Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

Reviewed by Jeanne

Nana is a stray, nameless cat when he first notices the friendly young man who seems to (wisely) wish to make his acquaintance.  But Nana is wily and fiercely independent so he merely allows the man to offer him food.  Then an accident leaves Nana helpless and the young man comes to his rescue.  That’s when he acquires his name—a girl’s name, no less!—and becomes intrigued by Satoru.

Then Satoru has them embark on a journey in his silver van, apparently seeking a home for Nana—something Nana himself has strong opinions about! They meet up with friends from Satoru’s past, and at each stop Nana learns a bit more about his gentle, generous benefactor and begins to understand.

The glowing reviews of the book intrigued me, but I tend to be a bit suspicious of books featuring animals.  Too often it seems that I fall in love with an animal in a book and then weep buckets at the end when the animal dies.  So the first thing I do is check the end:  if the animal lives, I’ll consider reading it.

Nana lives.  We’re good.

Actually, better than good.  It’s been awhile since I really took a book to heart, but I did this one.  Maybe it’s the way the story is told, simply and straight-forwardly, from Nana’s rather unsentimental point of view; maybe it’s the fact the plot, such as it is, unfolds in a slow, gentle pace; maybe it’s meeting the various characters and understanding them, and seeing Satoru from their viewpoints; maybe it’s seeking Japanese culture from an inside view, not someone trying to explain everything.  Maybe it’s that the book takes the traditional structure of having the human learn about the pet and lets the pet learn about the human. Or, more likely, it’s all these things. All I can say is that the book touched me and made me want to be a better person.  I found real tenderness and warmth in these pages, and a generous spirit. And I kept turning pages because I wanted this journey to keep on going and I wanted to be there with them.

Yes, I ended up crying, but sometimes a story is worth all the tears. I’m going to buy my own copy of this book to treasure.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Nevermore: Ward, Adichie, Carter, Kelly, Sides, Lewis

Reported by Ambrea
This week, Nevermore kicked off their meeting with Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.  Jojo is thirteen-years-old and struggling to understand what it means to be a man.  With an incarcerated father, a drug-addicted mother, and an absent grandfather, he’s trying to learn and survive; luckily, he has his mother’s father, Pop, to teach him—and the ghosts from the past to help him learn.  Our reader said Sing, Unburied, Sing was a beautifully written novel.  “It’s a beautiful book about a young boy going through’s a story of survival,” she commented.  She thoroughly enjoyed it and she highly recommended it to her fellow readers.

Next, Nevermore checked out Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which tells the interweaving stories of Ifemelu and Obinze.  Ifemelu and Obinze, a young couple who fall in love military-ruled Nigeria, decide to leave their homeland in search of better lives; however, when Ifemelu reaches America, their plans are derailed and they find themselves separated by a vast ocean.  Our reader originally picked up the book, because it appeared on a list of favorite books from Barack Obama.  Sadly, she found she did not enjoy Americanah as much as the former president.  She thought it could have been a good book, but she found she wasn’t a fan of the main character, Ifemelu.  Although it was a well-written book, she said it wasn’t her cup of tea and she was content with leaving it unfinished.

Switching gears to nonfiction, Nevermore also took a look at Invisible:  The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster by Stephen L. Carter.  In this book, Carter explores the extraordinary life of his grandmother and America’s first black female prosecutors, Eunice Hunton Carter.  Eunice became involved in the arrest and prosecution of Lucky Luciano, one of the most powerful mob bosses in history, and was integral to devising strategies and piecing together information that would see the mobster behind bars.  Our reader said she was a little ambivalent about the style and writing of the book; however, she noted the story was great and she loved the concept.  Although she wasn’t a fan of some of the speculation the author makes, she found it to be an interesting book and recommended it to her fellow history buffs.

Next, Nevermore shared Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly, author of The Lilac Girls.  In Lost Roses, readers meet Eliza Ferriday and Sofya Streshnayva, a cousin of the Romanovs.  Together, the duo explore Russia on the trip of a lifetime—until Austria declares war on Serbia and Russia’s imperial dynasty begins to crumble.  Our reader, who previously enjoyed The Lilac Girls, found Lost Roses to be a bit of a disappointment.  She said the characters were not likable people.  “It was way into the back [of the book] before you even like them,” she told her fellow readers.  Despite being closely based on history, the story felt terribly contrived and uninteresting.  She did not recommend it.

Returning to nonfiction, Nevermore explored Hellhound on His Trail:  The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History by Hampton Sides.  On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorrain Motel—and promptly fled to Canada and then England.  His actions spurred one of the largest manhunts in the history of North America and a media frenzy.  Our reader said Sides book was incredibly well researched and absolutely fascinating.  “It gives you context [for the time period],” she told her fellow readers.  It was also a fascinating account of James Earl Ray that offered glimpses into his history, as well insight into the Civil Rights movement.

