Book Review: Humans of New York: Stories, by Brandon Stanton

index (2)This book grew out of the five years that Stanton has maintained his blog of the same name. During that time he has interviewed and photographed more than ten thousand of New York City’s 8.5 million residents. Each of them, as does each of us, has their own story. Ranging from a line or two to a few paragraphs along with the photo, the entries are sad, tragic, hopeful, silly, serious, weird, just all over the spectrum. I found reading this pretty addictive.

Rating: * * * A good read

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Reviewed by: kh

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Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

index (1)This novel starts with the birth and death on the same night of Ursula Todd in the snowy English winter of 1910. However, in the next chapter Ursula is born under slightly different circumstances and lives. Atkinson begins and ends Ursula’s story many times. It reminded me of the “Choose your own adventure” children’s books of a generation ago. I found the chapters on life in London during the Blitz bombing of the Second World War quite compelling. Atkinson  shows how a life can turn on a trivial decision, to accompany a  friend home or leave her to walk alone on a lonely country lane or whether or not to rescue a frightened dog in the midst of a bombing raid. Definitely worth reading.

Rating: * * * * Very, very good

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If you enjoy Life After Life, check out the 2015 sequel A God In Ruins.

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Review: Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith

indexThis is the third novel in the Cormoran Strike series. Galbraith is a pen name for J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. In this novel we learn more of Strike’s and his secretary, now partner, Robin Ellacott’s background. A package is delivered to Robin at the office in London of their detective agency which Robin assumes to contain favors for her upcoming wedding to Matthew. Instead there is a severed woman’s leg. Strike is convinced that one of three dangerous, violent men from his past has sent the gruesome package. Rowling shows here that she can write suspense novels as well as she has written about the fantasy world of Harry Potter.

Rating: * * * * Very, very good

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Reviewed by: kh

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Review: The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain, by Bill Bryson

Two of our staff members share their thoughts on Bill Bryson’s latest travelogue.

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Inspired to reprise his “Notes from a Small Island” of twenty years ago, Bryson traveled from the south of Britain at Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath in far northern Scotland with dozens of stops along the way. He laces his travelogue with humor and history and often with a sourpuss attitude I didn’t care for. Visiting many coastal resorts of now faded glory (too many cheap flights available to Spain and the Mediterranean islands) Bryson relates fascinating historical anecdotes and lyrical descriptions of the beautiful English countryside. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Ancient Britain and the mysterious stone circles found in many parts of the country.

Rating: * * * A good read

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Reviewed by: kh


Good travel writing can be tough. But Bill Bryson is different funny, perceptive and poignant. In this book he decides to travel from Bognor Regis in the south of England, to Cape Wrath in Scotland.  He chooses the end point mostly because when folks ask him where he’s going he can say “Cape Wrath, God willing.” He gripes about the cost of visiting various museums and bemoaning park and ride lots outside of historic towns (another expanse), while marveling that if you wanted to visit all the medieval churches in the country at the rate of one per week, it would take 308 years?
There’s a lot to like about this island, the 13th largest landmass on the planet, but so slender in profile that no one in the country is ever more than 70 miles from one of its edges. Villages with ridiculous names like Shellow Bowels and Nether Wallop.
And let’s face it, the Brits are ripe for lampooning. He asks what kind of sandwiches are on on offer, the proprietor laconically notes ham and cheese.  Bryson says yes please and the shopkeeper looks at him .
‘Yes please what?’
“Yes please, ham and cheese.”
“No it’s ham or cheese.” he explained.
“You don’t do them together? “
“No.”
“Oh,” I said surprised, then leaned in toward him and in a friendly but confidential tone said “Why not? Too flavorful?”
God willing, there will always be an England.

Rating: * * * * Very, very good

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Reviewed by: Kathleen Hennrikus

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Review: How to be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, by Ruth Goodman

25622831The Tudor period (1485-1603) is historian Goodman’s favorite. There is nothing dry or tedious about this depiction as the author has been an enthusiastic participant in actually trying out aspects of Tudor life. It’s hard to imagine how different life was from today. Everything is done be hand, for a piece of clothing the sheep needed to be raised and shorn, the wool cleaned and spun and the cloth woven before the garment could be cut and sewn. If there was bad weather and a poor harvest people were hungry. Goodman explains in detail the importance of ploughing the fields and why it was an almost year round task. I enjoyed the explanations of the Tudor origins of expressions such as “pin money” and why we eat our meals in a particular order still following Tudor health guidelines today.

Rating: * * * * Very, very good

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Reviewed by: kh

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Review: The Narrow Door, by Paul Lisicky

indexWhen I first tucked into Paul Lisicky’s new memoir The Narrow Door, I assumed that it would be a tribute to his late writer friend Denise Gess, who lost her battle to cancer in 2009.  But we soon learn that Lisicky’s loss of Denise is compounded by a deteriorating relationship with his partner of sixteen years, poet Mark Doty.  Without veering into overly maudlin territory, Lisicky uses this perfect storm of catastrophes to reflect on losses of all magnitudes.  It is the disasters beyond our power that Lisicky fixates on most—natural disasters, the senseless murder of Marvin Gaye—as his own surroundings spiral out of control.  Sound like a downer?  True to its title, the book does offer a shaft of light through the narrow door.  Beyond loss and pain, there is always the possibility of something better.  Recommended for those who enjoyed Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, or Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

RATING: * * * * Very, very good

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Reviewed by: Susannah B.

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Review: The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

indexYes, I too was wary of a novel centered on a woman who communicates with squirrels.  However, Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen astounded me with its ability to comically and compassionately capture one woman’s navigation of love, family, work (or lack thereof), and yes, rodents.

Veblen—named for economist Veblen Thorstein by her woo-woo, hypochondriac mother—is on the verge of a marriage to seemingly rock steady neurologist Paul.  Paul’s professional life is thrown into disorder when his groundbreaking device (essentially a hole punch for skulls) gets snatched up by the Department of Defense to treat traumatized soldiers.  As promises of fame and fortune begin to occupy Paul’s life and threaten his values, Veblen is left to plan the impending wedding ceremony while keeping peace within her fragmented, eccentric family (and soon Paul’s as well).  Veblen reacts how many of us do when facing adversity: by regressing into old ways.  For Veblen, this means indulging her needy mother’s insecurities and venting to an empathetic squirrel—habits that she has consciously shielded from Paul for fear that he will abandon her.  Veblen and Paul grow into more nuanced, relatable characters as they (tardily) begin to confront their differences, reveal their weaknesses, and learn about each other’s pasts.

This is a good bet for readers who enjoy Lorrie Moore’s offbeat characters or Jonathan Franzen’s dysfunctional family portraits.

RATING: * * * * Very, very good

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Reviewed by: Susannah B.

 

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