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, May 20, 2017

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)

This book was suggested by a friend years ago, and I finally got around to reading/listening to it. The book is interesting on various planes - and I understand the attraction for her to all the medical descriptions, as my friend is a vet.

I understand Verghese is an Ethiopian-born medical doctor, so much of the story takes place in Ethiopia, a place that holds interest for me, as I work with a journal and conference on African development that focuses a lot on Ethiopia. It helped me visualize Addis Ababa and understand the various political upheavals the country has endured.

Actually, few of the characters were Ethiopians. Stone of the title is a British surgeon from India. Sister Mary, Hema, and Gosh are Indian expat doctors and nurses. Even of the "locals" some are Eritreans - and I had to look up the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, finding out that Eritrea broke off in 1993. Ethiopia itself has an interesting and unenviable history. It was interesting to hear about medical education in India and Ethiopia and then how those that land in the U.S. have difficulty getting into the major hospitals, but work in those treating the poor populations of Americans. All of these doctors in the story were highly dedicated to their work, their patients, and some even managed to come up with medical breakthroughs.

All of this interesting information was couched in an engrossing story of a set of twin brothers born in an Addis Ababa hospital. Unfortunately their mother does not survive and father disappears, so they are brought up by Hema and Ghosh, two other doctors at the hospital. The story is told by Marion, one of the twins - as he reconstructs his birth parents story, remembers his own childhood and puberty (very touching), how he started helping Ghosh at the hospital and realized he too wanted to be a doctor. His twin Shiva was brilliant, but not one to follow narrow guidelines, so he ends up helping Hema in her work with obstetrics without going to med school. The brothers are incredibly close, but different and life does separate them. 

This was a beautiful story of human compassion and endurance, of family ties, even if not by blood, and opened my heart and eyes to one more part of the world.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

My Not so Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella (2017)

I do like these Sophie Kinsella books. Katie is a young woman from Somerset,the countryside in England, but wants to have a career in branding, a form of marketing, and live in London. She gets a job in a company as a junior researcher. Her boss is the brilliant, but scatterbrained Demeter. Katie is given a boring job and she tries to figure out office politics. She lives in a tiny apartment with two others, has a long commute, but keeps posting lovely photos of London an supposedly her perfect life in London. Then she meets Alex at work and has fun with him trying out various toys from China and hanging out a bit, but because of some errors, the company isn't doing well and she gets laid off.

Back in Somerset her father and stepmother want to start a glamping business on their farm, and Katie ends up helping them. (I had heard of glamping, but this gave me more of an insight.) Of course Katie is great at marketing and the business takes off, but then Demeter shows up.

Anyway, good story of  young girl finding herself with the internal dialog Kinsella is so good at. Katie starts out thinking others have these perfect lives and in the end realizes that everyone has bright and shiny spots in their lives and crap reality too.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Apprentice in Death by J.D. Robb (2016)

There is no way I will keep up with all of Nora Roberts' books as JD Robb or otherwise, but every once in a while I want to dip in to see how Eve Dallas, Lt. of the NYPD and her rich tech savvy husband Roarke are doing. This was a gripping one as people were being picked off by a skilled long range sniper. = Roarke was able to quickly develop a program to pick certain buildings that could fit the criteria for being the nests, or places from which the sniper shot and thus ID the killer. But killer wasn't alone - it was a young apprentice, being guided by a damaged, but skillful mentor.

I guess the theme is nature or nurture. Was this young person born with something innately off, that they could kill for sport, for revenge against the world? Could the mentor have guided the child in a different direction? I like that Eve's work world is always interspersed with some personal, real life events. She is dreading going to her best friend Mavis' daughter's first birthday. But in the end she has bagged the killers and reluctantly attends this party with all those little crawlers she does not understand. But Eve starts watching them and realizing they are fascinating too, that a lot is going on in those little heads. I wonder if this is a step toward her having one of her own.

