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A Week in Winter

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Maeve Binchy was never going to win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize, but she wrote heart warming novels with a cast of characters who made the reader happy to know them. This Posthumously published novel is no exception.Chicky Starr has returned home after living in America for many years and buys an old, once elegant house to turn into a boutique hotel on thew west coast of Ireland. The novel concerns her first week in operation and we learn about each of her guests - sort of a Grand hotel in miniature. Of course, the magic of the hotel proves to be life transforming for most of them.Preposterous? Well, yes mostly. But the atmosphere is so cozy that you just snuggle up to this book like wrapping yourself in a warm throw in front of a fire on a cold & rainy day.
The Angel's Game

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This is the second in Carlos Ruiz Zafron's series of mysteries/thrillers set in Barcelona. This book takes place prior to his first volume, The shadow of the Wind and centers around a young writer named David Martin who makes his living writing sensationalist novels about the city. The product of a troubled childhood, he has managed to make a success of himself through his writings. An encounter with a mysterious stranger, a Psarish publisher named Andreas Corelli, culminates in an offer of a lifetime. He is to write as book about a new religion that will change people's hearts and minds and in exchange collect a fortune.His advance allows him to move into a long-abandoned house know as the Tower house. The house, however, seems to harbor deep and sinister secrets; secrets that become more frightening when he finds photographs and letters hinting at the mysterious death of the former owner of the house.Combining a labyrinth of a plot with magical realism, we wonder what is real and what is imagined and whether or not David has made a pact with the Devil. This is a question the reader will keep asking himself right up to the last page of the novel. Zafron has turned in a tour de force with this novel.
The First Christmas of the War

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This is the story of a working class Polish-American family right after Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Coleman family is still getting over the shock of the attack on our naval base in Hawaii and also anticipating with some trepidation the enlistment and/or drafting of their two eldest sons into the armed forces. They are also trying to cope with their teenage daughter & her dreams of wartime romance. Both parents are hard working and have few expectations out of the ordinary. Mrs. Coleman, once had dreams of adventure for herself, but now seems to just want a safe and secure future for her children. Mr. Coleman, is more realistic and capable of delivering sound advice. Their children, while they have rebellious thoughts at times, are models of rectitude compared to kids today.Nothing much happens in the two-week time the novel covers, but I felt myself drawn into this family & caring about what happened to them
Strawberry Yellow

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Japanese-American gardener & survivor of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Mas Arai, has returned to Watsonville, California for the funeral of his cousin Shug. Almost immediately, he is pulled into the mystery of the death of his cousin's son's girlfriend as well as the suspicion that his cousin's death was not from natural causes.This book was a little hard for me to get into because of the pigeon English dialect of the main character, as well as the frequent use of untranslated Japanese terms. However, once I got into the rhythm of the story, I found it compelling.Besides weaving a pretty good mystery, author Naomi Hirahara also has a lot to say about the alienation of "the other" in American society as well as the power of family, jealousy and friendship. After reading this book I want to try the other books in her Mas Arai series.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

