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.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Counterfeit Agent by Alex Berenson (2014)

Another thriller, another gruff, but likable older guy who has retired from official duty, but ends up doing amazing things to save the world from the crazies. Looks like this is number eight in the John Wells books. 

In the beginning I was confused, as we followed numerous people in different parts of the world, and as I had not read any John Wells books, nor even caught on that it was a Wells book, I had no clue who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, as in these kinds of books both sides can get pretty violent. The final moral question is why are they doing it, besides saving their own lives.

Basically there is a group of people, funded by a mysterious source, that are tasked to set up a situation so that the U.S. feels so threatened that they would declare war on Iran. Then there is our own government and it's CIA operatives. The story of one operative was interesting as he was recruited out of college, because he had visited Istanbul, fallen in love with the city, and studied Turkish in school. (We had a student working for us that was recruited too for his foreign language skills.) Then we have our former CIA head Vinnie Duto, now a senator, who gets a call from a former contact, which starts the third group functioning. Since he is no longer CIA chief, he turns to his former employees John Wells and Ellis Shafer to look into things. And it takes off from there - actually not coming to a complete resolution, so maybe there will be a sequel to this.

Since the Middle East is of interest to me, and since the plot revolved around the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, I enjoyed getting another insight into the global politics. This thriller ride also took us to South Africa, Mexico, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Instanbul, with brief forays into Iran, France and other places as the various characters get brought into the story. Not that I need any more thriller authors on my list, but I would not mind reading more.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Out of Iraq by Sybella Wilkes (2010)

Subtitle: Refugees' Stories in Words, Painting and Music.

One of the children's books I took out from the library on Iraq. The forward is by Angelina Jolie, whose work I am respecting more and more. The author, Sybella Wilkes has been working with Iraqi refugees in Syria through the UN Refugee Agency. She bringing forth these stories of mostly young people who were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in Syria.

The stories themselves are heart wrenching, but I also love the illustrations provided by the children. I don't know if they are taught to draw in a certain way, but I kept feeling there was a style unlike most kid drawings. Then I realized what was different was that everyone was totally colored in. Looked like it could be using regular poster paint, and every background, wall, floor, grass, sky is totally covered in paint. Paintings of tanks and soldiers - meant this is what they really saw. Families packing to go  - another reality.

All of these stories continue to fill in my mosaic of understanding about Iraq, its people, religion, history. I learned of other religious groups that have been pushed out - mostly Christians and Sabean Mandeans, a peaceful religion I had never heard of.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ready Player One by Ernest Kline (2011)

This was a fun book, even if I didn't get over half the references, as I was never a gamer. The author Cline managed to write a book where we feel like we are observers in one big video game. The time is the future, when everything has basically gone to hell and most people live in a virtual world called Oasis. Kids even go to school in this video world, and teachers teach in this video world.

Wade Watts, known as Parzival in Oasis, lives in the "stacks" (funny to librarians), where trailers and other mobile homes are piled on top of each other by a crane, held together by a grid. (A bit like the favela slums in Brazil.) His parents have died, so he lives with an aunt that is unable to care for him, so he has all his valuables stored in an uncrushed van in a pile of junk cars (fossil fuels just about used up, so cars are unaffordable). He has made the little money he has from fixing computers and of course he loves to play games in the Oasis.

James Halliday, the man who created the Oasis dies and leaves his fortune and the Oasis to the one who can find Halliday's Easter egg, a hidden treasure within the Oasis. He leaves a video for the first clue to three keys that people spend years trying to decipher. Halliday (and the author) grew up in the 1980's, he loves the decade, so everyone is learning about the 80's reading the books, watching the films, playing the games. This is the fun part for anyone who lived through the 80's. I went through college before Dungeons and Dragons came out. I would have been caught up in it, but by the time I was in the work world, I didn't have time for that kind of thing. I did play a bit of the early games - Galaxy, Asteroids, Pac Man, and some very primitive computer games, so I understood the vector graphic references. I watched my son get into games with Game Boy, and things like Donkey Kong and Zelda, so I learned a bit about games. But it is not just games that get referenced, it is food, clothing styles, people, etc. of the decade. So it is a fun period piece.

