Fiction · In the Library · Julia P · Short Stories

20 Under 40: Stories from The New Yorker | edited by Deborah Treisman

20 Under 40: Stories from The New Yorker edited by Deborah Treisman
(Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2010, 431 pages)

I’d been wanting to pick up this collection of short stories for a while.  This is a compilation of work from the 20 authors under 40 that were highlighted in The New Yorker.  The only thing the authors have in common is a discernible literary talent and the fact that they are all under the age of 40 (or were when the list was compiled), other than that, they all have very unique styles and literary focuses.  I enjoyed this book because it exposed me to a lot of authors whose other work I’m eager to check out.  I also had a slight bias because a friend I went to Divinity School with is included in this talented group, C.E. Morgan.

If you’re looking to be introduced to new authors or are just eager to check out a diverse collection of short stories, this was a good read.  Not all the stories spoke to me, but like I mentioned earlier, enough did that I’m eager to check out their other work.

Audiobook · Fiction · Julia P · Short Stories

Wild Nights! | by Joyce Carol Oates

Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway
by Joyce Carol Oates
(Ecco Press, 2008, 238 pages)

This collection of 5 short stories focuses on alternate endings/interpretations of the latter days in the lives of some of literature’s heavyweights.  Oates puts a unique spin on the lives of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway.  Not only does she incorporate biographical elements, she also channels the writing styles of each of the authors.  The stories were unique and I finished the book wanting to learn more about each of the authors Oates focused on.  It’s hard to go much further in depth without summarizing each of the short stories, but this was definitely a dark and engaging read.  If you’re a literature lover you’ll appreciate this collection.

Biography · In the Library · Jean R · Non-Fiction

Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography | by Judith and Neil Morgan

Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography by Judith and Neil Morgan
(Random House, 1995, 345 pages)

The story of Dr. Seuss
Cat, Grinch, and even the Whos
Abound in this fact filled book
That gives Geisel’s life a look

Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography by Judith & Neil Morgan chronicles the life and career of Theodore Seuss Geisel. “Ted” Geisel was born in Springfield, MA in 1904 and grew up in a house not far from the bustling Mulberry Street. Not so coincidentally, the title of Dr. Seuss’s first book is And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. Ted Geisel died in California in 1991. Geisel packed quite a life into his 87 years on earth.

Judith & Neil Morgan, the authors of Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, knew Ted Geisel in the latter half of Geisel’s life. This friendship along with their research allowed the authors to portray Ted Geisel the man as well as the author/artist. Geisel was a quiet, but complicated man who loved to draw and travel. He was not a scholar, but he was brilliant with words. On more than one occasion, Ted Geisel was asked to write his autobiography, but

He would stop and then start
It was just not in his heart
But if you read this instead
You’ll get to know Ted.

Fiction · Graphic Novel · In the Library · Julia P · Kelly M · Quick Read!

Mister Wonderful | by Daniel Clowes

Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes
(Pantheon Books, 2011,  77 pages)

We’re beefing up our graphic novel collection here at the library so I had to read this when it arrived.  Not to mention the fact that Kelly breezed through it.  Clowes sets this book up with Marshall sitting in a coffee shop waiting on a blind date.  The reader is privy to all the thoughts going on in his head as he berates himself for putting himself in this situation, while also being proud of himself for getting out there.  He’s had a rough go of it, he’s divorced, looking for work, and hasn’t had a real relationship in something like six years.  Suddenly, Natalie comes into his life…

Marshall and Natalie were set up by two of their friends who thought they would hit it off.  Let’s just say they both have their fair share of “issues” and both suffered rough breakups in the past.  We sit through their date, which has its ups and downs, always privy to Marshall’s running interior monologue of how he thinks things are going and trying to figure what he should do to ensure Natalie likes him.

Things take an interesting turn as the night progresses and the book ends on a considerably more optimistic note than when it began.  A nice, quick read.

Food! · Julia P · Memoir · Non-Fiction · Quick Read!

Confections of a Closet Master Baker | by Gesine Bullock-Prado

Confections of a Closet Master Baker: One Woman’s Sweet Journey from Unhappy Hollywood Executive to Contented Country Baker
by Gesine Bullock-Prado
(Broadway Books, 2009, 240 pages)

I love a good food memoir, so when I saw this on the shelf at the library I happily picked it up.  It sounded like it was right up my alley.  It wasn’t until I started reading that I realized the author is actually the younger sister of actress Sandra Bullock!  That added a different perspective to things, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that there’s any gossip in here.  The memoir takes us through Gesine’s (pronounced Guh-see-na not Jazeen) journey as she decided to give up her life in Hollywood, working at her sister’s production company, and open up a bakery in Montpelier, Vermont.  Gesine wasn’t happy working in Hollywood, she found she was constantly thinking about food and what she’d bake next while simultaneously dreading each work day.  After Sandra mentioned her sister’s macaroons in InStyle magazine, her venture into baking essentially sky-rocketed.

