Recently, I had to do some long-distance driving so I did something I rarely do, listen to a book. I chose A Deeper Sleep, a mystery by Dana Stabenow. I wanted something both absorbing and light while I was negotiating the long interstates of Illinois.
This book was spot-on. It’s set in and around Denali National Park. If you like your sleuths both tough and appealing, Kate Shugak is the detective for you. She’s part Aleut, has lived on the outskirts of the great national park all her life and has a good deal of street (or should I say trail cred) with the natives, most of whom are her relatives.
Near the small community of Niniltna, an evil guy, Louis Deem, has killed his wife and attacked several girlfriends—one way to get rid of your exes. Kate and Trooper Jim Chopin work together to locate the evidence that will seal his fate. But though they manage to arrest him several times—he’s a sly, cagey murderer, and a jury (swayed by an excellent Anchorage defensive attorney) releases him. Read more »
Making Babies is a delightful book about mothering--not all flowers and grace--but a truthful and somewhat sardonic account about the joys and frustrations of new parenthood. Irish novelist Enright and her husband, Martin, a playwright, had been married eighteen years before having a child. In this book, she details the whole process, from the week she decided that they should try to have a child soon (when she was already pregnant) to the period after her second child was born.
Enright describes a photo of herself taking immediately after the birth. She looked “pragmatic and unsurprised,” but then later when they moved the baby to their room down the hall, she noticed that, “The child looks at the passing scene with alert pleasure…She is saturated with life, she is intensely alive. Her face is a little triangle and her eyes are shaped like leaves, and she looks out of them, liking the world.”
Contrast this with the chapter titled “Milk” where Enright discusses the absurdity of starting a new biological function in her late thirties. She also remarks that there’s no quicker way to clear a room than to begin breastfeeding there. It’s not the sight of the breast so much, as the loud raucous sounds coming from the infant. Read more »
In Girl Land, essayist and magazine writer, Caitlin Flanagan writes about the period she considers “the most psychologically intense period” of a girl’s life—adolescence. Her focus is on how it feels and what mores and culture govern the lives of young women in the 21st century in the age of Facebook, 24 hour Internet and cell phones, etc.
Her premise is that each generation pushes the envelope for sexual and other freedoms more, and that activities that the last generation might have found shocking often become commonplace. If you’re a parent of a female teen, or just want to compare your own youth to what it’s like now, you’ll enjoy this book. In a chapter on dating, Flanagan covers the interesting history of dating. It didn’t become very popular until the roaring 20s and the advent of cars—roadsters--in those days. Sex became easier to do away from homes and watchful parents. Flanagan also postulates that the expectations that the female would apply the brakes to sexual activity also become prominent then.
Other chapters cover diaries, proms, menstruation, and sexual initiation. The one on proms is both scary and revealing. Scary because post-prom events have become occasions with lots of alcohol, drugs, and sex. Flanagan also describes upper and middle class girls dressing like streetwalkers and some schools hosting Pimps and Hos parties. She describes young people using these events as “an aggressive assertion of maturity.” They get away with this because the parents have some decades-old image of proms as romantic, flower- and gown-filled events. Read more »
Wife in the Northis Judith O'Reilly's memoir about facilitating her husband's dream of leaving London and moving to the countryside in Northumberland. O' Reilly, who is literate, urbane, and immensely funny decidedly fits the city girl mold. She likes richly-frothed cappuccinos, museum meanderings, and rides on crimson double-decker buses. Several years before the start of this journal, O'Reilly's husband talked her into buying a holiday cottage near the sea. He promised to never consider living there full-time.
But two and a half kids later—while she's pregnant with their third child--he does beg her to move there, and overwhelmed by hormones, she reluctantly agrees with the caveat that after two years, if she does not like it, they can return to London.
In a previous life, before having children, she was an award-winning journalist who covered national education issues and hobnobbed with leaders. She enjoyed her fast-paced life and her cosmopolitan friends. This book is one of the best I’ve read about a career woman immersing herself in and adapting to domestic life.
And what a hard adaptation it is. Although Northumberland has more castles than anywhere else in England it has few bookstores and no decent cappuccinos. But it does have rocky crags, deep forests, and best, a wild seacoast. In the first six months after delivering her daughter, Judith rails against leaving the city but still cannot help admiring Read more »
Cops and forensic specialists are different from you and me, they've seen too many corpses and have had to reconstruct too many grisly last moments. In this fast paced thriller, Boston detective Jane Rizzolli works on the case of her friend Maura Isle's disappearance. They've worked together for years. Jane’s sleuthing skills and Dr. Isle's medical knowledge have led to many mysteries being solved. Because she believes that she lacks the people skills and compassion needed by a doctor in a practice, Maura prefers working with corpses. If you’ve seen the TV show, yes, it’s that same strong-women team from Boston of detective and coroner.
