Wednesday, September 8, 2010


This isn't my TBR stack - I found it on the web, but
I have read - and recommend - "Odd Thomas",
"The Time Traveler's Wife" and "Traveling Mercies".
I have been meaning to read something by Flannery O'Connor,
and I like Bret Lot so I will check into "A Song I Knew By Heart"

What's in your TBR (To Be Read) stack? Actually, I have two "stacks". One is a set of five books gathered nicely in between spaniel bookends on the little table by the couch. In it are books I plan to read soon - brand new hardcover books from my book-of-the-month clubs, plus a used book ordered for my September online book club discussion ("Troubles" by J. G. Farrell). The others are "Juliet" by Anne Fortier, highly touted by all my book-of-the-month clubs, "The Island" by Erin Hildebrand and "The Whisper" by Carla Neggers. However, I was miffed to learn that to get the most out of the Neggers book I need to go back and read her previous three books involving the same cast of characters.

My other "stack" is really a bookcase shelf I have given over to books I THINK I will be reading. The trouble is, a lot of these books have been sitting there a long time and I'm wondering if I should weed them out. It's not as if I haven't been adding to the shelf. That's the problem. The books that have been added latest have been the ones I have chosen to read first.

My TBR stack can be divided into several categories. Under the "started but couldn't finish" books are "Gentlemen and Players" by Joanne Harris (I love all her other books!), "West With The Night" by Beryl Markham, "The Sultan's Seal" by Jenny White, "When Madeline Was Young" by Jane Hamilton, "Wicked" by Gregory Maguire and "Leonardo's Swans" by Karen Essex. Having listed them, I realize that's quite a few, as I usually don't start a book and then not finish it. I think I will give each one another try and if I still can't read it, move it elsewhere.

Three of the books aren't really mine. "Pope Joan" by Donna Woolfolk Cross is actually my daughter's book. I love historical novels and this one looks kind of interesting. I gave "Tipperary" by Frank Delaney to my  husband for Christmas one year and he never read it. And a very recent (and unread) gift to Dan is "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" by David Mitchell. Since they aren't mine, I don't feel guilty if I don't read them. However, Jacob De Zoet has been highly touted by my online book club members so I think I will pick it up soon.

Then there are the books that are quite lengthy but I'm pretty sure they will be good. I just feel as if I need a big chunk of time to devote to them. They are "Sacajawea" by Anna Lee Waldo, "A Rose For The Crown" by Ann Easter Smith and "My Sister, My Love" by Joyce Carol Oates.

I bought "The Lost German Slave Girl" at a used book store and THEN found out it is a true (and therefore dull?) account. I might or might not have already read "Cold Sassy Tree" by Olive Ann Burns, (bought at a thrift shop so little is lost if I have read it). "Cane River" by Lalita Tademy is left over from the good old days of Oprah's Book Club when I purchased and read (almost) every one. Since I have read Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory lately, I am saving "Earthly Joys" (Gregory) and "Innocent Traitor" (Weir) for a while.

Finally, there are the series books. I bought "Child of Prophecy" by Juliet Marillier and then discovered it is the third book in a trilogy ("Daughters of The Forest" is No. 1 and "Son of the Shadows" is No. 2). So now all three sit there mocking me. "Rebel Angels" by Libra Bray is a sequel to her "A Great and Terrible Beauty" but  it's been a long time since I read that and fear I need to read it again. Ditto with "Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle", which is the first book in Rosalind Miles Tristan and Isolde trilogy, followed by "The Maid of the White Hands" and "The Lady of the Sea". Now these two languish unread.

I have read the first three books of Mary Stewart's wonderful Arthurian saga, but I hesitate to read the fourth and final book, "The Wicked Day" because I know that Arthur dies in it and the story must finally end.

I was definitely seduced by the gorgeous covers and location (the moors and glens of the Scottish Lowlands, 1788) of Liz Curtis Higgs' trilogy. I read the first, "Thorn In My Heart", and found it to have a heavily religious bent so although I bought them, I have not read "Fair Is The Rose" or "Whence Came A Prince".

Will I or will I not read these TBR books? Only the future will tell.

Saturday, August 14, 2010



On my regular blog, Celtic Lady, I recently posted about the joys of summer still left to partake of in August, one of which was slicing lush, ripe peaches and drizzling them with cream and sugar.

