Sunday, 4 December 2016

Today Will Be Different

Finished December 3
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

This novel follows Eleanor Flood through a single day of her life. She knows she's been distracted and not living up to what her husband Joe, her son Timby, and herself expect from her. The book starts with an affirmation and intention
Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I speak to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I'll play a board game with Timby. I'll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I'll shower, get dressed in proper clothes, and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won't swear. I won't talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I'm capable of being. Today will be different.
that she fully intends to live by. She does shower and get dressed in a nice dress, but from the beginning she notices some things aren't right, and when more things throw her plans off-balance she reacts emotionally. From her son needing to be taken out of school because he's sick, causing her to leave her poetry lesson midway through to a lunch bringing up old painful memories, we see Eleanor and her feelings.
She lives a good life. She works as an animator, although not to the extent she did a decade ago. Her husband is a renowned hand surgeon. Her son is intelligent and confident. She is well enough off to buy what she wants. As we gradually understand what her true sorrow is based on, we realize both the importance and the limitations of families.
The middle section of the book takes us back into the past to see how Eleanor came to be where she is now, and that section is poignant with unresolved emotions.
This is a story to make you laugh, make you cry, and make you care. I loved how poetry was used. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Intelligence-Slave

Finished December 2
Intelligence-Slave by Kenneth Lin, produced by L.A. Theatre Works

This short play has a full cast, with Josh Stamberg taking on the role of Curt Herzstark, and Daniel Stewart taking on the role of the boy Finn. It tells the story of Herzstark, who was an Austrian industrialist working on the invention of the pocket calculator. He was taken by the Nazis to a concentration camp, and from there to an underground location to complete the work on his device. Also located underground was an armament factory. Herzstark knows that if he completes his device he will be killed, despite their promises to "Aryanize" him. When, after considerable time, the device is still not complete, and the Germans send down a boy, with a talent for mathematics, to "assist" Herzstark, he knows that the boy is also keeping tabs on him and he must be even more careful about his work.
This play is very well done, with believable performances by all involved. It is based on a true story, including an incident told by Herzstark himself about his experience. It is part of the Relativity Series, featuring science-based plays.

Schlump

Finished December 1
Schlump: Tales and adventures from the life of the anonymous soldier Emil Schulz, known as "Schlump". Narrated by himself by Hans Herbert Grimm, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, afterword by Volker Weidermann

This novel was originally published anonymously in 1928, based on Grimm's own World War One experiences. It is an anti-war novel, but didn't get a lot of attention at the time, partly due to it being published anonymously. Grimm worked as a schoolteacher between the wars and during World War II, speaking out as much as he dared against the state actions. To continue teaching, he had to join the NSDAP, and later in the war worked as an interpreter on the Western front. Because of his NSDAP membership, he was still prevented from teaching despite support from former pupils and even the mayor about his anti-fascist attitude throughout. HE worked in other jobs, but after meeting with East German authorities in 1950, he committed suicide.
The narrator Schlump is an innocent, a man with a sunny disposition, who tries to get along with everyone. The afterword describes this as an anti-coming of age novel, as despite everything Schlump goes through, he persists in believing that things will turn out okay. His first official position, as an administrator in a small French region is one that lends itself to this. He interacts with the local French populace in a friendly way, doing what he must do, but trying to do it in a way that isn't cruel. But when he makes an error of judgment and ends up at the front, he sees war for real, seeing friends die in terrible ways, and getting injured himself. Yet somehow he still retains his optimism and innocence. Even as he sees that he is on the losing side of the war, he still believes that things will work out, and as he sets off for home, he imagines the young woman waiting there for him.
I found this book engaging, and still relevant. An appreciated novel, recently released in a NYRB edition.

