Posts Tagged ‘Lynn W.’s Picks’

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

March 1, 2013

I didn’t pick up Dave Eggers’ new novel A Hologram for the King because of its cover, that’s for sure.  Although the monochromatic, brown color wasn’t an inducement, his previous nonfiction works, Zeitoun, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and What Is the What, certainly made me curious as to what he can do with fiction.

 
What I discovered was an engrossing study of a modern salesman doing his best to bring new business to his struggling company. Alan Clay arrives in Saudi Arabia expecting to meet his advance team and prepare a demonstration of the fantastic electronics his American company is prepared to design and install in a new city rising out of the desert. The King of Saudi Arabia is the one to impress, since it was his idea to build King Abdullah Economic City in the desert, and Alan is sure his product, including a hologram in the sales pitch, will knock the socks off the king. He finds his team working in KAEC in an incredibly hot tent with unreliable WiFi, though an multi-story office building is a short walk away and seems to be mostly vacant except for a few floors with fully functioning WiFi and air-conditioning.

 
As the weeks pass and the king is a no-show, Alan establishes a friendship of sorts with his driver, meets a confusing, modern Saudi woman, and begins to suspect things are not what they seem with the populace, nor what he imagined. He discovers a Saudi society that has all the moral precepts of American conservatism and all the “vices” we Americans flaunt so proudly as our birthright.

 
Eggers’ spare prose fits the white hot topography: “Anything built here, an unrelenting desert, was an act of sheer will imposed on territory unsuited for habitation.” and “The heat was alive, predatory.”  No wonder this novel is a 2012 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

Upon finishing this novel, I thought of Willy Loman and Death of a Salesman and also of recent mentions in the media of the American century having passed. This is a fascinating look at globalization and its impact on the ordinary guy who started out with high hopes in a swiftly changing world economy.

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The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig

February 4, 2013

Ivan Doig (Work Song, 2010) has written another powerful depiction of life in Montana. The Bartender’s Tale is set in Gros Ventre (pronounced Grow Vaunt) in 1960, the year Rusty turns twelve, a momentous time in many young lives and particularly for Rusty. It’s the summer he meets his boon companion and survives a tragedy while saving a friend’s life and, most importantly, finds out more about his intriguing but reticent father. He spent the first six years of life in Arizona under the care of his aunt, uncle and their mean, bullying sons who never let Rusty forget his place and that his father was a lowly bartender. Somehow, dad Tom Harry gets wind of the sadness in his son’s life and swoops into town unexpectedly, packing Rusty up and into the car heading north for Montana in a matter of minutes.

Arriving in Gros Ventre, Rusty is amazed and entranced with the venerable Medicine Lodge Saloon his father owns and manages, especially the back room filled with items Tom acquired in lieu of payment for bar bills. Six years later Rusty is coming of age and is incredibly, incorrigibly curious about what goes on in the saloon, as overheard and spied from a ventilation vent in the back room. His new acquaintance, Zoe, is as enthralled as he is with this illicit peek into the adult world and with the flotsam left behind by drinkers, which the two use in creating a world of drama of their own. Add a tall red-haired guy and his “gab lab” out from the Smithsonian to record living history from survivors of a dam failure in the 1930s, who talks Tom Harry into providing introductions to the survivors at a dam reunion, a beautiful young hippie purportedly another offspring of Tom’s, and an unexpected catastrophe, for a richly detailed and compelling story more about Tom and his slowly revealed life than about Rusty, the narrator.

Ivan Doig continues to amaze with an unsentimental, but obviously loving, look back at Montana in various time periods.

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Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2012: Lynn W.’s Picks

December 31, 2012

Today’s blog talks about five audio books I’ve enjoyed during 2012. I listen to fiction and memoirs, and if read by the author, all the better. Each year, I stumble onto a children’s book title and find juvenile fiction altogether as engaging as adult fiction, so one is included here. — Lynn W.

This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection by Carol Burnett
Carol presents a series of short vignettes from her private and performing life. Some feature her grandmother, Nanny, a real character, who loved show business and the contacts she made through Carol and capitalized on them. There are funny stories, like how her adoration of Jimmy Stewart panned out the first time they met on a set when she got her foot stuck in a pail of whitewash and walked out with it still attached, too tongue-tied to say a word. The author reads this collection, adding to the emotional depth and also the comic moments.

