Maira's Books

In January of 2005 I started this blog as a record of books I’ve read as I was afraid I would forget what I have read. I have often referred back to my own blog to remember a book's contents or see what I have read by an author. I have enjoyed passing my books on to friends or recommending books to read. I know I have missed recording some, but in general I try to keep up with what I have read or listened to.

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Location: Kalamazoo, MI, United States

I am a librarian at Waldo Library at Western Michigan University.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova (2017)

Kostova is one of the authors I always pick up when I see a new book and she didn't disappoint. I do have to say there was a bit of a pall over my lovely weekend up north, as I kept listening to this once again heavy story. You would think I am done with World War II and the Soviet aftermath, but now I got a new perspective - from Bulgaria.

Turns out Kostova herself went to Bulgaria and fell in love, so she has always wanted to write a book wholly located in the country. I would like to think that given a map of Europe with country outlines, I could identify Bulgaria, but without country lines - nope - until now. Between Greece and Romania with a coastline along the Black Sea.

Alexandra Boyd has done nothing special after graduating from college, so after a few years of shelving books in a library (couldn't she move up to more interesting jobs in the library?) she decides to spend a year teaching English in Bulgaria and arrives a bit early to explore the country before she starts working. The taxi from the airport leaves her off at a hotel instead of her hostel. She helps an older couple and a younger man get all their things into a taxi, but then realizes that one of their bags has stayed with her. She spends the rest of the book returning the bag that contains a box of ashes of Stoyan Lazarov.

The taxi driver Bobby (Asparuh) helps her out, brings her to the police as she requests, then follows clues criss-crossing Bulgaria to find the family of Stoyan Lazarov. The adventure takes her to Velin  Monastery(couldn't find it, maybe meant to be Rila), Bovech (maybe be Lovech), major city Plovdiv, Gorno in the mountains, Burgas on the sea.  She meets Bobby's aunt Pavlina, Lazarov's wife's sister Irina, Lazarov's wife Vera, their son Nevan, friend Milen Radev, his daughter and various other characters. 

As we meet these people, slowly the story of Stoyan Lazarov is revealed - a brilliant violinist, who studied in Vienna, but came back as the war was starting, met Vera, courted her, married her, but was taken away to a labor camp. These are the stories I have heard before, but this one just wrenches the heart even more than usual. How does one stay sane to endure the incredible hardships? Lazarov had his music and stayed sane by playing through all the pieces he knew. I have thought about how well I could endure something like this - I think I would lose it. What would I think about? Books? I've forgotten more than I remember. Songs? I've stopped singing them.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016)

Subtitle: Stories From a South African Childhood.

I like Trevor Noah. Though he is not Jon Stewart, he has held his own on The Daily Show and his outsider's perspective on our politics feels fresh. So it was with pleasure that I listened to Noah read his autobiographical book. His childhood growing up in Soweto was hard. The fact that he had a white father made his birth a crime, and though he did meet with occasionally with his father, he wasn't around. Later his mother married Abel, who was abusive. We get to see a post apartheid world, where things are not easy. I somehow had missed that there are so many languages spoken in South Africa, that it becomes another barrier. Poverty, racism, classism, the various neighborhoods. I did not know South Africans were given real names and then European names. Trevor uses mostly the European names, and it does not look like he had a South African name himself. One of the strangest stories he told was about a great street dancer named Hitler, which did not go over very well in a Jewish school. It was interesting to see from their perspective, that Hitler was just a name, with no inferences. Trevor was lucky his mother provided him with books and good schooling to get him out of the poverty cycle, though he spent some time after high school dealing in pilfered music. His mother was very religious and trusted God and Jesus. There is a story of a miracle at the end of the book that I like to think was the result of her strong belief. We know it all ends well and though he mentions his career as a comedian, he doesn't tell us how he got there. I am sure that will be material for another book. His sense of humor got me through the hard parts of his book.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe (2016)

Subtitle: The story of young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Got to keep up with those Caldecott books. This is the story of an artist in New York (OK, so he grew up in Brooklyn with a Puerto Rican mother and father from Haiti. I've definitely seen his work, but knew nothing about this artist who drew as a child, moved into graffiti and then became a successful, well know artist with a message against capitalism, colonialism and those with power in the late 1970's and 1980's.

Steptoe, the author/illustrator of this book has created interesting pieces of art on every page. The illustrations are painted on boards, which give them a rugged authentic look. He has recreated Basquiat's work through his own interpretation. He even recreated Picasso's Guernica, which must have been fun. Steptoe tells a story for children, but then in the back there is some more biographical information. Since I love historical fiction, especially art history fiction, I enjoyed this book.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer (2016)

This is the same Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame. The cover caught my eye and I liked the idea of the hero of a thriller being a woman, not just a side-kick. Alex or whatever her name is on her fake ID is on the run. She was a brilliant med student and chemist, who had been working in a top secret federal lab on compounds that affect the nervous system. She called herself the Chemist, one character later called her Poison Lady and Oleander/Ollie for a poisonous plant.  (I thought it was a flower of sorts from memories of the book White Oleander, but turns out it is a shrub.) 

