Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best of 2011

According to the Cyberlibrarian, that is!

I had an amazing year of reading in 2011 capped off by the gift of a Kindle, just so I can have several more books going at one time. (Oops, I just heard on the radio that “amazing” is the most overused word of 2011, so let me change my first sentence.) I had an enlightening year of reading in 2011. In all, I read 78 books including 17 memoirs, 13 non-fiction books, 11 religious or spiritual books, 31 fiction books, 1 book of short stories, and 3 books of humor. Here are my favorites.

1)      Little Bee by Chris Cleave
2)      Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
4)      An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy
5)      One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

1)      The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
2)      In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
3)      Our America by LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman
4)      Zeitoun by Dave Eggars
5)      A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres

1)      A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer
2)      Longing for Enough in a Culture of More by Paul Escamilla
3)      In the Land of Believers by Gina Welch
4)      Fall to Grace by Jay Bakker

1)      Just Kids by Patti Smith
2)      Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
3)      Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo
4)      Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
5)      Little Princes by Conor Grennan

Most Popular Blog Postings
1)      Zeitoun by Dave Eggars
2)      Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
3)      Carrots N’Cake by Tina Haupert
4)      Fall to Grace by Jay Bakker
5)      The Long Shining Water by Danielle Sosin

The Last Testament: A Memoir by God

With David Javerbaum
New York, Simon & Schuster, 2011
365 pages     Humor

Aziz, our Muslim Saudi student renter, looked at The Last Testament sitting on the kitchen table, pointed at the picture on the cover and asked, “What is this?” What was I to say? “Ah," I said, “it’s a humorous book by someone pretending to be God.” He took another look and turned away. I don’t think I scored very many points with Aziz that day.

David Javerbaum, who has taken irreverent looks at lots of things, first as a writer for Jon Stewart and lately as a songwriter and author, has really done it this time…The Last Testament is the ultimate irreverence. This is not a book for the faint-of-heart or the fundamentally religious, nor is a book for people who know nothing about the Bible or religion in general. It is very funny, but there are some passages in which you say, “OMG, I can’t believe I just read that!

The book itself looks like a Bible, with books, and chapters and verses. There is an Old Testament and a life of Jesus--Jesus being “the classic middle son” with an older brother Zach, called H.G. or Holy Ghost for short, and a younger sister, Kathy. You will find chapters about God’s favorite things, a chapter of “Godlibs,” a chapter of recipes, including one for Junior’s Fishwish Miracle, in which the ingredients are five loaves and two fishes.

My favorite book is called “Pleader” in which God discusses his views on prayer and the answering of prayer. God says that children should not be praying “And if I die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord my soul to take.” He continues “Even I consider it bizarre, that the last words on children’s lips before they go to sleep would address the prospect of their own premature death. They are children. They should be asking me for ponies.”
Everything religious gets skewered—Jews, Muslims, Scientologists, Hindus and particularly Buddhists. Some verses are laugh-out-loud funny; some are pretty dumb; and some are so obscure that the reader (at least the readers in our household) has no idea what’s going on. On the whole, the book is erudite and sophisticated, although occasionally it tends toward the crass.

My husband and I read it aloud together every morning over the past couple of months; it was great to have a good laugh every morning.We remarked several times about how knowledgeable the author is about scripture and religion (Javerbaum, not God). Anyone who can so skillfully satirize God must know a lot about our religious idiosyncrasies.

 An interview with David Javerbaum:

Friday, December 30, 2011

Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

By Michael Moore
New York, Grand Central Publishing, 2011
427 pages            Memoir
The Shortlist

You either love Michael Moore, or you hate him. Apparently there is no middle ground. Personally, I rather like the audacity of his point of view and the enthusiasm with which he expresses it in his documentaries. They definitely have a point of view.

