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, July 30, 2011

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (2009)

Few more pieces for my personal jigsaw puzzle of understanding the world. Mine is a four dimensional puzzle that not only covers places and people, but time. I now have a small glimpse into pre WWII Shanghai, the Paris of the East, a personalized view of the communist revolution in China, the Japanese - Chinese dynamic, Los Angeles in the 40's, America's historically confused understanding of immigration, Chinese and Chinese immigrants to the US, the world of Hollywood extras, family businesses and more.

Two sisters, May and Pearl are forced to flee Shanghai in 1937, when the Japanese invade and land in Los Angeles as arranged brides to two Chinese men. Their lives change drastically from ones of privilege and parties and modeling for beautiful girl calendars, through life threatening occurrences during the war, months on Angel island being interrogated and waiting to be allowed into the U.S., and then the hard work of making a life in a new country. See does a wonderful job of sharing their life stories with us - as told to us by Pearl, who doesn't always understand her more beautiful and flighty sister May, but loves her dearly. The experiences they share just bring them closer, and help them survive the totally strange world they are thrown into.

Though I have never had a sister to live with and love, I get it - my mom had this love with her sister. They too were very different, like May and Pearl, and they too had lived through the horrors of war, losses of family and friends, of established lives, and had to build lives from scratch. My mother and aunt had the one advantage of being Caucasian, so slightly less prejudice against them. They too had their ethnic community as support. My aunt chose to use her husband's Italian community more than the Latvian one, but the same concept.

I had forgotten that there is another book after this one, as I did feel I was left a bit hanging at the end.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough (2011)

The Paris theme continues. My audio bookstore owner suggested this for me and then I found out it was on NPR, best seller lists, etc. Non fiction is not as easy a read as a novel, but this was still gripping. I was listening to it and found I really, really wanted to reread some sections, so I went and bought the book. I was thrilled that the book responded to my need for images of the people and paintings described. I had already started looking some of them up on the Internet.

Historian McCullough looks at the Americans that went to Paris between 1830 and 1900, an earlier time  than I have been exploring, but still fascinating. This is a time after Ben Franklin and Jefferson, but Lafayette is still around and visited by various Americans. McCullough covers hundreds of people from all walks of life, but focuses the most on artists, writers and the "medicals." Only a few of the names were well known to me - P.T. Barnum (and Tom Thumb), Buffalo Bill, Mary Cassatt, James Fenimore Cooper. Thomas Edison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes,  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George Sand, John Singer Sargent, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the French impressionists - Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir, etc. and some of the French writers. Many sounded vaguely familiar - like Samuel Morse, who is introduced as a painter, but was the Morse of the Morse code. Or Charles Sumner, who saw a black man amongst the medical students and had the great "aha" moment that intelligence was a matter of education, not race or genetics and  became one of the first abolitionists. And of course Eiffel, but i didn't realize that was a name of a man, or that he built the Eiffel Tower as a temporary structure for one of the Universal Expositions or that he planned the internal structure of the Statue of Liberty. There are others I never had heard of, e.g. artist George Healy, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens,  Elihu Washburne - the US embasador during the Franco-Prussian War and siege of Paris, and Elizabeth Blackwell, the fist woman doctor.

I learned a lot from this book and McCullough pulled things together for me. I didn't realize that many Americans came to Paris to study medicine, because we did not have adequate medical schools, with no opportunities to see real patients, etc. The Americans returned and founded schools, improved existing ones, and I thus learned one more piece of Harvard history. (Caleb's Crossing giving me a glimpse into very early Harvard history.)

I always like reading about artists and did not know that in those days they spent a lot of time copying masterpieces, so the Louvre was full of art students painting. I've never seen that in a museum, so do they not allow that anymore? Or is is just not artists learn today? Wonder what ever happened to those copies? Are they out on the market? What if one famous artist copied another in his early days? Are they labeled as such? Rembrandt's copy of daVinci, Picasso's copy of Rembrandt, etc. I also loved the fact that the Louvre was open to the general public. I had never heard that artists would sell admission to see one of their paintings. Always the struggle of artists to make ends meet.

An evolving topic of interest for me is World's Fairs or Universal Expositions, as they were called back then. They were obviously an important place for artists to show off their work, as I learned in this book and Clara and Mr. Tiffany. Countries showed off their progress, as in Paris Between the Wars, and as I learned when visiting the Lithuanian Archives in Putnam CT, where they still had pieces of the Lithuanian exhibit from 1939. Inventions were shown off. Some of the fairs had themes. It is a crazy phenomenon, when a whole vilalge is built for a short period of time and then torn down. It is a good thing the Eiffel Tower was so popular, they decided to keep it. I remember the New York Word's Fair in 1964/65 - only the Unisphere (a huge globe) and the observation towers are left standing. I guess they try to make money off of these fairs and attract a lot of visitors, but they are expensive to create and I know the New York fair lost money.

One overarching thought that I took away from this book is how important it is that people travel and exchange ideas. I know that we are so much more connected nowadays than they were then, but it makes a difference if you go to a different place and interact with people, get new ideas in a different environment, and then can bring them back home - or choose to stay. A friend of mine recently said he feels that Paris is his city. I don't know what city is mine, but I support study abroad and other traveling to find out.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Someone to Watch Over Me by Lisa Kleypas (1999)

(Another write-up found from 2006)

Book from the dumpster. Well, I guess I have to read some bad ones to appreciate the good ones. This is your basic hot steamy romance with the thrill of danger and nothing much else. The only thing I learned from this Regency London romance was about runners, a sort of a detective or police force that patrolled streets and looked for thieves, murderers and other criminals. The upper, middle and lower class differences were there, but without the details and level of understanding as done by Philippa Gregory.  OK, so Grant Morgan is the over six foot hunk, who was orphaned, but worked his way up to be the most respected and well paid runner. He rescues a woman from the Thames and realized she is a famous red-haired courtesan, but has lost her memory, and seems very innocent instead of brazen. You know how it goes from here.

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The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike (1984)


(Found this write-up from 2006)

From the give-away pile of a Chicago friend. I think I’ve never really read anything by John Updike, and I liked the movie years ago, so I thought I’d try reading the book. Updike’s language is very rich and enjoyable. The story, though, is a bit strange. Three single women, two with kids that get neglected throughout the story, who are close friends and find they have some extraordinary powers, especially when they are together. Jane is the musician, Sukie writes, though mostly for a paper, and Alexandra sculpts. Into their lives comes Darryl Van Horne, who moves into the local mansion, sets up an alchemy lab, and invites them to hang out regularly with him. He has a hot tub, tennis court, booze, etc. They each have their own relationship with him, as he encourages each of them to expand their artistic talents, but I don’t quite get it. I remember him being a devilish figure – and with Jack Nicholson playing the part, he was very deliciously devilish. Darryl seems to thrive on their energy, but he really doesn’t help any of them, and later takes on a different trio of even younger women. Updike seems to get at some of the issues of single women, their fairly run-down homes, their frustration with exes, their concern about making ends meet, and I didn’t mind their ways with men, but something was missing.  Their witchiness was also not satisfying. They used their powers in mostly random ways. I guess I’ll try reading what others have said about this. I do want to see the movie again, but am not tempted to read any more Updike.

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Saturday, July 09, 2011

A Dinosaur Named Sue by Pat Relf (2000)

Subtitle: The Story of the Colossal Fossil

I had the wonderful experience of meeting this author at our Cornell reunion. We had graduated the same year, but never knew each other back in college. She lives close to me, so we met for lunch, where I discovered she is the author of many non-fiction children's books. WorldCat lists her as the author of 87 (there are duplicates in that list) and my library has three of her kids books, her masters dissertation, and a book of local World War II memories in Archives. Two of the kids books are Magic School Bus books and over in the Education library (one checked out), so I checked out this one on Sue, the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton over in the Chicago Field Museum.

I believe I have mentioned in this blog, that I love children's and young adult books, and sometimes turn to kids books when I want a clear explanation of something. When my son was studying the Civil War in grade school, I realized that I didn't really "get" the Civil War, especially after we visited Gettysburg and saw the massive destruction that occurred in this three day battle. So I went to our kid section and took out a few books that made the war much more understandable to me. Obviously it is an art to take complex topics and make them clear to others. The best teachers do this, good children's authors do this, and Pat Relf definitely does this.

This tells the story of Sue, the largest and most complete set of Tyrannosaurus Rex bones - how they were found, the legal battles, how they were auctioned off, how they were stored, cleaned, studied, and put together for a display. What did we know about T. Rex before, what new things we learned from these bones. Just enough information for me with the things that interested me and plenty of pictures.

Now I have dozens of questions for Pat - how did she work on this book, did she get to interview the people, see the scientists work on the bones, or was she just given a pile of "stuff" and asked to make sense of it into a book?

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Sunday, July 03, 2011

Happy Ever After by Nora Roberts (2010)

Though I wasn't thrilled with this series, just had to finish it with the fourth friend Parker, the organizer brains behind Vows, the wedding planning and hosting company and her unlikely beau Malcolm, the mechanic. But somehow it worked, they worked. When I saw the organized way she worked I realized I would not necessarily want to be her friend, definitely would not want to work for her, but would hire her to organize something that needed to be organized perfectly - but not necessarily a wedding. I don't like things that are timed perfectly, I like free flow, and definitely would not want to be herded out because the time was up. I am not much into fashion, but do see the point of helping a woman find the wedding dress in which she looks the best. I do like Parker's commitment to her friends, and her clients, her fast thinking and problem solving, and not just technical details, but things like keeping two feuding exes separated during an event. Or seeing the sorrow in a father's eyes, because his wife is no longer alive to see their daughter's wedding - and taking time to talk to him and make him ready to appreciate the day.

And then Roberts makes Malcolm the former stunt man and wildman attracted to this rich, high-class gal, but gives him a heart of gold - good with kids, helps one of his employees get going on an education, very straighforward, but as a guy has a hard time sharing feelings. And then how in the world did he know what shoes to buy Parker? In Roberts' world these things happen.

I wish this fantasy quartet all the best. Now that they all are getting married, I am trying to imagine all the fancy weddings with a possie of their kids running around. Of course they will have a special playground/room/whatever for those kids. I still don't see where they fit in their social obligations - attend other parties, benefits, fundraisers, but I guess the author knows best not to dilute a book.

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