Nevermore rounded out their meeting with another nonfiction book, The Improbable Wendell Willkie:  The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country, and Conceived a New World Order by David Levering Lewis.  Wendell Willkie was an American businessman, who rose to prominence as the Republican candidate for president in 1940.  Although he would ultimately lose to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Willkie would gain a foothold in and help revitalize the Republican party with new ideas, including civil rights reform, internationalism, and more.  Our read found Lewis’s book to be very interesting.  She noted it had lots of footnotes—much more than she expected, she admitted—and it would sometimes grow a little wordy and dry; however, she enjoyed it overall and she recommended it to readers with an interest in World War II politics.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Ultimate History of the 80s Teen Movie by James King

Reviewed by Christy
            Though I was very young in the 1980s and don’t remember much (except The Little Mermaid and Jem and the Holograms), I’ve always had a soft spot for the decade. I’m certainly not unique in that aspect which the popularity of Stranger Things and the remake of Stephen King’s IT reflects. A comprehensive look at the 1980s is incomplete, however, without discussion of teen movies. Of course, teen movies existed pre-1980s but they became a full blown phenomenon during those years.
            King begins his book by discussing the late 70s rise of John Travolta with Saturday Night Fever and Grease. King posits Travolta was born just a little too early because though those two movies made him a mega star for a short period of time, soon teens on screen overran cinemas. King covers Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dead Poets Society and “everything in between”.  He details the writing and auditioning processes, how tough or fun particular productions were, and who came close to getting a certain role. No matter how fun a topic may sound, if someone just regurgitates facts and statistics it will become a very dry, dull read. But fortunately, King avoids this by injecting humor throughout which made me laugh out loud a couple of times. While there are some movies I will just never be interested in seeing (Revenge of the Nerds), his analysis of others made me appreciate some in a new light (previously mentioned Fast Times) or want to see for the first time (The Karate Kid).
            He also talks a little about the importance of movie soundtracks and how some producers felt a good soundtrack could make or break their movie which leads into digressions about Prince and Madonna and their attempt at movie careers. King also doesn’t shy away from the tougher discussions about these teen movies – like the lack of diversity or the troubling way female consent is treated. (Particular scenes in Sixteen Candles that involve a drunken popular girl came under new scrutiny in the #MeToo era.)
King writes a thorough history with fun details and interesting analyses. Though there are unsavory moments that don’t play well in 2019, King contextualizes them and opens them up for discussion. He also ends the book with Travolta’s cinematic comeback in Pulp Fiction which I thought was a nice little bookend.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Styx and Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery by James W. Ziskin

Once again, we are pleased to have Kevin Tipple as our guest reviewer.  An avid mystery reader, Kevin's blog keeps people up to date with information about mysteries, upcoming books, and more.  Check it out at Kevin's Corner.

Reviewed by Kevin Tipple

It is late January of 1960 as Styx & Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery begins and Ellie Stone gets some bad news from the local sheriff.  Her father was found unconscious in his New York City apartment and is now in the hospital in critical condition. Eleonora “Ellie” Stone, a reporter and the only living child of Professor Abraham Stone, is going to have to take some time off from her job in New Holland and go back home to see about her dad. Their relationship is not a good one as they are estranged and now she is faced with dealing with their past issues as well as the current crisis.

Upon arrival she soon learns that it was not a stroke or a heart attack that put her father in the hospital. He was violently assaulted and his home office and library was ransacked. This occurred just days after her brother’s grave was severely vandalized. While the police believe the events are not related and the assault on her father, a renowned Dante scholar and esteemed professor, was nothing more than a random burglary, Ellie has her doubts. Especially since another professor, well known to her father and a colleague, died in somewhat mystery circumstances in close proximity time wise to the assault on her father.

That fact, what happened to her brother’s grave, the very specific damage in her father’s apartment, and more makes Ellie question the police investigation from the start. Ellie considers herself a “modern woman” and has no problem with asking questions and pushing for answers when she isn’t thinking about the past or enjoying the pleasures of the present. She drinks, she smokes, she likes a good time with a man who strikes her fancy, and Ellie won’t put up with nonsense from others.

Styx & Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery is the start of a series and a good one. While all the characters are complicated in this tale to some degree (no cookie cutter cardboard cutouts need apply), Ellie Stone is exceedingly complicated. There is depth and nuance to this character that is rarely found in the first novel of a series. She also has a subtle sarcastic streak that appealed very much to this reader.

While historical mysteries are not my usual reading material, I thoroughly enjoyed Styx & Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery. A complicated tale with characters of depth and nuance, the mystery itself was a difficult one to solve kept this reader engaged, and the read was flat out very entertaining on all levels. Styx & Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery was a very good book and is strongly recommended.

Styx & Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery
James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street Books
October 2013
ISBN# 978-1-61614-819-5
Paperback (also available as an eBook)
270 Pages

Material supplied by the good folks of the Dallas Public Library System.

Kevin R. Tipple ©2019

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Nevermore: Homes, A Goddess, Lady First, Biden, Mama's Last Hug

Reported by Christy

First up, we had Homes: A Refugee Story by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung.  Homes tells the story of the al Rabeeah family and their journey to Syria from Iraq for a safer life – just before the Syrian civil war broke out. Though our reader thought it was a little biased in favor of Sunnis, she also found it intriguing and the descriptions of hearing a war advancing “block by block” memorable.

Our next reader picked up Norman Lewis’ A Goddess in the Stones: Travels in India. Lewis traveled to India and hoped to record as much as he could about the tribal colonies there. Our reader admired the beauty of the writing and Lewis’ sympathy for the native people.

Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk by Amy S. Greenberg is a biography of the wife of President James K. Polk. Sarah Polk, unlike other women of her time, was raised to discuss politics and business. She was also a trusted confidant and advisor to her husband during his presidency. Polk lived for many years after her husband died, and devoted her life as a widow to being a hostess. However, our reader wasn’t entirely sure her story was worth a biography.

Joe Biden’s Promise Me, Dad is a memoir of the months leading up to and following the death of his son Beau from brain cancer. Though our reader had not finished it yet, she admired the family values espoused in the book and called it a “must read."

In Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal, de Waal explores the rich emotional complexity of animals by discussing facial expressions and animal sentience among other topics. Our reader found it moving and “really interesting.”