That same evening, as I was reading "The Cookbook Collector" by Allegra Goodman, I came across this passage: "...she washed [the] ripe fruit, and bit and broke the skin. An intense tang, the underside of velvet. Then the flesh dissolved in a wash of nectar. Juice drenched her hand and wet the inside of her wrist. She had forgotten, if she had ever known, that what was sweet could also be complicated, that fruit could have a nap, like fabric, soft one way, sleek the other. She licked the juice dripping down her arm."

Now that's great food writing - great descriptive writing of any type, right? If the book had continued in that vein, "The Cookbook Collector" would have ranked as high, in my opinion, as "The School of Essential Ingredients" (previously reviewed).

Unfortunately, that description occurred on page 402 of a 587-page (large-print) book, and what had come before had been so boring as to be sleep inducing.

It would have been great if the book had stuck with its opening character, Jessamine, a retro hippie-Berkeley philosophy student-tree hugging-independent bookstore clerk and her employer, George. It is their delight to discover and archive an amazing, heretofore-unknown collection of very old cookbooks, and discover the delights of each other in the process.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the book is devoted to Jessamine's sister Emily, a driven, successful president of a start-up company. (If I have mangled this description badly enough to make computer geeks shriek, too bad, I'm not offering any apology. Go back to your cubicle now.)

The story of the ups and downs of Emily and her sleazy boyfriend Jonathan's companies is mind-numbingly, excruciatingly boring. Way, way too much time is wasted on Em and company. As quickly as the companies soar, they plummet like Icarus. Such is the way of the world of the late 1990s, during which most of this novel takes place.

Then 9/11 arrives and a couple of the principals, who are passengers on the doomed flight out of Boston, are killed - ho-hum, we scarcely care - but this does shake up the survivors. I think that Goodman created these obscenely rich, opportunistic, unprincipled characters to be foils for the protagonists - appreciators of fine books and art, connoisseurs of fine wine and food, philosophers, humanists, caring individuals attuned to the natural world and each other.

Then, you have a side story of long-lost relatives belonging to a a mystical Jewish sect I had never heard of, and which involved two rabbis so alike in character I could not distinguish between them. These Jewish relatives provide several way-too-neat plot tie-ups.

By the way, we actually learn very, very little about the eponymous cookbook collector. As I previously mentioned, if only the story had concentrated on Jessamine, George, and the collector and his mysterious lady love who is revealed only through the drawings and poems he had tucked into his cookbooks.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Fifty years ago, on July 11, 1960, a book was published that came to have enormous impact on millions of Americans and indeed, on readers worldwide. The book was "To Kill A Mockingbird", by Harper Lee.

I can't remember when I first read the book, although I do know it was not for a school assignment. And I don't know how often I have re-read it. But I do know I have been touting it as "my favorite book ever" for a good 40 years. It has been called "America's novel".

Reading TKAM gave me my first exposure to great Southern literature. My first exposure to the character of a plucky young Southern girl. My first exposure to a "Southern Eccentric" (including the young Dill). And most importantly, a first exposure to the hard cold fact that justice is not aways served.

Bookstores around the country have planned anniversary celebrations this summer, some including showings of the eponymous 1962 film. Harper Collins has put out a 50th anniversary slip-cased edition for a surprisingly low price of $25.00.

Harper has also created a special website for the celebration - - which includes a chance to win a 50th Anniversary Prize Pack of books and DVD (easy online entry!), suggestions for book club discussions, resources for teachers and a listing of events (although many took place on July 11, there are still a lot scheduled for the remainder of July and August).

(Lee, who is now 84 and famously reclusive, is not involved in any of the anniversary events.)

For anyone re-reading TKAM this summer (or reading it for the first time ever!), here are a couple of books to read along with it:

I have read and thoroughly enjoyed "Mockingbird", Lee's biography, in which I learned (among many other things) these facts: that her full name was Nelle Harper Lee (she was called Nelle by friends and family) and that she was robbed of a well-deserved co-authorship of "In Cold Blood" by her "supposed" longtime friend Truman Capote ("Dill" in TKAM).

Our library doesn't have "Scout, Atticus and Boo" yet but I have put it on reserve. In it, such famous people as Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey share the impressions and effects the novel has had on them. I am sure I will find that they will describe their feelings way more eloquently than I can.

I think my experience of TKAM is summed up by the cover blurb on the edition shown at the top of this post: "The timeless classic of growing up and the human dignity that unites us all."

I read a comment somewhere on the web by a woman who, although she liked TKAM, declared that it was not a perfect book. I disagree. I think it is as close to perfect as a book can be. There is not one sentence, not one word, that does not serve a purpose or help to bring the book forward.

