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.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin (2007)

Last entry for 2009. Don't remember why I didn't read this when I bought it - maybe some thoughts of rereading the earlier Tales of the City or catching up on the books I have missed from Maupin's world. I forgot how much I loved Maupin's books in the 1980's. I was going to head to San Francisco after college, but got sidetracked in the Midwest and stayed. It is still one of my favorite cities, though I haven't been there for years. I wanted to live amongst those crazy Californians (as opposed to those from LA). Maupin created a world I could totally relate to, even if it was quite a bit wilder than my own, but it still was full of young people looking for love, sex, where they belong, what they want to do. And it was largely a gay world. Though I felt pretty comfortable with what I knew of the gay world, this helped me understand it better and become even more comfortable with it. I would have loved to have lived on Barbary Lane.

In this book the main character is Michael Tolliver and he is 55, settled in a profession he likes (taking care of other people's gardens),with a partner he married in city hall, an aging mother in Florida, etc. Again, I totally relate (well, except for having a partner next to me.) Maupin and his characters have mellowed. We no longer jump around following 20 different people. This is Michael's story, though he catches us up with most of the others, when appropriate. I just liked being in that middle aged space with him. There were very few references I didn't get, so it just felt comfortable - and Maupin is always fun. Anna Madrigal is still around, Brian and his daughter Shawna, we hear about Mona's fate and even meet Mary Ann. The new characters are Ben, Michael's husband, Jake, his partner at work, and Michael's brother Irwin, his wife Lenore, and Michael's mom, whom we probably met at some point, but now that she is at her life's end, we get to see more of her.

What a wonderful year of books!


2009 in review

So I've done my year end review (one more book will be added by the end of the day) - put all the books in my Excel file. I'm keeping up with my average of 5 books a month - these last few days have helped - so I have 66 books in my list. I am not sure I have even entered everything I read this year. Other than my unhealthy obsession for Nora Roberts for quick getaway reading, I think I have read a good selection of current books. Not enough non-fiction - only 6, a few young adult, a few science-fiction/fantasy, quite a few mysteries, but a solid lot of historical fiction, which is my current favorite genre. I do notice I did not read a single classic or anything published before 1979, so maybe I can set that as a goal for next year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (2008)

Thank goodness Elaine suggested this book to me, it was just delightful - as is the feeling that I can afford to just read book after book on my holiday. There actually is a second author - Annie Barrows, but after reading the afterward, I am going to say this is mainly Mary Ann Shaffer's book, though her niece helped her finish editing it, when health prevented her from doing this herself.

World War II or it's aftermath seems to be a current theme lately - Lacuna (large part of it), Day After Night, even Japan, and then there were those wonderful Maisie Dobbs books by Winspear (OK, that was WWI).

Did you know that the Germans invaded part of England - the Channel Islands, or at least Guernsey (the other bigger island being Jersey) - 8 miles in diameter? I didn't, I don't think I really knew where those islands were or who they belonged to. Well, they belong to England, though seem to have a fairly independent history, and are located closer to France than England. They were invaded by the German army, and though they did not suffer bombings and battles, they were starving much of the time, they felt they had to send most of their children to England, and those that defied the Germans were arrested, some sent to camps in Germany, some executed. Those are the bare facts.

Though covering a difficult historical time, it is made delightful by the author and it's main character Juliet. Juliet is a writer in London, who has been writing regular columns and has just published those columns in a book Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. She has somehow made it easier for people to endure the war with her sunny disposition and light-hearted touch. She is contacted by Dawsey from Guernsey, because he has one of her former books and wants to read more from the author Charles Lamb. This begins a correspondence between Juliet and Dawsey and other people from Guernsey and draws her into their experience during the war.

I must point out that the whole book is in the form of letters throughout 1946. Many of them are letters from Juliet to her publisher and good friend Sidney or to her best friend, Sidney's sister, Sophie, or her answers to the people in Guernsey. But many are to her from all these people, including telegrams. A very interesting way of telling a story, and I understand the author was a great story teller.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was formed when a few of the islanders were caught after curfew (after eating an illegally kept pig) and one of them conjured up a literary society meeting as an excuse. To make the excuse stick, they actually formed a literary society, borrowed books from each other, bought out the local bookstore, and gathered regularly to share what they had read, as well as support each other in getting through the very difficult times. The Potato Peel Pie indicates the shared meals--when they had no flour, they used potato peels as the pie crust. Each person has a unique tale to tell, and they all tell their stories to Juliet. They communally raise a child, when her mother is arrested and sent to Germany. They all encourage Juliet to visit them and take her warmly into their fold. I won't say more - I just feel so warm inside, like they have welcomed me too - and I gather that is the affect this book has been having on readers around the world.

