Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012): A Review

Billed as a “literary adventure story,” Penumbra’s was a delightful read. Set during The Great Recession in the US, we find Clay Jannon, the protagonist and narrator up to his eyebrows in mystery thanks to his new night-shift bookstore job.

There are many strange things about the bookstore, first the fact that it’s open 24 hours, second that there are “customers” who come in during the overnight hours. The customers are strange themselves, hurried, older, “driven” and they do not buy many books, but instead hold cards that allow them to “check out” books from the “wayback” stacks. When he finally peeks into one of the massive tomes, these requested books, Clay finds out they are all written in some kind of code.

Who better at breaking a code than the attractive “computer-geek girl” who becomes more than a friend to Clay and his wealthy junior high geeky friend who finances and participates in the wacky adventure the three undertake to solve the 21st century mystery.

Even stranger than the bookstore is the its namesake, himself, Mr. Penumbra. A true “character” has been created here, a likable, peculiar, eccentric old man who reveals not only his respect for Clay and his computers but his “connections” with a medieval, possibly dangerous cult/sect.

This book has everything: things to make you laugh, things to make you sigh, as you travel all over the country to solve all things Penumbra. A great read!

BUT IS IT ART? by Cynthia Freeland: A Review

This cover shows the “Art Cow” phenomenon popular in Houston a few years ago. Many of the cows are located in Houston and the surrounding counties still.

I admit it was the cover and the memories of encountering the cows in various places that made me take this small art theory book out of the Little Free Library in my home town. Having audited a course in the history of Art and Graphic design at my university until the pandemic closed the university last semester, I was very interested to see what the author considered was art, and what was not. The book deals with contemporary art and art criticism, and is a very good introduction to art theory. Freeland, who has attachments to Houston, discusses the relationships of art with beauty, culture, money, sex, and new technology. She posits the question of what art is and what it means, a broad topic for a tiny book. She covers basic art theories and discusses why current exhibits and articles are considered art. She discusses definitions of art according to various art movements, including everything from Hume and Kant’s opinion to the opinion of the artist who created The Piss Christ.

There are photographs and musings from the author as she discusses the philosophy of art. Does she answer the question posed in her title? No, instead, she makes a fine argument that what is art is in the eye of the beholder.

2020, ALPHABET SOUP CHALLENGE, author version LETTER “M”

ALPHABET-SOUP-2020-AUTHOR-EDITION-BE-820  In attempting to whittle down my TBR shelves, an on-going goal, I checked there first for a book whose author’s  name began with an “M.” I was rewarded with The Song of the Jade Lily, a 2019, hefty 450 paged novel by Kirsty Manning. It took me a while to read it, but its mysteries and family secrets that were revealed kept me turning pages. The novel was formatted in one of my favorite ways: alternating chapters set between1939 Shanghai where Romy, a Chinese girl adopted by Jewish parents flees Germany and 2016 present-day Shanghai where her granddaughter Alexandria, visits seeking her grandmother’s story after being notified of her beloved grandfather’s impending death in Australia. What he says to her, telling her to seek out “Li” and the evasiveness of her grandmother, whose silence often suggests hidden secrets rather than the mere grief of losing a spouse, present the opportunity for mystery, war stories, romance, and the finding of identity.

Themes of friendship, love, family loyalty, heritage, and stories of what happened during the War abound as the true facts of Romy’s life and background are peeled away like the numerous skins of an onion by Alexandria. The difference this investigating makes in both their lives is not only significant but also life-direction changing.

MY FAVORITE NON-FICTION WRITER

shopping I’ve read several non-fiction books this summer, and my favorite so far is Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile. As a fan of novels set in WWII, and a baby born during that war, I’ve always had a fascination with Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and especially their relationship as heads of nations so dependent on each other. This book was written just for me.

I’ve read other Larson books, Issac’s Storm, The Devil in White City and Dead Wake, but this one not only reads like a novel (as do all Larson’s books), it characterizes the major figures of the war as well as any novelist does. We see the first impressions, the interplay of personality, and the desire to present one’s country in the best light in both Churchill and Roosevelt. Splendid/Vile focuses on the period of the blitz and the stamina and character of the English people. It focuses on Roosevelt’s desire to keep America out of the war but to retain Britain as a “sister nation.” Through this focus it tells an amazing story of politics, war strategy, and change as the war progresses. Sources used (diaries, documents, and once secret intelligence reports, some released fairly recently) and research done are a testament to the author’s desire for detail and correctness.  It is an amazing read, and also amazing is the way Larson is able to pull everything together to offer the reader a “darned good read”[ing] experience.

I DID IT!

shopping-1ALPHABET-SOUP-2020-AUTHOR-EDITION-BE-820 I did it!! All 500+ (800+ for large print) pages!! And what a delight it was. There were many “faces” I’d met in documentaries and historical books about WWII, and the stamina of the English citizens made me proud for my grandmother’s people.

Larson never ceases to amaze me; his non-fiction facts are strung together in a way that makes his books read like a novel, tracing threads of family drama, political intrigue and biographical characterization.  I have read and enjoyed several of Larson’s books, but this one was as fascinating as it was informative. I never lost interest or was bored. I loved following the career and love-life of Churchill’s daughter,Mary and was entertained by the excesses his wife, Clementine put up with from The Prime Minister.

Any WWII fan will enjoy this book, but so will readers who enjoy a “darned good read.”

Letter “G” of the 2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge, author version

ALPHABET-SOUP-2020-AUTHOR-EDITION-BE-820e

Elizabeth Gilbert is an author whose books I have always found pleasing. After reading her non-fiction offerings, I was intrigued as to what her novel would be like.Unknown.jpeg

City of Girls, which deals with life in New York City over several decades, held a special spot in my heart at this time because my  girlfriends’ trip to New York, scheduled for March 19th through 23rd, was cancelled thanks to COVID-19. Sighing as I read about landmarks and all things New York that I wouldn’t be seeing any time soon, I was soon caught up in the story of Vivian who tell of the “one true love of her life.”

To me, characterization is more important than plot, resolution of conflict, or anything else. To read of the personal growth of a character and the resulting actions (which of course have consequences) that character takes, makes for a fascinating read. Using questions suggested by a fellow blogger many years ago, I’d like to write this review in terms of characterization.

  1. Who was your favorite character? Definitely Aunt Peg, Vivian’s eccentric aunt who owns and runs the Lily Theater, and who has a hit on her hands, along with drama queens and complex social and sexual situations of her off-Broadway “family.”
  2. Who was your second favorite character? The primary character, Vivian is my second favorite character. Surely no one was ever so innocent or has ever undergone such change (and gained in knowledge) as this character was. She reminds me of myself and several other people who “just don’t think.”
  3. Would you want to follow these characters in future books? Because Vivian is an old woman as she begins to tell her story, a sequel would be unlikely, and Aunt Peg would be long deceased if a sequel were to occur, my answer would be no.
  4. What about the relationships between the characters in the book? That is exactly what made this novel a page-turner and a delight. The author never had her characters act out of character or in a way that wasn’t believable based on what the reader had been told about that character’s backstory.  

During the story, Vivian’s loss of innocence but lack of maturity cause her to “make a personal mistake that results in a professional scandal.” As a critic for The New Yorker wrote, this novel is “by turns flinty, funny, and incandescent.”What Vivian learned about life, in general, was “You don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person.”                                               

BOOK “Y” OF THE ALPHABET SOUP CHALLENGE: A Review

A Year of Wednesdays by Sonis Bahl, a 2019 publication, is “…a story that will make you laugh, cry, and think again,” according to the jacket blurb. I found it warm, humorous at times, and full of contemporary cultural allusions. Two people, an arrogant businessman and a mother with a baby are thrown together as seatmates on a 15-hour flight.  Wednesdays is a “One time, one encounter that lasts a lifetime.” Even though they separate after the flight, the cool, Wall-Street guy escapes as quickly as he can from the “mom-with-the drool-stained-sweater” who is lugging an under-two year old, puzzled that the woman’s philosophy of life shared during the 15 hours is so different from his. Not only are they diametric opposites, but she has also refused to give him information for further contact, making it clear she has no interest in him or (to him) his successfully glamorous life.

The rest of the book, alternates from chapter to chapter consists of internal conversations he has with her and she has with him. They can’t get each other out of their respective minds. As the jacket blurb says, “…somehow they continue to travel together” if only in their thoughts. This strange relationship goes on for a year of Wednesdays, the day he had suggested they meet at a tiny coffee shop. Somehow, these two are “unexpectedly connected” as ludicrous as that may sound.

My favorite quote from the book is about my favorite beverage–coffee. “Coffee should be as black as hell, as strong as death, and as sweet as love.” This story is about two people as different as night and day, who share a connection as strong as life, and as sweet as confusing “non-traditional” love.

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell: A Review

I thought it was about time to get back to reading some sci-fi, and I chose a “classic” published in 1996. I decided on this one because the information I had about it had a definite philosophical “edge” to it. This information described the novel as “Jesuits in space.” It is set in 2016-2060.

