Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hellhound on His Trail

I've read Hampton Sides's Americana, which I really enjoyed. It's short stories about all kinds of random things. Some of them: Mormon archeologists, Tony Hawk, and the Bohemian Grove.

When I read about his newest book, Hellhound on His Trail, I was really intrigued. I knew the basics, that MLK was assassinated by James Earl Ray in 1968. I recognized the photo of King's companions pointing in the direction the shot came from.

This book talked a bit about MLK's life, but had much more about Ray. He was a lifetime criminal, who was a prison escapee when he shot MLK. After Ray shot King, he made a quick getaway. Strangely enough, he made it to four countries before he was caught.

The FBI's search was, at the time, the largest investigation they had undertaken. J. Edgar Hoover was head of the FBI at the time and hated King. Hoover's boss, the Attorney General Ramsey Clark, was at odds with Hoover. The personal relationships in the FBI and in King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were complex and described in depth.

Sides touches on the possibility of a conspiracy, that Ray was being paid to kill MLK, but it seems to be one of those things that is lost to history and we'll never know.

This was a really interesting slice of history. There was more information and complexity to what happened than I would have guessed. If you enjoy history or true crime, pick it. I also suggest Americana.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

I hadn't heard of this book before I saw it on a bookstore table, but have been interested in the aftermath of Katrina.

My first week teaching was the week before Katrina hit. I remember telling my classes that it was going to be a big deal. And, sure enough, I was right. When we talk federalism (sharing power between the states and the national government), I always talk about Katrina and the clusterf*** that it was.

My good friend Kelli moved to Wyoming for grad school a few weeks before Katrina hit. Her family lost their home. As you might imagine, it's affected her quite a bit. Through her personal experience, grad school research, and work in the region, Katrina has stayed in the forefront of my mind.

So, I saw this book at the bookstore and immediately picked it up. It is the story of nine New Orleanians. (What the heck are they called?) It follows their lives in New Orleans prior to, during, and after Katrina.

It was a bit slow for me in the beginning, but picked up towards the middle. The last part with Katrina and its aftermath was fascinating. Since these are actual people and their stories, the reality of what they experienced was overwhelming: the anger and helplessness they felt. Some of the people profiled are the parish coroner, a relative of the woman in the wheelchair at the Superdome, a cop, and the owner of the bar that stayed open that you probably saw on tv. The author's exploration of social issues, particularly race, was a consistent theme throughout the book, which gave a real sense of this is how things are.

I've already sent it to Kelli. I can't wait to hear what she thinks about it given all she's been through. I'm really bad/good about doing this-- handing books over to people because I want to know what they think.

In short, another non-fiction book that reads like a novel, my favorite kind! If you are interested in race relations or Katrina, definitely pick it up!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Geography of Bliss

This is a fabulous book.

Most obviously, it's a travel book as the author visits different countries to explore happiness. Using self-reported survey data, countries are ranked on a happiness scale. I especially enjoyed the sections on Qatar (wealth as happiness?), Iceland (at the top of the scale), and Moldova (a most unhappy place).

I love non-fiction and one of my favorite types of non-fiction is travel essays. While I'm probably not going to be able to visit Bhutan or Iceland anytime soon, I love learning about other places. This book did not disappoint in terms of a travelogue. But it was so much more than that.

Beyond the travel aspect, the book is also a reflection on what happiness is and what it means to us. With depression and anxiety all too common despite our wealth and comfort, it is also a book that makes you think about your own life and happiness. Weiner includes some really powerful information about happiness. It really gave me a lot of food for thought. One suggestion to improve your happiness: Everyday list 5 things you are thankful for.

It's an insightful, smart, and funny book.

In this edition, there's a follow-up based on feedback the author has received from readers. One of the things people sent him was their happiest place. Six year-old Theodore from Omaha wrote in that his happiest place was "in bed with a good book and a warm blanket." Right on, Theodore, right on.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday Flashback: Something Queer Series

Lovely Little Shelf has a Flashback Friday feature. Here's mine for this week:

Elizabeth Levy's Something Queer series is about a salami-loving basset hound, Fletcher, who helps his owner Jill and her friend Gwen solve mysteries.

I think these books started my love of basset hounds. Now, 20+ years later, I have these two crazies.

Sadly, neither one has a map of the world in their spots like Fletcher does. Nor have they helped me solve any mysteries. However, they do enjoy salami.

I remember reading Something Queer at the Haunted School in 2nd grade. Several years ago, I thought about those books again and my friendly librarian helped me figure what series it was based on what I could remember: they were mysteries with illustrations, the basset hound, and the girl that clicked her braces (Jill).

Mysteries are one of my favorite genres. In addition to the basset hound and the mystery, the books have wonderful illustrations by Mordicai Gerstein. The books are for young readers. As I mentioned, I read them in 2nd grade. The mysteries aren't too complex, but the stories are cute and funny.

