Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Year of Books in Review

I read 100 books in 2012, meeting my Goodreads goal just in time. Here are my favorite books from this year, the ones I most recommend:

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada 
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
The Sherlockian by Graham Moore
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

Friday, December 28, 2012

Recent Read: Isaac's Storm

I've just finished reading the fascinating Erik Larson book Isaac's Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. Having, along with the rest of the country, just recently taken in all the Hurricane Sandy news coverage, it was really interesting to read this book now. Plus, I'm just interested in hurricanes and how they impact people, having done some post-Katrina cleanup in Mississippi in 2005 and 2006, and experiencing Fran (1996) and Floyd (1999) while I lived in North Carolina.

Larson, as he always does, re-creates dialogue and description that amazes me, since most of the time his subject matter deals with the past far enough back that interviews with those who experienced these things first hand is impossible. The descriptions of the water surge during the Galveston hurricane of 1900 were what I'm still thinking about a few days after finishing reading the book. The vivid descriptions of homeowners chopping holes in their beautiful wood floors to give the water somewhere to go in the Galveston hurricane seemed eerily like see footage from Katrina homeowners who'd had to punch out through their roofs to wait for help to come.

Also, in light of Sandy's recent devastation, it's interesting to consider how people in New York and New Jersey faired when they had a week or so of preparation time versus those who faced the 1900 hurricane with little to no warning. Those in Sandy's path could make the choice to evacuate and access to some resources (cell phones, proximity to emergency services, FEMA, organizations like the Baptist North American Mission Board to provide things like laundry services, hot meals, chainsaw teams and crisis counseling). And it was still was (and still is I'm sure) a frustrating experience for homeowners to not be able to get what they needed exactly when they needed it. Those affected by the Galveston hurricane didn't have appropriate weather information, the ability to communicate easily with their loved ones after the storm, a proper and dignified way to handle the bodies of those who did not survive the storm.

Reading Isaac's Storm also made me think back to books I've read fairly recently about Katrina: Zeitoun and Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans. It's a lot to think about.

Monday, December 17, 2012

It's Monday. What are you reading?

Though I haven't done this in a while, I'm participating in this event hosted by Sheila from Book Journey. Here's what I'll be doing this week:

Finishing The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
Starting Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Continuing to listen to American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin in the car
A magazine or two

Recent Read: Unbroken

At the recommendation of my aunt and a cousin, I recently read Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. They both told me what a great book it is and how much I’d enjoy it. They were right. It’s in the top five books I’ve read in 2012. The story covers two topics I love to read: Olympics and World War II.

The main character is Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American growing up in Southern California who realizes he can run faster and better than anyone else. This talent earns him a spot on the 1936 U.S. Track and Field team for the Berlin Olympics.  There he does very well, and returns home planning to train for a spot on the 1940 Olympic team as well.

Then war comes and Louie, like many other young men around the world is shipped off to fight. Louie is in the Army Air Corps one of six men about a B-29 in the Pacific. On one of their missions, their plane is shot down. Louie and two other crew members survive about three weeks in the rafts with nearly nothing to eat or drink. They are spotted and captured by the Japanese, and sent to a few prisoner of war camps before the war finally ended.

Louie was tortured in brutal, unimaginable ways, which made reading this story difficult in places. The fact that he was able to survive all of his difficulties was just staggering to me as a reader.

Near the end of the story when Louie has returned home to California and married, he is converted to Christianity at a tent revival put on by a young Billy Graham in one of his first revivals. Interestingly, my Netflix movie this week just happened to be Billy: The Early Years of Billy Graham. I’m not sure the movie ever made it to the theaters or if it went straight to DVD. I knew of it because my husband’s aunt, a hairstylist, worked on the set and did the hair of some of the female extras. The movie was a lovely story of Billy growing up on a rural North Carolina farm, attending seminary, meeting his wife and starting a family, and getting his ministry off the ground. The movie ends at one of his early, great successes: his Los Angeles revival, the one attended by Louie.

I’ll be reading in this same theme again, as my book after next is Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Erik Larson's Thunderstruck

I finished Erik Larson's Thunderstruck last night. I really wanted to like it more. A few years ago I read his The Devil in the White City and absolutely loved it. Thunderstruck is structured much in the same way: two separate but related stories come together in a great way. For me, Thunderstruck attempted to do that but just didn't quite get there for me. The two main characters didn't coincide until way too close to the end. And, I was much more interested in the murder storyline than the science storyline. If Larson could have cut down the science part and lengthened the murder part I'd probably be completely happy with this book. Overall, though, I found it interesting and somewhat enjoyable.

One part that was especially fun for me is that some of the characters frequent a wonderful London restaurant where I've been for dinner an afternoon tea: the Criterion. It's in Picadilly Circus and is one of the most beautiful restaurants I've ever visited. Movies have been filmed there and many famous Londoners had a drink at the bar. In Thunderstruck, in the chapter titled "To the Ball," it says:

Built in 1873, the Criterion combined glamour and raffishness, especially its Long Bar, for men only, where a Scotland Yard inspector might find himself in amiable conversation with a former convict. In its dining rooms painters, writers, judges, and barristers gathered for lunch and dinner. Later, after the theaters of the Strand and Shaftesbury Avenue closed for the night, the city's population of actors, comedians, and magicians thronged the "Cri" and its bar and its Grand Hall and its East Room and West.

Taking a photo of the inside of the Criterion would have caused me to embarrass myself, but here is their website which contains photos of its interior.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Becoming Queen Victoria

I've just recently finished reading a book I'd been saving for once I'd returned from London and its palaces and other royal things. Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain's Greatest Monarch by Kate Williams was a great read. In my obsession with all of Britain's royalty through the ages, Queen Victoria is right up on top with the current queen and Victoria's great-granddaughter. Partly because I took Victorian Literature in graduate school and it was heavy on the era's history (which was great) and partly because of all the reading I've done in the past few years, I feel like I have a good handle on Victoria's reign. What I didn't know as much about is how she got to that point. Only a very small part of this book actually takes place after Victoria has become queen. I was fascinated by her overbearing mother and her counterpart John Conroy, and the power they wanted to have over her, and the recognition and prestige they desired to have once Victoria became queen. I loved that even though she was only 18 when she became Britain's leader, she acted quickly and firmly to stand on her own. She knew she was capable of doing her duty without her mother and Conroy's influence, and she did so very well for the next 63 years. While the first half of the book focuses on Charlotte and is very interesting, I loved learning more about Victoria's early life and early reign in the second half of the book.

I've been lucky enough to visit Kensington Palace twice and Buckingham Palace once on my two trips to London. Here are a few photos.

 Kensington Palace
 The lawn at Kensington Palace
 Kensington Palace from a distance
 The Victoria and Albert Monument in front of Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace during the changing of the guard

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books

My favorite bookstore in the whole world announced this week that it's for sale. Its owner, Nancy Olsen, who has run Quail Ridge Books for the past 28 years, has decided to retire. Practically as soon as the announcement was made I got emails and a post on my Facebook wall that generated comments about the fact that I should move back to Raleigh and buy it, or go in with a group to do so. My friends know me well! I love this store. In it I've bought scores of books, many of them signed by authors who have traveled there for an appearance. I attended readings there by Amy Tan, Kaye Gibbons, Fred Chappell and many, many others. Nearly every time I go home for a visit I have to stop by and browse the table of notable paperbacks just inside the front door. I can't seem to get out of there without purchasing at least one or two of them, sometimes more. The new owner of the store won't be me, but I hope it will be someone who can let the store remain very much as it has with its knowledgeable staff, cute gift wrap and wonderful author appearances. The community will just miss Quail Ridge too much if it's gone.

Here are two related news stories:

Friday, November 16, 2012

Election Reading

OK, so I'm a little behind with this, but last week's 2012 presidential election got me thinking about which books would be good to read during this time. Here are a few I'd recommend:

Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation by Ellen Fitzpatrick
True Compass: A Memoir by Edward M. Kennedy
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush
Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age by Jimmy Carter
And here are a few I'd really like to read but haven't yet:
Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini