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lost spaces, secret cities, and other inscrutable geographies (2014)
Friday, August 1, 2014
If you like pouring over old atlases or scrolling though Google maps, you will probably like this book. The author is a geographer, not a travel guide, and this comes through in the tone of the book as well as subjects covered.
The connection of what makes each of these places so strange is human intervention, either through physical occupation or mapmaking. The book’s first entry is about Sandy Island, which was neither sandy nor an island. But it was on maps for centuries.
Bonnett divides his entries into various themes. Hidden Geographies includes a labyrinth subterranean city under Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as Hog’s Back Lay By, which is a spot in the English Countryside reserved for public sex.
Lost places are include cites that have been changed and therefore hidden by the current party in charge. These include Leningrad/St. Petersburg and Mecca, which is now basically big shopping mall.
There are floating islands like the country called Sealandia, which is built upon an oil rig. There are dead cities like Pripyat, which housed 30,000 people before the tragic events at Chernobyl.
Krasnoyarsk 26 remained populated, instead of emptying out, after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was built as a community to service a top secret nuclear reactor. Now it is a gated community. The people preferred staying anonymous. Other cities, sometime called “ghost cities” were built to house communities in areas of new growth that turned out to not attract people. China has numerous examples, including Ordos, which was built for one million people, but remains nearly empty.
Another empty city is the fake city of Kijong-dong in North Korea. It was built on the fringe of the DMZ and always has lots of lights blazing to lure those in the south to the “luxury and prosperity” of the north.
These are but a handful of the places the author brings to light. Each chapter is only about 5 pages long and so the book can easily be read in “chunks.” The geographical coordinates of each location are included above the title of each chapter for the cartographically inclined.
This book is more than a collection of conversational trivia, although it is that too. It is “human geography”- looking at the relationship between place and the human psyche.
A Sentimental Journey
Friday, August 1, 2014
Ever dream of sailing across the Atlantic? Me either. And reading this book didn’t make me want to—although I sure enjoyed the vicarious journey. William F. Buckley was best known as a political commentator, but he was also a novelist, an editor, a skier, a harpsichordist (yes, really), and an enthusiastic sailor. Not that this cruise was a great hardship; Buckley traveled in luxury, with the best food and wine, music, movies, and books. He was also accompanied by good friends and—though he was in charge—a crew. What makes the book such a pleasure is Buckley’s descriptions of the people and places, of the sea and sky. Buckley was a skillful stylist, and some critics have acclaimed this his best book. I agree.
The Inside Story of his Incredible Comeback by Rich Podolsky (2013)
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Those of us of a certain age grew up to the strains of comma comma down dooby doo down down, comma comma, down dooby doo down down, breaking up is hard to do. That is Neil Sedaka’s signature song, Breaking up is Hard to do. It was released in 1962. Podolsky tells the story of Neil’s early days in Brooklyn. He started his musical training at the prestigious Juilliard School at the tender age of seven. Sedaka became a member of the group of Brill Building writers which included Carole King and the late Gerry Goffin. Neil Sedaka and his lyricist partner, Howie Greenfield, penned a number of hits including Stupid Cupid (for Connie Francis) and Calendar Girl. Times changed when the Beatles and the British Invasion took the United States by storm. Many of the teen idols like Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, and Ricky Nelson struggled to stay relevant. Fortunately, Sedaka was able to make a comeback many years later with Solitaire, Love will Keep us Together and Laughter in the Rain. Nostalgia galore!
Monday, July 21, 2014
The Humans is a book I could reread once a year. This is a bold statement, I know, especially since the premise is an alien assassin has been sent to Earth to kill a mathematician and erase all evidence of a potentially dangerous theorem. The story and our narrator, the alien acclimating to human life, become much more. I appreciate a narrator that confides in the reader and becomes a fully developed voice in your mind’s ear. Matt Haig’s alien fills that role beautifully. He allows you to join him on his journey and rediscover what it means to be human and vulnerable. Wrapping up the book is an explanation of where Matt Haig was in life when he created this story. The Humans becomes an even greater treasure for it. I will not spoil it though. I hope on some level you connect with this novel and its narrator.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Action-packed, interesting characters, and a well-thought out plot make Pierce Brown's debut novel a winner. Darrow is the main character in this sci-fi thriller. He is a hell digger and a "red", the lowest-class human. He, and other reds, live beneath the surface of Mars where they work in the mines to prepare the surface of the planet for human habitation. What Darrow and the other reds don't know is that the surface of Mars is suitable for life. In fact, humans have been living on the surface of Mars for over a hundred years. This discovery, coupled with the circumstances of his beloved wife's death, pave the way for Darrow to throw a wrench in "gold" society (the upper-class).
