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, December 09, 2014

Starry Night by Debbie Macomber (2013)

I was told this was "light" and so it was. Carrie works for a newspaper in Chicago, but dislikes her assignment as society reporter. She is given the opportunity to work on something more substantial, if she can get a an interview with the reclusive writer Finn Dalton from Alaska. She ends up finding him and spending a couple of days with him in his cabin, and of course they don't get along, but when they go outside to see the stars and northern lights, they fall in love. Of course it takes them the rest of the book to work it through. I liked the life in the cabin, the beauty of its nature, the need for family, especially around holidays, the difficulty of compromise in relationships, but I am not sure I will bother with any more of Macomber books. 

The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore (2004)

Subtitle: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror. I was looking for something light, and Moore has amused me before, though I don't think I can read his stuff too often. This is set in Pine Cove - a fictional California coastal town not far from Big Sur. It is town full of odd characters, some off their rocker more than others. Then we get a character I remember from his previous books - Tuck. There is a theme of not wanting to be alone at Christmas and I liked their lonely hearts Christmas party. There was a variation on the story where the woman cuts her hair to purchase a chain for her husband's watch and he sells his watch to buy her a hair comb. In this one she goes off her psychmeds so she can afford an expensive artsy bong for him, though he has gone off weed. He grows some weed again to buy her an expensive historical sword. Then there are the dead that hear what is going on and especially the hanky panky that goes on in graveyards. I used to sunbathe in graveyards in college and kept wondering what the dead thought about it, so Moore takes this a step further. It looks like there will be a movie of this book which I would enjoy watching.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (1961)

Listened to this with a techie friend on a road trip. I read it a long time ago, but it seemed like it would be fun to reread it, since it gets listed in not only top science fiction book lists, but top book lists in general. I wonder when I read it, but I get a sense that Heinlein influenced some of my own attitudes about things. 

Valentine Michael Smith was raised by Martians and is brought to earth to be studied. Since he is unused to the earth's gravity, he is hospitalized, where nurse Gillian Boardman rescues him from basically imprisonment. He is a quick learner, but one of the hardest things for him to understand is the earth's religions. He has learned a lot of powerful mind and body skills from the Martian's which he starts teaching Gill and the group of friends that surround them. Jubal Hershaw has gathered beautiful and intelligent women around him, where they live in relative isolation, and Michael and Gill find a refuge. It is complicated, but I really enjoyed this story, that is still so relevant today, even if a few details are outdated. I could not get mad at Heinlein for having Jubal call the women his "girls", as that was the speech of the times and all his women are strong characters. I like the individualism and community, though no longer would want to live that closely with a group of people, as I once may have dreamed to do. 

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian (2014)

I think I picked up this book, because it said it was set partially in Burlington, VT, where I have good friends. I will have to ask them about some of the details here. I did look at a map of VT and found Lake Memphremagog on the border with Canada, and found that there is not a nuclear power plant there. The author is a journalist from Burlington who has over the years met a lot of "troubled teens" and finds that some manage to struggle through difficult circumstances, while others just get lost. The interview with him and his daughter, who narrates the book, helped put this work in perspective for me. He had turned to his daughter to get the slang right, and in turn she admired her dad for being able to get into the mind of a teen girl.

At one point Emily goes back to her highly contaminated home, she misses her dog, her family, her things. This reminded me of a novel I read by a Ukrainian-American about an elderly woman, who goes back to live out her life in Chernobyl - she did not care how sick she got, she wanted to spend the rest of it at home.

The title comes from the school shootings in CT, when the other children were told to close their eyes and hold hands, as they were led out of the school, so they would not see the bodies of their schoolmates. I am not quite sure how this applies to this book, except that the book gives you a very real sense of the homeless and runaway teen world and the author is leading you through this, though maybe not with totally closed eyes. You know this is a fictional story, but you know this is happening to thousands of people across the country.

Maybe I will have time to add more to this review, but it will have to do for now.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Virgin and the Gipsy by D.H. Lawrence (1930)


I found a box of books I had labeled "Classics" which contained books I had read from middle school, through high school and college, maybe a bit after that. I was amazed at what I found there, and maybe that deserves a post in and of itself, I decided to keep some, reread a few of the books. I remember hearing about D.H. Lawrence, so of course I read Lady Chatterly's Lover, but I had also picked up this book. Since I just recently finished the American Gypsy and want to delve a bit more into the world of gypsies, I decide to reread this short book that was published posthumously. The cover is from the yellowed paperback copy I own. 


I am amazed that I used to read these types of books that I now consider moving very slowly. It is about a young woman Yvette in the 1920's England, who comes home to the rectory from her schooling with her sister. Her mother left the family years ago and her father, aunt and grandmother try to do everything to make sure the girls don't turn out like their mother. Yvette is bored, goes out with friends, sews dresses, befriends an unmarried couple, and is fascinated by a gypsy man she sees in the gypsy encampment outside her town. He notices her too. The story seems to move excruciatingly slowly and then ends with a roller-coaster ride, so worth it in the end. I need to remember that it was a book ahead of its time - "The last and most provocative novel from the genius of D.H. Lawrence" as is written on the book cover.