Her mentor/lab partner gets killed and she barely avoids the same fate, so is on the run. She sets up elaborate chemical protections before going to sleep with a gas mask in a bathtub every night. She moves around a lot and tries to leave no trace. She goes to libraries to read up on how to stay safe - from non-fiction, but also thriller novels. I did feel a twinge when she cut out the tattle-tape from a few library books.

She gets an email from her old boss apologizing for trying to kill her on a number of occasions, but that they really need her skills. Some deadly virus is about to be let loose and only she will be able to get the information out of the perpetrator. She knows this could be a trap, which it is.

Her target is Michael, a seemingly mild-mannered teacher who coaches volleyball and works with Habitat for Humanity in Mexico, but that there he has hooked up with evil doers. Strangely he falls for Alex as soon as he set eyes on her - before stuff gets weird. 

Michael's brother Kevin swoops in like Batman and has stashes of weapons and disguises which Alex likes to call his bat caves. The unusual trio run, hide and fight around the country, trying to figure out who has it in for them. They are joined by Val, a sometime girlfriend of Kevin's, who has parleyed her beauty into a lucrative business. She comes in handy with her make-up skills. Then there are the dogs. Kevin raises and trains amazing protective dogs - Einstein , Lola, and others. They are great companions, fiercely loyal, intelligent, and save the human lives more than once.

I have stated before that I don't like torture and there were two scenes I could have done without, but the rest was good. My only quibble with the book is in the happily ever after ending. Would Alex be happy in the fairly mundane role we see her in the epilogue? She is a brilliant scientist. Does she still get to use her talents?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backham (2016)

Another heart-warming book by Backman. I no longer know the diagnoses of his characters, and I have to be patient in the beginning as his main characters' personalities and stories emerge. We see Britt-Marie in the unemployment office looking for a job, though she has not worked outside the home for decades. Rubbing the finger where a ring once sat explains why. Surprisingly she gets sent to Borg to take care of their rec center, which the town has forgotten to close. The town is dying with only a pizza joint/corner store/post office still operating. Britt-Marie's one skill and obsession is cleaning and organizing, so she sets off doing just that. In the process she encounters a band of kids who like to play football (soccer), a couple of older women who drink too much, the local policeman who has taken every crafts course available and more town folk. Of course she ends up helping out the kids, the town and finding herself - in the most unusual ways. Though this is set in Denmark, it could be any town that has run into hard times. There are so many wonderful details, like the unemployment worker, who at times is driven crazy by Britt-Marie's calls, but who also find hope in these encounters. I always feel so good about humanity after Backman's books.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

1984 by George Orwell (1949)

Seems like everyone is rereading this classic in this current baffling political climate. Fake news and alternative facts fit in perfectly into Orwell's world. Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, altering facts in past publication when those in power declare white is black, or when someone is arrested and killed, every mention of them is erased.

I couldn't help but try to think this through logically - so if they had to rewrite an article in a newspaper and it gets reprinted in some central location, what happens to all the other copies that were distributed elsewhere throughout the land. The other thought I had was that Orwell couldn't even imagine how easy it would be to dumb down the general public. Back in 1984 we still had newspapers, but now they are dying out and how many people read them anyway. People get their information from media (like the telescreen in the book) selectively - what they want to hear and we see now how easy it is to plant fake news.

Big Brother is Watching You! This definitely reminds me of all the surveillance done by the Soviets. One whole floor of a multi-story hotel in Riga was devoted to it. I always wondered how much staffing was needed to watch/listen to guests in all the rooms. Or to open all the mail, especially that coming or going outside fo the USSR. So again, I am wondering how they wired the whole world with surveillance - even out in the woods, and who did all the watching. I still think there are remote parts of the world they could not watch. But then again, think of now, we are all being followed through our electronic devices and online presence and surveillance cams are all over. 

I liked the appendix exploring newsspeak, the minimized language. Another phenomenon we are seeing today. I hope cool heads and intellect and reason prevail, but we have seen the destruction of intellectuals in authoritarian regimes before, and it could happen again.

I dislike reading about torture. I was freaked out in childhood when I read how Soviets tortured school kids in Latvia. I know it really happened then and happens now, but I am deeply opposed to it and hate it in books and movies. In 1984 it was awful to see Winston broken. Just like I never saw the Soviet purpose of deporting people, especially the young and old, and not providing citizens - the working class - with the basic necessities. This is coming up in Follet's Edge of Eternity. I've just started it, but one character already said: "How can we solve the problems (under Communism) if we can't even discuss them."

