Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Recommended Reading: Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

I'm not a fan of zoos; these sheep are as fierce as it gets in my photo files.

Fierce Kingdom, by Gin Phillips, considers a contemporary American problem: You are enjoying a lovely time somewhere when suddenly there is an active shooter on the scene. What to do?

Just what to do becomes the urgent question for the novel's protagonist, Joan, who is at a zoo late one afternoon with her four-year-old son, Lincoln. They often go to the zoo and are hanging out in a favorite area in the back of the park, in the woods. It's October and the zoo is decorated with Jack-o'-lanterns and scarecrows. So when Joan hears cracking sounds, pops like fireworks, she dismisses it as something related to Halloween. Yet it is 5:30 p.m. and closing time is approaching, so Joan and Lincoln start walking towards the exit.

A long row of scarecrows has been propped along the fence that circles the pond. many of them have pumpkins for heads, and Lincoln is fascinated by them. He loves the Superman one and the astronaut one - with the pumpkin painted like a white space helmet-and especially the Cat in the Hat. 

"All right, sweet," she says 

He drops her hand and lifts his arms. 

 She glances along the fence, spotting the bright blue pumpkin head of Pete the Cat. About halfway down the fence several scarecrows have fallen. Blown down by the wind, she assumes, but, no, it hasn't been stormy. Still, the scarecrows are collapsed, half a dozen of them scattered all the way down to the parrot exhibit and beyond. 

 No not scarecrows. Not scarecrows.

No, indeed. And thus begins Joan's ordeal, trying to keep Lincoln and herself safe from this lethal threat. Author Gin Phillips lays down vivid scenes and turns up the tension. Phillips also does well at capturing the mixture of thoughts and feelings presented by the situation. One small example is when Joan looks outside the zoo's fence and, seeing the after-work traffic streaming past, wonders at how life nearby can continue calmly on while they are trapped in a nightmare. That little scene struck me because I've felt it in the reverse so many times: how is it that I am folding laundry or driving to work while elsewhere in our country there is an active shooter at a school? or a casino? or a church? or a mosque?

But in the world of novels, the manner in which Joan handles the situation in Fierce Kingdom is absorbing. And Fierce Kingdom is recommended reading.


Friday, January 26, 2018

What's Your Weekend Read?

Provence on a cloudy afternoon, 2013.

For the weekend I plan to dig into Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, a book which won the 2017 National Book Award and which was highly praised this week at lunch with my book-reading friends. I'm looking forward to starting it.

Last night I stayed up late to finish reading Sulfer Springs, in which author William Kent Krueger shares his views on US / Mexico border issues by sending his protagonist, Cork O'Connor, to southern Arizona. Cork, a former sheriff in Minnesota, and his new wife, Rainy, are down on the border searching for Rainy's son, Peter. Peter, a recovered addict, left Rainy a garbled voice mail in which it sounds like he confesses to a murder; their subsequent efforts to talk to Peter on the phone fail. So it's off to Tucson and further south, with the standard border characters making an appearance (border patrol, drug runners, land grabbers, winemakers (yes, winemakers in Arizona), etc.). It was an entertaining read.

And speaking of wine, this weekend I also plan to find my copy of A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. Mayle died earlier this month in France at the age of 78. I vividly remember the first time I read A Year in Provence. It was many years ago on a very hot Saturday afternoon in late August. I was midway through the book when Mayle's writing about the people of France, and the food and drink of the country, finally compelled me to head out to the grocery store for bread, cheese, olives, and a good bottle of white wine, all to enjoy while being entertained by his adventure in Provence. Now that was motivational writing. I enjoyed his other work through the years as well. Farewell Mr. Mayle. And thank you. 

Memorial in the New York Times, January 25, 2018

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Highly Recommended Reading: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

"I think that I shall never see
a poem as lovely as a tree."
Joyce Kilmer wasn't writing about cactus, but still . . .

The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) awards are a great source for good books. In 2016 the NBCC award for autobiography went to Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, and rightly so. Lab Girl is the story of geobiologist Jahren's journey from growing up in Minnesota, where her father taught physics and earth science at a community college, to the forging of her own path into science and academia, and the relationships that grew along the way.

What is most striking to me about this book is how beautifully it is written. It is composed as artfully as award winning fiction or poetry. The chapters alternate between Jahren's sparkling discussion of plants and her engrossing personal story of professional and personal struggles and success. The memoir is lean, yet comprehensive and compulsively readable.

If you are looking for an outstanding autobiography to settle into this winter, check out Lab Girl. And to see the nominees for the 2017 NBCC awards, click here

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Reading List - 2018

The books are out there. Must fetch the books. Give me the word . . .

What books have a buzz in 2018? Members of the American Booksellers Association are talking about the following:

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (February 6)

Census by Jesse Ball (March 6)

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (March 6)

The Hunger by Alma Katsu (March 6)

Varina by Charles Frazier (April 3)

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (April 3)

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (April 24)

You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (April 24)(short story collection)

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (May 1)(short story collection)

Friday, January 12, 2018

Recommended Reading: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Not a bluebird.
But robins are a hopeful sign of emergence from the dark of winter. 

It's 2016 in Bluebird, Bluebird, a tense and complex novel by Attica Locke. There have been two murders in the east Texas town of Lark, and trouble is brewing. At Geneva Sweet's Sweets, the cafe's regular diners are tense and grim.

"What's going on?" [asked Wendy, a sometime business associate of the cafe's owner, Geneva].
Geneva sighed. "They pulled a body out the bayou this morning."
Wendy looked dumbfounded. "Another one?"
"A white one."
"Aw, shit."
Huxley nodded, pushing his coffee away. "Y'all remember when that white girl got killed down to Corrigan, they hauled in nearly every black man within thirty miles. In and out of every church and juke joint, every black-owned business, hunting for the killer or anybody who fit the bill they had in mind."
Geneva felt something dislodge in her breast, felt the fear she'd been trying to staunch give way, rising till it liked to choke her from the inside out.
"And aint' nobody done a damn thing about that black man got killed up the road just last week," Huxley said.
"They ain't thinking about that man," Tim said, tossing a grease-stained napkin on his plate. "Not when a white girl come up dead."
"Mark my words," Huxley said, looking gravely at each and every black face in the cafe. "Somebody is going down for this." 
The murders in Lark are being investigated by officers from the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, who are white. But the protagonist in Bluebird Bluebird is Darren Matthews, who is a native of East Texas, a Texas Ranger, and a black man.

Ranger Matthews goes to Lark to informally look around. He is well aware of the sensitive role he is undertaking: Rangers are elite law enforcement, but neither local officials nor his own team has asked Matthews to investigate these murders. Further complicating matters, the Aryan Brotherhood has a presence in the community, and that turns up racial tensions. Digging into the middle of these tensions, Matthews uncovers a tangle of relationships, anger and resentments, and murders - old and new. And as his investigation continues, solving the crimes becomes key to Matthews own survival.   

Bluebird Bluebird is an engaging novel with a plot that is full of twists and dominated by the issues of race and justice. It is a strongly recommended read.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Award Winning Books from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association

Your Pacific Ocean as viewed from Hawaii

Aaaaaand the winners of the 2018 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Awards are:

American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad
The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring
Idaho: A Novel by Emily Ruskovich
Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean by Jonathan White
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie

Don't turn your back on the ocean.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Welcome 2018!

Reading plus a sparkler: a perfect year's-end combo.
Happy New Year!

I wrapped up 2017 by staying up late to finish reading Glass Houses, the latest book in the series by Louise Penny featuring Chief Inspector Gamache. In this outing, Gamache is going all in on stopping drug trafficking. Trafficking which, this being a novel, just happens to be reaching an evil climax in his little village of Three Pines. But it's all good for us, the reader, who can enjoy being wrapped up in the web of mystery and suspense being spun by Louise Penny.

Glass Houses was worth staying up late to read; and now I regret that it is over. That is just the kind of book that qualifies as highly recommended reading.