moonligh in odessaOdessa is a study of contrasts – a beautiful city situated on the Black Sea whose residents are fiercely proud of its history and culture, it is also wracked by poverty, corruption and the lingering effects of Soviet rule. People are forced to “do what they have to do” to survive such as a doctor that works a second job as a taxi driver, a marine biologist who becomes a mobster, and multiple generations of families living together in tiny, rundown apartments.

Moonlight in Odessa is Daria’s story. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she must take a job as a secretary to keep herself and her Boba (grandmother) alive. Fearing the sexual advances of her employer, she introduces him to her friend Olga who then turns on Daria in a jealous rage. Thinking she’ll soon be out of a job, she agrees to work for a matchmaking service, where lonely American men can meet Odessan women, most of whom are desperate to find a way out of poverty.

Daria is desperate too and, despite her better instincts, gets pulled into a match with an American. What she finds in America – and in herself, her friends and her family – changes her forever and sets her life on a course she could not have imagined.

This is a fascinating look not only at another country and it’s traditions and manners, but at how other countries see America. Daria is smart, witty and gutsy and following the twists and turns of her life choices makes this a real page turner and a wonderful story of a strong woman finding her way.

glasscastle “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through the Dumpster.”  That’s the opening line of Jeannette Walls’ memoir.  True to form without, The Glass Castle doesn’t disappoint.

We first follow Jeannette and her family as they shuffle from one desert community to another, one step ahead of the law and from homelessness.  Her father, though brilliant, is also an alcoholic and usually unemployed; her mother is flighty and artistic with a hands-off philosophy of child-rearing.  One of the author’s first memories is that of being burned — she was three years old and cooking hot dogs on the stove unsupervised.

halfbrokehorsesThe family eventually settles in a shack in the dismal coal-mining town of  Welch, West Virginia, their father’s hometown and a place he had earlier escaped.  Here the children manage to survive by fending off bullies and eating out of garbage cans at school.   This all may sound rather depressing, but in fact,  this is a very uplifting book.  What comes through, loud and clear, is the author’s sincere love and affection for her parents — in spite of the obvious neglect and abuse. This and the fact that she was able to triumph over her upbringing and carve out a very successful life for herself makes this one of the best books I have read this year.

Now Walls has a new book out, Half-Broke Horses, which deals primarily with her grandmother.  If it’s anything like her first book, it will be fascinating!

CompetabilityThis is the subtitle of Competability by Amy Shojai. She notes that there has always been much less research about cats and even less about the relationships of cats and dogs living in the same household.

She traces the integration of dogs (first) then cats into human families and how far domestication has gone in each species. Their senses affect their behavior; a fascinating chapter details how the dog’s extreme sense of smell and a cat’s powerful hearing affect how they relate to each other.

She also explains how an action such as rolling over is interpreted completely different by a cat and a dog. (Cats roll over to fight and dogs roll over in submission). Or tail wagging: “The dog approaching with a friendly wag is interpreted by the cat to be ready to attack; and the dog seeing the waving feline tail thinks it’s an invitation to approach and can’t understand why Kitty breaks the rules and slaps his nose.”

This book  helps to bridge the communication gap – the largest being between humans and the canine/feline world…

battlescapesThe scars on the landscape have faded, the roar of battle has been forgotten, and the machinations of generals and commanders and sacrifices of soldiers have slipped into the history books, but the places remain. Alfred Bullesbach set out to photograph the locations of 34 famous battles and the result is the stunning and thought-provoking Battlescapes.

Bullesbach is not a historian; he is a photographer and he approached each battlefield with a landscape photographers eye. In some cases, there are elaborate memorials or large formal cemataries; at other sites there is no evidence whatsoever that a battle took place there. Sheep graze on the grass covered trenches of the Somme where 1.5 million men lost their lives. A lush and peaceful forest stands were the Americans and Germans fought the bloody Battle of the Bulge.

Perhaps most poignant are the numerous sites from the Great War (World War I); men were buried where they fell, many of their names unknown. Small cemeteries, containing several dozen to just a few graves, have become part of the landscape, surrounded by farm fields and pastures. Each grave is still meticulously tended, with flowers and carefully mown grass.

All of the battlesites pictured are located in Europe, so Americans were only involved in the later wars (World Wars I and II), but you will have encountered many of the names in your history books – Alesia, Hastings, Agincourt, Blenheim, Waterloo. The photography is stunning with large panoramics and as well as more intimate studies for each location. A guide to visiting the battlefields concludes the book.

