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Earthquake Storms

ISBN: 
9781605984957

This is the kind of interesting read that can make you dream of switching fields. Both the title and subtitle are misleading, it’s about much more than earthquake storms (a series of large quakes that strike the same fault close together in time), or even the San Andreas Fault, famous for being that volatile line that runs from the California redwoods to its southern deserts.

Although it does focus on ground shaking in California, it’s also a compendium of earthquake lore that describes quakes in Turkey, Italy, and other places. One intriguing section describes how recent research confirms that the famous Delphi of Greek mythology was a site of earthquakes. The priestesses there supposedly sat before a crack in the earth and made prophecies.  Scientists have found that the earth nearby released ethylene, a gas that is now known to cause trances.

The book begins with the narrative of a young San Franciscan mechanic who took a daily swim in the ocean. One morning he walked to the beach as always and after being whacked repeatedly by waves, then thrown upon the Read more »

The Flight of a Painting of a Little Yellow Bird

ISBN: 
9780316055437

“Bad artists copy, good artists steal.” Toward the end of this novel, Hobie, the elderly painter of masterpiece copies, says this to Theo, his sorta-kinda adopted son. Is it ironic that Theo has stolen a famous painting, The Goldfinch? This long, convoluted, powerful novel tells the story of a young boy whose life was transformed at age 13 by this random act.

And a random bombing in the art galleries of New York’s Metropolitan Museum that killed his mother.  Theo’s mom had left him to buy a present in the museum store when the bombing happened. After the blast, Theo crawls amid bodies on the floor to find one older man alive. With some of his last breaths, the man points to the painting and says, “I beg of you.”  Theo interprets this as a plea to rescue it. The dying man Welty also gives the boy an elaborate ring and the name of a business in Manhattan: Hobart and Blackwell.  “Ring the green bell.”

Thus begins the travels/travails of Theo.  His dad, an alcoholic is alive, but in no shape to care for him. Ditto for his one surviving grandparent. Read more »

Someone

ISBN: 
9780374281090

No one else writes with the lyric flow of Alice McDermott.  Or covers childhood and adolescence with so much immediacy as though it were happening right now.  When I surfaced for breaths while reading this novel, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in a stuffy walk-up in Brooklyn listening  to children play ball and jump rope in the street.

The novel tells the story of Marie Commeford as a child, teen, young woman and as an older woman with grown children of her own.  Marie is the stubborn second child of Irish Catholics. Her brother Gabe is remarkably obedient and good, already in grade school, on a path for the priesthood, whereas Marie is rebellious, adventurous, and not one for rules.

Her dad takes her on walks to speakeasies and encourages her fiery temperament; her mother tries to discipline her and tamp down her rebellious spirit. Saturday mornings, she runs to her best friend Gerty’s house and buries herself in her mother’s lap, but Gerty’s kind mother dies in childbirth. This tragedy convinces Marie to refuse to learn how to cook. Gerty had learned and look what happened to her. Read more »

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

ISBN: 
9781400065752

“Make it new!” Ezra Pound once said about writing and art. Quindlen’s seventh novel explores a New York City woman photographer doing just that by relocating temporarily to a small town upstate and taking entirely different kinds of photographs. Rebecca Winter has just turned sixty, gotten divorced, and her 20-something-year-old son hardly needs her anymore.

One of the first people she meets in this unnamed town is Jim Bates, a blond, pink-cheeked roofer, who blushes easily and is very kind. The first thing he helps her with is getting rid of her attic raccoon which he immediately shoots—saying it’s the only way to truly get rid of a coon because otherwise it will keep coming back.

Rebecca always fusses about money. Money only dribbles in from a famous photograph from decades ago, the one that gave this book its title.  Rebecca shot the picture after one of her ex’s myriad dinner parties that she always had to clean up after. Read more »

My Age of Anxiety

ISBN: 
9780307269874

 

This is both a personal and a historical overview of anxiety, a mental illness that far too many Americans share. In the first decade of this century, the numbers grew to 16.2 million—in fact more Americans see a doctor for anxiety than for back pain and migraine combined.  Stossel, who suffers terribly from panic attacks, fear of flying, a nervous stomach, and severe social anxiety, has been remarkably successful as both an author and the editor of The Atlantic.

