Thursday, August 21, 2014

Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker

Winter Wheat chronicles Ellen Webb’s coming of age shortly before World War II.  Raised on a dryland wheat farm in Eastern Montana, she struggles to understand her parents’ complicated relationship and herself as she prepares to leave for college in the fall of 1940.  Events of the next year and a half, some of which are tragic, significantly influence her growth toward maturity.

Much of the novel’s narrative deals with Ellen’s thoughts and inner reactions to the world around her.  The book has been criticized for its slow pace, but the introspection is fascinating and well described.  Ellen’s progression toward young adulthood held my interest to the very last page, and I didn’t want the book to end.
In the story, a good crop is needed to fund Ellen’s college education, and thus the wheat is literally a significant element in the book.  But it also provides a metaphor for people’s growth and strength.  Ellen finds that adversity, instead of ruining her life, has made her stronger, just as harsh winters do not destroy the planted wheat underground.  It emerges with strong roots in the spring in spite of what it has endured.

Although she was a native of Philadelphia, Mildred Walker Schemm wrote several of her books while living near Great Falls, MT.  Winter Wheat was a 2003 One Book Montana selection.  -MS

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fortune like the Moon by Alys Clare

Set in the time of Richard the Lionhearted, Sir Josse d'Acquin teams up with Abbess Helewise of Hawkenlye Abbey to find the killer of two young nuns. This is an interesting tale with a completely unexpected final twist. I thought it very interesting, and there was no jarringly un-historical outakes - the story held together with the technology of the time. The author spins a fine tale, and I'm reading another of this series because I liked it.  -LP

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

I feel an extreme sense of accomplishment every time I finish a Thomas Pynchon novel.  Every one of his novels is extremely good and well worth reading, but they definitely vary in difficulty.  Anyone who has read Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day can attest to that (although they are difficult in very different ways).  Bleeding Edge, however, is a refreshingly accessible book as far as Pynchon goes.  There are still multiple thematic threads fraying off in every direction throughout the book along with some oddball characters and scenarios, but the plot and action are fairly easy to follow. 

The story takes place in the months leading up to 9/11.  The setting is New York City, and more specifically the technology industry that is recovering from the tech crash from the turn of the 21st century.  As is often the case with Pynchon, the plot revolves around a murky conspiracy that no one seems to know much about, and the plot slowly unravels until it more or less explodes with the event of 9/11.

I really, really liked this book.  The entire novel is filled to the brim with pop culture references to things that I actually know about or that I hold dear with an extreme sense of nostalgia.  At the same time, Pynchon explores the burgeoning digital space of the internet as the last bastion of unlimited human innovation and intellectual freedom.  Here, the internet is a space that was literally designed by free thinkers, and during the time the story is set in the internet is being forced to deal with encroaching corporate greed and businesses that want to monetize this digital environment.  Bleeding Edge made me think about the internet in an entirely new way, and given recent concerns over net-neutrality and digital rights to information, the book could not be more relevant.  This may not be Pynchon’s best work, but it’s clearly the work of a master who knows how to bend his craft to his will.   -CA

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

That Night by Chevy Stevens

Toni Murphy was your typical adolescent filled with teenage angst: in love with Ryan, a boy her parents disapproved of, failing her classes, and dabbling in drugs and alcohol. Plagued by a “mean girl” clique, intent on tormenting her every waking moment, Toni was determined to graduate from high school and leave her hometown forever. But when her secretive younger sister is brutally murdered, Toni and Ryan are the ones who find her body. Immediately accused, they end up in prison for the murder. Fifteen years later, Toni is out on parole and desperate to maintain her freedom. Then Ryan tracks her down and insists on finding the real killer, and Toni realizes that in order to truly be free, she must dig up the past and discover the truth of what really happened that night.

I’ve been a fan of Chevy Stevens since I read her first book, Still Missing. But to be honest, this book wasn’t her best. Don’t get me wrong, the book held my attention, and I finished it pretty quickly. But the big reveal of whodunit was a little blah and far-fetched. Also, the reader is left wanting more vindication for Toni. Her mother, who basically disowned her after the murder, thinking she did it, still blames her even after the real murderer is discovered. During the whole book I was waiting for that moment when the mother realized her mistake, and begged for Toni’s forgiveness, but it never came. Though Toni was left with some hope at the end, it definitely came at a price.

When Stevens releases her next book, I will still definitely read it. I keep hoping she will get back to the caliber of storytelling she had in her earlier works. And the nice thing about her books is that each one tells a different story, so you don't have to worry about the order in which you read them. Though I would suggest starting with Still Missing, which is by far my favorite. -LT

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Monday, August 4, 2014

It Looked Different on the Model: Epic Tales of Impending Shame and Infamy by Laurie Notaro

Laurie Notaro is a New York Times bestselling author who has written several humorous essay collections based on her own life. It Looked Different on the Model includes, Let It Bleed, one of Notaro’s most hilarious essays that describes every woman’s worst dressing room nightmare. Notaro explains how she attempts to try on an adorable, but tiny blouse from a sale rack in a chic boutique. The blouse becomes stuck on Notaro’s body. She describes how she is forced to contort herself to remove it and as a result of her own embarrassment, purchases the blouse even though it is a size too small.

In another essay, The Burn Test, Notaro describes her adventures in purchasing a fabulous antique stove for her home in Portland from eBay. Notaro buys the stove for an amazing price, but is unable to find a timer for her “new old” stove. As she describes her search, she rattles off unique descriptions and continues to sarcastically describe her own follies, shortcomings, and paranoid thoughts of terrorists who hoard oven timers.   

Let It Bleed and The Burn Test are two examples of Notaro’s humor at its finest; Notaro’s self-deprecating humor shines throughout the book. It Looked Different on the Model is a good read for anyone who enjoys gut-busting, tear inducing humor. -JK

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

This deceptively simple science fiction tale was one of our Summer Reading book clubs, and while our group for the discussion was small, the book was well-received and sparked a lively conversation.  Ender Wiggins is a boy born in a future society that has been shaped by an external threat of invasion by "buggers."  To ready itself against a new attempt by these technologically superior beings to colonize our planet, the countries of Earth have united and begun training young children in combat and leadership, both through genetic manipulation and the use of sophisticated battle games.  Ender proves himself a gifted player during his time at Battle School, and he is rigorously shaped throughout the book into Earth's finest battle commander.  In the midst of all the strategy games and sometimes brutal training, though, the underlying concerns of the story become clearer.  Ender is a genius child, clearly, but in spite of his formidable skills and because of his training, he approaches battle as a game.  Card wants the reader to consider the costs of this approach, both to Ender and his superiors.

The psychological and philosophical underpinnings of the book have considerable depth along the lines I've noted, and I recommend it for that reason.  The story contains some prescient notions of the use of the internet and other technology, too, which may make you smile as they did me.  Parts of the book have not aged well, however, such as the mid-80's preoccupation with Russia and the lack of compelling female characters aside from Ender's older sister Valentine and a fellow recruit named Petra.  The battle game sequences, while fascinating as prototypical video game scenarios, some of our participants found repetitious.  Still, the play of ideas and the central character make it worth the read.  The book has spawned an entire 'verse of sequels and related series as well. -BR

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Catastrophe 1914 : Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings

This is an excellent introduction to World War I, especially for people who don't know anything about why it started, or where, or how. Hastings is very even-handed in his treatment of all sides. He gives more insight into the Eastern Front (Russia-Germany-Austria-Hungary) than most western writers, who all seem to concentrate on the Western Front (Belgium-France).  His book covers 1914, starting with the preliminaries that took Archduke Franz-Ferdinand to Sarajevo, and the consequences of the Archduke's assassination.

Hastings' writing is engaging; I had to stop reading at times because I was so angry at the generals he was writing about - a sign that he brought them to life. He writes about more than generals - a lot of his quotes are from the diaries of private soldiers (and sergeants, and junior officers) from all the different armies involved. It's a very good look at how the first 5 months of the shooting war, from August 4th to December 31st, 1914, set the scene for the years to follow, and the horrible conditions of the first modern war. -LP

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