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All Over But the Shoutin'

Rick Bragg loves his momma. He’s a great writer and perhaps also something of a scoundrel. He grew up very poor in the Deep South with a drunken father and a saint for a mother and has been writing their stories into his stories as a journalist for the past few decades. He’s got a flair for finding the emotion in a story and showing it to you and he doesn’t shy away from making himself seem goofy or arrogant in the process. This book details his growing up, culminating in his Pulitzer Prize for journalism he did at the New York Times. He talks about taking his mom, who decided against getting new teeth for the awards banquet, to New York City where she had never seen an escalator before, or flown on a plane. He talks about having two brothers, one good like his Mom and one bad like his Daddy, and how he tries to deal with them as best he can.

Bragg later resigned from the New York Times under allegations of plagiarism and went on to write about Jessica Lynch’s troubles in Iraq. He’s never settled down, really, and he seems to always have an unsteady relationship with his past. These are stories that are worth reading, but not always easy to read. Bragg’s take on many issues -- the unfailing goodness of his mother for example, and the sometimes bizarre-seeming sacrifices she made for her family -- are not my own. However, I enjoy his language and I enjoy the warts-and-all apporach to his own personal history. And, as someone who has visited the Deep South but never really lived there, it’s a fascinating first person look into a world I can barely imagine, told by someone who I can at least somewhat relate to.

The Unique Inauguration of Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration was in Plymouth Notch Vermont in the middle of the night. He was sworn in by his father. Many people don’t know this. Many people may sort of know this, but not know the facts. Many people may think they know the facts, but don’t know them correctly, owing to many different versions of the tale bouncing about. This slim volume tries to set the record straight. It’s a collection of facts from primary sources published by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. It contains a lot of photos of Cal in Vermont, a few of them which have never seen publication before.

The brief facts are these. Warren Harding died while Cal was in Vermont at his family homestead. The news trickled out to various people via radio and telegraph and telephone and many different reporters, federal employees, and locals raced to Plymouth Notch to be the first to tell the new President the news. Many reporters came and went but at some point someone mentioned that since Cal’s father was a government offical, he could do the swearing in himself, and they did. The next day Cal and his family took a Pullman car down to Washington to start his new presidency. Somehow the story becomes fascinating reading, especially if you’re familiar with Vermonters and their ways.

Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Perfect summer reading book. I wasn’t even aware of this new series of small humorous books by McCall Smith until I saw them ont he new shelf at the library. Then of course I was even more surprised to find that they weren’t quite new at all. While I would disagree with the jacket blurb that called this book “hilarious” I did enjoy it and it definitely had its amusing moments.

McCall Smith has switched from his African lady detective to a trio of German linguists who travel and research obscure language pecadillos such as the title, Portugueses irregular verbs. Worth picking up, short and funny, a little more black humor than the detective novels but a good way to show another side of McCall Smith’s style and talents.

Dies the Fire

Stirling has one basic storyline that he likes to tell over and over. Something bad happens to the world where people are forced to live before the invention of many modern conveniences. Chaos ensues and the nerds who spent a lot of time learning to build trebuchets have the last laugh. That’s a bit of an overgeneralization but I’ve read four of his books so far and it’s mostly accurate. That is not to say that these books aren’t engaging, just to say that they have similarities. In this book something happens to make all electric engines die AND all gunpowder and explosives stop working, oddly. This means that all planes in the air the instant the event occurs crash, fires start, people freak out. The new world has all new priorities, mainly food and how to feed people living in close quarters in the cities while all the fertile farmland is in the outer areas.

There are mass die-offs and plague and cholera spread. Some people go bad. Stirling always has some despicable characters and in this book that are groups of people known as “eaters” who turn to cannnibalism and allow for the books gorier moments. Mostly we follow two groups of people, a pagan clan/coven in the Oregon area, and a pilot/natural leader guy whose small plane goes down as he’s bringing people into rural Montana. We follow them as they try to set up thriving cultures amid the chaos and fight the bad guys such as the weird food-hoarding lords who are trying to amass land and acolytes in the Pacific Northwest region. This is probably my favorite of all of Stirling’s books mainly because it deals with small scale conflicts and fighting [there is always fighting in his books] and not large scale tactical maneuverings between armies which I find more of a snore.


Since I’ve been working at the library in the YA area, I’ve been taking home more and more YA books to read. This one has been on my list for quite some time. I’m not sure if I didn’t like the cover, or just thought it was a book on bullying, or what, but I’d been staying away from it. The youth librarian put it in my hands and said “no, I really think you’ll like it” so I took it home and read it in an evening.

The story is more complex and more interesting than just a tale of bad boys in a desert digging holes as punishment. It’s subtle for a YA book with some summarizing of what the heck was actually happening at the end of it in case you miss something. The tale of Stanley Yelnats and his incarceration at Camp Green Lake where you have to dig holes all day every day is actually a much deeper story than it first appears. Stanley is a protagonist, but not a “do no wrong” hero. The kids he meets seem like kids, somewhat fickle, alternatingly antagonistic and friendly. The story unfolds in not too many pages, but is drawn out enough that every twist in the plot isn’t clumsily foreshadowed. A pretty enjoyable story for one that takes place in the punishing heat of the desert for most of its length.

Box Office Poison

I’m not sure how many more book length graphic novels about bad relationships I can read. I loved Blankets. I liked Silly Daddy. I loved David Chelsea in Love. I loved Beg the Question. This one was, we find out at the end, more autobiographically about the guy’s friend than himself, but still, it’s mainly about a relationship that goes on too long. Maybe I don’t like these because they have sad endings, or because the main character makes terrible choices that become wretched train wrecks later on in the book. The illustration and the swiftly moving plot keep this book interesting, but by the end of it, I hated the main character’s drunken loser girlfriend [as perhaps I was suppsoed to] and flipped ahead every time I saw a plotline with her coming up.

Stories Not for the Nervous

This is an amazing collection of stories. One of the things that I forget about Hitchcock is how funny he can be. The back cover states “Alfred Hitchcock has always been concerned with our environment. His favorite cause is developing a lead-free gas chamber. Poisons in our food are of special interest to him....” There are stories from people you’ve heard of -- Dorothy Sayers and Ray Bradbury -- as well as many people I didn’t know. There is also a very interesting story at the end of the book which sort of breaks down the fourth wall in that “I’m right BEHIND YOU” sort of way that I don’t think was paricularly trendy in the mid 60’s. Otherwise I was surprised how well creepy stories from 40 years ago held up over time.

Making Things: The Hand Book of Creative Discovery

I had this book when I was a kid and got a new [to me] copy of the same older version, before the new cover, at a library sale last month. Wiseman is the consumate craft-y educator. With lovely illustrations and a lot of hand and rubber-stamp lettering she creates pages of projects kids can do that don’t just allow them to get messy and play with paste but actually show them how to create things that they can use in every day life. She has a section on making your own paper, on how to make sandals, and creating instruments from things lying around the house. Even when she covers standard kid-craft topics, she’s showing kids how to make inventive animal masks in three dimensions and cut paper patterns into lovely mobiles. The message here is that everyone, including kids, can make lovely works of art and play with paints and tools to have fun and learn a thing or two about the things we interact with every day. This has got to be one of my favorite all time books.

The Ghost Writer

The only reason I didn’t like this book more is because I was expecting it to be something it wasn’t. Or, more to the point, it was something I didn’t want it to be. Like Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age, this book has one main narrative and then a story-within-a-story weaving through it. Also like the other book, one story is much more interesting than the first. The novel is about a librarian who grows up in a reserved family in Australia. His Mom’s family has some sort of secret and he doesn’t know what it is. He aquires a penfriend in Britain who becomes the sole outlet for his lonliness and longing for companionship. His parent die, he becomes a librarian and the mystery begins to unwind, both as told by him and as related in stories he find in old copies of a now-defunct journal he finds lying about in odd places.

The stories from the journal, of course, are windows into the mysteries of this man’s family. However they are also long, and written in an altogether different style than the main narrative. I am not a good code switcher and I found myself skimming the stories [which were 30-40 pages long themselves] to figure out what happens to our hero. This is not, naturally, the best way to get involved with a good tale and at the end of it, I felt like it just wasn’t the right sort of story for me. There were clearly lots of clues strewn about in the inserted stories, but I couldn’t focus both on the main story -- which is delightfully creepy -- and them.

The Forge of God

It will be pretty hard to review or even talk about this book without giving out some spoilers. Then again, the same could be said for other reviews I read of it which said things like “The best end of the world novel ever!” In any case, there is a lot to like about this book besides just the dramatic end of the world scene at the, um, end of the book.

Bear knows his science which is one of the things that makes most of his books entertaining in a cerebral as well as an escapist way. This book concerns one or possibly two alien life forms that come to earth with the intent to destroy and/or save it. It’s confusing and murky and you follow a lot of different people through the policy and personal issues that this new development raises.

Remaking the World : Adventures in Engineering

Petroski’s book on the history of book shelving stands apart from the whole “history of the thing through the eyes fo the thing” genre as best in class. I enjoy his matter of fact style, his general interest in the trivia of the things he discusses and his willingness to debunk commonly held misunderstandings about things instead of just repeating things he has heard. He is a researcher and writer of my favorite kind and every time I pick up a book by him I am giddy with anticipation. This book was just one more delight.

The book is a collection of essays about engineering. That alone should be enough to make you run screaming if you’re new to this sort of thing. However Petroski finds the interesting parts, the quirky bits, the weird and famous personalities and the big messes that always make great storytelling. He explains how Nobel, an engineer, became the benefactor of a series of prizes none of which went to engineering. He describes the design and building of the tallest buildings in the world. He explains what “back of envelope” design is and why it’s important. He makes a very good case that engineering is one of the most important and yet most overlooked contributors to successful modern capitalism. Fascinating stuff.