Friday, April 30, 2010


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.


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".


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.


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


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 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).


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".

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I chose "Shutter Island" from my book-of-the-month club's catalog because I had seen ads for the movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio and based on the Dennis Lehane novel.

I have to admit that while I was reading the book I did envision Di Caprio as the protagonist, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, and another well-known TV character actor as his sidekick Chuck Aule (sorry, I can't remember his name.)

Teddy and Chuck have been called to Shutter Island to assist the authorities at the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Dangerous inmate Rachel Soldano, who had murdered her three children years ago, is missing. Even though the hospital is located on an island, Rachel cannot be found anywhere.

As Teddy and Chuck begin the investigation into Rachel's disappearance, they find that things are not as they appear on the surface. They deduce that Rachel had to have had inside help to escape. As they probe into the dark corners of the hospital, the other buildings on the grounds and the island itself, they pick up hints that something is terribly, terribly wrong.

Why are the warden and the hospital chief of staff acting so oddly? Everyone, from warden to guards to prisoners alike, all seem to be in on the mystery. And why has Rachel's psychiatrist left the island to go on vacation precisely when he is needed the most? Teddy and Chuck even hear rumors of a sinister government plot to experiment on patients with gruesome brain operations much like the Nazis conducted during World War II.

Moreover, Teddy starts to suspect he has been drugged with psychotropic drugs. Then, Chuck disappears. Teddy, desperately searching for Chuck, realizes he himself is being hunted. And if that weren't enough, as we race along with Teddy toward the climax, a powerful hurricane bears down on the island.

"Shutter Island" is all it has been touted to be. It is a superb thriller that moves at breakneck speed, and it has a truly shocking plot twist that left me dazed. I had not read Lehane before, but I will certainly read more of him ("Mystic River" is another of his books turned into a movie) because he is an extremely clever and satisfying suspense/mystery writer.


I waited forever to get "Saving CeeCee Honeycutt" from the Bismarck Public Library. It seemed to be stuck on two reservations ahead of mine for months. When I received it I discovered it was just 468 pages of large print, and not difficult to read at all. In fact, I zipped through it in a couple of hours. I can't understand the reason for the wait.

And I'm not at all sure the wait was worth it. When we meet CeeCee, she is 11-years-old, with a psychotic mother and mostly-absent father. She is basically left alone to care for her out-of-control mother. There is no one to care for her, except an elderly neighbor who provides a little sanity. Camille Sugarbaker Honeycutt is stuck in the past, when she was the 1951 Vidalia Onion Queen. Wearing formal dresses she buys at the thrift shop, she is constantly doing outlandish things like joining the local parade, embarassing her daughter to no end. While CeeCee loves her mother (and her mother was very loving before she became ill), she wants her mom to just go away.

Sadly, her mother does go away, by getting hit by an ice cream truck. Her father decides to send her to live with her great aunt Tootie Caldwell, who lives in Savannah.

From the moment she arrives in Savannah from Ohio, her life is transformed just as much as the climate she lives in has. And that is where my trouble with the book started. It seemed as if nearly everything in CeeCee's life is just too perfect. Her aunt is loving, the black housekeeper seems to be gruff but really isn't, CeeCee gets all new clothes and other nice things, and delights in meeting her great aunt's eccentric neighbors. (There have to be eccentric characters in a southern novel, otherwise it just isn't southern.)

Except for a terrifying robbery and a flashback about her mother's death, CeeCee could have stepped into a Danielle Steele novel. It's as if the author, having given CeeCee so much hardship and heartache in the first part of the book, is determined to make everything rainbows and roses for CeeCee in the second part. Having CeeCee's old neighbor lady end up moving from Ohio to Savannah to live with them was the straw that broke the camel's back for me.

However, I did enjoy CeeCee's character, her relationship with Housekeeper Oletta and her black friends, and the descriptions of life in the south. But again, there was that inkling of too much perfection, because not one single character complains about the intense heat of a Savannah summer.

