Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir






Astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and may be the first person to die there.  He's stranded, completely alone, and has no way to contact Earth to let them know he's alive.  Drawing on his ingenuity, engineering skills, and just plain determination to survive, he tries to think his way through each calamity, one step at a time.  One thing is sure, he just will not give up.  They made a movie from this book already in which Matt Damon stars.  The movie has been called Apollo 13 meets Cast Away.  One thing I remember thinking as I read the book was how did the author manage to fact check this book (which is full of science and math and facts about Mars)? Does he have friends at NASA or JPL? How can you confirm its accuracy? Apparently that was very important to Weir as well. This confessed space nerd even wrote a computer program to make the science as real as possible.  And you can certainly see how this authenticity added to the edge of your seat feel to the book.  And even I, someone who hates math, can see the importance of it to the survival of our species in this man against the elements story.  This book was a really fun read, well written, fast paced, and leaving you marveling at the resilience of the human spirit.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Here if you Need Me by Kate Braestrup


A beautifully written account of a woman's journey through grief to connect with her faith and to ultimately find happiness.  In the wake of her husband's death she pursues his dream of becoming a minister, and ultimately finds her calling as a chaplain to search-and-rescue workers.  A deeply moving and uplifting story of finding God through helping others and of the small miracles that happen every day when a heart is grateful and love is practiced faithfully.  Very tender hearted and funny, you don't have to share her faith to be moved by her writing and the struggles she overcomes.  A touching and affecting read.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell





In this continuation of the story she began in Doc, Mary Doria Russell presents her richly detailed and meticulously researched presentation of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and the beginning of the mythology that surrounds it to this day.  Her characterization of these men and the times they lived in within her narrative is so rich that you feel like you are right in the middle of all the action.

It is a story of a divided nation, vicious politics, and a partisan media that rivals that of today.  America in 1881 is shown in all its gritty splendor and you can't tell the good guys and the bad guys from the color of the hat they wear.  To me, the character that really shines in this book (as well as the first book in this series "Doc") is Doc Holliday.  He is such a complex person with so many different sides to his personality and so many diverse talents that I find him quite fascinating.  And the dynamics at work within the Earp brothers and the women who loved them are so interesting as a backdrop for this historical event that we think we know so much about already.

And then there is Wyatt Earp.  A good man who is caught right in the middle of a great tragedy and yet still tries to remain a hero.  When I was growing up I loved watching the TV program, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp starring Hugh O'Brien.  I can still sing the theme song..."the west it was lawless but one man was flawless..." 




Luminous and elegant; a compulsively good read.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins


This book is full of unreliable narrators and not necessarily likable characters.  It is well written and the plot moves along fast enough so that the suspense is maintained, and yet it was ultimately a bit disappointing.  I can't really put my finger on just why, other than the fact that there weren't any characters in it that I could really relate to.  I think if there had been at least one or two it would have made for a better read.  If I was using a 5 star rating, I think I would give this one about a 3.5--interesting and worth reading, just not top of the line (but then again I am a tough reviewer, rarely giving a book 5 stars).

Synopsis:  Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning.  Every day she passes a stretch of cozy suburban homes.  Each day the train stops at a signal that allows her to watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck.   She starts to feel like she knows them, and even assigns them names in her head.  She sees their life as perfect, not unlike hers until just recently.  And then she sees something that shocks her.  As the train moves on from the stop, everything has changed and she is unable to keep it to herself.  She tells the police what she knows and becomes entwined in what happens next, as well as the lives of everyone involved.  Now she is wondering if she has done more harm than good.

So, pick it up and read it and see what you think.   


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese


This is an emotionally riveting book; an epic tale, brilliantly written and deeply affecting.  Weaving together the threads of numerous storylines into a beautiful tapestry of history and landscape, love, betrayal, and forgiveness, and brimming with wisdom about the human condition.

Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa.  Orphaned by their mother's death in childbirth and their father's disappearance they come of age in Ethiopia which is on the brink of revolution.  Their passion for the same woman  will tear them apart and force Marion to flee his homeland and take refuge as an intern in an overcrowded New York City hospital.  Then the past catches up to him, nearly destroying him. 

The title "Cutting for Stone" refers to a line from the Hippocratic Oath that stems from a time when kidney and bladder stones were epidemic (and deadly).  There were some surgeons who could cut for stone, but then they'd wipe their blades on their pants and head off to the next village.  It was extremely dangerous (because of infections).  The phrase implies, "Leave that for people who know what they're doing."

Loss is a theme that runs strongly through the book.  The language used is beautiful.  An imaginative and luminous masterpiece.

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash



I've been hearing good things about Wiley Cash as an author for awhile now, because I love southern literature with an Appalachian setting.  I finally decided to try this first novel of his before I tackled his latest book, and I was not disappointed.

The title of this book comes from the final lines of "You Can't Go Home Again" by Thomas Wolfe.  It has a strong sense of place (like most good southern literature) and is tragic, gut wrenching, and dark.

The story is told by three characters, Jess (a young boy growing up in the town of Marshall), Adelaide (the town midwife and moral conscience), and Clem Barefield (a Sheriff with his own painful past).  A thriller that highlights good versus evil and has elements of carnal sin, faith versus reason, fathers and sons, grief, guilt, and snake handling told with strong narrative voices.  Haunting and atmospheric.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel



Dark and lyrically written, this book celebrates all the things that make us human:  art, love, literature, and theater in a moving and haunting post pandemic landscape.

This book is so different from the usual variety of post apocalyptic fiction, and well worth your time reading.  It is bleak, but written in a very unique and gorgeous style.

An actor suffers a fatal heart attack on stage while performing in King Lear.  Shortly thereafter a flu pandemic all but annihilates life.  A Traveling Symphony of actors traverses the landscape performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors.  Written on their caravan and tattooed on one of the actor's arms is a line from Star Trek, "Because survival is insufficient."  See what I mean? Shakespeare and Star Trek in a post apocalyptic story.  You gotta love that.

Spanning decades and moving back and forth in time, it is a beautiful and sad novel that blooms in your heart.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall


Star Trek nerd that I am, I really enjoyed this zombie parody written by a couple of lifelong science fiction geeks.  Each chapter title is the name of a Star Trek episode, the writing is surprisingly good, and I found it to be really hilarious.  I mean, come on, a zombie outbreak at a Star Trek Convention? The Trek references alone were a gold mine, the characters were solid and likable, and I found it to be a very entertaining read.  

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Fearless by Eric Blehm

 
 
To become a Navy Seal, you must first go through what is widely considered to be the most physically and mentally demanding military training in existence.  Only about 1% of those who enter, complete the training.  Adam Brown, the man this book is about, was ranked near the top 1% of this elite cadre of men.  This is the story of how an all-American boy lost his way, yet found it again, with the help of his faith, his family, and the love of a woman, to become a highly trained warrior whose courage and determination were legendary.
 


 
 
Author Eric Blehm has given us an up close and personal glimpse into the heart of a warrior.  There is a spate of books and movies out now about these military heroes who sacrifice so much to protect us here in this country, and sometimes wind up paying the ultimate price.  I also think it is very important that we understand and appreciate such sacrifice, and books like this one will go a long way towards helping us understand what special caliber of men these are and how much we all owe them.
 
A vivid and absorbing account that leads to a final act of bravery, and the ultimate sacrifice.
 