Emilio Sandoz, the main character is as complex and strange a character as I have ever encountered before. He is a priest who “lost his friends and his faith” while on his journey to and arrival on Mars. The secondary characters are admirably drawn, characters you come to “know” and care about. George and Ann, the married couple were my favorites. The aliens are interesting and creatively described and presented as well.

Russell is known for her “meticulous research, fine prose, and the compelling narrative drive of her stories,” and this one did not tarnish her reputation. The title comes from a gathering/inquisition of priests into Emiliano and the mission when one of them says in answer to one priest’s question, “…So God just leaves”?

“No, He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral dynamics of human life and gives meaning to it by caring about us, and remembering.”  The head investigator then quotes Matthew 10:29, “Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father acknowledging it.”

A younger priest, Felipe, who has seen Emilio Sandoz’s suffering, adds, “But the sparrow still falls.”

I guarantee this is a book you won’t forget.

SOLD ON A MONDAY by Kristina McMorris: A Review

The cover alone sells this novel. Two little boys dressed in 1930s knickers and caps sit dejected behind a sign that proclaims “For Sale.” The book is set during the 30s, a time of Great Depression in the US, and pointed out a fact I didn’t know. Some families, especially those with many children were desperate enough to sell their kids to needy infertile couples, both of whom were duped by unscrupulous adoption brokers. The scandal and crime involved were a fact of the most unsavory parts of American history.

I particularly like stories about the thirties and forties journalists and newspapers. I was a fan of TMC (Turner Classic Movie Channel,) which showed black and white movies set in newsrooms starring Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart. Also, I had the pleasure of working with and hearing the stories of a communication professor who was a reporter during this era.  He was in his 90s when we were friends. This novel is based on the ethical premise of exploiting a photograph and later an article to sell papers and keep a job in the endangered world of journalism at that time. Lily, who has aspirations of being a real reporter instead of a receptionist and coffee-go for, is torn between her small-time reporter friend, Ellis, who took the photo, and Clayton, the established, well-to-do reporter who can offer a better life for Lily and her secret son. Child labor is another issue of the times that is explored and supported by the buying and selling of children.

This book was a R.A.T (Reading All Together) Pack Book Club selection, and the consensus was that Sold on a Monday was a darned good read.

AN IMPRESSIVE POETRY COLLECTION: SUCH IS LIFE, A Review

Back in April, I was being very self-congratulatory about reading a volume of poetry, Evidence of Flossing, as part of my celebration of National Poetry Month.  It was such a pleasurable experience that I purchased a copy of another collection of poems recommended by a blogging friend, Khyati Gautam, a young writer with great potential.  She posted an interview with poet, Rahul Nigamon her blog, “Bookish Fame.” I think the picture of the cover, a young child, hands clasped behind his back, kicking with his left foot at a puddle appealed to me as a “poetic” image. The collection’s title is Such Is Life, and indeed, the poems are such as life is made up of.

In one of the later sections, the poet explores the definition and writing of poetry as a literary form:

POETRY

The fusion of words to create a statement, /Their coming together in search of a meaning,/ The interaction to prove their existence./ One of the poet’s age old inheritance.

 

Dwelling in the claustrophobic foundation of the identity/ Thrust upon them by the poet./ /Still striving not to lose their individuality.

 

The merger of the interior with the exterior,/ The conversation eavesdropped by the mind.

 

The iceberg of feelings/ Touched by the heat of happenings/ Melts.

 

Emotions find expression, Silence finds speech,/ And abstractness evolves into reality.

 

The stream oozes out of the pen/ And the naked white paper/ Is now clothed with someone’s scribbles.

 

A word here,/ A word there,/  Webbing them together/ To constitute/ What is called Poetry.

 

The juggling of words by the poet,/ The tuning of the orchestra/ To attain a harmony/ Music being created note by note/ And the symphony of waves all around.

 

The perfect fusion…/ The music,/ The romance,/  The music of romance.

 

The silence,/ The loneliness,/ The silence of loneliness.

 

The agony./ The pain,/ The agony of pain.

 

The death,/ The soul, /The dead soul.

 

And it goes on…

 

What is poetry?/ If not you and me?

 

Our tears,/ our smiles,/ Our anger,/ our guilt,/ Our accomplishments,/ our failure, Our life,/ our death,/ Spread all over a sheet of paper.

 

You, /Me,/ We… The fusion of words.

Other poems in the edition are equally engaging, especially the love poems and the “everyday” ones as well. I highly recommend Such Is Life as a base from which to broaden one’s appreciation and respect of poetry.