I just want to quote one paragraph, which just hit home from my short-lived experience as a book store owner:
"I love seeing the bookshops and meeting the booksellers--booksellers really are a special breed. No noe in their right mind would take up clerking in a bookstore for the salary, and no one in his right mind would want to own one--the martin of profit is too small. So, it has to be a love of readers and reading that makes them do it--along with first dibs on the new books." (pg. 15)

Reader Goddaughter

Since my son does not read, it is good to have a goddaughter that does. She is twelve and had her nose in a book most of the time she was visiting us with her family. She started reading one of her gift books almost as soon as she opened her gift. Last night her family stopped by again on their way back home from Wisconsin, and I found her curled up in my favorite reading chair, reading Mercedes Lackey's book that I had left out for her. It seemed totally appropriate for her, with all those strong women characters, and I liked to see her chuckling in places. When I asked her how she liked Princess Andromeda, she said that her name was from Greek mythology, which they had just been studying. This book is ideal for a reader, so she understands the references to various tales and other writings. When we went to bed, she was about halfway done with the 393 page book, but she said she would stay up to finish it - it would only take her an hour or so. So... my godchild not only loves books, but even reads faster than me! Librarians really need godchildren like this.


Monday, December 28, 2009

Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009)

Had to read/listen to Barbara Kingsolver's latest book. Will buy it when it comes out in paperback. Though she get's too preachy or quotes doctrine too much at times, this is another good one.

Harrison Shepherd is born in America with an American father and Mexican mother. She leaves his father and takes him to Mexico when he is 12, where he is raised mostly by his mother's lover's staff. He learns to cook, which becomes a useful skill. Since he is bilingual, he can also read and write in both languages. He becomes a part of the Diego Rivera household, befriends Frida Kahlo, and ends up working for Leon Trotsky as a secretary. He is highly affected by Trotsky's assassination. When Frida asks him to bring some of her paintings to New York, he does so and stays in the US. He finds out his father has died and left him a car, which he drives until the highway runs out in Asheville, NC. He has been writing a novel about ancient Mexico, which gets published and he becomes famous.

Two things I really enjoyed about this book. One is again, learning about history through fiction. I hate to admit I didn't know Trotsky ended up in Mexico and was killed there. Actually, Trotsky was a pretty murky figure in my mind already. I liked learning how he differed from Stalin and how he failed to take Lenin's place. I already knew quite a bit about Rivera and Kahlo, but this filled in more gaps. Then in the US, it was interesting to get a small town look at the hardships Americans suffered during WWII, and then horrifying to watch how the anti-communistic wave washed over sweeping up so many innocent people in the process. This is where Kingsolver gets too preachy and too detailed for my taste, but it did give me a clear sense of the hearings for the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The other thing I liked was the construction of the novel, though at times a bit hard to follow in an audio book. Slowly you find out that this is a compilation of diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and other notes, supposedly by and about Harrison Shepherd. In the beginning you hear the initials VB, but have no clue who that is. When he gets to Asheville, he ends up getting a secretary - Violet Brown, who works with him to the end and is the one who is supposedly compiling all these papers for this book. I enjoyed her as a character.

I did not get the title - Lacuna - supposedly the "missing piece" or t
he most important part of any story is the part you don't know. Now that I've written my piece, I read some reviews and not everyone liked this last Kingsolver book.

One Good Knight by Mercedes Lackey (2006)

Found this delightful fantasy book on my "not read" shelf. It is a great twist on various fairy tales and other fantasy books. Princess Andromeda or Andrea is a book lover and has a nasty mother the Queen, who just wants her out of the way. Her best friends are the guards. She finally get's her mother's notice by writing an astute report on the foreign merchants coming into their port, one of the few sources of income for the small kingdom. So Andrea gets her own household and duties, but when a dragon starts endangering the kingdom, virgins need to be sacrificed, and Andrea becomes one of them, but is saved by her Champion George.

I don't want to say more, because I don't want to spoil this for anyone else, but it is delightfully full of strong women characters, and nicely incorporates fantasy creatures like dragons and unicorns (a surprising twist to those.) The main "force" in this world is Tradition (i.e. fairy tales), so if you can align yourself with the right flow of underdogs and champions, you can win. Many great references to tales of all sorts - and of course, it is the book lover that knows the most or can find them.

First Impressions by Nora Roberts (2008)

Quick reads in between holiday busyness.

First Impressions (1984)
Shane Abbott moves back to her grand or is it great-grandmother's home in rural Maryland, and renovates it into a museum (battlefield close by) and antique store. Vance Banning has bought a fixer-upper to get away from his high pressure job of running a major construction company. Shane hires Vance as her carpenter, believing he is out of a job. Worked for me.

Blithe Images (1982)
This one did not work, this was one of those awful formulaic romances (not that the other Roberts'books are not, but I usually like something in the others.) Here is a small town girl who is making it big as a model, because she can be a chameleon and look innocent or elegant, soft or hard, etc. So this rich guy hires her to model for his magazine for a few months and gets personally involved and to first base...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Japan: A Traveler's Literary Companion ed. by Jeffrey Angles (2006)

This anthology of prose pieces put together by our Japanese language professor was a delight. I have known that Japan is a large country, but never thought about how different all the regions might be. (Just looked it up, Japan is over 1800 miles long, the same distance as from Bangor, ME to Key West, FL.) I liked the idea of reading stories from the different parts of Japan, with a map (I love maps) to guide me. All were 20th century writers, many still alive today. Some of the stories were fictional, some not, but each was a gem. The mountains were an important part of many of the stories, for some, so was the ocean. Though each reflected the personal of experiences of the people mentioned, each gave a flavor of the history and place, whether it was excavating a mass grave from the war, or the reality of earthquakes.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (2009)

Read a while back, so I'll just quote Amazon for now:
"Following her breakout bestseller,
The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger returns with Her Fearful Symmetry, a haunting tale about the complications of love, identity, and sibling rivalry. The novel opens with the death of Elspeth Noblin, who bequeaths her London flat and its contents to the twin daughters of her estranged twin sister back in Chicago. These 20-year-old dilettantes, Julie and Valentina, move to London, eager to try on a new experience like one of their obsessively matched outfits. Historic Highgate Cemetery, which borders Elspeth's home, serves as an inspired setting as the twins become entwined in the lives of their neighbors: Elspeth's former lover, Robert; Martin, an agoraphobic crossword-puzzle creator; and the ethereal Elspeth herself, struggling to adjust to the afterlife. Niffenegger brings these quirky, troubled characters to marvelous life, but readers may need their own supernatural suspension of disbelief as the story winds to its twisty conclusion. --Brad Thomas Parsons"

My only quick comment is that is was strange that I read two cemetery focused books (the house is next to the cemetery and Robert is a guide to famous graves) so close together. The other being Gaimon's Graveyard Book. And yes it was strange, but so was the Time Traveler's Wife. Did I really like it? I don't know.

MacKade Brothers: Devin & Shane by Nora Roberts (2009)

Here's one I missed recording. Two short reprint novel from 1996 - The Heart of Devin MacKade and The Fall of Shane MacKade. The usual brother (or sister) set-up. The setting is small town Maryland. Devin is the sheriff and his heart is set on Cassie, who married the wrong guy out of high school and has two kids. Devin saves the day. Shane, a womanizer, falls for a PhD who is researching the mystical phenomenon of the area. Again, a combination of magic and romance. There are more brothers, so I am sure there stories are out there to find.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (2006)

Best book I've read in 2009. One friend said she didn't think it was well written, but I found it fascinating, because the work that Greg Mortenson is doing is really changing the world in a profound way. He was a mountain climber, who while coming down off of a failed climb in Pakistan, spent some time in a small mountain village and befriended the people and saw a great need for a school there. This has become his life's work, building schools in Paksitan and Afghanistan with the people of the communities, for the education of their girls and boys.

Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts (2009)

Second in the Bride Quartet, where three friends who have played "wedding" since childhood, now run Vows, a wedding service out of Parker's mansion-like home. Mac, the photographer found Carter in the first book. Now Emma, the flower girl finds Jake, the architect. I do like the tight knit friendships of these girls and those around them. I am amazed that they can pull of numerous weddings in a weekend. I got a bit of a glimpse into flower arranging, but not as much as I would have liked. I know Roberts is an expert on flowers from the garden store trilogy, so she was naming all the flowers, but I still wanted more. I thought Emma had a greenhouse going, and very little was mentioned about that. I liked the cold feet about commitment form Jake's side, and the reasons behind it. Of course it is always too pat, but none of her characters have ideal pasts, which I like.

Day After Night by Anita Diamant (2009)

I can't remember if I have ever finished a book by Diamant, but I know she writes about historical women. This is an incredible story about four Jewish women, who are at a transition camp in Israel after escaping from Europe after World War II. I had never even thought about this transition stage for anyone other than the Latvian exiles. They each had seen so much, lost so many friends and family, had traumatic escapes, and now, before they could start their new lives in the newly created Israel, they were held at a camp, before being assigned a kibbutz or other assigned role. Each has their own coping mechanism. They are starting to feel alive again and flirting with men. This was deeply touching, sad in ways, but hopeful in others. One of my top books this year.

Windfall by Nora Roberts (2009)

This consisted of two reprints:
Impulse (1989)
Temptation (1987)
Just two of those quickie novels that usually I would hate, but Roberts makes them readable. The first takes place in Greece, where Rebecca has headed to find adventure and finds her rich love Stephen Nickodemus.
The second is about a woman proving that she can make it on her own by running a girl's camp and running into her neighbor, the orchard owner Chase Elliot.