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19th-Dec-2014 02:29 pm(no subject)
Grumpy cat
Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link. Random House, 2015

I’ve read Link’s work before and enjoyed it, so I was happy to see this book offered from Vine. One of the stories, ‘The Summer People’, I’d read before and I have to say it’s the best story in the book. A teenage girl is obliged to take care of vacation houses for people; clean the houses, buy their groceries and stock the kitchens, clean up after them. One of the houses, though, is home to some rather different people, people who need her to supply them with odd things and give odd presents in return. It’s a modern fairy tale.

The rest, sadly, I was rather disappointed in. They all have Link’s strain of weird, but they aren’t charming like a lot of her work has been. They are set in dreary, depressing situations. The people are at best boring and vaguely annoying; at worst, obnoxious- in other words, like regular people are when not having good days. Even the magic/fantasy components seem joyless. Teen age girls with crushes on full size animated dolls (who have no memory of who they were before), superheroes with crappy powers, aging daemon lovers, space crews who don’t know if they are alive or dead. Link’s fantasy world has turned dark.
11th-Dec-2014 03:50 pm(no subject)
Death at the Priory: Love, Sex, and Murder in Victorian England, by James Ruddick. Atlantic Books, 2001

This is a non-fiction book in two parts: in the first half, the author tells what’s known about a murder that took place in 1875 England. In the second, he goes through the evidence and interviews descendants of the people involved and presents his theory of what happened.

Florence Campbell was the daughter of a well to do upper middle class family who had the worst luck in relationships. She married Alexander Ricardo, who was in the service, and demanded that he resign because she feared for his life in the military. He declined into total alcoholism and became abusive. When she left him and went home, her father refused to take her in, wanting her to ‘do the right thing’ and stand by her husband. For her to leave would reflect poorly on her family, of course, and he couldn’t have that. When she refused to go back to Ricardo, he agreed to send her to a sanitarium for a stay ‘for health reasons’. There she met Dr. Gully, the much older, married, owner of the sanitarium and they started an affair. During this time, Ricardo had the good grace to die, leaving Florence a rich widow. It did not do her much good, however, because word of her affair got out, ruining her in society. She was happy to marry Charles Bravo, as this made her acceptable to society again. He was happy to marry her, as she was very rich and let him spend her money freely. Bravo would have had it made had he not been a mean and greedy man, dismissing Florence’s servants and getting rid of everything that he personally had no interest in, such as the garden and the horses. He became emotionally, sexually, and physically abusive to Florence. Then one evening he became violently ill. Doctors were called and they realized he had swallowed poison. After three horrible days, he died. Was is suicide, as Florence’s paid companion claimed? Or had someone poisoned him? If so, who? There was no lack of people that he had angered. Despite an inquest, no one was ever charged with Bravo’s death.

Ruddick’s examination of the evidence convinced me pretty well that he has fingered the right suspect. He was able to find out things from the descendants that never came out at the inquest. There were also presumptions about what people of different classes and sexes would and wouldn’t do that colored the minds of the investigators. Had this same crime been committed today, there would have most likely have been a conviction. An interesting piece of Victorian true crime.
11th-Dec-2014 02:19 pm(no subject)
lisa books
A Summer Bird-Cage, by Margaret Drabble. Popular Library, 1962

Written in 1962, this book takes us back to the beginning of the era when women were starting to push back against the assumption that, even if they went to college, they would marry and have kids right after. Sarah, our narrator, is a bit surprised that her older sister, the stunningly beautiful Louise, is not just marrying, but marrying Stephen, a writer who is distinctly odd. The sisters have never been close, so Sarah has no idea why Louise might be marrying who she does. Stephen, an author of very literary books, does have money, but even that doesn’t seem to make it all make sense. Sarah doesn’t give it too much attention, though; she’s having her own crisis of trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life now that she’s graduated. Nothing really interests her. She might like to write a humorous novel, a la Kingsley Amis, but no idea how to go about it. She might wed but the man she might want to marry is studying in America. So she works at a job that she doesn’t respect. Louise’s situation catches her attention when Sarah discovers that Louise has been having an affair with John both before and after her wedding.