______
 
In the interest of full disclosure, I did receive a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Small Victories by Anne Lamott


The Chicago Tribune said about this book:  "Anne Lamott is practically a household word in the peeling-back-the-soul department. She's utterly disarming. She's hysterically funny.  One minute, you're falling off your chair laughing, and the next, you're gasping for air, because Lamott has just unfurled a sentence that cuts straight to the heart of what you really needed to know."  All of which I totally agree with and couldn't have said any better myself.  She is irreverent in her style and approach to the subject of faith, so she may not be everybody's cup of tea.  But, she truly has a gift for emotional intensity and soul searching and her self-deprecating humor is delightful.  This book is honest, vulnerable, and beautifully written.  If you are looking for some inspiration during these bleak winter days, pick it up.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless


The story of Chris McCandless has struck a chord with many people since his body was found in the wilds of Alaska more than twenty years ago.  Jon Krakauer's iconic book "Into the Wild" was a favorite read of mine.  So, when I heard about this book written by his sister, Carine, I was anxious to read it.  

She says many times in the book that she is the only person who truly understood what motivated Chris's decision to leave all his belongings and his family and disappear into the wild Alaskan landscape.  This motivation was hinted at in Krakauer's book, but Carine goes into much detail when exposing the violent and abusive family history that precipitated his disappearance.

I don't know what I think about the whole experience now that I've read the book.  I'm glad she wrote the book and gave us more background on Chris and her family's struggles with dysfunction...but, in the end a very idealistic man's life was cut short in a very tragic and maybe ultimately preventable way...and that's just sad.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cup of Blood by Jeri Westerson


I love the Crispin Guest series and have read every single one, so I was very much looking forward to this prequel.  Here we learn more about how Crispin first teams up with his sidekick Jack Tucker.  But first, a little background.

Billed as a medeival noir mystery series, her protagonist is a disgraced knight turned detective trying to make his way on the mean streets of fourteenth century London.   They call him the Tracker, because he finds things (or people), and he's pretty darn good at it too.

When a corpse turns up at his favorite tavern, Crispin begins an inquiry, but the dead man turns out to be a Knight Templar, an order thought to be extinct for 75 years, charged with protecting a certain religious relic which is now missing.  Before he can investigate, Crispin is abducted by shadowy men who are said to be minions of the French anti-pope.  Further complicating matters are two women: one from court with an enticing proposition, and another from Crispin's past, dredging up long-forgotten emotions he would rather have left behind.  And as if all that weren't enough, a cunning young cutpurse by the name of Jack Tucker has insinuated himself into Crispin's already difficult life.  The deeper Crispin probes into the murder, the more it looks like the handiwork of an old friend turned adversary.  With enemies from all sides, Crispin has his hands full in more than murder.

This is historical fiction at its best.    

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and the host and creator of the "Ask a Mortician" web series.  She founded the death acceptance collective The Order of the Good Death and cofounded Death Salon.  In this book, she argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society and calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).  She fills the book with fascinating anecdotes and puts her degree in medieval history to good use by relating to us the history of our customs concerning death in America and around the world.  She demystifies a subject that a lot of people try to avoid even thinking about much less dealing with, and her humor and humanity shine through it all.  A quite interesting read.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Jerry Lee Lewis: Hiw Own Story by Rick Bragg

 




Rick Bragg has been called the greatest southern storyteller of our time.  What better author could they have gotten to write the biography of a southerner some call the greatest rock and roller of all time.  This book is the Killer's life the way he lived it, framed by Bragg's wonderfully descriptive and richly atmospheric turn of phrase.  Bragg spent hours interviewing Jerry Lee in his bedroom, where he lay on his bed with "a loaded, long-barreled pistol behind a pillow, a small arsenal in a dresser drawer, and a compact black automatic on a bedside table." 

"He remembered it as it pleased him," Bragg writes at the start of the book.  "That doesn't mean he always remembered it the same way twice."  Music gave Jerry Lee a purpose, and at 79 Bragg's portrait of him will be the way he's remembered when he's gone.

 


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult




As of this writing, Leaving Time is in the running for Best Fiction Book of the year at Goodreads, and rightly so.  An author for over two decades, her books about love, family, and relationships are consistent best sellers because they resonate with readers.

In this story of a teen searching for her missing mother, Picoult manages to combine elephants, a psychic, the spirit world, and grief and loss into a phenomenal emotional narrative.  As usual she introduces multiple characters and each chapter is written from differing viewpoints. 

