Wednesday, September 8, 2010

MY TBR STACK


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

THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR


"EATING PEACHES" by Ena Joyce

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 dot.com 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 dot.com 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

A MOCKINGBIRD MILESTONE


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 - http://tokillamockingbird50year.com/ - 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

A HUGE MILESTONE


 
"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

SACRED HEARTS




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

SUMMER READING LIST




"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

IMPERFECT BIRDS


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).

Friday, May 14, 2010

EVERY LAST ONE




I have been a fan of Anna Quindlen ever since she was a columnist for the New York Times. I knew I had found a kindred spirit when I read her column about appearing perfect on the outside but on the inside, if you only knew . . . her skirt hem is held up with safety pins, and under one of her her tall, fashionable boots is a big run in her pantyhose (this was years ago when women still wore pantyhose). Or, open the door to the cabinet in her neat and tidy living room and all manner of odd things come tumbling out.

Given her accomplishments in the world of non-fiction, I was surprised - but delighted - to learn that Quindlen had switched to fiction. I think she is as good, or better, fiction writer than she was a columnist.

Anna Quindlen knows families, be they blended ("Blessings"), strongly ethnic ("Object Lessons"), dysfunctional ("One True Thing"), abusive ("Black and Blue"), or closely-knit, as in this book, "Every Last One".

Not only are the Lathams a close family, they also appear almost perfect to the outside world. But as that long-ago column attests, no one is perfect, nothing is perfect. Mary Beth is a devoted mother and wife, but is her squeaky-clean image all that it seems to be, or is it really tarnished? The oldest child, 17-year-old Ruby, is a golden girl: beautiful, a gifted writer, beloved friend and respected student, but there is trouble lurking near her. Junior-high-schooler Alex is a terrific athlete and popular kid, but his fraternal brother Max, is a loner and outsider who is on the fringe and struggling with depression.

The Latham home is a haven for the children's friends and neighbors, the kind of house that kids love to hang out at. But these kids have secrets too, including Ruby's best girlfriends and Kiernan, who's been super close to Ruby from a very young age.

It would not be a spoiler to say that tragedy strikes the Lathams. The cover blurb itself  tells of a "shocking act of violence" that alters the family forever. I am certainly not going to reveal that act, as some reviewers have done. I will say that Mary Beth should have known the warning signs - the signals were very clear and there were clues everywhere.

Because I don't want to give anything else away, I am not going to write much more about "Every Last One". But just because this is a fairly short review, don't think that I didn't like this book, because I loved it. Not only does Anna Quindlen know families, she understands people, especially women. She is comfortable with them and conveys that comfort to her readers. Mary Beth is one the most living, breathing characters Quindlen has ever written, and that is saying a lot. Mary Beth's is a fully-limned portrait of a woman whose life had seemed perfectly mapped out but whose compass has been lost. At the end of the book, a pathway is cut through the woods between two families' homes. I thought this was an excellent parallel with Mary Beth's situation. Mary Beth has had to find entirely new bearings, but her way now seems a bit more certain, less obstructed, more sure-footed, and a little less dark.

Monday, May 10, 2010

THE POSTMISTRESS


"The Postmistress" by Sarah Blake was heavily promoted by the Book of the Month Club magazine, but I found it to be quite disappointing. First of all, the title doesn't really fit. Iris James, the eponymous postmistress, is not the main character. A more proper title would have been "The Woman War Correspondent", referring to Frankie Bard, an American who broadcasting from London during the Blitz of 1940.

While Frankie is daily facing death from German bombs, Iris and other residents of Franklin, MA, are behaving like most Americans did in 1940 - they're in denial of the danger the world is facing. However, Dr. Will Fitch and his new wife Emma start listening to Frankie's broadcasts. "We must do something", insists Emma. However, when Will decides to go to London and offer his services as a doctor, Emma is horrified.

Incredible as the coincidence may seem, Frankie and Will end up spending a night together in an air raid shelter. Very soon after, Will is killed by a bomb and Frankie finds a letter addressed to Emma in his pocket.

Frankie saves the letter, intending to one day deliver it to Emma back in America. But meanwhile she has an extremely important assignment - to meet up with the Jews escaping from Germany, Poland and other occupied countries. At great risk to her life, she does so, amassing countless recording cylinders containing refugee horror stories told in their own voices.

Back at the home front, you have middle-aged Iris, who considers herself to be an exemplary postmistress - always on time, efficient, accurate, never failing in her duty to get the mail out no matter the circumstances - snow, rain, sleet, hail, dark of night, etc. Except for one letter. This paragon of postal virtue of has taken it upon herself to not deliver one letter - the one from England notifying Emma of Will's death.

Iris' motives are not clear, except that perhaps she was fearful that such terrible news would cause pregnant Emma to go into labor.

Frankie's part of the story is the strongest and most engaging, whether she is avoiding bombs in London or riding trains crammed with refugees. Regarding the characters back home in Massachusetts, they are dull as dishwater. There's a "love" story between Iris and her boyfriend Harry that is just plain odd. A subplot involving Otto, a German Jew who now lives in Franklin, goes nowhere, as does the possible threat of a German sub lurking just offshore.

