries in the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series, then you know that solving the mystery is just one element of the story and usually it’s not the most important element.  Instead, the books offer humorous observations on the human behavior, wonderful examinations of character, and a vivid look at the country of Botswana. Much of the story here revolves around questions of character and of social conditions but this isn’t a preachy book; it is, however, a compassionate one.  

Most of the books in this series can be read as standalones, but this is one that depends more on the reader’s familiarity with the regular characters to be fully enjoyed. With that background, one can better appreciate how very far the characters have come from their origins and how the characters and their relationships have changed and grown. I enjoy the rhythms of the speech, the semi-formality of the way the people talk. One point of contention is that Mma Ramotswe tends to preface statements with “It is a well-known” as a way of bolstering her opinions.  Of course, she’s never challenged outright but it’s obvious some of her listeners have their doubts.

While this isn’t the strongest entry in the series, fans will still find much to enjoy.  After all, sometimes it’s nice just to check in with old friends and have a cup of red bush tea.

If you’re looking for car chases or bodies in locked rooms, you’ll need to look elsewhere.  On the other hand, if you’re looking for a feel-good read set in an exotic locale this might just fit the bill.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Reviewed by Ambrea

Aristotle is a loner:  he likes peace and quiet, and he doesn’t talk much to other kids his age.  He has a brother, but he doesn’t know him, and his parents wont’ talk about it; he gets into fights in school, and he doesn’t have friends; he doesn’t even know how to swim very well.  Until he meets Dante.

Dante is everything Ari isn’t:  articulate, self-assured, brilliant.  He loves poetry and art, and he swims like a fish.  They’re two very different people, but, after they meet at the local swimming pool, they become the most unlikely of friends—and it isn’t long before Dante begins to change Ari’s life and open up his world.

 I absolutely loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.  Although I originally encountered it as an audiobook, I absolutely loved listening to Saenz’s young adult novel.  It combines two critical elements for any audiobook:  an exceptional writer (with an exceptional story), and a phenomenal narrator.

Benjamin Alire Saenz does an excellent job of fashioning his characters.  Aristotle, for instance, is an angst-ridden teenager in search of answers to his questions and relief from his anger, and I think that Saenz properly conveys his journey of self-discovery.  Perhaps I didn’t always understand Aristotle—his emotional state, his thoughts, his experiences as a young Mexican-American growing up in California—because his life differs so greatly from mine, but I grew to enjoy his insights on life, love, and friendship.

He’s a solid character, fleshed out and fully formed.  He’s believable and, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda who narrated, he felt so real to me.  Aristotle is such a candid storyteller, laying bare his hopes and dreams and his desires—and his fears.  And the way he tells his story—the way Lin-Manuel Miranda brings him to life—kept me hooked from beginning to end.

And I loved Dante.

I have a special place in my heart for shoe-phobic, know-it-all Dante.  Like Ari, I slowly began to see him as an integral part to the story, a key piece to life.  He was so important to Ari and, likewise, he became important to me as I continued to listen to Saenz’s novel; moreover, he was just so much fun.  Articulate, smart, talkative and witty, he was the polar opposite of Ari, giving the story a good balance—and a different flavor that made it so wonderfully enjoyable.

I fell in love with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.  It was the perfect combination of writer and narrator that gave this story the life and depth it deserved, and it kept me enchanted from its opening lines.  While I might not have always been able to relate to Dante and Ari—being a female of the species, I can say I’ve certainly had much different life experience—I enjoyed reading their shared story.  It’s a candid account of life and loss, happiness and tragedy, and, ultimately, love and friendship.

When I reached the final chapter, I was sad to finally let go.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Nevermore: First Ladies, Appalachians, Still Alice, Lives Left Behind, and One Second After

This week, our Nevermore readers decided to revisit First Ladies:  Presidential Histories on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women by Susan Swain.  Based on a yearlong C-SPAN history series, which featured interviews with fifty of the nation’s most prominent histories and biographers, First Ladies offers an intimate and insightful look at the lives of the presidential ladies.  It looks deeply into their lives, scrutinizing the social expectations they faced and the changes they made, and provides a close-up historical look at some of the most fascinating women in the country.  Our Nevermore reader said it was a fascinating book.  He liked that it gave him unexpected insight into the lives of these women—such as how Eleanor Roosevelt established the precedent of first ladies having a cause to support, or how Mary Todd Lincoln was confined to an asylum for a number of years, or how Ida Saxton McKinley was subject to epileptic fits and her husband would carry a handkerchief to cover her face—and he highly recommended it to other readers.

Next, our readers discussed Mountains of the Heart:  A Natural History of the Appalachians by Scott Weidensaul.  Weidensaul, who has spent a number of years as a naturalist, studied the geology, ecology, climate, evolution, and history of the Appalachian Mountains.  His book offers unrivaled insight into history and significance of Appalachia—and its people.  Reading the 20th anniversary edition of Weidensaul’s work, our Nevermore reader greatly enjoyed reading Mountains of the Heart—and he even went out and bought his own copy.  One of the best qualities of this book, he said, was that Weidensaul falls in love with Appalachia.  He pours out his love for the mountains onto the page, telling readers about the qualities that make the area so extraordinary.  It’s obvious the author loves his work and loves the local area, and it’s a refreshing experience.

Our Nevermore group also looked at Still Alice, a novel by Lisa Genova.  Alice Howland is a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics.  She’s proud of the life, the reputation, the family she’s managed to build; however, when Alice finds herself becoming disoriented and incredibly forgetful, she discovers she has Alzheimer’s disease—a diagnosis that will change her life forever.  Our reader said Still Alice was a heartbreakingly beautiful novel.  “It’s very good, very moving,” she said, because it offers insight into the progression of a disease that affects millions of individuals and families.  It’s a tragic story that’s sometimes difficult to read, on emotional level, but it’s a wonderful novel with a poignant story that’s sure to make an impact.

Additionally, our Nevermore readers looked at The Lives They Left Behind:  Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.  Willard Psychiatric Center in New York—alternatively known as Willard Asylum and Willard State Hospital—closed its doors after more than a century in use.  More than 50,000 patients were admitted to Willard since its creation in 1869, and nearly half of the individuals who stepped through their doors died there.  In this poignant, jarring biography, Stastny and Penney explore the lives of Willard’s patients, examining the suitcases that were found when Willard closed in 1995 and offering insight into the lives of patients who were devastatingly stripped of their identities after their subsequent admission to the hospital.  Our reader found The Lives They Left Behind to be a fascinating book, because it offered such a wealth of information and, more importantly, portraits of patients, offering an in-depth social history of the patients who sometimes spent their entire lives at Willard.  She continued, saying it was a great book for anyone interested in the history of psychiatry and the medical/mental health profession.

Last, Nevermore explored One Second After by William R. Forstchen, a local author from Asheville, North Carolina.  John Matherson is content with his life:  he has a job he enjoys, two wonderful daughters, and a community that could rival a Norman Rockwell painting.  And then power mysteriously goes out—along with phones, internet service, and every technology-reliant device.  An Electro Magnetic Pulse, an EMP, has put the lights out across the entire country, leaving the United States in the dark.  That leaves John with some tough decisions to make for his family, especially since his youngest daughter, Jennifer, is a Type 1 diabetic and his community is on the precipice of disaster.  Our reader was pleasantly surprised by Forstchen’s novel, calling it a very interesting survival story.  Although she’d only finished approximately half of One Second After—and she wasn’t entirely sure where the story would lead—she was excited to read more.