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I finished My Side, Ruth Gordon's second autobiography, and enjoyed it very much, again. What an interesting life. I was impressed by how hard she worked and how open to life she was. There's a section about worrying and wishing for more that I found very moving. I don't think I'll read her third one which I have but haven't read, because that one looks like mostly anecdotes.

But I did feel like reading another book I've had around, Jed Harris, The Curse of Genius by Martin Gottfried, because of his relationship with Ruth Gordon and their son, Jones Gordon. Skimmed it, but it was interesting.

If the name isn't familiar, he was a theater producer and director, the wonder boy of the late '20 with four consecutive hits. But his career faltered and flamed out, eventually. He was a mean SOB who took great pleasure and pride in being a mean SOB - tormenting playwrights with false promises about producing their plays, insulting and belittling actors. He directed Laurence Olivier in "The Green Bay Tree" and on opening night he whispered to Olivier waiting in the wings, "Good-bye, Larry. I hope I never see you again." Olivier got his revenge by basing his portrayal of Richard III on Harris' movements, expressions, and appearance. George S. Kaufman famously said that when he died, he wanted to be cremated and have somebody throw his ashes in Jed Harris's face.

It's interesting to wonder what attracted Ruth Gordon, a woman of huge kindness, sweetness, and kindness to him. Probably some of it was his intelligence, and vice versa. He was hugely successful and Ruth liked the finer things in life, and in 1928 he was at the top of his game and sexy. She had Jones with him because she was afraid it was her last chance to have a baby after several abortions. Ruth got smart and moved on, but there was no shortage of women who were willing to put up with him. At least two who were involved with him suicided and he was blamed.

He was hateful to Jones, too. When Jones was four years old his father told a friend, "That kid's no good." Later, as a young man, Jones lived with him and endured constant criticism and thrown ashtrays.

Anyway, this book is mostly a collection of anecdotes about Harris and I ended up enjoying it, while feeling sorry for anyone who ever tried to do business with him or be in any kind of relationship with him. What a monster. Of course he lived to be almost 80, the stinkers always do.

Now I'm reading Peter Pan because Ruth Gordon made her debut in it in 1915, and I've never read it though I saw the Mary Martin production several times and probably saw the Disney version. It's a bit twee for me, seems like it's more for nostalgic adults than children, but I like that there are truly scary parts.

After that I think I'm going to read Life Mask, a historical novel by Emma Donoghue. I didn't like her Slammerkin much but Room was one of the best books I've ever read.
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Now reading My Side, Ruth Gordon's second memoir. This one's more of an autobiography, starting with her first real job as an actress in a road company doing one night stands and travelling by train, trying to learn how to act. Marriage to a fellow actor who helped her, finally roles where she knew what she was doing and proved she could act. Lots of abortions, train rides, love affairs, funny stories, other actors. Loving this.
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I read this one on vacation, finished it on the plane coming home:

Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields, Simon Louvish. Five stars. A detailed biography that tries to get to the truth of all the stories Fields told about his origins, and to the man behind the persona he created. Louvish had access to voluminous scrapbooks that Fields kept of all his appearances and to family papers, and he did exhaustive research in to archives at the Library of Congress and other places to seek out old scripts for vaudeville skits, studio correspondence, etc., etc. There are a lot of transcripts of routines (some reviewers didn’t like this, which I found puzzling – surely if you’re reading this, you like Fields and get a kick out of these.) There are great portraits of Eddie Cantor, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, and others not well known today.

I hadn’t realized that Fields had such a long career as a juggler or that he’d traveled the world in that role for years before he became the comedian we recognize now. I liked it a lot and it was a perfect airplane and poolside book. The last part of Fields’ life wasn’t as well described as I would have liked but overall it was great. Apparently this was the go-to Fields biography for several years but now it’s been superseded by James Curtis’ W. C Fields. I’d like to read that one too.

Then I read this for the rest of the flight:
Swallow the Ocean, a Memoir, Laura M. Flynn. So-so memoir of growing up with a mother who was paranoid schizophrenic. Her father left and wasn’t able to get custody for several years. She does a good job of describing daily life with her mom and sisters, her mom’s many restrictions based on paranoid delusions, and the girls' ambivalence about wanting to get away and live with their dad. A running theme about a story the sisters make up about their dolls who are captives and the dolls' schemes to escape became a bit tiresome.

I had a lot of questions that didn't get answered: How did they learn to live "normal" lives where people have clean houses and don't have arbitrary restrictions on what they can eat? How has her childhood affected her life now - was she able to cast off much of the abuse, or does it haunt her? When her mother rammed her father's car after he got custody, did anyone press charges? (It didn't sound like it - why wasn't she prosecuted?) And finally, why do the girls still maintain contact with their mother? People I know who have relatives with this kind of intractable mental disease seem happy to have them out of their lives. I know it's complicated, but...

Not really "read" but enjoyed very much:
The Face in the Lens: Anonymous Photographs and Anonymous: Enigmatic Images from Unknown Photographers, Robert Flynn Johnson. Anonymous and strange photographs of the sort I collect at flea markets and estate sales so what's not to like? I liked the first one so much I ordered his other books of photos.

Mad forever; a new collection of the best from Mad magazine. A Christmas gift from my dear husband who knows my unhealthy love of MAD magazine. I have a hardbound anthology from 1958 that was my dad’s and didn’t know there were any others till he got me this one from 1959 and another from 1960. I've read all of it before, many times, but the drawings still have the power to make me laugh.

Actual book I'm reading right now: Myself Among Others, Ruth Gordon. Gordon’s acting career started in 1915 and lasted till her death in 1985. She was smart as a whip and a keen observer of all the interesting show people she met, and all her friends were as interesting as she is. This memoir (the first of three), is a collection of anecdotes about them. I first read some of it in Vogue in 1970 and have read it several times; I guess it’s a comfort read for me. I thought of it after finishing the Fields biography because it covers some of the same years though their careers didn’t intersect at all.
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I just finished A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit. I ended up with two copies and thought it looked like a book [personal profile] wild_irises would like, then I felt like reading it myself.

Her thesis is that after disasters, ordinary people quickly find ways to help each other and come together in new communities of hope and optimism, despite loss. Authorities and elites are certain that there will be riots and chaos and come in to rule with a heavy hand - for instance, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, communal kitchens were quickly set up and neighbors helped each other fight fires, while the authorities drove off amateur fire fighting attempts and caused more damage, and the police declared martial law and issued shoot to kill orders for anyone in the damaged area (including rescuers.) It's an interesting idea and she's done a lot of research to back it up.

This is one of those books that should have been a long New Yorker article. She describes various kinds of disasters and the grassroots efforts versus the government reactions with many examples. I skimmed the last half because it became too repetitive. However, it was edifying for me because I was unaware of the scope of the atrocities in the wake of Katrina.

This morning I started Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields, Simon Louvish. It has mixed reviews (people complaining because it has too much script dialog) so we'll see.

It was a big decision because tomorrow we're going to Hawaii for 10 days and I need books for the plane and beach. I'm also taking The monuments men : Allied heros, Nazi thieves, and the greatest treasure hunt in history by Robert M. Edsel and Broken Harbor by Tana French and two more I forget.
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Today I finished The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. One of the best books of the year for me.

A David Copperfield-ish story of a young man whose happy live in New York City with his mother is shattered when she's killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum. It's rather slow moving and somewhat frustrating because he can't express himself very well and doesn't confide in adults who might help him. Well, from the wisdom of 59, I've forgotten what it was like to be 15 and unable to tell grownups my thoughts, so I'm thinking "just tell them you don't want to _______" or "why don't you get in touch with _______ for crying out loud???"

Still, even as time passes, he keeps doing stupid shit and not being honest with people who could help him. Despite all that, it's a terrific read with a lot of great characters. Hard to read because there's so much loss and sadness; his mother's death pretty much guts him and that's just a start. I got frustrated by the slow pace which was partly my fault for reading it a bit at a time instead of sitting down for a good long read, as it deserves. Near the end the pace suddenly picks up and I could barely put it down, and the ending was utterly satisfying.

I just want to note that I loved Boris, and that I really liked how she used the dog that he had in high school who's still alive years later to show how little time has actually passed despite so many things happening, and how terribly young he really is.
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Burial Rites, Hanna Kent. Wow, what a great, evocative novel.
It's 1828 in Iceland. Three servants have been convicted of murdering of their master and another man, and condemned to death. Each has been sent to stay with a farm family to work as a servant until the details of their execution are settled.
Agnes Magnusdottir, older and more experienced in the world, is the one the others claim was the ringleader. She's assigned a priest to prepare her for her death.
This book is based on a real case. I gather that Agnes is kind of a Lizzie Borden figure in Iceland, in the sense that everybody's familiar with her. Some see her as purely wicked; others see more nuance. This book takes that stance. The author was an exchange student from Australia as a teen who learned about Agnes and got interested in her life. The story takes place over the months that Agnes stays on the farm, getting to know the priest and the farm family, helping with harvest and lambing, gradually telling her story to the priest and to us. It's very evocative of the hell of peasant life with all its hard work and misery. The weather, and ravens, are huge parts of the atmosphere, too. I couldn't put it down. Some mysteries are solved, others are not. Is Agnes a reliable narrator?
I had a few language quibbles: one character is named "Natan" and people are always remarking that he might as well have been named "Satan". But wouldn't they be speaking Icelandic? There are a couple of other things like this but not a problem.

Cockroaches, Jo Nesbo. Good mystery; a complicated plot with a lot of interesting characters. I'll be reading more of his books.

Innocent Blood, P. D. James. Reread. Psychological mystery about a young woman, adopted, who traces her parents and finds that they murdered a child. Her mother is about to released from prison and the daughter suggests they rent an apartment together for the months before she goes to Cambridge. There is more going on that she doesn’t know.
This is a great, suspenseful thriller but I have to say that the emotions of many of the characters are really weird and don't make a lot of sense. The ending, emotion-wise, was a mess that strained credulity, and I'm not talking about the sex. I didn't notice this the first time I read it. I ended up giving it 3 stars, down from 5 midway through.
Oh yeah there is also a carefully knit, meaningfully given sweater that is destroyed in a fit of anger, and this bothered me more than the child murder.

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, Box Brown. A rather interesting graphic novel biography of the wrestler with acromegaly, with a lot of info about the mechanics of pro wrestling, some of which I knew, some I didn't. Andre wasn't a very nice guy, it seems, but he didn't have a great life because of his size and constant traveling for his job. He was one of a kind, that's for sure. It's not the kind of detailed art that I like but its rough style suited its subject.

The Redbreast, Jo Nesbo. A great, complicated mystery/thriller set in present day Norway, but the story has roots in WWII. I had to go to Wikipedia to read about what happened to Norway during that war: they were occupied by the Germans, and the Royal Family fled to England. Some Norwegians volunteered to fight for the Germans on the Eastern Front, or to work as nurses in their hospitals. After the war nine hundred of them were sentenced to jail as traitors.
Harry gets drawn into a mystery involving some of these people while doing surveillance tasks, and there's plenty more going on besides that. Betrayal, heartbreak, loss… all that and a fast paced mystery.

A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor. The objects are from the British Museum. I'm reading the essays at random. They're interesting little slices of history, many of regions I know nothing about. Very pleasant.

Hawaiiana: The Best of Hawaiian Design, Mark Blackburn. It's a book of values for collectors. I don't care about that but I love looking at pictures of old travel brochures with Hawaiian maidens, Hawaiian shirts, souvenirs, pineapple shaped ukuleles, etc.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. A David Copperfield-ish story of a young man whose happy life in New York City with his mother is shattered when she's killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum. It's rather slow moving and somewhat frustrating because he can't express himself very well and doesn't confide in adults who might help him. From my perspective of 59, I've forgotten what it was like to be 15 and unable to talk to grownups, so I'm thinking "Use your words! Just tell them you don't want to _______" or "Why don't you get in touch with _______ for crying out loud???" The slow pacing is partly my fault for reading it thirty minutes at a time during exercise instead of sitting down for a good long read, as it deserves. There are so many great characters. I'm enjoying it despite my gripes.

Now I Remember: A Holiday History of Britain, Ronald Hamilton. Brief histories of the rulers of Britain. I'm learning a lot about the Medieval ones that I don't know much about.

I'm still reading the last 4; I don't usually have so many books going at once.
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Faithful Place, Tana French. A novel posing as a mystery, very absorbing, dark, haunting. Sad, sad, sad, about broken people, broken families, what might have been. Disturbing for me because of horrible, horrible family stuff that I was lucky to miss but can barely stand to read about. I guessed the killer right away but had no understanding of the nuances of motivation until the very end when they were horribly made clear.

One of the best books of my reading year, although I wish I could stop thinking about the characters and their fates. I read a lot of mysteries and true crime and almost never am touched by them. Perhaps because for me the saddest thing is the haunted feeling of what might have been, and if only. This one hit me hard.

Now reading Hawaii The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook, Andrew Doughty, because we're going there in January. I have a Maui guidebook by the same author and can barely stand his stupid jokes, smug bragging ("we're the ONLY guidebook that will tell you the truth about...", and opinions (things he raves about sound awful to me, things he dismisses are things I've enjoyed.) But despite that it has tons of maps and useful stuff.

After that I may read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent which I just got at Goodwill.
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Fairyland : a memoir of my father, Alysia Abbot. I really enjoyed this. I lived in San Francisco during the years she describes and liked the way she anchors the story on Haight Street, and shows its changes by describing businesses that came and went. More than that, it's a beautiful account of growing up with a gay dad who may have done some irresponsible things but who loved her, completely and unconditionally. She does a good job of showing how her adoration of him as a little kid turned to self consciousness as she became a teen and wished he wasn't so, well, gay. And how despite his love, she did long for a mother and found surrogates. I was glad when she went off to her own adventures at college and could feel her ambivalence about having to come home and care for him as he was dying.

Now I'm reading Faithful Place by Tana French. Gripping so far.
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The Fault In Our Stars, John Green.

I can't say how well this book portrays teenagers with cancer because I'm not one, but a friend whose niece did have cancer really liked it and said he got it right. It really felt like he did - the guilt that Hazel, the 17 year old narrator, feels about that pain her death is going to cause her parents; her parents' smothering and hovering; her wise-beyond-her-years cynical attitude.

I liked it; both Hazel and Augustus are utterly charming and dear (and yet feel realistic because Augustus reminds me of my godson) and it's a sweet story. I was glad it was more than that, too, with some twists and turns and suspense.

The one thing I didn't like, ironically, was Augustus' feelings for Hazel. To instantly fall into a crush and after what, three or four get-togethers, want to do a life-changing thing for her - it's certainly romantic, but for me that's not love. They don't even know each other well enough to really be in love. It was almost like Twilight though not as creepy because at least Hazel is smart and interesting in ways Bella can only dream of. But at this point in the story, Augustus doesn't even know her well enough to know how smart, etc., she is.

I think you have to know somebody for a while and see them at their worst - these two don't even have any fights, for god's sake. Maybe this is a YA convention I'm not used to. Hazel's doubts and slow realization of her feelings felt more right. So the ending wasn't the glorious climax for me that I suppose it was for other people. That's okay, I found plenty to like. But I don't think I'll bother re-reading this and a friend's son wants it, so that works out fine.

Now I'm reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, and I'm really enjoying it. Been a while since I read a history book.
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Still feeling coldish and in need of light reading so I turned to graphic novels:

Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir, Nicole J. Georges. Nicole finds out from a psychic that the father she thought was dead is actu-ally alive and her family has been lying to her all this time. It's a great premise that got me to buy this, but the actual story isn't that interesting. She jumps around from her troubled childhood with an abusive mom and stepfathers, her current unhappy relationship, and eventually the story of who her father really was and why it was a secret. The drawings are in the naive style that I like from Aileen Kominsky-Crumb but find annoying by anyone else, though she can really draw faces well.

The Tale of One Bad Rat, Bryan Talbot. A well done story of a girl fleeing sexual abuse and looking for heaing in the Lake District, home of Beatrix Potter, whom she idolizes. Beautiful art.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel. Complicated, dense, fascinating memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional fami-ly with unhappy parents. Her father was ap-parently gay, but closeted, and seems to have been manic depressive. Bechdel describes her own childhood neuroses and her eventual coming out, and wonders if that triggered her father's death, which could have been a sui-cide. I read Dykes to Watch Out For for years (when I lived where I could pick up papers that carried it) and already loved her drawings but this is on a whole other level as she finds connections between various family events, literature, her own coming out, gay history, and more.

Stitches: A Memoir, David Small. Beautifully drawn coming of age story of a boy growing up in a loveless home. He has an operation for a cyst on his neck and finds out his parents have lied to him about that, and other things.

Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, Alison Bechdel. Probably not fair to compare them, but I can't help it. I didn't like this one as much as Fun Home. It was a lot more wordy and cerebral, and I admit that I just didn't understand a lot of the psychological terminology she used to tell the story. Also I read To The Lighthouse a few years ago and for me it was eh, so I didn't have that connection. I mean, I got the main point - and it was very poignant for me - that her mother just didn't have love to give and Alison figured out early that the best thing she could do was to not need anything. That's pretty much my relationship with my mother, so it meant a lot to me, but in some ways it was a simpler and less interesting story.
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I finished a couple of books I had going, because I've been sick and they were pleasant light reads. First Canary: The Story of a Family by Gustav Eckstein. An odd but charming book about a family of canaries and their relationships and experiences. Gustav Eckstein was a psychologist who studied animal behavior and I don't know if these canaries were part of his research or simply laboratory pets, but he observes them with both scientific interest and fond affection. It's sweet to think that in 1936 somebody could write a book about his family of canaries and get it published.

Today I got done with Hello World: A life in Ham Radio, Danny Gregory and Paul Sahre. Gregory got interested in ham radio after finding a scrapbook of QSL cards, the postcards hams send each other to confirm they talked, at a flea market. They're graphically appealing, usually with a picture or something about the place where the ham lives, and information about the call. This book is both a history of one man's multi-decade hobby, and of radio and amateur radio in general. It's interesting and the cards are fun to look at.

I was mildly frustrated that they didn't explain why it's called "ham radio" until pretty far along. Wikipedia has this: "The term "ham operator" was commonly applied by 19th century landline telegraphers to an operator with poor or "ham fisted" skills. Early radio (initially known as wireless telegraphy) included many former wire telegraph operators, and within the new service "ham" was employed as a pejorative term by professional radiotelegraph operators to suggest that amateur enthusiasts were unskilled. In "Floods and Wireless" by Hanby Carver, from the August, 1915 Technical World Magazine, the author noted "Then someone thought of the 'hams'. This is the name that the commercial wireless service has given to amateur operators...""

There are also various folk etymologies including one that the first radio station had the call letters HAM, etc.

Anyway, I enjoyed the words and pictures and it was a good read on hot days and when I had a cold and couldn't read something more demanding.
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Fledgling, Octavia Butler.

(Probably most of you have read this but if not, there will be spoilers.)

A young girl wakes in a cave, injured and in pain, with no memory of what’s happened to her. She slowly heals and makes her way outside, and uses her hypercharged senses to orient herself. Eventually she (and the reader) discovers she’s a vampire with the appearance of a young black girl.

The device of someone with amnesia is useful – she narrates her re-entry into the world. It’s fascinating to watch her slowly recover some of her memories of what she needs, how to care for herself. Later, when she encounters others of her kind – Ina – they explain everything to her about her family, her past, her people. I liked that too. They’re white, but she was a genetic experiment to combine human genes with Ina to create an Ina whose dark skin lets her tolerate sunshine and who can stay awake and think during the day. She’s 53, almost mature in Ina years.

She finds out she’s lost all her whole family, her male and female relatives who live in sex segregated communities, and her previous family of symbionts. She remembers nothing about them. There’s interesting suspense about who’s doing the killing and why. The twist: it’s not villagers with torches but racist vampires.

Along the way I realized I was uncomfortable with the relationships. Ina form families with human symbionts by biting them and using their venom as an addicting drug. After Shori leaves the cave she’s picked up on the road by a guy named Wright. She bites him in self defense and it’s pleasurable for him and draws him to her. That’s how it works. Once a human is bitten, the Ina can kind of control their mind, and after more bites they can be bonded to each other. Symbionts age more slowly than humans and don’t get sick, but they’re tied to their Ina and can die if their Ina does. They live wherever their Ina chooses, in a family of other Ina and symbionts. Many keep the same nocturnal hours. They might marry other humans in the Ina family and have children, though apparently there are Ina who see their symbionts as lesser creatures and who don’t treat them well, though we don’t see this.

There’s a lot of talk about how the symbionts have free will and can leave but we never see this actually happen. Wright accepts the bond without really understanding its implications. Shori bites Celia and Brook because they need to be taken in by one of her kind after they’ve lost their Ina (her father) but again, after enough bites they’re tied to her too. They had to choose to let her take them on but it didn’t seem like much of a decision for them – do each of them really want to do this? It feels like they just go along.

Theodora was the different one: Shori uses her as a random food source when she’s still learning what she needs, but realizes she’s drawn to her – her scent, her cluttered office etc. Theodora loves her, too, but how much of that is simply because of Shori’s venom?

Perhaps this is an allegory of slavery. Ina love their symbionts, they’re family, and they protect and care for them. But Ina need their blood to live, and symbionts aren’t free to go. Not really. So I think discomfort is what Butler wants us to feel.

It’s surprising to read reviews where people are offended because she looks like a child and has sex with human adults (and seems to be experienced with sex, I guess? It’s not really clear) which to them is pedophilia. I didn’t even think about this. I wasn’t visualizing her, I knew she was actually 53, pedophilia isn’t an issue for me, and this isn’t pedophilia. I think even if I had visualized her – something I rarely do when I read – it wouldn’t have bothered me. She’s 53, nearly mature. I guess the case could be made that she’s more like a young girl who hasn’t reached menarche – we know she’s not quite old enough to mate with other Ina, but old enough that her scent makes males uncomfortable. Not enough information.

What did make me uncomfortable was all the touching: hugging, snuggling up together in bed, back rubs, her need for constant touch from her symbionts and their willingness to give it. I felt skin fatigue just reading about it. But that’s my problem, not a problem with the book.

I was hoping there might be a twist, that her amnesia would turn out to be hiding something from her and from us. But once you get used to the Ina and their world, the plot is straightforward. I didn’t like Shori very much, truth be told. She’s sure of herself in a way that sometimes comes off as arrogance – that trips her up in the book, too, a few times. I didn’t like that she has this New Agey-name while nearly everybody else in the book has regular, familiar names. Maybe her mothers and other ancestors we never get to meet had similar names, but it was jarring.

It was an interesting, thought provoking book that I’ll be processing for a while. I’m sorry that Butler died before she could write a sequel. I’d very much like to know what happens to Shori and her family next.

Then I read nearly all of Child's Play by Reginald Hill on the plane. British mystery about a strange will and missing son and other complications, with Inspector Andy Dalziel.
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I finished The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths, a mystery from the POF of a woman archeology professor who gets involved with solving a murder. I liked it at first, interesting archeology stuff and gripping myster, though I was kind of irritated by a lot of mentions of her thinking about how fat she is. Probably not unrealistic but maybe a little too much. Anyway now that I've finished I have to say it was a big disappointment. The mystery just was solved a little too easily and with clues that the Mary Sue-ish protagonist discovered; there were some emotional things that didn't feel right (when she realizes someone she trusts may be untrustworthy, the description of her reaction didn't have the resonance I thought it needed; there are all these times when she's in danger but stupidly blabs to lots of people about her wherabouts and other things; something bad happens to a pet (and it was obvious this was coming) but she doesn't do anything to protect another pet. Finally it contained my most hated trope every and I'm going to say what it is because I think this book is so bad it should be spoiled: people have sex one time and a pregnancy results. At least the man isn't on his deathbed which is usually how this works.

Bah.

Then I started Fledgling by Octavia Butler which is fantastic and which I do not expect to be disapponting.

After that I think I'll read another mystery - I'm in Hawaii and I brought a Reginald Hill and a P.D. James (that I read years ago and have forgotten.)
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I read Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute. Keith Stewart is a mechanical engineer who loves building models of things like engines and clocks, and writes a column about that for Minature Mechanic magazine. His comfortable life with his wife in a London suburb is upset when his sister and her wealthy husband, who've left their daughter in Keith and his wife's care, are shipwrecked sailing from England to Vancouver. Keith, a man who's never left England, must find a way to get to a remote South Seas island to see about his sister and brother in law's graves, salvage the ship, and death with something else that will greatly affect their daughter's future. It turns out that his columns have readers all over the world and there are many fellow engineers who are happy to help him along his journey. He even manages to earn a considerable amount of money as consulting engineer.
It's a pleasant and satisfying read, with some amusing characters along the way. I know little about engineering or sailing but enjoyed the descriptions of handling sailboats and various engineering and mechanical things. Keith's tiny generator that he built for fun figures into the story, impressing everyone and making friends for him wherever he takes it.
Keith's a likeable guy but it's a little strange that during his months-long adventures he doesn't seem to miss his wife or worry about her or their ward, and doesn't even write home. But on the other hand, that's a lot like some of the engineers I know.
What I liked is how the common language of engineers and problem solvers is shown to unite a group of very disparate people, from a barely literate guy who built is own sailboat and sailed it across the Pacific, to a business tycoon.