I have seen multiple reviews that compare this book to The Hunger Games or refer to it as a "young adult" book. This is definitely a book written for adults and the only comparison I would make is that both books are the first in a planned trilogy and both are phenomenal. I can hardly wait for book #2 (scheduled to release in early 2015)!
Monday, July 14, 2014
This tale begins with a blind date. Marshall—a middle-aged, divorced, extremely lonely and awkward gentleman waits for the woman his friends set him up with to arrive. Natalie shows up (to Marshall’s surprise), and is beautiful, genuine, and intelligent. Unfortunately, as their night unfolds, it becomes obvious that Natalie has some skeletons in her closet, and more than Marshall bargained for is revealed.
I found Mister Wonderful to be one of Clowes’ most human pieces. It’s impressive how in such a brief span of pages, this author/artist can show us half a character’s lifespan with such convincing realism. Because of this, we feel that we know Marshall completely. He is bitter, world-weary and has a mocking sense of humor with hilarious bite. He is socially awkward, unused to people, and almost neurotic. We see this when Marshall’s racing inner thoughts literally cover up other character’s word balloons; he then misses his chance frequently in conversation, responding with something totally inappropriate. I found this especially inventive on Clowes’ part and something many of us can relate to from time to time.
We might feel Marshall’s familiarity, yet Clowes surprises us with twists and turns of his character. Marshall is clearly harboring some explosive anger, and releases it periodically throughout the story, sometimes to Natalie’s shock. This graphic novel is full of surprises, humor, sweetness, darkness, and humanity in all the right places and extends beyond the “slice of life” genre into something much more.
Friday, July 11, 2014
This is an extraordinarily compulsive read that I found serendipitously in our fiction section, having been drawn to the color on the spine and then intrigued by the jacket description. The story centers around Max, an intersex teenager. Max and his parents have guarded the secret of Max’s identity very carefully. The three of them have very different struggles and perspectives over how Max should self-identify in a world offering him only two choices. The author presents the story quite beautifully through the perspectives of multiple characters. There is a truly horrible scene toward the beginning that spans several pages (this is not a spoiler). There is also a bit of profanity, mainly from teenage characters; however, even if you have problems with profanity it is absolutely worth reading anyway. I cannot recommend this title enough. A profoundly, immensely moving book, it more than deserves all the 5-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Jamie Ford creates a poignant recollection of history with his debut novel, "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet". Henry Lee is a recent widower living in Seattle's Chinatown. The year is 1986, and yesterday's memories have assumed a place in the present with the re-opening of the majestic Panama Hotel. Artifacts found in the basement of the old hotel transport Henry back to 1942 when he was a student at Rainier Elementary serving lunch to his classmates alongside his Japanese friend Keiko Okabe. The twelve year olds attend the school on scholarship, and their respective ethnicities result in teasing and bullying by some of the other students. Meanwhile, World War II threatens freedom on the homefront as Keiko's family faces relocation to a Japanese internment camp.
While a young Henry Lee struggles to fit in at school, he also faces turmoil at home. As the United States enters the War, Henry's Father, a proud Chinese man, wages his own war of the heart with the Japanese. In spite of a fierce disagreement with his Father's position, Henry must keep his friendship with Keiko a secret. And though his parents speak Catonese, Henry's Father requires his son to speak only English at home. This further compromises any effective communication between father and son. Loyalties are challenged as Chinese traditions and American culture collide.
