Friday, October 31, 2014

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

This is a fun book, just right for when you want something entertaining to read, and don't want to think too hard.

Main character Jason T. Fitger is Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University. As such, he is asked hundreds and hundreds of times to write letters of recommendation for students, former students, colleagues, former colleagues, and people he is not sure he has ever met. They're looking for recommendations for jobs, fellowships, academic appointments, and funding.

Fitger is witty, he is acerbic, highly opinionated, and just can't keep those qualities out of his letters of recommendation. Each letter is a page or two, and includes enough information about what is going on in Professor Fitger's life to make you want to know more. 

Highly recommended in the "light but good" category.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

Robert Ames was a spy. He came from a solid middle class background - steelworker father, homemaker mother - to join the ranks of the CIA.  He was, according to one of his associates, a "spies spy."

Ames was born in 1934. After college he joined the Army where he studied languages on his own time. He was fascinated by the middle east. He became fluent in several languages and thinking he would love to work in the Arabian area he took the foreign service exam.  He failed it and joined the CIA instead. It was a perfect fit. Ames was stationed in the Middle East from the 1960's until his death in 1983. He was married, the father of 6 children and they usually followed him to his station.

Ames was a naturally reserved man. He practiced his craft by getting to know the local people and becoming invested in their lives. His personal affinity for his contacts was a trademark of his craft.  Ames was revered by the foreign nationals he dealt with. They trusted him. He saw first hand what was going on in the area, from misguided and failed policy to the rise of the terrorist organizations. Ames was killed in the Beirut embassy bombing of 1983, removing one of the CIA's most effective intelligence officers in the area.

Kai Bird is a Pulitzer prize winning author who had access to declassified documents and people who were actually with Ames during his tenure. This book is a great background study of the middle east and why it is the way it is today. Compelling and a fascinating study not only of Ames, but of CIA policy.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The British author, Sarah Waters, is no stranger to the Man Booker award. She was first shortlisted for the prize in 2002 for her spell-binding Dickensian masterpiece, Fingersmith. Then came The Night Watch in 2006, followed by the ghost story, The Little Stranger (2009). Both are set in 1940s England and were shortlisted for the Booker.

The amount of historical research done for her latest crime novel, The Paying Guests, is evident from start to finish. Set in 1922 London, it focuses on a mother, aged 55, and daughter, aged 26, reeling from financial and personal losses. Frances Wray has lost both of her brothers in WWI, as well as her father some time later. Now, with barely enough savings to keep their home, Frances and her mother decide to rent out the rooms upstairs.

"The Paying Guests," as the boarders are referred to, are from the lower middle classes - the new "clerk class." Leonard Barber works in an office; his wife, Lilian, lounges about the house in theatrical clothes. The unhappy details of their marriage gradually become known to the reader as Frances ease-drops on their conversations.

The most sympathetic character in the book is Frances. A former suffragette, she once had dreams of a bohemian life. She and her friend, Christine, hoped to make a life together and support themselves by working. This is a new life choice for post-Edwardian women. But loss of her father and brothers, coupled with her mother's sheer helplessness, make this dream impossible. Admirably, Frances never feels sorry for herself. She goes about her days immersing herself in the tasks at hand.

Waters' prose is lyrical as she uses the condition of the newly washed floor as a metaphor for life in general and Frances' life in particular.

How pleasing each glossy tile was. The gloss would fade in about five minutes as the surface dried; but everything faded. The vital thing was to make the most of the moments of brightness. There was no point in dwelling on the scuffs...She had--what did she have?--Little pleasures like this. Little successes in the kitchen. The cigarette at the end of the day. Cinema with her mother on a Wednesday. Regular trips into Town.  (p. 24)

One feels absolutely transported--lulled by the quiet observations of our protagonist. And just when the reader feels secure in the story being told--midway through this 550+ page book--everything changes. A completely new plot unfolds. Frances' attraction to Lillian builds very gradually, as does their mutual passion. And then something shocking happens--a point of no return for Frances and Lillian. Passion is followed by murder. Nail-biting suspense replaces the slow pace of what seemed to be a gentle, domestic drama.