As often is the case when I read books, it is the side things that fascinate me. Again, I don't get the inactivity of Yvette and women of her class. She seems to be waiting around to get married - as the only option for a future, and the pickings are slim. She hates her life, the food, living with granny, a sour aunt, and a disillusioned father. Her sister at least has a job, that gets her our of the house, provides her with her own pocket money. If she hates the food, how about learning to cook and make it tastier? Find a hobby, a charity, anything. I keep thinking there is so much to do out in the world, I keep wishing I could clone myself to do all the things I would like to do.

Then there were the gypsies, which is one of the main reasons I picked up the book. I am sure this depicts the way gypsies lived in England and in many other places in Europe, including Latvia. They would travel in a caravan, find a place to settle down for the winter, make and sell things, read people's fortunes. They looked and dressed exotically, had a certain pride and fierce independence, but knew to be deferent when needed. I am sure some could have the sensuality that Yvette noticed. I still need to read more about them.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

American Gypsy by Oksana Marafioti (2012)

I was probably supposed to read this book before I introduced Okasana Marafioti as a speaker on a panel I was moderating at the American Library Association, but I didn't. After meeting Oksana, I was fascinated by her story and bought the book, even dipped into it, but it somehow got lost in my piles of other things I had to do that month. Now I finished it and am so glad.

During her talk to us librarians, I realized I knew so little about the Romani or Gypsies. Latvians have plenty of tales of them, and I too had mostly a stereotypical view of them, knew nothing of their history, just knew they were throughout Europe, were prosecuted by the Nazi's, were settled around Sabile in Latvia. Oksana gave us a quick history and because they were accepted in very few places, they became traveling entertainers, with little time to write down their histories, their stories. Now, people like Oksana are writing about the Romani experience.

The other reason I felt connected with Oksana, was that she was born in Riga, Latvia, though her family mostly lived outside Moscow, while she was growing up. Her grandfather ran a traveling troupe of performers who sang and danced. Oksana learned to play the piano, performed and traveled with them, but when she went to school, she found that being a Gypsy made her unpopular. Then about a year before the Soviet Union fell apart, her immediate family - father, mother, sister and herself got a visa to America. They landed in Los Angeles where they thought it would be easy to earn good money like they had in the Soviet Union, but found it was much harder.

I am assuming that most of this is her personal story, though I also know Oksana spent some time at the Library of Congress researching the Gypsies of the Soviet Union for her book, so she probably didn't get all the stories from her relatives. I felt her immigrant experience deeply, as I come from immigrants who dodn't quite fit in, have their own culture, community, family expectations. Plus it is a growing up story, issues with parents, boyfriends, finding oneself - on the one hand universal, on the other hand unique. I am afraid I have missed my chance to get to know this woman personally, but maybe I will have another chance to meet her, even if she lives in Las Vegas, a city I hadn't planned to visit again.

If I Pay Thee Not in Gold by Piers Anthony & Mercedes Lackey (1993)

Cleaning out boxes in the garage and found a box of science fiction/fantasy. (Plenty more in the basement.) Thought I would pull out a few for some quick reads. This is a collaboration between two authors I really liked back when I was reading lots of these genre books. Turns out that it was Piers Anthony's idea, but he didn't have time to write it himself, so his publisher talked Mercedes Lackey into writing it, though he was the copy editor and added some writing. The idea came from Arabian nights, where a woman is indebted to a man and he offers other options for paying the debt, thus part of the storyline and the title.

This is one of those alternate magical worlds, where women rule, because they have the power of conjuring things (though they last only a day), and men are their slaves, though there is a separate quarter of freedmen. A girl becomes a full fledged citizen when she passes her woman-trial and defeats a man in combat in the arena. Xylina has put off this moment as she has struggled for survival under a curse, since her mother died in an earthquake. She ends up defeating Faro with cleverness and some powerful conjuring, but keeps him alive, so he is now her slave. Turns out he is an educated scribe, who also happens to be large and good at combat. They form a team of sorts as her trials are far from over as she has a powerful enemy that wants to destroy her, though there are others that would help her.

I know that these science fiction/fantasy books, especially when written by women, often looked at alternative social structures, and this one with women treating their men as slaves seemed like an over the top role reversal, though as I think about it, very close to many historical periods where women were basically slaves to men. I was getting disgusted with the constant mishaps encountered by Xylina, but then a new character appeared and she was sent on a seemingly impossible quest through three totally different worlds beyond the borders of her own, where she grows in maturity, magical power and finds love. I could quibble about some aspects of the book, but basically a fun read and obviously read long enough ago, that I did not remember it - or it could be a book I never got around to reading too.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (2014)

I think the Russian defector angle caused me to pick up this audio book. I don't really get ballet - the amount of training and constant practice seems insane to me, and this book did not change my mind on that, but did give me an even closer look into the development of top ballet dancers and their world. I remember my mother being thrilled by Rudolf Nureyev and later Baryshnikov. When I look at the Wikipedia bio of Baryshnikov, it seems like the male Russian ballet dancer in Astonish Me is based on him to some extent - defecting in Canada in the early 1970's with the help of an American dancer. And the ballet company's director Mr. K. might be partially based on George Balanchine - also of a Russian background.