Friday, April 23, 2010


I read "The Debt to Pleasure" for the April selection of the online book club conducted by Cornflower on her book blog (link on sidebar). I was very frustrated at the beginning of the book. Reading it felt like climbing a difficult mountain peak. Instead of stopping for rest though, I had to keep stopping to look up new words and obscure phrases and to catch my breath after slogging through untranslated passages in French and paragraphs- or pages-long philosophical treatises (and I consider myself to have quite a large vocabulary and am quite literate).

However, I kept on trudging along, one foot in front of the other, because I knew my fellow book club members were climbing away too, and I wasn't going to let them reach the top without me.

Then, my feelings turned toward frustration at having to read about a dreadful little man whose book on culinary reflections is supposedly comparable to "Brillat-Savarin's masterpiece "The Physiology of Taste". For one who supposedly loves food, narrator Tarquin Winot provides some truly distasteful descriptions of foods, including cheese as "the corpse of milk", matelote with its "disturbingly phallic and alive seeming eel," and a dish of cottage pie "steaming like fresh horse dung on a cold morning."

In setting out to share his "gastro-historico-psycho-autobiographico-anthropico-philosophical lucubrations", British-born, France-residing Winot reveals himself to be an insufferable, elitist, effete snob. He's an egomaniac, a narcissist. He's mean, nasty, supercilious, delusional and jealous. I found him so loathsome that I nearly quit reading the book. But then I began to get a clue that Winot was more, way more, than an intolerably smug foodie. Whereas earlier in the book I had marked lyrical passages on diverse subjects, I was instead marking passages illustrating Winot's ever increasing, ever more disturbing, apparently aberrant behavior.

I admit, sometimes I am slow on the uptake. It may have taken me a bit longer than other readers to figure out that this was a parody, and even longer to discover that the author, John Lanchester, was pulling my leg.


For, as anyone who makes it to the top of the mountain (which became easier and more fun to climb the closer I got to the summit) learns, Winot is a sociopathic murderer who has dispensed of his many victims by such various means as gas explosions, pushing them in front of trains and (fittingly for him) poisoned mushrooms. He spares neither friend, family member or foe.

Near the end of the book, Mr. Winot takes pains to point out that he has never once used the word "delicious" to describe any of the foods in his book. But I will certainly use the words delicious, delectable and savory for Lanchester's dark, clever send up.

To read what other book club readers had to say about "A Debt to Pleasure", read Cornflower's Book Blog on Saturday, April 24.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


"The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag" is the second in Alan Bradley's Flavia deLuce mysteries. I reviewed the first book in the series, "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" here:

In that review, I provided a lot of background information on this 11-year-old sleuth, her family and neighbors in the English countryside and village of Bishop's Lacey. In this book, Flavia has to figure out who killed beloved TV personality and puppeteer Rupert Porson, electrocuted as he puts on a puppet show. His presence in Bishop's Lacey, it turns out, is connected to a cold case, the hanging of a young boy, so Flavia ends up investigating both deaths. (The strange title of the book refers to a hanging in the poem "Sir Walter Raleigh to His Son.")

I was a tiny bit disappointed in "The Weed, etc." for several reasons:

1. I wanted to see more of the character of Nialla, Porson's "wife".
2. Several red herrings as to the murderer were tossed about, one pointing toward the vicar, which was too ridiculous to believe.
3. There wasn't as much interaction between Flavia and the local detective, Inspector Hewitt. In the first book it was fun to see the sparring between amateur and experienced detective.
4. At no time was Flavia in peril (which is a good thing if you are Flavia), as opposed to the nail-biting suspense caused by the threat to Flavia's life in Book 1.

Despite all this, it was still a very good book. As another reviewer put it, there is such period (1950s) detail and Flavia such an interesting character one can't help being intrigued. I will definitely look for the third book in the Flavia deLuce series.