This is a novel that is about women in the state of dissatisfaction. Sarah is dissatisfied with her business and personal life. Louise is dissatisfied with her husband and with her lover. Their mother is dissatisfied with her own life and with theirs. Sarah’s friend has just left her husband, an ultimate dissatisfaction. The men seem much happier with their lives, although we don’t really get to see that much of them. It’s interesting to note that all the dilemmas the women face are one’s that women today still face; there was a shift in the early 60s when many more women decided to have more of a life than being married and having children but there hasn’t been much change since then. I’m not sure there could be any more change; women (and men) must still face the existential question of what to do with their lives, and no matter what one does they will be missing out on something else. Although written fifty years ago, this book is a bit dated but still pertinent.
22nd-Nov-2014 11:31 pm(no subject)
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, and Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook, by Bruce D. Perry, MD, Ph D, and Maia Szalavitz. Basic Books, 2006

Author Bruce Perry has a very difficult but very gratifying job. He’s a child psychiatrist who deals with children who have been horribly abused and traumatized at an early stage, helping them become whole and healed. Perry bases his therapy on how the brain develops- at certain ages, different parts of the brain enlarge as a child learns things; things as basic as trusting someone who touches you or learning how to talk. If a child is deprived of soothing touch as a wee baby, they flinch from touch as they grow up. Perry gently and slowly introduces touch and then massage to teach them that it’s okay, and that part of the brain grows, even though it’s well after the time when it should have.

The children in his accounts are all real, albeit with their names changed. They have suffered horrifically as babies and toddlers. Repeated sexual abuse, near total neglect, seeing their mother murdered –and having her throat cut at the same time- are some of the things that had happened to these children. The boy who was raised as a dog was actually one of the luckier ones; he was fed and did have the dogs for companionship, even as he was deprived of human interaction by a guardian who had no idea how to care for a child but did raise dogs. His guardian didn’t beat him or sexually abuse him. But despite the abuse these children went through and the damage it did to their brain development, Perry is able to help them. He’s very patient and never forces anything on the children. They’ve already had too many things forced on them.

The authors present the book in a rather informal manner. Perry explains what the child went through and what it did to their brain, adding neuroscience to psychiatry. Then he explains what he did with each one to get their brain to grow and reduce their deficits. Each story deals with a different part of the brain. Perry’s dedication and humanity shine through. The authors write rather like Oliver Sacks; if you like his books you’ll like this one, too.
22nd-Nov-2014 06:01 pm(no subject)
Laurie sitting
Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World, by Alison Weir. Ballantine 2013

Though many people (or at least many Americans) don’t know who Elizabeth of York was, she was an important figure in English history. She was the mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth I. Her marriage to Henry VII, who was the first Tudor ruler and a Lancastrian, ended the Wars of the Roses. Mary, Queen of Scots was also a descendant of hers-her blood, in fact, runs in the veins of today’s British royal family. Her uncle was the infamous Richard III, whose remains were recently found under a parking lot and who probably murdered her brothers, the princes in the tower.

Elizabeth’s life was short- she died at age 37 after giving birth- and for a part of it, there was a lot of uncertainty about what would happen to her. Her father died while her brothers were still boys, setting off a fight for the throne. After her brothers disappeared and were presumed dead, Elizabeth became the rightful heir to the throne, although no one assumed she, a mere woman, could rule. That idea wouldn’t take root until her granddaughter Mary I became queen. She was a prize through which another man could rule the kingdom by marrying her, though. First her uncle Richard III thought about it; after Henry VII killed him at Bosworth, he- who also had a claim to the throne via his own bloodline, albeit not as direct as Elizabeth’s- married her, giving him a firmer grasp on the right to rule. After years of families fighting, peace came to England.

