Sunday, August 31, 2008

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

When I first picked this book up at the library, I noticed that the author was a man and wondered how well a man (an American man from Tennessee, actually) could tell the story of a geisha. But I had heard good things about it, so I checked it out. The first thing you read when you start the book is a translator's note from the man who translated the memoirs. His subject, Nitta Sayuri, is a geisha who worked in the Gion district of Kyoto before, during, and after WWII and who eventually moved to New York to start a tea house with her danna (a sort of a boyfriend who pays all of a geisha's expenses in exchange for an exclusive sexual relationship with her during the time in which he supports her). The translator's note goes into a bit of detail about how the conversations between himself and Sayuri were recorded over a period of time, discusses her possible motivations for sharing her story about a lifestyle which has an unwritten code of silence, and even puts forth a lengthy discussion about the differences in perspective between a memoir and a biography. Realizing a book is based on a true person's story always makes it more interesting to me, so I was ready to proceed.

The story begins in 1929 when Sayuri is a 9-year-old child in a fishing village in Japan. After her ailing mother dies, Sayuri and her sister are sold to separate houses in Kyoto. Sayuri gets the better end of the deal here--being the prettier of the two, she is sold to a house that trains geisha, while her sister is sold to a house of prostitution. Sayuri is pitted against Hatsumomo, the head geisha in the house who does everything she can to thwart Sayuri's success. In the world of the geisha, many years of training are involved to learn everything from the way to pour tea (and show a little bit of wrist) to how to play a variety of musical instruments and perform elaborate dances. The more popular geisha are requested at more parties and thus earn more for the house in which they work. Everyone gets a cut first, and only the most successful ever gain their independence. Sayuri tries to escape with her sister, but while her sister manages to escape, she does not and breaks her arm in the process. She is now left in the unfortunate position of being indebted to the house for not only the cost of purchasing her, but for her medical expenses on top of that. The house mother pulls her out of geisha training and relegates her to being a maid. Fortunately for Sayuri, she catches the attention of Mameha, a top geisha who is in competition with Hatsumomo and convinces the house mother to return Sayuri to training under her tutelage, promising she will be able to repay her debts to the house before the age of twenty. And, despite all obstacles, she succeeds.

Sayuri's struggles and eventual triumph are heart-wrenching and poignant. A love she can never have weaves through the story line, while Sayuri makes her way through the trials of the sale of her virginity and the bidding war between the men who want to be her first danna. The winner is a general she feels no affection for, but from whom she receives the benefit of extra food and tea rations during the first stages of WWII. During most of her life, as with most geisha in her society, her job is to entertain, tell stories, be flirtatious, and generally try to keep a party of grumpy and/or drunken businessmen sociable. During the height of WWII, the tea houses are shut down and Sayuri is left begging her former danna and clients for help. One is willing to help her and she is sent to a safe house where she works sewing parachutes. Once the war is over, she finds herself yearning for her old life, and looks up the matron of her previous house, who is happy to go back into business.

The story is a page turner throughout, submerging the reader in a foreign life that is described in beautiful detail. Everything from the matron of the establishment to the embroidery of the kimonos is described with such brilliant metaphors that the reader is drawn in as if in a beautiful, skewed fairy-tale. By the time you get to the end, you are amazed at the life this woman has led.

After you turn the last page, you get to the acknowledgements, where the first sentence says *SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU THINK YOU MIGHT READ THIS BOOK SOON!* "Although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented, the historical facts of a geisha's day-to-day life in the 1930s and 1940s are not." So I feel a little stupid like maybe I was supposed to know this was a fictional story already. Maybe everyone knows this. But I feel like my reading experience was improved by not knowing. Either way, it is a tribute to Mr. Golden that he was able to describe his character's experiences so vividly that I didn't know the difference. I'll admit there were a few points at which I thought, "Wow, it is amazing her story turned out so perfectly,"or "This uneducated geisha from a fishing village sure has a way with the metaphors," but I really was surprised when I found out it was not a true story after all. *END SPOILER ALERT*

I really enjoyed this book, and though it may not be for everyone, I would recommend it.

Moon Called by Patricia Briggs

After two disappointing paranormal/fantasy reads, which I didn't bother finishing, I finally found a good paranormal/fantasy to read.

Mercedes (Mercy) Thomspon owns and operates a vehicle repair shop, specializing in VWs, though she will fix the occasional BMW and Mercedes-Benz. While working on a VW, a werewolf, Mac, shows up at her door, which she thinks odd because werewolves tend to avoid the likes of her. Turns out she's a coyote shape shifter. But this is a new werewolf and he looks pretty harmless and pathetic. Against her better judgment, she takes him in. Later, she finds she forgot her purse at the office, goes to retrieves it, and finds her new boarder/worker being worked over by a werewolf and lackey. She tries to distracts them so Mac can escape, but accidentally kills the werewolf. She calls her neighbor, Adam, for help, he just happens to be the Alpha male for the pack. He arrives after the witch comes to clean up the mess so no one gets suspicious and asks questions. The fae have come out of hiding, but the werewolves are trying their best to keep their tracks covered. Turns out that Mac was part of an experiment gone very bad. Adam calls an emergency meeting of his pack to help sort this out. It turns out not to be Mercy's day. The meeting closes successfully, but it's the after party which causes more problems for Mercy. Mac, unfortunately, winds up dead on her doorstop and she surveys Adam's house and finds him almost dead and his daughter missing. Because Adam's Alpha and is in bad shape to where he needs help healing, Mercy decides to call on werewolves who can help, her old pack who fostered her. The pack is less than pleased with her for bringing Adam in the state he's in, but they still help him and decide they need to get to the bottom of who's conducting the experiments. The also decide a female isn't the best choice to handle this operation, so they send Mercy's ex-boyfriend, Sam, to help Adam. Frustrated with the chauvinistic werewolf POV, Mercy decides to show how useful she by pulling on her fae and vampire connections which pull in more pieces of the puzzle. The werewolves determine she's helpful after all, but try to limit her involvement, to protect her, naturally. But in the end, she proves herself her own coyote and no werewolf is going to hold her down, though they'll still try. There's also the scent of romance between Mercy and Adam or Sam.

Briggs did a good job on plot and characters. The story starts a little slow, but flows smoothly and I found myself liking Mercy more and more. She's a strong character, but has an enormous amount of compassion for the other characters around her, even the werewolves. She knows the strength of the werewolf but can go against them if she has to. She doesn't like the chauvinism of werewolves, but can't help but love them, too. She's accepted who she is and that she has to find a way to balance her world and the one she lives in. Another thing I liked about the book was the language, or lack of the foul variety. There was very little cursing in the book, maybe a damn here or another word there, but no cursing every other page. There was some violence, werewolves and vampires practically demand it, but nothing over the top. Mercy isn't a big fan of violence and prefers the safer route. The story still held together beautifully. With the strong female protagonist, little violence and foul language, this book was quite refreshing. Look forward to more in the series.

High Marks for Murder by Rebecca Kent aka Kate Kingsbury

High marks for this book, series, and author. Kingsbury is such a wonderful writer, she's right up there in ranks with Mary Stewart in my book. For three books/series, Kingsbury hasn't let me down, this series she's writing as Rebecca Kent. Her latest series takes place at the turn of the century in Bellehaven House with the headmistress Meredith Llewellyn.

It's Sunday and during the church service, Kathleen Duncan is absent, highly unusual for a woman who has her very own spot she covets for the service. But she's coveting a new spot outside on the grounds, dead. What appears to be an accident with a branch turns out to be an all to real murder. The local constabulary, who has a chip on his shoulder concerning women, quickly dismisses the case as being committed by a passing vagrant and gives the matter no more thought. Meredith can't let it rest, or rather, Kathleen's specter won't let her rest. Meredith keeps seeing Kathleen's ghostly image begging her to solve the murder, but there's a slight communication problem and Meredith is having a hard time deciphering ghostese. To make matters worse, her two friends have trouble believing the ghost story, they also are having a difficult time relating to the new instructor replacing Duncan, two of the maids are bound and determined to support the suffrage movement (much the chagrin of the school's policy), the school girls have secrets of their own which could compromise their position in the school and society, and the owner of the school pops up at various times, flustering Meredith. Meredith finally solves the case, and to show thanks, Kathleen leaves a new found ghost friend for Meredith to help.

Kingsbury blends in the mystery with the other subplots wonderfully. She tends to take off on tangents with the lives of the other tenants of the school, but I believe she does this to break the monotony, add some comedic elements, and she could plan to include these elements later in the story. She's excellent at character development, drawing the reader into the story to where I fly through the book, wondering why I'm suddenly at the end. Afterwards, I'm frantically searching for the next book in the series. It's every reader's and writer's dream.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Of Mice & Men / Cannery Row

Of Mice and Men (1937) and Cannery Row (1945). Author : John Steinbeck. 306 Pages (OM&M - 107 pgs; CR - 195 pgs). Genre : American Literature. Overall Rating : A.

This "twofer" book was published by Penguin Books in 1986. It's a nice pairing. Both stories are set in the same place (Northern California), the same time-period (1930's), and have the same theme - a bunch of "less fortunates" and the ruts they're stuck in. But the stories also nicely contrast each other. OM&M is a darker, tragic study of the hopelessness of trying to escape that rut. CR is a lighter, comedic study of a group of people who don't regard their situation as a rut at all.

What's To Like...

The storylines are good, all the characters are engaging (even the bad guys), and there's quite a bit of character development in these relatively short tales. Steinbeck's literary description of California in the 1930's is masterful. Both stories are the proper length. These would suck if they were 500 pages long.

What's Not To Like...

Not much, since I give this an "A". There is some cussing that might offend the faint-of-heart. That's not a problem for me, but it grates my soul when Steinbeck uses the ...ahem... N-word. I know it was commonly used in the 1930's, and I am dead-set against censorship, but I can't help it. That word offends me. Can't we just replace it with "black" in stories like these?

Oh, and I got quite excited when I found that someone was selling this book for $190 on eBay, since I had picked it up for $2. Visions of untold wealth danced in my head. Alas, that $190 asking-price had the curious acronym PHP after it. It turns out that stands for "Philippines Pesos", and the PHP:USD exchange rate is about 41:1. Easy come, easy go.

Is the phrase "American Literature" an oxymoron?

Being a biblioholic means reading a lot of "C-to-B-minus" books. After a while, one's expectations get lowered. Anything that rises a smidgen above humdrum is cause for a minor celebration. Furthermore, I'm not a big fan of any American Lit BV (before Vonnegut). So this book was a pleasant and unexpected treat. I don't know that I'm prepared to tackle Steinbeck's longer stuff (Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath), but I may have to give some of his other less-than-250-pages books a try.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman

Towards the end of her Murder, She Wrote run, Angela Lansbury starred in the movie, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. Naturally, I saw the movie then tracked down the book. I've done that many times, watched the movie then read the book. The first was The Moonspinners, movie with Hayley Mills and book by Mary Stewart and I love them both. I learned very early to separate the two or I would never be happy with either one. I just now finished The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. I can't even remember when I had begun the book, but then life happened and other books called my attention. Nonetheless, I finally finished the book.

Overall, it's not a bad a read. Enter Mrs. Pollifax, widowed, retired and depressed. She doesn't have a husband to take care, no job to go to, no children to raise, and the Garden Club she belongs to can only fill so many hours of the week. In order to seek meaning into her life, she approaches the CIA. Naturally, the CIA decides to humor her. But like the comedies I dearly love, Carstairs stumbles upon her, thinking she's already an agent. It appears he's got a dilemma on his hands and needs an agent posing as a tourist as late as yesterday. Mrs. Pollifax fits the bill perfectly, down to her silly little hat. Off she goes to Mexico to pick up a book. Simple, right? That part's simple, but there's just a minor cog in the wheel. Apparently, the other spies got wind of this operation and step in to find the microfilm. When they don't find the microfilm in the bookstore (where the transaction will take place), they decide to kidnap Mrs. Pollifax and another agent, Farrell, and make them give up the information. But a lady doesn't raise her husband, two children and live to the ripe age she has without learning a trick or two. Mrs. Pollifax proves her resourcefulness and surprises the CIA by being an unexpected agent.

Gilman did a wonderful job creating Mrs. Pollifax and her surroundings, from Mexico to Albania. Written during the Cold War (originally published in 1966), Gilman's scenario seems highly probable as the Russians and Chinese battle over Albania with Mrs. Pollifax thrown in the middle. Viewed as the elderly lady she is, Mrs. Pollifax is not determined to be a threat so they don't keep a close eye on her. This is fortunate for her because she's able to amass some information and plots a daring escape for herself, Farrell and the prisoner next door. During the escape, Mrs. Pollifax brings in her experience as a person and her resourcefulness to get them to safety.

Mrs. Pollifax is a grandmother I would love to have, especially if she could tell me her stories. She's a determined woman, whose sunny disposition helps her out of the jams she manages to fall into. She has an endless courage that allows her to push on when she thinks she can't go further and loyalty which endears her to her allies (Farrell and the other prisoners) and her captors. I look forward to reading more in the series.

Poems - A Bilingual Anthology by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (trans. Margaret Sayers Peden)

Recently (and I'm sorry, I've lost the link) I cam across a blog comparing the poetry of my old acquaintance Emily Dickinson, to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican nun-poet. The blog, so interesting that I somehow lost it's existence altogether talked about the depth of compression in their language, the subtelty of phrasing, the gentle, but sublime wordplay. So, I thought I'd try it out.

Well, I apparently need to learn Spanish. Because in translation, some of these poems are real, real bad. Let me demonstrate:

Dear Leonor, they've given you
the palm for beauty, or so you say,
but have no fear for your virtue,
that face would save you any day.

You sing your praises without qualm,
to hear you tell it, men lose their wits:
but if they've given you the palm,
it's from the date -- for you're the pits.

Doesn't that just feel like a not-particularly-clever limerick? I do not speak Spanish, I only took a few years in high school, and remember very little, but even I can tell this isn't doing justice (the book has facing pages of Spanish and English, so you can, kind of, go back and see what she actually said). The word for date is nowhere in the text - the word for coconut is, and with some minimal research, I learned that Coco can actually mean coconut, or a Spanish version of the Bogeyman. I understand, in some sense, this does not translate. The translation, then, seems pointless.

This does not affect my respect for the lady in question, it just sort of invalidates any reading of her by a gringo like me. I'm not a natural fan of the aesthetics of the Spanish language, the way many are with, say , French, but just in pure assonance and meter, some of these poems are beautiful, like this series of statements about her own beauty:

es un vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inutil para el hado:
es una necia diligencia errada,
es un afan caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadaver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

Which translates (loosely. I think. Jen, correct me.) to:

Is a vain artifice of care,
Is a delicate flower in the wind,
Is a poor response to unalterable fate,
Is a foolish and diligent mistake,
Is a transient eagerness, when fully understood,
Is a corpse, a dust, a shadow, a void.

The translation tries to maintain the rhyme and meter, and comes out like this:

Is but an artifice, a sop to vanity,
is but a flower by the breezes bowed,
is but a ploy to counter destiny,
is but a foolish labor, ill-employed,
is but a fancy, as all may see,
is but cadaver, ashes, shadow, void.

