Tag Archives: Book Review

Thirsty for history? Pore over this book

If you don’t like history or minutiae, there’s nothing to see here. Move along.

But if you like sweeping analysis, interesting historical detail right down to flavors, and a clever look at where culture, politics and technology intersect, then you ought to pick up A History of the World in 6 Glasses and peruse it while quaffing a beer, sipping a whiskey cocktail or lingering over a nice cup of tea.

Author Tom Standage tells the story of agriculture, civilization and globalization through the lens of what we humans were drinking in six eras:

  • Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt
  • Wine in Greece and Rome
  • Spirits in the Colonial Period
  • Coffee in the Age of Reason
  • Tea and the British Empire
  • Coca-Cola and the Rise of America

I picked up this book at the behest of my aunt, who chose it for our family book club discussion. Though some of my relatives found it was too detailed and would be better as a television documentary, I enjoyed it.

This is not a book about fine wine or how to make the perfect cup of coffee. Instead, Standage persuades readers that each of the six beverages literally changed the world by bringing people together—as wine did in Roman households or Coca-Cola did in globalization—or driving them apart—as in the role tea played in the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. “Everyone has to drink,” Standage writes, “Each drink tells us about the priorities of the people who drank them: who drank what, and where they got it from, tells you a lot about the structure of society.”

I knew Ancients drank beer because potable water was sometimes difficult to get, but I learned that’s true also of wine, whiskey and even coffee and tea (to make coffee and tea, the water has to be boiled, which improves germy water immensely).

I also learned the role rum played in the slave trade. Enjoying a fruity rum drink now feels vaguely wrong to me. The chapter on European coffeehouses in the seventeenth century functioning as the internet by offering news, gossip, networking and lively discussions was also fascinating.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses, isn’t exactly a beach read, but it is an easy read considering all the ground it covers (where else could you find the history of the world in 265 pages?). It is a good choice for a book club (at least, if members are amenable to reading history) because everyone can chat about their takeaways over their favorite drink. Cheers!

A Fire Sparkling tells sweeping tale of love and family secrets

Well-researched and descriptive details bring to life a love story in A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean.

Actually, the story showcases more than one love story, but that’s part of the magic of the plot. MacLean weaves together historical fiction, romance and mystery in A Fire Sparkling, and it’s successful.

I picked up MacLean’s book only because it was a book club pick. As I began reading, I noticed most of her other titles were romance novels, and I was instantly skeptical. I didn’t expect to like A Fire Sparkling as much as I did, but MacLean is so successful in writing about a small piece of World War II that it felt a bit like reading memoir, my favorite genre.

The story opens with modern-day Gillian Gibbons fleeing to her family home after a lover’s betrayal. There, she and her father find an incriminating photo of her grandmother, and the multigenerational story shifts to Grandma’s devastating, harrowing and exciting experiences in England before and during World War II.

The title comes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Love is a smoke rais’d with the fume of sighs; being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes …,” and after reading descriptions of the Blitz by Germany in the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941, you understand the references to smoke and fire.

My only quibble with the story is that Grandma appears more than once to be a damsel in distress, rescued by a handsome, courageous man with whom she falls in love. This is a romance novel trope, in my opinion, but other members of the book club pointed out the situations were an accurate reflection of the times.

The story is satisfying, easy to read and a page-turner. If you appreciate books about that era, you might enjoy this one. There’s death, of course, and mayhem, and Adolf Hitler lurks on the edges, as in all World War II novels, but MacLean focuses on the characters and emotions wrought by war in a palatable way.

Sweet book on angels offers spiritual guidance

Among other resolutions this year, I resolved to pray every day.

Prayer isn’t everyone’s jam, but it’s mine. Even if you’re not particularly religious, prayer helps. You won’t always get the answers you want or expect, but the very act of assigning control of chaos to Someone (or Something) else improves your perspective. Scientific studies have proven the power of prayer.

Some folks can be extemporaneous, but I’m not good at free-form prayer. I’m a rule follower, and I like a little guidance. Google comes in handy. Search “prayer for [fill in the blank]” and you’ll find something. In the past four months, I’ve googled prayers for morning, afternoon, evening, healing, the grieving and gratitude. I even prayed a nice prayer for the full moon.

I’ve also looked to YouTube for guidance. My most popular search there has been “2 minute prayer” (I resolved to pray every day, not all day).

But my favorite prayers this year have come from Anne Neilson. I found her book Angels: Devotions and Art to Encourage, Refresh, and Inspire at a gift shop in Galveston when we visited in February. I was drawn to the cover, an image of angel sculpted by Neilson in oil paint. Even in a two-dimensional book, her paintings feel fully developed.

Throughout Angels, Neilson invites readers reflect on one of her paintings and individual words such as create and foundation. She offers a definition of the word, a Bible verse and a prayer with each of forty devotions. “I decided to do a devotional on words because words are so powerful,” she writes in the introduction. “Our thoughts are brought to life through language—the ways we think and act—each word deeply impacting how we live and breathe and view the world.”

Here’s a bit she wrote in her meditation on “purpose”:

As we wear the carpets of our lives threadbare with constant pacing, we may miss out on the miracle appointed for that day. Sometimes God has appointed us to be the ones calling others back. He is constantly arranging His people into positions to be used for His higher purpose.

Neilson’s devotions are personal and homey, reflecting on motherhood, family and creativity. Especially nice are her prayers, which don’t simply repeat the devotion’s message but expand on it. Here’s an especially meaningful one:

Dear God, thank You for exhaling Your divine breath so that I might have lungs full of oxygen. Thank You for choosing for me to have another day on this earth so that I can continue to walk in the purpose You created for me. Show me how to embrace this life fully today so I can be a walking testimony to the goodness You have woven throughout my life.

I came to look forward every morning to reading another devotion from Neilson and praying a prayer, and I was sad when I came to the end. This is a high compliment for a reader to pay to any author. Her ponderings enriched my days.

If you’re a Christian looking for a meaningful devotional, I can’t recommend this one highly enough and I pray you benefit as much as I did.

Though a bit dark,The Guest List has readers turning pages

Coincidentally, I’ve read two books in a row about destination weddings involving social media influencers. Extravagance and mayhem ensued.

Makes my wedding to my Beloved to which twenty guests were invited to my home and we served a Dairy Queen cake look cute and basic.

But at least no one died!

The same can’t be said about hoity-toity affair created by Lucy Foley in The Guest List: You’d Kill to Be On It.

This absorbing mystery novel is about the wedding of magazine publisher Jules Keegan and reality TV star Will Slater on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. Foley tells most of the story through the wedding-weekend experiences of five characters: the bride, the plus-one, the best man, the wedding planner and the bridesmaid. One of these characters is the murderer (I’m not spoiling anything here—the back cover reveals this).

What’s interesting about the mystery is we don’t know who the murder victim is until the end of the book. These two entwined mysteries—who is murdered and who is the murderer—will keep you turning pages, maybe until late into the night. And that’s all you can ask from a good mystery novel.

The book gets better after a lot of vague talk about secrets in the beginning. At first, I didn’t like a couple of the main characters, but their irritating behavior is explained as the book progresses, and I found the ending to be surprising and satisfying. Foley does a good job of moving the story along and tying the various storylines together, though she leaves a few plot holes and minor loose ends if you look too closely. Still, the plot holds water, and it’s fiction, so I didn’t get too worked up about it.

I read this for our family bookclub, which includes my aunt, uncle and cousins. The consensus was that Foley created good characters, but the story on the whole was a bit dark.

The Guest List reminded me a little of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Both Foley and Flynn worked out a lot of plot complexities before weaving things together, and I appreciate thinkers like that.

If you’re planning or invited to an exclusive destination wedding this summer, I recommend choosing something else to read on the plane (like a romance novel maybe).

Big Summer tries to please all the people all the time but flounders

As a beach read, Jennifer Weiner’s Big Summer is all that. An entertaining and oftentimes insightful distraction filled with interesting characters leading interesting and sometimes strange lives.

Weiner is a skilled storyteller, and even if the literary world relegates her to chick-lit, she’s good at getting inside a chick’s head and showing you how she feels. But alas, Big Summer feels like it was written by committee. Even the title and upscale cover feels designed to get readers to tuck the book inside a beach bag. It’s not about a big summer. It’s about a “big” girl and a long June weekend.