Everyone’s favorite TV barfly George Wendt makes a foray into the author world in Drinking with George: A Barstool Professional’s Guide to Beer. Before your inner skeptic kicks in, consider this chapter-opening confession from a proud 0.0 GPA recipient during a sojourn at Notre Dame University:

“I’ll be the first to admit that I lucked into the role of Norm Peterson, a character whom I’d been training to play my whole life.

Under one set of covers, Wendt gives you a mini-biography, a slew of interesting beer facts, funny beer anecdotes from his own life, and lighthearted fare regarding his Hollywood friends.  None of these pile up too thick in any of  this collection of 1-4 page essays, so like what the “born-on” date has done for Budweiser products, the book stays fresh.

This title has what is known in some circles as a crisp finish and clean aftertaste.   The funniest and most interesting stories are in about the last third of the… book.  But, hey, relax.  We’re not talking War and Peace here.  Perfect for the attention span of the mead-swiller in your life.

DriftlessThe 2010 All Iowa Reads book was announced at the annual Iowa Library Association conference at the end of October. Praised as a “quiet masterpiece,” Driftless is the newest novel by David Rhodes.

Rhodes has an interesting back story, so to speak. He was a rising young writer at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, and had several books published in the 1970’s.

A  motorcycle crash in 1977, which partially paralyzed Rhodes,  ended his publishing career till Driftless came out this year.

Driftless shares a rhythm with the farming community it documents, and its reflective pace is well-suited to characters who are far more comfortable with hard work than with words,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Watch the Davenport Public Library newsletter for announcements of events and discussions concerning Driftless throughout 2010.

icantkeepmyownsecretsI Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs By Teens Famous & Obscure is a collection of writings gathered by Smith Magazine editors Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith from over 800 teens who share autobiographical truths about themselves  – in just six words.  These lines, more succinct than haiku, provide insightful glimmers into their day-to-day thoughts and realities.

Late For School Every Single Day

I fulfilled my awkwardness quota today.

My mom had my boyfriend deported.

Willing to share with us your six-word reality?  Use the comment section below.

Designer KnockoffDesigner Knockoff by Ellen Byerrum is the latest Lacey Smithsonian mystery. As a fashion reporter for a second-rate Washington D.C. newspaper, she investigates the disappearances of two young women. Occurring  decades apart, they begin to seem related as Lacey delves into the contemporary fortunes and World War II era history of the Bentley fashion empire.

Lacey’s Aunt Mimi left her a trunk of (now) vintage dresses, a “Bentley” suit, patterns, photos and letters from the 1940’s. These  provide clues to the mysterious fate of a talented designer who worked for the Bentley plant during the war.

Lacey continues to develop as a character – and to wage  her ongoing battle  against the monochrome suits that are the norm in Washington. Her relationship with her co-workers and a bevy of eccentric friends are a plus, as is insight into the strict clothing regulations during the war.

life lutheransIf you’ve never read anything by Garrison Keillor before, you’re missing out.  This humorist not only has his own National Public Radio show,  A Prairie Home Companion, but has written many magazine articles and more than a dozen books, including Lake Wobegon Days.

Life Among the Lutherans also takes place in fictional Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, and has that familiar style,with more than half of the chapters beginning with that signature line, “It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.”  The chapters are short (3-5 pages) so it makes for an easy and fast read. Typical of Keillor, there are also a few poems thrown into the mix.

Each chapter is also introduced with an appropriate quote.  This was my favorite: “I don’t like to generalize about Lutherans, but one thing that’s true of every single last one of them without a single exception is that the low point of their year is their summer vacation.”

I was beginning to wonder why there had been no mention of lutefisk.  But then, there it was, listed as Number 2 in the Ninety-Five Theses.  No account of Scandanavian Lutherans would have been complete without some mention of  lutefisk!

Died, killed, slayed…these comedy concepts are many and nebulous.  They do not detract, however, from the chronicling in I’m Dying up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder.  We get late 70’s snapshots in time of the rise (some meteoric, some not) of fresh-faced twentysomethings from all over the country dead-set on staking their claim in the stand-up comedy gold rush.

We meet a big-chinned pipe-wielding kid out of Boston College named Jay Leno and a young Indiana ex-weatherman Dave Letterman (turns out management didn’t like his wisecracks during weathercasts).  Three decades ago they were friends, galvanized through the common cause of working pro-bono for comedy tastemaker Mitzi Shore in her Hollywood clubs.  Some of these bell-bottomed quipsters achieved the ultimate goal of sharing a two-shot with Johnny Carson.  Some experienced the kind of bohemian poverty that would shock a college student on Ramen noodles.  Still others among these clowns exhibited the kind of offstage sadness that got them into rehab clinics and cemeteries.

This work tells the kind of unflattering after-closing stories that keep the pages turning.  I wish there were more photos.