Monday, July 21, 2014

City of Scoundrels by Gary Krist

If you want evidence that things haven’t changed all that much in the great state of Illinois, read City of Scoundrels by Gary Krist. It’s a work of nonfiction covering July 21 to August 1, 1919 in Chicago.

A lot happened during those 12 days, more than I ever learned in school. The book opens with a prologue covering the crash of a blimp named the Wingfoot Express. The airship flew over the city several times on July 21. It took flight for the last time at 4:50 pm with five passengers. As it crossed State Street and the city’s central district, it caught fire; baseball fans at Comiskey Park south of downtown watched the flames erupt.  As the passengers plummeted from the burning airship, it crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank.

The author spends a lot of time covering Chicago’s mayor, the colorful William Hale Thompson. The last Republican mayor of Chicago, he was known as Big Bill and is considered one of the most unethical mayors of all time. His relationship with Governor Frank Lowden was contentious and seems to have contributed to some of the city’s biggest problems during the summer of 1919. Still, Krist credits Thompson’s corrupt and wasteful administration with helping turn 21st-century Chicago into “perhaps the most architecturally distinguished and physically impressive city in the Americas.”

The problems that summer included racial unrest and bombings, race riots, a transit strike, and the frightening disappearance of a six-year-old girl. Krist’s quotations from newspapers of the day make it clear that claims that the press used to be unbiased are wishful thinking.

One thing that I did not expect to find in City of Scoundrels was multiple references to Galesburg’s own Carl Sandburg. Hired by Chicago Daily News editor Henry Justin Smith to be a labor reporter, he comes across as one of the good guys, fighting for the underdog and spotlighting the rights of the black soldiers recently returned from fighting for the U.S. in the Great War. Krist quotes from Sandburg’s poem “Hoodlums,” written in Chicago on July 29, 1919, and calls it “a powerful indictment of the senseless anger he was seeing all around him.”

City of Scoundrels is meticulously footnoted, but don’t let that put you off. It’s a fascinating look at Chicago – and the United States – of 100 years ago. It is shelved at the Galesburg Public Library at NF 977.311 KRI.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan

I am not normally a fan of horror, but I chose Apocalypse Cow for the Tome Raiders, the library's science fiction/fantasy discussion group, for July because it tied in to the summer reading theme of Paws to Read.

Apocalypse Cow is about zombie cows. And zombie dogs, cats, squirrels, rats. It is extremely funny. And disgusting. There were times I was both cringing with revulsion and laughing out loud. I definitely do not recommend reading Apocalypse Cow while eating.

There are plenty of groan-worthy punny chapter titles ("Udder madness"), and the narrative never takes itself seriously.

One of the characters muses on how being alone pays off because he has no one to lose, and another character responds, "Considering the loner lifestyle only pays off when the country is besieged by zombie animals, I'm not sure that's a glowing endorsement." (p. 145)

Terry, the only survivor of the massacre by zombie cows at the abattoir (slaughterhouse) where he worked, explains to a girl he is trying to impress how he ended up with the job:

"One day, my dad was out milking. Nobody knows what happened...All we know is that he got crushed to death between two cows....My mum found him, lying in a pool of blood and milk. The shock gave her a heart attack. Killed her on the spot. I found them both, dead on the floor of the barn. I was six....When I found their bodies, the cows had fled the scene of the crime. But I swore I would avenge my parents' deaths. I took a job in an abattoir, hoping one day to meet the cow that killed my parents and claim my vengeance." (p. 156-157)

If you enjoy (or don't mind) sick humor or funny horror, this book is for you. Oh, and the book club loved it.  You can find Apocalypse Cow in the Fiction section under the author's last name, Logan.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I loved this book. If enough libraries in my area buy it, I will choose it as a discussion book for the library's Tuesday/Thursday book clubs next summer.

Ove is a middle-aged man set in his ways. Very, very set in his ways. He does not like change. He knows how to do things and is exasperated when others don’t. He seems like an unfriendly grouch, but over the course of this engrossing novel we learn why Ove is the way he is and watch as others come to know him and love him. It’s not always a happy book – there is heartbreak, depression, and grief – but it is a hopeful book about love and making your own family.

The most interesting of Ove’s relationships is with Parvaneh, the pregnant Iranian dynamo who moves in next door with her Swedish husband and two daughters. The next most interesting is his relationship with the stray cat who adopts him (and who – spoiler alert – does not die despite a rocky beginning with a cruel neighbor). I think the author has known a person like Ove and also a cat like Ove’s cat.

Ove reminded me a bit of my father, which no doubt endeared him to me. Some of the plot points are hard to buy, but I enjoyed the story so much I was able to ignore that and just enjoy the ride. This novel contains a variety of complex and individual characters and relationships, and the narration is original and refreshing.

