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.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (2016)

From the author of Life of Pi another strange, but touching novel. This one tells three or actually four seemingly disjointed stories that somehow connect to the high mountains of Portugal and a chimpanzee appears in each one way or another.

The first story is from 1904, when Tomas, a Lisbon library/archive employee, finds a diary from a 16th century priest who ends up in Africa. (I consider this the fourth story.) The priest is disappointed and works on a religious artifact that Tomas thinks ended up in a village in northeastern Portugal, an area called High Mountains, though it turns out that they aren't really mountains, just boulders. To get there, since he only has 10 days off from work, his rich uncle gives him one of his cars, a Renault (remember, we are in 1904). I found the car to be one of the most colorful characters in the book - all the difficulties in driving an early car - having to oil it in numerous places, feed it water, gas - which of course wasn't available in many towns, he had to buy lice medicine that had the same ingredients. 

The second story is in 1938, where a coroner is working late, his wife comes in and goes into a long monologue on her take on the Bible (maybe the author's view) and then there's a really strange sequence with a old lady from the high mountains who wants him to autopsy her husband.

The last story is from 1980's about a man who was born in Portugal, but his family moved to Canada when he was a toddler. When his wife Clara dies, he feels lost, and when work sends him to Oklahoma, he visits a primate research center and feels a connection with one of the chimpanzees. The two of them end up in the high mountains of Portugal. Here was one more intense human - animal relationship like Pi Patel and his tiger. This man learns to live more simply and appreciate life from the chimp. And in a way, all the stories are brought together in the end.


The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness (Emma) Orczy (1905)

I read this as a child, as my parents subscribed to Reader's Digest Condensed books for me. I usually read a couple of the 4-5 books in each volume, which provided me with some exposure to classics and contemporary literature. This is one of the few I remember, though not in detail, so I thought it was time to reread the whole thing. I just remember that it was about the French Revolution and that the Scarlet Pimpernel was an exciting spy or something.

Actually, the Scarlet Pimpernel (named after a small flower in England) was an Englishmen, who in daring disguises helped French nobility escape the guillotine in 1792. (I now am curious about how many of the aristocracy were killed and what happened with the rest. Did they stay in England and other countries? Wikipedia gives the number of up to 40,000 civilians killed, but that was anyone who seemingly opposed the revolution.) We then get the story from the viewpoint of a French woman  Marguerite, who is married to slow witted Sir Percy Blakeney and who is forced to try to discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel by threats against her brother. Once the characters started appearing on the scene, I remembered who was the audacious rescuer of French aristocrats. But it was still a fun story and gave a bit of an insight into the French revolution and how it was viewed from the English side. Marguerite was a bit much - supposedly sharp witted, but dim in ways, putting people around her in danger. But then I have to remember that the book was written over 100 years ago - and by those standards, she was quite an adventurous woman. I guess I liked the book back in childhood, because it was probably one of the first secret identity, thriller type books I read. The genre has evolved since then, but I was always able to recognize the Scarlet Pimpernel reference, though the book itself has not crossed my path for decades until now. I like these circles of life.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Finding Winnie By Lindsay Mattick (2015)

Subtitle: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I do try to read the current Caldecott books though I have been underwhelmed in recent years. This is the latest one on our shelves and I loved it. First of all, it is non-fiction, though I did not, at first, get who Winnie was, even after reading the subtitle. I may not have thought immediately of Winnie the Pooh as being the world's most famous bear, but it could be true as Winnie the Pooh books have been translated into so many languages.

The book starts with "Could you tell me a story?" and there's a mom with her little boy Cole, telling a family history. I've loved family history children's books before, but this is a family history, that affects all of us who have ever read a Winnie the Pooh book, but I am getting ahead of myself. So we have Cole's great-great grandpa working as a veterinarian in Winnipeg. He goes off to take care of Canadian troop horses in WWI. He sees a bear cub in a train station, buys the cub off of a trapper and names it Winnipeg, after his home town, or Winnie, for short. Winnie becomes the mascot of the regiment and even crosses the ocean to England with them. Once they have to leave for the front, he takes Winnie to the London Zoo. Who should discover Winnie in the zoo? Christopher Robin Milne, of course, who then names his toy bear Winnie the Pooh, and his father Alan Alexander Milne writes the Winnie the Pooh book series. Then we return to great-great-grandpa, who returns home, and we see a family tree that ends up with Cole.

