Death in Venice

Thomas Mann

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I confess I’m obsessed with Venice. I have been ever since watching a movie called Dangerous Beauty, set in the beautiful city in the 16th century. Ever since then, I have read everything I could get my hands on, fiction and non-fiction, about the city. If this book were called Death in Marseilles I wouldn’t have been interested.

There is enough of Venice to make it interesting, and it was a good movie. Unfortunately, on the page it loses it’s attraction. Add in the boring short stories that lead up to the final climax, and you have a lot of slog to get to the payoff. I simply don’t like Thomas Mann. I read Buddenbrooks and found it tolerable. Magic Mountain I abandoned about half-way through. I gave him his final chance in these short stories. It’s my failing, I’m sure, as Mann is considered one of the great writers, but he completely fails to speak to me.

 

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The Rake and the Recluse

Jenn LeBlanc

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This book falls under the heading of ‘guilty pleasure.’ I know I should be reading quality literature, but sometime I like a low-brow romp. This book is full of crazy sauce, but it has my catnip, a time-slip romance. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, time slip is a story based on the premise that someone (almost always a woman) loses consciousness and wakes up in the past. In this case, Francine is on her way to make a presentation, has an accident  in the cab, and wakes up in the late 19th century. She is on the run from an abusive male, and falls under the carriage of a duke. He rescues her, and it’s love at first sight.

That’s the first half of the book. The second is the story of Perry, the younger brother of the duke, who finds a servant girl hiding in his carriage as he returns to London. She has been beaten and abused by the same man who attacked Francine. She persuades Perry to take  her to London, and he agrees. Again, it’s love at first sight.

Both stories are in the same book, so you definitely get your money’s worth, plus there are photographs taken by the author, which illustrate key moments.

The writing is adequate, and if you are willing to suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride, this book is a  lot of fun.

Happy Dreams

Jia Pingwa

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All the time I was reading this book, I heard that song from South Pacific going through my head. You know, the one that goes ‘happy talk, keep talking happy talk’. That describes the hero, Happy Liu, of Pingwa’s novel about a group of trash pickers. They leave their country homes behind to come to the big city, hoping to find a better life. What they find is hard work, little money and every man’s hand turned against them.

In spite of his troubles, Happy always find the best in his circumstances, and wins our hearts, even though we know it’s hopeless. Happy lacks the cunning to steal and cheat his way to success. Exploited at every turn, it is hopeless. Nevertheless, Happy continues to hope, and searches for a happy ending.

The Year of the Jackpot

Robert A. Heinlein

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I much prefer Heinlein’s novels, but this novella is a good read. I had read it before but forgotten it over the years. Potiphar is a statistician who tracks cycles of ‘funny business’, noting they all peak together, which he call the ‘Year of the Jackpot.”

Statistics aside, his interest in Meade, a woman who stripped down to her skin at a bus stop, makes their relationship a bittersweet one.

Potiphar knows where things are trending, and it isn’t pretty.

The Signature of All Things

Elizabeth Gilbert

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All I knew of Elizabeth Gilbert’s work was Eat, Pray, Love (hated it), Commitment (liked it), and her TED talk (loved it.) When it turned up on one of my subscription services for $1.99, I decided to give it a chance. I almost tossed the book for violating one the basic principles of fiction writing—show, don’t tell. This book is 95% telling. With very little dialogue, it is almost all telling about what happened to a remarkable woman and what she did. Instead of pitching the book, I decided to treat it as if someone were telling the story across the fire on a cold night. I’m glad I had the patience to stick with it, because it turned out to be a fascinating story. True, there were moments where I had to work hard to suspend my disbelief, but in the end it was worth it.

Alma Whitaker is a remarkable woman, and her story takes us around the world from England (her father’s story), to Philadelphia, the island of Tahiti, and finally Holland. It follows her entire life and her passion for botany, especially mosses. Along the way, she meets and marries a man who rebuffs her, eventually sailing to Tahiti. She follows him to learn about his mysterious life, meeting remarkable people along the way. Eventually she journeys to Holland to connect with her mother’s family.

I’m glad I recovered from my initial dislike to stick with the book. It was worth it.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South

Michael Twitty

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I first became aware of Michael Twitty through the YouTube video of Jas. Townsend. Townsend, an 18th-century reenacter, cooks using authentic tools and techniques, while wearing historically correct costumes. If you haven’t seen any of his YouTube videos, you’re in for a treat. Among his videos, Townsend did a series on food of the enslaved people in America, with Michael Twitty as his guest.

That was enough to get me interested in his book, but it turned out to be so much more. Using his research into his own antecedents and what they ate, he developed what he called the Southern Discomfort Tour. He traveled through the south finding evidence of his ancestors, white and black, to fill in the gaps of his knowledge.

Along the way he writes about himself with a rare honesty. It isn’t easy being a Jewish, gay, black man in our society today.

Fire Lover: A True Story

Joseph Wambaugh

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John Orr wanted to be a cop so bad, but he was turned down. He became the next best thing— an arson investigator. He was so good at his job, he gave seminars to teach other investigators how to do it. In fact he was so good at his job, people began to wonder if he wasn’t a little too good. This book is the account of years of investigative work to tie Orr to multiple fires in southern California, including one in a retail store that resulted in multiple fatalities.

When it is detailing the account of the investigators who first began to suspect Orr, it is fascinating. When it follows them into the courtroom, the story bogs down. I skipped much of the courtroom drama because it became tedious and repetitive. Finally Orr is convicted and called to bear responsibility for his crimes.

Imago (Xenogenis #3)

Octavia Butler

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In biology, imago is the final and fully adult stage after metamorphosis. Jodahs is the final stage of the process that began with Dawn and continued with Adulthood Rites. The offspring of a mating between human and oonkali, he is something else entirely. Both the humans and the oonkali don’t know quite what to do with him. He is either the savior of the world, or the damnation.

In this brilliant and to her trilogy, Octavia Butler offers an unexpected end to her masterful account of what happens after humans do their best to destroy earth, and the oonkali, an alien race from space, do their best to save it.

 

Coming Clean

Kimberly Rae Miller

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This is a sad story of a young women trying to escape from the consequences of hoarding. Both her parents are hoarders, and they constantly turn to their daughter to help them get out from under. Because she loves them and doesn’t know what else to do, she does. Time after time, she cleans up their apartment or house so they can sell it and move into new surroundings, just to do it over and over again.

I realize that coping with someone else’s mental illness is difficult if not impossible, and I felt sorry for the young women asked to bear the unfair burden of caring for her parents.