Posted on 2006-01-13 16:56:00 by potsdamreads

The mother tongue : English & how it got that way.:
Bill Bryson:
Nonfiction:

Eats shoots and leaves:
Lynne Truss
Nonfiction

Why I liked these books:

Bryson is always funny. As an American writer who’s spent much of his life in the U.K. , it’s a natural for him to take on our more-or-less common language. It’s been done before, and it only shows how interesting the history and current state of the language is that he can tell the tale again so well. Every time I read about the ideosyncrasies of English I’m again amazed that so many people around the world want to learn it – and even more amazing that so many learn it as a second language so well.

The phenomenal success of Lynne Truss’s book on punctuation in English again shows that we really do like our language – and want to do right by it. If you think you couldn’t possibly read an entire chapter on the semicolon; well think again. She’s certainly right that punctuation is more important than most people think. Whether her campaign to improve the punctuating of email will sell as well as her book, remains to be seen. It sure makes you more self-conscious every time you hit the key for one of those little marks.

Posted on 2006-01-05 14:28:00 by potsdamreads

Title: The Darkness That Comes Before
Author: R. Scott Bakker
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book:

This book took a minute (or, more than a few minutes) to really hook me — it’s not an easy read, and many fantasy novels are really easy reads, so that startled me. It turns out that it starts slow because there’s a huge amount of history and culture and politics and religion to introduce to the reader, and Bakker does a great job of showing and not telling. Which takes time. But with that much worldbuilding, inverted character names, a complicated structure of gods and No-gods, a brand new variety of sorcery, several huge empires and a dozen distinct cultures to master, it took this reader a long time to feel comfortable in the world.

But you know what? It was worth it. This book resembles what you’d get if JRR Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, China Mieville, and Jacqueline Carey sat down and wrote a fantasy novel. Epic scale, a broad cast of damaged characters, a healthy dose of weird, and a plot replete with politics, intrigue, emotion, and religion. I’m hooked.

I read a lot of fantasy, and a lot of it is interesting and fun, but not very good. This is interesting and fun, and it is good, from the worldbuilding, to the characters, to the character development, to the intertwining of plots, to the very strong sense that these are real people moving through a real world. Plus, I’m totally uncertain who the ‘good’ guys are, and I think our antihero might actually be a hero, and that our adversaries might be heroes in their own rights, too.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, give Bakker’s trilogy a look. This, first, volume is out in paperback, the second is still in hardcover, and the third is set to be released soon.

Posted on 2005-12-22 16:30:00 by potsdamreads

White Noise:
Don DeLillo:
Fiction:

Why I liked this book:Don DeLillo has been lauded as one of the most lively intellects looking at modern American culture. While many of his novels, this one included, are light on coherent plot, they are packed with entertaining and incisive glimpses of some of the screwiest aspects of our society. Critics will say his works are a composite of set pieces – and they are right, but many of these pieces are so funny, and some are close enough to the bone to be disturbing. White Noise is frequently mentioned as one of his best. If you think that an academic novel in which the central character is a professor of “Hitler Studies” who speaks no German and is beset by a persistent fear of death has interesting possibilities – put this one on your list of reads.

DeLillo books to be found in Crumb are:

White Noise. PS3554.E4425 W48 1985
Underworld. PS3554.E4425 U53 1997
Ratner’s Star. PS3554.E4425 R37 1989
The Names. PS3554.E4425 N3 1982
Mao II. PS3554.E4425 M36 1991
Libra. PS3554.E4425 L53 1988
Great Jones Street. PS3554.E4425 G7 1994
Americana. PS3554.E4425 A8 1989

Posted on 2005-12-12 22:28:00 by potsdamreads

Title: Open All Night: New Poems
Author: Charles Bukowski
Genre: Poetry

Why I liked this book:
Most, if not all, of Bukowski’s poems are written from the perspective of his belligerent, antisocial, womanizing, alcoholic, gambler persona. And while I don’t normally sympathize with that type of character, his persona is much more complex than just a compilation of those elements. Bukowski has a way of describing ordinary situations, or lackluster monotonous work, or getting into a fight, or taking a bath, writing poetry, going to racetracks, drinking, or arguing with a woman, from a perspective that makes his honesty and insight seem refreshing and interesting. Bukowski is not for the prudish. He doesn’t hesitate to use crude, foul language in his writing. His poems are short, fast paced and tightly woven. I wanted to pick out a “typical” Bukowski poem to quote for this review, but it turned our to be harder than I thought to chose just one. In order to get a clear idea of his range, it would be necessary to read several of his poems and short stories. Then, just when you think you know what Bukowski is going to say next, he’ll surprise you. Bukowski has written a large number of poetry collections, short fiction and novels. If you can’t find a copy of Open All Night, most of his other books are just as good.

