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, July 23, 2017

Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova (2017)

Kostova is one of the authors I always pick up when I see a new book and she didn't disappoint. I do have to say there was a bit of a pall over my lovely weekend up north, as I kept listening to this once again heavy story. You would think I am done with World War II and the Soviet aftermath, but now I got a new perspective - from Bulgaria.

Turns out Kostova herself went to Bulgaria and fell in love, so she has always wanted to write a book wholly located in the country. I would like to think that given a map of Europe with country outlines, I could identify Bulgaria, but without country lines - nope - until now. Between Greece and Romania with a coastline along the Black Sea.

Alexandra Boyd has done nothing special after graduating from college, so after a few years of shelving books in a library (couldn't she move up to more interesting jobs in the library?) she decides to spend a year teaching English in Bulgaria and arrives a bit early to explore the country before she starts working. The taxi from the airport leaves her off at a hotel instead of her hostel. She helps an older couple and a younger man get all their things into a taxi, but then realizes that one of their bags has stayed with her. She spends the rest of the book returning the bag that contains a box of ashes of Stoyan Lazarov.

The taxi driver Bobby (Asparuh) helps her out, brings her to the police as she requests, then follows clues criss-crossing Bulgaria to find the family of Stoyan Lazarov. The adventure takes her to Velin  Monastery(couldn't find it, maybe meant to be Rila), Bovech (maybe be Lovech), major city Plovdiv, Gorno in the mountains, Burgas on the sea.  She meets Bobby's aunt Pavlina, Lazarov's wife's sister Irina, Lazarov's wife Vera, their son Nevan, friend Milen Radev, his daughter and various other characters. 

As we meet these people, slowly the story of Stoyan Lazarov is revealed - a brilliant violinist, who studied in Vienna, but came back as the war was starting, met Vera, courted her, married her, but was taken away to a labor camp. These are the stories I have heard before, but this one just wrenches the heart even more than usual. How does one stay sane to endure the incredible hardships? Lazarov had his music and stayed sane by playing through all the pieces he knew. I have thought about how well I could endure something like this - I think I would lose it. What would I think about? Books? I've forgotten more than I remember. Songs? I've stopped singing them.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016)

Subtitle: Stories From a South African Childhood.

I like Trevor Noah. Though he is not Jon Stewart, he has held his own on The Daily Show and his outsider's perspective on our politics feels fresh. So it was with pleasure that I listened to Noah read his autobiographical book. His childhood growing up in Soweto was hard. The fact that he had a white father made his birth a crime, and though he did meet with occasionally with his father, he wasn't around. Later his mother married Abel, who was abusive. We get to see a post apartheid world, where things are not easy. I somehow had missed that there are so many languages spoken in South Africa, that it becomes another barrier. Poverty, racism, classism, the various neighborhoods. I did not know South Africans were given real names and then European names. Trevor uses mostly the European names, and it does not look like he had a South African name himself. One of the strangest stories he told was about a great street dancer named Hitler, which did not go over very well in a Jewish school. It was interesting to see from their perspective, that Hitler was just a name, with no inferences. Trevor was lucky his mother provided him with books and good schooling to get him out of the poverty cycle, though he spent some time after high school dealing in pilfered music. His mother was very religious and trusted God and Jesus. There is a story of a miracle at the end of the book that I like to think was the result of her strong belief. We know it all ends well and though he mentions his career as a comedian, he doesn't tell us how he got there. I am sure that will be material for another book. His sense of humor got me through the hard parts of his book.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe (2016)

Subtitle: The story of young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Got to keep up with those Caldecott books. This is the story of an artist in New York (OK, so he grew up in Brooklyn with a Puerto Rican mother and father from Haiti. I've definitely seen his work, but knew nothing about this artist who drew as a child, moved into graffiti and then became a successful, well know artist with a message against capitalism, colonialism and those with power in the late 1970's and 1980's.

Steptoe, the author/illustrator of this book has created interesting pieces of art on every page. The illustrations are painted on boards, which give them a rugged authentic look. He has recreated Basquiat's work through his own interpretation. He even recreated Picasso's Guernica, which must have been fun. Steptoe tells a story for children, but then in the back there is some more biographical information. Since I love historical fiction, especially art history fiction, I enjoyed this book.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer (2016)

This is the same Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame. The cover caught my eye and I liked the idea of the hero of a thriller being a woman, not just a side-kick. Alex or whatever her name is on her fake ID is on the run. She was a brilliant med student and chemist, who had been working in a top secret federal lab on compounds that affect the nervous system. She called herself the Chemist, one character later called her Poison Lady and Oleander/Ollie for a poisonous plant.  (I thought it was a flower of sorts from memories of the book White Oleander, but turns out it is a shrub.) 

Her mentor/lab partner gets killed and she barely avoids the same fate, so is on the run. She sets up elaborate chemical protections before going to sleep with a gas mask in a bathtub every night. She moves around a lot and tries to leave no trace. She goes to libraries to read up on how to stay safe - from non-fiction, but also thriller novels. I did feel a twinge when she cut out the tattle-tape from a few library books.

She gets an email from her old boss apologizing for trying to kill her on a number of occasions, but that they really need her skills. Some deadly virus is about to be let loose and only she will be able to get the information out of the perpetrator. She knows this could be a trap, which it is.

Her target is Michael, a seemingly mild-mannered teacher who coaches volleyball and works with Habitat for Humanity in Mexico, but that there he has hooked up with evil doers. Strangely he falls for Alex as soon as he set eyes on her - before stuff gets weird. 

Michael's brother Kevin swoops in like Batman and has stashes of weapons and disguises which Alex likes to call his bat caves. The unusual trio run, hide and fight around the country, trying to figure out who has it in for them. They are joined by Val, a sometime girlfriend of Kevin's, who has parleyed her beauty into a lucrative business. She comes in handy with her make-up skills. Then there are the dogs. Kevin raises and trains amazing protective dogs - Einstein , Lola, and others. They are great companions, fiercely loyal, intelligent, and save the human lives more than once.

I have stated before that I don't like torture and there were two scenes I could have done without, but the rest was good. My only quibble with the book is in the happily ever after ending. Would Alex be happy in the fairly mundane role we see her in the epilogue? She is a brilliant scientist. Does she still get to use her talents?