Tuesday, December 1, 2015

November 2015 Book Reviews

The Blood Spilt by Asa Larsson.  This is the second in Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson mystery series and it is an excellent read!  Like the first, it again takes place up in Kiruna, Sweden, or close to it, and picks up a half year or so after the first one ended.  Rebecka the lawyer is traumatized from the events in the first book and her role in them and is not able to concentrate much on work.  She travels north with a partner in her law firm to help with a minor matter, and stumbles into an unfolding series of crimes in a nearby town.  Larsson switches back and forth between Rebecka, the detective Anna Maria Mella, some new characters, and even a yellow-legged wolf who has recently arrived in the area.  She does so with great skill and fast pacing – she’s very good at creating characters and letting you know about them without oversharing the obvious bits.  The new story and murders are shocking and sad and as they unfold and poor Rebecka unwittingly gets caught up in the goings on, it was very hard to put the book down.  And although I kept hearing my grandparents say something along the lines of – why are you reading Swedish mysteries when there are perfectly good Norwegian mysteries to be read? – I was very caught up in this one.  I shall pace myself a bit before beginning number three.  And here’s a bonus – although this book was set in the north of Sweden, most of it takes place in September, so there were barely any cold temperatures!  No parkas.  No snow.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up:  The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo.  I am late to this bandwagon, I know.  I’ve been reading about the book for the last half a year, and couldn’t decide if I was intrigued or not, but then was able to borrow the book from a friend.  And I’m glad I did – a lot of what she says I had already heard or read about, but it seemed worthwhile to me to read about her KonMari system in detail.  She basically comes across as kind of an idiot savant of tidying.  She portrays herself as being obsessed with organizing and tidying since the age of five, and whether or not that is true, she certainly proves herself to have thought a lot about the topic.  It is rather fascinating in its simplicity.  With Kondo’s help, her clients tidy their homes and in doing so change their lives – and she claims none of them ever return to their untidy ways.  The main way she is able to get them to reach success seems to me to be that she recommends throwing away more than half of what you own.  She believes you need to go through all your possessions, hold each one (each book, each item of clothing, each memento), and only keep “what sparks joy.”  If you are having trouble getting rid of an item that doesn’t spark joy, then it is because you can’t let go of the past or are fearing the future.  Once you’ve done this, it’s easy to keep your house tidy because you have nothing left!  But also, everything you keep has a place and so it is simple to always put everything where it belongs.  Simple, no?  There are a few things I resisted, while reading.  For one, I don’t see why you HAVE to do it at once, in a period of a few days, as Kondo suggests.  She says if you do a room at a time, it won’t work, but that doesn’t seem to me to have to be the case.  (She does recommend organizing by category rather than room – and has a specific order you should use for the categories.  Clothes, books, etc.)  There are also a few extremes:  everyone mentions her proclamation of not balling socks, that socks want to relax in the drawer etc.  But another of her proscriptions also seemed a little extreme – and that is unpacking your purse at the end of every day.  If you are going to put the same things back in the purse in the morning, then what is the point?  Other than rigidity?  But she definitely got me thinking, and I plan to implement some of her ideas, if not all.  (Update:  I did try her method of folding clothes in drawers, and was very surprised at how well it works!  I have twice as much room in my dresser as I did when I folded items and stacked them.  Mind blown!)

The Fever by Megan Abbott.  I read an interview with Gillian Flynn a while ago, in which she said that this was one of her favorite books, so I added it to my queue.  And it is good, although it’s not the most comfortable of reading experiences – on purpose, I am sure.  The novel takes place in a high school in a small town (whose location is specifically not identified, I’m not sure why), and events begin when one of a group of three high school girlfriends falls rather violently ill.  She ends up in a coma in the local hospital, and no one can figure out what is wrong with her.  Then other girls in the school start falling sick with some of the same symptoms.  The point of view is mainly that of one family – the father, Tom, who is a teacher at the school, and his son, Eli, a hockey player, and daughter, Deenie.  The book basically documents the slow build-up of mass hysteria, and that is where the reading gets a bit difficult.  I got tired of being in the school and in the small town and witnessing the growing hysteria of the kids and their parents, as everyone tries to figure out what is going on.  There’s a lake in the town that is fenced off and is covered with algae, so for a while people think that the lake is the culprit, since some of the victims went swimming there.  The writing is good, and her characters are believable and well created.  As I said though, I did get to feeling rather claustrophobic and tired of the hysteria, but right when I was really beginning to work up into a snit, the tension shifts as we learn the real cause of events.  It’s a thriller that moves in slow motion.