Posted on 2005-12-01 13:08:00 by potsdamreads

Title: I Thought My Father Was God
Author: edited by Paul Auster
Genre: Non-fiction

Why I liked this book: Everyone has special stories — the ones they tell at parties, the ones they tell to make their friends laugh, the ones that they tell late at night over a bottle of wine. Stories about family, about life, about the little things that are too good to be true, or too horrible to be made up. I Thought My Father Was God is a collection of those true favorite stories of hundreds of Americans, gathered up through NPR’s National Story Project.

I’ve been listening to these stories using the Audible.com audiobook, which is read by Auster himself. He has a lovely reading voice, and a strong sense of character, tone, and pacing, which makes it an easy book to listen to. But the content of some of the stories make it hard, as well. I’ve been moved to laugh out loud (on an airplane, prompting some funny looks…), smile in recognition, and suddenly begin crying, all from the stories in this collection. They showcase some of the best, the worst, the funniest, the most touching, and the most unbelievable of the things that happen to real people living real lives.

Read it. It’ll make you grin, it’ll make you grimace, and it’ll drag you in and not let go.

For more information on the National Story Project, try the following websites:
About the National Story Project at NPR.org
National Story Project Archives at NPR.org
Observer interview with Auster

Posted on 2005-11-09 19:13:00 by potsdamreads

Title: Bee Season
Author: Myla Goldberg
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book: We label the people we encounter — ‘smart’, ‘pretty’, ‘shy’, ‘driven’, ‘stylish’ — it’s just something people do. And, as my mother says, “Every snap judgement you make will be wrong”, because no one is ever just one thing. Bee Season is the story in which every member of the family has a label — Miriam is the brilliant attorney, Saul is the spiritual and caregiving father, Aaron is the future rabbi, and Eliza is the disappointment — and none of them are just that one thing. When Eliza discovers an unknown talent — an intuitive genius for spelling — everything changes, and everyone’s labels disintegrate and are replaced by new identities that no one would have predicted.

The thing I liked most, and the thing I often find most rewarding in fiction, is that the choices each character makes are reasonable choices, decisions that feel right in that moment, and that are completely understandable. It’s only when those decisions intersect with the choices of others that things begin to skew. And that’s how real life goes, sometimes — what’s ‘right’ for one individual can create chaos in a wider system, like a family.

[Potsdam Public Library has a copy of Bee Season, if you’d like to check it out.]

Posted on 2005-10-27 17:17:00 by potsdamreads

Title:Gilead
Author:Marilynne Robinson
Genre:fiction

Why I liked this book:

Gilead: 1)a mountainous region NE of the Dead Sea. 2) a fictional town in Iowa.

John Ames is a third generation minister to a declining flock in this rural Iowa town. The year is 1956. Ames, knowing himself to be close to death from heart disease, sets out to compose an extended letter to his 6-year old son. He will explain his life, his family history, and most of all, the depth of his love for the people and the place he has spent his whole life. The voice is that of a thoughtful, old man who has looked doubt in the face and pondered long on what really matters. His life is a testimony to his conclusion that we must “acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”

This book takes patience to read. Though not a long book, it moves slowly. I found that I enjoyed it more, the more I read. It is very like coming to know someone who is not a person to open up easily. Plot elements develop very gradually. It is worth the time it takes.

