Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan


The Girls of Atomic City
The untold story of the women who helped win World War II.
2013
*****
5 stars - thought provoking and very readable
ALR Blue - all people, no animals



I don't often read non-fiction because (a) I have trouble keeping track of people and dates and (b) my brain gets so stretched out of shape by work that I don't typically have the bandwidth to learn anything new during reading time. So I will start by saying The Girls of Atomic City will stretch the brain a bit, but it is so well written (and contains a character reference) that it was easy for me to read and enjoy.

The Girls of Atomic City focuses on the women working at the uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II. The very fact of Oak Ridge was a revelation to me. I never knew.

Constructed on land the government confiscated from farmers (often with only a few weeks notice to vacate and questionable compensation), Oak Ridge was selected in 1942 as the likeliest location to carry out a massive (and secret) government project. At the height of operation, it housed over 70,000 workers, mostly women.

People were recruited from various walks of life and the word of the day was "keep your mouth shut." Each worker was provided with only enough information to do his or her specific task. No more. And woe be to anybody who attempted to find out more.

Locked in by armed guards and barbed wire, residents lived in slapdash housing units. Some single family, some dormitories. Spies were planted in the community to make sure everybody kept their traps shut. People disappeared without explanation. And nobody knew what was going on. Even chemists were kept focused on tasks isolated enough from what came before or after that they couldn't know the ultimate goal (except some sort of did as evidenced by the reference to uranium opening quite handily in the encyclopedia at the Oak Ridge library).

The whole enterprise was a bit chilling and it had an effect on the residents. A psychiatrist was eventually put on staff to manage the inevitable stress, depression, and anxiety that comes when even husbands and wives cannot have a "how was your day" chat. Information in and out was censored. Letters to home became almost indecipherable after the censors finished blacking out the most mundane items (like weather which could provide a hint of location).

Beyond the main topic, there is a wrenching portrayal of the treatment of blacks in America at the time. While white married partners could live together at Oak Ridge, black partners could not. Black residents lived in the worst of the housing and were banned from all activities such as dances and movie theaters. Separate cafeterias. Separate washrooms. They were also given the bottom of the barrel tasks like janitorial work. But even at that, the pay at Oak Ridge was generous enough to make it worthwhile for people to go there.

At least one black resident was used, unknowingly, as a Guinea pig by receiving radioactive injections rather than getting his broken bones set after he is injured in an automobile accident.

The entire book, while fascinating, was also very unsettling. Maybe because I did know where things were headed. They were headed towards the most horrific act of war ever perpetrated. Indeed, as the ultimate goal of Oak Ridge is at hand, Ms. Kiernan shares with us some of the anguish and indecision of scientists and politicians regarding use of the atom bomb. 

The discovery of atomic power was inevitable. Research papers had already discussed the powerful reactions possible as early as the late 1930's. The use of atomic power as a weapon of war might also have been inevitable as the Germans were quite close to building their own bomb right up until their defeat.

The Girls of Atomic City is worth reading for many reasons. It brings to life the people of the time and what their lives were like. It discusses the power of the government to keep secrets and touches on the willingness of people to put aside curiosity and ethical questions when they feel they are striving towards a cause of riotousness (and being paid well for same). It also questions the use of the bomb to end World War II. 

Now, a brief note on how I came upon this book. I was recently introduced to a book site called Bas Bleu. It's a quirky little bookstore that happens to have a book of the month club. I was intrigued as the titles all looked interesting and I had heard of none of the authors. I thought about doing the book a month thing, but they offered a discount for buying them all at once, so I did. I know, crazy. I didn't even check the library network first. Sometimes I'm just wild that way.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale
by Diane Setterfield
2006
*****
5 stars - captivating

ALR Green - minor cat character who wanders about and gets patted



How long did I sit on the stairs after reading the letter? I don't know. For I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.

Margaret Lea lives a quiet life surrounded by books, surrounded by words. Her days are spent inside her father's bookshop where she and her father wile away the hours reading every sort of book available. She even has "reading time" set aside each night when, for hours, she will lose herself in the pages of a tale. Yeah, I liked Margaret from the start.