The book begins in the present, with famous newswoman Frankie regaling dinner party guests with the story of a postmistress who never delivered a certain letter. There's no reason for her to be so smug, however, for even though she eventually makes it to Franklin, she never does deliver Will's letter.

Reading this book was a lesson for me not to believe the hype written by book club magazine editors.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

ERIN HART AND KATE ATKINSON


 


I am surprised to discover that I have become a fan of series mystery novels. Although I have read at least one of each, I was never enthralled with Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta books, John Grisham's legal thrillers, Sue Grafton's alphabet series, or James Patterson's numerical series. (I note that Patterson's The Ninth Judgment" is on the top of the bestseller list today.)


But I have lately fallen under the thrall of 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, the amateur sleuth of the Alan Bradley mysteries. I really enjoyed "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" and "The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag", both of which I have reviewed here, and I'm eagerly awaiting the third book.

Since then, I have discovered two more mystery/suspense/detective novelists I like enough to look for other books by them. The first is Kate Atkinson, whose book, "When Will There Be Good News?" I found at a consignment shop. I wasn't lucky enough to happen upon the first book in the series, but it hardly mattered. "When . . . . " is actually the third book that pairs Private Detective Jackson Brodie and Edinburgh's Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe. But except for learning that Brodie had somehow become a millionaire along the way, it didn't matter that I was reading the third book without having read the first two.

When a train Brodie is traveling in crashes, he is rescued by Reggie, a 16-year-old nanny, whose efforts at CPR save his life. At an Edinburgh hospital, Dr. Joanna Hunter takes over the lifesaving effort. Meanwhile, Inspector Monroe has been advised that a man involved in a long-ago multiple murder has turned up in a local hospital. But as it turns out, identities were mistakenly switched in the aftermath of the train crash. To Monroe's surprise, her old pal Brodie is the man who has ended up with Andrew Decker's wallet.

Reggie, who becomes very attached to Brodie after saving his life and visiting him at the hospital, has her own worries. Her employer, Dr. Hunter, has gone missing, and no one, not even her husband, seems to care. In a strange quirk of fate, Brodie learns that Dr. Joanna Hunter is one and the same person as Joanna Mason, whose mother, sister and baby brother were murdered by a madman wielding a knife, leaving only 6-year-old Joanna alive. In fact, it is Brodie himself who found traumatized little Joanna hiding in the wheat fields.

Now, 30 years later, Inspector Monroe is looking for that very same murderer. Reggie convinces Brodie to help her find Dr. Mason, Monroe continues to search for Decker, and all the while plots are converging and everyone is careening toward an ending that may be as disatrous as the train wreck.

Atkinson lives in Edinburgh, and I enjoyed the glimpses of the city she weaves into the story. And I especially enjoyed the character of Reggie, stalwart, independent and plucky. I hope she turns up in later Brodie/Hunter mysteries. In the meantime, I am going back to read the previous two books in the series, "Case Histories" and "One Good Turn".



Not one but two blogging friends recommended Erin Hart's "False Mermaid" to me, knowing how much I love everything Celtic. I was a little bit smarter this time, and looked up the book on amazon.com. It turns out that "False Mermaid" is the third book in Hart's series about Dr. Nora Gavin, an American MD and forensic anthropologist lecturing at Trinity College Medical School, and Dublin University archaeologist Cormac Maguire.

When a body is discovered in a peat bog by Brendan McGann, a local who's been cutting turf, police are called in, as well as Cormac and Nora, who is especially interested in studying ancient bodies preserved in bogs. As they begin excavating the site, they learn that it is actually just a head that has been discovered. Almost perfectly preserved because of the peat, the head is clearly that of a red-headed woman who has been executed by having her head chopped off.

The question is, how old is the head, and where is the rest of the body? And the villagers ask another, inevitable question: Does the head belong to Mina Osborne, who disappeared two years ago, along with her three-year-old son?

Working together, Nora and Cormac, along with detective Garret Devaney, try to solve both mysteries. Nora is convinced that local landowner Hugh Osborne, Mina's husband, murdered his wife and son. However, she and Cormac do accept an invitation to stay with Hugh and help in the excavation of some property he plans to develop. Also living at Hugh's house are his icy cousin Lucy and her strange son, Jeremy. And then there's McGann, who is a well known adversary of Hugh. Hugh has been the primary suspect in his wife's disappearance from the beginning, but could one of the others have done away with Mina and her son, or did she simply disappear of her own volition?

Except for a substory involving Detective Devaney's home life, I found that the plot unfolded very well. A romance between Nora and Hugh is handled subtly. Nora is reluctant to become involved with anyone, especially since she can't get another murder out of her mind - that of her own red-haired sister back in her home town of St. Paul, MN. I especially liked Nora for her devotion to discovering the true identity of "The Cailin Rua," or "Red Colleen," as the girl found in the bog comes to be called.

I will now be reading the second book, "Lake of Sorrows", also set in Ireland and involving Cormac, and then "False Mermaid", which moves betweens Ireland and St. Paul and is reportedly the book in which Nora really begins to investigate her sister's death, which she blames on her brother-in-law.

Friday, May 7, 2010

SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME



"GIRL READING AT A SUNLIT WINDOW"
By Carl Vilhelm Holsoe

Way back on the first day of January 2010 I posted what I thought was an ambitious reading list of 20 books to be read in the first few months of the new year. As it turned out, I actually read 16 of the books! Needless to say, I am very proud of myself. Of the remaining four, "The Winter Ghosts" by Kate Mosse is still not available in the United States. (I will keep looking for it, as I loved her "Labyrinthe" and "Sepulchre".)

Regarding the other three books, I had determined that I was only going to read the ones found at a discount at at thrift shops, consignment shops, used bookstores and the like, or were available at my local library. Although the Bismarck Public Municipal Library has other Sherman Alexie books, they don't have the one on my list. To their shame, it would seem, they do not have "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie". They also did not have "Winter House" by Nicci Gerard.

Here is my original list:

1. "The Elegance Of The Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery.

2. "Olive Kitteridge: Fiction" by Elizabeth Strout.
3. "Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffeneger.
4. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson.
5. "The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie" by Alan Bradley.
6. Testament" by Alis Hawkins.
7. "The Winter Ghosts" by Kate Mosse.
8. "South of Broad" by Pat Conroy
9. "Half-Broke Horses: A True Life Novel" by Jeannette Walls.
10. "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" by Muriel Sparks.
11. "Remarkable Creatures" by Tracy Chevalier.
12. "The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-time Indian" by Sherman Alexie.
13. "Howards End Is On The Landing" by Susan Hill.
14. "The Blue Tattoo" by Margaret Mifflin.
15. "The Zookeeper's Wife" by Diane Ackerman.
16. "People Of The Book" by Geraldine Brooks
17. "The Winter House" by Nicci Gerrard
18. "The Swan Thieves" by Elizabeth Kostova
19. "Travels With Charlie" by John Steinbeck
20. "The Road" by Cormack McCarthy

Actually, have I read many more books than those 16. In fact, I am very proud of myself that I have been reading at a terrific pace and will definitely (barring unforseen circumstances) read over 100 books this year. So far, I have read 53. (A direct result of having been unemployed the first four months of the year.) And I have posted reviews of all but three of them, with the other reviews coming shortly!)

I was figuratively strutting around like a peacock at how many books I have read this year until I read about a British blogger who (claims she) has read 375 books this year so far!!

HOUSE RULES


Jodi Picoult has written a lot of  bestselling novels, many of them "ripped from the headlines." She has covered such topics as mercy killing, teen suicide pacts, conceiving a second child solely in order to provide stem cells for a sick older child and school shootings (I had to pass on "Nineteen Minutes" because of the latter, too-painful-for-me subject.)

In "House Rules", Picoult tackles autism, a condition that is - according to which authority you believe - either greatly on the rise or just diagnosed better these days. Eighteen-year-old Jacob Hunt, one of the central characters in the book, has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. 

Jacob is at the high end of the Asperger's spectrum. "They tell me I'm lucky to have a son who's so verbal, who is blisteringly intelligent, who can take apart the broken microwave and have it working again an hour later", says his mother Emma. "They think there is no greater hell than having a son who is locked in his own world, unaware that there's a wider one to explore. But try having a son who is locked in his own world, and still wants to make a connection. A son who tries to be like everyone else, but truly doesn't know how."

Jacob displays many of the "symptoms" noticed in autistic people: he has a compulsive attachment to order and routine; has a tendency to take comments literally; displays a hypersensitivity to bright lights, human touch, and scratchy fabrics; shows a reluctance to make eye contact; has a distinct lack of empathy; has public tantrums when overwhelmed; is painfully blunt; has difficulty relating to others and expressing emotions; is unable to read social clues.  

Like many autistics, Jacob tends to focus on a subject to the point of obsession. He is particularly obsessed with the television series "Crimebusters". He knows all the episodes by heart but still cannot bear to miss a single repeat airing. A theoretical expert on forensic science, he has been known to butt himself into local crime scenes after hearing about them on his police scanner. Once there, he proceeds to give advice (spot on, as it turns out), to the policemen and detectives.

So when Jacob's life skills coach, Jessica (whom he likes a great deal) is murdered, Jacob is very much a person of interest. Not only does he have a connection to her, there's that obsession with crime scenes, and certain aspects of his condition that make him appear suspect, such as not being able to meet another person's eyes and therefore looking guilty.

I thought that Picoult painted quite a good portrayal of a character with Asperger's. I know that I learned a lot about it. I thought she was wise, when mentioning that some experts believe that Asperger's is caused by faulty immunization vaccines, to leave it as one theory out of several possible theories.

Some of the chapters in the book are "written" by Jacob, and his personality really shines through in them. Other chapters are written from the points of view of Emma and his brother Theo. (Some of the chapters are also written from the point of view of the detective, but I found this device to be really unncessary.)

One of the most striking points Picoult makes is that Asperger's affects everyone in the family. Emma, a divorcee, has devoted her life totally to Jacob, probably at the expense of Theo. And although Theo, also a teen, loves his brother, Jacob is a social embarrassment, a pain in the butt for him.

A great deal of their life revolves around Jacob's wishes and demands. For example, they have to eat a color-coded meal every day of the week, so Friday, for example, would be all-brown food: beef, gravy, pork and beans, brownies.