The illustrations are gentle and lovely. After the story, there are images as if from the family album, with real photos of great-great grandpa and Winnie the bear - even one of a statue of the two in Winnipeg erected in 1992. The book just made me feel all warm and fuzzy, like hugging a childhood teddy bear.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Still Life by Louise Penny (2005)

Maybe this was a suggestion from my audio book store owner, but this was a delightful mystery set in Three Pines, a small out of the way village in Quebec. Inspector Armand Gamache is called in when an elderly lady is found dead on a woodsy path near her home. We see a close knit community of interesting characters, including the deceased Jane Neal - never married retired schoolteacher, loved by all, especially by her neighbor Clara, an artist. Clara's husband is also an artist, Myrna runs the bookstore, Oliver and Gabri are a delightful gay couple, Yolanda the self-absorbed niece, etc.

Gamache's style is to listen and observe. He has a solid team around him, except for Nicole, a new detective that is brilliant, but who is too focused on succeeding, that she does not listen to Gamache or the people of the village, thus having too little insight into others to be a good detective. When she finds a note on a mirror in someone's home that says "Problem? You're looking at it", she doesn't get it.

Jane is killed by an arrow. Hunting accident? Maybe, maybe not. There are a lot of skilled bow hunters in the village. I liked the ritual they performed after Jane's death, tying things with a connection to Jane to a prayer stick. They hold a fair every year and Jane has painted the Fair Day, maybe leaving a clue to her death. Looking forward to more from this series.


Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (2015)

I almost did not finish this one, was ready to return it to the library about halfway in as the level of evil was just so dreadful, not helping me live positively in this world. I let it sit for a few weeks, and then decided to finish it just because I wanted to find out if Robin was really going to marry Matthew and whether Cormoran Strike would let her know that he likes her.

Robin gets a severed leg in the mail and it looks like it is one of three big men from Cormoran's past that are trying to get back at him. There is a complex plot surrounding all three of these men. I always like to see Cormoran and Robin working together as detectives, but I lost track of some of the details, so the final explanation wasn't completely clear to me. Through the stories of these three awful men, we get more of Cormoran's back story. Since this crime seems to reflect on Cormoran, he loses clients, so one of the threads throughout this book is about their business going down the tubes. Then there is Robin and Matthew - they are planning a wedding, but then at some point she calls it off. Will she or won't she marry him?

Hopefully J.K. Rowling will take her time writing another one of these. I will probably be sucked in to read it, but she has gotten so dark - as we saw in Harry Potter. Is this what readers really want? I don't tend to psychoanalyze writers, but one would think that her life could be pretty positive with all the success she has had. Why does she feel she needs to delve into such darkness? Does she think she is bringing to light dysfunctional families, what happens to kids that are abused, women that are raped, children abandoned? I like that books shine a light on worlds I would not know about otherwise, but the evil thoughts and deeds of our criminal were so repulsive, that this overshadowed any wish I might have had for understanding the hard lives of those less fortunate than myself.


Sunday, March 06, 2016

Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kelly Greenwood (1991)

This is my third Phryne Fisher mystery and I could continue to gobble these up like tasty sweet morsels. Phryne is on a train with her assistant Dot, when she smells chloroform, manages to pull out her gun and shoot the window to get fresh air, opens all the windows, saves all her fellow passengers in the car, except an old lady that is missing, and of course later found dead, murdered. Phryne takes on the daughter of the missing woman, keeps her at her house until she is well, as she got burned by the chloroform on her face. Phryne also picks up a bright 12 year old girl, who doesn't remember who she is. So Phryne solves three mysteries in a span of a few days - the murder, who is the girl, and she finds another missing woman that was supposedly abducted by a decent looking gentlemen. Her sleuthing stops not just the murdered, but a few other criminals along the way. Of course she has to have a man or two to play with, and there are some young students that pique her curiosity. And her household grows with loyal folks. Wonder who she will take in/on next?

Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon (2015)

I was looking for a feel good book to take my mind off the evil I had been reading  about recently, and Jan Karon fits the bill. Though it was not the best book to listen to while driving around Europe - should have had something with a European theme - it kept me going on long stretches of the autobahn.

This was the one where Lace and Dooley finally get to tie the Big Knot. All of the characters from earlier books make an appearance, if they have not passed on - and even many of those were mentioned. Though I've missed a Mitford book here and there, I think I have read enough of them to follow this. I don't know how it would function as a stand alone for someone who has never read any of the Mitford books.

As I come to expect, all is done with heartwarming simplicity, with life's usual foibles thrown in. They have the ceremony out on the farm that Dooley has taken over along with the vet clinic he will be running as a newly minted vet. There is still the usual wedding stress over the dress (Lacey set herself a $100 limit), where to put all the guests, food issues, etc., but with more than one prayer from Father Timothy and everyone else around, all goes well. I think all of Dooley's brothers and sisters end up coming (his family was scattered), not all relationships go smoothly, but the general tone is of a huge, loving family gathering. The greatest new character is Jack Tyler, a four year old, though I thought he was thrown into too much by having the wedding happening on his second or so day out there.

The end was written in the voice of various characters, not all the main ones, and as I was listening, sometimes it took me a while to realize who was speaking/thinking. I actually re-listened to the last part, to make sure I got it. Looks like there are potential love interests developing, and quite a few loose ends tied up. Even with all the praying and God language, this continues to be a favorite feel good series for me.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2008)

I wanted to read one more of Adler-Olsen's books as it is set in Denmark and I was going to be visiting Denmark, but I am not sure I will go for any more. This was the second Department Q book and as much as I really like detective Carl Morck and his side-kick Assad, and their new obnoxious, but efficient assistant Rose, Adler-Olsen just comes up with the most warped evil people I've ever read about. I guess it is in the vein of Stieg Larsson, but I was creeped out a lot. Though the author manages to get me liking Kimmy - a deranged wealthy young woman living on the streets, but part of a boarding school clique that got into violence after watching Clockwork Orange - a cult film in my day, but one I have never wanted to see again after that first time. Carl and his Department Q work on cold cases and the one that just appears on their desk is about a brother and sister being killed years ago. There was a man who confessed the crime some years later, so technically Carl was not supposed to work this case, but something is off, and as he starts exploring this, he finds connections to other violent events and a boarding school gang. I never understood boarding schools - how can you send off your young kid away from the family? It was always the threat of nasty step-mothers-to-be to kid heroes in other books and movies. Denmark seems to be such a happy, peaceful country - I hope it doesn't have these nasty rich folks running around. There was also a bit of insight into street people. Not sure how much Denmark takes care of these, I guess I did not pay attention to the few I did see in Copenhagen. I did notice beggars more in Hamburg, where at least a couple had dogs with them and seemed very attached to those creatures - something to love, making the beggar happier and less threatening to those walking by.

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella (2005)

Having left the book I was reading at home, I picked this up at the airport and have finished it in the long waits and on the plane. I was looking for something light, after all the evil in my recent books. I kept looking at Kinsella's books, but was not that interested in reading about a shopaholic. This was perfect. Samantha is a brilliant young lawyer in one of the top law firms in London, poised to become the youngest partner, when she makes a huge and unforgivable mistake. Shell shocked she wanders out of the office, through the streets, ends up at a train station, gets on the next train and doesn't even know where she is when she gets off. She knocks on a door to get a drink of water and gets hired as their housekeeper - not knowing anything about cooking, cleaning or laundry. But she learns - in a delightfully funny way and finds that there is more to life than an intense career that doesn't give you any time away from your phone, no free evenings or weekends. And of course there is a love interest - the gardener Nathaniel.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (2014)

This one just literally jumped out at me on the shelves of young adult books with its bright cover and intriguing title. I still like the name of the book after a deserted field, but after about 50 pages of very short chapters of teen angst, I decided to call it quits. I can tell it will deal with teen love and sexuality, as well as bullying and other issues teens face, but I didn't have the energy for this, so I will leave it for the right audience.