Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas Gift Ideas... and Endings

I have always been a fan of Robert Harris.  Fatherland (what if Hitler had won the war) is a novel I go back to and read again and again.  Hitler Diaries is also terrific - a nonfiction look at the famous Hitler Diaries - that turned out not to be written by Hitler.

Harris has also written novels about ancient Rome.  Pompeii, is like Chinatown set in Pompeii, just before the eruption of Vesuvius.  And he has written a trilogy about Cicero, focusing on Cicero's secretary/slave Tiro, who invented a system of shorthand (he also introduced the "&" symbol & and abbreviations like etc and e.g.).  The first book in the series is Imperium, the second is Conspirata and the third, Dictator, will be published in the U.S. in January 2016, but impatient me, I ordered it from Amazon.UK where it came out in the fall.  It's as good as the first two, but I was sad when I finished - it's like losing a friend when you get to the end of a series.

They should be read in order, but if you have a history buff on your Christmas list, Imperium would be a great start.

Ruth Rendell passed away this year and her last book, Dark Corners, was published posthumously.  I put off reading it because I knew when I was done, there would be no more from Ruth Rendell, one of the best mystery writers ever.  Dark Corners is about a bad tenant, a woman who lies about everything, a struggling novelist - typical Ruth Rendell, complex, filled with surprises, and moments that make you very uncomfortable.  She wrote more than fifty novels and seven books of short stories.  Her first book, From Doon With Death, introduced Inspector Wexford.  She also wrote novels under another name, Barbara Vine.  The first Barbara Vine was A Dark-Adapted Eye.

Dark Corners was very good, not my favorite (I was always a bigger fan of the Wexford books).  If you haven't read any Ruth Rendell or have a friend who hasn't, check her out.  Any of her books would make an excellent present.

Happy Holidays and hope you all receive a lot of books.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

So You Don't Want to Sleep Tonight?

While reading Ted Koppel's new non-fiction book, Lights Out, he mentions a novel I'd never heard about, One Second After, by Willam R. Forstchen.  Ted Koppel's book is scary - what would happen to the U.S. in the case of a cyberattack that knocks out our power grid?  Well, we'd be in big trouble because we're not prepared.  It's an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

But don't read it before bedtime.

Another book to skip at bedtime, One Second After, is a novel set in a small town in North Carolina.  Life is great.  Until an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) weapon is detonated, wiping out the electrical grid, computers, cars, cellphones, you name it.  How will our main character, college professor and retired military colonel, John Matherson, provide for his family, take care of his diabetic daughter, and help keep the town together?  Will food be rationed?  Should outsiders be allowed entry?  What do you do with looters?

The strength of the book is its smallness.  It's set in a college town with people who seem familiar - the doctor, the police chief, the college students Matherson teaches.  And suddenly everything that's normal - ice in your freezer, watching TV or listening to a radio, driving a car, air-conditioning, access to medicine - it's all gone.  Money becomes worthless - how do you buy something when the supermarket has nothing left?

One Second After isn't written especially well.  A lot of the writing is clunky and clumsy.  "Should of, would of" used over and over, that made me a little crazy.  You wonder if there was an editor for this book.  But I couldn't stop reading.  Who will survive?  And the bigger, more frightening fact - this could happen.  An EMP is real threat.  Are we set up to stop it?  And if we can't stop it, are we prepared for what to do next?

Yes, I highly recommend One Second After.  But like the Ted Koppel book, Lights Out, don't read it before you go to sleep.  Trust me. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Another Difficult Book

I don't know what made me order KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration
by Nikolaus Wachsmann.  Probably a good review and my love of
history and interest in World War II.  In high school I remember trying to
read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich - I didn't get far, too dense.
(The book, not me.)  Later I read it in college and couldn't put it down
and naturally with my obsessive nature, had to devour everything by
William L. Shirer (Berlin Diary is a must-read).

KL is dense.  Almost 900 pages and over 600 pages of text.  It's heavy.  I
put it on the scale and it weighs almost three pounds.  Comprehensive, a
great amount of detail, excellent maps.  And as precise and clinical when
describing KL bureaucracy, Wachsmann is also able to connect us
emotionally to inmates through their letters and testimony after the war.
(Although far too many letter writers do not survive and only live on
through their writing.)

