Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Inviting Garden: Gardening for the Senses, Mind, and Spirit, by Allen Lacy. Henry Hold and Company, 1998





This is a lovely and inspiring book by the late Mr. Lacy, one that made me long for spring so that I can work in the garden. The first part is built around the five senses, one chapter per- tasting herbs and vegetables; listening to fountains, wind chimes and birds; feeling soft lamb’s ears and soft earth; smelling roses, lilies, and mock orange; and of course viewing the many flowers and leaves that the garden offers us. For the mind section he ventures into botanical nomenclature; how much there is to know about even one plant and how it works (especially if you get into the biome in which it grows, including insects and soil critters); the history of plant discoveries; floral legends; and how the American yard turned out like it has- mostly lawn and open to view. Spirit is basically that gardening is not a hobby, but a way of being that absorbs one.



This is not a coffee table book, but it contains a lot of gorgeous photographs. All make you long to step into them and enjoy the garden portrayed. His writing wanders at times; when he describes a plant we are apt to learn about its history and uses as well as how it looks.  It’s rather like being in the garden and talking with a very educated plantsman. Five stars.


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Patriot Number One, by Lauren Hilgers. Crown, 2018




The author spent six years in China, and had been back in America two years when a contact from her expatriate time phoned her suddenly, saying he would see her soon in New York. This was totally unexpected, although she knew that Zhuang Liehong and his wife, Little Yan, were hoping to escape from China and seek political asylum in the United States. Zhuang was a political activist, seeking to reform the local system in Wukan, the village where he lived. Corruption was rife, and he wanted justice for his fellow villagers.



Escape was amazingly easy- they managed to get visas to take a tour of some US cities, under the auspices of a tour guide. The hang up was that they had to leave their infant son behind, to make it look like they were coming back. But they hoped to get asylum right away and be able to send for him. They left him with family.



New life in the US was not so easy, though. Zhuang did not speak any English, and what English Little Yan knew was rusty. Hilgers went to where she had her laundry done; the woman there gave her some contacts and hints. Soon enough, the couple found that being granted asylum was neither easy nor fast. Without asylum and green cards, they cannot get above-board jobs, so making a living is difficult. Plus, at first Zhuang insists that Little Yan must work at the same place he does, so he can keep an eye on her. And when he gets over that, he goes back to political activism, which eats up a lot of his time. This story alternates with backstory, telling us how and why Zhuang became a man the government of China wanted to keep an eye on.



There are some many people that Zhuang and Little Yan interacted with that you practically need a cast of characters. The story can be confusing at times; non-fiction is rarely as smooth and even as novels are. I found the story fascinating; those of us born in the US can barely grasp what difficulties immigrants face when they come here, particularly ones seeking political asylum. Zhuang and Little Yan were lucky because they knew someone in New York, an American who could speak their language, who was willing to devote time to helping them. I recommend this book a lot; it’s highly illuminating of problems both here and in China. Four and a half stars.



The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan. Soho Press, 2018






Just when Ren Ishida is finishing grad school, his older sister Keiko is murdered. They haven’t seen each other in a long time, but they talk on the phone every week. She has been living in a small town for years and he knows little of her life there. Ren goes to the town to arrange her funeral and take care of her unfinished business. Their parents do not show up; they have been absent as parents for most of Ren’s life, with Keiko pretty much raising him as she went through school.



The police have no leads; indeed, the police play little part in the story. This is Ren’s exploration of his late sister’s life- he immerses himself in her life, taking over her job as an English instructor at a cram school, and renting her old room in a politician’s house. He learns something about how her life was led by performing the same functions as she did. He also finds little clues in odd places, as well as having dreams about a small child who wants him to figure out who she is.



The story has a blue mood cast over everything, even in more upbeat moments. The writing reminds me of Haruki Murakami, with bits of magical realism thrown into Ren’s voyage of discovery about both his sister and himself. Despite the down mood, I couldn’t put the book down. There are some things that could have been better, but it’s the author’s first novel. Four and a half stars. 



The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received this book from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review. 

All the Beautiful Girls, by Elizabeth J. Church. Ballantine Books, 2018




Lily Decker is only 8 when an auto accident takes the lives of her parents and her sister. Her own survival with no injuries in nearly miraculous. She is sent to live with her aunt, who has no idea how to deal with a child or show affection, and an uncle who sexually abuses her from day one. Her only solace is dance, and a ‘mysterious benefactor’ – who she realizes right away is the man in the other car at the accident, a military pilot she refers to always as The Aviator.  As soon as she turns 18, she heads off to the place her dance instructor recommends: Las Vegas. With an intent to be a troupe dancer, she is startled and disheartened to discover what dancing means in Vegas. But a new friend convinces her it’s a good way to make a living, so she bites the bullet, takes off her clothes, and it’s living the good life, and money to put in the bank.