His memoir Here Comes Trouble tells stories about his childhood, his career, and his family. Some of the stories are touching, some are humbling, some give a glimpse of the contrarian filmmaker he became; most show him to be a person of character and good humor. Most of all, they show him to be a product of a good family and a product of Michigan. (It should be noted here that Moore and his family still live in the Traverse City area, where one of his current projects is to run the Traverse City Film Festival.)
Luckily, Here Comes Trouble is not a sequential memoir. These are stories; the kind you might tell at a family gathering when everyone is sitting around and the adults are talking and the kids are pretending not to listen. One story tells of a neighbor boy who jumped into the Hudson River rather than let people know he was gay. Another tells about a favorite teacher who disappeared from school when her husband went missing in Vietnam. One tells about going to a night game at the Tiger Stadium shortly after the riots of the 60s when the radiator hose broke on the family car, and a black man helped get the car running again. Another tells about people clapping when they heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. All the stories show how this boy—the son of an auto worker from a loving home with a Catholic education—became the passionate documentary filmmaker who has influenced American thought for the past 25 years.

The reviewer in the New York Times says of the book: “To remark that “Here Comes Trouble” is by far Mr. Moore’s best book isn’t extravagant praise. He’s more concise as a documentarian; like all of his books this one is shaggy and overfilled. It’s a cabbage rather than a rose, a tangy ring of bologna rather than a sirloin. Side effects may include heartburn.” 

Besides—how could you not love that little cutie on the cover in a pint-sized baseball cap on a blue and white tricycle!

Michael Moore’s website:

Hurt Machine

by Reed Farrel Coleman
Cincinnati, Tyrus Books, 2011
309 pages     Fiction

Moe Prager is a wounded hero. We are told in the first paragraph of Hurt Machine by Reed Farrel Coleman that Moe has a tumor in his stomach and he is hurting, both physically and psychically. He muses: “Humans are like hurt machines. No matter how hard we try not to do it, we seem to inflict hurt on one another as naturally as we breathe.”

Moe has been a private investigator for many years, and the first case he takes on after his devastating diagnosis is an attempt to make amends with an ex-wife--to appease the hurt that Moe feels he has caused her. Her sister has been murdered under very suspicious circumstances, and as he works to solve the murder, he opens up a world of hurt that extends way beyond the case at hand. Moe feels that solving this case is his last chance for redemption. “As atheists go, I was a dreadful disappointment.”

There are so many remarkable elements at work in Hurt Machine, not the least of which is the aging protagonist, Moe Prager. He is a philosopher in the guise of a private investigator. Like most mysteries, much of the action happens in the last few chapters, but Moe is so full of quotable thoughts that the reader doesn’t try to solve the crime too early for fear of missing some meandering consideration or pithy aside. Here are some of my favorites:
 ·         “Time to think is life’s Petri dish. It’s the medium in which a random twinge of anxiety morphs into debilitating self-doubt, where a passing regret grows into paralytic guilt. 
·         “Only in the hearts and minds of those closest to them do victims remain themselves.”
·         “These days my exhaustion was profound as a Russian novel.” 
·         “What if the face of God was a sneering one and he was the type to say I told you so? What if he was just a universal hurt machine?” 
·         “If there was any persuasive argument for the existence of God, it wasn’t in the biology of things, but in emotion, in feelings. I couldn’t quite see how guilt and forgiveness had evolved from the primordial stew.”

This is a man you just gotta like. The New York Times reviewer calls him “a stubborn old shamus.”

Another element that makes for a credible novel is a detailed setting. In this case, the setting is New York City, primarily Brooklyn, and most specifically Coney Island. Author Coleman really knows this city, including all the places that policemen, firemen, and mobsters hang out. Moe’s ex-wife suggests to him that he might as well be buried at Coney Island. “When you die, they should just bury you right here, under the boardwalk.” This is not the NYC of the tourist; it is the New York of a person who has eaten at the Gelato Grotto many times—for its not-so-good pizza as well as for its excellent gelato.

The third element that pleased me about Hurt Machine is the cliffhanger plot. It is impossible to figure out exactly what happened to Moe’s sister-in-law until the very last chapter; in my mind the very most important aspect of a great mystery novel. I truly thought that the book was going to end without a denouement, but then it appeared. Aah—closure. I am not sure, however, that it means closure for Moe Prager, who still is going to have to deal with his cancer after the crime is solved.

I even learned a new word when reading Hurt Machine. mishega—Yiddish for craziness.

Hurt Machine is such a good novel that I am convinced that I must go back and read the six prior novels about Moe Prager by Reed Farrel Coleman; perhaps back to the days before Moe was sick and waxing poetic—or perhaps he has always been philosophical and hurting. He’s just that kind of a guy. I particularly liked what the Kirkus reviewer had to say about him: “Though once or twice he crosses that tricky line between Weltschmerz and cry-baby, Moe Prager remains basically irresistible.”

I received Hurt Machine from the publicist; the book is now available and I can highly recommend it.
Reed Coleman’s website: On this website, there are videos of the Brooklyn that Coleman ( and Moe Prager) knows well.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

An Opportunity for a Free Book

Hi Friends,
I just received an opportunity for my friends to enjoy a free ebook. Hurt Machine by Reed Farrell Coleman will be available free from Amazon and Barnes and Noble between now and Dec. 24. The New York Times is featuring it in this Sunday's paper, and it has been named one of the best books of 2011 by Publisher's Weekly. Why don't you download it and join me in reading it this week.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Paris Wife

By Paula McLain
New York, Ballantine Books, 2011
336 pages     Fiction
Read on my Kindle

Like many of the literati of their generation, Ernest Hemingway and his new bride, Hadley, took off for Paris in 1921 to begin their lives together. They lived on a small inheritance from her family until Hemingway got on his feet as a writer; they traveled to Spain and Austria, had a baby son, met up with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Archibald McLeish, Gertrude Stein and all the famous authors and poets of the day. But the marriage was not to last, and they were divorced within five years. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is the novelized version of their marriage.

The story is told by Hadley, who was a virtual “spinster” of 28 when she married the younger Hemingway. He brought her to life, transporting her to a much more exciting and rewarding life than she would have had if she had remained in St. Louis. She was his sounding board and his stability, and according to his memoir, A Movable Feast, the love of his life, although he was married three more times. Of her he says, “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.”

It is difficult to know where the facts end and the fiction begins. Because The Paris Wife reads like a memoir, the reader has to keep reminding herself that this is fiction. I found Hadley, at least according to McLain, to be a very interesting character primarily because Ernest takes a back seat in this novel. This is the opposite of everything we know about Hemingway, who was a “larger than life” character in his own life story. The Hadley of The Paris Wife is complex and a keen observer of the lives of the expatriates the Hemingway’s encounter during those Paris years. She was much more down-to-earth and practical than most of the other wives and lovers. Although she seems able to party with the best of them, she remains true and supportive of Hemingway until the bitter end of their marriage. 

Hadley seems to understand that the life she experienced as the wife of Ernest Hemingway was a far more stimulating life than any other life she could have had, and that living among the rich and famous in the Paris of the 1920s was at once magical and destructive. She says, “We called Paris the great good place, then, and it was. We invented it after all. We made it with smoke and smart and savage conversation and we dared anyone to say it wasn’t ours. Together we made everything and then we busted it apart again.”

In an article in the Chicago Tribune, Hadley’s biographer Gioia Diliberto discusses how she found source material for her biography in some audio tapes supplied her by Hadley’s long-time friend. She says, “I expected Hadley, who died in 1979, to be bitter toward Hemingway; instead, on the tapes she is full of gratitude to him for giving her "the key to the world." She suggests that Ernest “was the first person to see deeply into her true nature, and in a rueful irony, he helped her find the strong sense of self that sustained her through their break-up.” 

I think I can understand that. My first husband, who died at a young age, was an exciting and colorful person, full of humor and love for people. I, on the other hand, took myself far too seriously and was a bit self-righteous and straight-laced. Lee gave me “the key to the world” and opened me up to experience life in ways I never would have if I hadn’t met him and learned from him.

One of the New York Times reviewers pretty much skewered the book, from the cover which looked way more 1950s than 1920s to the slow first third of the novel, to what the reviewer calls “clumsy foreshadowing,” to the blaze of righteous indignation the reader feels when Hadley gets dumped for the stylish Pauline. While I understood what the reviewer was saying, I felt differently about Hadley and The Paris Wife. I thought that McLain created Hadley to be a person who evolved into a strong and interesting person, one who could withstand the dangers of the Paris scene of the 1920s even as she was the backbone for the great writer Ernest Hemingway was to become.

The nasty review in the New York Times:
The biography by Gioia Diliberto: Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife, Harper Perennial, 2011. Her article in the Chicago Tribune:
An interview with Paula McLain at the Hemingway