The book won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is in Crumb Library at PS3568.O3125 G55 2004

Posted on 2005-10-22 18:42:00 by potsdamreads

Title: Voice Of The Fire
Author: Alan Moore
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book: Alan Moore always seems to avoid the tired cliché and write from a unique perspective. In Voice of the Fire, he writes from 12 different unique perspectives. The framework of this novel consists of glimpses of one particular region of England, as seen through the eyes of these 12 diverse characters that span a timeframe from 4000 BC straight through to the present. Each part is written in a distinct “voice” that works on it’s own as a short story, but the thing that makes this a coherent novel, is the recurring patterns and symbolism that run throughout, and the raw, warts and all portraits of humanity. We might expect a work like this to begin with a “caveman”-and it does, but this isn’t your typical run of the mill, hunting, gathering and discovering fire kind of caveman. This caveman is an individual. He’s young, and wandering around on his own. When his mother dies, he’s abandoned by his companions and left to die because he’s not quite as bright as the other cavemen, and can’t contribute his share to the group. The situation is harsh, and Moore doesn’t pull any punches, but the writing style is beautiful and poetic, particularly in this first section. On the first page he’s contemplating starvation, in a world where nobody is likely to come to his rescue, but the sparse poetic writing style goes right to the heart of the matter, and gives the story an authentic feel. “In bove of I is many sky-beasts, big and grey. Slow is they move, as they is with no strong in they. May that they want for food, as I is want a-like.” It does take a little bit of work to decipher this first section, but it’s not too difficult if you take your time and sound out the words phonetically. In any case it’s well worth the effort, and the other chapters are written in more straightforward styles (with standard grammar). The main characters of each of the other sections are equally interesting and unique. One of the stories is written from the point of view of a severed head, while another one is a witch at the point of being burned at the stake. If you’re at all curious about the stories that the rest of the characters have to tell, then I recommend picking up a copy of this book. You won’t be disappointed.

Posted on 2005-10-19 16:04:00 by potsdamreads

Title: Truman
Author: David McCullough
Genre: Biography

Why I liked this book: This is a big book – over 900 pages long. I am still reading it (at about page 750). David McCullough knows how to bring history alive and Harry Truman is a big subject to write about. He was actually a president during my life time, but not really in my memory, so this book fills in many gaps for me – things I have heard about, but didn’t really understand. Truman was quite an amazing man – one who totally defies stereotypes. He was a farmer, an accomplished pianist, a retailer of men’s clothing, and a military officer in World War I. He loved to read, especially history, but never went to college. He married his high school sweetheart, but not until he was in his late 30s. He failed at business and went into politics because he didn’t know what else to do, but became President of the United States. He became a politician through machine politics in Kansas City, but developed a reputation for political independence. He barely won a seat in the Senate, but captured enough attention to become FDR’s running mate in 1944, becoming President after FDR’s death in 1945. He faced some of the most difficult and significant decisions of any modern president. His campaign for the presidency in 1948 remains legendary. McCullough brings all this to life. And Harry Truman’s life and accomplishments are inspiring.

Posted on 2005-10-17 13:01:00 by potsdamreads

Title: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book: This is the perfect book for a cool autumn night, with the wind blowing ourside your windows and leaves skittering across the sidewalk.

A review on Salon.com describes The Historian as a “languorous gothic travelogue”, and I can’t argue with that description. This is the most suspenseful and engaging book I’ve ever read in which essentially nothing happens, and it also made me want to visit eastern Europe like nothing else ever has. Kostova’s descriptions are simultaneously subtle and lush, and everyone I’ve talked to about this book agrees that it makes you want to see the sights she describes firsthand — Istanbul, Budapest, the mountains of France, Vlad the Impaler’s Romania.

The book is a series of first-person narratives, starting with a teenage daughter telling her story, linking into her father telling her his story, and then leading to the telling of the father’s academic mentor’s story… and since the father and his mentor are both historians by trade, their narratives lead to the discovery of more ancient narratives. All of those stories, told by academically trained but emotionally involved narrators, slowly build the (startlingly believable) premise that Vlad Ţepeş found a way to cheat death, and did indeed become the Dracula of our legends. The intertwined narratives also tell several very moving human stories, stories of families and friends, stories of relationships begun and relationships torn apart — which build just as much suspense and emotional engagement as the vampire storyline.

Kostova also intentionally builds her narratives around convincing (sometimes authoritative and sometimes fictional) historical research, visiting a multitude of fabulous and fascinating archives and libraries all over Europe (hey, I am a librarian!), all of which add to the sense that this history is real, these stories are real, and that we should all be very careful what we research…

This book may not scare you, and it probably won’t make you believe in vampires, but it left me jumping at small noises and feeling like someone was watching me — perfect for Halloween.