27 December 2016

Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut's last novel, I think.

If you've read Vonnegut, you will probably enjoy this as you have his other work. If, however, you are not familiar with Vonnegut, this late work is--in my opinion--oddly a very good place to start. It is a sort of fictional autobiography, a tour-de-force in which some of his fictional characters appear along with the author.

The world is a sadder and poorer place without Kurt Vonnegut.

Something Rich and Strange, by Ron Rash

Short stories set in Appalachia. Excellent.


Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard

Having discovered Joyce Maynard, it is easy to keep reading.

This review is not terribly favorable, but I enjoyed the book, nonetheless.

It is the story of an alcoholic woman who loses custody of her son. In recovery, she is befriended by a wealthy, philanthropic couple, and begins to put her life back together. Her relationship with the Havillands is a little strange, though, and drives the plot into an interesting and suspenseful denouement.

Superdove, by Courtney Humphries

Someone asked--rhetorically, but in my hearing--how pigeons manage to survive the winter in a city where winter is lethal. I started reading about pigeons on the Cornell Ornithology website.

On the Cornell site, I saw a reference to this book.

Pigeons are sometimes reviled. They have been called "flying rats."

I tend to like birds, and have developed a fondness for some species that are not, generally, highly regarded, such as crows, and starlings, and so I began to wonder--what about pigeons?

Whether you consider pigeons a pest, a pet, food, or just another part of nature, you will probably find something interesting in Superdove.

New York Times Book Review

31 August 2016

The 50 Funniest American Writers, by Andy Borowitz

A collection of humor. Some are gems, some are not.

Of note:

A passage from Babbit by Sinclair Lewis is included. I never thought that Babbit was funny.

 "Vacation '58" by John Hughes is the story that was used to make the movie "Vacation," starring Chevy Chase. I believe that this story is much better than the movie.

O Henry's "Ransom of Red Chief" is included, as it should be.

Hunter S. Thompson's "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" is vintage Thompson. One feels a little sick after reading this.

Woody Allen's "Look at Organized Crime" is very funny.

Phillip Roth's "Letters to Einstein" is a (fictional, I hope) series of letters to the great man from a would-be PR agent who wishes to promote Einstein as an example of and to American Jews.

 Nora Ephron's "A Few Words About Breasts" is amusing, but at the same time rather piquant, and probably just a little outdated.

"Our White Heritage" by Beard, O'Donoghue, and Trow, is basically a good joke but it is far too long, and in today's climate probably would be misunderstood.

"Better Read Than Dead" by Fran Liebowitz is worth the whole book, but then it's always such a pleasure to read anything by Fran.

 "The Laws of Cartoon Motion," by Mark O'Donnell, is an essay that needed to be written. Hilarious and accurate.

Garrison Keillor's "The Tip Top Club" is a good example of Keillor's brand of humor, with a sort of nihilistic outcome.

Calvin Trillin is devastating with "Corrections."

Dave Barry: well, what can you say about Dave Barry. This is his essay about why relationships between men and women can never, ever work.

Susan Orlean complains about the privileges of babies in "Shiftless Little Loafers."

Ian Frazier parodies the Old Testament in "Lamentations of the Father."

Bernie Mac nearly killed me. "I Ain't Scared of You."

David Sedaris, Wanda Sykes, Jack Handey, and many more. This is a great read, and maybe even a great reference book.

Library of America webpage for this book  (L of A is the publisher)

23 July 2016

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver, with contributions from her husband Steven L. Hopp, and daughter Camille Kingsolver, tells the story of how her family lived for a year eating--almost--only locally grown food. A large part of their diet came from their own farm, the rest from farmer's markets and other local sources.

The book is one of the most readable pieces of non-fiction I've picked up in a long time. I will admit that I didn't read every recipe in there, but I did glance through a few of them, and actually read one or two.

