Friday, November 30, 2018

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon

Reviewed by Jeanne  

While driving home one evening, I happened to catch an interview with Michael Chabon talking about taking his twelve year old son to Paris Men’s Fashion Week. The young man is passionate about fashion, following his favorite designers, and has quite the eye for materials and color.  His proud but also somewhat bemused father soon tired of one show after another, but his son’s interest never flagged.

I was so intrigued by the interview that I picked his new book of essays, Pops:  Fatherhood in Pieces, which had the Fashion Week essay as well as several others on the themes of parenting and what it means to be a man.  In the introduction, Chabon tells the story about the Great Author who told him that if he wanted to be novelist, he could never be a parent. He quoted Richard Yates as saying that you lose a book for every child. 

Chabon took this piece of advice for what it was worth and is now the father of four children, all of whom make appearances in this collection. Each child is treated with respect as an individual; they aren’t there to be jokes but to reveal to Chabon some aspect of himself and his expectations.  One son seems about to follow Chabon into a love of baseball, but the actual Little League play turns out to be a bit much—just as Chabon himself had discovered at an early age.

Another essay is primarily concerned with Chabon’s own father, a physician who was known for his bedside manner but, arguably, not his ability to connect with his own family.

While this book is brief, I found it to be enjoyable and thoughtful.  Chabon’s stories flow, his insights are sharp, and his use of language is lovely.  He also has a lively sense of humor, including about himself.  

I think most people would be charmed by Pops.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Nevermore: Johnny Got His Gun, Hope Never Dies, Like Family, Music of Silence, A House for Mr. Biswas

Reported by Ambrea

This week, Nevermore started their meeting with a look at Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun.  Set during the horrors of World War I, Johnny Got His Gun tells the story of Joe Bonham, a young American soldier who one day awakens in the infirmary to find that he has lost his arms, legs, and most of his face, becoming a prisoner in his own body.  As he struggles to communicate with the outside world, his mind drifts between reality and fantasy as he remembers his old life and struggles with the reality of his new condition.  Johnny Got His Gun was a revisit for our Nevermore reader, who called Trumpo’s novel “frightening [but] so, so important.”  She noted this novel has gone out of print, been banned and challenged, but she said it’s a story that needs saying—it’s a novel that has impact and deserves to be read.  She highly recommended it as one of the most jarring—and best—books she’s read.

On a lighter note, Nevermore took up Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer.  In this humorous novel—the first ever published work of Obama/Biden fiction—Shaffer brings back former Vice President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama as unexpectedly successful detectives.  Our reader picked up Hope Never Dies, because she found the cover amusing, but she quickly discovered it was actually a very good, very funny novel.  She found the mystery suitably intriguing and the humor spot on; she said it was a quick, easy (and hilarious) read that served as a great high note amidst some more depressing fare.

Next, Nevermore shared Like Family:  Growing Up in Other People’s Houses by Paula McLain.  Paula and her two sisters were abandoned by their parents and became wards of the State very early in their lives, spending the next 14 years in foster homes across California.  Her memoir accurately captures the upheaval and loneliness and distress a life in foster homes can cause, as well as the daily struggles of trying to hold their remaining “family” together.  Our reader said Like Family was a very readable, very well-written memoir that paints a raw, honest picture of the foster care system.  She found McLain’s story to be heartbreaking, but fascinating and, ultimately, uplifting.  She highly recommended it, especially to fans of The Liar’s Club and The Glass Castle.

Sticking to the vein of memoirs, Nevermore picked up Andrea Bocelli’s The Music of Silence.  Bocelli is a world-famous tenor, a classical singer who made his name in opera; however, Bocelli’s path to stardom was far from easy.  Although he lost his eyesight by the age of twelve to glaucoma, he invested himself into his music and, by 1992, he finally reached international acclaim.  Our reader said The Music of Silence was an interesting book.  While it is labeled as a memoir, Bocelli often speaks in the third person, which she found a bit jarring.  Regardless, our reader enjoyed Bocelli’s memoir and rated it very highly as one of the better books she’s read on famous musical personalities.

Last, Nevermore explored A House for Mr. Biswas by Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul.  Mohun Biswas has spent his life trying to find autonomy, struggle to gain independence from one domineering group or another; however, rather than finding his own personal peace, he faces a lifetime of trials that ultimately shape him.  Our reader fell in love with Naipaul’s novel.  “[I] love the expression of language…[and I] really like the hero,” she told Nevermore.  She raved that Naipaul’s writing was wonderful; in fact, she considers him to be “one of the best writers I’ve ever read.”  Although A House for Mr. Biswas flirts with tragedy, she said it was a very good novel with humor and heart and beauty—and she highly recommended it to her fellow readers.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Murder in an English Village by Jessica Ellicott

Reviewed by Jeanne

Edwina Davenport is having a bit of financial embarrassment.  A frugal soul, she has made all the economies she possibly can, and it isn’t enough.  She will have to take in a boarder.  Accordingly, she places an ad:  Well-bred lady with spacious home seeks genteel lodger.  Reasonable rates. She knows that this will cause a bit of gossip in the village of Walmsley Parva, but it can’t be helped. 

Amazingly, the ad is spotted by an old school friend, the American adventuress Beryl Helliwell.  Beryl is in rather a need of a change herself.  She’s lived an exciting life that has made her the toast of newsreels, left a trail of ex-husbands, and now she wants a bit of quiet.  Returning to America right now doesn’t sound appealing, what with Prohibition and all, so Beryl decides to pay her old friend a visit.