From simple, somewhat disorganized beginnings in 1933, the KLs (shorthand
for Konzentrationslager, concentration camp) were populated with mostly
criminals, communists, homosexuals, and "asocials."  It was surprising to
get deep into the book and realize how many of the inmates in the early
years weren't Jewish.  But that certainly changes.

And once it does the horror of the Holocaust becomes very evident in KL.  And
there are other horrors - as the treatment of Soviet POWs vividly

At times I had to put down KL.  But KL is an important book.  It describes how
camps originally created to contain opponents to Hitler eventually
evolved into camps that practiced mass extermination.  Put the bureaucracy aside - 

how could human beings could treat each other like this?  How did people survive 
and go on with their lives after this experience?

There's a reason people say never again.  There's a reason people should
read books like this, even though they're not easy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Read Me Now

I remember when Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast came out.  The reviews were great.  I love Roz Chast, I've enjoyed her cartoons in the New Yorker for years.  So why didn't I buy the book?

Recently I was shopping at Barnes & Noble with my daughter, looking for a birthday present, a "funny" book for one of her friends who is... well, a little earnest.  I suggested David Sedaris (of course) and my daughter shook her head.  "She doesn't get irony," my daughter said.  When I spotted Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, that seemed to have potential.  A graphic novel - hey, it's got pictures!

But a book about a middle-aged woman dealing with her aging parents, probably not great reading for an earnest, un-ironic eighteen year old.

However, it turned out to be perfect for me.

It's very very funny, very very moving.  Honest, engaging.  Painful at times.  Sometimes so difficult it makes you "bats," as Roz Chast says.  But a beautiful book that reminds us about how complicated it is to be part of a family. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


I just finished two books, both about parents.  Well... about parents, but the books are very different.  Bettyville is a memoir written by George Hodgman, who leaves New York City to return to his hometown, Paris, Missouri, to take care of his aging mother.  Hodgman, a gay man, has never felt like he belonged in Paris (Missouri) and his relationship with his mother is at times awkward, funny, and glorious.  Bettyville is about growing up, about how our parents raise us, and how they can be as imperfect as we are.  You will fall in love with Betty.  And her son, too.  It’s a beautiful book.  If you’re on Facebook, check out George Hodgman’s author page. 

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan is also about a parent... if your parent happens to be Joseph Stalin.  Look at the cover of the book, do you feel a chill?  What would it be like to grow up with Stalin as your father?  Svetlana Alliluyeva's life wasn’t easy (not exactly a shock), she had several marriages, she defected and came to the United States, then went back to Russia – yes, extraordinary and tumultuous.  And Stalin as a parent?  Controlling, remote, abusive, although you realize that there were moments where he did love his daughter.  As Svetlana Alliluyeva grows up, she becomes more and more aware of who her father is and it's a horrible realization.  But in spite of everything, she survived.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Who Knew There was a Book?

There's a wonderfully quirky, scary, and sometimes romantic movie called Time After Time about H. G. Wells and Jack the Ripper.  In 1893, Jack the Ripper has taken a secret trip in Wells's time machine.  When Wells finds out, he takes a trip of his own - to bring back Jack.  Both men find themselves in contemporary (well, 1979) San Francisco where Jack resumes his killing spree and Wells tries desperately to stop him.

It's a delicious movie - watching Malcolm McDowell as Wells, the proper Englishman, finding himself almost a hundred years in the future.  Seeing cars for the first time.  Walking into a McDonald's ("Pomme frites!").  Meeting feminist Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen) and falling in love.  Anticipating utopia, but finding something else. 

When I looked on Wikipedia for information about the film, I was surprised to see it was based on a novel.  The unfinished novel was optioned by Nicholas Meyer, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie as the novelist, Karl Alexander, completed the book.  The novel and movie both appeared in 1979. 

I've just finished the novel.  It's obviously a lot like the movie, but we spend more time in Wells's head (and in Jack the Ripper's creepy head, too) and learn in greater detail how Wells feels about the future - whoops, not exactly what he was expecting. 