Are all of Weiner’s protagonists fat? I don’t know. I’ve read only two pieces of Weiner’s fiction, her first book Good in Bed and Big Summer, her most recent (her newest novel, That Summer, comes out in May).

Of Good in Bed, I wrote, “Her memoir [Hungry Heart] led me to read that first novel, Good in Bed. Though a fictional story, the main character, Cannie, is a plus-sized newspaper reporter with a small dog and a messy breakup, all characteristics shared by Weiner at that time in her life. It is fascinating how she modeled the character on herself, and then created a wholly fictional, fresh ending. I found the plot twists to be surprising yet plausible.”

Big Summer’s plot twists are still surprising (wow!) but not plausible. The book begins as one thing, the story of a plus-sized Instagram influencer looking for love, and jolts abruptly into another thing. I don’t want to ruin your experience with spoilers; I’ll only say the book introduces a plot twist which might shelve it in another section of the bookstore.

I can’t say I didn’t like the plot twist. I did! It kept me reading so it was compelling. But the ending is a little too, um, unbelievable.

That didn’t ruin the book for me, but overall, I felt like there was too much effort to please all the people all the time. The high stakes and the “fully realized characters of all races and ethnicities” (Weiner’s words, from the acknowledgments) do not feel organic. Good in Bed was written to please Weiner alone, and it shows. She had a unique point of view in her debut, and she showcased it. Big Summer felt more like she had a deadline, a page count and a compulsion to sell books. I get it! What author doesn’t want to sell books? If you’re getting published, sales mean people care about what you’re saying. But it just felt like she cared more about selling books than she cared about her story, at least at the end of it.

‘Piece of mind’ from an airport security officer does nothing to create peace of mind

When the opportunity to see “the craziest things seen and done by the TSA” was offered me, I jumped at it.

I ran across You Can’t Fly With That: Confessions of a Disgruntling Airport Security Officer on Freebooksy, and I downloaded immediately. (Not a subscriber to Freebooksy? You should be. The website broadcasts free books daily.)

Many (but not all) of Freebooksy’s offerings are self-published, and sometimes it shows in the works with scant editing and typos. This is true of You Can’t Fly With That, too, but I can’t say it interfered with my enjoyment of the book. At first glance, you might think the title has a typo. Doesn’t the author mean “disgruntled” instead of “disgruntling”? Maybe; he certainly is as much a fan of the TSA as I am. But he also makes a case for being a pain in the tush for passengers and his supervisors, so maybe he does mean he’s “disgruntling,” that is, to make ill-humored or discontented. He’s admits to enough goofing off and lying about his absences that he writes under the pseudonym of “Anonymous”; Big Brother is watching, you know.

The Transportation Security Administration is a waste of taxpayer money, as I opined here on number occasions (here, here and here). I maintain the TSA is all flash and no substance, a government program designed to help scared little housewives and infrequent air travelers sleep better at night. It’s a ridiculous and expensive show paid for by taxpayer money in airports across the country every day that does nothing whatsoever to prevent someone who is willing to die for his cause to blow up a plane. 

My evidence, other than being a frequent flyer for several years in the mid 2000s? I was once considered such a security risk, I shut down an airport once. Yup, dangerous little anarchistic me. Shortly after 9/11, the crack TSA team at the tiny Central Minnesota airport where I was attempting to board a—gasp!—international flight detected a “bomb-making substance” on my laptop. The bright bulbs at the airport let me—the presumed bomb maker—board the plane, and the plane jetted off. They then shut down the airport and called in the bomb squad only find my keyboard had been smeared with—gasp!—glycerin-based hand lotion.

Reading You Can’t Fly With That does nothing to disavow me of my, ahem, high esteem for the TSA. Anonymous Author has penned a vulgar screed describing all kinds of hijinks of passengers, co-workers and himself. Here are a few lines from Anonymous Author’s work as evidence:

  • “The countdown to my freedom has begun you pecker-heads,” I manically spat through evil laughter while hovering over my dejected phone elves. “Soon, I’ll be kicking terrorist in the dicks and buying discounted airport merchandise. Enjoy unscrewing phones, suckas.”
  • For the next thirty minutes, we stood at the metal detector chatting and sending geologically-tarded passengers back to remove metal. … I mean delayed, or slow, retarded as, so yes, it’s okay.