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels – a Love Story by Ree Drummond
If ever there was a mismatch, it was Ree and Marlboro Man. Ree, a native Oklahoman, went to southern California for college and never looked back towards Tulsa except for holidays. Now in her mid-twenties, home is a pit stop on her way to the big time in Chicago. While there she hits a bar with friends and meets Marlboro Man, a tall, strong, real-life cowboy. Their story, read by the author in her authentic and charming Oklahoma voice, is a true love story. We never learn Marlboro Man’s name, but we sure feel the heat develop between them.

The Forgotten Affairs of Youth by Alexander McCall Smith
This eighth Isabel Dalhousie mystery set in Edinburgh, Scotland pleases the ear with soft Scottish accents and descriptions of the gray city and green countryside. Isabel Dalhousie, a philosopher, is approached by a visiting Australian philosopher seeking her biological father’s identity. This is the “mystery.” Isabel and her fiancé Jamie are planning their wedding, all the while watching their beautiful son grow from day to day. This series is a leisurely walk through Scotland’s capital, meeting along the way fascinating people and places and everyday concerns.

The Night Train by Clyde Edgerton
Two teenage boys in 1960s small town North Carolina form a friendship over their love of jazz, a relationship not exactly accepted in this segregated community. Dwayne absolutely loves James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album, while Larry Lime is a pianist wanting to learn Thelonious Monk’s style from a jazz musician called the Bleeder. Their story and shenanigans will entertain while showing music is truly one of the ways humans unite and move beyond their differences. This audio is well-read, giving voice to accents and origins with accuracy.

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath
If your parents disappeared one stormy night and your fishing village neighbors were forced to take you in, how would you feel? Especially if almost everyone is sure your parents were drowned at sea and you are absolutely certain they are merely delayed returning? Primrose Squarp tells her own story; her twelve-year-old point of view of friends (does she have any left?) and neighbors (including Miss Perfidy, who is paid by the town to care for Primrose) is fresh and rings true. Over the months, Primrose rediscovers her uncle, goes into foster care, and begins work on a cookbook while she awaits her parents’ return. This is a delightful mood lifter.

The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall

August 22, 2012

This is the first in a series starring Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator. The word “starring” fits this investigator who has a charismatic, over-the-top personality. A former military investigator who was asked to resign, Vish now directs a skilled staff in his detective bureau. Pride of place on his office wall belongs to a Super Sleuth plaque presented to him for solving the Case of the Missing Polo Elephant. Vish nicknamed his staff: a beautiful undercover agent is Facecream, others are Tubelight and Flush, while the secretary who keeps the chaos to a minimum is the respectable Mrs. Rani.
There’s an abundance of irony and humor mixed in with the real cases, which do hold interest: in this novel an old friend asks for help when a female servant goes missing and it appears the friend may have killed her or is being framed Relish the hot, colorful life of Delhi, India and Vish’s family: Mummy-ji (his senior and very active mother), Rumpi (wife) and many others. Vish’s nickname is Chubby and Rumpi is continually after him to lose weight, which never happens because Vish loves and lives to eat and there are plenty of mouth-watering descriptions of his sneakily consumed “extras.”
The sense of place and light hand are reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe series in Botswana. The descriptions of the city, family relationships and food make one think of the cozier parts of Donna Leon’s serious series about Commissario Guido Brunetti. Hall’s use of Indian English vernacular and Hindi words necessitate consulting the glossaries in each book on a regular basis, but that enriches the story and gives ideas for ordering in Indian restaurants. Crowded, noisy street scenes reminiscent of  the movies The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Monsoon Wedding are skillfully replicated here in words, so don’t let the simple titles and gaudy covers keep you from getting away to Delhi for a few amusing hours with Vish Puri and company.

Other titles in this series include The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing (2010), and The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (2012).

Find and request this book in our catalog.

