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30th-May-2016 04:23 pm(no subject)
lights through the trees
The Goodenoughs have horrible lives. They don’t even put the fun in dysfunctional. It’s 1838, and James and Sadie and their five children (they had 10, but the swamp fever took half of them) live in the Black Swamp because that is where their wagon got stuck. They are homesteading because James’s family urged them to leave the family property in Connecticut- we find out why later in the book. The government will give them the land if they plant an orchard of 50 trees to prove they are making a go of it there; so far, they’ve only managed to afford 38; all apples, a mixture of sour ‘spitters’ and Golden Pippens that James has grafted, bringing the scion wood with them from Connecticut. And these trees are what the constant war between Sadie and James revolve around, an odd focus for their discontent. James loves the Pippens because not only are they good tasting, but they are something his family brought over from England. Sadie wants only spitters, because they are used for cider and applejack, and she has a lust for alcohol. The children are sort of bringing themselves up, creatures that Sadie says they created to do the work so she didn’t have to. Their social life consists of an occasional visit from John Chapman- Johnny Appleseed- selling apple seedlings and the yearly revival camp. After a couple of years, something happens that changes everything and the story changes to that of Robert, the son who was quiet and thoughtful and had the most trouble dealing with the nastiness between James and Sadie.

Robert has fled to California in stages; moving from spot to spot and job to job, being in turns a cowboy, an assistant to a snake oil salesman, a prospector, an ostler, a deck hand, a bottle washer, and, finally, a plant collector. He’s a loner, unattached to anyone or anything- he won’t even name his horse-as emotionally aloof as his father. Then the past shows up unexpectedly, and his life changes again.

I have mixed feelings on this book. Despite the awfulness of their situation, I could find no sympathy for the Goodenoughs. Sadie has no redeeming traits; she’s been an outcast for her behavior for years and makes no effort to please anyone but herself. James would be a sympathetic character even though he’s emotionally absent, but he’s too quick to use his fists and his belt to deal with things. Robert and the one sister, Martha, are the only family members I could care about. Even Chapman, an American icon, seems a little shady in this story.

The second half, Robert’s story, starts slow but then gathers momentum like a snowball on a ski hill and ends with a bang. Robert is a good person who had to deal with horrible things and an unwarranted load of guilt. I enjoyed the inclusion of some historical people, especially William Lobb (I have the rose named after him!) and his prickly but kind personality. I’m a plant person, so I also enjoyed the use of trees as a plot device. All in all, the book isn’t the best book Chevalier has written, but in the end I enjoyed it.
23rd-May-2016 02:21 pm(no subject)
Library of Souls, by Ransom Riggs. Quirk Books, 2015

I LOVED the first two books in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy, so after finishing the second one I got Library of Souls from the library as soon as I could, expecting the excitement to carry on.

I was disappointed. Sorely.

I had trouble getting into the story; I actually found it a chore to read it for long stretches. It wasn’t all like that; there were some great incidents. But I felt that the book would have been twice as good if it had been half as long. There just wasn’t enough story and unique happenings to support 450 pages. The villain was a bit of a caricature; he would have fit into a comic book with his manic rule-the-world goal. There are some Deus-ex-Machina moments; some miraculous cures that, done once, were acceptable, but done more than that became just too convenient.

Unlike a fair number of reviewers, I did like the ending; I felt it was well deserved. I loved Addison the glasses-wearing, talking dog. I enjoyed the character of Sharon, the boatman on the horrible river (it wasn’t named Styx, but should have been) just because of some humor- not as laugh out loud as the heads-on-pikes on the bridge, but nice.

If you’ve read the first two books, you kind of have to read this one. I wouldn’t have been able to stand not knowing what happened. I just wish it had been better.
19th-May-2016 07:10 pm(no subject)
Grumpy cat
Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler. Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016

In this contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”, Kate Battista is less shrew than just someone who doesn’t quite fit into everyday society. Twenty-nine years old, she keeps house for her father and brings up her fifteen year old airhead sister, Bunny. Thrown out of college for telling a professor his description of photosynthesis was half-assed, she works as a classroom aid at a preschool, where the kids love her but the parents and teachers not so much. She is forthright with her opinions, never mean but just sort of missing the social niceties. Her father is a typical absent minded scientist who is near to a big breakthrough on autoimmune diseases, but he has a problem: his brilliant assistant is about at the end of his work visa and will soon have to leave the country. His idea, of course, is for Kate-who he tells bluntly isn’t going to find a husband on her own anyway- to marry the assistant, Pyotr. Needless to say, this doesn’t go over well. Pyotr does his best to ingratiate himself to Kate, but English is a second language for him and despite being here for three years, American society baffles him. Like Kate, he has no filters and tells people what he thinks. Kate, Pyotr, and Dr. Battista all seem a bit Aspergean in their lack of social skills.