At least Anonymous Author is self-deprecating: “I am, I repeat, I am, a jackass. Just one who’s actually a nice guy. A lot of my jackassery is used for public service.”

This work not literary brilliance by any means and there is no discernable plot other than a number of loosely connected anecdotes of stupidity, but I kept reading because Anonymous is occasionally clever:

  • [I am a] Screening Officer; or, unofficially, ‘Taker of Water from the Elderly’
  • I wouldn’t hack it as one of Ashton’s less famous lackeys on ‘Punked’, I’d crack mid-prank and ruin it all, similar to what Ashton’s done with his career choices.
  • Like women at an abortion clinic, I wasn’t having it.

Just in case Anonymous Author haunts Minnesota Transplant, I will refrain from using “bomb” in association with his book since I would like to pass through security next time I’m at the airport without a gloved-hand screening. Like at the airport, proceed at your own risk.

Mexican Gothic satisfies even as it creeps out readers

Mystery. Check!

Creepy mansion. Check!

Cemetery. Death. Violence. Check, check, check!

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia has all the classic elements of a gothic novel. Set in 1950s Mexico, the inhospitable house in the countryside not far from a defunct silver mine is like another character, one indispensable from the horrifying plot.

I am probably not a good reader to review a gothic novel having never read one (no, not even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) but maybe the perspective of a novice might help others decide whether to try something different.

Our heroine is, refreshingly, female: Noemi Taboada, a debutante who enjoys a life of cocktail parties and flirting with suitors. Her cousin sends a cryptic letter that alarms her family and Noemi is dispatched to determine if her cousin is sick, crazy or just fine.

Of course, the cousin is not just fine, or there’d be no story. But is she sick? Crazy? Or something else? Noemi arrives at a decrepit house with a strange assortment of residents, including an aging and possibly racist patriarch and a quiet but oddly compelling young man.

Noemi is brash. She smokes when she’s asked not to. She drives into town without permission and pokes around for information. She defies the conventions of the house. In a slow burn sort of way, Noemi uncovers troubling truths about the gloomy house and its residents. By the half-way point in the book, you’ll be compelled to keep reading even as Moreno-Garcia amps up the terror. You will want to get to the bottom of things as much as Noemi does. Moreno-Garcia introduces a lot of elements that appear at first to be red herrings, but she answers questions and wraps up the mystery and the plot in a satisfying way. You might even believe in haunted houses when you get to the end.

Though set in Mexico, the book has more Latin than Spanish. It’s entirely understandable to someone whose Mexican exposure amounts to a few days on a Gulf of Mexico beach. If you like Stephen King, you’ll like this book.

Big book of advice makes great good nights

After I glance at the front page of the newspaper every morning, I turn to the advice columns.

(My newspaper nowadays is electronic, and I read it on my iPad. I feel strongly I get the least biased news reports from newspaper; it’s still biased, but less so. If you’re getting all your news on Facebook or 24-hour news networks, please reconsider your sources.)

Beyond the news, I’m addicted to Ask Amy and Carolyn Hax and Dear Abby. But the woman who started it all (or, at least, made it famous) was Ann Landers, otherwise known as Esther Pauline “Eppie” Lederer (she took over the “Ask Ann Landers” column in 1955 a few months before her sister began offering advice under the pen name Abigail Van Buren).

It’s the letters that are so fascinating (though I like comparing my own advice to the column authors’). Truth is stranger than fiction, and people are weird. I suppose the true confession is that the columns made me feel morally superior. “At least I’m not that stupid or crazy.”

In an effort to escape violent television shows and the bombastic talking heads on 24-hour news networks at the end of the day, I recently picked up Ann Landers’ Wake Up and Smell the Coffee! Advice, Wisdom, and Uncommon Good Sense, a whole book of advice columns! It was published in 1996 and a little bit quaint but still compelling. I read a chapter or so of letters and answers before drifting off to sleep, and it was mindlessly satisfying.

Since I love true stories anyway, this was a good way to enjoy true stories without getting wrapped up in a memoir about sorrow, sickness or psychos. The advice guru covers relationships, sex, work, aging, disease and death, all with wit, insight and humor. Ann Landers was a gem, and her book will remind you of it (or introduce you, if you’re a younger type of reader).