The arrival of so notable a personage in little Walmsley Parva sets off all sorts of speculation, so Beryl decides to make the most of it. She pays a visit to Prudence, the most notorious gossip in town, and implies that she and Edwina are actually undercover agents and that Edwina’s apparent poverty was just a cover.  Now they are investigating a case right in the village, but Beryl is not at liberty to divulge details.

What was meant as a lark turns deadly serious when Edwina is attacked and a girl meets with an untimely end.  It seems that Edwina and Beryl really do have a case to solve, preferably before the body count rises.

This is a first in series book, but the author skillfully introduced characters and never allowed the story to drag.  There’s a bit of humor, warmth of friendship, good characters, and I enjoyed the 1920s English village setting.  Downton Abbey fans will find much to like, but this book would be a fine choice for anyone who enjoys a British style cozy.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Before the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray

Reviewed by Christy
After battling a sleeping sickness in the Lair of Dreams, the Diviners are back in the third installment of Libba Bray’s Diviners series. Picking up shortly after the previous novel, the Diviners (a group of young people with special powers) are now facing a ghost epidemic that’s haunting New York City.
            It’s the late 1920s and New York City’s love for all things Diviners is dwindling. Sweetheart Seer Evie has her own radio show where she “reads” guests’ objects to find out their secrets. Once a fan favorite, Evie’s star is dimming in the shadow of another radio host: evangelical Sara Snow. In an attempt to get some of her shine back, Evie announces she and her friends will be traveling to Ward’s Island – home of a very haunted mental hospital – to publicly forgive a man who previously attacked her. She also sets up a hotline for anyone in NYC calling about ghost sightings that the Diviners can investigate, like a Jazz Age Ghostbusters. A barrier between worlds has been torn and with more and more apparitions spilling out, it’s up to the Diviners to figure out how to fix it.
            While this novel didn’t grab me as quickly as the previous novel did, it was still very compelling in its own right. As with the other installments, there are a handful of little plots going on at once but it never feels overcrowded or convoluted. There are so many characters with diverse backgrounds and personalities, that I imagine it’d be difficult to not be able to connect with at least one of them. While each book has its own storyline, I am partial to the overarching menace known as the King of Crows – a tall man in a stovepipe hat who wears a coat of inky black feathers. He stalks dreams and seems to control the ghosts who haunt the city.
            Before the Devil Breaks You is a lot of fun but, like the other Diviners books, it also heavily touches on issues still relevant today – especially racism and xenophobia – despite taking place some 90 years ago. With three books in the series and each book over 500 pages long, I could see why it could be intimidating for someone to pick up. But I would highly recommend these books to almost anyone, even those who think a series can’t keep them interested. Each book is just as engaging as the last, and even though the fourth book still has no title or release date, I don’t expect my interest to wane in the meantime.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Nevermore: Crime, Prisons, Breathing Lessons, Unsheltered, Cigar Factory, Forbidden Place

 Reported by Jeanne

In My Father’s House: A New View of how Crime Runs in the Family by Fox Butterfield was deemed both fascinating and horrifying by our first reader.  National Book Award winner Butterfield investigated a single family, the Bogles, whose members have criminal records that date back decades.  Generations of the family spent time incarcerated; younger members learned the family trade from their elders.  Our reader called the book “unbelievable” but quickly added that was in the sense of amazing, not untrue.  She said it was an excellent book and she recommended it highly.

Another book proved a good companion to Butterfield’s: American Prison by Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones who took a job working at a for-profit prison in Louisiana. Paid $9 an hour, Bauer found training was lacking and the institution was dangerously understaffed. 

The ever-popular Anne Tyler was up next, with her novel Breathing Lessons.  Maggie and Ike Moran have been married for 28 years, despite it being a union of opposites:  Ike is practical, competent, rock steady, while Maggie is capricious, scattered, and impulsive.  On a long drive to a funeral, the two reflect on their lives and their marriage.  Our reviewer said it was as funny as heck, but with a lot of tender spots.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is set in Vineland, New Jersey where a contemporary family has just inherited a house.  Beset by financial woes, including an ailing father and adult children who have returned home, Willa and Iano are first relieved and thrilled to inherit a house. The reality is that the house is falling down and they don’t have the resources for repairs.  Some 150 years earlier, a young science teacher lived in the house and was faced with challenges over his wish to teach the controversial theory put forth by Charles Darwin.  Kingsolver uses the two time lines to comment on current social issues as well as historical ones.  Our reader confessed she didn’t finish it because she didn’t like moving back and forth in time, though the writing was good.

The next book was also a historical novel, The Cigar Factory:  A Novel of Charleston by Michele Moore.  Starting in 1895, the book follows two families who are involved in making cigars: the white McGonegals and the African American Ravenels.  Our reader said it was an easy and fun read, and that it was fascinating to learn about the process.  She also praised the author’s way with dialog and dialect.

Finally, The Forbidden Place  by Susanne Jansson is a thriller about a young Swedish biologist who is doing environmental surveys in a peat bog where human sacrifices had been found in the past.  Now, however, she finds an injured man with gold coins in his pockets, just like those ancient sacrifices—and there are other bodies turning up. Our reader was enthralled by the book, saying that the author knew how to write and to keep the reader guessing.  It was a real page turner, she said.