Japanese family treasures long hidden in the darkness of the Panama Hotel force a 56 year old Henry to confront devotion to the memory of his deceased wife Ethel alongside the strong memories pulling him back to the past. The richness of history contrasts with modern day regrets, and Henry cannot help but wonder if his own past can be rewritten. Meanwhile, he seeks to strengthen the weak relationship he has with his own son Marty so mistakes of the last generation are not repeated. The tapestry of Ford's story is further enriched by Henry's love of jazz music, Keiko's life behind barbed wire, Mrs. Beatty, and a street performer named Sheldon.
The split narrative used by the author to connect the story between the decades spanning 1942 and 1986 is effective. The memories are relayed from Henry's perspective, and readers will quickly realize little effort is required to be immersed into the lives of such engaging characters. "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" is reminiscent of a vignette highlighting a nostalgic piece of history stemming from the bigger story that is World War II. The elements come together successfully to spin a tale that is more sweet than bitter.
Monday, June 30, 2014
Billie Breslin decides to leave college and move to New York City, where she has an interview for a job as an assistant to the editor of the prestigious food magazine Delicious. Billie’s amazing ability to name all the ingredients in a dish by only tasting it, amazes the staff and secures her the position. It doesn’t take long for Billie to realize that she not only loves her job, but is also beginning to love the large, eccentric magazine family. Sadly, not long after she is hired, the magazine is abruptly shut down by the current owner. Everyone is let go except for Billie, who is kept on as a hotline operator. It is during this time that she discovers a long ago abandoned library in one of the upstairs rooms. In it she finds old file cabinets filled with letters and note cards containing recipes dating back to WWII. By following clues and notations she finds on the cards, Billie is able to follow a correspondence between a 12 year old girl named Lulu and the famous Chef James Beard. These letters take Billie back into wartime America, where food was rationed and people had to get very creative when preparing meals. For example, did you know if you add milkweed to rice, it tastes as if you added cheese? The more letters Billie reads, the more intrigued she gets; so much so that she begins to wonder if perhaps Lulu is still alive and if so, could she find her? There are so many things Billie would love to ask her if she had the chance. Pick up this book and find out where Billie’s search leads.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
There aren’t that many authors that I love. Jonathan Carroll is one of them.
Carroll writes what inevitably ends up being labeled fantasy, but is really simply our lives and emotions expressed more clearly and intriguingly than our workaday world allows for. The mutable nature of reality and the down-to-earth approach to cosmic revelations recall the works of Philip K Dick.
The Wooden Sea is eminently readable and engaging, mainly because of the warmth and humor of the main character, a Vietnam veteran and former bad boy named Frannie McCabe. Frannie is clever, self aware and curious, which might lull one into thinking that this novel is no more than a pleasant diversion. But that would be a mistake; Carroll is not a frivolous writer.
As the novel proceeds, Frannie encounters a number of doubles, versions of himself at various ages, and meets up with an otherworldly figure, a black gentleman named Astopel, who sends Frannie hurtling into the future. He also travels back in time to his favorite Crane's View diner for a poignant and revelatory meeting with his long-dead father.
The book is wonderfully bizarre and contains tons of great quotes. Although as with most Carroll novels, those who prefer neat wrap-ups would do well to look elsewhere.
the unexpected education of two society girls in the West (2011)
Monday, June 23, 2014
An interesting story of two wealthy girls who, after doing their grand tour of Europe, were not ready to marry and settle down. Though they had no experience of "roughing it" or of teaching, they applied to become frontier school teachers in the Elkshead mountains in Colorado.
After a crash course in teaching and review in a few subjects they headed out west. They boarded with a family and traveled every day by horseback to the schoolhouse--in pouring rain, blinding blizzards and sunny spring days where the slippery mud was almost knee-deep. The book tells of the difficulties the subsistence-level farmers faced in the arid, cold climate; students who came in rags and bare feet because they wanted to learn; and history of the area, including the building of the Moffat Trail, a railroad through (literally) the mountains.
This snapshot of life in 1916 made me appreciate what we have now--labor saving devices like washing machines and nearby grocery stores, but also what our society often is missing: friends who would go to great lengths to lend a hand, farmers and ranchers who would welcome strangers with a meal and a bed.
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