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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Yes, My Accent is Real by Kunal Nayyar (2016)

Unnecessary subtitle: and Some Other Things I Haven't Told You.

I think this would be a great book to have people at the university read to help understand international students. Or at least a chapter or two. Yes it is the real story of an Indian student, but I think many aspects apply to most international students. Plus I think there would be a great appeal that this is told by Raj from the Big Bang Theory.

I am a fan of Big Bang Theory, and though I do not keep up with the recent season, I have watched many episodes. I like the whole ensemble and Raj is an important part of it. I am glad to hear that Kunal was able to bring his heritage into the TV show, as they had originally created the character without a specific ethnicity.

This book is a series of short essays, mostly about the author's life, but interspersed with mini-chapters on Indian holidays. He never had any ambitions to be an actor, but auditioned for a play his freshman year, just to be around some pretty girls. He started as a business major, and though he finished that degree too, he also took theatre classes and went on to get a masters in theatre. He is a comedian, so his life stories from badminton championships through relationships with roommates and women to finding love and getting married are humorously told. But he has insight too, and shares wisdom with the humor. I was deeply touched when he read from Gibran's The Prophet - "On Children." I read this years ago, and maybe it influenced how I raised my son. I will have to send it to him. Kunal's father gives him the book as he boards the plane to leave for America, and has him read this poem.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier (2016)

Another excellent book by Chevalier. Obviously she has moved away from her art history novels, and I was just recently reminded of her Lady and the Unicorn about tapestry making. I was recently at the Getty, where they had a special Louis XIV exhibit of tapestries where I watched some videos on how tapestries are made. All I learned from Chevalier was now supplemented by new and visual information.

Back to At the Edge of the Orchard. This is American history from pioneer days in Ohio - the Goodenough family landed in some swampy land east of Cleveland from what I could tell. Land could be claimed if one got 50 fruit trees growing and bearing fruit. The father James loved his apple trees almost over all else. His wife Sadie could not stand this life and drank heavily. John Chapman/Johnny Appleseed is part of the story, bringing the Goodenoughs apple seedlings and saplings. Though Sadie bore 10 children, at the start of the story only five have survived, Robert being the youngest, who learns to care for the trees from his father.

We later see Robert making his way across the country, participating in the gold rush fever, but then finding a man collecting seeds and saplings in California for the rich in England. This ties in with a couple of other books I have read - Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, where a son of a garner in England is sent all around the world to gather specimens for English gardens. Gregory's Earthly Joys, which was about one of these English gardens.

Robert was an interesting character and I am glad energetic Molly comes into his life at the end. I still have a hard time visualizing the beginnings of San Francisco, but this gave me more colorful threads to fill in my tapestry of understanding about the westward bound history of the U.S. in the mid 19th century.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Target by David Baldacci (2014)

Another Will Robie and Jessica Reel thriller. This one has quite a few story lines going. We have an imprisoned evil murderer plotting one last revenge on his deathbed. There are still negative repercussions from the last adventure, where Reel ended up killing some traitorous agents, and though she and Robie got medals, they aren't trusted by all, and are sent for "evaluation" at a strenuous training facility. Reel is forced to face her past and ends up in the hands of Neo-Nazis. In between these stories we get an uncomfortable glimpse into the concentration camps run by North Koreans and an amazing assassin on their side that ends up targeting - someone. Plus there is the evolving friendship between Robie and Reel - will it be more? And their growing relationship with 15 year old Julie, that was rescued on a previous mission and lives with a guardian. So no lack of hair raising adventures, or in my case, keeping me awake on a long night drive.

I do like that we get some background on why Reel is the way she is, and the whole story line in North Korea was fascinating. We don't have meany deadly enemies right now, but the North Koreans are up there, so they provided one set of villains for the story. I liked the fact that Yi played and incredible chess game - thinking many steps ahead - and was able to accomplish something quite amazing with young Min.

It is unfortunate that we still have Neo-Nazi's around and since I am also staring to listen to Ken Follet's Winter of the World - about WWII and Hitler's rise to power (scary when I start seeing parallels to our politics today), these books complement each other.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella (2013)

I like Sophie Kinsella's sense of humor, though I usually have a hard time in the beginning, as the inner conversation by the women drives me crazy, though I know it is the way many of us think, but this was often too much overthinking and misunderstanding.

Lottie is convinced her boyfriend Richard is going to propose to her when he hints at having a big question to ask her at a fancy restaurant. When he doesn't, she goes into a tailspin, and when Ben, a boyfriend from her youth shows up, they decide to get married. Lottie's sister Fliss feels this will be a big mistake and tries to stop the wedding, but they get married at the courthouse and take off for Greece, to go back to a place they spent a wonderful summer together. Fliss then tries her best to prevent them from consummating the marriage by connections with the hotel manager (she runs a magazine that reviews hotels) and other antics, so the marriage could be annuled. Fliss is also dealing with a divorce from her husband, and tries to coordinate her efforts with Ben's manager, who needs Ben to focus on the business.

One pearl of wisdom I got out of this, when the old resort owner laments about people coming back to a place where they had a good time as youth. He thinks people should not go back, leave it as a wonderful memory, as it is bound to disappoint. I think he is right in many instances, though I go back to favorite place and make new memories.

