Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

genre: non-fiction

The Hour of Land is Terry Tempest Williams' musings on our National Parks and on the essential role that wilderness plays (or should play or should be allowed to play) in our national psyche and conscience.

The chapters are divided by National Park and cover a wide range - demonstrating how ridiculously varied and beautiful our nation's land is.  From the shores of Florida to the wilds of Glacier Park and the fields of Gettsysburg, her firsthand knowledge and experiences are the foundation of each essay. While some parts are a love letter to the spaces she finds most glorious - even more, each chapter is a discussion of that park's issues, how human policies and choices have affected and continue to affect these sites that belong to all of us. I liked some more than others - and truthfully, as much as one paragraph could move me to tears with its beauty, the next just made me depressed and hopeless.

This woman has a powerful way with words and imagery and she absolutely captures the magic and majesty of our shared spaces.  I get what she's trying to do and I know there is truth her idea that we need to worry more about protecting the parks instead of just celebrating them. I just was looking for more celebration, which is more a problem of my expectations for the book as opposed to a lack in the writing.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Interference by Amélie Antoine

genre: thriller

Gabriel is in love with his wife.  He loves their life together in a small coastal town in France.  He's happy with his job as a banker.  But in one moment, one phone call, the structure of his life falls to pieces. Told from multiple viewpoints, this book explores not only what happens next to Gabriel but the choices he makes and the ways he copes with what he's lost.

Meh.  I can't even write a summary without giving things away but truth is that while it was readable enough, I just did not believe the "twist."  It required too much suspending of my disbelief.  It's a "thriller," I guess, but it ended very quickly (too quickly for me) and I finished feeling blah.  The writing is bland but not horrible and I never wanted to give it up I just...meh. Maybe I should've.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

genre: fiction

Our unnamed narrator arrives at a small, coastal fishing village in Maine at the beginning of summer. In search of a quiet place to write and relax, she soon finds herself in the interesting position of belonging but also being an outsider.  Meeting the natives of the town, making a place for herself among the fisherman and widows, our narrator's lovely voice speaks truth not only about the people she interacts with but also about the human condition at large.

There isn't a plot, per say.  Not action and climax and aftermath.  But each chapter isn't really a short story either, since they all roll around and intertwine with each other.  The landlord, the old sea captains, the grandmothers living on isolated islands in the bay - each character is richly drawn and lovingly rendered.  What you also get is a firm sense of life in such a Maine village, the accents, the passions, the loss.  Nearly everyone is elderly.  Truly.  I can think of maybe two scenes with children but this isn't a story about the young.  It's about the aged, about looking back at what you've had and taking stock of what you've got.  There is a glorious scene at a family reunion that rang with so much clarity, so familiar and authentic that it made me smile while reading, I couldn't help myself.

If you enjoyed Cranford, you might enjoy this.  It isn't funny like Cranford is, but it runs in a similar vein, with a strong sense of community and place. The language is just painstakingly beautiful, I found myself highlighting in at least every chapter.  I'm so glad I found this one.  It definitely makes a Maine of long ago feel alive again.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson (audiobook)

genre: non-fiction

I have to admit that before this book, I have never given lobsters more than ten minutes of thought before.  Maybe not even that. When I asked a trusted reader-friend what I should read if I was going to visit Maine, she recommended this book.  My expectations were probably low, considering the subject matter, but the minute I started listening, I was all in.

The Secret Life of Lobsters is absolutely, yes, about lobsters. It's about their behavior, their physical bodies, their mating and the specific environment that their bodies need to grow and thrive. The science here is pretty fascinating, even for a non-scientist like myself, we dig deep into actual hands-on research, in the lab, out in the water and, interestingly enough, on the lobsterman's boat.  Throughout the text we get to know a lot of different scientists who have dedicated their career (and lives, in some cases) to understanding the lobster itself.   We also get to know a few very specific lobstermen (and women) from the Maine Coast. These people spend their daylight hours out on the water, seeing first hand how lobsters interact with their world and, for the even more importantly, how lobsters as a resource are being managed.

Much of this book is this pull and tug between the scientists and the lobstermen and how the population of lobsters is handling the current rates of fishing.  Overfishing is a real issue, obviously, but it is interesting to see how the lobstermen have tackled it.  Science can measure and calculate so many different minuscule things but it is different to be the guy out on the boat pulling traps in and seeing what is really in front of your face.  I liked this interplay a lot.

The narrative is interesting because clearly the author is privy to all kinds of situations, he is witness to all kinds of things and yet he is NOT part of it.  It's a very objective way of storytelling, with no opinions.  I noticed it but it didn't bother me that he is clearly telling a story about a world he is involved in, in some unknown way (the author's notes do give us clues).   I liked his writing style enough that I would absolutely read more by this author.  Not only do I feel like I know more about lobsters, but I have a real sense of a specific way of life that ebbs and flows with traps full of them.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Hamilton the Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

genre: non-fiction

When I first listened to the soundtrack of the Broadway musical Hamilton from beginning to end, I wept.  More than once.  I wept for the beauty of it, the poignant lessons that we can glean from drama in a different way than we can from anything else, the musicality and the portrait it paints of a group of people that seem familiar but are in many ways an unknown quantity.    As soon as I finished that first listen, I listened again, and again, wondering all the while - what parts of this historical story are real?  What's for dramatic effect and what REALLY happened during this ridiculously important period in our country's history?  When I saw that I could purchase the complete libretto with notes and the story of its creation, I knew I needed it for myself.

And I found the answers I needed. Not only that, I loved this book from beginning to end - how it seamlessly tells how Hamilton the Musical is created, bit by bit and in some parts, Lin-Manuel gives notes about specific word choices and sentences.  Sometimes though, it is a grand overview of the play itself, the impact it has already made on our culture and our way of viewing the past.  I have never seen the play and I may not be able to for quite some time, but I feel like I have a much better sense now of what it is and where it has come from.  I loved the pictures, the anecdotes and I knew this book was well-done when the songs that make me cry when I listen to them (every single time - Stay Alive (reprise), It's Quiet Uptown, Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?) also made me cry when I read about them in this book.  It delves into the actual soul of what makes us human and helps us find the beauty and power in hope, forgiveness and determination. The book has the lyrics to every song and beforehand it will flesh out the process of creation, telling us about those singing it and often also introduce a behind-the-scenes person who helped make the show a success.

I'm a nerd about it.  It is hard for me to explain how the ending makes me feel, as we watch Eliza choose to tell her husband's story, as we are asked to think twice about our opinions of people that are based only on the stories we are told.  The history we know is only based on the stories that those that were able to tell, chose to tell. Stories are power.   I think I've known this since I was a little girl.   And in a lot of ways, I think Hamilton is an homage to the power of words, the ones we use, the ones we read and the ones people say about us when we are gone.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Tipperary by Frank Delaney

genre: historical fiction

When Charles O'Brien sits down to write a history of his life, he starts at his first memory and then moves forward. Throughout his life, Charles' true home was in County Tipperary, in Ireland.  It's where he finds a passion for the land and its people, it's where he comes home to after traveling around the country as a healer.  It's also the place where an Anglo-Irish castle lies dilapidated and abandoned.  For Charles, all of this is also wrapped up in his devotion to one woman and throughout his History he tells a sweeping story of Ireland in the midst of chaotic upheaval and change as well as his own personal experiences as he longs for a woman out of reach.  

"Epic" seems like too grand a term for this book - it's more intimate than that and doesn't cover multiple generations enough to seem to warrant the word.  Like Forrest Gump, Charles O'Brien keeps being in the right place at the right time to witness some very important events and people in Irish history.  Sometimes it's a little TOO coincidental, but I feel like I do have a much better sense of the timeline of the Irish struggle.  The time period, from before the turn of the century to post WWI, was a huge time of change and the book does a good job of making you both sympathetic for the Irish but also frustrated with the way they sometimes are their own worst enemy with the choices they make.  I enjoyed the narrative style that changed from Charles' own written record to that of another narrator who takes Charles' text and gives it context and helps us understand his unreliability about certain experiences. Our narrator shares information from other sources, both primary and secondary,  that flesh things out and also paint a wider picture of the time.  I particularly liked the storyline involving the castle as well as the little mysteries involving Charles and the narrator.

While it didn't change my life, I was entertained, I learned a lot of Irish History and I do feel like I know Tipperary now - and since I have a lot of family that emigrated to the United States from that actual county, that matters to me.  

