Monday, November 26, 2018

Paradise Rot, by Jenny Hval. Verson, 2018

Norwegian college girl Jo arrives in Australia to spend a year studying. Looking for a place to live, she comes across Carral’s ad for shared space in a “converted” brewery. I have quotes around ‘converted’ because it’s not really made fit for human dwelling. There are few walls put in. The bathroom is on the ground floor, and it has no ceiling- awkward when you consider that the place is two or three stories tall. Everything is just a jumble of coming apart steel. It smells of its former life, as well as of urine. Urine is a theme in this story; it comes up with discomforting frequency. But Jo settles in. Carral brings home a huge number of apples, which they can’t eat fast enough, and so start to rot all over the brewery. Slowly, a relationship develops between Jo and Carral. Mushrooms appear on the bathroom wall. The apples mark the fall of this smelly Garden of Eden.

This story has the feel of a horror novel without ever quite going there. I kept expecting the mushrooms to start growing on Jo or something. I found it extremely creepy, especially how Carral descends into a sort of human rot. I wasn’t sure if some of the descriptions were actually happening, or hallucinations brought on by how gross the brewery was. It’s totally surreal, rather like Lovecraft brought into the modern age. Three stars.

I got this book from the Amazon Vine Program in return for an honest review. This did not effect my opinions. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sight, by Jessie Greengrass. Hogarth, 2017

Told in three sections, the nameless narrator explores being a daughter taking care of her dying mother, a granddaughter with her psychoanalyst grandmother, and a mother. Tied to these meditations are the stories of Roentgen’s discovery of the X-ray, Sigmund and Anna Freud’s work in psychoanalysis, and the beginnings of modern surgery and the study of babies in the uterus. This is not a plot driven novel, nor is it strong on character- we learn little about the narrator. It’s a kind of meditation on seeing ourselves- body and mind and how we change depending on our roles.

It was a slow read for only 200 pages. It seems like a book I’m supposed to like, but actually don’t. I suspect it’s too intellectual for me. I found it interesting but I was not drawn into it. Three stars.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine Program in return for an unbiased review. This did not alter my opinion.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

From the Corner of His Eye, by Dean Koontz. Bantam Books, 2000

When I think of Dean Koontz, I tend to think of his horror writing. This book, while having horrifying things happen in it, is more a combination of science fiction and philosophical tract. It’s plain good versus evil, where the bad is very, very bad and the good is very, very good. The villain, Junior Cain, is a psychopath with an exaggerated view of himself- he thinks he’s cultured, very smart, and a chick magnet. Also, he’s a serial killer and rapist.  The good people – all the other characters- are kind, giving, and selfless. We’ve got a girl who is raising the boy, Bart, who’s father died the day he was born. She, Agnes, is known as the Pie Lady because she bakes pies and delivers them to the less fortunate. Celestina is raising her dead sister’s girl, Angel- who is the child of the rapist/killer. Thomas Vanadium is a homicide detective who is stalking Cain, because the death of Cain’s wife seems suspicious. Vanadium also likes to do tricks with coins, making them appear and disappear.

At three years of age, Bart develops a cancer that requires him to have his eyes removed (this cancer really exists, and children *do* have to have their eyes removed to keep it from spreading). A few years later, though, his mother realizes that he can see. His explanation? That there are other dimensions, and a lot of them, he still has eyes. So he checks from one of those dimensions to see what path is clear. Also, he can stay dry by walking between raindrops. It all has to do with quantum physics. Cain is searching for Bart, because he happened to be listening to a sermon on tape while he was raping Celestina’s sister. For whatever reason, he’s decided that Bart is his child from the rape, and that if he kills Bart his miseries will end… yeah, I was confused. It’s a long book (730 pages), and I felt that in places it was just *too* long. It takes a very long time for all the characters to come together, and then, with just a nudge of a quantum physics trick, the story ends. I was left feeling rather let down. I can only give it four stars because of these problems.