Sweet dreams.

Grisham steps out of his mold, and so did I

I’m don’t particularly like fiction novels. I’m not a fan of John Grisham. And I’m not particularly fond of football.

But I do like books about travel, and John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza is like a love letter to Italy. It’s a departure for Grisham in that it’s not about an attorney or the legal profession, but when you’re a best selling author with a huge following, you’re granted a lark.

Playing for Pizza tells the story of Rick Dockery, a third-string NFL quarterback who fails spectacularly as the book opens. With few options but little interest in getting out of football, he pursues a job as lead quarterback with the Parma Panthers in the Italian Football League. A 28-year-old native of Iowa, Dockery is hardly someone who would be called worldly. Before arriving there, he doesn’t even know where Parma is, he doesn’t speak Italian and he’s more familiar with cheeseburgers than the cheese for which Parma is world-famous.

But Dockery warms up to Parma and his Panther teammates as the book—and football games—unfold. The plot is unsurprising but compelling. The characters are many, and the experienced author fleshes them out with vigor and imagination. Of course, the football players are brutes and the women are beautiful, but what would you expect in this genre? I was a little astounded by how some characters are introduced and then summarily dismissed (get that? a legal reference) but this habit did not distract from my enjoyment. The villain, however, is a journalist and as a former journalist, I was less pleased with that plot point.

Grisham’s game descriptions read like the sports pages (which is fine for people who read game recaps in sports pages), but where he really shines are his descriptions of Parma’s food scene, Italian opera and Old World architecture. Now I want to visit Parma, too! Here’s a sample:

“This is my favorite,” Carlo began in English, then switched to a friendlier tongue. “It’s a stuffed pasta roll,” Sam was saying as they gawked at the delicacy before them. “It is stuffed with veal, pork, chicken livers, sausage, ricotta cheese, and spinach, and layered with fresh pasta.”

That was just the first course! After the appetizer! You simply cannot come away from this book without craving a glass of wine, an antipasti plate and a plate of pasta, and since I read this book while on a diet, food porn has fewer calories, so I was OK with it.

I read Playing for Pizza because it was suggested by my uncle for our family book club via Zoom. The point of any book club is to be introduced to books you might not ordinarily read, and my uncle’s choice certainly drove me down an unconventional path. His enthusiasm for Playing for Pizza was contagious, and our book discussion was lively (especially when we debated the merits—of lack thereof—of visiting Venice). This book would be a great diversion for fans of Grisham, football or Italy, and I can imagine binge-reading it on the beach to great delight. Prego! (That’s Italian for “you’re welcome.”)

Anne Lamott novel reveals story in ephemera

I found Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe at a library book sale of one sort or another, and I snatched it up because her Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is one of my all-time favorites, one of those books that has survived many edits of my personal library. Lamott is a hilarious, provocative writer who hides bits of wisdom in everyday circumstances. She succeeds in Blue Shoe.

In Bird by Bird, she writes, “Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in the story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.”

Blue ShoeThat pretty much sums up the plot of Blue Shoe. There’s a lot of character in it, and eventually, something happens. You might learn more than you care to about the weather or the children’s games or the scent of urine in an old folks home, but you’ll also laugh about a trip to a grocery store and cry about a pet’s demise.

I prefer nonfiction to fiction probably because I’m a journalist. I like true stories. Blue Shoe reads a lot like nonfiction in that is tells the story of what could be a real life: A woman recovering from divorce misses her father and decides to track down the man he was.

Let’s just say, he was a bit creepy.

But life is like that. Messy shit happens. And lonely daughters sometimes find out their heroes have feet of clay.

The title comes from a blue rubber tchotchke that the main character finds left behind by her father in his old van. It should be thrown away, but she carries it with her as a thing of value, a totem, a security blanket. It turns out this piece of clutter truly is imbued with meaning.

I find the meaning people give to seeming junk to be endlessly fascinating, so Blue Shoe rings true for me. Why do people keep grandma’s coleslaw dish or the pressed penny from a carnival or an old T-shirt they’ll never fit into again? Because there’s a story in it. You might appreciate the story Lamott reveals in the Blue Shoe.