Say Nice Things About Detroit by Scott Lasser

August 7, 2012

OK, I’ll say it up front: I was born in Detroit, so this title piqued my interest right away. In his spare little gem, Lasser has given us a snapshot of today’s down at the mouth, but not completely down and out, Detroit. David Halpert, our hero, though from Detroit, lived in Colorado until the tragic death of his young son and subsequent failure of his marriage, followed by his father’s call to come home because of his mother’s mental decline. A very decent sort of fellow, David visits and decides to “come home.” At the same time, his high school girlfriend Natalie and her brother Dirk, retired FBI, are gunned down in Dirk’s Mercedes in a not so nice area of Detroit. David contacts Natalie and Dirk’s mother to express his sympathy and meets the younger sister, Carolyn, home for the funeral from Los Angeles. Seems a lot of people leave Detroit as soon as possible.
Carolyn has her own story of a loveless marriage held together for the sake of her young son. The attraction between David and Carolyn is real, but tentative on her part because of her married state. This story has lovely vignettes of the relationships between David and his father, a gruff working class man, and Carolyn and her mother, German born and first married to a black man, Dirk’s father, and later to the doctor/father of the sisters. These relationships evolve and other characters enter their lives, such as Marlon Booker, a young black man on the run from a drug dealer whose profit he skimmed.
Admirers of tight writing such as Stewart O’Nan’s and John Steinbeck’s will enjoy this novel that doesn’t shy away from street grittiness, drugs, and, from an outsider’s view, almost futile lives of some citizens, yet in a few words portrays inner feelings of both black and white characters. These Detroiters each have a story, dreams, hopes, and once in a while the opportunity to start over right. Say Nice Things about Detroit was a must-read for me, but I recommend it highly if you appreciate contemporary urban American settings and a fast, but thoughtful, read.

Find and request this book in our catalog.

Lower River by Paul Theroux

July 19, 2012

Paul Theroux, author of Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cape Town to Cairo and many other novels and travel narratives, has written a taut and tense story about sixty-something Ellis Hock. Having spent forty years minding the family haberdashery before and since his father’s death while marrying and raising a daughter, Ellis now finds himself single after his wife discovers his emails to a variety of women. While the messages aren’t erotic, they reveal a certain intimacy of thought with women who had shopped in his men’s clothing store. After the divorce, he’s lonely and realizes he has been for a long time, remembering only one truly happy period of his life: his four years in the Peace Corps teaching in a tiny Malawi village.

Ellis decides to fly to Africa with an open-ended ticket, intending to stay several weeks and visit Malabo. On his arrival, he discovers the village has changed, and for the worse. The elders are mostly dead with only one or two people left who remember his years with them building a school and teaching in it. The village’s headman is a seemingly pleasant fellow in his thirties, but Ellis is canny enough to realize he is welcome to stay only because of his satchel of money which he hands out in dribs and drabs. Days go by with things promised by the headman not done and when Ellis decides to leave, his attempts to depart the isolated village are thwarted at every turn and take a decidedly sinister turn.

This novel is an interesting picture of cultural differences, and though Ellis is aware how the villagers think from his previous experience, there is no meeting point with them. He is viewed by the poverty stricken locals as a source of riches and always as an outsider. If you’re thinking of retiring to a cheap foreign locale, read this book.

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Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

May 23, 2012

The Korean peninsula has inspired some great novels recently, including The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo, a poetic and harrowing portrayal of life on the border between China and North Korea, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (previously blogged), and The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Each gives varied views from within the Korean culture.

Now Catherine Chung has written an engrossing story of two sisters born in South Korea, who come with their parents to Michigan as young girls, grow up, and move out into their own lives. There are family secrets between the sisters and between parents and children, which create tension as the story unfolds. Janie, the elder sister, was cautioned to protect Hannah when she was born because sisters can “disappear” (one family secret) and she takes this seriously. Hannah, studying in Chicago, suddenly goes missing and Janie and parents panic.

Eventually Janie traces Hannah to California and informs her that their father is ill, Mom and Dad have sold their home and are returning to Korea for treatment, but Hannah needn’t come: she isn’t needed. Older sister is very conflicted about telling this untruth, but wants revenge for the pain Hannah has put them all through. Meanwhile Hannah has her own painful secret from childhood which she thinks Janie knows about but has ignored.

