Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Nevermore: Douglass, Birkett, Nash, Berg, Gowar, DeForest Krugman

Reported by Jeanne

Our Nevermore Book Club readers have diverse tastes.  That’s what makes it so much fun: everyone reads what they choose and then gives their opinions to the group, often prompting someone else to try the same book. Sometimes everyone loves a particular book; other books produce contradictory reactions. There’s also a mix of old and new, light-hearted books and deeply philosophical ones, classics and newly published.

This week opened with an essay by Frederick Douglass, “On Slavery and the Civil War.” Our reviewer said he was ashamed it had taken him so long to pick up Douglass’ writing but he was glad he had because of the thoughtfulness of the comments and the elegant expression of ideas.  The essay was passed around and several members read sentences aloud that impressed them.  The original reader said he was definitely going to read more by Douglass.

For lighter moments, he was reading the poems of Ogden Nash.  Nash, who died in 1971, was known far and wide for his light and humorous verse. 

Our second reader was enthralled with Norse Myths by Tom Birkett, a beautifully illustrated and fascinating retelling of the myths.  While she admitted it sometimes got confusing between the Vanir, Aesir, Frost Giants, and actual historical personages of Norway and Sweden, she thoroughly enjoyed the book and recommended it to everyone.  She pointed out the influence that these stories had on Tolkien and Wagner.

The next book has long been a favorite at Nevermore: it just keeps making the rounds.  Elizabeth Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv features the title character, a widower who visits his late wife’s grave, and a teenage girl he meets in the cemetery. The two form an unlikely bond. Our reviewer could not put the book down; it grabs your heart and won’t let go.

A second book by Berg did not fare as well.  What We Keep is the story of two sisters, Ginny and Sharla, who were abandoned by their mother decades ago.  While their mother attempted to keep in contact at first, the girls rebuffed her.  Now a family crisis has prompted them to attempt a reconciliation.  Our reviewer said this book about mothers and daughters was good, but not Berg’s best.

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a debut novel by Imogen Hermes Gowar.  Jonah Hancock is more than a little taken aback when his ship’s captain shows up at his door announcing that he has sold the entire ship for something rare:  a mermaid, a dried specimen with a fish tail, teeth, and claws.  In an effort to recoup at least some of his losses, Hancock decides to put the mermaid on display for a fee.  He has no idea how much this is going to change his life.  Professional reviewers praised the book’s 18th century setting and the historical accuracy. Our reader concurred, adding, “It was weird, but I liked it.”

Women who changed film is the topic of Dynamic Dames:  50 Leading Ladies Who Made History by Sloan De Forest. The book covers both the actors and the characters portrayed, being in the 1920s and going into the 21st century.  The lineup includes Josephine Baker, Zhang Ziyi, Meryl Streep, Dorothy Dandridge, Gal Gadot, and Bette Davis. It features lovely pictures as well as good information about how women have influenced the movie industry.

Finally, Paul Krugman’s Arguing with Zombies is a collection of essays about various economic topics such as social security and health care.  It is a very good book, the Nevermore member said, but it can also be a hard book. Some of the essays originally ran as columns in The New York Times.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Bones Behind the Wheel by E.J. Copperman

Alison Kerby owns the Haunted Guesthouse Inn, where guests are regularly treated to some high-spirited hijinks courtesy of some of the previous inhabitants of the inn. . .the late previous inhabitants.  Alison gets varying levels of cooperation, depending on how engaged the ghosts are at the moment because each one of them has his or her own agenda.  Paul, for example, was a detective and intends to keep on investigating crimes.  He is thrilled when construction workers uncover a real doozy:  a buried 1977 Lincoln Continental with a body inside, seat-belted behind the wheel.

Alison is determined not to get involved in yet another mystery, but when the investigation threatens to hurt her business, she doesn’t have much choice.

Meanwhile, ghost Maxie wants to have a hand in redesigning the kitchen, and Alison’s new husband Josh tries to cope with a household full of people he can’t see.

While it would seem that having ghosts around would make solving mysteries a breeze, that’s not the case.  There are restrictions on how much Paul and company can move around without help, and they can’t just go talk to any other spirit they wish.  Some are simply not available and others don’t want to talk.  Also, they have to know exactly who they are trying to contact.

This was my first visit to Haunted Guesthouse, but it was a lot of fun.  I admit that I times I got confused as to who was alive and who wasn’t, and who can see and hear the ghosts and who can’t.  I also missed out on some of the complex relationships that exist, but for the most part that wasn’t so much a problem as much as it was just the sense that I would have gotten more enjoyment if I had known more. I felt this especially in regard to Maxie and Alison.

Alison is level-headed, one of those people who tries to head off problems early.  She has her hands full with the ghosts, who are frustrated by their inability to participate in the things they did while alive.  Paul is easy going and enthusiastic, so he is more understanding than the more volatile Maxie. Josh isn’t able to see or hear the ghosts, but he is open to the idea and would love to be able to interact with them. Not so the local police officer, Lt. McElone, who wants nothing to do with the spirits and is happy NOT to see them.  Good thing, because Paul is always anxious to follow her around to get tips on how to conduct investigations, interrogations, and the like. 

This was an inventive and charming cozy mystery with an intriguing plot and interesting characters.  I’d previously read one of the Asperger’s Mysteries co-written with Jeff Cohen, and enjoyed it so I was looking forward to this one.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Reviewed by Jeanne

 Beartown is a small community whose ice hockey A-team was second in the nation about twenty years ago, but still carries the pride of those days. One member of that team even went to play in Canada in the NHL for a while.  Now, with jobs dwindling and no tourism or industry—or as one character puts it all they have is “darkness, cold, and unemployment”-- Beartown once again has pinned its hopes on ice hockey.  They have a great team, a team that might just make it into the championship round and bring a new rink, new training facilities, and new life to Beartown.

Then there is an incident which tears the town and the team apart.  Can Beartown survive?

I may have mentioned a time or twelve that I love Book Bingo because it encourages me to read books I might not pick up otherwise.  That was the case with the first Backman book I read, A Man Called Ove (and which I loved) and so it was with the second when the square told me to read a book about sports.  I don’t hate sports, I just don’t know that I like to read about them all that much.  And then I remembered that Backman’s Beartown was about ice hockey.

Well, it is.  And it isn’t.

Backman has a deep understanding of his characters and is an artist at revealing them to the reader, giving each one multiple layers and facets.  There’s a full cast here indeed:  Peter, the former champion, who has returned home to help the town win again, bringing with him his attorney wife and two children, bright Maya and her younger brother, Leo; Kevin, the new golden boy who may bring glory to the town; Sune, the old man who has coached the A-team for decades but who knows that he’s going to be pushed out; and Amat, whose mother immigrated to Beartown and works as a cleaner so that her son can have a better life and play this game that he loves with all his heart and soul.  There are numerous other supporting characters who can seem overwhelming at first, but they all have important roles to play in the drama. 

What I love about Backman’s writing is that his characters aren’t often predictable.  Some who seem unlikable at first may emerge as heroes while the seemingly sympathetic person turns out to care more for his own agenda than for the greater good.

More than anything, this is an examination of human character and society and made a much greater impression on me than I would have imagined.  There are some things that I may quibble with—Backman likes to leap forward to the future and occasionally tantalize his audience with hints of what happened to a character—but I also have to admit those make for memorable impressions.

If you like tough stories well told, peopled by fully developed characters, moments when you will cringe and cheer, and an exploration of both the light and dark in human beings, then by all means pick up Beartown.  You may even want to try the sequel, Us Against You, which continues the story of some of the characters.  A third book is in the works.

And I don’t know beans about hockey.