In Astonish Me, Joan is a ballet dancer - good enough to dance in the corps of a major New York City ballet, but not good enough to ever become a lead dancer. She spends a season in Paris, where she briefly meets the famous Russian dancere Arsalan Ruskov and leaves him her address. He writes her and when the opportunity arises to defect in Canada, he asks that she be the one to drive the getaway car. They are together for a while, but he is already famous and his attention is pulled away from her, if it ever was with her. She marries a guy that she has known since they were children, they have a son Harry, move out to California, and she eventually starts a dance studio, where her prize students end up being her son and neighbor Chloe.

I guess it is the way of modern novels that they keep bouncing back and forth in time, luckily providing date and place each time, so the story gets moved along at different levels and slowly scatters the clues to the complex set of relationships we find at the end. All in all, well told, drew me in, astonished me at times, reminded me of times Mom took me to the Nutcracker at Rockefeller Center, to Swan Lake most likely at Lincoln Center, I think we actually did see Nureyev live when I was a kid. It is a highly precise skill, and I guess if football players can keep getting injured for our entertainment, why not ballet dancers. I like dance, like watching dance, but prefer more free form, styles that are not as rigid as ballet, but maybe if I understood it more, I would appreciate it more. I know this is supposed to be about the book, but as with many of my comments on books, I go where the book takes me, often reflecting on my own life.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland (2007)

I have read Susan Vreeland before and like her well researched historical novels about art. This one was about Pierre-Auguste Renoir's painting Luncheon of the Boating Party. The exciting thing was that I got to see the actual painting a couple of weeks after finishing this book.

I remember being fascinated by Impressionists back in high school, as I wandered the Museum of Modern Art in New York City with my friends. I especially loved VanGogh and sitting in front of Monet's huge Waterlilies. This was a fascinating look into the beginning of the impressionist movement and the artistic community of Paris of 1880. Renoir gets this idea for the painting as a result of a criticism of impressionists by Zola.

I have read of the lively world of artists and writers in Paris in the early 20th century, and am glad to see that this same energy was there 150 years earlier. Renoir has a passion for art, for beautiful women (he has to be in love with each female subject), never has enough money, but has supporters and friends. He turns to many of these to gather the 12 people he wants in this painting of a luncheon by the river, getting ready to go boating. Apparently there were specific clothing styles worn for boating. He gathers people of various classes, so a couple of guys are just in their undershirts, while others have on suits with hats. For a while he had 13 models, an unlucky number, and then squeezed in a 14th, the only one unidentified by art historians. Since Renoir insisted on painting only from actual models, he had to get these people to commit to come every Sunday for a couple of months. The story of getting the models, their complex lives, their interactions, were engaging. One of his former lovers could only come once, but he managed to finish her portrait in that time. The lady that was supposed to be most prominent was a woman of means, but could not follow his directions, so Renoir went looking for another model and ran into Aline, a cheerful young woman with a dog, that ended up in the painting too, and who he ended up marrying. My favorite was Alphonsine, the daughter of the restaurant owner. She was widowed and fell in love with Renoir and helped him complete this painting in practical ways and supporting him morally. Some of the story is told from her point of view. Renoir liked her, but did not fall in love as with some of the other women. It was also fascinating to listen to how he painted, dabbing colors here and there across the whole painting, and getting totally engrossed.

Since this was another book I listened to, I wish I had checked out the actual book earlier, as it had the kinds of things I crave - a color image of the painting (I did get it online and had it in the car as I listened), images of a couple of the other paintings mentioned, a map of Paris with the places mentioned marked off, including La Maison Fournaise, the restaurant at which he painted this work and which was west of Paris, reachable by train or boat along the Seine. There was also a sketch of La Maison Fournaise, which helps visualize the friends gathered to eat up on the balcony.

In the Author's Note at the end, Vreeland explains how she did her research and lists where she modified the facts a bit to serve her story. She also told the story of the painting itself - who owned it, sold it, bought it. In 1923 it was sold to Duncan Phillips for his Phillips Gallery in Washington, DC. I was just in Washington, and when I could not get into my hotel room, a friend suggested lunch around the corner in the Phillips Gallery. I had forgotten that is where the painting is located, but as I walked up to the building, there was a huge reproduction of part of the Luncheon on a pillar by the door. I was thrilled. To be able to actually see the real painting after reading how it was created was amazing. It was the most alive painting I have see in a long time. I will have to go back again sometime, plus I really should look at more Renoir paintings - he was amazing.

Locomotive by Brian Floca (2013)

Locomotive is about the importance of the railroad in the development of America - how crews from both coasts built the railroad to meet in the middle and how the steam engine powered the trains that rode cross-country on the rails. My friend in Montana lives close to a rail line, so I got a bit of sense what it entails to get a train across a mountain. The story-line is about a mother and two children taking the train from Omaha, NE to Sacramento, CA to meet up with their husband/father.

This is the 2014 Caldecott winner. Now this one I can understand. Lots of good information, detailed illustrations, story-line woven in between facts, map, cross section of elevation, diagram of a steam engine and more.