Prolific biographer Alison Weir has created a meticulous biography of this largely unsung queen, going back to many primary sources – the bibliography and notes sections are 75 pages long. Elizabeth emerges as a pious and charitable woman, as proven by palace accountings of what she spent. Despite her marriage being for convenience, it proved to be a loving one. She and Henry loved each other and loved their children. The people of England loved her. But despite this attention to details, Elizabeth never really comes alive in this book. The facts are all there, but the spark isn’t. I don’t expect biography to be like historical fiction, and sometimes people’s lives don’t make a smooth narrative, but I’ve read biographies that were gripping. It was an interesting book, although slow reading and text book like.
21st-Nov-2014 06:16 pm(no subject)
soul of a rose
A Memory of Violets, by Hazel Gaynor. HarperCollins 2015

In 1912, Tilly Harper leaves home to become a house mother in a home for former flower and watercress selling girls; the lucky occupants now work in a factory making artificial flowers, which were immensely popular at the time. Both belong to philanthropist Alfred Shaw, who rescues as many of the girls- the poorest of the poor, many of them with physical problems that prevent them from getting better employment- from the streets. When Tilly is putting her things away, she discovers a box with an old journal stored in it, and she reads it over the days as she has time. It’s the story of Florrie Flynn and the younger sister, Rosie, who she lost when Rosie was four years old. Florrie spent her entire short life living and working in the group home, and never gave up looking for her sister. This poignant tale inspires Tilly to try and find Rosie herself, and let her know how much her sister loved her.

It’s a sweet story, and paints a good picture of the lives of the flower girls and poverty in the late Victorian and Edwardian era in London. The flower factory and group homes are based on real ones established by John Groom. Tilly is a nice character with enough of a personal conflict to make her interesting. There is a love interest, but it really doesn’t add much to the story. There are also some amazing coincidences, but they are worked in well enough to be believable. Good story for a rainy or snowy afternoon.
19th-Nov-2014 04:35 pm(no subject)
The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, by Graham Joyce. Doubleday, 2013

In mid-1970s England, David is a college student wishing to avoid working the summer as a construction site gopher for his step-father. He winds up at the same beach resort where his father had a heart attack and died when David was three. Hired on as a ‘greencoat’(for the uniforms they must wear) to man the various games & contests set up for the shabby resort’s working class guests and to perform chores in the theaters, he makes his first mistake almost instantly, sitting down at the table of Colin and Terri, part of the custodial crew. Colin is rude, crude, violent and doesn’t like to talk to people- and especially doesn’t want people talking to his beautiful young wife. But for some reason Colin takes David under his rather undesirable wing. This leads to a sort of friendship, and to another mistake- David goes to a racist meeting with Colin, not knowing where he was being taken. Which doesn’t go over well with certain others on the staff. Meanwhile, David starts having vivid hallucinations of a man with a rope and a small boy, hallucinations so real he follows them at one point. There is a love triangle- really more of a love pentagon, really.

Although Graham Joyce is known for his fantasy work, this book has little of the supernatural. While there is a stage magician, the only real magic is the psychic laundry woman. This is more of a coming of age book, with David making pretty much every mistake he can make. It’s also a look back at the end of an era, when the seaside resorts were on the way down, and the beginning of the Punk era. I had sympathy for David; young and more or less innocent, with few people telling him the truth. The characters aren’t particularly deep but they held my interest just fine; I couldn’t stop reading because I wanted to see how the whole thing untangled.
16th-Nov-2014 12:53 pm(no subject)
Do You Have a Tipped Uterus? 69 Things Your Gynecologist Wishes You Knew, by Melissa Wolf, MD. Morgan James Publishing, 2014

This is one of those books you can read in an hour, but that doesn’t mean it’s fluff. Written by an OB/GYN, it’s full of facts about female reproductive organs and more. Sixty-nine subjects, sixty-nine facts. Most topics are only a couple of pages long. Dr. Wolf covers the embarrassing subjects we’re shy of asking as well as telling how to get the most out of a visit to the doctor’s office. She tells how to make sure you don’t have a long wait at the dr. office: be the first appointment of the day. What to douche with: nothing. Ever. What some of those odd pains are.