I thought the plot deteriorated badly after the revelation of Jessica's murder. It seemed ludicrous to me that Jacob even went to trial for it. Any sane person should have been able to put two and two together and come up with the method and cause of Jessica's death. Jacob, with the "excuse" of Asperger's, may be forgiven on this point, but any of the other characters could have come up with the correct answer if they had just deliberated for a few minutes or even thought (duh!) to ask Jacob the right questions.

These flaws in the book are exacerbated by the excellent portrayals of the characters, especially Jacob and Emma. However, there is an extremely weak romance involving Emma and another man that just did not ring true.

I do admit to having checked amazon.com for their reviews. A lot of people, it seems, were confused by the conclusion, but to me it is obvious. Just go back and read some of the passages again!

In many ways, "House Rules" resembles Picoult's "Her Sister's Keeper", only in reverse. In this case, who turns out to be his brother's keeper?


Personal Note:

By happenstance I recently watched a program on children with autism and was surprised to learn that this may be the origin of the term "fairy changeling", the folk belief that a normal child is taken by the fairies and replaced by another. For it has been documented that some children appear perfectly normal up to the age of 2 or 3 and then their demeanor, personality and abilities dramatically deteroriate and they display all the "symptoms" of autism. (I use quotes around "symptoms" because so many parents of children with autism are incensed that their children are said to have a disease.) 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A RELIABLE WIFE


I learned about "A Reliable Wife" on "Turning Point", the book blog by Julie Brichta. Not long after having read her positive review, I ran across a used copy. I join Julie in lauding this novel by Robert Goolrick.

It's 1907, rural Wisconsin. Middle-aged and wealthy Ralph Truitt is waiting for the train to deliver his future wife, whom he "ordered like a pair of new boots" after placing an ad for a mail-order bride in a Chicago newspaper. After a disastrous first marriage, what Truitt wants now is a "reliable wife" - a plain-looking, simple, honest woman. When Catherine Land steps off the train, Truitt is shocked to see that she is very beautiful. And that she is not the same woman as the one in the photograph she has sent him. This is just one of the many deceits Ralph uncovers about Catherine. But a bargain is a bargain and together they set off across the frozen plains for his home.

What we don't know in this opening scenario that Catherine and Ralph both have hidden agendas, secrets, plans. We soon learn that Catherine has a shadowy history not suited to a reliable wife. One might call her a "black widow spider". At least that's what she wants to be. Catherine's plan is to become a wealthy widow by killing her husband with the poison she has brought with her. But "best-laid plans" are put aside temporarily when their carriage is involved in an accident and Ralph is injured.

Months later, it's time for Ralph's plan to be revealed. He wants to use his young wife as a lure to bring his estranged son back home. He asks Catherine to travel to St. Louis to effect the reconciliation. When Catherine meets Antonio, we realize that he, too, has a plan - a plan that intersects with Catherine's.

One of the marks of a good novel is that the characters evolve over time, and Catherine certainly does. She may not be as cold-blooded and heartless as she first appears, even though yes, she is slowly poisoning Ralph. And what to say about Ralph? He KNOWS Catherine is poisoning him but accepts it because he feels he "deserves it". I liked one description that I came across regarding Ralph and Catherine: that they are "two wounded hearts" that have come together. I think the book very satisfactorily answers the question, "Can a person find redemption?"

Catherine, Antonio and even Ralph may be looked upon as deplorable, flawed, cruel, perhaps even evil characters. But by showing us their terrible pasts, Goolrick reveals their motivations and gives us cause to feel sympathetic toward them (even Antonio).

I don't want to reveal more of the plot, except to say that there are many unexpected twists and turns. It is up to the reader to discover whose plan, whose agenda, whose scheme  - if any - will win the day.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

THE BOTTICELLI SECRET


I learned about Marina Fiorato's "The Botticelli Secret" on another blog. It was described as being a combination of a Dan Brown-type mystery and the books of Sarah Dunant. After getting it from the library, however, I almost didn't read it, because the first few pages gave me the impression that it was going to be a lusty bodice ripper, and I don't read bodice rippers.

However, I gave it a chance, and I'm glad I did, for it is not a bodice ripper, and the description that had intrigued me proved to be accurate. The story is based upon Ialian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli's famous painting called "La Primavera". As the book proceeds, clues hidden in the painting will eventually reveal a great political intrigue. It is left to Luciana Vetra, a beautiful Florentine prostitute, and her unlikely companion, novice monk Guido della Torro, to unravel the clues and prevent conspirators from consummating their deadly plan.

Luciana becomes enmeshed in the mystery when she is asked by Botticelli to be the model for Primavera, the main figure in the painting. Angry with Botticelli, she steals a small version of the painting from him. She soon deduces that this is no mere painting, because there are people searching for it - and her - and her friends are being murdering because of it. She decides to seek help from Guido, whom she had met earlier in the day when he tried to turn her from her sinful ways. After a fellow monk is murdered, Luciana and Guido must escape from Florence.

In an author's note at the back of the book, Fiorato writes that "La Primavera" enjoys more interpretations than perhaps any other painting in art history. For her book, she implements an Italian professor's interpretation that the figures represent Italian cities. As they begin to figure out the clues hidden in the faces, dress and postures of the eight figures of the painting, Luciana and Guido learn not only the identity of the cities, but discern that belonging to each city is one of the conspirators, including well-known political figures like the Duke of Milan, Lorenzo di Medici and the Pope himself.