Sadly, these books are out of print. Levy does have a newer series of Fletcher mysteries in print. These book don't have Gwen and Jill, nor do they have quite as many illustrations. I search used bookstores and books sales and now have most of the series in my collection.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Historical Fiction Mysteries

I like historical fiction and I like mysteries, so it's no surprise I like historical fiction mysteries.

I finished The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane while in New York. It's the story of Connie, a Harvard grad student, who stumbles in to the mystery of who Deliverance Dane (d. 1692) was. The book follows the stories of the two women.

I really enjoyed the setting of early colonial America. While one doesn't usually think of New York as a colonial center, instead thinking of Philadelphia or Boston, there's still stuff in NYC and I enjoyed the connection of the book and some of the sites on my trip.

In their goodreads reviews, a couple friends mentioned that they foresaw the ending. I agree that the book lead to that conclusion prior to the end of the story, but for me it was about how it all played out.

I listened to the audio book. Frequently, I get impatient while listening to books because I could read them much faster. However, the reader on this was great and kept me entertained.

After finishing Deliverance Dane right before my flight home, I was very much in the mood for another book in the same genre. Luckily, my terminal had a well stocked Borders. The Devlin Diary was on one of the tables and fit the bill. It is very similar to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in a number of ways: 2 plot lines--one in present day, one in the past, an academic backdrop, and an old book with answers.

The Devlin Diary's historical section is in 1670s with intrigue in Charles II's court. I don't think I've read anything in that time period before, so I enjoyed reading about it.

The current day plot was not as well developed. It was enjoyable, but didn't flow as easily. The main characters in it were Andrew Kent and Claire Donovan, who were in Phillips' earlier The Rosetti Stone. (Haven't read it.)

Overall, both were good reads. I did like The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane better, but still finished The Devlin Diary in one sitting.

Monday, May 17, 2010

New York Public Library

I visited the New York Public Library today. In addition to Strand, it was a book must-do.

The facade is being renovated. The lions were still visible, guarding the steps.

The stonework throughout the building was beautiful.

Like any current library, the card catalog is online. However, the 1972 catalog books are still housed for the public to use.

The individual cards were combined in the pages. What a task that would have been.

This is the main reading room. It was so beautiful.

My guide book described the reading room as cathedral like. I agree. I find libraries as such sacred places. They reflect my belief in the power of knowledge and joy in books.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday Flashback: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Goodreads Summary:

When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere, she wants to run to somewhere — to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and, preferably, elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing her younger brother Jamie has money and thus can help her with a serious cash-flow problem, she invites him along. Once settled into the museum, Claudia and Jamie find themselves caught up in the mystery of an angel statue that the museum purchased at auction for a bargain price of $225. The statue is possibly an early work of the Renaissance master, Michelangelo, and therefore worth millions. Is it? Or isn’t it?
Claudia is determined to find out. Her quest leads her to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the remarkable old woman who sold the statue, and to some equally remarkable discoveries about herself.

This books is actually a Friday Flashback cheat for me. I never read it as a kid. But, I would have loved it if I had. I'm posting it as a shout to my trip to NYC. I visited the Met in 1999 on a high school trip, so images of the museum came back to me as I read it. And, I'm visiting the Met today!

Check out Lovely Little Shelf for more Friday Flashbacks.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

18 Miles of Books

The Strand advertises they have 18 miles of books. I believe it.

As I mentioned before, it was high on my to-do list for my my trip. It was impressive. And overwhelming. So many books and so many people.

I did persevere and find a few books for myself. I could have bought a lot more, but they do have to fit in my suitcase.

Definitely worth the trip!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Summer at Tiffany

Summer at Tiffany was a quaint memoir of a young woman and her best friend spending the summer of 1945 working in New York City. They lucked out and were the first women on the sales floor of Tiffany. The girls were sorority sisters at the University of Iowa. Their story was light and interesting, and I read it in a couple hours.

I loved how the girls were so adventurous to travel and live in NYC, especially considering it was in 1945. It made me wish that I took more opportunities like that in college. But then, I realized I did! I spent the summer of 2001 in Washington, DC in the last days before 9/11. (It was so different when we went last year.) I also spent a semester in Wyoming, which ended up being a pretty important event in my life as I moved here permanently. And I'm really glad I took those opportunities.

Nothing earth-shattering, but a cute happy memoir. It was a good reminder that we can and should go places and do things instead of staying in our comfortable box. And just because college is over doesn't mean those opportunities are gone. One of my husband's friends works for a big company where you can work overseas for a couple years while they pay for your home here. What a great experience that would be!

I'm headed to NYC!

And, of course, a bookstore is high on my to do list!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

One for the Road

Goodreads Summary: After a year working an office job in Sydney, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman Tony Horwitz finds himself longing for the open road. Spurred on by a colleague's "Aren't you a little too old for this game?" he sets off on a 7,000-mile adventure around Australia, hitchhiking to Alice Springs and beyond: through desolate mining towns, sheep stations, countless bush pubs (do not attempt to match his beer intake), and the forbidding, Martianesque emptinesses of Australian deserts. On the way he encounters hostile, friendly, and downright strange natives; jumps a train; survives a harrowing accident; and uses his relentless sense of humor to face down a cyclone.