Leaving time is set partially at a New England elephant sanctuary and also in Africa where wild herds roam.  As the book opens, thirteen year old Jenna Metcalf is searching for her mother, Alice, an elephant researcher who disappeared 10 years earlier after a tragic accident at the sanctuary.  Her father has been in a psychiatric hospital since the incident.  Jenna reads journals her mother kept in the hopes of finding clues to her disappearance.  She enlists the help of Serenity Jones, a disgraced psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, a hard-drinking detective in her search.

The story is well told, funny, and the wonderful twist at the end is one I won't soon forget.  I also love elephants, which really added to my enjoyment of the book, and I'm so glad that Picoult will shine some much needed attention on the plight of elephants and raise awareness of the cognitive and emotional intelligence of these beautiful animals.   

Monday, October 13, 2014

Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good by Jan Karon


This is a continuation of Karon's much beloved Mitford series. You don't need to have read the series (though I highly recommend it) because the past history is neatly summarized. All the beloved characters return, and Karon's ability to shine a light on the struggles that creep into everyday lives is intact.

Father Tim and his wife, Cynthia, return home after a trip to Ireland. Father Tim has turned into a bit of a curmudgeon who hasn't completely accepted retirement. But soon, he finds himself enmeshed in large and small crises, and this is where Karon's writing really shines. Sadness, joy, hope, and love are part of everyone's life, and she has a lovely way of navigating these waters with her heartrending prose.  Liberally sprinkled with wonderful quotes and prayers.  These are just a couple that I noted:  "Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light." (Theodore Roethke) & "All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art." (J. L. Borges) 

This is a book not to miss.

The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer


This older book is probably an overlooked treasure for many. Poetic and philosophic, it contains much wisdom in its perfectly drawn words, and the quiet power of its simple descriptions will resonate with you long after you have turned the last page.

It's based on the true story of a man, Henry Stuart, who's told he probably has less than a year to live  (because of non-contagious tuberculosis) and uproots himself and moves away from his two sons and best friend to Fairhope, Alabama. When he gets there, he sets about building a hut to live in. He wants to live and work alone, as he must ultimately die alone.

He actually winds up living inside this hut for another 18 years.  The author, Sonny Brewer, became enamored of this man's tale and lived in the hut while writing this book.  The hut was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. 

This is a book of ideas. Peaceful, smart, and wise.  I wrote down many quotes in my quote journal-- like this one:  "Thoreau said that to walk outside and gaze at the full moon is nothing," said Henry, "compared to walking along a path alight with the full moon's glow.  The one is a taste, the other a feast."  And here's another passage that I noted:  "Henry believed that people's minds speak with many voices, and among them are voices that cannot be trusted.  A wise man develops a steward who keeps mental order and bids some voices keep quiet."  Very thought provoking book.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks


My favorite quote about this book is from Amy Bloom, who said "Painted Horses has the hard thrill of the West when it was still a new world, the tenderness of first love, and the pain of knowledge."  Set in the mid 1950s when America was flush with prosperity and saw an unbroken line of progress clear to the horizon, this debut novel makes that time and untamed landscape come alive. 

Catherine Lemay, a former pianist, goes to Montana in the 1950s as a young archaeologist to survey a valley for signs of native habitation before the area is flooded by a hydroelectric project.  Catherine fell in love with archaeology while digging at Roman sites in Britain as a student, but now in the ruggedly masculine West, she almost immediately butts heads with her assigned guide, Jack Allen.  She also falls under the spell of John H., an artist and lover of horses, who leads a nomadic life in the badlands.  Catherine's arduous search of the valley is contrasted for much of the novel with John H.'s harrowing life story.  The author demonstrates a fascinating knowledge of horses, archaeology, the new West, and women.

