Books: Levittown

October 14, 2017

As I have nearly finished the 2017 Reading Challenge (I still have to decide on a book with more than 800 pages, and find one from a genre/subgenre I’ve never heard of), I decided to add a few of my own ideas. The first was to read a book that was set in a town/city where I have lived.

I wasn’t sure just what I’d be able to find, at least for the towns I’ve lived in this country. (I know I’d have no trouble finding books set in Valencia or Madrid, the two cities in Spain where I lived while getting my B.A. and M.A. in Spanish.) But in addition to several books about the pearl button industry in Muscatine, Iowa and a murder mystery set in Houghton Lake, Michigan, I found Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb.

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Books: The Last Templar

August 26, 2017

I haven’t been writing posts lately about most of the popular fiction I read. I read mostly for enjoyment, and in the case of the audiobooks, to occupy my mind while driving. There’s not a lot to say, really, about a book like The Last Templar in terms of plot or characterization. It’s interesting, and I enjoyed the historical aspects of the book (while being grateful that it wasn’t as graphic about the tortures inflicted on the Templar leader, Jacques de Molay, as one of the books I read a year or two ago) as well as the mystery and adventure of the present-day story.

But it is the thematic aspects of the book that I reacted strongly to. At the center of the action is the quest to find (or prevent from being found, depending on which side a character is on) a valuable object hidden by the Templars before the destruction of their order. (Note: the rest of this post discusses the object and its significance, which aren’t revealed until the latter part of the novel, so don’t continue reading if you don’t want to know what it is.)

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Books: The Wednesday Wars

July 1, 2017

One thing I like about reading challenges is that I read – and enjoy – books I would not have picked up otherwise. I generally read widely enough that I can check off most of the items on the list without going looking for them. Often I discover that a book I picked for one category fits another, one that would have been harder to find a match for. For instance, I picked Amor Towles’ excellent novel A Gentleman in Moscow because it was a bestseller in 2016, but discovered that it was set in a hotel (and it’s amazing how a book about a man living in a hotel manages to seem so much bigger than its setting).

By now I’m down to the categories that I don’t fill just by accident. I had already read a book with one of the seasons in the title (An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell, who is one of my current favorite mystery writers, along with Louise Penny, who wrote Still Life, which is set around a holiday other than Christmas), but browsing in the library hadn’t uncovered any books with a month or day of the week in the title.

With Google, however, it was easy to discover The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, and a quick look at reviews on amazon.com convinced me it was worth reading. Some coming-of-age novels annoy me (I realize that by definition, the main character is at least somewhat immature to start with, but sometimes the characters are just plain hard to care about, let alone like), but this one is wonderful.

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Books: Hidden Figures

June 17, 2017

I don’t remember a lot of details of watching the first moon landing, in July 1969. Mostly I remember being bored with how long it took before they finally opened the door of the lunar module. I don’t actually know if my memories of scenes from Mission Control are from that night, or from movies I’ve seen since then. But my impression of Mission Control is of a bunch of men sitting at banks of computers.

White men, in white shirts, figuring out whatever needed to be figured out to get three men to the moon and back. It never occurred to me, until reading Hidden Figures recently, that a lot of the work behind the scenes had been done by black women.

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Books: A Thread of Grace

March 26, 2017

Having read Mary Doria Russell’s previous books, The Sparrow and Children of God, I was glad to find another book by her on the library shelves. (Though I have to admit I did not check it out the first time I saw it – I knew from her other books that it would be very well-written but also suspected it would be emotionally pummeling at times.)

It is quite a change from the science fiction of the other books, though unlike most science fiction those have as much philosophy as science, and reflect Russell’s background as an anthropologist (she creates entire civilizations to populate a faraway planet). I enjoy historical fiction, and this novel explores an aspect of World War II that I have read little about if at all previously.

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Books: Call the Midwife

October 2, 2016

Tomorrow is our monthly book club meeting, and I just realized I had not written a post on last month’s book, Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. It’s not a book I would have thought of reading otherwise (mostly as I hadn’t heard of it before), but it was an enjoyable and fascinating read.

It is a view not only into the world of midwifery, but also into the lives of people living in postwar London Docklands. Worth recounts the stories of a wide variety of people, both the nuns (she lives and works at the convent of St. Raymund Nonnatus) and the women they serve and their families. There are a number of memorable characters, especially Conchita Warren and her very large family.

It is also a view into a historical era that exists now only in books and in memories. The slums have since been torn down and families moved elsewhere, ending a way of life that was very hard but that had its positive aspects also. The practice of medicine has changed a great deal since then also, so some of the practices of the midwives in the book seem strange to us in the 21st century. (I had never heard of boiling urine before, to test for pre-eclampsia.) Read the rest of this entry »


Books about WWII

July 30, 2016

I don’t know if there are more novels these days set in World War II, or if I just happen to be coming across them more, but I recently finished three of them, each told from a very different perspective.

Liberation Road: A Novel of World War II and the Red Ball Express, by David Robbins, follows the experiences of two American non-combatants from when they come ashore at Omaha Beach. Joe Amos Biggs is an African-American who left college to enlist and who longs to be able to fight alongside the white men. Ben Kahn is a chaplain who had fought in the trenches in World War I, whose son is a B-17 pilot shot down over France and now MIA, and who is motivated by desire for revenge on the Germans. Occasionally there are also passages told from the point of view of “White Dog,” an American pilot shot down over France, who prefers the comfortable life he has found as a black marketeer in occupied Paris to rejoining his comrades in arms.

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