Friday, November 23, 2018

God is in the Crowd: Twenty-first Century Judaism, by Tal Keinan. Spiegel & Grau, 2018

This is a hard book to categorize. The first part is autobiography; Keinan was raised in the US and went to school here, but then moved to Israel and joined the Air Force. He was the only non-Israeli fighter pilot there. After his time with the military, he became a financial man as well as chairing a nonprofit that lends to projects including ones by Israeli Palestinians. The next section explores what he feels is a crisis in Judaism. Many US and European Jews are marrying outside the faith, and not raising their children as religious Jews. If that continues, he sees the end of Judaism as it’s known- and been known- for centuries. Judaism survived the Diaspora, pogroms, and the Holocaust only to face extinction by marrying out. His proposed cure for this is program that would fund (via voluntary donations by members) long term camps for Jewish youth, wherein they would spend one year in America and one in Israel, learning the culture of whichever one they didn’t grow up in; it would also pay for the college education of the children. He also proposes that the president of Israel (largely a ceremonial position at this point) be given power over all Jewish religious affairs- a sort of Pope for Judaism- and that the president be elected by *all* Jews the world over, not just Israelis. Right now, Israel has religious issue being adjudicated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, while American Jewry is composed mainly of Reform and Conservative Jews. He feels that the wisdom of the crowd- having all branches of Judaism involved- will save, even though it may change it, Judaism. He doesn’t seem to take sides in a right/left battle; he’s fairly even handed. It is an interesting look into what’s happening to Judaism. Three and a half stars. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine Program in return for an unbiased review. This did not affect my opinions. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, edited by David Kipen. Modern Library, 2018

This book has an unusual layout: there is an entry for every day of the year, but the *year* the entry is from varies from 1542 through 2018. The entries are chosen from letters and diaries. Each one is a statement about life in Los Angeles at the time. Some are from Catholic brethren who are bringing religion to the west. Some are from politicians. Some are from famous writers drawn to LA to write scripts for Hollywood. The samples may be from Gold Rush days, the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Depression, or recent days.

I have seen quite a few complaints about the format, but I really liked it. I might be bored with a time in history or with a specific writer’s work, but given a piece only a few pages long, I will read it, and learn something. I also found it very interesting to see opinions not meant for public consumption, but for only the writer’s closest friends or relatives. What I thought would have made the book better was pictures. The last 150 years –the era from which the majority of entries are from- have been documented by photography, and that would have brought things to life more. Four stars for a quick, fun read. 

I received this book from Net Galley in return for an honest review. This did not change my opinions of the book. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The General’s Cook, by Ramin Ganeshram. Arcade Publishing, 2018

Hercules Harkless was a real person; he was the chef for George Washington for many years. As a slave, he had privileges that most slaves didn’t;: he received a decent wage; as long as his work was done he could leave the premises and go to the tavern or the theater; and he wore beautiful clothing. But he was still a slave. He was prohibited from learning to read and write. Even though he spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, which had a law that said any slave that resided in the state for six months was free, this freedom was kept from him by the simple method of rotating him between the Philadelphia house and Mount Vernon every few months. There always existed the threat of being sold or whipped. His daughters were kept at Mount Vernon, keeping him away from them for months at a time.

Harkless ran the kitchen for Washington, although he was under the authority of white servants. He apparently was trained in France, and learned their methods of cooking. He also kept a spotless kitchen, and knew such things as washing the cutting board between working with meat and vegetables (I have no idea if these bits are backed up by history or not).

The story takes place between 1793 and 1797; in 1797, on Washington’s birthday, after preparing things and telling the other slaves what to do, he vanished, never to be found. I like to think that he gained his freedom. The story hints that a free black man set up a tavern that sold exceptional food in New York might have been him. Along with Harkless’s own story line, there are subplots. One is of his oldest son Richmond, who worked under him in the kitchen but did not show an aptitude for the job. Another line is Nate, a young slave who *does* show a talent for cooking, and his relationship with Margaret, a teenaged indentured servant (a temporary slavehood for poor white people). Threaded all through the story is the tension that all slaves lived under, of not being in charge of their lives.

I enjoyed the story although at times it seemed to wander a bit. The author’s ability to describe things, whether sites in Philadelphia, Harkless’s fancy clothing, or- especially- the food he cooks is just exquisite. I was hungry the whole time I was reading because of the food descriptions! The writing in general, though, was a bit rough in places. A number of the supporting cast are not given enough depth. The most important thing, though, is the struggle between being a man who is free to go to the theater with white people and buy nice clothes, while at the same time always being under the whim of his owners, and this is painted vividly. Five stars. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This did not alter my opinions. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker. Random House, 2019

In a small California college town, a student comes back from a party, falls into bed, and doesn’t get up in the morning. This doesn’t alarm her roommate much; they are college kids, after all, and the girl is a party girl. But when Mei, the roommate, comes back in the afternoon to find the girl still out of it, she worries. When she can’t wake the girl, Mei asks for help. In days, more students from the same dormitory fall into comas. Then, despite quarantine, more people start falling ill. Soon the whole town is quarantined, with all roads blocked.