This was a really enjoyable read.  The writing style is very accessible and approachable.  You get a sense that you can really hear Gesine’s voice through her writing.  She has an interesting background, not only does she have a movie star for a sister, but her mother was a noted opera singer from Germany so Gesine and Sandra regularly spent time traveling to and from Germany and the culture is very much still a part of their lives.  You get a real feel for all the work that goes into opening a bakery and keeping things afloat.  Not only do you have to wake up earlier than anyone should ever have to (3 a.m. – eep!) but you’re still putting in a full day, trying to come up with clever ideas for pastries and cakes, trying to find time for your friends and family, all while basically heading to bed by 8 p.m.  Gesine makes it clear that there is more to her life than sugar and butter, but you also know that she’s doing what she loves.  That message comes across very clearly.

Each chapter ends with a recipe that means something to the author, all of which I’m eager to try.  She has two cookbooks that I’ll definitely be checking out: Sugar Baby: Confections, Candies, Cakes & Other Delicious Recipes for Cooking with Sugar and Pie It Forward: Pies, Tarts, Tortes, Galettes, and Other Pastries Reinvented.  I really enjoyed this title and I finished it in two days, so if you love baking (or just reading about it) this could be something nice and light to pick up.

Fiction · Julia P · Quick Read! · Thriller

Dexter by Design | by Jeff Lindsay

Dexter by Design (#4 in the Dexter series) by Jeff Lindsay
(Doubleday, 2009, 304 pages)

Dexter and Rita head to Paris for their honeymoon and are exposed to a unique new art form wherein a woman films herself cutting off her leg…  Needless to say, this sets the scene for the rest of the book.  Dexter returns to Miami only to be called to a “creative” crime scene.  Someone has set up an artistic display of two bodies on the beach.  Their insides have been scraped clean and are filled with standard “tourist” fare.  Someone is clearly trying to send a message.  While investigating, Dexter and Deborah are called to another scene, obviously done by the same person.  Dead bodies are “artistically” being set up around Miami and Deborah is eager to find out who’s doing it and why.  Their main lead is someone who has it out for the Department of Tourism…

While trying to solve the crime, Deborah is also trying to come to grips with her knowledge about who Dexter really is.  As a cop she can’t justify not doing anything.  After revealing this struggle to Dexter as they head out to interview a suspect he is at a loss for how to handle things.  It is while they are both dealing with this issue that Deborah is stabbed by a suspect, sending her to the hospital with considerable blood loss and potential brain damage.  Things with this case suddenly become very personal to Dexter and he has it in mind that he’ll be the one taking care of the artistic suspect.  That is, until the suspect decides to turn the focus on Dexter and threatens to reveal him for the killer he really is…

This was a quick read and it was definitely better than book 3 in the series.  I’ve already put in a request for #5…

Fiction · In the Library · Page-Turner · Thriller · Ying L

Ice Cold | by Tess Gerritsen

Ice Cold by Tess Gerritsen
(Ballantine Books, 2010, 322 pages)

This might be the third book I have read by Tess Gerritsen. I totally enjoyed it.  It’s from this series featuring medical examiner Maura Isles and homicide detective Jane Rizzoli in Boston. The story is set in ice cold Wyoming.  Maura meets an old colleague at this medical conference and joins his friends for a weekend ski trip. Their SUV runs off the road in a heavy snowstorm; they take shelter in a remote village where the residents seem to have vanished.  In Boston, detective Jane Rizzoli receives a call that Maura died in a car accident and fire. Jane travels to Wyoming with her FBI-agent husband and tries to find out what really happened.

This is a fast-paced book that packs twists and turns and a good, unpredictable ending. I had the book with me at a conference and was reading it during lunch breaks.  For someone with a weak stomach, the forensic detailing is not so overwhelming in this book.  It’s a very good detective/medical thriller.

Essays · In the Library · Non-Fiction · Quick Read! · Ying L

If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t) | by Betty White

If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t) by Betty White
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011, 258 pages)

I picked up this book because I was intrigued by the media coverage on Betty White’s 89th birthday events in January. Also, I don’t know anything about her.  I only watched some of the re-runs of “The Golden Girls” during the 90’s, and once in a while I catch a few minutes of the new comedy “Hot in Cleveland.”  I finished the book in a couple of hours.  It’s a quick and easy read, but I’m sorry to say that it’s nothing to write home about.

This book is not a memoir, but a collection of very short essays. Some essays are as short as 4-5 paragraphs. Betty White shares some interesting stories and offers her opinions on various topics. She has been in show business for over sixty years. She’s a big animal lover, a funny, positive and talented actress. I loved her in “The Golden Girls.”  She writes that she’s fortunate to have enjoyed good health and been surrounded by talented colleagues. Sometimes, it feels like listening to your grandma rambling on and on.  I just wish she’d given more depth on some topics.  You might enjoy it if you are a fan of Betty White.