After that I started Hello World: A life in Ham Radio by Danny Gregory and Paul Sahre. Gregory got interested after finding a scrapbook of QSL cards, the postcards hams send each other to confirm they talked, at a flea market. It's both a history of one man's multi-decade hobby, and of radio and amateur radio in general. It's interesting and the cards are graphically interesting.

However, I'm a astonished that so far they haven't explained why it's called "ham radio". Wikipedia has this: "The term "ham operator" was commonly applied by 19th century landline telegraphers to an operator with poor or "ham fisted" skills. Early radio (initially known as wireless telegraphy) included many former wire telegraph operators, and within the new service "ham" was employed as a pejorative term by professional radiotelegraph operators to suggest that amateur enthusiasts were unskilled. In "Floods and Wireless" by Hanby Carver, from the August, 1915 Technical World Magazine, the author noted "Then someone thought of the 'hams'. This is the name that the commercial wireless service has given to amateur operators...""

There are also various folk etymologies including one that the first radio station had the call letters HAM, etc.

I also started The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths, involving an archeology professor who gets involved with solved a murder. So far, very good. I'm not sure what I think about all the mentions of her thinking about how fat she is. Not unrealistic but maybe a little too much.
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I finished The Round House, Louise Erdrich. I loved it. An Indian woman is violently raped on the reservation, and her son, now grown, narrates the story of how his thirteen year old self dealt with it. There’s lots about family and friendship and of course Indian legal issues. The relationships the kid has with his friends and family feel really true. I loved it even though it has one of my most hated tropes, kids trying to solve a (potentially dangerous) situation on their own. The descriptions of ghosts and the tales his grandfather tells are perfectly done, and fit neatly into the images of the rez and his world where spiritual and practical things meet. There are many beautiful images of people and Indian lives, like a description of older women dressing up and then dancing gracefully at a pow wow.

Not sure what I'm going to read next. Probably the mystery I mentioned in my last post.
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Watch the North Wind Rise, Robert Graves. A poet from our time (1949) is transported years into the future, which is now a peaceful, Goddess worshipping world culture where money, technology, and wars have been eliminated and people live in rural villages and in defined social groups. I love utopia/dystopia fiction, and part of what I love is being dropped into this alternate world and figuring out how things work. This one doesn’t have that because from when he arrives, everything is explained to him (and us.) I don’t believe for a second that this culture would work; I don’t have that much faith in humanity, but it’s interesting to speculate. What made it a page turner was the interactions between the protagonist and other characters including a troublesome woman from his past who has somehow appeared in the future with him. But that sort of fizzled out and it was ultimately kind of philosophical musing about Goddess culture and good and evil, which was okay (especially because of my acquaintance with the Goddess) but eh.

Now I'm reading The Round House by Louise Erdrich and really enjoying it. About a crime on a reservation in North Dakota and the narrator, the victim's son, reacting to it. There's a lot of great stuff about family and friendship, not to mention issues about crimes that happen to Indian people.

After that I'm going to read The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths, a mystery somebody recommended.
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Kay Thompson, Sam Irwin. To refresh your memory, Kay Thompson trained as a singer and pianist, started out as a singer on the radio, and began doing arrangements. She had several radio shows, then moved on to Broadway, where she wrote and arranged songs but never hit the big time as an actress. She went to MGM in the 40s, where she did arrangements and coached singers like Lena Horne and Judy Garland. She was Liza Minelli's godmother. Then she left the studio to sing and dance in a nightclub act with the Andy Williams and his brothers. Naturally, she arranged all their music and choreographed their dancing in a new energetic style - by the way, she and Andy were lovers. The act was a huge hit in New York and Las Vegas. Around 1955 she finally got around to writing a book about the character she'd drop into to make her friends laugh, a little girl named Eloise. She was a huge hit, too, and Kay wrote several sequels. Somewhere in there she finally got a worthy movie role, the fashion editor in "Funny Face". She never got another good movie role and eventually stopped doing cabaret, but in 1973 she directed a legendary fashion show of American designers at Versailles. When Judy Garland died, she stepped up to manage her funeral and Liza says she was the person who stood behind her and her sister with her arms around them. Liza was a loyal friend, too; in Kay’s last years she had her move in to her apartment.
I really enjoyed this biography. Sam Irwin, who started out as Brian De Palma's assistant and went on to direct and produce movies including one of my favorites, Gods and Monsters, was hired to direct a documentary on the history of Eloise, and once he started interviewing people, he realized her story should be a book and that he had the passion to do it. He had no idea how big the project would be! He talked to what seems like hundreds of people - Kay knew everybody in Hollywood and on Broadway - and learned her family history from her niece and nephew. Her journey through radio and on to Hollywood has lots of great stories - she had a feud with Mary Martin, of all people - and while Irwin clearly loves her, he doesn't hesitate to point out when she made bad decisions or was her own worst enemy.
The theme that emerges in Kay's later years is that while she had tremendous musical and acting talent, she was a perfectionist who had to be in control. Noel Coward wanted her for the role of Madame Arcati in a musical version of Blythe Spirit and to star in Sail Away, another Broadway show, but she refused these and other roles. She claimed she had a complex about working on Broadway because of being let go from shows when she was starting out; the truth was she just couldn't commit to anything if she couldn't be in charge. She was almost signed as the friend of Rosalind Russell in the movie version of Auntie Mame but made so many demands that she was replaced by Coral Browne. There are many stories like that. As for her books, Hilary Knight, the illustrator of Eloise, eventually refused to work with her because she was so insistent on doing things her way. It's frustrating that for whatever reason, she didn't make more movies or write more books. I wish I'd known her!
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I've just started Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin. Back to a nice relaxing biography. I know about Kay Thompson as a big figure in stage & screen, though I don't think I've ever seen Funny Face because I'm the only woman in the world who doesn't love Audrey Hepburn. I discovered the Eloise books when I was "too old" for picture books, and love them then and now.
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I finished Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Psycho thriller told in separate threads by a husband and wife. The wife goes missing, the husband is accused and then there are some fun twists and turns.

I liked it, but I think my expectations were too high - I wasn't as surprised by the first twist as I might have been, though it worked great, then I expected even more twists than the book actually had. I thought a particular character would be more involved, but no.

I thought the ending was pretty perfect.

As far as my challenges around fiction go, this was an easy one - no deep meanings or sublties for me to wonder about.

I can't get the cut to work, so spoiler stuff below.





















I see a lot of people didn't like how it ended; I'm guessing they wanted to see some kind of dramatic resolution with somebody getting killed (BURN THE WITCH!) or some other kind of closure. But I thought it was just right. He's scared of her... but fascinated, can't imagine being with a less intelligent woman. She wants his adoration. They're going to be together forever. The one thing I didn't really buy was her getting pregnant from his discarded wank-off tissues - I don't think sperm can actually live that long. Plus I didn't believe he really wanted to be a father. But I think it will all work out.
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Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, Apostolos K. Doxiadēs. Well the fact that it took me months to finish this should tell you how much I liked it. The parts about Bertrand Russell's childhood and life were interesting, but the parts about logic, not so much. I didn't really like the drawing, either.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. A group of linked stories, many of which are about a woman named Sasha. They're all entertaining, some more than others. There are themes of being authentic and true to yourself in a lot of them, but that just didn't speak to me - either I'm already living authentically or I'm a phony, I guess. Anyway, I didn't love it. It started out fine but became a chore to finish. I think part of it was that the trajectory of her life seemed disappointing to me (marriage and kids, and the Powerpoint diary of one of them was just tiresome and gimmicky.) Maybe the bigger problem was that a big issue of hers introduced in the first story (her stealing) never really got explained, unless I missed something, which is certainly possible.

Edited a few days later to add: Okay, I listened to this podcast of people discussing it and it reminded me of many of the book's subtler points, including maybe an explanation of her stealing, and it made me realize there were a lot of things I like about it. So, it gets another star. It really is a book that works best if you read it in one go, instead of a little every day, as I did. http://fuzzytypewriter.wordpress.com/2011/09/11/ft-podcast-fuzzy-typewriter-book-club-a-visit-from-the-goon-squad/

Now I'm reading Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. Wife goes missing, it looks like the husband killed her but he says he didn't. And then there are twists. I'm liking it a lot and want to sit down to finish it tonight, which doesn't happen very often for me.
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