Sarah Waters masterfully analyzes an ethical dilemma and "the corrosive psychology of guilt." To quote Elizabeth Lowry of The Wall Street Journal:

The pressure that remorse and moral responsibility bring to bear on their love affair is unpacked with exquisite pathos, so that whether their relationship will survive at all remains uncertain until the very
last paragraph. It is a finely tweaked conclusion to an unnerving novel in which, in the end, almost everyone pays.

The Wall Street Journal online, September 19, 2014

If you are a fan of period literature, fine prose, or erotic thrillers, The Paying Guests is not to be missed.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How About Never - Is Never Good For You? by Bob Mankoff

If you're a reader of The New Yorker then surely you've come across a brilliant cartoon and thought "I could have written that!". Or maybe you've stared at their famous cartoon caption contest and have been unable to come up with anything worthy to say. Or maybe, like Elaine Benes, you've tried in vain to understand the punchline of a particularly obtusely delivered drawing. Anyone who has spent time enjoying The New Yorker cartoons should look forward to reading How About Never - Is Never Good for You by New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. Named after Mankoff's most famous caption, How About Never is both a memoir and a look at what it takes to create cartoons for one of the few adult periodicals that still offers them.

A mediocre art school student and psychology school dropout, Mankoff, like many of his cartoonist brethren, accomplished the feat of publishing a cartoon in The New Yorker only after years of rejection, though with many other avenues for cartoon publishing around he was able to get his work to the public in other less distinguished magazines. The New Yorker, with its illustrious history of smart cartooning, was the coup de grace and once within the walls, Mankoff became a regular.

The reality of the limits of space in print publishing means that there are bound to be many more cartoons rejected that accepted, which led to Mankoff's later creation of The Cartoon Bank, which offered cartoons that had not been approved for The New Yorker to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, Mankoff ascended to that most prestigious position of Cartoon Editor, in a position to smash young cartoonists' dreams as previous editors had tried with him. Actually, in all seriousness, he became a mentor to young cartoonists, writing how-to books, crediting The New Yorker's newest staff and offering a guide on what makes New Yorker cartoons funny. He even gives the secret of how to win the famous weekly cartoon caption contest, which Roger Ebert claimed to have entered every week, eventually winning on his 107th try.

How About Never is a fast read, filled with Mankoff's humorous asides and many cartoons drawn by the author and his colleagues and predecessors. Beyond being a memoir and history of The New Yorker's comics, it offers a history of comic drawing that you'll probably learn something from. Mankoff also addresses the question of whether the magazine's cartoons have become dumbed down. I do wish that Mankoff would have addressed the question of how the internet ("where no one knows you're a dog", to quote another famous New Yorker comic) has changed the business of cartoon gatekeeping, but mostly this is a very entertaining read.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes

One Plus One is a compelling novel that explores, with compassion, the lives of people at opposite ends of the social strata. Moyes takes the journey motif - in this case, a road trip - and turns it on its ear with her cast of quirky characters.

The heroine of the book is Jess Thomas. She is a single mother who is barely scraping by with two minimum wage jobs. By day, she is a house cleaner; by night she works in a bar. Bad luck stalks her. Her step son, Nicky, is being bullied in his public high school for being a bit Goth and wearing mascara. Nicky is not merely bullied - he is severely beaten by menacing teen brothers. In the poor development where they live, the police seem unhelpful and the neighbors are unwilling to force an eviction.

Adding to Jess's worries is the fact that her daughter, Tanzy, is a ten-year-old math prodigy. Tanzy is a dreamy girl who likes sparkly clothes and finds solace in prime numbers. Her well-meaning teacher suggests she compete in a Math Olympiad. If she scores high, she may win a scholarship to an elite private school. The immediate problem, though, is how to get to Scotland where the test is given.