Night School

Finished November 30
Night School by Lee Child, read by Dick Hill

As always, I love listening to Dick Hill read this series. This one reaches back into the past, taking place in 1996, when Jack Reacher was still in the army. He recently completed a mission and as the book opens receives a medal. He then finds himself immediately sent off to a course on interagency cooperation, something that is not considered a prize. His two fellow classmates, from the FBI and CIA, are also fresh off big wins. As they confer, they start to determine that things are not as they've been told.
The case that they have been secretly brought together for is a big one, based on very little information. A sleeper agent in a jihadist cell in Hamburg, Germany, has overhead an unexpected visitor, a courier, indicate that an American is selling something for a very large amount of money. What could he be selling, who is he, and what could be worth 100 million dollars.
Reacher immediately recruits his sergeant, Frances Neagley, who has already figured out something is up, and the three men and their right hand people begin to go through a process of elimination on the way towards identifying the American.
Reacher's instincts tell him that it is better to be in Germany where the last action took place, and the next action may also happen, then in the US where it is very unlikely any of the action will take place, and as things move along, he is proven right. In this book, Reacher takes gambles based on his gut and his experience, and he finds that luck is usually, but not always, on his side.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly and will impatiently await the next in the series.

Blitz

Finished November 26
Blitz by David Trueba, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen

This short novel begins in Munich, when Beto, a young landscape architect from Spain, in town as a finalist in a landscape-planning competition at a conference, finds himself dumped by his girlfriend, who is also his office assistant. As Beto makes the decision not to return to Spain with her, he engages with others at the conference, including Helga, an older woman who volunteers as a guide/facilitator for the conference. He also challenges a rival, also from Spain, in a way that doesn't help his image.
As Beto reflects on his situation, his actions, and his future, he is forced to deal with the consequences, both good and bad.
Home in Madrid, he moves out of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend and finds himself a job using the skills he has developed. Living in a new city, he finds himself spending too much time alone, and not moving forward in his personal life.
The spontaneous action he takes near the end of the book is interesting and leaves me wanting to know more.

A Killing in the Hills

Finished November 24
A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller

This mystery novel features Bell Elkins, prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, West Virginia. Bell is a native of the county as is her ex-husband, also an attorney. They moved to Washington, D.C. for years, but Bell felt that something was missing and coming back to her home county and trying to make a difference there was what called her.
As this book opens, Carla, Bell's teen daughter, is sitting in a cafe in town on a Saturday when someone walks in and shoots three older men sitting together at a table. For Bell, the professional has become personal. Carla is traumatized, but also motivated to do something to help her mother.
Bell works closely with the sheriff Nick Fogelsong, and one of their targets is the drug business. There have always been drugs around as far as Bell remembers, but the business has become more professional, and the poor in the county more targeted.
This latest murder though doesn't seem connected to that. As Nick and Bell dig into the men's backgrounds, Carla also starts digging, looking to connect a face to a name. Carla and Bell have been going through some typical mother-teen daughter disagreements as Carla begins to assert her independence, and Bell is careful to give her space while still trying to keep a protective eye.
We also see the situation from the point of view of the young man who committed the crime, with his situation and struggles a big part of the story.
Bell also has another case she is preparing for trial, a case that seems cut-and-dried, but that Bell has a feeling that there is more to than meets the eye. As she interviews family members, she begins to realize the asserts her two assistants bring to the job as well.
Keller was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist before venturing into becoming a novelist and her writing skills are evident here. This is a story about community, about a struggle for survival and about the difficulties of life in America today. A great read.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Read This!

Finished November 23
Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores, introduction by Ann Patchett.

This small book has staff from 25 independent bookstores recommend books. The bookstores are arranged alphabetically and each one has a short description of the bookstore, a short interview with the staff member from the bookstore, a list of their 50 books, and a shorter list of 4 or 5 with more detail on why they picked each of them.
These are followed but a short section of random statistics about the books and bookstores, then a very short description of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) to whom all royalties from this book go, a blank section for the reader to write in 50 favorite books, and a checklist for which bookstores the reader has visited. I've been to a few independent bookstores in the U.S., but only one of the ones here, and that one I visited earlier this year.
There are lots of great books listed here, and my to-read list has grown as a result. It's fun to see which staff have picked books I've read and liked and then to think about how that may mean their list will provide others I'll like. It's also interesting to see how many books I've never ever heard of before.
This will definitely be a book I refer back to often.