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Mankind: The Story of All of Us by Pamela D. Toler

genre: non-fiction, history

What this book is, simply, is a book about the history of humanity, from our first societies until the present day.  It focuses on major themes and turning points that have changed things so drastically that civilization was never the same.  From the Ice Age to the first farmers, the history of weaponry and wars,  food production, trade and communication, revolutions and explorations - Mankind reads chronologically but draws grand comparisons.  It's a very colorful volume, visually, the text is very accessible to non-historicans.  There are many small vignettes throughout, giving a personal-type narrative to how a certain event or period would be reflected in the life of a singular person's experience. There are also maps and text-boxes that give in-depth descriptions of different terms and concepts.  

I found it fascinating.  I would carry this giant book around in my bag and read it whenever there were spare moments (and it's a heavy one!).  I feel so much better informed about the history of the world.  I loved the part about exploration and how it affected both native cultures and the larger globe.  My only complaint, and why I am giving it four stars instead of five, is that while throughout the entire book we really got a world-wide history, the last bit of the book is heavily western-hempisphere and USA-based.  It kind of petered out and got a bit muddled at the end without wrapping up in the grand way I'd imagined based on the quality of the rest of the text.  It didn't spoil it, I just expected more.

If you have any passing interest in world history, this gave me a lot to think about and I feel like a better informed global citizen.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Coming Home by Kristy Nunley

genre: contemporary fiction

Olivia has come to enjoy her job as a personal assistant for a crotchety old professor at her college. While it has its frustrating moments, this job helps her be able to afford school far from home and over time, that old professor has become something like a friend. But when one night's horror reveals mystery after mystery, Olivia is suddenly in the thick of a plot of someone else's making.

I wasn't quite anticipating the adventurous/thrilleresque turns this book took! The dialogue is witty and smart. I liked the overall plot and appreciated the challenging circumstances Olivia found herself in. The romance is fun, even if it's a little too good to be true, it was still fun to read. Several minor plot holes made it harder for me to loose myself in Olivia's world and sometimes things worked out so quickly that I had to stretch to suspend my disbelief - but I can't deny that I was entertained and found myself thinking about it when I wasn't reading, which means a solid 3.5 stars from me!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

genre: historical fiction

Wench is the story of Lizzie, a slave from Tennessee. She has become her masters special companion and this "privilege" means that she gets to join him on his summer holiday at a resort in Ohio. At this resort she not only has the opportunity to make close friends with other slave women, she also has her eyes opened to life on the other side, imagining what it could be to be a free black woman. These summers at the resort change and solidify her thinking in ways that remind her that she is human and both capable of and deserving of love – even a love that makes no sense.

While obviously very harsh at times (with some graphic content), I did appreciate how this book made me feel. It is hard to say that you enjoy such a painful story but I also think it is very important for me to give my mind minutes to put myself in the shoes of these women who had literally everything stripped from them except the very knowledge in their minds and convictions in their hearts. And even those convictions were sometimes at the mercy of the harsh hand of the Masters and slave catchers, fear can truly paralyze you. The writing was solid and the dialects were consistent throughout the text. My big complaint is that on several occasions I had trouble keeping the chronology straight in my head from section to section, I really needed better transitions to keep my head in the game. Overall though, I think this is an important book to give voice to these women whose hearts and children were divided between slave and master.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

genre: adult paranormal

Sunshine feeds people. Working the crazy-early shift at Charlie’s coffeehouse, she bakes cinnamon rolls and muffins that help ease the tension of living in a world full of werecreatures, magicians and vampires: Others. Sunshine has always managed to live her life ever-interested but never a PART of any real sort of Others entanglement until one fateful night at the lake after which being removed from the world of the Others is no longer possible. One choice links Sunshine to a new path that even fresh-baked cinnamon rolls can’t help her to navigate.

This is my first McKinley book for adults and it was engaging. Sunhine is a complicated character, and while her narrative voice sometimes drove me crazy I did love watching her learn about herself and what she’s capable of. The world-building here is creative and intricate and the pauses in the action to explain it didn’t feel annoying, which is some good writing. I don’t always love vampire stuff but there are a lot of interesting relationships here and I believed how complicated it could all be. The climax scene was intense and believable and although I did want a little more from the ending, I believed it. 

One thing I will say that takes it from four stars to three, for me, is one surprising scene that has both graphic moments and foul language. I get that this is an adult book but it didn’t fit the feel of the rest of the story to me. Despite that, though, I was always happy to read it while on the treadmill and it was unique enough to keep me guessing.
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