The story is typical Eve Dallas story, with great police work, lots of teamwork, crafty interviewing, tech solutions, exhaustion, scrapes and bruises on Eve, support from Roarke (keep wondering when he runs all his businesses, but he is superman). I really like that Eve is no nonsense and when Roarke wants to give her a new command central office in their home, he has to give her an extreme girly version that he knows she will hate, before giving her more mellow options from which she can really choose something. I observe that Nora Roberts gets off on describing clothing - crazy clothing from the future (this book is set in 2061). Eve dresses very simply, but you see her reacting against Peabody's colorful coats and clothes and ragging on others too. I guess it also lightens the mood between murders and the heaviness of murder investigations. I also saw a bit of a potential school shooting theme.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2015)

Translation from German 2016. I had heard of this book and it was on our popular reading shelf. The whole concept was interesting, but not interesting enough to finish the whole book, though I skimmed the rest of the chapters.

I really did not know that trees can communicate with each other, warn each other about predators, help each other by providing nutrients to the weak, and that the massive root structures are responsible for a lot of this. I know I have heard of huge fungi growing underground, and the fungi have an important role in forests, but the roots! I just feel I am constantly fighting with the roots of the many trees on my property, when I try to work on a flower bed - often a solid mass of roots. One of the biggest questions I had while reading this was - how in the world did they measure all this and get the data, as trees function much more slowly than we do - and more slowly than the Ents in Lord of the Rings. Another question I had, and which might have been answered in one of the chapters I did not read - What happens to the roots and fungi when a forest is cleared? Do they just rot away? I assume for a while they provide fertile soil for crops, but then with erosion and decay, it probably is much less so.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (2013)

Bought this on the suggestion of a friend for "light" reading as we hung out together in a bookstore. What a roller coaster ride of a thriller! Started it in print, misplaced it, listened to it, and the end couldn't wait, so finished it in print.

While I was reading this, I kept thinking that most of us have a life full of adventures and major life events, but they are not usually told all at once unless one is writing a biography, but it seems that we hear the life story of Scott Murdoch in this one book. Of course his life story is exponentially more exciting than ours. When I was done with the book, I realized the author had threaded every past experience from Scott into the solution or resolution of this story. There seemed to be no loose threads at the end. I liked that the story of how he had learned to sail from his father comes into play at the end. Maybe the art collection could have been played out more, but it did have a resolution of sorts.

The narrator is Scott or Pilgrim or one of many names he used over the years as a special secret agent of the U.S. We meet him at a crime scene in New York, where he has been asked to consult by the NYPD's Ben Bradley. This seemingly unconnected perfect crime, based on a book about crime investigation written by Scott under the name of Jude Garrett, does connect with future events. Here are some of the stories we get:

  • Perfect murder in NYC post 911
  • Scott's childhood Harvard education and recruitment, early career
  • A mole in Moscow
  • Greek drug dealing family acting as money men for Moscow
  • Child visiting an almost forgotten Nazi concentration camp and an image of a woman and her children walking to their death leaves a never to be forgotten impression
  • Words of wisdom from a monk in Thailand
  • Retiring and living in Paris to write book
  • Ben Bradley in 911
  • Ben Bradley discovering Jude Garrett's identity
  • Crazy operation in Bodrum Turkey years ago
  • Wild parties in the ruins of a city partially underwater
  • Investigating the death of a rich American in Bodrum
  • Cumali, the female cop in Bodrum and her cute son
And those are just some of the stories from our hero's life. We get as many from the "bad guy", Zakaria al-Nassouri, but called Saracen throughout the book, a name that means "Arab" and in an older form "nomad." So of course our story is about the great hatred that some Arabs have towards the West, especially the United States. The Saracen's fate is sealed by the beheading of his father in Saudi Arabia. He turns to a very conservative mosque, goes to fight in Afghanistan, changes identities and becomes a doctor and hatches a most awful weapon to destroy America. He is as intuitive and intelligent as Scott and it is fascinating to see his evolution, the factors that contribute to his hatred, the chaos of the Middle East where he can lose himself, the brilliance of his plans. I did like the fact that this book took us to many countries around the globe.