Parvaneh somehow manages to convince Ove to teach her to drive. At one point, stressed from an encounter with a rude unfeeling driver, she starts to shout and then to cry, which is very unlike her. Ove calmly lectures her:
 “Now, you listen to me….You’ve given birth to two children and quite soon you’ll be squeezing out a third. You’ve come here from a land far away and most likely you fled war and persecution and all sorts of other nonsense. You’ve learned a new language and got yourself an education and you’re holding together a family of obvious incompetents. And I’ll be damned if I’ve seen you afraid of a single bloody thing in this world before now….I’m not asking for brain surgery, I’m asking you to drive a car….Some of the greatest twits in world history have sorted out how it works. And you will as well.”
And then he utters seven words, which Parveneh will always remember as the loveliest compliment he’ll ever give her.
“Because you are not a complete twit.” (pp. 237-238)
This passage does a good job of capturing Ove’s gruff exterior and good-hearted interior.

Since the success of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, I’ve seen a number of books compared to it. This is the first such book that actually did remind me of Major Pettigrew, not in terms of the plot but in terms of the overall feeling of the story. Some predictable things happen, but not everything, and overall the book felt original. It’s hard to capture in a review how delightful I found the narrative.

The book ends with an unnecessary epilogue, but that seems to be a trend these days. If you enjoyed Major Pettigrew or Heft by Liz Moore, or like to read fiction about quirky characters, I definitely recommend A Man Called Ove.  It can be found at the Galesburg Public Library in the New Fiction area under the author's last name.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Getting to It by Jones Loflin and Todd Musig

In the case of this book, "IT" stands for "the Important Thing." The book's authors want to help us stay focused in an unfocused world, which is a need I definitely have.

Getting to It is a very quick read with lots of great reminders about things I already know but tend to forget. I didn't learn anything new, but I did read lots of great advice about things like not wasting time on interruptions and tasks that are urgent but not important.

This particular passage hit me hard: "There may be people who are satisfied with a life of trivialities; they'll continue to punch the clock, aimlessly surf the Web, play solitaire, mow the lawn, and be content settling into what Theodore Roosevelt called 'the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.'" (p. 213) No thank you!

The book also discussed something that can't be said often enough - multitasking is a MYTH. "[D]ividing our attention can often be detrimental to our natural way of getting tasks done well, or at all." (p. 137)

If you need a quick read to remind you of tips and techniques to stay focused on the Important Thing, I recommend Getting to It. It is available at the Galesburg Public Library in the nonfiction section at 650.11 LOF.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Captive by Grace Burrowes

The Captive is an unusual romance, and honestly, is a bit slow to start. But the characters' backstories are compelling enough that they kept me reading and ultimately justified the slowness.

Christian Severn is a duke captured on the wrong side during the Napoleonic wars. His captors brutally torture him for months, during which time his wife and son in England both die. However, Christian also has a daughter, and the duke's "neighbor," Gillian, makes it her mission to reconnect the two. Christian eventually learns Gillian has her own horrific tale of captivity and the knowledge of her recovery helps him on the path to his own.

I'm not really doing justice to this story and Burrowes' handling of such sensitive subjects. Yes, it is a romance and yes, the characters fall in love as one expects them to in a romance. What sets a romance apart is whether the reader can care and whether, having given the characters something to overcome, the author can make that happen believably. I think this story met those criteria and I would recommend it to fans of Regency romances.

The Captive is available through interlibrary loan as well as on the shelves of local discount chains.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Much Loved, with photographs by Mark Nixon

Much Loved is a book of photographs by Mark Nixon of toys - mostly teddy bears - loved to bits by their owners. It's very touching, as some of the bears are quite old. One is 102! Each photo is accompanied by a bit of text from the owner. The book made me think fondly of my own teddy bear, Lemon, who I received when I was four. I was allergic to the dye in his fur and had a terrible rash at first, but once the scent of the dye wore off Lemon and I were great friends.

If you had a teddy or other toy you loved to bits, you may find yourself getting a bit nostalgic. Much Loved is definitely recommended for those with a fondness for teddy bears and who understand the special relationship a child has with a beloved toy.

Much Loved can be found in the New nonfiction section of the Galesburg Public Library, at 745.5924 NIX.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr

A Cast of Stones by Patrick Carr doesn’t start out as one of the most original fantasy novels I’ve read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all the same. It has the simple old man who is not what he seems, the regular guy who turns out to be a Captain of the Watch, the orphan with the hidden talent. And the Prophecy, oh the Prophecy. It is very slow starting as the world is built and the characters are introduced, but I was thoroughly engaged all the same.

It is refreshing that the hero, Errol, is the drunk in the gutter, not Liam, the gorgeous, good-hearted, and innocent young man who blushes when a woman makes eyes at him. There are a lot of male father figures to keep straight, one of whom goes from untrustworthy assassin to trusted rescuer a little too quickly. But by the end of the book I felt like I had a decent handle on them all.

The idea of “readers” who carve lots and use them to determine what choices to make was intriguing. Errol’s coming-of-age journey was varied and kept my interest.

There are plot holes, but they didn’t bother me too much. The book definitely wrapped up too quickly and somewhat unsatisfactorily – this first book in the series does not stand alone. But the last 100 pages were excellent, and I hope the next book picks up where they left off. If you enjoy traditional epic coming-of-age fantasy stories, I recommend A Cast of Stones. 

The Galesburg Public Library has all three books in the series, in the adult Fiction section under CARR.