Here and there, Margaret's father acquires old journals of people long dead and Margaret dabbles in biography by writing short essays on the lives of those whose words are available to her. It is through these writings that the great author, Vida Winters, is made aware of Margaret's existence.

Miss Winters writes to Margaret, inviting her to listen to the tale she has to tell, her life's story. Now Miss Winters is known for spinning stories about her life and every prior "biographical" sketch has had a completely different life described.

All children mythologize their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind, and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won't be the truth; it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.

The Thirteenth Tale is a rich, wonderfully crafted exploration of Miss Winters life. Part Gothic mystery, part tragedy, all told with a prose that is absolutely enthralling. Of course all the basic elements are present; decaying mansion, madness, passion. From the dust cover "It is a tale of Gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family, including the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden, and a devastating fire."

Seriously. A topiary garden. You just know that foretells trouble.

In the center of it all is Margaret, the biographer. The descriptions of Margaret's love affair with books was as compelling to me as the central story. The writing is rich, the story complex, yet it dances successfully around the edge of the cliff of overwrought without ever plunging over.

Had I the leisure, I believe I would have read The Thirteenth Tale in a single, indulgent sitting.

As a postscript, at one point, Margaret remarks on the folly of starting one book too quickly after the last one. I'm guilty of that. Turning the last page of a book and immediately opening to the first page of the next. It creates a dizzying effect as your brain continues to churn over one story, half expecting the characters to appear in the pages you are currently reading, regardless of how incongruous that might be. Does that ever happen to you?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Bell for Adano by John Hersey


A Bell for Adano
by John Hersey
1944
1945 Pulitzer Prize
***
3 stars - pleasant

ALR Green - a mule is killed in the beginning of the story and it's a sad scene, but no other danger passages.


From Wikipedia:

The novel is set during the Allied occupation of the Italian coastal town of Adano in 1943. The main character, Major Victor Joppolo, is the temporary administrator of the town during the occupation, and is often referred to by the people of Adano as Mister Major. Joppolo is an idealistic Italian-American who wants to bring justice and compassion to Adano, which has been hardened by the authoritarian Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.
When Major Joppolo arrives at Adano, he immediately asks the people of the town what they need the most. The first spokesman of the town tells Joppolo that they are in great need of food for some people have not eaten in days. The second spokesman of the town argues that the town's immediate necessity is a new bell. Joppolo is touched by the story of a 700 year old bell that was taken away from the town by the Fascists. Mussolini had ordered that the bell be removed from the town and be melted to make weapons for the war. The people were greatly attached to the bell. To them, the bell was a source of pride and unity. Joppolo immediately sees the importance of the bell and makes persistent attempts to locate the bell.


Well, it's a pleasant little story and a quick read, but I wasn't overly excited by it. 

What the reader does get is an honest depiction of the good and bad of soldiers. Some override orders or make intentional errors to do what is right, some are fools who unintentionally do harm, some pigs with no respect for the people they are protecting, while others still are hard headed and malicious.

Who can say which soldier is the best (refer to A Few Good Men)? 

I will say that stylistically, this was a nice change of pace from the typical Pulitzer. For starters, the setting wasn't the Midwest (oh, have mercy). In addition, the story was kept simple and direct. 

I would, however, put this on a high school reading list. Why? Because there are a lot of good examples of how kindness to others is more than repaid. 

But overall... meh.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dogtripping by David Rsoenfelt


Dogtripping
by David Rosenfelt
2013
*****
5 stars - a wonderful celebration of dogs

ALR Green - Yes, this book is about dog rescue, but the author focuses exclusively on stories with happy endings, so don't fret.


First and foremost this is a dog book written by an actual author. What does that mean? The writing is wonderful. Oh thank you, Mr. Rosenfelt. 

David Rosenfelt and his wife, Debbie are dog rescuers extraordinaire. They have the resources and compassion to take in large numbers of dogs and their household count of rescues runs between 20-30 dogs. They primarily rescue larger dogs (80+ pounds) and older dogs (8+ years) which makes them the best doggie retirement community ever.

The book is centered around their trip from California to Maine. A trip which requires transport of 25 dogs. Yikes! He alternates chapters of the chronicles of the trip with stories about their various dogs and how they came to live at their estate. 

Throughout, Mr. Rosenfelt brings the same dry humor that has made his Andy Carpenter mysteries so enjoyable. He doesn't ever get on his high horse and tells some endearing tales of his inability to deal rationally with "situations" such as a snake in the driveway or attempting to enjoy fine dining with 25 sets of hungry eyes upon him.

Dog lovers are well aware of the dark side of rescue. I'm sure you've all read far too many stories of horrible abuse, tragic endings. Thank you, Mr. Rosenfelt for sparing your readers more of that. Thank you for being a certifiable dog lunatic.

Now then, I do want to commit a bit on the notion of having such an incredibly large number of dogs. At Dexter's daycare, the number of guests runs between 20-30 dogs per day. Miraculously, they all get along (well, almost all because some dogs, like my Mango, are justifiably given the boot). Part of that is when you get enough dogs in a group, the whole dynamic changes and frequently naughty behaviors are left behind as they jostle to find a way to fit in. My Raja was a perfect example. A highly reactive, 190 pound mastiff, woe be to any dog that set foot on our property (our fence still bears pronounced indentations from her repeated attempts to consume the dog next door). But at daycare, no worries. She loved watching the action from the laps of the attendees and would give a shout out to doggies who were being too rambunctious (thus her title of "fun police").

So a word of caution to would be dog adopters. If you are considering a dog from a foster home with more than three residents, keep in mind that the dog might show very different behaviors once he or she is left alone without peers to check in with. Mr. Rosenfelt not only keeps dogs, but he adopts out many. When interviewing potential owners, he takes the dog to neutral territory. That's important. Let the dog stand on his or her own. 

For me, I've always found two dogs to be ideal (Dexter, however, is an only dog as that seems to be his preference). Even if they aren't best pals, in general, dogs like having a doggie buddy. The most dogs I ever had at once was three. That was too many. They were very different, requiring different kinds of interaction from me, and I had to accept that one (my beloved Airedale, Angus) was going to be low dog on the totem pole. The moral? Know your limits.

Yeah, kind of got off topic there, what about the book? Just read it. It's a super happy and fun story. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Witch Diggers by Jessamyn West

The Witch Diggers
by Jessamyn West
1951
1952 National Book Award Finalist
***
3 stars - would have been 4, but really bogged down in the last third

ALR Yellow - virtually no animals, but a barn fire towards the end of the book rattled me



The Witch Diggers takes place over a span of about eight months. It starts on Christmas Eve, 1899, and ends in August, 1900. The setting is Indiana.

Christie Fraser is making his way as an insurance salesman. After his mother's death, he's invited to visit with his Uncle and Cousin. During that time, he attends a party where he meets Cate Conboy. He is smitten. At the time of their meeting, he inquires after her father's line of business to which she replies "He's the head of an institution."

Here we get the first of many examples of what I found to be surprisingly modern writing:

Must be a prison, Christie decided, she's so touchy about it. I wonder what she does to help her father? Probably sits outside the gate with a shot-gun and shoots escaping prisoners.

As it turns out, Link Conboy, Cate's father, runs a poor house. Christie is invited for a visit and the reader is introduced to Cate's family, mother, father, sister, brother, and the residents of the poor house. Let's focus on the first two thirds of the story.

The writing is neither burdensome nor terse. I was surprised at how openly the author dealt with family dysfunction. She gets to the heart of all the complex interplay of married life as well as the ways in which our beliefs about good and bad, proper and repugnant, shape our children in often perplexing ways. Sex, nudity, and desire are particularly problematic for all concerned. Cate and her little sister, Em, sniff around the corners of the forbidden topics and, lacking sound guidance, often find themselves in a state of confusion over their own actions and desires.

The marriage between Link and Lib Conboy is discussed at length, primarily through the eyes of Lib. The author's observations are frank, sometimes discouraging, sometimes delightful. 

Then there are the residents of the poor farm. Orphans, the elderly, simpletons, and drunkards. All with their own baggage. 

Ms. West's descriptions of people and places are filled with vivid and delightful images.

Ordinarily, the Commissioners' Room smelled of stale tobacco, brass spittoons, damp leather, and some other uncertain odor: a urine-like smell, perhaps the smell left by the grief of old men, for the tears they shed there were rheumy and yellow. There was a political smell in the room too; the smell of country lawyers and their impatient sweat at the tedium and insignificance of Poor Farm happenings which nevertheless required their bored and exasperated presence.

Surprising and interesting vignettes abound. Like the witless Poor House resident who takes seriously the advice to treat a dose of the clap with the application of turpentine or the discussion of the bewildering world of women's fashion.

The plot, too, takes many unexpected paths.

Alas, I fear Ms. West felt the need to turn her writing to a more traditional style as the book neared its end. What had heretofore been a wonderful (if sometimes disturbing) character study slowed down to almost a halt as the reader was suddenly assaulted with long, philosophical observations from the minds of her characters.

I anticipated several ways for the story to end, but she chose an ending which I hadn't considered. Too bad. One of the things I liked about the book was how well it showed the multitude of experience that goes into being human without the need for dramatic events. But the ending was a dramatic event and instead of being left to mull over human nature, the reader was knocked about the head with symbolism and grand plan notions.

Oh well.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Elysium


Elysium
2013
starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster
written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
**
2 stars - horribly, delightfully, absurdly bad

ALR Blue - no animals save some pigs in a cart


Yeah, this review will contain spoilers, but since the plot is so painfully obvious from the start, I doubt it will hurt your "enjoyment" at all.

Here's the setup. Rich people move to a space station. Poor people get left behind on a polluted planet. Rich people bad. Poor people good.

It's worth watching if you like special effects and beautiful cinematography. It is lovely and the robots and space ships are way cool.

Matt Damon is an ex-con who gets a lethal dose of radiation and has to get to Elysium or die. He makes a deal with a shady dude to get a false passport to Elysium provided he performs one final act of mayhem. Jodie Foster is the evil head of Homeland Security up on Elysium. Yes, they are called Homeland Security. It is that transparent.

So, like, duh. We see poor people trying to reach the promised land while the evil rich people protect themselves by shooting down the life rafts, er, I mean space ships used as transport. 

The last time I was so anxious for a leading character (Matt Damon) to die was when it took Leonardo Dicaprio about 87 minutes to finally let go of the stupid piece of drift wood and drown already in Titanic (another sorry excuse for a movie that interrupted awesome special effects with a mind numbing plot).

Are you ready? Here's all the totally over the top, OMG how could you be so dumb, moments in Elysium (OK, not all, but my favorites).

  1. Matt Damon gets an exoskeleton to make him strong for his mission. That wasn't dumb. What was dumb was that the surgery was preformed THROUGH HIS T-SHIRT. Yup. Like, guess he's never taking that shirt off again. So he runs around for the rest of the movie in his skanky t-shirt with little blood stains all over it where they drilled into his bones. Hello?
  2. Jodie Foster's accent. WTF woman? You can't be evil ice queen in a normal voice? Some sort of cross between BBC bad guy and Merna Loy.
  3. The radiation chamber. Oh no! Don't go in, Matt, because, you might get.... AHHHHH! Funny how when old Matt was operating it he pushed one button to close and a different button to fire it up but once he was trapped inside the thing just fired up on its own.
  4. And why did the robots need to get radiated anyway?
  5. Was that a voodoo doll they implanted in his head? 
  6. If the downloaded data was in the voodoo doll, why did it suck out Matt Damon's entire brain when the data was recovered? How did they manage just to download the secret codes and not Mr. Bad Guy's entire life anyway?
  7. Jodie Foster's change of heart as her life's blood pumps ridiculously slowly out of a severed artery. No way! Bad to the bone, right? "Let me go." As if!
  8. Big fight scene. Seriously?
  9. All those hospital ships going to Earth in the end and the big stampede of sick and messed up people? ME FIRST! ME FIRST! Yeah, that's going to go well, I'm sure. NOT!
You know what movie they should have made? How about get the whole Matt Damon saves the world stuff out of the way in the first half hour and then show us what happens five years down the line. How much you want to bet the world is divided again in to the haves and have nots and good old Elysium has got the border patrol up and running again. Then, maybe we would have had something to think about.


OK, glad I got that off my chest. I feel better now. Thank goodness I still have about 8700 episodes of Dr. Who to go. Nothing like the Doctor to cleanse one's viewing palette. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo


The Redeemer
by Jo Nesbo
2005
2009 translation by Don Bartlett
****
4 stars - dark and engrossing

ALR Green - one dog who meets a swift, but untimely death


After reading this book, Norway is moving way down on the list of places to retire to. The novel takes place during the long, dark Norwegian winter. Damn, it's so cold there that I needed a blanket just to read the story.

But I digress.

Great mystery, wonderful characters. This is the sort of book where even characters with only one brief scene get a bit of a back story. I love that.

From the dust jacket:

Two young Christmas shoppers stop to hear a Salvation Army concert on a crowded Oslo street. An explosion cuts through the music and the bitter cold: one of the singers falls dead, shot in the head at point-blank range. Harry Hole - the Oslo Police Department's best investigator and worst civil servant - has little to work with: no suspect, no weapon, and no motive. But Harry's troubles will multiply. As the search closes in, the killer becomes increasingly desperate, and Harry's chase takes him to the most forbidden corners of the former Yugoslavia.

The Redemption mentioned in the title comes in many layers. Redemption for horrific wrongs of the past, redemption for smaller sins of the soul in the present. Harry is a wonderful character. He struggles with alcoholism, struggles with his co-workers, struggles with his conscience. 

While Jo Nesbo is an author whose works I've read before (and will again), he doesn't write the sort of books to be consumed in rapid succession. His characters are a bit draining, his plots emotional exhausting.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Ravenmocker by Jean Hager


Ravenmocker
by Jean Hager
1992
***
3 stars - a perfect cozy

ALR Green - Nice Golden Retriever dog who gets patted and car rides


This is a formulaic and enjoyable cozy. Everything you're looking for. We have a likable heroine, an interesting mystery, no violence (although two people do die), and even a dog.

Molly Bearpaw is an investigator for the Native American Advocacy League. When one of the residents of the local nursing home dies under mysterious circumstances, his son asks Molly to look into things. He isn't happy with the dismissive diagnosis of the nursing home doctor.

Then another resident dies and Molly joins forces with local law enforcement (in the guise of the requisite cozy love interest) to get to the bottom of things.

If you're looking for something safe and entertaining to fill an afternoon, look no further. The mystery is compelling and there are enough clues that you can figure it out right along with Molly.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Under the Dome by Stephen King (TV series and book)



Under the Dome
TV series
2013
**
2 stars - barf

ALR Green - a cow gets cut in half and moos when the dome comes down (and the producers were so enamored with that special effect they show it EVERY time the credits run). One doggie runs around and sniffs out stuff and sometimes barks.





Here's the setup. One day, a big dome comes down over a small town in Maine. Residents are trapped inside, stuff happens.

You know how sometimes you're watching a TV show or movie and there are some inconsistencies but you overlook them because the story is so darn good? Well, not this time, so let's begin with those, shall we?

  1. Check out the artwork above. Aw, the doggie is outside the dome and wants his master. Except that in the series, that doggie is INSIDE the dome. Sheesh. At least get a different actor dog.
  2. Whisper quiet, indoor friendly generators. I want one of those! All the generators I've ever seen make a racket and if you don't run them outside, the exhaust will kill you.
  3. Regenerating landscape. The government tries to nuke the dome. Dome is intact but everything outside of it turns into a charred landscape. Well, for about one episode, then the outside scenery is all green and lush and beautiful again.
  4. Wonder woman Angie running the diner on her own. Yup, she's cook, bottle washer, and hostess all in one. Food in front of everybody, diner is spotless, and she does all of that while spending most of her time at the counter jabbering with the locals and making goo goo eyes.
  5. Lights on, folks, burn that propane! Who cares if the power is out, leave the lights burning 24x7.
  6. A drug kingpin who shoots somebody at point blank range and doesn't kill them? Um, hello?
  7. Love the short wave radio (or whatever) where all you have to do is spin the dial and you'll stumble across the right transmissions at the right time. And why spin the dial anyway? Is the government changing their frequencies that often?
Lazy, lazy, lazy. No excuse for that sort of thing and none of it adds to the plot.

Well, I could go on and on, but let's get to the "story." The longer I watched the more I thought "that Stephen King is losing it." Smarmy, stupid, tripe. It started out OK. You've got Big Jim Rennie going all power hungry and preying on people's fear to get them to turn on one another. Yup.

But what's up with the baby born named Alice when conveniently politically correct lesbian Alice dies? Oh, big circle of life, I suppose. Stupid egg. Stupid teenagers saving the town by making out when the bomb hits. Stupid Angie, like really incredibly stupid Angie. Blerg.

Then I realized about 2/3 of the way through that this was going into another season. NOOOOOO!

So I checked the book out of the library.


Under the Dome
by Stephen King
2009
*****
5 stars - Booyah!

ALR Yellow - kind of dark yellow. Nothing happens to any animals that doesn't happen to humans and in fact the animals are all spared the more gruesome stuff, but this is Stephen King, after all. There are three doggie characters. Only two survive.





Except for the fact of the dome, the names of the characters, and Big Jim as the bad guy, there is NO resemblance here to the TV series. NONE, I mean it! Because this, my friends, is a wicked good book. No kidding.

Uh oh, here comes the dome. Trapped like rats. Now what? Now what indeed? This is a plausible dome. You can talk through it, electronic communications work, but no escape. Oh goodie. Now for some of Stephen King's observations about human nature. Very real, very scary.

The scariest thing in the book is how quickly people start acting like cattle and follow the voice that speaks the loudest. It isn't long before Big Jim has the majority of people supporting him and woe be to anybody that questions his decisions. He's no fool. He creates a new police department populated by the most dangerous species on the face of the earth - teenage boys. EEEEEE!

The story is something of a call to arms as well. When you see something bad going down, you have to find the courage to fight it. And that doesn't mean you are going to get a parade down main street. It means you might die, but if nobody stands up, if nobody is willing to say "this is wrong" then we all go down the crapper together. Too many sheep being herded along by the fear peddlers in the good old USA for my taste these days.

I was relieved to see that all of the stupid stuff in the TV series just plain didn't happen in the book. Characters, plot lines, gone. There is no benevolent higher power talking to the kids. Bad people are really bad. People don't always die pretty. And it being Maine, you don't have the requisite politically correct mix of people. You have Maine people. Not a bad sort, but fairly homogeneous.

Don't want to say too much. You might read the book, right? Don't be put off by the size of it (over 1000 pages). You'll find it engrossing. Don't be too scared by the bad stuff. It's real and it's scary, but there is a lot of good stuff too. Heroes, bad guys, and everything in between.

All books end at some point and the more I like a book the more it is impossible for the author to stop in a way that satisfies me. The ending here was good enough. I was sorry it was over, but out of all the ways to finish, Mr. King selected one that was palatable. Poor old Stephen King tells us in a postscript that the book was actually trimmed down quite a bit. I would have read the expanded version. It's all good.

Now then, for you animal lovers out there. Here's the low down. Some stuff happens and animals get frightened and they die and that was hard for me to read. As I said above, there are three doggies, two of them die. But all the doggies are good sorts, well loved by their humans, and the two that die have a swift and painless death.