My favorite section is the opening one titled “The Riddle of Anxiety.” Here he compares how philosophical and psychological greats described the disease. Plato believed that anxiety and other mental problems arose “not from physiological imbalances but from disharmony of the soul.”  Hippocrates believed that “body juices” caused madness. He said, “You will find the brain humid, full of sweat and smelling badly.”  This description came very close to the author at his wedding, except that it was his body that sweated profusely. He had such a panic attack at the altar that his best man was afraid he would faint. Read more »

Life after Life

ISBN: 
9780316176484

Oh my, what happens when a novel’s lead character dies on the fourth page? Alas, Dr. Fellowes never made it to Ursula’s birth (at least not this time around)—he was busy treating a man trampled by a bull.

This novel made many “best book” of the year lists. On a cold winter’s night in 1910, a baby girl was born to the Todd family, but alas poor Ursula was born blue. Then she is born again and the family cat, Queenie, smothers her (not necessarily on purpose.) She’s born again and drowns while swimming in the sea with her older sister Pamela.

But in between all the births and deaths, (her younger brother Teddy, has his own run-ins with nasty accidents and reincarnation), a lot happens to the Todd family. Hugh, the father, is a banker, and his wife Sylvie, a rather uninvolved mother. In a style and format all her own, Kate Atkinson has reimagined the historical novel. Read more »

Dorothy Day's Circle of Friends

ISBN: 
9780393088700

I’ve read other books by Joan Silber, and I think she is a writer who deserves a bigger audience. If you’re a fan of historical novels, you will enjoy this book. It’s less a novel than a collection of interrelated stories centered on friends of Dorothy Day (or were related to her inner circle). She was a famous Catholic worker who fought hard for the poor.

The first story revolves on a group of young 20-somethings in Day’s New York circle about the time she was getting serious about Catholicism.  (She was an adult convert.)  In the title story, a young vivacious woman named Vera, loves her life surrounded by smart, interesting people, one of whom she marries. Silber captures the feel of New York City during this time, the freedom young adults experienced living together, going to political meetings, working their day jobs but also doing creative things on the side.

Vera is a sign painter until her employer insults her and then eventually fires her without cause.  Although in love with her husband, Joe, Vera is drawn to Day’s boyfriend, Forster, who is also the father of Day’s child. A chance meeting in a park brings Vera and Forster together when they discover the corpse of a poor man who froze to death on a bench. Read more »

Five Days at Memorial

ISBN: 
9780307718969

Physician, humanitarian, and international journalist Sheri Fink has written an amazing book about what happens to even dedicated professionals in a crises that lasts for days. When a hospital became a flooded, steamy place without electricity, and the media constantly harangued about dangerous people attempting to break in, normal procedures quickly disappeared.

Do you remember that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina much of New Orleans flooded and that the area covered included some hospitals and nursing homes? Do you also recall a heated trial at which one doctor was accused of mercy-killing elderly patients?  This well-researched book investigates not only what happened during the five days that NOLA’s Memorial Hospital was flooded but also the people involved: doctors, nurses, the New Orleans city coroner, patients and their families.

The subtitle says it all “Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.”  The story is as riveting as any good thriller. Read more »

The Great War

ISBN: 
9780393088809

If you are a fan of graphic novels or comic book histories, Joe Sacco’s incredibly detailed book about the battle of the Somme is a keeper.  The accordion style of the book imparted a narrative push to this graphic history that has no text.

The folded-over 24 foot long drawing also gave Sacco a large expanse of space to record the planning for the war on the ramparts of Montreuil-sur-Mer, the gathering of horses, laden carts and howitzers before the battle, and the trenches, explosions and destruction of the battle itself.  

The artist also vividly captured the digging of graves and the field of white crosses after the bloodshed ended.  Sacco’s drawings are very accurate, expertly rendered, and they convey emotion. To get the full effect of this book, you should spread it out across a long table or even two tables.

The one-day battle had 60,000 British casualties—the largest of any battle Britain has been involved in before or since. Included in a separate booklet is Adam Hochschild’s narrative essay that places the art in context. Read more »

Difficult Men

ISBN: 
9781594204197

This is an interesting book detailing the rise of what the author terms the "Third Golden Age of Television". He provides in-depth details on the development, reaction, and impact of several critically acclaimed television shows (The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men) and touches on others more peripherally (The Shield, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and various others). [Note: The Library may not, and probably will not, have the entirety of some of these shows, so check the catalog if you are inclined to (re-)watch any of them]. The author provides a context for how these new shows developed (going back to briefly recap the first two 'ages' on network television) and traces how this third Age was able to come about only on premium and basic cable stations. Read more »

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