This is a western novel that has beautiful descriptions of the landscape and a wonderful grasp of how we are shaped by the places we inhabit.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Glenda's Picks for July 2014


Guardian of the Republic by Allen West


Allen West subtitle's this book, "an American Ronin's Journey to Faith, Family, and Freedom,"--and I certainly related to why he calls himself an American Ronin.  A Ronin was a samurai with no lord or master during the feudal period of Japan.  A Samurai became masterless from the death or fall of his master, or after the loss of his master's favor or privilege.   West lost his own earthly master (his father) early in his life.  His father instilled in him the uncompromising character and principles that made him what he is today...and just like the Ronin, who continues to carry his swords and practice the way of the warrior, West has vowed never to succumb in the service of those principles on behalf of this nation.  Herman West Senior told his son repeatedly, "Boy, don't ever see your color as a handicap, and never use it as a crutch."

This book was one of several I had picked as my 4th of July reading, and it did not disappoint.  West summarizes his view of our Republic quite nicely when he asks:

Do we want an opportunity society, or a dependency society?
Do we prioritize preeminence of the individual, or dominance of the state?
Will we choose individual exceptionalism, or collective relativism?
Do we value wealth creation and expansion, or wealth redistribution?
Will we bet on economic freedom, or economic enslavement?
Do we stand for principle, or for party?
Do we want policy, or politics?

And he upholds the three pillars of modern conservative thought:  (1) Effective and efficient conservative government.  (2) Peace through vigilance, resolve, and strength.  And (3) our traditional American values.  West isn't afraid to speak truth to power, and he shares the experiences that shaped him and the beliefs he would die to defend.

A passionately written and enjoyable read.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The First Phone Call From Heaven by Mitch Albom


Mitch Albom is a bestselling author, screenwriter, playwright and nationally-syndicated columnist.  The author of five consecutive number one New York Times bestsellers, he has sold more than thirty-four million copies of his books in forty-two languages worldwide.  "Tuesdays with Morrie," which spent four years atop the New York Times list, is the bestselling memoir of all time.

You can't read the above paragraph and not have certain expectations about this book.  And I must say that Albom does not disappoint.  As one of the quotes from this book says, "There are two stories for every life; the one you live and the one others tell."

One morning in the small town of Coldwater, Michigan, the phones start ringing.  The voices say they are calling from heaven.  Each call is greeted differently--some with love, some with religious zeal, some with fear.  The question of whether these calls are a miracle or a hoax drives Sully Harding, a grieving single father with an inquisitive and hopeful son, to uncover the truth.

One of my favorite parts of the book is how he integrated the true story of Alexander Graham Bell into the narrative--and in such a seamless way that really played to the strength of the story.  Albom has always been great at characterization and tucking little bits of life wisdom amongst his dialogue.  Whether or not you believe in loved ones being able to communicate with those who have passed on, this book will make you think and give you an appreciation for not only the miracle of the telephone, but the miracles that love can induce.  A very inspirational book beautifully rendered and full of hope.


The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls


Jeannette Walls is a writer and journalist.  She was born in Phoenix, Arizona.  She graduated with honors from Barnard College, the women's college affiliated with Columbia University.  She published a bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle, in 2005, which is being made into a film by Paramount.

She wrote this book because she wanted to talk about what happens with children when the parent abdicates responsibility.

It is a story of two girls, set in 1970 in a small town in California.  'Bean' Holladay is twelve, and her sister Liz is fifteen, when their artistic mother, Charlotte, takes off to find herself.  She leaves the girls enough money to last a month or two.  In her absence, they decide to take a bus to Virginia, where their uncle Tinsley lives in a rundown mansion that has been in Charlotte's family for generations.  Not wanting to be a burden on their uncle, and because money is tight, Bean and Liz start babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, the foreman of the mill in town, a man who bullies everyone around him.  When something happens to Liz when she is in a car with Maddox, they find themselves in the midst of turmoil that they may not be able to survive.

This is a quite captivating read, with characters that just jump off the page and manage to grab your heart at the same time.  
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