Thankfully, this isn’t a rom/com but an examination of men and women, social conventions, and how people are valued by others. It is light in tone but with a hard edge running under the surface. There were a few surprises, but the best one was Bunny, who turns out to be not the airhead she acts like. This was a light, enjoyable read, and I was surprised to find that Tyler not only moved the story to modern day, but changed the tale to fit modern day women. Not Tyler’s best work by far, but nice.
18th-May-2016 04:40 pm(no subject)
Facepaint: The Story of Makeup, by Lisa Eldridge. Abrams Image, 2015

Famous makeup artist Lisa Eldridge brings us a history of makeup. She goes into both the chemistry (what the makeup was made of) and the sociology (how social mores influenced its use) of it to create a rounded view of makeup. It’s been around for thousands of years- the ancient Egyptians made great use of it- and, while for centuries in the western world it wasn’t considered a good thing to do, it was there, being made at home of rose petals and blackberries, flying under the radar.

The first part of the book is a look at the three basic colors of makeup: red, white, and black. Those colors have been used in every century and civilsation. She tells us how each color was obtained and how the uses changed. The rest of the book is basically about Victorian times on, because that is when beauty products came to be more widely available, and, possibly more important, when they became advertised. I’m a history and vintage fan, so I loved seeing the various styles of makeup- different eye brow shapes, different rouge placement, and different eye shadows. (Of course, looking back through the decades at the styles, I had to occasionally think “What the hell were we thinking?!?!”) I also loved that she gives the chemistry behind the products, from soot mixed with petroleum jelly to today’s modern silicones that work like magic. The history of makeup also includes the people behind the products: Elizabeth Arden, Estee Lauder, Charles Revson, Helena Rubenstein, Max Factor, and the Westmores. There are also inserts on Makeup Muses: various beauties like Monroe, Garbo, Josephine Baker, and Bardot and how they did their makeup.

One of the best parts, of course, are all the illustrations. Not just women with makeup on, but vintage ads (love those) and old packaging- I’d love to have Kigu’s Flying Saucer powder compact, with its deep blue lid covered with golden stars! The book is written in a very engaging style and was fun to read, as well as being very informative.
15th-May-2016 02:26 pm(no subject)
fancy dress
Audrey and Givenchy: A Fashion Love Affair, by Cindy de la Hoz. Running Press, 2016

This is a tiny book with LOTS of photographs, like a coffee table book that got hit by a shrink ray. While long on photos, it’s short on text, but it says all it needs to. Audrey Hepburn, the irrepressible gamin, was the perfect muse for Hubert de Givenchy. Her face and figure were unlike those of the movie stars of her time; slim, with big eyes and an elegant bone structure, she was boyish yet totally feminine. She had a certain energy that made you unable to look away from her in films.

Givenchy’s fashions fit her style perfectly. In films, they emphasized the traits of the characters she played. He dressed Hepburn in many of her movies, and they were best friends in real life. His clothes inspired her to be the characters in the movies, while she inspired him to create elegant yet modern fashion- including his first perfume.

It’s a fun little book; if you’re into film or vintage fashion you’ll love it.
15th-May-2016 12:53 pm(no subject)
Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. Quirk Books, 2014

“Hollow City” picks up with Jacob Portman and the rest of the peculiar children where “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” left off, with the children escaping a submarine full of wights in the ocean, trying to get back to shore and to a safe place without being caught. Between German bombs and wights, their path to safety seems hopeless. Not only do they need to get to safety, they need to get help for Miss Peregrine, who is trapped in her bird form. If they do not get her transformed back to human within a couple of days, her soul will become more and more animal, and she’ll be trapped forever.

Their path takes them to a camp of Romany people, to a menagerie of peculiar animals- including a talking dog with a pipe- who aid them, a circus, St. Paul’s cathedral during a Nazi bombing raid, and into a lot of really unpleasant places. The action never stops; the children are never completely safe. This is a pretty bleak story, but the personalities of the children keep it from being a depressing read. They are so full of life, bravery, and stoicism that you just keep rooting for them no matter how dark the story gets. And there are intervals of safety and happiness, just enough to keep the children from despair. It’s not just an adventure story; it’s a story of love, growth, and fellowship that is, I think, a stronger story than the first book. And, of course, the high point are the vintage photographs that go with the story.
13th-May-2016 04:11 pm(no subject)
She, by Michelle Latiolais. W.W. Norton & Co., 2015

‘She’ is an odd little book, neither novel nor short stories. Nameless women populate the chapters-stories? – with one girl, a fifteen year old runaway from a strict, abusive, fundamentalist family wandering in and out throughout the book. She has no idea what Los Angeles is like, but manages to have a charmed arrival, encountering good people who wish her no harm- which strikes me as very unrealistic. One woman faces cancer; another knows her husband has yet another girlfriend, and this one may be serious; her friend makes elegant, super realistic floral cake decorations yet is low paid for them and the baker she sells to claims to make them himself. One woman meets a man at the gas station who flirts with her and asks her to have coffee with him; the result of her decision there is horrifying.