New And Selected Poems, Volume Two by Mary Oliver.  After finishing volume 2 of her collected poems, I’ve reached the conclusion that I don’t really like Oliver’s poems as much as I feel I should.  And when I say “should,” I don’t refer to any outside pressure, but just that the style of her poems are what I usually like in a poem:  the language is direct and clear, she uses an observed incident to reach an interesting conclusion, and she never seems to be difficult just for difficulty’s sake.  That said, I found that with this volume, I really liked ten or so poems and then was indifferent to the rest (but perhaps discovering ten or so poems in a book that really speak to me is enough, and I’m being greedy to expect more?  That is up for debate.)  At any rate, Oliver is a nature poet, whose language tends to verge towards the simple side of the colloquial: and when she gets it right, I think she really gets it right.  For example, in her poem, “The Measure,” she writes of stopping her car to help a turtle cross a road, and then ends up musing on who is lucky in that scenario, the turtle who gets perhaps life-saving help, or the woman who gets to stop and help the turtle.   She simultaneously raises the question of her life being manipulated by higher powers in a parallel way to how she is manipulating the life of the turtle.  In “The Owl Who Comes,” she sets the scene of an owl on the hunt and then wonders, “and if I wish the owl luck,/ and I do,/ what am I wishing for that other/ soft life,/ climbing through the snow?”  It doesn’t get much better than that.  So be sure to read “Touch-me-nots,” her famous “Snow Geese,” and “Some Things, Say The Wise Ones.”  You will stop and think, you will be all the wiser, you will be sure to notice details in the world around you that you hadn’t noticed before.

The Lake House by Kate Morton.  This is an excellent read – Kate Morton seems to get better and better with each book she writes, and I really enjoyed this one from start to finish.  It shares the format with the other two books of hers that I’ve read (there are two I still want to read) – and that is that the book jumps from a certain time in the past to a certain time in the present, and keeps going back and forth between the two timeframes.  Basically, a detective, Sadie Sparrow, who is on leave from her job, is staying with her grandfather in Cornwall.  While out running with his dogs, she stumbles upon an old overgrown estate on a lake.  Curious, and with too much time on her hands, Sadie starts to investigate and discovers that the house has been closed up since 1933, when the family who lived there had a 1 year-old child who went missing.  Sadie decides to try to solve the still unsolved mystery of the missing Theo Edevane.  The narrative then keeps returning to 1932 and 1933 and fills in the story of the Edevane family, with the patriarch, Anthony Edevane suffering from shell shock from WWI, and focusing in particular on the middle daughter, Alice, who went on to become a famous mystery writer and is now living in London in her late eighties.  We also get Alice’s point of view, both when she was a girl of 15 in 1933 and currently.  Then there is the added bonus of the reason Sadie is on temporary leave, which has to do with a case of hers in which she became too emotionally invested, regarding a mother who seems to have abandoned her 4 year-old daughter, whether on purpose or due to foul play.  It is all very well done:  Morton is really skilled at creating interesting characters who seem real in their flaws and strengths, and also very real and interesting in how they respond to the actions that befall them.  Some might find the ending a little too pat or wrapped up, but I was so enjoying the story that I couldn’t even criticize the improbable way it all came together.  It’s a really fun read!

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz.  I have heard a lot about Mahfouz, but had never read any of his prodigious amount of novels, so I finally borrowed this trilogy from my father.  One 500-page novel down, two to go!  I read it very slowly – maybe one or two chapters three or four times a week, and enjoyed reading it, although wasn’t really compelled to move through it at a faster pace.  It seems to me that its value lies in how it portrays a certain slice of upper middle class Egyptian life in the early twentieth century.  There are of course elements of that life that are hard to wrap one’s mind around – especially when it comes to how the patriarch of the family makes every important decision for the family completely on his own, and his word is law.  Plus, the female members aren’t allowed out of the house – basically ever – so are more or less in a kind of house arrest.  The mother, Amina, will visit her mother every now and then, but those visits are escorted, and she is never allowed out in her own neighborhood, even to go to the market or to walk around the block.  The same holds true for the adult daughters, Aisha and Khadija.  It is hard to fathom.  In this first novel, three of the five children of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad get married – all marriages arranged by their father.  Mahfouz shows one son, Fahmy, a 19 year-old law student get swept up in the anti-Britain demonstrations, and try to balance his obedience to his father with what he thinks is right morally and politically.  Then there is Kamal, a boy of 11, who only half understands what is happening when his sisters get married and don’t return home, and other incidents that occur around him.  Kamal enjoys the English soldiers who are billeted across the street from his house, and is not thrilled when they are forced to withdraw.  The next two books in the trilogy are about the same family, and I look forward to reading them, a small bit at a time.

Your Three Year-Old:  Friend or Enemy by Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg.  My mother’s friend recommended this series of books about parenting; she warned that since they were written in the seventies they are outdated when it comes to issues of gender (in most examples the fathers work while the mothers stay at home; boys like trucks, girls like dolls, etc), but that in her experience as a teacher, they were still the most accurate and helpful.  I haven’t read many parenting books at all, so I don’t have much to compare them to, but as I read each year, they are definitely helpful and are uncannily accurate.  It’s not like I think Owen is the rarest of special snowflakes (I mean, of course I do, but I know that as his mother I can hardly think otherwise), but it was still very surprising to read this book about three year-olds and see that so much of what I would have considered Owen’s traits, are really developmental phases that he is going through, as are all kids.  It is odd that we are such predictable, formulaic beings!  But after experiencing certain days packed with petty arguments with a small, lovely tyrant, it is also very reassuring to know that this too, will pass.

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