Getting In, a novel, by James Finney Boylan

“Dylan looked at the other students and knew that he had no chance of getting into Yale. These other students were obviously better than he was: smarter, richer, braver. Yale was for people like this Polo here, someone who wanted to study semiotics and linguistics, whatever they were. Of for Allison, who wrote her songs. Dylan getting admitted to Yale was about as likely as getting Allison to take a second look at him. If you thought about it, girls and college were a lot alike: there was Early Decision, Regular Admission, and Wait List. The only difference was that with college you took SATs whereas with girls there were all these other secret examinations you took and failed without even knowing it. It would be nice, actually, knowing what your scores were in life. That way you wouldn’t keep trying to ask out Stanford when in all probability you’d wind up married to someone like the University of Las Vegas.” (p. 14).

A bunch of kids and their parents end up on a Winnebago, driving from college to college for their interviews. Outwardly about trying to get into college, the book is also about chance, fate, how lives connect and diverge, secrets, relationships with parents, and the feeling that you are never good enough.

Having been a college interviewer for one of these colleges for more than 25 years, I find the interview sequences quite funny. Here’s to many great students I have interviewed. I hope they all found their place in the world.

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Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Excellent book. I have recommended to a number of my high school students. Our school students perform yearly at a Consent Assembly. We will have a discussion on the true stories presented at the assembly.

This novel is about a high school freshman who is raped at a summer party. She calls the police who arrive and break up the party. She is too embarrassed to tell the police she was raped so she runs home. She becomes a pariah at the school because she has not told anyone about the rape. Finally, she has the courage to relate her experience.

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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

Several people I told about this book already had heard of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a supposed doctor who built a murder hotel in Chicago near the World’s Fairgrounds. He preyed on young women with few other family members. Estimates of the number of people he killed range from about 22 to almost 200, including young women, children, and at least one man. He had an operating room in the basement to partially dissect the bodies so they would not be recognizable. Then he would sell them to an “articulator” who removed the rest of the flesh and articulated the skeletal remains for medical schools, doctors, and others who needed a skeleton.

I found it surprising that no one got the police involved earlier when family members went to Chicago and disappeared. We have a book by one of the investigators which presents many interviews from people involved in the final cases.

One of the fascinating things about the book is how the author writes one chapter on how the Chicago World’s Fair was designed and built by the best architects and the best landscape architect in the United States. The next chapter will be on Holmes and the stories are parallel, but intertwined to a certain extent.

The story of the evolution of the Fair is almost as amazing as the stories about Holmes. It is interesting how vested Chicago’s population was in having a world-class Fair in Chicago after a successful fair in Paris. An engineer succeeded in building the first Ferris Wheel which was huge in record time. Over 2000 people would be circulating in cars at a time. Amazingly, it succeeded. All the measuring and modeling was done by hand and pencil and paper, before computers. It was more accurate than much of the work when we recently rebuilt part of the San Francisco Bay Bridge!

I was surprised at how addictive this book became to me. I stayed up much too late at night reading it! There are extensive author notes and citations provided.

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The Angel’s Game, by Carl Ruiz Zafon

I loved this book. It had that feeling of underlying evil, secrets, decay. By the end, I didn’t know if the narrator had really experienced the story, or was it all a mind induced illusion? Whatever the answer, it was gripping.

As I librarian, I loved the draw of the book, the description of the old book shops, and the Library of the Forgotten Book. I have come across  this idea in other books. Where does it originate? It is the idea that somewhere is a secret repository of all ancient knowledge and books, presided over by a gatekeeper. Only the select, invited few are able to explore its recesses.

The narrator comes from a poor family in Barcelona. His mother dies when he is young. His father is an abusive, alcoholic laborer. He violently objects to the narrator reading. The boy is given a copy of Great Expectations by a kindly old bookseller who takes an interest in him. He has to hide it from his father and finally has to take it back to the bookseller for safe keeping.

He accompanies his father a local daily newspaper where the father is a janitor. After the father dies, the boy is taken in and eventually writes for the paper. But he longs to write a great novel. He moves up in the paper and also starts writing serialized crime novels.

He begins to receive mysterious letters sealed with red wax, with an imprinted image of an angel. A publishing house in Paris seems to be offering him support in his writing.

He rents a creepy old house that has been empty for ages. He establishes a workroom in the tower where he can look out over Barcelona. Eventually, a young woman, Isabella, comes to be his assistant. She admires his writing. Reluctantly, he allows her to live in as a sort of intern, but she is nosy, getting into areas of the house and papers he would rather keep private.

Eventually he meets the mysterious Andreas Corelli, connected with the Paris publishing house, Lux Aeturna. Corelli can give him the monetary backing to be able to write his great novel, but at what price?


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The Boy in the Shadows, by Carl-Johan Vallgren

Translated from Swedish, this is a complex thriller with many interwoven plots. It takes place mostly in Stockholm, so the large number of Swedish place names and names of Swedish characters give it an additional complexity similar to reading a Russian novel in translation. Don’t let this deter you.