The story follows multiple people: Mei and another student she teams up with; a young couple with a new baby; two little girls with a survivalist father who has gone into a coma; an older couple; and a doctor shut in the town, who only wants to get out and home to her daughter. The majority of the people fall to the illness. They show heightened brain activity, an unprecedented amount of REM. But the story is only partially about the victims; for the most part, it’s about the people who don’t. While on the face of it it’s a science fiction story, it’s really a psychological drama in a SF setting.

Not a great deal happens during the novel, other than the illness and quarantine, but the writing is wonderful. The characters are good. It draws you along. But.. it never really clicked for me. I don’t know what didn’t click for me or why, but I just found it a bit boring at times. Four stars

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

This did not alter my opinions.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

I’m Afraid of Men, by Vivek Shraya. Penguin, 2018

This is Shraya’s statement of what her experiences of dealing with men have been like. As a trans woman, she has, as the song says, ‘looked at life from both sides now’. As a boy, she was encouraged to be more male. She did body building, lowered her voice, and mimicked the walk of masculine men. She gave up color in her wardrobe, sticking to dark neutrals. Later in life she gave up trying to be what she was not, and started expressing her femininity. Now, instead of being harassed for not being masculine enough, she gets harassed for not being feminine enough. The world- and men in particular- just cannot deal with people like her. The majority of men (and women) want women and men to be firmly at the poles of the male/female spectrum, and so find themselves uncomfortable- and sometimes violent- in the presence of a trans or gender fluid person. This is an essential book for the 21st century, as we learn to view the world as non-binary.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House, by Norman Eisen. Crown Publishing, 2018

The Last Palace isn’t a palace in the meaning that a ruler lived there. It was originally a private residence, built by Otto Petschek (who made his fortune in coal) after World War 1. He never finished the building; he was picky to the point of obsession. Once, after it was supposedly finished, he had most of it torn down and restarted. He spared no expense, and brought luxury items from around the world. It’s an amazing place. During WW 2, the Petschek family had to flee. The house was then used by the Nazis- when author Eisen, an ambassador from the US to Czechoslovakia, came to live in the house, he was astonished to find little swastikas on the underside of the chairs and table. They were inventory marks and numbers. Thankfully for the palace, general Toussaint, who lived in the house during the war, was dedicated to preserving the house (and trying to save the country from Soviet occupation; that part failed). Shirley Temple Black was ambassador to the Czech Republic during the Velvet Revolution-the story of her time living in the palace is given in the book. The house was looted by both Nazis and Russian occupiers; fortunately, Petschek’s loyal butler guarded many treasures in the house. He stayed, regardless of who the occupier was, to protect the palace. When Eisen became ambassador, he –after much persuasion- brought his mother over to visit. She and her family had managed to escape the Nazis when they started putting Jews on railroad cars to the death camps.

It’ not just the story of the house, obviously. It’s the story of 20th century Czechoslovakian history. This was something I knew nothing about, and this book provided the information in short and easy to read form. The book is very well researched; the notes and bibliography occupy over a hundred pages. At times it got very dry and a little *too* detailed for me, but for the most part, it’s a pretty interesting story. The history of the palace is sort of the history of the Czech Republic in short form. Four stars.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine Program in return for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs, by Bill Cunningham. Penguin Press, 2018

Born during the Depression to an Irish-American family with conservative values, Bill Cunningham’s penchant for fancy clothes and beautiful décor was discouraged- discouraged to the point of receiving a brutal beating when his mother caught four year old Bill wearing his sister’s organdy party dress. His interest- passion- couldn’t be kept down, however, and he devoted his entire life to fashion in one way or another. He worked in boutiques as a teen, became a sought-after hat designer in the 50s (who was put out of business by the fact that, come the 60s, no one was wearing hats anymore), crashed every high-profile party, became an on-the-scene fashion photographer- working for the New York Times at one point, and basically celebrated the beautiful. More than fashion, he was interested in style- the clothes and the hats and the jewels had to be worn with originality and elan.

The manuscript for ‘Fashion Climbing’ was found, neatly typewritten and put away, after his death. The memoir covers the years before he became a photographer. Even though he had his share of starving times he was always cheerful and greeted the world as a place of delight. He wasn’t all sweetness and light, though; parts of the last chapter ‘On Taste’ where he makes it clear that most women don’t have style, and that to carry of wearing high fashion one needs not just great posture and manners but ‘generations of good breeding’; after all, one ‘can’t slipcover a pig and expect it not to grunt’. Oddly, this opinion is in the same paragraph where he tells us that one of the day’s most elegant women was a prostitute not long before!

It’s a short book and a fast read, interesting to someone who loves fashion history. A number of black and white pictures (more would have been great!), of Cunningham and various fashionable women- these are not fashion show shots. Four stars.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This did not influence my opinions. 

The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester Fox. Harlequin Books, 2018

Old school gothic novel here. In the early part of the 19th century, the Montrose family finds themselves driven out of Boston by scandal. Moving to the small town/rural area where Mr. Montrose has a business interest, they settle in at the estate of Willow Hall. It’s not long before they find themselves beset by strange happenings. Lydia, the plain middle daughter, sees and hears ghosts. Emeline, the youngest, is obsessed with mermaids in the pond on the property. Catherine, the beautiful eldest, is obsessed only with finding a husband, preferably rich. Add to this cast of characters two eligible bachelors, and we have a bit- but not too much, thankfully- of gothic romance.

Lydia is a good main character. Unlike all too many gothic heroines, she isn’t weak and fainty. She doesn’t hate the love interest at first, then realize she loves him (nor is it love at first sight). She’s sensible. Her main interest is taking care of Emeline. She has no idea that she has supernatural powers.

The plot is decent. There are actually two main plot lines: Lydia’s, which includes Emeline and one of the two eligible males; and Catherine’s quest for a husband. She is one of those Center of the Universe people, and it turns out she has reason to act that way during the story. It’s a fast read (one evening) and kind of fun. I would have enjoyed it more if the supernatural element had been more prominent, and less time spent on Catherine. More witch, less b****. Four stars. 

I received my copy of this book free from Net Galley in return for an honest review. This did not influence my opinions. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Latecomers, by Helen Klein Ross. Little, Brown and Company, 2018

‘The Latecomers’ is a big family saga that encompasses both the rich Hollingworths and their poor servant Bridey – although *that* fact isn’t widely known. While the book starts with 9/11, the story itself starts much earlier, when Bridey and her fiancé board a ship in Ireland to start a new life in America. Sadly, the fiancé dies on board ship, leaving a broke and pregnant Bridey to find her own way. Bridey spends her life working for the family that adopts her son; in large part, she mothers him more than his rich adoptive mother does.

The story is rich in details through the years. The household adoption of electrical appliances. Halley’s Comet. How housework was done. Out of wedlock childbirth in 1908. Marriage customs. Prohibition. The Great Depression. The Hollingsworth family goes through many changes in the time between 1908 and 2018, but the link between Bridey and her son Vincent is the main thread.

I found the book really interesting to read; the author really did her homework on the eras and the areas that the book takes place in. The cast of characters was interesting; some of them I really liked, while others I wasn’t so fond of. I think the story might have benefitted if the main arc, of the secret of Bridey’s son, had been cut shorter. I had almost lost interest in that arc by the time it was revealed. It’s a grand story, though, so four stars. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. This did not in any way effect my review. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

A Conversation with a Cat, by Stephen Spotte. Open Books, 2018

One evening, when a former alley cat named Jinx’s human is laying on the sofa, fresh from the hospital for gall bladder surgery, Jinx starts talking to the human. Sure, the human is not only on prescription meds but has done some self medicating with pot and alcohol, but it’s a pretty intense experience. Jinx tells the human about his former life as a pampered pet of Cleopatra. The heart of the story is the history of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony.

Sadly, even though it’s a story narrated by a cat, there is not much cat in the tale. It’s a fairly dry relating of the facts of the struggle between Egypt and Rome. Jinx doesn’t have much to do, and doesn’t develop a personality. Jinx’s human is a captive audience. The author has his facts down pat, but doesn’t make them come to life. Only three stars, even though a cat is the main POV. 

I received this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion.