Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane


Author: Mary Beth Keane
Title: Ask Again, Yes
Narrator: Molly Pope
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This novel begins in 1973 when recent Irish immigrant Francis Gleeson falls into becoming a cop and meets Brian Stanhope, an American-born child of  Irish immigrants, at the police academy.  They are paired on there first beat in the Bronx for a few summer weeks, and share their dreams, although they don’t become particularly close.  Francis marries a Polish-Italian woman named Lena and they settle down in a quiet (fictional) suburban town north of New York called Gillam.  Shortly afterwards, Brian and his newlywed Irish immigrant wife Anne move into the neighboring house.

Lena makes every effort to reach out to Anne as a neighbor, but Anne is at first reserved, and then outright antagonistic.  Lena gives birth to three daughters in quick succession.  After a couple of miscarriages, Anne gives birth to a son, Peter.  Despite, the coldness between the two families, Peter and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter Kate become best friends.  And then in 1991, when the kids are on the verge of graduating middle school, they share that have romantic feelings for one another.  On the same of night, an act of violence permanently changes the lives of both families.

The bulk of the novel follows that night in 1991 up to the present day focusing on the lives of all six of these characters as they struggle with their past.  Kate and Peter reunite in college and eventually marry, to the disappointment and befuddlement of their parents.  I found the childhood lovers still devoted to one another as adults hard to swallow, and this book also has a number of the coincidences that only occur in literature.  Setting that aside though, the book is an excellent character study that examines generational trauma that contributes to depression, alcoholism, infidelity, and mental illness.  It also is a story of compassion, where the characters learn to recognize that people are not their worst actions.

 

Recommended books: Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, and Payback by Thomas Kelly
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Narrator: Alan Sklar
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: [United States] : Tantor Media, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

This book explores the ideas of urbanism, epidemiology, and social networks through the lens of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London.  Dr. John Snow, with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead, created a map of where people infected with cholera lived and drew their water to trace the infection to a water pump on Broad Street.  That Snow and Whitehead knew the neighborhood and its people well proved advantageous in creating the connections needed to document the spread of disease. Snow also had to fight an uphill battle against the prevailing scientific belief that diseases like cholera were spread through the air, known as the miasma theory.

Johnson details how the evolutionary response to putrefaction and vile odors made such beliefs plausible, but practices such as “cleaning up” the city by deliberately washing waste into the water inadvertently caused infections to increase.  Johnson also depicts the urban environment as a unique battleground for humans and microorganisms.  All in all this is a fascinating account of an historic account, with broader implications for how we live today and into the future.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: You’re On An Airplane by Parker Posey


Author: Parker Posey
Title: You’re On An Airplane: a self-mythologizing memoir
Narrator: Parker Posey
Publication Info: Penguin Audio, 2018
Summary/Review:

Parker Posey, once known as the “queen of independent movies,” has starred in many movies that I enjoy.  Party Girl, for one,  played a not insubstantial part in my choice of career.  In this unconventional memoir, Posey addresses the reader directly as if one is sitting next to her on an airplane (and in the audiobook, this comes complete with the sound effects of the airplane taking off and a flight attendant serving drinks). After the first chapter, this affectation of writing in second person only pops up from time to time, but nevertheless, this is a stream-of-conscious memoir.  Posey tells stories of her Catholic, Southern gothic childhood in a family of “characters” and her experiences on the sets of various films, including her work with directors like Richard Linklater and Christopher Guest.  She also writes extensively about working with Woody Allen (and humorously impersonates his voice). While many actors have justified working with Allen, and its understandable that an independent actor would want to work with a notably independent director, I found it deeply unsettling that Posey doesn’t even address that Allen is an accused child rapist.  In other chapters, Posey goes into deep detail about her yoga practice, her work with ceramics, and her dog. It’s clear that this book is meant to show that Posey is as quirky and funny as her movie characters, but sometimes its hard to tell if the self-absorption in these chapter is parody or for real.

Favorite Passages:

It’s an industry (an art, hopefully) full of orphans left to create their own worlds with one another. I don’t feel glamorous, I feel like a possum—the animal born clinging to its mother’s tail, that grows up by falling off it, and probably too soon. Acting is the possum’s defense.

Recommended booksYou’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) by Felicia Day, Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick,  and Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Rating: **

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2007
Summary/Review:

In 2007, expectations were high for the final volume in the Harry Potter series.  I believe it’s safe to say that J.K. Rowling stuck the landing.  I remember I was traveling home from Los Angeles the day the book was released and since the book was not available at the bookstore near my gate, I actually walked to another terminal to get a copy.  And then I read most of it on my redeye flight to Boston.

It felt like a huge change to have Harry, Hermione, and Ron skipping their final year at Hogwarts to search for horcruxes.  The familiar structure of Harry Potter novels was disrupted. Instead we get a novel with two distinct sections.  The first is kind of a mystery as the trio search for clues to find and destroy  horcruxes.  The second is a war story as the forces of good face Voldemort and his Death Eater for a climactic battle.

What’s impressive is that so many of the themes, places, and characters established in the previous six stories are worked into the story.  Griphook and Mr. Ollivander, for example, are people Harry met in his first encounter with the Wizarding World and they each play a vital role in this novel.  These throwbacks are natural though and all click into place in a satisfying narrative.

While still a large book, The Deathly Hallows feels more narratively straight-forward and moves faster than its predecessors.  Obviously a lot of work was set up for this book by its predecessors, especially The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, that did a lot of the scene-setting and explanation, whereas The Deathly Hallows is more about piecing that knowledge together. There are some parts that didn’t work for me.  Harry meeting Dumbledore in a heaven-like Kings Cross rather than dying felt like a cop-out to me at first, although I’ve softened on that over time.  The epilogue is something I see a lot criticism about, and I agree that it is unsatisfying, probably because it is unnecessary.

The Deathly Hallows was the only book that came out after I started this blog so you can also read my initial impressions from 2007.

 

Rating:

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2005
Summary/Review:

Rereading The Half-Blood Prince made me realize that more than I any book in the series, I had plum forgotten what had happened in this book.  I remembered that Harry gets an old textbook that helps him succeed in class that turns out to have once been Snape’s.  I remembered Dumbledore spends much more time with Harry and they traveled together to hunt horcruxes (in fact they only travel once, although the due look at many memories in the pensieve).  And I remembered that Dumbledore dies, killed by Snape on the astronomy tower.

I had totally forgotten about Horace Slughorn and his importance not just in this novel, but to Voldemort and horcruxes.  I’d forgotten that Ron dates Lavender Brown.

So reading this again was full of personal discoveries.  The interesting aspect of this book is that after the oppressive nature of Hogwarts under Umbridge, it feels like a world that’s a bit more relaxed and cozy.  Harry and his friends have time to engage in typical teenage drama.  It’s all a feint, of course, and it heightens the feeling of horror when Dumbledore is murdered.

I remember the first time I read this, I was angry that Dumbledore was so foolish to recognize Snape as a threat.  As the weeks passed, I thought more on it, and wondered what if letting Snape kill him was all part of Dumbledore’s plan.  This proved to be correct, so at least my mind was good at some things, if not always at memory.

Here’s the “review” I wrote in 2005:

It’s predecessor kind of plodded along at points, but this book is more crisply written and has a good share of adventure and intrigue. I found the ending disappointing, not because a Dumbledore dies (I guessed correctly who would die), but because his death is futile and comes as a result of uncharacteristic stupidity. There are a lot of loose ends at the end of the book and it’s going to be a big challenge for Rowling to tie them up all satisfactorily in the final book (without the book being 2000 pages long).

On second thought, Dumbledore’s death makes more sense as a sacrifice to save both Malfoy and Snape, and possibly even arranged with Snape as a plot to fool Voldemort. I still find it hard to believe that Harry Potter can (convincingly) find all the Horcruxes and kill Voldemort in book 7 without Dumbledore and without the book being an endless tome.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2003
Summary/Review:

The fifth book in the Harry Potter series is by far the longest novel, and one that may have benefited from judicious editing and abridging.  I think this book has the most pages before Harry and his friends even arrive for their first day at Hogwarts!  Having said that, I have to admit that actually enjoy the novel’s many tangents and subplots. I like reading Hagrid’s long tale of visiting the giants.  And at the conclusion of the novel when Dumbledore finally explains what he’s been trying to do for 15 years, it’s a major information dump, but these are details I’m eager to suck up.

This novel may also capture Harry at his lowest ebb.  Harry is angry and angsty for much of the novel, apropos to teenage behavior.  But Harry has reason to be angry, having witnessed the murder of Cedric, suffered the insults of a Wizarding World that calls him a liar, and seemingly been abandoned by his mentor, Dumbledore.

The formation of Dumbledore’s Army is really a great moment in the development of many characters who have been supporting characters for much of the series but begin to come into their own.  This novel also introduces one of my favorite characters, Luna Lovegood, which is amazing since she’s such a significant person in the series.  But hey, I met some of my closest friends my senior year of college.  I also like that Luna, Ginny, and Neville join Harry, Hermione, and Ron when they go to Ministry of Magic, again really expanding the story beyond just the core 3. The inclusion of Snape’s memory of being bullied by Harry’s father James and his friends is also a signficant addition to the backstory and how Harry understands his place in the Wizarding World.

The book does feature the major heartbreak of the death of Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, a character I feel we never got to know well enough.  I’m also curious why the Ministry of Magic keeps a giant arch that causes people who passes through it to die, because that was just a weird plot element, and something that really confused me about Sirius’ death when I first read this book.

So, yeah, this is a long book that doesn’t exactly flow narratively.  But I enjoy wallowing in a few whirlpools along the way.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2000
Summary/Review:

Just before midnight on a July night in 2000, I was walking through Harvard Square and saw lines of children and their parents extending from three different bookstores.  The release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was my first exposure to the Harry Potter phenomenon as a childless person in his mid-20s.  I heard the name “Harry Potter” before but for some reason I’d gotten it into my head that was the author of the Goosebumps series (I know now that’s R.L. Stine!). By the end of the next year I would binge read all four of the Harry Potter novels to date and be invested in finding out what comes next.

This fourth novel represents a big jump in page count from the previous book in the series, but also a broadening of Harry Potter’s world and a darkening in tone for the narrative.  As opposed to the more self-contained earlier books, The Goblet of Fire ends with the return of Voldemort to corporal form and begins the ongoing story of the Second Wizarding War that will continue until the end of the series.

The heart of the novel is the Triwizard Tournament which brings in students from two other wizarding schools.  My biggest frustration with this book is that the rules clearly state there are three champions and they must be at least 17 years old, and yet when Harry is selected, all the adults claim to be powerless against not allowing Harry to participate.  I mean, there’s a lot of child endangerment in the Wizarding World, but I still feel there should’ve been a more convincing way for Harry to be drawn into the tournament. Nevertheless, I do enjoy the tournament tasks and Harry’s clever ways of approaching them and how Harry and Cedric work together despite being opponents.

The book also introduces Rita Skeeter, who I think is the first of a series of horrible adults in the Wizarding World who are not also Death Eaters.  And Hermione exposes the enslavement of house elves, which is another interesting challenge to the goodness the reader assumes about people in the Wizarding World, although I wish her campaign got more traction with the characters in the book.  Finally, there’s the debut of Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody who is one of the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers yet and a mentor to Harry, which is ironic since its revealed he’s Death Eater in disguise.  That’s probably one of the best twists Rowling ever writes!  Nevertheless, the clues I missed on my first reading are all there.

As the middle book of 7, The Goblet of Fire serves its purpose as the hinge of the entire series. More importantly it continues to be an engaging and thoughtful read.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2000 [Originally published, 1999]
Summary/Review:

The third volume in the Harry Potter series may be my favorite of them all.  It’s hard to compare since the later books are so different from the earlier books that they’re almost a different genre.  The Prisoner of Azkeban is the last of the shorter, self-contained novels and the most well-plotted of the three.

In retrospect, it’s really impressive how well Rowling sells Sirius Black as a villain, knowing that he will become Harry’s mentor and father-figure.  I also like how this book establishes the background of the Marauders which sets the stage for the return of Voldemort and the Second Wizarding War in book 4.  But mostly it’s a ripping yarn, a mystery that somehow ties together a werewolf, a magical map, time travel, and Dementors, Rowling’s creepiest creatures of all.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the  Chamber of Secrets
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 1999 [Originally published, 1998]
Summary/Review:

The second novel in the series is a delightful stand alone story that shows Harry facing challenges as an outsider in the Wizarding World at the school he loves, as well as introducing metaphors of racial prejudice regarding non-magical people.  This book introduces several elements important to the whole series including: Dobby the house elf, Parselmouth, polyjuice potion, Aragog the spider, and the first horcrux (albeit not named as such in this book). Most significantly, we learn about Lord Voldemort’s past, with Rowling cleverly introducing the young Tom Riddle by way of the diary. Professor Binns, the ghost history professor, also plays a key role in this book, and I, for one, am disappointed he never appeared in the movies. While I’d remembered that Gildroy Lockhart is a fraud, I’d forgotten that he was also villainous in how he stole people’s memories.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz


Author: Tony Horwitz
Title: Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
Narrator: Mark Deakins
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

A few months ago when author Tony Horwitz died, I learned that he’d recently released this new book of his unique blend of history, travel, cultural exploration, and literary journalism.  When I saw that his final work was based on following in the footsteps of one of my favorite historical figures, Frederick Law Olmsted, it seemed as if it was targeted at me.

Olmsted is best known for innovating the field of landscape architecture and designing some of America’s most notable city parks and park systems, college campuses, hospital grounds, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Midway Plaisance, and the grounds of the US Capitol.  Prior to his career in designing parks, Olmsted worked as a journalist, and much like Tony Horwitz, he traveled to places and wrote about his experiences. From 1852 to 1857, he traveled through the American South submitting his dispatches to the New York Times.  In 1861, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, his writings were compiled in the book Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom, which remains a significant first-hand document of antebellum Southern society.

Olmsted was anti-slavery, a moderate position at the time compared with abolitionists who wanted to immediately free all enslaved people, and in some cases extend the full rights of citizenship to the freed African Americans.  Anti-slavery advocates, which included Abraham Lincoln and other early Republicans, sought to prevent the expansion of slave-holding to new territories and carry out gradual manumission.  Olmsted believed that practice of slavery was inefficient and had a deleterious effect not just on the enslaved people, but on the white society as well.  A goal of his travels was to meet with Southerners, civilly exchange views, and convince them of the error of their ways.  Olmsted would be disappointed, finding Southerners entrenched in their beliefs and uninterested in civil discourse on the matter of slavery.

Tracing Olmsted’s route through the South in 2015-2016, against the background of the contentious presidential election leading to Donald Trump’s victory, Tony Horwitz would also find a deeply divided America.  Some of his encounters with Southerners who supported Trumpist ideology and believed in all manner of conspiracy theory are deeply disturbing.  More disturbing still is that many of these same people treated Horwitz warmly and were happy to speak with him, as long as he hid his own political views.

The travelogue is interesting as Horwitz first journeys down the Ohio River through West Virginia on a ship towing a coal barge, offering insight into a tedious but dangerous job that some “country boys” have found as a source of income in an economically depressed region.  His next river journey is on board a luxurious replica paddle wheeler with stops at historic plantations where the tour guides tend to ignore the enslaved people who made them possible.

In Louisiana, Horwitz is joined by a friend from Australia who is literally nearly killed by the artery-hardening Southern cuisine.  They also enjoy the bizarre Mud Fest, where monster truck drivers come together to drink and drive their modified vehicles through a giant mud bog for a week. Nearby, they visit the site of the Colfax Massacre of 1873, where 150+ black men were murdered by a white militia organized to reverse the reforms of Reconstruction.  To this day an historic marker on the site only recognizes the deaths of three of the white aggressors.   Continuing on his own across Texas, Horwitz tries and fails to debunk a conspiracy theory about a compound of Islamic extremists and participates in the Battle of the Alamo reenactment, oddly set against the background San Antonio’s tourist trap attractions.

Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of the book is the Texas hill country where German immigrants settled before the war, and Olmsted found a community he thought could serve as an example of Free Soilers in the South.  150 years later, the German community persists – albeit in some cheezy ways – and Horwitz describes a part of Texas that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions of the state.  Horwitz travels by mule, a humbling experience, in the west of the Texas.  He concludes his narrative along the border with Mexico where he interacts with both the border patrol and the mixed American and Mexican communities.

In many ways, Spying on the South is a sequel to Horwitz’s best book Confederates in the Attic.  It’s also more somber and unsettling.  20 years ago one could chuckle at Confederate devotees as a dwindling number of hobbyists devoted to living in the past.  Today that same energy has been channeled into a dangerous movement that has reached its political ascendancy.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****