In Korea, the beloved father receives alternative treatment, seems to improve, and Janie learns more about her parents and why they left Korea from the stream of visiting family and friends. When Hannah arrives, an uneasy truce settles over the sisters as they and their mother disbelievingly watch their father slowly dying. I found this novel beautifully written with spare prose and enlightening cultural details.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Call by Yannick Murphy

February 9, 2012

This novel has an odd cover–who wants to read about cows?  The first page is unexpected, too, being set up in the form of a veterinarian’s record of his working day, e.g.,  Call, Action, Results, and the more unusual headings: Thoughts on drive home while passing red and gold leaves on maple trees, What children said to me when I got home, What the wife cooked for dinner, etc.  Not at all sure I wanted to read this book, I gave it twenty pages to convince me to invest my time.

Over the next few days, I looked forward with relish to sitting down, laughing, making myself at home in the story, and anxiously watching to see how the plotlines were going to play out. The vet’s wife, a creative cook, can be downright cranky, an amazing mother, as well as sexy. In other words, she’s real. The vet, who is called out any day at any time to tend to a sheep, a cow, a horse, has an wry sense of humor and sees spaceships in the Vermont sky on his drive home from nocturnal calls. Their three children are bright and adorable, just like ours. Then a hunting accident changes the family’s focus, as emergencies always do, and when that crisis is past, another character shows up and thickens the plot, testing the vet’s notion of family.

The whole story is told through the vet’s notes, encompassing his musings, observations, conversations, and reactions.  You will feel a kinship with him. My call is 4 stars out of 5.

Find and reserve this book in the catalog.

Best ‘New to Us’ Books of 2011: Lynn W.’s Picks

December 15, 2011

Not surprisingly, my Best New to Me list is a reflection of my Best of the New list.  My leanings toward mysteries, historical and literary fiction, and memoirs are represented here, too.

The Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas
Dallas is a Colorado writer who makes that state come alive in her historical novels.  Mattie Spenser is a young Iowa wife whose new husband, Luke, the town catch, has a passion to head west shortly after their wedding, leaving all they know behind.  After an eventful journey by wagon, Mattie and Luke construct a soddy and he begins breaking ground for planting.  However, Luke soon makes several lengthy trips away and Mattie begins to suspect he is involved with a girl from their Iowa hometown.  How she handles this information, makes friends in need while he is gone, and manages their baby’s birth in his absence make for a very human story, told simply and from the heart.

These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I listened to the audio version of my favorite childhood book.  It was just as richly evocative of prairie life in the 1880s Dakotas as I remembered:  the year round impact of weather on life in town and on the claim, the closeness of family where there are few to rely on, our unchanging human nature with its love of friends and petty jealousies intertwined, no matter how small the society. You CAN go home again, at least in books; I’m glad I revisited These Happy Golden Years.

Traveler by Ron McLarty
A mysterious shooting incident in Jono Riley’s childhood comes back to intrigue him when his old friend Cubby informs him his sister Marie has died suddenly.  She and Jono were making snow angels in a field when she was shot in the arm when they were kids and the shooter was never found. Now, decades later, the bullet, not removed from Marie, has “traveled” and pinched an artery, causing her death.  Jono, an actor who supports himself bar-tending in New York City, returns home to Providence, Rhode Island determined to find the shooter and bring him to justice.  Just as in The Memory of Running, McLarty tells his tale in everyday conversational English, but delivers a punch with his plotting and character development.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard
Jody Linder lives in the house her father was murdered in twenty three years ago, the same evening her mother disappeared.  Small town Kansas is pictured with superb descriptions of the surrounding ranch lands, the hierarchy of society, and Jody’s reactions as she contemplates the thought that perhaps the wrong man was convicted of her father’s murder. The convicted man is released from prison and returns to Rose, Kansas to find the real guilty party.  The twists and turns of the plot and the real guilty party’s reactions to the investigation will keep you on the edge of your seat and Pickard’s prose will simply amaze you, as most readers don’t expect such wonderful writing in a mystery.

