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.

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.

Black Widow by Daniel Silva (2016)

Silva continues to draw me in. This time Gabriel Allon plays less of a role, but instead he sends a woman to infiltrate a terrorist group after an ISIS bombing kills a friend, who once helped Allon out by lending a rare painting. The mysterious leader they are targeting is called Saladin, after a 12th century Muslim warrior. (This name is also used in I am Pilgrim, a book I am reading now.) Natalie Mizrahi pretends to be a black widow - someone who has lost her husband/boyfriend in the recent violence and is ready to give up her own life for the cause. She is Jewish, but knows Arabic and is trained by Allon's people to think like a terrorist and is taken in for training in a terrorist camp. Natalie is a doctor and ends up saving the life of Saladin- her training won't let her do otherwise. The whole experience is quite harrowing and leads to Washington DC. I hope she becomes a regular operative as Allon takes over the helm of Israeli intelligence. (Read in 2016)

Heartless by Marissa Meyer (2016)

Marissa Meyer does it again. This time she takes on Alice in Wonderland and gives us the back story to the mean Queen of Hearts. After finishing Heartless, I went back to reread the parts of the original book about the queen and watched the Disney movie. I realized that Meyer had included much of that story - including the short, ineffectual king, Mad Hatter and his tea party and all the characters around the table. She had the croquet game with groundhog balls and flamingo clubs. I could imagine the cards hitting the ground as I had the image in my head from the movie.

Turns out Catherine was really a sweet girl from a rich family whose dream was to open a bakery, as she loves to bake, but her parents want her to marry the king. (Didn't the Queen of Hearts yell something about tarts?) A joker shows up, who captures her heart, but it all goes wrong, when Peter the Pumpkin Eater, from the nursery rhyme, shows up with his wife. Jabberwocky makes an appearance - I had to look up the reference, it was a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll in a sequel to Alice. We see that there are other worlds - like the world of Chess that has a White Queen and a Red Queen that are constantly at war. All in all, quite entertaining.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman (2015)

Another delightful book from Backman, author of A Man Called Ove. This too builds slowly and then magically blooms into a heartwarming story of humanity.

Elsa is a 7 year old girl, who loves books and comics and is very bright, though she doesn't have friends. Her parents are divorced, her mother is busy with her career, so spends a lot of time with her grandmother. Grandma was a doctor saving lives around the world, is still constantly up for adventures and tells Elsa fairy tales - often based on real people. When grandma dies, she leaves Elsa a puzzle - envelopes she has to hand out to different people - but one at a time, so she gets to know them, and finds out how they were tied to grandma. Plus grandma has asked them all to watch over her. We rarely know the secrets of the individuals around us, what is behind the slick or weird exteriors. When you find out, their appearance and actions make sense. This was just a very feel-good book.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

I'm Not a Terrorist but I've Played One on TV by Maz Jobrani (2015)

An Iraqi student gave me this very funny and spot-on book by comedian Maz Jobrani. He was born in Iran, but grew up in America, so very American. In one sense his is the typical immigrant story of parents expecting their children to become lawyers and dealing with them when he decides to take a different path to happiness and success. But it is different because he is a Middle Easterner and all the stereotyping that goes along with that. As the title indicates, he has been asked to wear turbans and play terrorists, which he now refuses to do. He has dealt with profiling - and his own fear of being profiled. I was glad to hear him share his thoughts around 911 and the precarious state for all Middle Easterners after that. He has married a woman from India to add to the wonderful melting pot of America.

Maz is funny. He has taken really heavy topics and covered them in a humorous, easy-to read and digest way. I broke out in laughter on more than one occasion. What surprised me was that he has performed in the Middle East and is a great hit there. I would expect that he would have to find the balance between being funny and offensive there, but obviously, he has found the right tone and they love him, bootleg DVDs of his performances and even kings have come to see him. Humor is tricky, and I have to say that there are a lot of comedians and types of humor I don't like, but I would actually like to go see him perform. Looks like he is in Chicago in March. Maybe...

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny (2009)

Another wonderful Chief Inspector Gamache book. This time he and his wife are on vacation celebrating their anniversary in a huge lodge - Manoir Bellechasse - across the mountain from Three Pines, where most of this series takes place. They are sharing the resort with the Morrow family reunion. Two of the regular characters in previous books were Peter and Clara Morrow from Three Pines. There was some mention that Peter came from a well off family, but had chosen the life of an artist and had not taken any funds from the family. But apparently he still feels obligated to attend the occasional family reunion. The family is quite dysfunctional with deep seated feelings of not being loved enough, mistrust, competition, dislike of each other. But they gather because mother has called them together to put up a statue of their late father. When someone dies in strange circumstances, Gamache is forced to bring in his team and start investigating. It could be any one of the family members or possibly the staff. Everyone has their secrets, their reasons for being in this place, far from the rest of the world.

Again I loved Gamache's gentle, but intuitive style. He has personal things going on too - besides having to cut short his vacation with his wife, he has a conflict with his son in Paris over the name of the future grandchild. Plus we learn of Gamache's father, who was labeled a coward for urging Canada to not join in the war that turned into WWII, but we learn the real story behind this.

With his side-kicks Jean Guy Beauvior and AGent Isabelle Lacoste they work their way through the mysteries of this murder, the biggest being how it was done. How does a heavy statue fall on someone? In the end, Gamache leads the family towards healing, though they will have to continue to work on it themselves.

I also liked the way the staff were portrayed, especially chef Veronique and her story. Interesting to learn about the issues around French and English speaking Canadians, especially in Quebec.