There's a sequel that I haven't read yet - Jaclyn the Ripper.  Jack somehow turns into a woman who kills people (men?) in 2010 Los Angeles.  And, I'm guessing, as Wells and his new wife Amy, try to catch her.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Difficult Books

I couldn’t say I enjoyed reading One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad.  Her book is about Anders Breivik, who in 2011 detonated a bomb outside the prime minister’s office in Oslo killing eight people and then made his way to Utøya, an island youth camp where he slowly and methodically shot and killed sixty-nine people, mostly teenagers.  Not exactly happy time reading. 

But a book I would highly recommend.  Why do tragedies like this happen?  We want to understand what could possibly make a person do something as horrible as a Columbine or the Aurora movie theatre shooting.  Or the massacre in Norway.  Reading about the pain and suffering of the victims and their families isn’t easy.  There were times when I had to put the book down and walk away from it.

 Ms. Seierstad is a well-known journalist and a wonderful writer.  There is a great deal of detail in One of Us – the lives of some of the victims as well as the sad life of Anders Breivik.  When Breivik was very young, his family was observed by the Centre for Child Care and Adolescent Psychiatry and it was suggested he be removed from his family and sent to stable foster care.  One of many "what ifs" that could have prevented the massacre.

The short prologue of the book takes place on Utøya where teenagers are fleeing from Breivik.  We don’t come back till that terrible day until page 272 (it’s 500+ pages).  By then we’ve met many of the victims and the prologue becomes clearer and even more heartbreaking.  One of Us is never exploitative and very respectful to everyone involved, including Breivik’s parents.  Yes, One of Us was a tough read, but in the end it felt like a tribute to the lives lost on that terrible day.    

Friday, April 10, 2015

Books That Surprise You - Sounds Crazy, No?

One of the best parts about reading is stumbling across a book and falling wildly, madly in love with it.

I had medium expectations for Wonder of Wonders, a Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof by Alisa Solomon.  Yes, I like musical theatre (Stephen Sondheim is a god, btw), but a “cultural history?”  That sounded dry, like a failed thesis project.  I’d read a biography of Jerome Robbins, the choreographer/director, and I knew the musical (how did the bottles stay on the dancers’ heads during the bottle dance?  Because they better not fall off, that’s how), so why not give the book a chance?

Wonder of Wonders starts with Sholem-Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer, and explores the world of Yiddish theatre.  I knew a little about Sholem-Aleichem, but not much (okay, nothing) about Yiddish theatre.  And – go figure – it’s fascinating.  The book talks about the making of the Broadway show, but spends as much time talking about about culture and storytelling and the importance of keeping history alive. 

The book is beautifully written.  And parts made me cry – a chapter called “Fiddler While Brooklyn Burns,” about an inner-city school doing a mostly African-American and Hispanic production of Fiddler – amazing. 

Even if you’re not a musical fan, this is a book to read and savor.

"Here in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!"

Monday, March 16, 2015

Looking for a Book to Read?

Over the weekend I was invited to participate in Authors on the Move, an event featuring 40 writers and over 250 guests getting together to eat and drink and raise money in support of the Sacramento Public Library’s Literary Foundation.  The evening was tons of fun and - woo hoo - over $100,000 was raised for the Library’s Summer Reading Program. 

I met many writers, but wanted to share information about my tablemates and their latest work. 

Jan Ellison’s debut novel is A Small Indiscretion, about a woman and her family and secrets in her past. 

Stephen D. Gutierrez has written three books – his latest is a collection of stories and essays, The Mexican Man in his Backyard. 

John C. Hampsey is from Pittsburgh (my father’s hometown) and his book, Kaufman’s Hill, is a memoir about Pittsburgh in the ‘60s.

The only regret I have is that I wasn’t able to meet more writers or buy more books.  So many books, so little time.  

But take a look at these and enjoy!

Friday, February 20, 2015

50 Shades of Blech

I never read 50 Shades of Grey.  But friends (thanks, friends!) insisted on reading parts of the book to me over the phone.  Or emailing especially poorly written passages.  Christian Grey using the word “incentivize,” for example.  Not to mention the gruelingly awful (I’m trying to channel E. L. James) sex scenes. 

I have a hard time with badly written novels.  After the first Twilight novel and several references to Edward’s “perfectly muscled chest,” I was done. 

My experience with erotic fiction is limited.  Very limited.  Four books.  But they’re good and I recommend them.  The Story of O (do women still read that in college?).  Anne Rice (writing as A. N. Roquelaure) and her three Sleeping Beauty books are beautifully written.  Hardcore, not for the timid. 

Senta Holland’s Out of the Shadows surprised me because it’s a story about BDSM, but told with grace and real emotion.  It’s not an easy book to read, you have to let yourself fall into it.  

Yes, good erotic fiction exists.  Why settle for swill?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Nick Hornby, I Love You

Okay, I know you’re married and not available (yeah, I’m married, too, but I bet if I told my husband I was going to run off with you he might not mind too much – he’s a big fan of High Fidelity).  And we'd have a good time together.  I'd compliment you on your writing, bring you tea, learn to like bangers and mash.  Say "gobsmacked" all the time.  

But I’m not really in love with Nick Hornby.  I do love his books very much (Juliet, Naked - what a delicious read).  When a friend told me in December about Mr. Hornby’s latest novel, Funny Girl, I couldn’t wait to read it. 

Uh-oh.  Big problem.  It wasn’t available yet in the U.S.  Thank goodness for Amazon.co.uk. (Plus how cool is it to get a book that costs  £ 8.90?)  My copy of Funny Girl came before Christmas.  Ah, and it's glorious.  Mr. Hornby's prose is deceptively simple and accessible.  His words don’t get in the way, his writing isn’t self-conscious.  And there’s a realness and relatability (is that really a word?) to his characters – you know these people.  You might actually be like these people. 

Funny Girl is about a woman in the ‘60s who dreams of becoming a TV star, like her idol, Lucille Ball.  It’s funny, it’s moving, you will fall in love with Barbara Parker/Sophie Straw and the people around her.  And you'll have a grand time in the '60s.

(By the way, my last blog post was about a neglected TV show, It Takes a Choir - if you haven't checked it out, please do.  I'm not kidding about how good it is.  Available on Amazon.)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Not About a Book - It Takes a Choir

I was planning to start the new year by talking about Funny Girl, the latest Nick Hornby novel.

But I'm going to wait.  Because recently I watched an extraordinary show on television and I bet you've never heard of it.

It Takes a Choir.  Ring a bell?  (Ha, that's funny.  Choir.  Ring a bell.)  Gareth Malone is an English choirmaster who did an excellent reality series in England a few years ago called The Choir, where he taught mostly non-singing students to participate in a choir where they eventually competed in the World Choir Games. How will they do?  Can they learn a song in a foreign language?  Perform in front of a live audience?

My husband and I read that there would be a U.S. version called It Takes a Choir.  We set our DVR.  And forgot about it.  Just before New Year's Eve we noticed that eight episodes of It Takes a Choir had been recorded.  Funny - we'd never seen any promotions or reviews of the show.  When I looked on Google,  I found out the series had been made in 2012 for the USA Network, but its release was continually delayed.  Finally all eight episodes were aired (aka "burned off") on a single day in December.  Luckily our DVR remembered.

We've watched three of the episodes - the first about military wives (and a few husbands) with spouses stationed overseas.  They're not singers.  Can Gareth bring them together and make them sound like a choir?  I admit I'm a big baby - somebody who cries at Folger's coffee commercials.  So it was no surprise when I sobbed my way through the episode.  The same with the other two we've seen.  Gareth Malone is so in love with singing and works hard to bring people together and teach them - he wants them to love music as much as he does.  There's an innocence to this show and not in a mawkish sort of way.  How often do you see something on television and feel genuinely moved?

It Takes a Choir is available on Amazon.  Give it a try.  "Bringin' Back Berwick" is a good episode.  And see if you don't cry when they sing "Let the River Run."  I dare you.