Luciana and Guido find themselves swept away on a perilous journey from one Italian city to another - including Florence, Venice, Milan and Genoa. Thankfully, Fiorato does not plot to have Luciana and Guido be swept away by passion as well. Theirs IS a love story, but it proceeds slowly and reservedly, while along the way Luciana discovers that she is no mere prostitute but royally born, and Guido becomes less and less enamored with the church. "The Botticelli Secret" deserves to take its place alongside Dan Brown's symbol-based mysteries and Dunant's glorious novels of the Italian Renaissance. 

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: MY LIFE AND CAPTIVITY IN IRAN


When American journalist Roxana Saberi was falsely imprisoned in Iran, I and other residents of North Dakota followed her case closely, because she is from Fargo, ND. She moved there with her Iranian-born father and Japanese mother when she was a child. She graduated from Fargo North High School with honors in 1994 and from Concordia College across the river in Moorhead, MN three years later. She was crowned Miss North Dakota in 1997 and was among the top 10 Miss America finalists a year later. Aided by scholarship money, she has earned two master's degrees, from Northwestern University's School of Journalism and Cambridge University, England.

Saberi moved to her father's homeland in 2003 to work for US-based Feature Story News and to complete a master’s degree in Iranian studies. FSN distributed her television and radio reports to a wide range of broadcasters around the world. In 2006, the Iranian authorities revoked Saberi's press accreditation and closed the FSN bureau in Iran. However, she maintained a second press accreditation, permitting her to freelance for the BBC. But in late 2006, it was also peremptorily revoked. Saberi continued to file occasional reports for NPR, IPS and ABC Radio.

Saberi decided to stay in Iran and finish writing what she describes as a balanced book about Iran, a country she deeply loved. Her personal nightmare began on Jan. 31, 2009, when she was arrested on the orders of the Islamic Revolutionary Court.
She was suspected of being a spy because, she was told, she had interviewed dozens of people for her book. She was accused of using the book as a cover to gather intelligence for the CIA. From then on, her story becomes a Catch-22 type nightmare. No matter how much she denied the accusations, no one listened. "I felt there was nothing more I can say to these men", she ultimately decided.  "The only way I could change their minds about me was to change their minds about America, and that was an impossible feat."

Finally, under great duress, she gave a false confession after being told she would be set free if she confessed but faced years of imprisonment and even execution if she did not. She later came to regret this decision, and recanted her story. From that time on she went on periodic hunger strikes rather than "confess" again. Her captors later told her that they knew all along that her "confession" was a lie.

Saberi waited five weeks to even meet her attorney, and he turned out to be incompetent, to say the least. Repeated futile trips to court did nothing but prove that the judge was conducting a ludicrous kangaroo court. She was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison.

Word of Saberi's imprisonment finally reached her parents and American officials. Unbeknownst to her, a groundswell of support to free her was underway. North Dakota's two senators, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, and its representative, Earl Pomeroy, worked tirelessly toward that end. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton demanded her release, and even President Obama got into the act. Great pressure was exerted on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by world leaders, journalists and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.

Obviously, their efforts worked. In April 2009 Ahmadinejad declared that Saberi "must have her legal right to defend herself". The next month, an appeals court reduced the charge against her from espionage to possessing classified information (a charge Saberi denies) and cut her eight-year sentence to a two-year suspended sentence. She walked out of Evin Prison on May 11, 2009.

"Between Two Worlds" affirms Saberi as an excellent journalist. Reading this vividly-detailed book was an extremely painful experience. Even though Saberi was not physically tortured during her captivity, she was placed under "severe psychological and mental pressure". Her captors blindfolded her during days of interrogation, held her in solitary confinement, and initially would not allow her to inform anyone of her whereabouts.

Reading the book was also an exercise in frustration and futility. So often, I wanted to strangle her captors, interrogators, her lawyer, the judges and other players for conducting the elaborate farce that Iran substitutes for due process of law. I call them nuts, she describes them as paranoid. "And it was people with this kind of mind-set," she wrote, "who held so much power in the Islamic Republic".

After being freed, Saberi returned with her parents to Fargo and wrote "Between Two Worlds" there. She says she still loves Iran, and would like to someday finish the book she had started there. She continues to be haunted by the memory of fellow prisoners who are still imprisoned or who have died because they didn't have the attention and support of the free world behind them that she did.

Monday, May 3, 2010

HALF BROKE HORSES


I was delighted when I learned that Jeannette Walls had written another book. My fellow book club members and I really enjoyed her memoir, "The Glass Castle." I had been waiting to obtain "Half Broke Horses" for a long time. When I put my name on the reserve list at the library, there were 28 readers ahead of me. I can understand now why it is in such demand, and it was definitely worth the wait. (It can be compared to waiting for hours and hours for the Thanksgiving dinner to cook and then polishing it off in 15 minutes, because I couldn't put "Half Broke Horses" down and finished it in a couple of hours).

This time, Walls tells the story of her maternal grandmother, who was born in 1901 and grew up on ranches in West Texas and Arizona in a still quite Wild West. "Half Broke Horses" reads like it is Lily Casey Smith's autobiography, not biography. It's true that Walls had many family stories to relate about her crackerjack of a grandmother, but it's more than that. It's as if Walls is channeling Lily.