Ice Cold begins with Maura saying good-bye to her long-term boyfriend, Fr. Daniel Brophy. Because he is a Catholic priest, their affair must remain secret. Maura's on her way to a medical conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. While there, she reconnects with a med school friend who invites her out to dinner. Usually, Maura nixes such invitations but she's annoyed at Daniel and unhappy with the amount of time he allows himself to spend with her. Read more »
The Angel Esmeraldais Don DeLillo’s first story collection, and man, can he craft excellent short fiction. Famous for his novels, including Libra and White Noise, DeLillo’s prose is concise, clear, and adept at capturing the inner worlds of his characters. He’s obviously not a prolific short story writer because the nine stories span the years from 1979 to 2011. They are set in many locations including: Manhattan, Greece, the Caribbean, a prison camp for wealthy offenders, and a rocket ship in outer space, among others.
My favorite piece is “Midnight in Dostoyevsky.” It’s about two college students at a wintry, unnamed campus, who love to argue about almost everything, including the big questions of life and a stranger's motivations and unknown family life. At the story’s beginning, they start contesting each other's opinions about another pedestrian even while they are passing him. They have a heated and involved dialogue about whether this old man's hooded winter garment is a parka, an anorak, or something else. These arguments aren’t just idle chatter. For the two students involved, they put their intellectual and perceptive skills on the line, and being right is vital to their sense of pride. Read more »
I don’t read many novellas but this one, Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson made several “best new book” lists recently. And it got rave reviews from quite a few other writers.
Grainier’s first memory of trains is of being sent on one as a young child, with a fare receipt pinned to his shirt. His destination was Fry, Idaho, but he never knew his parents or even the origin point of this trip. One older cousin said that he came from Canada and that the French language had to be whipped out of him. Another cousin said that family had sent him from Utah where he had spent his first years as a Mormon. But all his life, he had only trains and their tracks for the history of his early childhood. Read more »
I only brought one novel on my vacation to New Mexico, and How It All Began was the perfect one. Not that it’s about New Mexico, no—it’s almost wholly set in London with a few side trips to Cambridge and a “cathedral town.”
The novel begins with an interesting premise, similar to the butterfly affect in New Zealand. What happens in the rest of the world when a butterfly starts a slight breeze wafting Down Under? In this case, it’s nothing as natural or beautiful as a butterfly fluttering. Instead, an older retired teacher and passionate book person, Charlotte, has been mugged on a city street. This ignites a chain of events that alters many lives.
First, her daughter Rose must come to the hospital and care for her. This leaves Rose’s grumpy, egotistical employer, Henry, a former professor of history, at a loss. Rose had promised to accompany him to Cambridge where he was presenting a lecture on his field, 18th century England. Read more »
Tonight if you are lucky and the sky doesn't cloud up, you will be able to observe one of astronomy’s rare celestial events, the transit of Venus. But be careful, and don't look directly at the sun without using safe viewing glasses or lenses. If you don't own those, you can attend one of the free events listed below. If you miss tonight's transit, alas, you won’t catch another in your lifetime because the next one won’t occur until 2117.
I’ve been reading about the transit of Venus and how an earlier one in the 18th century really expanded our knowledge of the solar system. It also was the earliest example of a large and cooperative international scientific expedition.
We have two new books that report on this scientific quest. Andrea Wulf's Chasing Venus: the Race to Measure the Heavensreports on the work and incredible adventures that were undertaken by scientists worldwide in trying to observe and make measurements for the transit that occurred on June 6, 1761. In an age when it took several months for a letter to cross the oceans and a few more months for a response, a scientist in England organized this great scientific undertaking. In remote corners of the world, scientists from Britain, Russia, India, Germany, the Read more »
"I am absurdly fearful and various omens have combined to give me a dark feeling ... It seems to me that my future upon earth will soon close ... I have a vague expectation of some crisis—I know not what." Shortly before returning to America from Europe, the famous 19th century feminist Margaret Fuller wrote these words.
This small elegantly designed historical novel is a pleasure to read. Besides the famous activist Fuller, it presents portraits of other famous 19th century literary heroes including Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne. But these are basically side characters; it’s really about Margaret Fuller, the activist, writer, and revolutionary who changed the world’s thinking about women.
It’s divided into two sections. The first tells the story of Fuller’s shipwreck off Fire Island, New York. This section is told primarily through the viewpoint of Annie Thoreau, the famous naturalist’s younger sister and helpmate. What makes Annie’s viewpoint interesting is that at the beginning she does not like Margaret. Like many in the politically active town of Concord, Annie felt that by concentrating on the problems of women, Fuller was stealing fire from the anti-slave movement. Read more »