Much information is imparted to the reader of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. I learned that sweet potatoes and potatoes are not actually related. Another potato fact: those who eat the entire potato, skin and all (me), are probably consuming a lot of chemicals left over from insecticides and pesticides that have long been illegal to use, but are still residing in the soil.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of vegetables, fruits, and--perhaps the greatest surprise--livestock (chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs, sheep, and more), that are threatened by extinction because large-scale agribusiness corporate farms use only a very few--and large corporations like Monsanto and ADM produce genetically modified seeds that are patented, and may not be gathered and re-used, further reducing the varieties of corn, tomatoes, beans, beets, peas, apples, oranges, pears--you name it.

There is not a little controversy about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the current news and literature, but not until reading this book have I felt that I understand much better what exactly is at stake. Certainly we are risking our health by eating these products whose effects are unknown except for some limited laboratory testing. But there are further, more complicated dangers, not the least of which is that our food supply is becoming dependent on the production of these Frankenstein's Monsters, which puts humanity itself at the mercy of a few enormous corporations.

Having said all this, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral is not a shrieking revolutionary diatribe. It is, rather, a pleasant and positive story of how a family could relate to food, meals, and eating. It provides a vision of health and a way of life that is very attractive in our modern world. Not a little of the discussion is about how we spend our time, for those who would grow their own food, even some of it, will spend a lot of time raising, harvesting, and preparing it. This may be seen as brutal, hard work --and no doubt, it is--but it is also, according to Kingsolver, satisfying, and rewarding, not only to the body but to the soul.

We cannot and will not all become small farmers, but we can move in the direction of eating food produced in our local environment, supporting small farmers, and being aware of where our food comes from and how it affects our health, our lives, and the health and lives of our neighbors.


08 June 2016

Rebel Yell, by S.C. Gwynne

The life and times of  Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

This book is actually pretty interesting, but I did not finish it. Maybe I'll pick it up again some day.

The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly

Connelly keeps writing Bosch novels, and I keep reading them. This one is pushing pretty close to the "could this be the last Bosch?" question, but it doesn't have to be.

Bosch teams with a young female partner to crack a cold case where a mariachi musician dies from a ten-year-old gunshot wound, and in the process, takes on a second investigation into an arson that occurred many years before.

Completely satisfying.

28 May 2016

The Harder They Come, by T. C. Boyle

The first part of this book takes place in Central America. Sten Stensen, a recently retired high-school principal and Vietnam veteran, and his wife Carolee, are on vacation in Costa Rica. They go with a group on what is to be a nature walk in the jungle, but a tragedy ensues during which Stensen kills a man with his bare hands.

I had a strong feeling that I had read this first part of the book before. It may have, for example, been printed in Harper's as a stand-alone story, or perhaps in their "Readings" section. It works as a short story, in my opinion.

The next parts are placed in Northern California, in an area that is much like Humboldt County, but I think somewhat fictionalized. Sten and Carolee return home, where their son Adam is progressively demonstrating that he is dangerously mentally ill. Adam's actions and how they affect his family and a young woman who befriends him are the framework for the rest of the book.

Violence is the overall theme of this novel. Adam sees himself as a sort of survivalist commando resisting forces that will imprison or limit him, and he is armed to the teeth. His delusions lead him to murder, and during most of the last part of the book he is eluding an increasingly larger manhunt.

Mental illness, apparently schizophrenia, is another important element in the plot. Adam is seriously deluded and certainly fulfills the "danger to himself and others" requirement, but as will happen, society has completely failed to diagnose, treat, or protect him -- or to protect others from him. The frustration of being the parent of a person in this situation is well illustrated in this book.

New York Times Review

after her, by Joyce Maynard

A serial killer stalks the trails around Mount Tamalpais. Two young girls, whose Dad is a Marin County detective, try to solve the mystery.

This is also, as the mystery goes on, the story of these two girls as they grow up, and the story of their parents as they grow apart.

It is a completely captivating book. All the cliches apply: can't put it down, page turner, etc.

My wife is responsible for putting these books in my hands, and I'm grateful.

Owning it All, by William Kittredge



A terrific and eminently readable collection of essays, mostly about the American West. Kittredge writes about southeastern Oregon, specifically the Malheur Lake area--coincidentally the area that was recently in the news due to the occupation of a federal building by some right-wing extremists. He also writes about Montana, especially Missoula and the nearby area.