Bob G · History · Non-Fiction

Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois | by John J. Dunphy

Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois by John J. Dunphy
(The History Press, 2011, 154 pages)

I love reading books about history, but when I come across one about places I am familiar with, I usually can’t wait to read it. When the author is a good friend of mine, it is even better. I have known John for many years and his many articles and other books have taught me a lot about local history.

Most local people know at least the basics of the story of Elijah Lovejoy, the Alton newspaper publisher who was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837. Lovejoy’s martyrdom is part of the abolitionist story and reveals the tension and conflicts which tore Illinois apart in the years preceding the American Civil War. But the murder was only part of the overall story of slavery and the state of Illinois and Dunphy’s book gives us the backstory on Lovejoy and many other important figures in the fight to restrict slavery here.

One obscure but important person was Edward Coles, who was elected as Governor of Illinois in 1822. His upbringing had convinced him that slavery was not compatible with the enlightenment views of the Founding Fathers and he worked to make sure the state stayed slave-free, unlike the surrounding states of Kentucky and Missouri. Pro-slavery forces were determined to oppose this view and called for an Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1824 to write legislation that would allow slavery to be established. Despite widespread support for the convention, Coles’ view prevailed and it was voted down handily.

Dunphy describes in detail the efforts of Elijah Lovejoy to overcome the strong slavery sentiment in Alton, Illinois, the town where I presently live. Even though he had two of his printing presses thrown in the Mississippi, Lovejoy persisted in trying to publish his newspaper, the “Alton Observer.” Even more interesting to me was to learn of Lovejoy’s efforts to form the first Anti-Slavery Society in Illinois. As it turns out, this organization was formed in the home of abolitionist Thadeus Hurbut, now called the Old Rock House, which is located just a few blocks from where I live. Shortly thereafter, Lovejoy was to meet his fate at the hands of a mob of enraged pro-slavery activists.

There are many other fascinating parts to this book. Dunphy outlines the many important locations of the “Underground Railroad” which allowed escaped slaves to reach freedom by reaching safe havens in the North. One of the major routes for these escapees led through Alton and we learn of the buildings, tunnels and hideouts used for concealing the “passengers” that came through Alton in those days. Alton was also the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate and the book relates the importance of this event in framing the upcoming Presidential election.

Dunphy’s book taught me a lot more about names I was familiar with but knew little about like Elijah Dimmock, Thadeus Hurlbut and Lyman Trumbull, all important individuals who made their own contributions to the abolitionist cause.

The final half of the book deals with the Civil War in our part of Illinois. There were, of course, no battles fought anywhere around our area but Alton figured in the war as an important river town that was instrumental in shipping supplies and troops to support Union operations in the South. More importantly, Alton was the site of an important Civil War prison that held thousands of Confederate prisoners captured during the war.

All in all, this fascinating book takes us back in time to a point in history where our society was extremely polarized over the issue of slavery. It explains how our local community was tied to the events that would eventually consume our nation and makes me feel good knowing that ultimately, the work of these early “radicals” like Lovejoy and Coles helped keep our state on the right track.

Biography · In the Library · Jean R · Non-Fiction

The Story of Charlotte’s Web | by Michael Sims

The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic
by Michael Sims
(Walker and Co., 2011, 307 pages)

The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims is a well-written biography of E. B. White with an emphasis on how White came to write the classic, Charlotte’s Web.  The book begins with the author, Michael Sims, and his wife standing in the barn formerly owned by E. B. White that housed spiders and pigs just like the barn in Charlotte’s Web. From there, the biography moves to the childhood of Elwyn Brooks White. Elwyn was born July 11, 1899 to a wealthy family. He was a shy boy who preferred to spend his time outdoors and with animals rather than socializing with people. In 1909, not yet ten years old, Elwyn had his poem, To A Mouse, accepted for publication in Woman’s Home Campanion. White went on the have several more things published before he reached adulthood.

As an adult, Elwyn became known as Andy. He worked for The New Yorker magazine. At The New Yorker, White met his wife. He and his wife purchased the farm in Maine that featured the barn mentioned at the beginning of this review. On his farm, White cared for chickens, pigs, geese, cows, and sheep. White was fascinated by the spiders in the barn. He studied spiders and gradually decided that he could make a spider the heroine of a book. That book became Charlotte’s Web. It took E. B. White six years to research, write, and complete that children’s classic.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web is easy to read and well researched. Not only did the author, Michael Sims, tell the story of E. B. White’s life, but he explains the culture of the early twentieth century and the influences on White’s life. This biography made me want to read Charlotte’s Web all over again.