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George Packer's The Unwinding covers the last 35 years of life in America, much like John Dos Passos covered the 1930's un the USA trilogy. He starts his major chronological sections with headlines & quotes from a specific year and then follows up with profiles of people, both famous and ordinary to trace what has happened to the country and its institutions from approximately the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970's to the re-election of Barack Obama. And it is not a pretty picture.The story that emerges is one of an America that has been very kind to those who have a great education, and for one reason or another have found themselves in the lucrative sectors of finance, political lobbying or digital entrepreneurship. It hasn't, however, been so kind to blue-collar factory workers who only possess a high school education (or less). What those people have seen is the exodus of their once high-paying union jobs overseas, replaced by low-wage, no benefit service sector jobs that keep them on the edge of insolvency.Packer illustrates this problem by following throughout the book four main characters who each represent one of these sectors. There is Dean Price from a poor family of tobacco farmers in North Carolina who tries several different entrepreneurial ventures only to have them go bust because he does not have the resources to grow his businesses where they can become reliably profitable. Tammy Thomas is a black woman from Youngstown, Ohio who battles poverty , but despite of having little education and living in a city that is literally crumbling around her, manages to to endure a grueling factory job, raise three children as a single mother and still maintain some optimism about life. Peter Thiel is a brilliant Stanford educated businessman with an Ayn Randian political philosophy who makes it big as a venture capitalist and despite some big reversals in the 2008 financial crisis still manages to stay comfortably in the 1%. And finally, there is Jeff Connughton who is drawn to politics when he meets Joe Biden in college and then finds himself making a career in government and lobbying.Interspersed throughout this narrative are profiles of business, political and cultural figures: Newt GIngrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, and others - none of whom are shown to be worthy of the success they have achieved in life (He is especially scathing with Gingrich, Winfrey and Biden).There are no solutions given in this book for the current state of things except, perhaps in the introduction when Packer says that each decline in America has brought forth a renewal. However, the picture that he paints is so bleak - of Americans all basically on their own without the support they once had from unions, government or community organizations, that it's really hard to read this book & be optimistic about the future.
Martin's Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Dr. Cjayborne Carson's book is the story of how he became the editor of the papers of Martin Luther King, how he dealt with preserving and perpetuating the legacy of Dr. King and finally his somewhat turbulent relations with the King family.In the first half of the book, Dr. Carson tells his own coming of age story, a highlight of which is hitching a ride to Washington, DC for the historic March on Washington and hearing Dr. King deliver his "I have a dream" speech. He is deeply impressed by Dr. King's speech and also by the speech of john Lewis who was then a coordinator for SNCC. He is attracted to SNCC and the people who were running it at the time, but never really became a part of the organization. Instead, like many people at that time, he remained an observer rather than a participant. His acute powers of observation, however, served him well in his chosen field of history and he earned a Ph.D. in the subject writing his doctoral thesis on SNCC and eventually getting a tenure-track job at Stanford University.In 1985 he received a call from Coretta Scott King offering of editor of her husband's papers. He then began the job that would occupy his life for the rest of his career. His relations with the King family were always somewhat aloof and rocky and his refusal to move from California to Atlanta made him absent and, thus, apart from the day-to-day workings (and political intrigues) of the King Center.Dr. Carson is apparently too polite or too reverential to the family to be brutally honest about the internecine warfare among the King children, but it doesn't take too much reading between the lines to see that dealing with them was certainly no picnic.The book culminates with the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on the Washington Mall in 2011. The book does go on for several chapters after that mostly concerned with the production of a play he wrote about Dr. King in China and then in Palestine and reflections on the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. But the emotional high point of the book was the unveiling of the King Memorial and the author would have been better served if he had ended his book there.
2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America

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Move over Jonathon Swift. Comedian and screenwriter Albert Brooks has written a compelling satire on our modern American life and political system that is both a fin and a thought provoking read.Set in 2030, America has become what many have predicted, a debt-ridden society where the older generation (known as "the olds" by the young) lives well at the expense of their children and grandchildren. The situation has been exacerbated by finding cures to many diseases - notably cancer - which has radically extended the life expectancy of Americans.When a massive 9.0 earthquake destroys Los Angeles, the country finds that it cannot afford to rebuild the city, nor is its main creditor (China naturally) willing to loan the trillions of dollars that the reconstruction is going to require.,What transpires is a partnership like no other that will leave the reader both appalled and also wondering if some of the ideas proposed here are really not so bad.
Blue Nights

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I loved The Year of Magical Thinking so I was looking forward to reading Didion's latest book regarding the loss of her daughter, Quintana, although I knew that this would hardly be an upbeat read. Maybe it was just my mood in reading this book, but I have to say that I rapidly got tired at the unrelieved tone of despair that emanates from every page of this slim volume.I'm sure the author found some cathartic release in the writing of this book, but for the reader there is just page after page of despair over both getting old and losing a child. Do not read this book if you have clinical depression because it will probably lead to suicide.
Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted

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In the 50 years since Sylvia Plath's suicide, her biographic legacy has been controlled by people who had much to lose by an honest interpretation of her life - namely her mother and her ex-husband. Now, however, with those parties dead, a more honest assessment of Plath, both as an artist and as a woman can be made.The first step in the process, perhaps, was the publication in 2000 of Plath's unabridged journals. But Andrew Wilson's look at her life up until her marriage to Ted Hughes is much, much more.Drawing on her journals, letters and exhaustive interviews with her contemporaries from childhood through her college years, Wilson paints the portrait of a young woman who felt confined by the stultifying society of the 1950's as well as her smothering mother. The result was a that Plath was consumed with rage: against society, her self-sacrificing mother, her lack of money and social standing and a perpetual fear of not being good enough in her chosen vocation as a writer.That she was talented, there is no doubt. Would I have liked to have been her friend? I doubt that too.
When the Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder

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This is a book full of anecdotal stories about when the Mafia controlled Las Vegas. Author Steve Fischer tells his stories in a Micky Spillane style which makes the book read very quickly and keeps the reader's interest.There is nothing of earth shattering importance here, but the book highlights some interesting characters and an age that is long gone.
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