This is not only nature and geography writing, though those topics are included. It is also concerned with the life of a writer becoming a writer, as he moves away from the life of a rancher to a life of letters. Kittredge has much to say about what humans have done to the once-pristine land of the West. He writes quite a bit about how agriculture transformed the Malheur area, how that has affected the bird life there.

The Good Daughters, by Joyce Maynard

Two girls are born on the same day in a small town in New Hampshire. This book follows their lives, and their families, as they grow up to be adults. Dana Dickerson's family consists of her brother, Ray; her father, George; and her mother, Valerie. George goes from one get-rich-quick scheme to another over the course of years. Valerie is distant from her family, an artist of some talent (she is a painter), who has little time for her children. George is always leaving for the next big thing.

Ruth Plank's family is quite different. She has four sisters. Her father, Edwin, is a farmer. They live on the farm that has been in his family for many generations. Her mother, Connie, is a hard-working farmer's wife with a strong religious faith.

The story is told in chapters labeled either "Ruth" or "Dana." Most of the time these simply alternate back and forth, in first-person narrative from each point of view.

This is another excellent and completely engrossing novel by Joyce Maynard. As the story of these two women unfolds, a great mystery is revealed, and not fully solved until nearly the last page.

12 May 2016

Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard

An escaped convict appeals for, and receives, help from a mentally-ill mother and her young son. A terrifically captivating read, very well done, very entertaining. Told from the point of view of the son.

Maynard is famous for having been the 19-year-old love interest of a much older J.D. Salinger.

The Troubled Man, by Henning Mankel

Troubled, and troubling. This is apparently the last Kurt Wallander novel. No, he doesn't get killed.

Wallander's daughter decides to have a child with a man named Hans. Wallander meets Hans's parents, and observes that his father is worried about something.

Soon, the father disappears, and the mystery begins.

This is not only a tale of police work in Sweden, but  one of international intrigue, and a query into what any of us can really know about any other, even those very close to us.

22 March 2016

Empire of the Summer Moon, S. C. Gwynne

I read this book a while ago and somehow failed to put it in this journal. My recollection of it at this point is poor. Therefore, I will provide this link to a review in the Chicago Tribune.

Looking for a Ship, by John McPhee

LA Times Review: http://articles.latimes.com/1990-08-26/books/bk-228_1_john-mcphee

May have originally appeared in the New Yorker,  at least in part.

An account of what it's like to be a merchant mariner, in the USA, or at least what it was like ca. 1990.

Very interesting, and typically well-told story by McPhee. 

The Shadow Girls, by Henning Mankell

This novel is not like others I've read by Mankell. It is not a crime novel, at least not in the usual sense, and does not feature a policeman named Wallander as the main character. Instead, the main character is a Swedish poet, Jesper Humlin. Humlin is, as the story sets out, not a very sympathetic character. He is, for one thing, overly concerned with the state of his tan.

Humlin's life is not without its problems: he has a troubled relationship with his own mother, a girlfriend who wants him to have a child with her without delay--he's not so enthusiastic, a publisher who doesn't listen to his protests when the publisher tells him that he will next be writing a crime novel (ha, ha, Mankell), and a stock broker who has cheerfully guided him into bankruptcy.

Into Humlin's life, in a semi-comic series of accidents, come three young girls, refugees who are illegally in Sweden. As Humlin learns their stories, and begins spending time trying to help them write, the novel takes on a new direction. In the end, things are different.

A review in The Telegraph,

05 March 2016

Revival, by Stephen King

Involves an aging rock-and-roll guitar player and his longtime relationship with an ex-preacher who has lost his faith in God and has turned to experimenting with "secret electricity."  It's not the best book I've read by King, but it was nonetheless captivating. The hocus-pocus is mostly crap, and of a predictable type, but the underlying philosophy is rather disturbing. I won't reveal more in case you want to read the book some day.

King uses some elements of carnival culture in this novel, which reminds me of Joyland,  which I read not too long ago. It seems that he didn't waste any leftover research from that effort.