Thursday, December 31, 2009


"THE HELP" by Kathryn Stockett

Once again I find myself with 10 books to review instead of posting about them one or two at a time. This time the task was so daunting I almost didn't write this post.

"The Help" is wonderful! I am not at all surprised that it is on bestseller lists. If you read only one book out of the ones listed here, read "The Help". It is set in Jackson, MS, in the 1960s, where, as one review put it, "black women were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver." It centers around the genteel young white woman Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan and black maids/nannies Minny and Aibileen. Though she socializes with other white women in bridge clubs and the country club, Skeeter has more intelligence and/or sense than her peers. She becomes interested in the plight of black women servants and sets out to write their (anonymous) stories.

The turning point in Skeeter's enlightenment is learning that black women are not allowed to use the same bathrooms as her white employers. You may be reading this in disbelief, but it is absolutely true, as are many more disturbing facts revealed about this era of integration in the South. There is a hilarious episode during which Skeeter inadvertently (or through a Freudian slip) causes a whole bunch of old toilets to be dumped on a socialite's lawn. The best part of the book is Stockett's warm and wise portrayal of her black women characters.

CALLA LILY PONDER" by Rebecca Wells

This book is by the same author of "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood". I absolutely loved the book and the movie it was based on. I was surprised and disappointed that my book club members did not care for the book. I don't think they "got" what the Ya-Yas were all about, but I did, and would have joined the sisterhood in a moment. I guess if you like Wells' heroines, you'll like Calla Lily Ponder, and vice versa. Calla Lily's "crowning glory" is hair. Like her mother, she is a hairdresser, and feels she has the gift of healing people while working on their hair. I did like Calla Lily, but I didn't love her like I did the Ya-Yas. I really got frustrated with the way she clung to the memory of the boyfriend who left her for the bright lights, big city. I did love the descriptions of life in little La Luna, LA, her hometown, and New Orleans. As usual, Wells' book is full of nutty Southern characters.

"QUITE A YEAR FOR PLUMS" by Bailey White

I had encountered Bailey White before, in her memoir, "Mama Makes Up Her Mind: And Other Dangers Of Southern Living". So when I found this book in a thrift shop, I snapped it up. I wish I hadn't wasted the money. Like Rebecca Wells' books White's are full of nutty - or more kindly - eccentric characters and a big dose of peculiar Southern ways (here, it's Georgia). But what works in the memoir doesn't in the book. For one thing, the characters are just too darn eccentric to be believable. For example, there's the woman who leaves things at the local dump with cute little notes attached to them. One thing that really bothered me is that I could not keep the main female characters apart: Which retired schoolteacher is Hilma, and which is Meade? Of Eula, Ethel and Louise, which is the mother, which the daughter and which the aunt? There is no plot whatsoever. Rather, "Quite A Year For Plums" is more like a collection of little vignettes, each a chapter long.

VIRGINIA WOOLF" by Stephanie Barron

If you, as I do, love reading English whodunits; learning about Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West,  Nigel Nicolson and other members of the Bloomsbury Group; salivating over descriptions of Vita and Nigel's famous White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle and reading fictional stories about gardens and gardeners, then you'll love "The White Garden". Barron has cleverly drawn all these elements together into a smashing mystery. You could also call this an "alternative history" novel. Everyone knows that Woolf committed suicide in 1941 by loading her coat pocket with stones and walking into a river. Or did she? Since her body was not found for days afterward, what if instead she deliberately disappeared and was later murdered for possessing a dangerous war-time secret? A couple of minor criticisms: I found the conspiracy plot to be quite far fetched, and I also do not understand why American gardener Jo's English grandfather Jock felt such responsibility in the death of "The Lady".

"A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE" by Anita Shreve

In my above review of "The White Garden", I wrote that I didn't quite understand why the protagonist's grandfather felt such guilt over the (ficticious) demise of Virginia Woolf. I felt the same way about the female protagonist in "A Change In Altitude". Although I am a great fan of Shreve's, I did not enjoy this book as much as I have many of her others. I did enjoy her foray into a new setting: Africa. (I learned that Shreve worked as a journalist in Kenya early in her career.) Kenya newcomers Patrick, an American doctor, and his photographer wife Margaret are invited to climb Mt. Kenya by Diana and Arthur, English ex-patriots. Diana and Arthur are experienced climbers; Patrick and Margaret are not. The climb is ill fated, and haunts Margaret throughout the rest of the book. But why should it, I ask? What happened wasn't her fault. That, to me, was a serious flaw in the plot. But more importantly I asked myself why should I care about any of these insipid characters?

"A BIG LITTLE LIFE" by Dean Koontz

I was first introduced to Dean Koontz' passion for golden retrievers in one of his novels. This book is subtitled "A Memoir of a Joyful Dog" and is about Koontz' and his wife's life with their golden, Trixie. As an owner of a (now-deceased) golden, I know how smart and lovable these dogs are. It's been almost a year since Penny died, and I mourn her still. Trixie is a very special dog as well. She seems to have a sixth sense which not even most dogs have. I bought this book knowing I would cry at the end. Sorry if that was a spoiler for you, but you must have known that people don't write memoirs about their dogs until after the dogs have passed on ("Marley and Me", for example). So be prepared to cry over Trixie's demise, but first enjoy and celebrate the life of this big little dog the way the Koontz' did.

"LABOR DAY" by Joyce Maynard

I have been a fan of Joyce Maynard since my teens. I read her various columns in girls' and women's magazines as she progressed from teenager to young woman to wife and mother. I also read her book "At Home In The World", in which she detailed her affair with that American icon, J. D. Salinger. Like fellow writer Anna Quindlen, Maynard successfully made the transition from columnist to fiction writer. "Labor Day" takes place in and around Labor Day weekend in Holton Mills, NH, centering on the lives of teenager Henry, his mother Adele, and an escaped convict named Frank, who at first takes them hostage but then is absorbed into their lives. Maynard proves, with believable and likable characters, that a family is whatever you define it as, and that love is where ever you find it.

by Katherine Howe

A fellow book club member recommended this book, but I was wary, knowing that she had selected a (gag) Danielle Steele book when it was her turn to host the club. However, I did see the book in my Literary Guild magazine, so I took a chance on it. I needn't have worried. The book is set partly in the present and partly in Salem, MA, during the Witch Trials in 1692. The protagonist, Connie Goodwin, is a Harvard graduate student studying women in American history. Traveling to Marblehead, MA, to clean out her late grandmother's house in preparation for selling it, Connie discovers a physick (or spells) book of a woman named Deliverance Dane. We learn that while most of the women accused as witches in Salem were innocent, Deliverance was not. Connie finds that she is a descendant of Deliverance, an actual witch, and what's more, she discovers that she has witchy powers. In a race against time, she must learn the secrets of Deliverance's book to save the man she loves.

"WILD LIFE" by Molly Gloss

This book relates the tale (real or imaginary??) of how Charlotte Bridger Drummond gets lost in the primeval forests of Washington State and comes to spend time with a small group of the legendary ape-like creature Sasquatch. Charlotte is quite the character - a widow bringing up five sons in near-wilderness, supporting them by writing dime novels featuring romantic, brave and plucky women. When a little girl gets lost at a logging camp in the Cascade Mountains in 1905, Charlotte - independent, cigar-smoking, men's-clothing-wearing feminist that she is - goes to the camp to help. After she becomes separated from a searching party, she strives to stay alive in the woods.

It is then that Charlotte, starving and near death, meets up with a small bunch of Sasquatch who eventually accept her as part of their group. I loved this section of the book the best. Charlotte forges a deep bond with the creatures, especially the mother, and eventually becomes more animal than human. I did have trouble with the writing. Charlotte's first-person story resembles the dense, convoluted style of newspapers of that day.Yes, Charlotte is extremely intelligent and well read, but would she have told her story in these words? However, that is a minor criticism, for "Wild Life" is a gripping - and ripping good - adventure story.

I've read that a lot of people were disappointed in Barbara Kingsolver's new book "The Lacuna", saying it was not as good as her other books. I disagree. While I loved Kingsolver's older books, especially "The Bean Trees" and "Animal Dreams", I think "The Lacuna" is just as good. It is definitely more ambitious in scope. Knowing a bit about Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera helped, I think. And while I had known that Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was exiled in Mexico, I had no real understanding of his politics. I didn't know that he and Stalin had conflicting views, thinking a Communist is a Columnist, plain and simple. I also learned a great deal of the 1950s-era Communist witch hunts in the U.S., again having no idea of how bad conditions were for many artists and writers. But above all I empathized so much with the hero, William Shepherd. The son of an American father and a Mexican mother, William is an ex-pat in both countries, never fully Mexican nor America.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Despite my best intentions, I have again delayed writing book reviews. I've now read six more books that I need to review. I'll get to them, but in the meantime I'll post this MeMe that I found on Janet's blog.

Do you snack while you read?

Yes, I am guilty of that. My books do have food smudges in them, and dog slobber too. And if a dog jostles me at the wrong time, there may be splashes of red wine on the page too.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read them, or does the idea of writing on your books horrify you?

I usually don't mark my books. I put post it notes on pages with passages I want to go back to.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog ears? Leaving the book open flat?

I am guilty of both dog earing my books and leaving them open flat. I love bookmarks but seldom use them as I tend to misplace them right away. Someone gave me a magnetic bookmark that worked great, but Gracie chewed it up.

Fiction, Non-Fiction or both?

Mostly fiction, but I do like well-written non-fiction too. This past spring I read a glut of non-fiction books about the Celts. And I do love a good biography.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point?

I keep on reading until I have finished the book, or have run out of time, or until I'm too sleepy to read one more word. I've often stayed up all night just to finish a book. I read "The Stand" almost non-stop for two days.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?

No, I have a pretty good vocabulary. If I run into a word I don't know, I try to take the meaning from the context. However, that sometimes leads me to having an incorrect or only vague understanding of the word's meaning. I only just realized that avuncular means uncle-like, not jolly.

What are you currently reading?

"The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder" by Rebecca Wells.

What is the last book you bought?

Just ordered "The White Garden" by Stephanie Barron and "Testament" by Alis Hawkins from used books. "Testament" is the January pick for an online book club I just joined.

Are you the type of person who can only read one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?

I usually read only one novel at a time, but can have a non-fiction book going on the side at the same time.

Do you prefer series or stand alone books?

Series can be wonderful but they can also be terribly disappointing. I loved "Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon but the succeeding books in the series got worse and worse.

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?

The one book I have been consistently recommending for 40 years is "To Kill A Mockingbird". Of more current books, I often recommend "Water For Elephants."

How do you organize your books?

Willy-nilly. They are stuffed into bookcases as they are read. This fall I was finally able to get the various stacks of books off the bedroom and hall floors.

Monday, October 12, 2009



I can't believe it's been over a year and a half since I posted anything to this blog. However, I do know the reason why. It's because I felt that I had to write full-blown, detailed reviews of each book. And consequently, I put off writing the reviews, causing me to forget details about the books.

I have decided to give only thumbnail reviews from now on, and post them as soon as I have read the book, or two or three at most. Contained in this post are the books I have read most recently.

Shown above, "Lying With the Enemy" tells about the German occupation of the British Island of Guernsey during WWII. I was particularly interested to get this book when I found it in The Owl bookstore, because I have read the bestseller, "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society."  Although both books deal with the same subject, Lying is a much more somber book than Potato Peel, which is far lighter in tone. Altough Potato Peel touches on the privations of the islanders, it very often does so with humor. Not so with Lying. We see the starvation, the cruelty of the German invaders, and in particular, the fraternization of the Guernsey women with the German troops. I found this book difficult to get into, but then it became a page turner as an island policeman tries to discover who murdered one of these women - a rich socialite who was once his lover.

"THE LEGACY OF LUNA" by Julia Butterfly Hill

I don't know if I would have picked up "The Legacy of Luna" if it hadn't been just a dollar on the hardcover discount table. I remember when Julia Butterfly Hill was occupying a giant redwood tree in California to prevent it and its neighbors from being logged. At the time, I thought she was a crazy tree hugger (not that I dislike tree huggers - I am one myself, but I hug my trees in private). But the more I read, the more I got to like and admire Hill. It took amazing stamina, determination and courage to live for two years high among branches violently tossed by winter storms. She is no environmental dilettante. In time she comes to love Luna, the redwood, not just as a symbol of the great redwood forests, but as an individual tree with a soul and a personality. Having studied the Celts, I realized that her feelings are in line with those of my ancient ancestors.

"THE LOST SYMBOL" by Dan Brown

I must admit that I read some reviews of "The Lost Symbol", the newest bestseller by Dan Brown. But, at least I read them after I read the book. I was surprised at how unkind the reviews were. The readers seemed to have expected that Brown undergo a metamorphosis as a writer since his last book, for what they complained about most was his style of writing, his plotting, his lack of romance between the protagonists, his use of clues and puzzles to solve a mystery. Whoa, people, Dan Brown is not going to change a very successful formula. While I wouldn't give it five stars, I did like it. I thought it was more suspenseful than a couple of his other books, and I liked how he wove the architecture of various buildings and monuments in Washington, DC into his story. Washington is one of my favorite cities (and it is obviously his too) and I loved how he explained the hidden symbols within the Washington Monument, the Capitol Rotunda and the National Cathedral (one of my favorite places on earth).

"THE PAINTED KISS" by Elizabeth Hickey

Although I had heard of the painter Gustav Klimt before, I was not really acquainted with any of his works. The book is fictional, but is based on his relationship with a real-life woman, Emilie Floge. She was the subject of the Klimt painting featured on the book's cover. Emilie, who later became a famous Viennese fashion designer, met Klimt at age 12 when she was his drawing student. She had a friendship with him that lasted the rest of his life (although he is quite an unlovable character, she loved him very much). That she was his longtime companion and confidante is undisputed, whether or not they were lovers is. I especially enjoyed the portrait of bohemian Vienna at the turn of the century. Hickey brings the city, the food, the fashions, the manners, the society, the arts and the artists to vibrant life. The next time I see a Klimt painting I will surely recognize it.


Rosemary Savage is only 18 years old when she arrives in New York City from far distant Tasmania. Incredibly - it seemed to me - she finds a job at an antiquarian bookstore within a matter of days. At The Arcade, she meets a cast of extermely eccentric characters, some nice, some not so nice. There's the irascible owner George Pike, his creepy albino assistant Walter Geist, gay Art of the art department, the sympathetic transsexual cashier Pearl, and Oscar, the nonfiction specialist with whom Rosemary is infatuated. There is an unsatisfying end to a mystery involving a lost manuscript by Herman Melville. Having slogged through "Moby Dick" in junior English class, I am not a huge fan of Melville, and I'm not a huge fan of this book either. Equally unsatisfying is the unexplained, abrupt departure of Oscar at the end of the book.