This is a gritty novel, descending into the worlds of heroin addicts, the police, international intelligence agencies, covert operations, Swedish PSYOPS, and the realm of the very rich. What does a wealthy Swedish family and voodoo have in common? Their family had sugar plantations in Haiti and their grand father fell in love with a black woman. Their child was biracial but the black characteristics did not show up until the grandchild was born in Stockholm.

Interweave the plot of Katz, a Jewish boy raised in a gritty neighborhood with an abusive alcoholic father. He is accused of the gristly murder of his teenage girlfriend. He is a heroin addict. He is selected, against all odds, to be trained in a special army intelligence unit, where he becomes allies with Klingberg, scion of the wealthy Stockholm family.

Their lives continue to intertwine through robberies, kidnapping and murders. The story will keep you reading late into the night.

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Packed for the Wrong Trip: a new look inside Abu Ghraib and the citizen-soldiers who redeemed America’s honor, by W. Zach Griffith

I laughed, cried, read in disbelief, and recognized ties to some extent parallel to my camaraderie within my search and rescue team. A group of reserve soldiers from Maine, men from all kinds of jobs and careers, think they are being trained to go to Afghanistan. At the last minute their assignment is changed, to be the military police at Iraq’s infamous detainment facility Abu Ghraib. This was following the terrible humiliation and torture of detainees that was spread wide in the Internet.

Most reserves expected they would serve in the USA, helping with emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina, or helping with civil unrest. The wars in the Middle East changed all that. A friend’s husband who is usually a Sheriff’s deputy has been deployed again and again to Iraq, probably four or five times at least.

The reserve men are sent without adequate uniforms, equipment and body armor. They have no radios! Their container of equipment is lost when they first land in the Middle East and they need to deploy regardless. Eventually they get some ceramic inserts for their vests but not enough. Men have to decide whether they are more likely to be shot or hit by shrapnel from the front or the back as they only get one plate!

Abu Ghraib is located in a suburban area between Baghdad and Fallujah with a freeway overlooking it. From there, people can stand with binoculars and direct others with long distance bombs to adjust their trajectory. There was garbage and human waste everywhere (including human bones). The porta potties often could now be emptied and would be overflowing. Many detainees and soldiers had dysentery. Temperatures could hit 130 F. Eventually, when new tents were built for the prisoners, they got air conditioning. The soldiers did not. They were offered tents but it was safer to stay inside a concrete bunker reinforced with sand bags.

Family back home sent care packages with sanitary napkins and tampons because of inadequate access to medical supplies. A tampon without an applicator is about the right size to pack a bullet hole.

I am ambivalent about our wars in the Middle East. On the one hand, I respect our men and women who choose to serve their country in this way. I have friends in the military and they are good souls. On the other hand, as a teacher, I feel that we could divert much of the money we pour into these overseas conflicts and use them to better educate our children. A little of that military money would go a long way in the educational system.

I was fascinated by this book. I have recommended it to a bunch of people. The writer is very good, very matter of fact. He brings into focus the humanity of these soldiers and the humanity of the detainees. Some were terrorists, but others were people swept up by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were women and children.

It will give you an idea of how you can live and work in hell and still retain your humanity. It also offers insights into the difficulties of returning to your family and civilian life after experiencing so many horrifying things, seeing friends and acquaintances blown to bits, experiencing brain trauma from explosions, trying to help the injuring without adequate facilities, and more. How can people live in this situation and still try to help others.

Please take the time to read this book.



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An Exile Revisits Cuba: a memoir of humility, by Gabriel Ness (2016)

Gabriel Ness (a pseudo-nym) left Cuba with his family when he was nine. His father was lawyer and owned a family farm. After the Revolution, the government took the farm. They traveled to Havana and waited for a visa and a flight to the USA. They each were allowed one suitcase and knew that all valuables would be taken from them at the airport during a final search before they boarded the plane.

Years later, Gabriel is a teacher and his brother is a physician. Gabriel has traveled the world, teaching in many places including Saudi Arabia and Japan. He is living in Costa Rica and needs a copy of his birth certificate. He travels to Cuba to try to obtain a certified copy. His passport lists him as a Cuban-American which arouses the interest of the authorities. At some point he thinks he is being followed. The Cuban government does not like its citizens to speak with foreigners for too long or in too much depth.

He meets a number of people who are happy to have someone to listen to their frustrations. He talks with hard line Communists while staying at their rented room, taxi drivers (the new wealthy), and other characters. He has a number of bad meals and finally finds his best meals at a guesthouse and at a couple privately owned restaurants.

Ness enjoys taking pictures, some of which are in his book. The longer he stays in Havana, the more memories surface. He especially enjoys seeing people of all ages on a wide street playing all kinds of games: chess, soccer, hide and go seek, cards, all together. This is how humans are supposed to be, not isolated from each other by machines. He made me feel guilty for those evenings where each of us watched our own t.v. program without interacting.

He sees some things he likes about present-day Cuba, but more things he doesn’t like. I would like to travel to Cuba this year. This was a very different perspective than what you read about in the travel brochures. I would suggest to any American contemplating a trip to Cuba in the near future.

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