I do have to take issue with one of her entries: she says that doctors don’t judge patients for what they do. She and her colleagues may not, but some doctors do judge. I’ve had it happen to me. I’ve been judged for things I wasn’t even doing, and it’s not pleasant. And she takes the Dr. House attitude on patients: everybody lies. If you tell a doctor that you have one drink a day, they will assume you actually have two drinks a day. They are taught to do this. To assume every single patient lies seems rather judgmental to me. Still, there are a lot of good facts in here, especially for young women.
3rd-Nov-2014 07:33 pm(no subject)
Dr. Mutter’s Marvels, by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. Gotham Books, 2014

A lot of people, especially ones with a bit of a macabre turn of mind, have heard of Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum. It’s a medical museum, filled with skeletons, body parts in jars, and engravings of surgeries. But collection was not meant to be some sensationalist tourist stop; Mutter’s collection was for teaching medical students by showing them what diseases looked like in the body so they could recognize it. He felt it was vital that specimens like these be available.

Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter was an amazing man. He became a doctor while young (there wasn’t as much schooling required in that era to become a doctor), studying in France where surgical techniques were far advanced from those in the US. He not only became a remarkable surgeon- he was ambidextrous- but he brought to America the practice of actually washing his hands and tools in between patients and was an early adopter of the use of anesthesia for operations. He performed a lot of reconstructive surgeries on victims of fires and accidents. He convinced the medical college to purchase some rooms that could be used for patient recovery- previously patients were put out in a cart and taken home as soon as the surgery was over. He thought of patients as actual people instead of just the operation performed on them. He instituted a lot of things we take for granted in hospitals today. Sadly, he died young.

The author has consulted many primary sources for this biography. Descriptions of the surgeries Mutter performed are taken from his own writings. It’s not just a biography of Mutter, but in many ways a biography of surgical practices in America. Very interesting and a fast read.
2nd-Nov-2014 05:34 pm(no subject)
Marina, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Edebe, 1999; US translation Little, Brown & Co 2014

I fell in love with Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s writing when I read ‘The Shadow of the Wind” a few years ago, but I was not aware that he wrote young adult novels, too. This, the first book he wrote back in 1999 but just last year translated into English, is just as wonderful. It’s a tale of gothic horror as well as a coming of age tale, a tale of first love, a tale of death, and a tale of madness.

The story begins in 1980 with the 15 year old narrator being asked if he is Ocar Drai. He is, of course, and he’s been missing for seven days. Fifteen years on, he is ready to tell the story of what happened back then.

Oscar is a student at a boarding school in Barcelona. He is given to taking long walks after class and exploring. One day he finds himself in a run down area, in front of a presumably deserted mansion. But there is music coming from inside, and he enters. A gramophone is playing opera, and he finds a pocket watch on the table. Frightened by the sudden appearance of an old man, he flees, accidentally taking the pocket watch with him. He’s an honest young man, and despite his fear he goes back to the mansion to return the watch. Thus he enters the lives of German Blau and his teen daughter, Marina.

Marina says she has something to show Oscar, and takes him to a cemetery. A heavily veiled woman in black appears and lays a rose on a gravestone. Later they follow her to a collapsing greenhouse where they find not her but some large marionettes that become activated despite, supposedly, no one being there. They have entered the world of Eva Irinova, former singer, and it’s a horrible world of monsters.

What follows is horrifying tale of jealousy, bravery, and greed, but mostly of the desire humans have to cling to life and their wish for their loved ones to do so, too. Zafon gives us a mad scientist who has learned to cheat death but not decay. Zafon’s lush descriptions bring the old parts of Barcelona to life. The characters are incredibly vivid; the brave Inspector Florian, Eva’s friend and protector Claret, and the old doctor who knows what is going on-Dr. Shelley. Who has a daughter named Maria Shelley, which made me giggle a bit, given that there is a fair bit of Frankenstein-type things going on here. There is a lot of tension in the story; Oscar is given only a few times to relax and be happy. It’s one of those books that you want to stay up all night reading because you just can’t stand to wait to see what is going to happen next.
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