Grandma Lily grew up to be quite a character. Her first home was in a dugout, but her mother tried to raise the children genteely, and she furnished the dugout "with some real finery". At age 10, Lily saved her younger brother and sister from a flash flood by getting them up a tree and keeping them awake and clinging to safety the entire night. She and her family later survived a tornado that destroyed their second home, a real house.

As a child Lily broke wild horses for her dad. At 15 she had no qualms about riding her pony 500 miles alone to her first teaching job. She conquered the big city of Chicago and overcame a first marriage to a bigamist. She and her second husband later ran a vast ranch in Arizona. On several occasions she didn't hesitate to use her "pearl-handled revolver" to defend herself and her children. She bravely stood up to polyglamous Mormon elders who didn't like the way she taught freedom of choice to their little girls.

A horse lover from the get-go, Lily decided to conquer the automobile and fell in love with cars. In fact, she loved them better than horses: "Cars didn't need to be fed if they weren't working, and they didn't leave big piles of manure all over the place. Cars were faster than horses, and they didn't run off or kick down fences. They didn't buck, bite, or rear, and they didn't need to be broke or trained, or caught and saddled up every time you need to go somewhere. They didn't have a mind of their own. Cars obeyed you."

The next thing for Lily to conquer was the airplane. When she approached a pilot advertising $5.00 flying lessons he said he'd never taught a woman before and asked her husband "Think the little lady's up to it?" She replied, "Don't you 'little lady' me, I said. 'I break horses. I brand steers. I run a ranch with a couple dozen cowboys on it, and I can beat them all at poker. I'll be damned if some nincompoop is going to stand there and tell me I don't have what it takes to fly that dinky heap of tin.'"

Walls was often told that she was very much like her grandmother, who died when Walls was 8. But although they were kindred spirits, in a sense, Walls never heistates to show Lily's dark side too. As fearless as she was, as enterprising, as determined to get her college degree, as devoted to her students, Lily was, like all of us, a flawed individual. After having a "crumb bum" for a first husband, Lily coldly chose her second husband not for love but for practical qualities. In my opinion, she showed way too much "tough love" to her two children. And she didn't think twice about becoming a bootlegger if it brought in extra money for her family.

Hard-headed, determined and opinionated, Lily always did what she thought had to be done, whether that meant standing up to the school district, paddling her children, or whaling on the sheriff's boy who needed to be taught a lesson.

One of Lily's children was Rosemary, a girl with a mile-wide "wild streak". At the end of "Half Broke Horses" Rosemary meets Rex Walls, a flyboy, a hellion, a fellow with a matching wild streak. Although Lily sees him as a con man with grand schemes who's always acting on whims, Rosemary falls for him hard and they marry. Even while dating Rosemary, Rex does one of his "skedaddles" (sneaking out of town ahead of the law), these skedaddles later becoming a famous, repeating theme in Walls' excellent memoir of growing up with Rex and Rosemary (now called Rose Mary), two half-broke horses trying to raise their own brood.

Friday, April 30, 2010

DAY AFTER NIGHT


Beginning with "The Diary of Anne Frank", I have read many novels over the years that dealt with the Jewish situation during World War II - the Jews who were in hiding, those who were saved by Schindler, those who died in concentration camps, those who survived the camps.

But I haven't really read any books about the Jews who arrived in Palestine, their "Promised Land", after the war. "Exodus" does deal with some refugees, but it focuses on the sabras (those born in Israel) and their fight to win statehood for Israel. "Ship of Fools" and "The Lambs' War" related the tales of the Jews' struggle to get to Palestine.

"Day After Night", however, begins when a group of refugees arrives in country. I had no idea that new arrivals in Palestine were held in camps by the British until they were parceled out to kibbutzes. Those who were concentration camp inmates again have to face the horror of barbed wire fences and captors. The frightened survivors think the Delousing Shed is actually a shower room cum gas chamber like those in the camps and are naturally terrified to enter. 

Anita Diamant, who wrote the excellent "The Red Tent", tells the refugees' story by means of four women: angry Shayndel, a Polish Zionist and freedom fighter; beautiful Frenchwoman Leonie, who was an unwilling prostitute for the Nazis in Paris; blonde, Aryan-looking Tedi, a Dutch Jew who had been in hiding; and Zorah, a concentration camp survivor.  Some, like Shayndel, have had the goal of immigrating to Palestine for years, while others end up on her shores by accident, apathy or the winds of fate.

Slowly the girls form tentative friendships, gain weight from the abundant food, begin to be interested in their appearance and the men in the adjacent camp, and start to think that they might just be able to lead semi-normal lives again. Even the concentration camp survivors start to come alive again.

The only fault I would find with this excellent book is how willing and unfazed the four women are when they learn they are to be separated and sent to different settlements. It seems to me that this tearing apart of friends who had lost so many other people in their lives would shatter the fragile peace they have worked so hard - and finally begun - to achieve.

THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS


If I had been told that the premise of this novel was that a group of five women meet and form friendships at their kids' playground and then decide to form a writing group - with three of them ultimately becoming published authors, one an excellent book editor and the fifth the author of an unpublished novel - I would have thought it preposterous. Except for the fact that "The Wednesday Sisters" actually is based on a true story.

Along with three other women, author Meg Waite Clayton formed a very similar writing group. All four members eventually published articles, essays, stories and novels. Real-life friend and fellow writing group member Brenda Rickman Vantrease is the author of "The Illuminator", a marvelous book about a 14th-century medieval manuscript illuminator and his lady love.

I highly recommend "The Illuminator". In fact, I suggest you seek it out instead of "The Wednesday Sisters", which is a vastly inferior book. It was interesting, however, to see these women through the sixties and seventies as they discover Women's Lib. Other than that, you have the usual divorce, breast cancer scare, infertility and other women's issues that seem to permeate any book about a group of modern-day women, especially book club groups.
Not only do the Wednesday Sisters write books, they also read them. Their list of favorites is published at the back of the book. Many books on their list are also ones I would list: "In Cold Blood", "To Kill A Mockingbird", "Great Expectations", "The Great Gatsby", "The Bell Jar", "Rebecca", "Breakfast at Tiffany's", "The French Lieutenant's Woman." But some others on the list? "Love Story"?? C'mon! And although I respect Frankie, who is the unspoken head of the Wednesday Sisters, I cannot abide the fact that her model book was "Middlemarch".

THERE'S A (SLIGHT) CHANCE I MIGHT BE GOING TO HELL


Never has a $2.00 consignment shop book given me such immediate gratification. I laughed out loud - many times - while reading "there's a (slight) chance i might be going to hell" by Laurie Notaro.

Poor Maye Roberts. She had plenty of friends in Phoenix, but she doesn't live in Phoenix anymore. Her husband has accepted a post as a college professor in Spaulding, Washington. He fits right into their new life, but Maye can't seem to buy a friend. An early effort to impress leads her to disaster at a faculty party. Trying to remove a vintage pink cardigan which has somehow offended Dean Spaulding's wife, she ends up getting the cardigan and her blouse stuck up around her shoulders and upper arms.

Hopping frantically around to free herself, with "Mae's bra, Mae's belly and the waistband of Mae's girdle" exposed to all, Maye realizes that "dozens of eyes were now witnessing her earthy dance in the corner of the dean's living room as she displayed the brand of inhibition typically evinced only after ingesting cactus buttons or licking poisonous toads. Some were filled with disbelief, some with disgust, some with dismay. There was one particularly offended pair that caught Maye's eye and triggered a voice in her head. 'Melissabeth', it said surprisingly. 'I can't believe I remembered your name after all!'"

In a last-ditch effort to find new friends, Maye enters the Spaulding Sewer Pipe Queen Pageant. At the turn of the century, Malcolm Spaulding,"visionary and ambassador of indoor plumbing", chose "the prettiest spot in the country to call his home and build himself a new sewer pipe factory". (Maye describes Spaulding as "an insufferable romantic despite the fact that his life was shit").

In her effort to win the contest and beat ex-queen Rowena Spaulding's favorite candidate, Maye locates the whereabouts of a former Sewer Pipe Queen, who was blamed for a dreadful fire in Spaulding many years ago and is now a cigarette-smoking, booze-swilling recluse. In doing so, Maye discovers the reason why Mrs. Spaulding loathes that vintage sweater, and also uncovers the long-lost secret regarding the actual perpetrator of the fire.

In some ways, this book is a lot like the "Sweet Potato Pie Queen" books, but even funnier. Here are some of Notaro's wittiest descriptions:

"Maye was so relieved when the front door opened that she almost squealed like a sorority girl after one beer on an empty stomach."

"Not good," the plumber informed them gruffly. "You have old galvanized down there; it's coming apart like a celebrity marriage."

"and Glynda . . . who had the dryest hair Maye had ever seen that was not sprouted from the head of a Barbie doll lying naked in a Goodwill bin."

"New businesses popped up all over town like pimples on the face of puberty."

Maye's sweater "was kelly green and boasted not one badly knitted reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh but a pair of them, complete with real live bells on what was probably meant to be their harness but resembled more of a rope, suggesting the reindeer had escaped from their own lynching amid snowflakes the size of hubcaps. Reindeer number one particularly was in grave danger as a boulder-size chunk of hail was virtually an inch from his little holiday skull. It was a wretched, horrible thing, fit a bit too tightly, the sort of sweater a mother-in-law gives to her son's wife when she thinks he has married poorly."

"Maye thought about it for a moment, and other than the fact that she had roofied up an officer of the law to rat out his old, alcoholic, allegedly arsonist aunt, she supposed it really didn't make a difference if they were related or not".

If you've been given an Rx to laugh more, please read this book.

THE KITCHEN HOUSE


After reviewing a couple of truly forgettable books I am happy to present a book I know I will remember for a long time. "The Kitchen House" by Kathleen Grissom is already one of my favorite books for 2010.

Seven-year-old Lavinia McCarten's family is traveling from Ireland to America in 1791 when both her mother and father become ill and die aboard ship. Because her parents were indebted to Captain James Pyke for their passage, Lavinia becomes an indentured servant to the Cap'n and goes to live on his southern plantation. Although she is white Irish, she is put to work with the black cook, Belle. She is soon taken under the kindly, loving wing of Mama Mae, the head of the house slaves. Mama Mae's family becomes Lavinia's too. She is soon fast friends with Mama's twin daughters, Beattie and Fanny, who are her own age.

Called Abinia by her new family, Lavinia comes to love Belle, Mama Mae, Mama's eldest daughter Dory, Mama's husband Papa George and her adopted sisters, as well as "Uncle" Jacob and Belle's lover Ben. 

Although she has some contact with the Captain and Mrs. Pyke and their children Marshall and Sally, Lavinia is, to all intents and purposes, considered to be a little negro slave. Mama Mae is her mama and her life is the life of a house slave, who exists below the white people of the big house but above the lesser slaves, the field negroes. Her world, indeed, is the small world of Mama Mae's cabin and Belle's kitchen house.

In the course of time, Lavinia, indentured servant that she is, is sent to town to live with Mrs. Pyke's sister and her family. There, she is integrated into the white world and taught the social graces. When Lavinia reaches adulthood she receives her freedom and Marshall, the new master of the plantation, asks her to marry him.

Lavinia consents with delight. It has always been her dream to return "home" and be reunited with her beloved family. But of course, nothing remains the same. Lavinia is a white lady now. Mae, Belle, Beattie, Fanny, Papa George and the rest are her servants, not her friends. She can't even call Mama Mae "mama" any more. Mrs. Pyke has descended into a world of madness and Marshall, whose always-present cruel streak has widened to include Lavinia as a target, is gambling away his inheritance.

The nightmare continues to unfold, but Lavinia discovers strengths she barely knew she had. By 1810, saving her home and her true family becomes the sole focus of her existence. Just 26, Lavinia has to muster all her resources and race against time to protect those that she loves.

The characters in "The Kitchen House" are very well written and the love that exists between Lavinia and her family shimmers on every page. On the plantation, Grisson has created a vibrant  microcosm of the struggle between the races in America.

In terms of creating that special relationship that often exists between a little girl and her black nanny/servant, "The Kitchen House" stands equal with such classics as "Gone With The Wind" and "To Kill A Mockingbird".

Thursday, April 29, 2010

THE HOUSEGUEST


I just didn't care for "The Houseguest" by Agnes Rossi. Thank goodness it was another thrift shop book for which I only had to fork out a measly dollar. I would have been angry with myself if I had purchased it full price, or even from amazon.com used.

The characters are just so unlikeable. I began to detest Edward Devlin immediately after his wife dies in the opening pages and he leaves for America without his six-year-old daughter. He fobs little Maura off on relatives, who in turn send her away to school. Not only has Maura her lost parents, but she has been set adrift in a sea of Irish speakers when she speaks only American English. Devlin and Sadie had emigrated to America when they got married and returned to Ireland with Maura only when Sadie became ill with TB.

Now back in America, Edward hooks up with old acquaintance John Fitzgibbon, who not only helps him find a job but offers him a place to stay in his home. It is no surprise when Edward falls in love with Sylvia, Fitz's sensuous wife. It's not surprising that she reciprocates, since Fitz is a cold fish. What is surprising is that Fitz had been looking to get rid of Sylvia.

Although Maura was a sympathetic character, Edward, Sylvia and Fitz are so wooden and unfeeling that I wanted to slap them upside the head. It wasn't long before I quit caring whether or not Edward and Sylvia would end up happily ever after, or if Maura would be able to leave Ireland and join them in America (an outcome that childless Sylvia wants way more than Edward appears to).

THE LUMBY LINES



For the first time ever, I can say that I purchased a book with an eye toward reviewing it more than toward actually reading it. It cost just a dollar at a thrift shop, otherwise I would not have been so foolhardy. But I had read the blurb on the back cover saying it was first in a new series. Perusing it, I could tell it was written along the lines of Jan Karon's Mitford series of books centered around the characters in a small town. When finding series books at thrift or used book stores, I am seldom lucky enough to find the first in a series, so I said "What the heck!" and splurged on it.

I have only read one Mitford book (the first one) and did not care to read the others. I feel the same way about the the Lumby books. I doubt if I will ever pick one up again, though I did like it better than the Mitford books (perhaps because the characters are younger?).

The biggest flaw in series books like these is that  you are introduced to so many characters at one time that you can scarcely keep them apart. This is true of "The Lumby Lines" (which was the accidental but kept-anyway name of the town newspaper). Some of the main characters are irascible Lumby Lines publisher William Beezer and his estranged son, Dennis Beezer, who edits the newspaper in a nearby town, and Mark and Pam Walker, who decide to take up residence in Lumby and remodel the old Montis Abbey, former home to a group of monks.

Mark and Pam have come from somewhere "Out East". I don't believe the state Lumby is located in is ever named, but it is western, although Lumby appeared to me to be a typical quaint New England town.

The main thing that irritated me about this book is that everything proceeded way too smoothly for Mark and Pam. The abbey is restored with seemingly nary a snag. There had been a mysterious fire at the abbey some years ago, and I thought that Mark and Pam might be plagued by a similar fire, but no such "luck". Even the monks, who now live at another abbey, are saved from financial ruin and the loss of their new home thanks to help from the Walkers.

Sorry, Gail Fraser, but I, for one, won't be buying "Lumby on the Air", "The Promise of Lumby", "Lumby's Bounty" or "Stealing Lumby".