Our main character Parzival is the first to find the first key and gate, and the clue he needs pops up in his head in Latin class. He has a virtual friend - H - who he "hangs out with" in Oasis, playing games together, etc. He has been following the blog of Art3mis, a witty Gunter. Gunters are those that have devoted themselves to egg hunting. Though he doesn't tell these two how to find the key, these two find it soon after him, then followed by Shoto and Daito, two brothers from Japan. But after that it is the Sixers who find the key next and fill up the scoreboard. Sixers work for the nasty IOI corporation, which of course wants control of the Oasis, so has created an army to find the clues and play through the games each key and gate require.

As usual, after writing down my own thoughts, I go check and see what else I should know about the book or author. Ernest Cline was born in 1972 and this is his first novel, which includes an Easter egg of it's own with a DeLorean as the prize. Wikipedia doesn't say if anyone has gotten it. There is a new book coming out later this year, so I will have to check it out.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fine Indian Jewelry of the Southwest by Shelby J. Tisdale (2006)

Subtitle: The Millicent Rogers Museum Collection.

OK, I am cheating on this one, I did not read the whole book, but found it in a pile of books at the reference desk on the Southwest, including a book on Southwestern pottery which I also perused page by page. For this one I read all the picture captions and once I became intrigued by the woman - Millicent Rogers, I read her biographical story at the beginning and end of the book and bits and pieces elsewhere. She was a Standard Oil heiress, but had suffered rheumatic fever as a child, so her health was fragile. But she lived life fully. Besides being beautifully, sometimes eccentrically, dressed and marrying at least three times, she also was highly charitable and helped her Jewish friends escape from Europe. Towards the end of her life, when she discovered Taos, NM and the gentle cultures of the Indian peoples she met, she took on the cause to collect and preserve their art. Her sons created the museum after her death. (She was supposedly too weak to bear children, but did anyway, as she felt it was her duty as a wife.)

The jewelry itself is gorgeous. I never understood the massive silver belt buckles and thingy's - concha, but now that I have read about them, I definitely will appreciate them much more. I have admired squash blossom necklaces, but did not realize that many Indian necklaces contained crosses. Many beautiful bracelets, necklaces, rings, pins, etc. And of course the turquoise - can't forget the beautiful turquoise - plus coral and other interesting stones. Millicent Rogers not only collected jewelry, but designed and even learned to make some herself. Her sons have had more examples made from her design sketches. All beautiful.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

That Part was True by Deborah McKinlay (2014)

I was staying with an old childhood friend for a few days and loved her house, as I was surrounded by piles of books everywhere. These were not dusty tomes, but mostly hardbacks, mostly non-fiction, from the last few years. As I looked over the books next to my bed, I found a few I had read myself, and this novel grabbed my attention. Maybe it was the Eiffel Tower on the cover, who knows. I just wanted some simple reading before falling asleep. Since I didn't get very far while there, my friend let me take it home. I also have to explain that my friend is a foodie, who caters Latvian events and weddings. She had great stories to tell of weddings she has worked.

The premise is simple, Eve Petworth is from Britain and she writes a letter to a well known American author Jackson Cooper about a passage she liked in his book that described eating a ripe peach. They start corresponding mostly about food. Both enjoy cooking in a deep way that I am sure my friend appreciated more than I ever could, but I enjoyed those descriptions too. Of course their correspondence is a significant stabilizer in their otherwise unmoored lives.

Eve Petworth has recently lost an over bearing mother and is dealing with her highly energetic and self-confident daughter Izzy, who is getting married and misses grandma. Eve has difficulty being in crowds and is slowly working on herself.

Jack Cooper is dealing with the demise of his second marriage, fending off (or not) various women, hanging out with his actor buddy Dex, struggling with writer's block. Somehow through the anonymity of letters (I think that most were hand written instead of emails) Eve and Jack find support in each other, even planning a meeting in Paris.