All is not good, though; her previous sex abuse has scarred her badly, there’s a lot of temptations in 1960s Vegas, and she must work her way through her problems.  And while she is very lucky, there are people who will take advantage of beautiful girls- especially when they are making good money. When she literally drops into the arms of handsome and charming Javier, she thinks she’s found true love.



I enjoyed the book but I wasn’t thrilled with it. Ruby is a good character, with good points and flaws, and I was really rooting for her, but somehow she never got under my skin the way truly great characters do. The other characters are a bit flat, sadly. The descriptions of Vegas in the 60s were great fun. But the book just lacked… something… to make it all come to life. Four stars out of five. 


The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received my copy of this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things influenced  my review. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

This is Memorial Device, by David Keenan. Faber & Fabruer, 2017






In a sort of literary “This is Spinal Tap”, this is a (mostly) gentle parody of a small town music scene of the 80s. Memorial Device is a post-punk band in small town Scotland, a scene where everyone is working class and no one gets famous except in the local area. Told in typical music bio form, the story unfolds though 26 interviews with various band members, friends, family, and hangers on. I’ve read a fair number of books about musicians and music scenes, and this oddly structured novel is spot on in tone and form. I had a hard time following who was who for a while, but Appendix C lists every character and tells who they were. Yes, the novel has four appendices, one of which is a thorough index (the other two are a discography and a list of the bands in post punk Airdrie). The book has a subtitle that’s damn near a chapter in itself: “An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge, and Envirions, 1978-1986” - that pretty much tells you what the book is about.



There is pretty much no plot, but the characters drag you in- even when you know they will come to a sad end. They are pretty typical of rock memoirs; hard drinking party animals who have myriad sexual adventures and are trying to become punk rock stars in the vein of Iggy Pop. But the band members are committed; they aren’t just in it for the chicks, so to speak. It’s not just parody- and it’s not laugh out loud funny, more OMG I recognize that character funny- it’s also coming of age for the teen fans. It’s not the easiest book to read; the format is choppy and a character’s story may unfold through a number of chapters by people, at various places in the book. It very much captures the feel of fanzines from the era. I very much enjoyed it! Four stars.        


The above link is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, anything, from Amazon, they will give me a few cents.

I received my copy of this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review. 



Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, by Mallory Ortberg. Holt, 2018






This is a collection of retold fairy tales. Some of the stories are some of the better of this genre, in the vein of Angela Carter. Others left me just puzzled. The author lists her influences in the back of the book, which I liked because I wasn’t sure about some of them. She didn’t just work from the brothers Grimm; she also has Biblical influences, Shakespeare, the Wind in the Willows, and even does a riff on the Velveteen Rabbit (which I thought was a really creepy tale).



These are not pretty tales; they are all on the dark side. The ‘Wind in the Willows’ one, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad” is about as dark as you can get, seeing how far people can go in the name of ‘helping’ others. One really different aspect to these stories is how Ortberg puts a spin on gender and terminology; princesses can be male or female, as can wives and husbands or sons and daughters. I liked the idea of ‘wife’ being a job description rather than a term fixed by one’s genitals! The author also has a wicked sense of humor that comes out at times. Four stars. 


The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received my copy of this book free from Net Galley in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review. 


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Odd Girl Out: My Extraordinary Autistic Life, by Laura James. Seal Press, 2018






After wondering all her life why she seemed different from other people, in her mid-forties Laura James was diagnosed with both Ehlers-Danlos and Asperger’s (and I suspect she may have synesthesia, too, although she doesn’t say so). Over the course of a year, she learns all she can about these disorders, and things start making sense to her- and to her husband. It’s not that she’s been a failure- she was highly successful, with four children and a career as a journalist. But there had always been situations that caused extreme discomfort, sometimes even leading to a meltdown.  Crowds, uncomfortable clothing, sensory overload- even some colors- are all things she tries to avoid.



Highly intelligent, she and her second husband created a life that allowed her to succeed and still be protected from things that stressed her. Getting her diagnosis explained so much about her, but she’d already gone a long way towards accommodating her problem. The diagnosis meant she could find out how other people dealt with having autism and allowed her to be in contact with people who faced the same problems.



The book follows her over a little over a year’s time, with sections of current time alternating with her past. It’s a really interesting read, but I could never quite get invested in her story. There is a dryness to her prose that seemed somehow stand-offish, even though she talks about some really painful events. Perhaps part of being autistic, perhaps part of being a journalist, used to presenting facts. A four star read; I recommend it to anyone with a person with autism in their circle, because it might really help them to understand that person. 


The above is an affiliate link; if you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received a copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review.

Neither of these things influenced my review.