It is strange, maybe even inappropriate, to be reading this book about Middle Eastern terrorist enemies in a time when we are trying to keep calm after our administration spews such inappropriate things against immigrants and non-Americans. I know that most Muslims and Arabs just want peace in the world. But with the lack of respect shown by our leadership, I am afraid that more will become fearful and that fear can turn to hate. I do not know how to combat those groups that teach hatred towards others, other than to stand up for the rights of our immigrants (as were my parents), international students, refugees and welcome them, as they have all helped make our country a better place.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Evening Class by Maeve Binchy (1998)

I seem to like Maeve Binchy's colorful tapestries of humanity. She finds a way to bring together a group of disparate people, each dealing with their own issues, and somehow they help each other heal and live fuller lives. This one started a bit slow with Aidan Dunne, a Latin teacher, expecting to become the headmaster, but Tony O'Brien gets the job instead. Aidan just could not understand how this good looking, but not very involved teacher, should get it. Aidan wants to teach a class in Italian to the community, but that only becomes a reality when Signora shows up with her passion for Italy that she can share with others, but she has a mysterious past. The class fills up with bank clerk Bill, his fiancee Lizzie, rich woman Connie, sulky Lou, young and a bit slow Kathy. Each chapter is from the point of view of one of the characters - Aidan, Signora, Bill, Kathy, Lou, Connie, Laddy, Fiona, Viaggio. I read this months ago, so the details have been forgotten already, but I enjoy being in Binchy's Irish world.

2016 in Review

It has been a busy year for me, but I also did quite a bit of traveling, so I did get to listen to plenty of books. I was not good at keeping up with my blog this year, so there will be some I will try to add after this, and some I will just have missed.

Seems like many of my favorite authors had come out with books recently so I read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, Isabel Allende’s Japanese Lover, Tracy Chevalier’s At the Edge of the Orchard, and Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord.

I seemed to inadvertently hit a World War Two theme this year, starting with Ken Follet’s massive Winter of the World, which I followed by Hannah’s Nightingale, that seemed to fill in gaps or continue in depth the story of French resistance, which I also glimpsed in All the Light We Cannot See last year. The Aviator’s Wife about Charles Lindbergh’s wife took us through WWII also, when they were very unpopular. One of the Massie Dobbs book also covered this era and Philip Dick took me to an alternate history where Germany and Japan had won the war in The Man in the High Castle.

I discovered two new mystery series that I really loved. Kelly Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series set in Australia in the 1920’s is a delight and quite addictive. Every one is based on some historical fact. I think I’ve now read everything they have at the audio store, I may need to get the rest in print. The other was Louise Penney’s Gamache series. He is the chief inspector of murders for Quebec, but he keeps being diverted to this small town of Three Pines. These are slow, lazy stories where we get to know the people involved. I continued to read Baldacci and Silva.

I decided on giving up on the too dark and evil mysteries by some of the Scandinavians, but Fredrik Backman came out with another heartwarming tale of humanity in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry.

I did try to do some classic reading, my oldest books was Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)– wow has how language changed. I remember reading the Scarlet Pimpernel as a Reader’s Digest Condensed book as a child and always felt good that I got references to it, but it was time to reread this 1905 book in its entirety. I read PD Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, as I had never read any of the Jeeves stories. And the Philip Dick book was from 1962 – not ancient history, but still not contemporary.

I got around to some non fiction too, my favorite being Gilbert’s Big Magic on creativity, but Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginner's Guide was valuable too.

Twelve Days of Christmas by Debbie Macomber (2016)

Just a quick Christmas read. Julia has a grumpy neighbor and needs a subject to write about in a blog that would gather followers as she vies for a job. She decides to try to overwhelm Cain with kindnessa - and is surprised by the results. (Read in December)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Kubla Khan by Kathleen Krull (2010)

Subtitle: The Emperor of Everything. Illustrated by Robert Byrd. 

I don't know why, but I am fascinated by Genghis Khan, Kubla Khan, the Terracotta Army, Silk Road and the like. I still know too little about this part of the world and those times, but children's books sometimes can inform without getting too complex. Though a picture book, there was plenty of text and I put another snippet of history into my personal RAM. Kubla Khan lived in the 13th century and ruled over most of Asia and beyond. Marco Polo wrote about him, which in turn inspired Columbus. 

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De la Pena (2015)

Illustrated by Christian Robinson. A Caldecott Honor book about grandma taking her grandson by bus to the last stop on Market Street to help out in a soup kitchen. Touching.