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
Truth be told, this is the only book by Conroy I have read and I found it very engaging.  Conroy’s favorite books can be surprising, Gone with the Wind, for one, but he explains how or from whom the book came to him, what was happening in his life at the time, and the book’s meaning for him.  In his chapter about War and Peace, Conroy’s enthusiasm and appreciation for Tolstoy and his masterpiece are almost enough to entice one into attempting to read it. The final chapter, Why I Write, is full of savory sentences like this one:  “Here is what I want from a book, what I demand, what I pray for when I take up a novel and begin to read the first sentence:  I want everything and nothing less, the full measure of a writer’s heart.”  Enough said.

Best New Books of 2011: Lynn W.’s Picks

December 8, 2011

There were many wonderful novels published this year, making a choice of five challenging. Since I’m drawn to memoirs, mysteries, literary, and historical fiction, my list is reflective of these interests.

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman
Hoffman’s intriguing history of the fictional town of Blackwell, Massachusetts begins in the 1600s when a group of English settlers arrive late in the year, doomed to die of starvation save the efforts of Hallie Brady, who isn’t above eating eel and has an affinity with the local bears. Her favorite bear is killed and buried in her garden only to reappear centuries later as skeletal remains. The interconnected stories cover a 300 year time span and introduce fascinating as well as everyday characters living in and passing through Blackwell, including Johnny Appleseed.  Hoffman’s trademark magical realism is an integral part of this story, and while I usually have no patience with it, it totally charmed me this time out.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson
Asa Larsson’s 2008 mystery was translated and published in 2011, perhaps due to the explosive popularity of Stieg Larsson’s books. Asa Larsson’s (no relation) writing is poetic and descriptive of northern Sweden’s lakes, forests, and isolated villages.  This novel begins with a dramatic winter scene ending in an astonishing method of murder:  blocking the hole in a frozen lake which a young diving couple needs to escape. The investigating detectives are drawn into web of secrecy including World War II collaborators with the Nazis and war profiteers with an intense desire to hide and forget the distant past. This book made me eager to return to it and reluctant to finish it, an excellent mystery indeed.

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell
Kurt Wallender is off his game.  He’s aging and has left the Ystad police force.  Then his daughter Linda’s father in law, a retired admiral, disappears. Kurt begins an informal investigation and becomes embroiled in a complex situation involving a 1980s submarine incident which has somber implications for the government. As always, Kurt questions his life and his choices, ever the gloomy Swede, but this time the self-questioning is poignant, his investigative focus wavers, and the reader asks, “Why is he doing that?” The oh-so-sad ending of the final Kurt Wallender mystery reveals why his state of mind and ability to follow through on his investigation have diminished.  This is an outstanding series finale.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
I blogged about this title earlier and it remains one of my favorite novels of the year.  In a nutshell, Park So-nyo, an elderly Korean wife and mother of four, has disappeared at a Seoul subway station, inadvertently left behind by her husband who boarded a train assuming she was behind him, as usual.  Her life story and meaning to her family is slowly revealed through four sections  told by her daughter,  by the oldest favored son,  by her once-philandering and frequently missing husband, and another from her own point of view as she wanders Seoul, lost and alone with her disconnected memories.  No one ever quite knew her for herself or valued her as highly as they might have:  perhaps that’s the appeal of this story, which all of us can identify with at times.  A two (hanky wrapped) thumbs up.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller
You really must get to know Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as her daughter names her in several chapters of this memoir.  Now in her sixties, Nicola has lived most of her life in Africa and chafed when she and her husband lived in England for a few years.  They farmed in Rhodesia when the bush wars began about 1970 and Tim Fuller was called up to fight, while Nicola stayed on the farm with the Alexandra and her sister, carrying a rifle when she rode her horse around the fields or drove to town.  As she and Tim reminisce with Alexandra under the tree of forgetfulness while drinking tea or cocktails, Nicola repeatedly says to Alexandra, “I suppose you’ll put that in one of your dreadful books.”  I frankly don’t think I would like this woman and her strong opinions, but she is fascinating for having lived through some tough times and survived with spunk aplenty.  This is a great audio book.

If you’ve read (or want to read) any of these books, please drop us a note in the comments below.


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