I like the story technique of telling a story through letters with narrative in between. I am trying to remember others, but the only one that comes to mind at the moment is my friend Michael Rosen's ChaseR: A Novel in E-mails, but I am sure I have read others.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

100 Year Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (2011)

(Translated from Swedish in 2012.) This is the funniest book I have read in a long time. It is a quirky kind of funny that just hit me right and I found myself laughing out loud. Written by a Swede, about a Swede in places I can visualize, as I have been to a bit of Sweden. The book is dedicated to the author's grandfather who had said something like: "Whatever is the truth is not worth listening to." So this is a tall tale, reminding me of Baron von Münchhausen. On the other hand, it is a Forest Gump story, where our main character Allan Karlsson happens to be at key events in world history and gets to meet three US presidents, Stalin, Mao, Churchill and more.

There are two main story lines. One is that of Allan in May 2005 starting on the day he turns 100 years old and doesn't want to celebrate it at the old folks home, so he climbs out the window without a plan, but a little money in his pocket. He goes down to the bus station and his adventures begin. As in various fairy tales I have read, one character starts the ball rolling, meets another character unhappy with his lot in life, who joins the first and off they go until they meet the next, etc. Jonasson ends up stringing six very different people together and we get back stories on all of them. Actually it is eight characters, if you include the elephant and dog. There are villains, dead bodies, bags of money, police investigations, car chases, you get it all.

It is Allan that is the glue that holds them together and his background is the other main plot line. We get his life story in chunks that intersperse with the current story. Allan was born in 1905, his father was a revolutionary who went off to Russia to depose the czar and died there. Young Allan works in an explosives factory where he learns the skills that sometimes get him in trouble, but at others open doors for him. So he travels the world - Spanish civil war, U.S. during WWII, China, Iran, Russia, N. Korea, Bali, etc. Over those years he learns Spanish, English, Chinese, Russian and probably more languages. He sees first hand events of the 20th century, sometimes having a role in them.

Allan is such a laid back, positive character, who doesn't care for politics, religion or money, though he sometimes has a substantial amount of the latter. He is such a likable character (I would like to meet him) that world leaders ask him to eat with them, but he gets along just as well with criminals and other unsavory characters. Plus he is convinced that everything will go more smoothly with some vodka.

We meet historical figures, but I also love many of the secondary characters, like Benny, who is an almost vet, doctor, lawyer, etc. or Sonya, the elephant, who's story on how she ended up in Beauty's barn is hysterical. Or the whole episode with Herbert Einstein, Albert's not so bright brother, which leads to many "he's no Einstein" jokes. But it didn't feel like jokes were being told, just very funny stories. I see one more of Jonas Jonasson's book translations in Amazon, so luckily there will be more to read in the future.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

For Kicks by Dick Francis (1965)

I have no idea why this book was on my nightstand. Maybe I pulled it out of a "not read" pile some time ago, thinking it was science fiction I could relax with at some point. Dick Francis' name sounded familiar - maybe from my bookstore days. Science fiction it was not. More like thriller with horse racing. Francis was a jockey himself and wrote all of his books about the horse racing world. Interestingly enough, I mention the author to a colleague and she started gushing about having all of his books and loving them. Who knew.

Daniel Roke owns a horse farm in Australia and has been raising his brother and sisters after their parents died. Earl of October appears one day and offers him an undercover job to find out what is going on with some racehorses back in England, who win, act as if the have been doped up, but the tests come back clean. Daniel takes on the job, not for the money, but because he is bored back home and as he says at the end of the book - "for kicks."

I did enjoy how this self confident man made himself a simple stable boy and shifty character to get in behind the scenes of the horse world. I have read other books about the race horse world, so it was not new, but gave more detail here. Daniel put up with quite a bit of abuse to keep in character. Once the story was set up, there seemed to be a long lull, when nothing much happened, but then the last third of the book picked up and got enjoyable intense.

Since I was reading a book from 1965 I was wondering about the retro feel, but the story worked quite well. I think the advent of cell phones makes a huge difference in how plots are developed nowadays, as instantaneous communication is possible, and we don't have to rely on the post, or finding a phone, etc. One thing that surprised me was that Daniel was allowed to visit a female student at a university in her dorm room easily. Maybe it was different in England, but it seemed like when I first went to college a few years later, they had just gotten rid of all sorts of restrictive rules about visitors in the dorms. Don't expect to try any more of his books, but was pleasant enough.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray (2003)

It is not possible to read every book in the world and I will come no where near reading all the books that sound interesting to me - or even all the books on my night stand, so I let my reading be serendipitous. This is a great example. I was looking through a list of top 100 books for young adults, found I had read about a third of them, and came upon this one. It wasn't the title, cover or summary that grabbed me, but the name of the author - Libba Bray. What a name! Kind of like a stuttered "library."

I liked the premise - Gemma Doyle lives in India in 1895 with her family, but when her mother dies, ends up in a boarding school for young girls in England. Her roommate Ann is the scholarship student, shy and lacking self confidence. The "in" girls are Felicity and beautiful Pippa. But Gemma seems to have some latent magic powers and she draws these girls into a magical world, where they can be what they are not in the real world.

I enjoyed the reminder of how far women have made it. That at the end of the 19th century girls had little say about their fates and that they were educated to be graceful companions to men, learning to draw, dance, speak French. We get a glimpse of some of the teachers - women who do not have a husband and this is one of the few decent jobs for a single woman. I don't mind a bit of magic, but am not thrilled with stories that plunge headlong into strong magic realms where the good is too good to be true and the evil is really evil. Nor do I really want to read about young Gemma being warned not to mess with the magic, but of course she does anyway, without learning to control it. So not a waste of my time, but I do not need to finish the trilogy.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Dalai Lama by Demi (1998)

One more of Demi's wonderfully illustrated books, this time of Tibet, it's mountains and its well known spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. It is a story I know, but it was interesting to see how Demi would tell it. The Dalai Lama himself wrote an introduction, so the book has his approval. I like the fact that he was a curious and mischievous boy. I just wonder if they will be able to find the next Dalai Lama, though I hope this one has many more years to live. I did see him in person - in Latvia of all places, with my friend Inta. I wish him well, and his cause.

Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)

I am not sure what I think about this book. I really liked Eugenides' Middlesex and a little less so Virgin Suicides. Obviously Eugenides went through college just a few years after me, so the environment was similar - at an ivy league, after women had gotten some rights and felt they had more options than just getting married. In the beginning I did feel overwhelmed by the intellectual talk, as one Amazon critic put it: "reading it was like sitting between two members of the literary intelligentsia at a dinner party, as they try to one-up each other with the depth and breadth of their vast knowledge. I was simultaneously bored,lost and annoyed." 

I am a much more practical person, intelligent, and I obviously like reading, but do not have any urge to dissect a work, though it may be interesting at some point to figure out why I do or don't like certain books. I even started questioning the purpose of literary criticism or devoting your life to studying something like Victorian literature - never been a strong draw for me. This feels a bit blasphemous as I work in an academic environment. I can see looking closely how others write, so one could write better oneself. But I mostly see literature as the author sharing with the reader themselves, their ideas or flights of fancy, their times and experiences. Books are a place to learn about how other people think and act, about another historical time or culture or place, about other possibilities. For a while I really liked women science fiction and fantasy writers, who offered alternative societies to our own.

Back to the Marriage Plot. Was it a form of anti-marriage plot? Since I listened to this instead of reading it, I can't flip back to the marriage plot themes Madeleine was working with from literature, but I guess many books do have a marriage plot in them. And she was just looking at high falutin' literature, what about the sea of romance novels?

We meet the three main characters on graduation day at Brown, and though Madeleine is the main character, we get the story of Leonard and Mitchell too - from their points of view. We get the back story of each, and the plot swings between characters and times from childhoods into the first year after college. Madeline is into literature, Leonard into biology (got a sense of how scientists work and even if they are not in an academic environment, they are still highly dependent on grant funding), Mitchell into religious studies as he goes on his exploratory trip to Europe and India. I think in the end I liked Mitchell the best, though I can't say I felt close to any of the characters. The illness described was about the most valuable thing I took away from the book and some soul searching on if I could ever be there for a person that was seriously ill. I am afraid I am too self-centered for that.