TKAM can be read on so many levels. On one level, it can be seen as a rousing good story, but it is also a classic example of a coming of age book. It slides effortlessly into another time (1930s) and place (the Deep South) as easily as slipping into a river on a sweltering summer's day. It contains some of the most fully-limned characters ever put on page. It is an affecting portrait of an upstanding man, whether he is being the lawyer or the father. It is a blistering commentary on (the lack of) civil rights in America.

I didn't know if I would re-read the book this summer or not. I didn't have to re-read it to perfectly remember the first line: "When he was nearly 13 my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

I didn't have to re-read it to conjure up the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama, or the characters of Scout and Jem, Atticus and Calpurnia, Miss Maudie Atkinson and Miss Stephanie Crawford, Dill and Boo Radley. They are my neighbors, Maycomb is my town.

I didn't need to re-read TKAM to remember Scout finding little gifts in the knot hole of the tree on the corner, or her hilarious late appearance on a school pageant stage dressed a cured ham, or her taking that sickening tire ride up the sidewalk to Boo Radley's front steps. I vividly remember the night Jem had to leave his pants snagged on a fence, and the children sitting in the colored gallery at the courthouse. I'll never forget the benighted walk from the high school to home on that memorable last night.

I think the main things I came away with after all my readings of TKAM are that class has nothing to do with money, but with "the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down", in other words, acting with grace under pressure. And that the definition of courage is "when you know you're licked before you begin with but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what." And most of all, that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, a creature that does nothing but please us with song, or another creature who only watched over "his children".

In the end, I did re-read it again, yesterday, just so that I could spend some more time in that world where it was "hotter then that it is now", and when people moved slower than they do now. The world of scuppernongs and azaleas, barefoot overalled children and tin bucket lunch pails, of Miss Rachel's "Do-oo Je-sus" and Atticus' dry wit, Calpurnia's colored church and children playing outdoors unsupervised from morning 'til night. I had forgotten a few things, such as how unintentionally funny Scout was, and that even a confirmed tomboy can learn when it's essential to behave: "After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I."

I have often wondered why Lee never published another book (she worked on at least one other for years), but then again, when you write a near-perfect book on your first try, there's no need to write another.

Monday, July 12, 2010


"Woman Lying on a Bench" by Carl Larsson

A few days ago, I passed a huge milestone in terms of reading. On July 7, I finished my 100th book of the year. (Which, by the way, was the quite strange and even disturbing "Beatrice and Virgil" by Yann Martel.)

This is the first year I have ever kept a record of the books I have read. I read 10 in January, 14 in February, 13 in March, 14 in April, 15 in May, 27 in June and so far in July, 11. At first I was surprised that I read the most books in a summer month rather than in a winter month, but then again the long days of June gave way to many a long evening spent reading out on the deck, sometimes almost until 10 p.m.

I was also surprised to have read 15 books in May, as I was working that entire month (and not working at all the other months.)

I do admit to having set a goal of reading at least 100 books in 2010, but I did not at all expect to reach this milestone so early in the year. I did not cheat by looking for short books - most of those that I read were on my TBR (to be read) list, and most averaged between 300 and 400 pages. I expect to continue to keep reading at this pace, at least so long as I remain unemployed.

Obviously, since I haven't reviewed a book since May, I am extremely behind in reviewing, so behind that I will not even attempt to start. Therefore, I'm just printing a list of the books that I have read but not reviewed since April:

"Happiness Sold Separately", Lolly Winston
"The Rain Before It Falls", Jonathan Coe
"As Hot As It Gets You Ought To Thank Me", Nanci Kincaid
"My Cousin Rachel", Daphne DuMaurier (May online book club)
"The Book Of The Dead", Patricia Cornwell
"The Kindness of Strangers", Katrina Kittle
"Morning, Noon and Night" by Judy Collins
"On Folly Beach", Karen White
"Push", Sapphire
"A Year In The World," Frances Mayes
"The Monster of Florence", Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi
"The Sister", Poppy Adams
"The Girl Who Chased The Moon", Sarah Addison Allen
"The Language of Secrets", Dianne Dixon
"Letters to Juliet", Lise Friedman and Ciel Friedman
"The Murderer's Daughters", Randy Susan Meyers
"The Weight of Silence", Heather Gudenkauf
"April and Oliver", Tess Callahan
"Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas &
   Found Happiness", Dominique Browning
"Etta", Gerald Kopan
"Girl In Translation", Jean Kwok
"The Season of Second Chances", Diane Meier
"The Map Of True Places", Brunonia Barry
"Death Comes For The Archbishop", Willa Cather (June online book club)
"The Story Sisters", Alice Hoffman
"The Scent of Rain and Lightning", Nancy Pickard
"Lit", Mary Karr
"One Good Dog", Susan Wilson
"The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival", Ken Wheaton
"Behind The Scenes At The Museum", Kate Atkinson
"The Hiding Place", Trezza Azzopardi
"Mistress of the Art of Death", Ariana Franklin
"The Double Comfort Safari Club", Alexander McCall Smith
"Lake of Sorrows", Erin Hart
"Still Missing", Chevy Stevens
"The Girl Who Played With Fire", Stieg Larsson
"The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest", Stieg Larsson
"Major Pettigrew's Last Stand", Helen Simonson
"The Solitude of Prime Numbers", Paolo Giordano
"Let The Great World Spin", Colum McCann
"Blood Harvest", S. J. Bolton
"False Mermaid", Erin Hart
"Beatrice and Virgil", Yann Martel
"Becky: The Life And Loves of Becky Thatcher", Lenore Hart
"Anthropology Of An American Girl", Hilary Thayer Hamann
"The Art of Racing In The Rain", Garth Stein
"The Shadow Year", Jeffrey Ford