(Since I was listening to audio and did not have a cover image, I had to choose from the many that have been created for this book. This one looked familiar. I think this is what the book looked like when I first read it in the 1970's.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Stars Above by Marissa Meyer (2016)

It seems that Marissa Meyer had left too many quetsions unanswered, so here we have six stories from the Lunar Chronicles about the origins of the main characters and the happily ever after ending. How did Scarlett come to live with her grandmother and how did grandma Michele get involved in taking care of Cinder while she grew up in a suspension module? We see Cinder's fate before she moved to New Beijing, how Iko came to be Cinder's good friend, the scene at the market where Prince Kai brings his android to be fixed by Lynn Cinder - but this time from his point of view. I don't know how much it would make sense for someone who hasn't read the other full novels. For instance, you know that Cinder is standing on one foot the whole time, as she is talking to the prince. He notices something, but doesn't realize what. Then there is the story of how Wolf was transformed into the part wolf being. And how Winter and Jason go back to early childhood, as their fathers were guards together, and Jason always protected Winter. What a rogue young Thorne was, and how Cress got commandeered to spy on Earth from space. Of course, the lovely ending with them all gathering for Scarlett and Wolf's wedding, but we get to hear how they have all fared in the couple of years since the end of the last book. Enjoyed it.

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)

Translated from French by Barbara Bray (1985)
Read this as it was one of the books on a list recommended by Roxanne Gay - a keynote speaker at a library conference in Baltimore this spring.

It's been a long time since I've read something like this. I would call it stream of consciousness. Why do I have a need for chapters, places where I can draw my breath? This whole book consisted of  vignette's (not the right word), usually a paragraph, no more than a page and a half in length in a small format book. The girl is 15 and a half, lives in Saigon with her mother and brother in a boarding school, goes to a French high school, dreams of being a writer. On the ferry she meets a Chinese man in a big black limousine. They become lovers, but his family would not hear of him marrying her. She eventually moves to Paris and has a life. With plenty of jumps into the past and future. Turns out this is autobiographical.

I don't regret reading it, but can't say I got a lot out of it. Maybe I am just too used to the typical plot driven book, though this too had a story too, and beautiful writing.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Island of Glass by Nora Roberts (2016)

Had to finish the last of the Guardians Trilogy. Though this series seems to find more of a balance between the six characters - they do function and evolve as a team, but then each book is focused on one of the couples. This time it was Doyle and Riley's turn. He is the immortal, who has suffered for centuries, as those he loves or becomes close to, die; and she is the archaeologist, scholar, adventuress, who also happens to turn into a wolf three nights a month. Of course they are suited for each other, it just took a bit longer for them to discover this than their companions Bran & Sasha and Anika & Sawyer.

They have returned to Bran's home in Ireland to try to figure out where to look for the third star - the Ice Star. Turns out he has built his home on the ruins of where Doyle's family home once stood. Once they find the star, they have to find the Island of Glass and return all three starts to the goddesses.The magic is a bit hokey, the fight scenes not too engaging, and I figured out what Doyle and Anika would get as rewards from the goddesses, but it was a fun story anyway. I like the daily interactions better than the main events, and the subplot of the three guys getting their ladies rings. I have wondered what has happened to the old gods of yore, as has Neil Gaimon in some of his books, so there is a satisfaction to hear a fairy tale of devotion to a quest with superheroes of sorts.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (2011)

Ruta Sepetys is a Lithuanian-American who is writing novels about our Baltic history. This is very like our own Ruta U.'s Dear God, I Wanted to Live. The story is very similar, how a family that has committed no crimes is dragged out of their house in the middle of the night - men separated out and sent to prison camps, women and children put into cattle cars and then sent off to Siberia. The Latvian version by Ruta U. is actually written by someone who experienced it herself, being deported at age 14. In this story the girl Lina is 15 and written by someone who has researched these deportations. Lina travels with her mother and younger brother. They spend a month and a half in the cattle car getting to their first labor camp, where they live in a hut with a Russian woman while they work, but then they are taken to another place north of the Arctic Circle, where they are expected to build their own shelter - a yurt, and of course many do not survive the winter. Stalin is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 20 million people. This is less known than Hitler's atrocities, so these kinds of books are important. It looks like this has been made into a film, but I can't find any references to it being out yet. I believe it is called Ashes in the Snow. With all the other shades of gray books and movies out there, the original title might not work. 

A minor detail is the maps in front of the book. I always like books with maps that show me where the action is taking place. This map is very familiar to me, as have taught excerpts from Dear God, I Wanted to Live at the Latvian school for years, and one of our activities is to follow their trip on a map of the Soviet Union, so the path of these deportees was very similar. I find it interesting, that at the end of Between Shades of Gray, when Lina has spent two of her twelve years of imprisonment, her thoughts are focused on survival, on wanting to live, as in the title of our Latvian book.