(I think I have this written up somewhere right after I read it, so I will leave it short.)

Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart Book by Lisa Rogak (2014)

As a big fan of Jon Stewart, I thought I'd read a bit about him. We do have the New Jersey background in common. It was interesting to see what made him who he was. He was very athletic, but short, so keeping people laughing was a survival skill. I also learned a bit about how much work went into the production of one of those half hour shows I enjoyed so much. No wonder he stepped back from it. I actually didn't finish the book, as it started to get into the negative characteristics of Stewart, and though I am sure they are there, I do not care to learn about them.

Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende (2015)

I used to judge movies and books based on their ability to make me cry. Well this one succeeded - I actually had a hard time seeing the road between the tears at one point (as I listened to it).

Allende has once again woven a magical story intertwining the present and past as well as cultures, though still keeping to the West coast, San Francisco in particular.

We have Irina from Moldova working in Lark House, an ideal multi-level retirement facility in the Bay area, CA. (I need to find one like this for myself eventually.) She meets Alma Balasco, a rich elderly artist, who moves from her large family home to Lark House to simplify her life. Alma was sent to America from Poland to live with her aunt by her parents right before WWII. Her best friend becomes the son of the Japanese gardener.

I should say a lot more about this book, but it already has been a few months since I finished reading it, so I will just post this as is. Beautiful story - it looks at the cruelties and injustices of the Japanese internment during WWII, the unacceptability of interracial relations, and Irina too has a dark past that is dealt with, but in the end, a very life confirming book.

Death at Victoria Dock by Kelly Greenwood (1992)

Expecting and getting another light, fun mystery with Phryne Fisher, here she was solving another murder and finding a missing girl in Australia. But I was totally flabbergasted (I know not exactly the right word, but I want to use it here because a friend from Europe just said it was their favorite word in the English language) that the situation around the murder was Latvian anarchists in Australia in 1928! It didn't sound right, but what do I know and was going to look this up, when the author explained it all in an interview at the end of the audio reading. Her family came from dock workers or "wharfies" and she had researched the strike in 1928-29. She had learned to do primary research from a professor and focused on this to the detriment on all her other classes. Little did she know she was going to use what she learned in a novel later on.

Phryne is diving by the wharf at night when someone shoots out her windshield. She stops, sees a couple of guys running away, and finds a body of a young "toe-headed" man, who whispers "My mother is in Riga." Turns out, he is a Latvian named Jurka. He had done some boasting about an upcoming bank heist, which got him killed. So there is this group of Latvian anarchists in Melburne. I never did understand what they were doing there, as they seemed to still be planning a revolution, so I still have to do some research.

Phryne connects with Peter Smith (supposedly there was a historical Peter the Artist, who landed in Melburne), though a Latvian anarchist, he doesn't approve of the tactics of this new generation and helps Phryne. She does her usual daring and smart sleuthing. Dot, her maid, gets a boyfriend - one of the young detectives. Jane and I think Ruth are home from school and get to participate with some of their own tricks.

There is always a subplot, another detective task Phryne is asked to do, so in this book it is a missing girl. Of course it is family issues, but there is an interesting twist as the girl is very religious and wants to join a convent, but not a Catholic one, I think it was Anglican. This unusual convent and its building was based on historical facts too. Cool.

The Escape by David Baldacci (2014)

This is the third John Puller story and we already know about his general dad in a facility with Alzheimer's and his bright brother Robert in prison, supposedly for treason though he helped our his brother on one of the other cases.

There is a power outage in the Fort Leavenworth prison, the back-up fails, cell doors open instead of locking, and Robert escapes, but there is a dead body in his place. And off we go....

John Puller comes to check out the situation, but actually ends up being assigned to the case, as he knows his brother the best and may be most likely to find him. He gets assigned a side-kick - Veronica Knox - who is not military, but part of the intelligence network. With many twists and turns, so one is never sure who is on which side and with Robert Puller's brilliant mind, they get the bad guys, who have been detrimental to the stability in the world.

Pure Baldacci. I had one CD left to listen to before I left for a trip. I took it with me hoping the rental car would have a CD player. It did. I didn't have t wait 5 days to hear the ending.

Arsenic and Old Books by Miranda James (2015)

A Cat in the Stacks Mystery. Picked this up at an airport, when I left my reading book at home, finished it on another plane trip.

So, first of all, I love the fact that our amateur sleuth is a librarian and that at least this story deals with mysteries about two families in Athena, MS found in some old diaries. The diaries are donated to the college by the mayor, but two women seem hell-bent to get their hands on them. Marie Steverton is an obnoxious history professor who is desperate to get tenure. The other a journalist who want to help her fiance get elected. The diaries disappear, then reappear, then a fifth is found, then there is a suspicious death.

In the middle is Charles Harris, who works in the archives with his side-kick Diesel, a Maine Coon cat, who appears to understand everything Harris says. Though I am a cat person, I thought the narrative was too focused on the cat at times. But then after the novel there was a short story on how Diesel came into Harris' life, so OK, I'll give him the cat obsession - I know they can be persistent. The story is also full of other colorful supporting characters that must have evolved over the series. Definite possibility for future reading.

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.