Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What's on Your Nightstand: Thanksgiving edition

What can I say about non-fiction on SCIENCE (a subject my brain barely handles) that is so compelling I read nearly 200 pages in one sitting without getting up for food or drink or bathroom breaks? This is the book! One of the best of the year in my opinion. While it is about science--the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb to be exact--it isn't. Maybe that's the secret. The short "science" sections even merit a different typeface to make them more distinct. This is a story of a town that wasn't on the map (Oak Ridge, Tennessee) and an audacious project to end World War II as quickly as possible. But more than that, it is the story of the transplanted workers, who did something few Americans today can comprehend: they did not share ANYTHING about their work. What's the first question we usually ask socially in this country? "What do you do?" or "Where do you work." They could not tell anything. That alone makes the story fascinating. Then imagine that African American couples moving to Oak Ridge to work on the project not only had to live apart in single-sex "hutments" with no real windows, but could not bring their children because no schools were provided for "negro" or "colored" children even though President Roosevelt agreed to no discrimination in hiring for war industries. The story of the mainly, but not exclusively, young idealistic workers makes great, compelling reading. I highly recommend this book--it's the kind of nonfiction that makes me stop to wonder why authors (myself included) write novels when real life stories are even more interesting! The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan.

An unbeatable combination: Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones and reader Samantha Bond (aka Downton Abbey's Aunt Rosamund) made this audio book one that caused me to sit in the parking lot being almost late for work in order to listen to more! Bridget, the ultimate in challenged singleton's back in the day when everyone else was a smug-married, is now a single mother thru tragedy. Her dear Mark Darcy has been killed and leaves her to raise Billy and Mable in the upper-class jungle of fashionable London neighborhoods like Notting Hill and Holland Park, dealing now with  smug married Yummy Mummies at a posh private primary school like the one Wills and Harry attended. Her obsession with weight, alcohol units and the like continues as she struggles to manage as a singleton in this very married world or uber-parenting. As always there are the friends, her mother and a few new romantic interests. The end is a dreamy confection so "right" and so believable it gives hope to anyone in Bridget's boat. I loved this book. Bridget is so "relate-able" this time around--even when you are stuck living, as I am, in a drab rental house in a nowhereville rural area on the Ohio river! Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

Meanwhile in the NW postcodes of London, a world away from Bridget's life of SUVs and trust-fund busting primary schools, Keisha (aka Natalie) and Leah live a different sort of life. Social workers, killings, family, community, choices, even Church and faith, take on a different aspect when seen thru such a culturally a-kilter lens. The randomness of today's life smack's you head-on in this one. Gritty? Yes. Compelling? For the most part. I did, frankly, get annoyed with the later part of the book which the author seemed to be live-Tweeting. Annoying format for an audio book--not so much, I'm sure, in print.  NW by Zadie Smith

"Nevermore..." the Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe has just taken New York literary society by storm. Poe, locked in an odd marriage to a much younger cousin, is the darling of the salon set--but then he isn't. He's odd. Too odd. Maybe "damaged?" Frances is an up-and-coming poet married to a philandering artist. She is living on the charity of friends who have taken her in along with her two daughters. When she and Poe meet it is the attraction of the strongest sort.  One of the best books I've read for describing the intensity of attraction. Sadly, the ending was so odd I can not get it out of my mind. It ruined the book for me. Lynn Cullen has a great mind and pen for story-weaving. I do want to read much more from her. I just think the end of this one was wrong. Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen.

Elizabeth  Buchan, whose novel Separate Beds, I've raved about in earlier posts, writes another masterpiece on married life. Rose and Nathan are a typical couple in their late 40s/early 50s. Two young adult children, successful careers, the home they love. Making love is often regarded as "nice." But Nathan has an insecurity that rankles at him. Rose is too "settled" to see the death knell coming. With one choice it is all gone in the most appalling pain ever written about such a choice, Rose is left having to redefine her very existence. If there was an Academy Award or a Noble Prize for writing about marriage, Elizabeth Buchan would be a repeat winner for "Best of the Best." This one is not to be missed by anyone--woman OR man. Weeks later I am still "feeling" this story almost as much as I did my own long-long-ago divorce! Revenge of the Middle Aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan.

Fingal O'Reilly: Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor. I love this series (except for "An Irish Country Girl" which I thought was ridiculous), but it seemed to me that the author was "coasting" on this one.

First the good: The story was as wonderful as Taylor's series always is. The characters are among my favorites. I honestly look forward to each new book in this series so much so that I hate to criticize, but I must.

Now, The bad: Too much overly-stilted conversation drawn from newspapers of the day, old medical textbooks and the like. It is a series that does need medical explanations, but they got pretty long-winded in this one. When a character says something like "So, do you think England's King Edward will abdicate" and when a guy in a pub started pontificating in very newspaper-ish language about the Civil War in Spain, I groaned. It sometimes seemed as though he was stringing bits of story together with Wikipedia articles too. A lot of tourist guide stuff was wedged in, too, and there were blatant pandering to the Americans who likely buy most of these books such as phrases along the lines of this one, "a medical specialty known in American as Internal Medicine" that sort of thing. A small footnote explaining a term would have been much nicer than a long-winded reference book piece that nearly dis-rails the story.

All of that said, I AM EAGERLY looking forward to the next installment. I listened to the audio and John Keating's performance was, as always, outstanding. He IS the voice of these characters to me as I have enjoyed most of this series on audio.Fingal O'Reilly: Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor.

I don't normally do back-to-back books by an author unless they are a series or I'm just on one of my "must-read-everything-they've-ever-written" kicks. This time it was supply and demand. Lots of extra driving and none of my requested audio books came into the library in time. I thoroughly enjoy Elizabeth Berg's books. Light, believable stories they may be, but they are beautifully told and feature "relate-able" characters.  The Last Time I Saw You is the story of a 40th high school reunion. The super-popular jock, the wallflower and all the other standard characters, but they felt like my own class of 1980 in the flesh. The life stories, the current realities, the dreams for what remains of their lives were all real to me.  One annoyance: Why was it the "last" reunion? Did they all plan to die before the 50th?? Either I missed it or this wasn't explained. The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg.

Home Safe, the second Elizabeth Berg novel this month, was less satisfying except for the fantasy/dream achieved moments. Those were lovely. I found Helen to be annoying and her daughter to be a grown-up brat. But I loved the "dream" and loved the romance. Anytime a character of about my age (let's be honest--any character out of their 20s) finds romance I generally like it unless they fall instantly into  bed like something from an R-rated movie. This one was not Berg's best, but it was pleasant and satisfying in its own way. I did enjoy her appreciation of developing new writer's in the one story line though. Makes me want to actually go to a writer's conference again. Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg.

Finally, I enjoyed another outing with William Monk and friends, this time in A Sudden and Fearful Death by Anne Perry. I really am enjoying this series of Victorian murder mysteries. I've never been big on mysteries, but these are just what I need many nights. I like seeing the characters develop, love the settings and the time frame so they are the perfect "escape" reading right now.

Need ideas on what to read next? Check out all the nightstand posts at What's On Your Nightstand at 5 Minutes for Books.


Susan said...

You always have so many intriguing reads. I've already put the Manhattan Project one on my to-read list. I have read several about the Los Alamos site since visiting there a few years back. I find that whole topic FASCINATING! Looking forward to this one too. The Mrs. Poe one sounds good too -- too bad about its flaws. Happy Thanksgiving!!

Jennifer Donovan said...

What great reviews! Seems like you had a good run, or you know how to pick what you are going to like.