This book was a big disappointment for me. One of my all time favorite books is Horwitz's Baghdad Without a Map. My distaste was not with Horwitz or his storytelling, rather it was with the Australian outback. What a truly awful sounding place. As far as I could tell, all anybody did was drink. Drink to beyond excess, drink while driving, drink while walking to the next bar.

There were interesting parts of the book. Coober Pedy is a town in South Australia. Most building are underground. The heat is so intense that it makes sense to live in dugouts rather than to pay for A/C. It looks fairly cool from pictures on the internet, but after a night Horwitz writes, "I have never wanted to get out of town as much as I want to leave Coober Pedy." So even the interesting still sounds miserable.

Skip this one, but don't write Horwitz off. Like I said, Baghdad Without a Map is one of my favorites. His other books (Blue Latitudes, A Voyage Long and Strange, and Confederates in the Attic) are well-worth the read. And remember, when/if you eat at Outback, you need a LOT of alcohol to have a realistic experience.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Books in Class

It's the end of another semester! Woo hoo!

This semester I've taught a political science class using movies and books. When I was in college, I took a Politics in Film and Literature class and loved it. I was really glad to have the opportunity to create my own such class and be able to teach something new.

The books:
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  • The Help, Kathryn Stockett
  • Funny in Farsi, Firoozeh Dumas
  • Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
  • The Invisible Man, HG Wells
  • Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich
The students' favorite was Funny in Farsi. Funny in Farsi is Dumas's memoir about immigrating to the United States from Iran. The book is hilarious while talking about serious issues relating to immigration and learning a new culture. It's an easy read that is really informative. You'll cringe for Dumas at times, but be cheering her along the whole way.

Another well-liked book was Down and Out in Paris and London. This one surprised me a bit. I love Orwell, but I didn't expect it to be so popular with my students. It is a semi-autobiographical story of someone living on the economic edge in Paris and London. In the Paris section, which was the best liked of the two, the narrator works at the bottom of the restaurant rung as a dishwasher. The kids, many of whom work very menial jobs, really identified with this lifestyle. The narrator talks about how food is thrown against the walls and dropped on the floor. Unfortunately, one of my students said this happened frequently at his job, but wouldn't tell us where he worked. Smart on his part, sad on mine. Not that I really kid myself about what happens in restaurant kitchens...

I will be teaching this course again next spring. If you've got any suggestions for other books, let me know. I'm looking for books that aren't inherently political, but cover political issues (immigration, economy, etc.) Overall it was really fun to do. The first semester with a new class is always the hardest, but think the students enjoyed it and next time will be better!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

eBook Reader

A few months ago, I joined the late 2000s by getting a phone that does more than call people. It's an HTC Droid which is similar to an iPhone (which aren't available in Wyoming since we don't have AT&T.)

One of the apps my husband thought I would like is the Aldiko reader. I downloaded it, but hadn't used it.

Yesterday, I had some down time at the polls. I finished the book I brought with me, so I picked up my phone and looked at the app. It was great. I downloaded Sense and Sensibility (free--public domain) and read about a quarter of it. I was a bit skeptical about reading on the little screen, but the font size is adjustable. It ended up being a lot easier than I expected!

Worked great in a pinch and with all the free books, I'm sure it'll come in handy again!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Game Change: It's 2008 all over again.

Today I'm doing my second favorite volunteer activity: serving as an election judge. We're voting on a local option sales tax penny. In honor of this, I thought I'd share a book review on Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin since it's election related. (A presidential campaign is much more exciting than voting on a penny tax though.)

I'd heard about this book on NPR and the New York Times and thought it sounded fascinating. It was.

I usually don't pick up political books. They are too Democrats-are-evil or Republicans-hate-black-people for me, but this was a different kind of political book. It was about behind the scenes at the horse race rather than policy or having a obvious side in ideology.

I was amazed at the information about Sarah Palin. She withdrew into herself to the point that McCain aides were worried she was mentally unstable. And she was clueless. The book certainly cites the examples of this: She didn't know why North and South Korea were different countries, what the Fed did, and when asked thought Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. OMG. What an irresponsible move by McCain. Really, he could have picked a 7th grader that knew more.

Obama seems arrogant, but if you think you could be President, you've got to have some confidence in yourself. He also remains calm, even when things go momentarily crazy and methodically plans and acts throughout the campaign. Michelle Obama seems about as great as I already thought she was.

John Edwards, fittingly, comes off as delusional with an ego the size of China.

The Clintons are an interesting pair in their dysfunction.

This book read like a novel. Even though you know what the outcome will be, the stories of the action behind the scenes make this a fascinating read. If it were fiction, you'd think NO WAY this would ever happen (black man, former first lady, candidate hiding his love child, Rep candidate almost choosing a Dem VP, etc, etc). And yet, we watched it all unfold.

While you saw it all on the news, I highly suggest this book. Whether they won the race or not, these people are all still very powerful. (Except maybe John Edwards, but who can turn away from such a train wreck?!)