Thursday, May 27, 2010


I had eagerly anticipated "Sacred Hearts" after having read Sarah Dunant's other books, "The Birth of Venus" and "In the Company of the Courtesan". But "Sacred Hearts" was not what I had expected and I was disappointed with it at first.

I knew the book was about nuns, but I did not think that the entire book would take place in a convent. I thought that like the characters in the other two books, they would be involved in the world around them - 16th Renaissance Italy. For a time, I felt as trapped in the convent as newly-arrived novice Suora (Sister) Serafina.

In 1570, Italian convents were filled with the daughters of noblemen who were unable or unwilling to pay a dowry to marry them off, and Santa Caterina in Ferrara is no exception. Serafina's father finds the convent a perfect solution for a daughter who's been having a love affair with an unsuitable young man.

Like many girls before her at Santa Caterina, Serafina is a reluctant novice. But unlike most, she fiercely resists her fate, to the point of upsetting the entire convent with her rages. Although she has a beautiful singing voice, which would have been a tremendous asset to the convent, she refuses to sing for them.

Enter Suora Zuana, Santa Caterina's dispensary sister. A healer and herbalist, Suora Zuana is initially called upon to use her medicines to calm Serafina, but a bond soon develops between the older nun and the  girl. In Serafina, Zuana sees a strong willed, spirited, intelligent girl who, like herself, shows a talent for medicine, and who, like herself, was sent to the convent against her will. (Zuana was placed there after her physician father died unexpectedly.) Zuana comes to care for the girl a great deal and tries to comfort her in her rage and sorrow.

Serafina's sense of being walled up alive inside the convent walls is very palpable and powerful. Just reading the book made me feel terribly claustrophobic.

I was soon caught up in the two women's struggles - Serafina's in trying to try to adapt and fit into her new life and Zuana's as she experiences continuing doubts about her faith.

I hugely enjoyed the characters of the two sisters as they take their journeys of devotion and doubt, obedience and disobedience, pain and joy. The "supporting" cast of characters is good as well. There is the abbess, Madonna Chiara, who in today's world would be an extremely competent company CEO. Suora Umiliana, the mistress of the novices, is engaged in a power struggle with the abbess and has enlisted a number of the sisters on her side. There is Suora Perseveranza, who goes to the extremes of faith by inflicting pain on herself. And then there is elderly Suora Magdalena, who has starved herself for many years (it is rumored that she only dines on the host) to the point where she has visions and raptures.

Mix them all together and you have a convent life that is not as boring as it would seem on the surface. And indeed, the outside world is pressing against the walls of the convent, as new church leaders try to impose more rules and regulations upon the already-burdened sisters.

The more the vibrant life of the sisters opened up to me, the less "trapped" I felt, and I ended up liking this book as well as Dunant's other, more adventurous, dramatic tales.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


"The Sonnet" by Thomas Baker

Back in January I listed 20 books that I wanted to read during the first part of 2010 (I was being deliberately vague as to the time frame). As I said in a recent post, I read 16 of them. One book is not available in the U.S., and three were not available at my library and too expensive to purchase. Therefore, I consider this list complete.