There is no time in these vignettes to get a deep feeling for these women. We see them pass by but they don’t linger, although the end story gives us the feeling that a longer chapter may be starting. Kind of an enjoyable read but sort of fluffy.
9th-May-2016 05:01 pm(no subject)
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. Metropolitan Books, 2014

This is an amazing book. Dr. Gawande is a natural writer, a person who makes the hard facts easy to assimilate. And the facts are hard and unpleasant. Both modern medicine and modern life have made a good death- and a good life leading up to it- hard to achieve. The nuclear family means multigenerational living arrangements are largely a thing of the past; modern life decrees that most families have both partners in the couple have to have full time jobs, so no one has time to take care of a senior, whose needs become more as time goes by. Modern medicine has made it possible to keep a body “alive” when heart and lung function is lost. Except in the rare cases where the body is suitable for organ donation, what is the purpose of this? The ‘person’ is gone- or at least I hope they are gone and not trapped inside that hell.

Gawande proposes a few ways of dealing with the problem that’s already hitting the US: the Boomer generation is in its 60s and even 70s. America is going to be forced to find solutions to aging well. So far, when home care cannot be managed, assisted living homes that allow pets, children, smaller units so residents can feel like neighbors, plants, and allowing the residents to take risks are working out best. People in these types of homes live longer and take fewer pain killers. The animals give them a reason to get up and to walk around. Rather than being taken care of, they are being caretakers. But this type of home is rare. More common is the unit where the residents are treated like prisoners and given no autonomy. No wonder we all fear aging so much!

Besides creating acceptable places to live, Gawande stresses the need for people to be fully informed as to what their options are- which requires a shift in how doctors treat the aging and dying population. Everyone needs to ask themselves how much they are willing to give up to stay alive. One person’s answer was that as long as they could watch football on TV and eat chocolate ice cream, he would be happy. Everyone has a different idea of acceptable and they need to think about it before undergoing treatments, many of which sacrifice quality of life for a short extension of time. Doctors, patients, and families are all twitchy about having those talks. Everyone needs to read this book.
9th-May-2016 02:08 pm(no subject)
The Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly. Ballantine Books, 2016

It’s 1939. Upper class Caroline, working in New York City for her pet cause, the French Families Fund, is scrambling for money for French orphans. In Poland, teen aged Kasia is helping the boy she loves deliver things for the resistance, as the Germans have taken over her town, when she, her mother, her sister, and the boy are all taken captive by said Germans and sent to a re-education camp. German Herta, trained as a doctor but passed over for men, is working for her despicable uncle in his butcher shop when an opportunity arises to be one of the doctors in the re-education camp. She jumps at the chance to get away and to practice her profession. Through the course of WW 2, the lives of these very different women will become linked.

The most sympathetic character is, of course, Kasia. Her fate in Ravensbruck camp is better than many, but still horrendous. Herta, sexually abused by her uncle, is sympathetic at first, but as she becomes involved in the Ravensbruck experiments, even though she had little choice, I just couldn’t care about her feelings. Caroline, while important for the ending, seems extraneous. She’s a woman who did good things for the camp survivors, but reading about her life actually took away from the suspense of Herta and Kasia.

This is not an easy book to read. The gruesome atrocities of the concentration camp are vividly described. But it’s a compelling read; once I got past the first few chapters, I couldn’t stop reading. The tension is nearly unbearable at times. I was surprised to find at the end that these were real women, and the story is based on their lives. While books like this can be painful to read, I’m so glad to see them being published at a time when the world is in such turmoil as it is now!
27th-Apr-2016 10:17 am(no subject)
The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins. Broadway Books, 2015

This book was *not* what I expected. With ‘library’ in the title, I expected something like ‘The Librarians”, or perhaps books of magic. Something with a professorial main character. I was very, very, wrong.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book! I admit I was very confused at first. A woman covered in blood walking down the road. Then backstory; she was indeed raised in a giant library, complete with ancient handwritten books and a handful of other orphan children. But their “Father” who took them in was cruel and violent beyond all normal versions of cruel. The ‘catalogs’, the divisions of the library, are things like languages (which our main character studies and includes the languages of animals, storm clouds, and volcanos), murder and war, healing, death, and other things that never really get mentioned. Each ‘catalog’- which covers one floor of the library- is studied by one-and only one- of the orphans. And it warps them. Horribly. Human at the start, they become both more and less than human.

The book centers on Carolyn, the language specialist; Steve, a former thief gone straight; and Erwin, a former military man turned government agent who does not follow the book. Carolyn has a mission and she needs Steve for it. She keeps Steve in the dark - the mission has him in prison for killing a cop, rescued by a ‘human’ killing machine, savaged by dogs, teamed up with a lion (who thankfully seems to understand English), and just generally not having a good time. Erwin is trying to figure out what both Steve and Carolyn are up to. What it turns out to be was nothing I could have ever thought up.

While there is near constant action, things are revealed slowly; what the library is, who Father is, what and why Carolyn is doing what she is. It’s more science fiction than fantasy. It took me a while to get into it and figure out who was who, but once I did, I became very engaged in the story. It *is* very violent and very bloody, which I wasn’t wild about. I liked Steve, and eventually Erwin, but couldn’t warm up to Carolyn. There once the entire story is told, though, I was able to see why she was like she was.
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