Enter Ed, the software designer who feels more comfortable behind a screen than in the world at large. He and his best friend have become millionaires and now head up a company. But Ed has committed a grave error. In an attempt to get rid of an unstable woman, he has given her information that leads to his conviction of insider trading. Now Ed is about to lose everything.

Under advice from his attorney, Ed leaves London and heads to his summer home on the southern coast of England - the home that Jess cleans. Caught up in his own mess and drinking much too heavily, Ed sinks deeper into despair.

Jess's story runs parallel to his own. While Ed's trial looms closer, Jess is seen making two mistakes. The first involves the theft of Ed's wallet when she accompanies him home stone drunk; the second occurs when she attempts an ill-advised trip to Scotland in a car that has been sitting idle for years. Jess also has no license to drive.

Predictably, Jess is stopped by the police and Ed just happens to be driving along that stretch of highway. But Ed is hardly the knight on a white horse. Thinking he owes her a favor, he offers to take the Thomas clan - flatulent dog included - to the testing center in Scotland. And so begins a road trip that some reviewers compare to the 2006 film, Little Miss Sunshine.

One of the many strengths of One Plus One is that it gives a human face to the plight of the working poor. It also highlights the growing chasm between the haves and the have nots. Told from different viewpoints, the novel creates characters who are genuine and all too human.

If you are a fan of Jojo Moyes or just someone looking for a good story well told, check out One Plus One. You'll love it!

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

Jace Wilson is  13 years old and the butt of many jokes and much harassment from a local bully named Wayne Potter. Somehow Jace has to settle a bet by jumping 65 feet down into a quarry lake. Jace is afraid of heights, but he is more afraid of being embarrassed in front of girls. He decides practicing is the only way to make sure he can actually do this. He starts with a 15 foot jump and lands in the water but the jump is not really successful because Jace lands right next to a dead body - a body whose throat has been cut and that has been weighted down. 

Once he can think clearly he realizes he must notify the sheriff. He starts towards his clothing on the other side of the quarry when he hears a car approaching. A man exits the car and to Jace's relief he is wearing a badge. Then more men exit the car pushing someone who has a black hood over his head. Jack watches as they kill the man and throw his body into the water.Then they find Jace's clothes and come after him. He stays hidden in the water on the far side until they leave. He goes home and his nightmare really begins.

Jace is now the main focus of these two killers. Known as the Blackwell brothers they are assassins for hire and they need to remove Jace. Jace has been placed under the protection of a private security firm who has sent him to the mountains for a survival camp and he will need it. Soon everyone is on the run.

Michael Koryta has written another thriller with another creepy character. The Blackwell brothers are right out of a nightmare. Jace is the innocent child caught up in their evil. Fast paced with enough twists and surprises to keep you reading, Koryta has written another great book.

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

Island of A Thousand Mirrors is a really important book by a debut novelist, who has been compared to both Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) and Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake).

I was first struck by the beauty of the writing, sentences that I stopped to read again. Here is an opening paragraph. “My name is Yasodhara Rajasinghe and this is the story of my family. It is also one possible narrative of my island. But we are always interlopers into history, dropped into a story that has been going on far before we are born, and so I must start much earlier than my birth and I must start with the boy who will become my father.” Pulls you in, doesn’t it?

This is a story of Ceylon, of Sri Lanka, of the civil war that took place over decades as rival forces struggle for power. And yes, there is violence, and there is blood. There is also so much beauty in this story that you are drawn through the war by your loyalty to the characters, their story and their land. Two main characters - Tamil and Sinhala - were raised virtually together before the troubles, and appear and reappear as the story moves along. I won’t tell you more because it would spoil it, and you really need to read this book.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors has won the Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia, quite an accomplishment for a first time author. Highly recommended.

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