Be Frank With Me

 Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

I very much enjoyed reading this, even while wondering if it wasn't just a little far-fetched. I decided to ignore that voice and keep reading.

When New Yorker Alice, is sent to L.A. by her publisher boss, Mr. Vargas, to assist an author writing a long-awaited second book, she is warned that it's a "prickly" household. M.M. Banning, the author she'll be helping, will spend most of her time holed up in her office, leaving Alice to run the house and care for Banning's 9 year old son, Frank. 

Frank is what Mr. Vargas calls an "odd duck". He's highly intelligent, socially inept, an eccentric dresser, and will lay flat on the floor, stiff and uncommunicative, when overwhelmed by what's going on around him. He's quirky and endearing much of the time, but other times he's simply rude to people and not charming at all. Alice coped with it by indulging him much of the time, which I suppose was the easiest thing since she wouldn't be with him for very long. I wouldn't have had a clue how to relate to him. 

M.M. Banning, herself, is confusing. She seems to have two personalities - one with Alice and another with her son. While she's motherly, warm, and loving to Frank, to Alice she's cold and snarky, mean even. I couldn't figure her out, and eventually got so tired of her bad attitude I didn't want to. 

In spite of those negatives I liked the book. Frank is a fascinating character I came to care about and root for. There's another character, Xander, who has a brief romance with Alice but it's his beautiful bond with Frank that turns out to be one of the most affective parts of the story.

I gave this one four stars on Goodreads which was maybe half a star too much, but 3 didn't seem quite enough. 

Turning Pages

 Turning Pages by John Sargent

Interesting and quite funny at times, this look back at Mr. Sargent's career is told mostly through stories of the famous people he met and worked with and the books that caused a stir at the time. Also part biography, he talks about his childhood and growing up with divorced parents - the book opens with a story about him being thown from a bucking calf at his first rodeo at age 7. 

He worked for a number of well-known Publishers in different capacities, but it's the people he met and the books he worked on, some of them quite controversial, that make this really interesting. Names like Brittany Spears, Barack and Michelle Obama, John Grisham, Jeff Bezos, Edward Snowdon, Sarah Ferguson, and Moncia Lewinsky appear regularly. 

When his company published Fire and Fury, the book chronicling Donald Trump's first 100 days in the White House (as witnessed by a journalist who was there that whole period), the President himself ordered the company to "cease and desist". They published it anyway, because "A sitting president was attemptimg to subvert the First amendment, and freedon of the press was usually the first freedom suspended by authoritarion regimes." I haven't yet read that one, but knowing a bit about how it came to be has me curious. I'll see if my library has a copy.

Some of Sargent's writing is beautiful: "I was completely alone on the lift ride up. The craggy peaks and sheer faces of the Eastern Sierra cast shadows across the snow of their shoulders. The sun's angle deepend the furrows in the bark of the old ponderosa pines. The air was still, the sky a high-altitude blue. The silence of the mountains." There were other places it felt more contrived and sometimes a little self-indulgent. He toots his own horn a bit. 

This one is worth reading for the behind-the-scenes look at some of the titles and authors he was involved with. Some really interesting stories here.


Termination Shock

 Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson

The opening scene reveals a small plane, piloted by the Queen of the Netherlands, landing in Texas just as a herd of feral pigs swarm the runway beneath them. The result is a wrecked plane,
a number of injuries, and a very messy tarmac. 

Set in the near future, climate change has raised temperatures and water levels all over the planet. The Dutch Queen and other leaders have been invited to witness a demonstration of new, privately owned technology that could prevent weather disasters and even reverse some of the damage already done. While this sounds good, there is one glitch: what will benefit some areas of the world has the potential to cause major problems for others - and they aren't about to let that happen.

What I liked about this book is the matter-of-fact way climate change problems are addressed. It's realistic - it's likely we're headed for exactly some of the situations described - but there's a lack of hysteria that is refreshing. Problems are squarely faced, disasters borne and plans made to mitigate damage in the future. There's a minimum of angst and a maximum of putting heads together to find solutions.

What I didn't like was not getting to know the characters very well. Granted, it's plot driven, but I do wish I'd been able to feel some connection with one or two of them. They are interesting people, but they kept their distance.

Another thing that didn't appeal to me was all the technical detail about how various things are built and how they function. I found it tedious but expect it will be more interesting to some readers.

Interesting concepts and characters, and a good read, just not quite as riveting as Seveneves, the only other Stephenson novel I've read so far.

The Year of Living Biblically

 The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

This is A.J. Jacobs quest "to live the ultimate biblical life" for a year. He wanted to see what "the most influential book in the world" was all about, if it could change his spiritual status as a long-time agnostic, and to record the experience for a book. It's the first of his I've read, but his very entertaining writing has convinced me to put two more on my library list (The Puzzler, and The Know-It-All).

He began by reading through the Bible and taking note of every command, rule, and bit of wisdom he found. Then, with 72 pages of listed requirements for living, he set out to follow them all and see where it would take him. Knowing he'd need guidance and accountability, he gathered a team of people to be his advisors, including people from the Roman Catholic church, various Jewish sects and several different protestant faiths. 

Though he found some of the rules more than a little ridiculous, he treated the Bible and the people of faith he met with respect always. I appreciated that, and his honesty about the things he found contradictory or simply couldn't understand. I was sometimes perplexed by the things he chose to be completely literal about, but it was his quest, not mine, and there is insight to be gained by seeing it from a non-believer's point of view. 

The result of his year-long experiment is a funny, yet touching book that chronicles not only what he learned about the Bible and religion, but the personal changes it worked in him and in his outlook on life. I won't tell you what those changes were, but I will say the book is both engaging and thought-provolking whether you find yourself in agreement with his conclusions or not.

Why Not Women?

 Why Not Women? by Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton

Let me begin by saying I'm no expert in theology and make no claim to have studied this particular topic in any depth. But I am a woman who has read through the Bible and found the restrictions placed on women in the church contradictory. Parts of it talk about women in what seem to be leadership roles while other parts deny us the right to even speak in the church. How can both be what God wants? 

These two authors thoroughly examine the Old and New Testaments, the place of women in history and culture, and, referring to the orginal languages of Scripture, the possibility that there has been mis-interpretation. I know some will find the very idea offensive, but I tried to see it as a challenge: if I was firm in what I believed there would be little harm in hearing what they had to say, but if I had questions - and I did - then this book might offer some insight.

It gave me a new perspective on some things and though I couldn't agree with everything in it, their 35 pages of references and citations at the back do give a lot of weight to their arguments. Well worth reading.

Hotline

 Hotline by Dmitri Nasrallah

A young woman and her son emigrate to Montreal from war-torn Lebanon after her husband is kidnapped and presumed dead. Struggling to make ends meet and look after her son, she finds the immigrant life not all it was promised to be. 

A French teacher in her own country, she'd been told it would be easy to find work in Canada, but the reality is no one wants to hire a foreign single Mother without references. Desperate, she takes a job with at Nutri-Fort, a weight-loss center, as "A hotline operator, a phone-order taker, a shipper of boxes, an ear whose only purpose in life is to swallow the sadness of strangers."

In their tiny apartment Muna sleeps on the worn sofa, giving her son, Omar, the one bedroom so he'll be rested for school and have a space that gives him some feeling of permanence, of home. Her dreams are filled with memories of her husband, still alive and at her side, talking to her, touching her; her waking hours with wondering what might have happened to him, what might be happening even now. She worries about Omar being alone and unsupervised between the time he gets home from school and when she gets off work, and fears she's beginning to lose him. 

This male author's capacity for viewing life from a wife's and mother's perspective, and for understanding and expressing her emotions, is impressive. Muna's internal dialogue reveals so clearly who she is and how she experiences her loves and losses. Each time I closed the book and glanced at the author's name I was surprised again that it wasn't written by a woman.

Quite a few Lebanese terms are used in the writing but most can easily be figured out from context. I googled some I was curious about and had no trouble finding English equivalents. Other than that the language is uncomplicated and easy to read. I got quite caught up in it and didn't want to put it down, but had to so I wouldn't finish too far ahead of our book club meeting - my aging brain doesn't hold on to things as well as it once did.  

The title I thought was a little misleading, but it seemed more apt after she compared herself to a hotline - connecting her present life to her past, coming to terms with who she was then and who she is now. Still, the real story is not her job but her struggles as a wife, mother, and immigrant. The first part of the book did introduce us to some of her clients, even had me wondering if one of them might become a problem down the road, but later the story veered away from them and focused on Muna, Omar and the missing husband again.  

A poignant, ultimately hopeful story about moving on from a traumatic past and doing whatever it takes to make a new home in a foreign country.

Yes, And

 Yes, And by Cynthia Gunderson

A sweet story about an aimless young man and an irritable old woman finding purpose and comfort in an unexpected friendship.

Toby isn't sure the education he's getting will lead to a life he wants, so he quits - temporarily (maybe) - to see if there is something more worth doing with his life. One day he's out mowing his lawn and notices that the lawn next door is overgrown so he does that one, too.

Jo's becoming hard to get along with as her health declines, and she's suspicious of everyone - including her care-workers - and what they might want from her. When she looks out her window and discovers Toby mowing her lawn she's angry, but a shared interest in her favourite soap opera begins a friendship that will take them on some lively adventures, including roller-skating and a little private detective work. 

Though aspects of the plot seemed unlikely, Jo and Toby were interesting, believable characters and the story moved along at a fair pace. I listened to an audio version, then wished I'd read it instead to maybe get a little more out of it.  

A pleasant story that reminds us all how good it is to have a friend, and that we can all be a friend, even to - maybe especially to - those everyone else writes off. 


The Kitchen House

 The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Lavinia McCarten, 6, arrives in America alone, her parents having died on the ship coming from Ireland. With no one to claim her, she is taken as an indentured servant by Captain Pyke of Tall Oaks tobacco plantation, to be raised in the kitchen house by Belle, the Captain's, illegitimate black daughter. Mama Mae, Papa, their children and the other slaves become "Abinia's" family, teaching her how things are done and how to conduct herself when working in the "big house". 

Two narrators, Lavinia and Belle, show us life from the perspectives of a black slave and a white servant. In the beginning their lives are much the same, but as Lavinia grows up her white skin will give her advantages Belle's family will never have. 

When the Captain's wife - Miss Martha - becomes ill and is moved to a hospital in Williamsburg, her sister takes Lavinia with them intending to make a lady of her and find her a husband. After one disasterous engagement is broken off, she begins a courtship with Marshall, the abused in childhhood and now violently disturbed, son of Captain Pyke. 

Marshall and Lavinia marry and return to Tall Oaks, where he has become owner and master after the death of his father. At home his true nature becomes clear and Lavinia begins to realize she is as much his property now as she was his father's as a servant, and there is no way out. 

The book has a large cast of characters and thankfully there are enough good people to make it possible to keep reading about the awful ones. It's a great story, well written, and I do recommend it. Any negative thoughts I have about it are because I've had about all I can take of powerful people doing horrible things to helpless people. Every book I pick up lately seems to be that, and with the news full of the same thing morning, noon and night, I've got to start reading about less deplorable things before I start to hate the whole human race. But, that is my problem, not the book's. 

These two narrators tell a story that, while heart-wrenching, is also tender and beautiful in its portrayal of family and friendship. A very good read.  


The Coming Wave

 The Coming Wave by Mustafa Suleyman

An eye-opening, exciting and terrifying state-of-technology address to anyone who will listen. A prologue written by an AI will send only the first of many shivers up your spine.

The author begins by looking at technological developments in the past and how quickly the demand for new and useful inventions spread. Electricity, automobiles, computers - once the benefits were seen, their proliferation was unstoppable. He believes the AI in development now is also unstoppable and that controls must be put in place before it becomes too advanced for our own good.

Next he tells us where things stand currently and talks about the convergence of "atoms, bits and genes" - how physics, computing, and biology have all developed to a point where they can be used together to create things we can't yet imagine. He says technology is "no longer just a tool, It's going to enhance life, and rival - and surpass - our own intelligence", but .."we cannot know exactly what combinations will result."

Looking to the future, advanced AI has the potential for enormous good: "They will offer extraordinary new medical advances and clean energy breakthroughs, creating not just new businesses but new industries and quality of life improvements in almost every imaginable area." But there is equal potential for disaster: "We cannot know how quickly an AI will self-improve, or what would happen after a lab accident with some not yet invented piece of biotech....Even if you believe the chance of catastrophe is low, that we are operating blind should give you pause." As he says in the book, powerful new tech will be available to the good guys and the bad guys. ..."ask it to suggest ways of knocking out the freshwater supply, or crashing the stock market, or triggering a nuclear war, or designing the ulimate virus, and it will."

He concludes with a list of ideas for beginning the extremely complicated and difficult process of containtainment. Government, business, tech creators, and the public all have a role to play, starting with taking "a cold hard look at the facts, however uncomfortable". And some of this is uncomfortable, indeed. 

I did find some of it repetitive, but with much of the information being new to me, the repetition turned out to be a help rather than a hindrance. If you have any interest in technology, or the future of life on this planet, you'll want to read Suleyman's mesmerizing book. 

Persuasion

 Persuasion by Jane Austen

Second time for this, previous review here

This audio book was narrated by P.J.Roscoe, whose lovely voice and accent brought it to vibrant life. I heard, not someone simply reading, but the voices of the characters themselves telling me their stories. The nine hours was over too soon. 

Ten years ago, Ann Elliot broke off an engagement because she felt it was the right thing to do for her family. She loved him, and he, her, but she believed duty called her to walk away. Now, ten years later, they cross paths, memories are stirred and tensions rise. Not that there's much tension in Jane Austen's books, but there are questioning glances, bated breaths, and misunderstood meanings galore. Of course, you know how it's going to end, but the journey is fun no matter how many times you take it.

I love this book, though perhaps not as much as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Her writing, the elegant prose, the oh-so-genteel dialogue  - all of that keeps me coming back, though this was the first time I've listened to any of them on audio. I thoroughly enjoyed the luxury of having it read to me.


A Footnote to Plato & Possessing Genius

A Footnote to Plato by Tina Lee Forsee

A Professor of Philosophy at a small New England college is falsely accused of sexual harrassment, i.e. "standing too close to a student". He isn't sure if he has unintentionally done what he was accused of, or if, which is more likely, the current powers that be are using it to push him out. With the investigation heavy on his mind, he takes his students on a field trip to Greece to film an on-line lecture series, and there the truth comes to light. 

A quiet start, but it turned out to be quite a good story. Philisophical discussions (way more interesting than it sounds) draw parallels to the events unfolding in the plot and force you to slow down and think instead of rushing on to see what happens next. I love it when a book does that. The characters are fleshed out people you can connect to emotionally, and the settings - a small town college, and then Greece - are irresistibly appealing. Good reading.   



Possessing Genius by Carolyn Abraham

This is the story of Einstein's brain, and what happened to it after the rest of him was buried. I was hoping to learn how his brain differed from the brains of us lesser mortals and maybe something about brain function in general, but it was mainly about the scientists who had bits of Einstein's in their possession - or very much wanted to. Many wanted to be involved in the research but the man given responsibility for it wasn't keen on sharing. Not an uninteresting  story, just not what I hoped it would be.



Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

 Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

Elderly patriarch Simeon Lee invites his sons, Alfred, George, David, and Harry to gather at Gorston Hall, the family estate, for Christmas. Surprised, as they're far from being a close family, they and their wives discuss the pros and cons and decide, reluctantly, to accept. Upon arrival more surprises await, in the person of a family member no one knew existed, and then a visit from Stephen Farr, the son of Simeon's long-time business partner, who arrives unannounced to meet the man of whom his father had so often spoken.

Once gathered, Simeon, an invalid confined to his room, orders his sons to attend him and with a smug smile tells them he plans to change his will the next day, but doesn't say what the changes will be. After brutishly letting them all know how little he thinks of them, he dismisses them to a sullen dinner and an evening of what-if's and maybes...until a blood-curdling scream is heard from upstairs and they find his dead body, his room trashed in an apparently violent altercation.

Enter Poirot, who is spending a quiet Christmas Eve at the home of Chief Constable Johnson. When the call about Lee's murder comes through, Poirot accompanies Johnson to Gorston and the investigation begins. Through a series of interviews with the family and staff several motives for murder come to light, with a few red herrings slipped in to throw the reader off the scent.

The final scene is a gathering of everyone in the household, where Poirot reveals the true identies of some who are not who they claimed to be, makes a case against each one of them, and finally reveals the name of the murderer.

Looking back at it now I can see clues I missed that might have made me suspect the killer, but as it was I remained oblivious till the very end. I haven't read many of these books and I have to say I find Poirot irritating at times, but I like the way he thinks and I do enjoy being surprised at the end.

My book club chose this for our Christmas book, only to find it wasn't Christmassy at all other than taking place over that week. Even so, it was a pretty good detective story and fans of the genre will enjoy it.



 

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