Now I have compiled my summer reading list. I hope to read these books during the months of June, July and August. And, I don't have to wait in line (figuratively speaking) at the library for them. I own them all! I recently re-joined two book clubs - Quality Paperback Book Club and Doubleday Book Club - which got me 11 books for low, low prices. I waited for a good deal to come along at Literary Guild and consequently obtained two books with free shipping. I fulfilled my Book of the Month Club obligation by ordering two books (though they were sort of pricey). And that garnered me an offer from BOMC to purchase two books with no shipping, so that was another good deal. All in all, I got 17 books for an average of less than $7.00 each. (Having worked nearly four weeks now, I felt very flush financially.)

After perusing all the book clubs' listings carefully, I chose the following books:
1. "The Murderer's Daughters" by Randy Susan Meyers.
2. "The Language of Secrets" by Dianne Dixon.
3. "The Scent of Rain and Lightning" by Nancy Pickard.
4. "The Solitude of Prime Numbers" by Paolo Giordano.
5. "Etta" by Gerald Kaplan.
6. "On Folly Beach" by Karen White.
7. "The Season of Second Chances" by Diane Meier.
8. "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein.
9. "The Girl Who Chased the Moon" by Sarah Addison Allen.
10. "Push" by Sapphire.
11. The Monster of Florence" by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi.
12. "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann.
13. "April and Oliver" by Tess Callahan.
14. "The Sister" by Poppy Adams.
15. "Girl in Translation" by Jean Kwok.
16. "The Map of True Places" by Brunonia Barry
17. "Sacred Hearts" by Sarah Dunant. (Actually, I jumped the gun on this and read it last weekend. I love Sarah Dunant and couldn't wait to start another book of hers. Review coming soon.)

Some of these books are or were on the bestseller lists. Some were recommended by other bloggers. Others I had never heard of until I checked out the book club offerings. Obviously, they all sounded good. I'm looking forward to many a long summer evening reading on the deck.

I'll also be reading three other books this summer, although I don't know the titles of two of them yet. They are the books for my online book group sponsored by Cornflower Books in Scotland. The June selection is:

18. "Death Comes for the Archbishop" by Willa Cather.

(Added later):

19. "The Go-Between" by  (July online book club selection).
20. "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith (August selection).

Monday, May 17, 2010


I shouldn't have read "Imperfect Birds" right after reading "Every Last One" (review below). I confess I hadn't really read the plot outline for "Imperfect Birds", I just knew this was a new book by Anne Lamott and like her fiction and non-fiction works. Also, I had just gotten both books from the library and I like to read the high-demand library books first so others don't have to wait long to get them.

The reason why I should not have read them back to back is that the subjects are very similar. Both focus on moms who are worried about their kids, with great reason, as it turns out in both cases. Elizabeth is concerned that daughter Rosie is into drugs, yet she overlooks every single clue that Rosie drops. In fact, I would say that Elizabeth is The Queen of Denial. Although Rosie is a consummate liar, any other reasonable mother would be hard pressed to overlook what is obviously going on with Rosie. Even when Rosie partially confesses: "I've only smoked marijuana a couple of times, Mom, I swear", or "I had just one beer, Mom", Elizabeth just brushes her worries away.

Elizabeth herself has problems. She has struggled with depression and other mental illness for years, and is a recovering alcoholic. Hmm, you suspect your daughter of drinking and using drugs, and you know that alcoholism is inherited, but you still sweep all your suspicions under the rug? One of your daughter's very best friends went to rehab for drug use? She's become too friendly with an older guy who is known to hang with the tweakers and stoners? You smell bleach in Rosie's urine test cup but blow it off? Get a clue, Elizabeth.

James, Elizabeth's husband and Rosie's stepfather, is not as stupid, but he has to walk on eggshells around Elizabeth. He's also trying to walk a fine line between maintaining Rosie's obvious affection for him and saving her from herself.

Although I actually did like all three characters, plus Elizabeth's earth mother friend Rae, I was so frustrated with all the lying and using that went on page after page, chapter after chapter.The denial finally stops when Rosie has to go to the emergency room for an overdose of cough syrup. Elizabeth at last wises up and she and James send Rosie off to a wilderness camp.

This could have been the best part of the book but it came too little, too late. And the book ends abruptly with Rosie having finished only the first month of her three-month stint at the camp. I would have loved to have known what happened to Rosie. It was like watching the A&E TV series "Intervention" and not getting to see the part where you learn if the participants have stayed sober or relapsed.

ADDED LATER: Maybe we'll see what happens to Rosie in a future Lamott book. I just found out that "Imperfect Birds" is a follow-up to other books about Elizabeth and Rosie, "Rosie" (Rosie at age 5) and "Crooked Little Heart" (Rosie at age 13).