Now, my translation is horrid, patched together with old spanish classes, google, and blind guesses, but even in this poor murky lense, you can see something that isn't in the second translation, a thematic descent, the same kind found in Dickinson poetry, actually, and a feeling of futile battle, of willfulness against the decay that destroys beauty eventually. But the beauty, the rich sound of the language is completely lost, and the thrum-thrum-thrumming of the meter dissolves, and you're left with what sounds like an emo kid's particularly clever whining 'free poem'. In the translator's words, the poem loses completely the power of the linguistic precision (at least I think so, again, I don't speak spanish). It's like a synopsis, that rhymes, and poetry cannot be synopsized very well. But, it manages to maintain some of the sing-song quality - only without the weight of the language, it ends up sounding like a somewhat coy attempt at engaging people in looking at how pretty she is by showing how smart she is. It sounds flat and dull.

Maybe poetry just doesn't translate, maybe that's all there is to it. Antonio Carlos Jobim, the great master of the bossa nova, and a beautiful lyricist, translated his song 'Aguas de Marco' to English (from Portugese) by basically writing an entirely new poem, to the point that the original song is thematically linked to March as the flooding period of Autumn in Brazil, when everything is marching toward the death of winter, whereas the English translation has the overtones of life, rebirth ("And the riverbank talks of the waters of march, it's the promise of life, it's the joy in your heart"). He took pride, in fact, in not including a single Latinate word in the English version, to make entirely English, in his mind, not at all of a piece with the Portugese tongue he was born with. And it really is a beautiful poem. Maybe that's how poetry should translate. I don't know. But I don't think it should translate like this.

Just as an endnote, while I don't recommend this translation of this author, she is a fascinating person, and has the sensiblities that make me believe she is a beautiful poet - and many is the Spanish speaker, who sings her praises (she was, in fact, printed on Mexican bank-notes for a while - wouldn't that be cool, if they replaced Jackson with say... Whitman on the $20 bill? Man, I'd freak out every time I pulled out a $20, like my $20 bill was staring into my soul - do you really want to buy McDonalds? Do you really want to betray your immortality to a cheesburger, oh my son?). Like I hinted earlier, maybe Ms Jen, who is the Spanish literary expert, here (hrm, hrm) can let me know if I'm just crazy.

Traveler by Ron McLarty

This is Ron McLarty's second novel after his stellar debut The Memory of Running.

Traveler is a mystery that reads like a memoir. The main character, Jono, is an off-off-broadway actor by day and a bartender by night - another sympathetic, average-guy creation for McLarty. Also, again, McLarty uses his reflective protagonist to explore the themes of damage, death and loss which were suffered in the past and are now popping up in the present. This time, the hero receives notice that a beloved childhood friend, really the sister of a friend, has died as a result of a "traveler," a bullet she received as a child that lodged in her body and allowed her to grow into a mature adult before slipping through an artery and killing her.

So then, who shot and ultimately killed Marie? Was it one or more of the juvenile neighborhood thugs and bullies, or someone closer to home? What connection does Marie's death have to several other murders and disapperances in the area? Jono will have to return to his old haunts to find out.

For the second time around, there is a subplot that centers around a romantic relationship, yet this time the love interest has been demoted to a less-than-necessary role; I would've liked to see more involvement, more correlation of present with past.

Overall, McLarty again handles his themes well by engaging the reader with both his characters and scenarios. While this new character is not quite as uplifting or dynamic as the first, Traveler is a good, solid read that will leave you satisfied.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Don't Move by Margaret Mazzantini

Intrigued by the premise, I picked this book up while perusing the library shelves for another book by another author. I'm sad to say that I was disappointed by this on-the-fly find.

This novel is a father's first person account of an adulterous relationship, if you could call it that, which he had with a woman that he met and raped when his car broke down on the way to meet his wife at their beach house. If that sounds convoluted, it is. What makes the scenario worse is that this confused (and I say that without pity) rapist and adulterer is confessing these sins to his daughter. What makes that even worse is that his daughter is in the hospital with a serious, life-threatening brain injury after she is struck by a car while riding her moped (the novel is set in Italy). The father, the rapist and adulterer, also happens to be a surgeon, but in true weasel form chooses to opt out of his daughter's surgery and allow his friend to perform the deed himself. On second thought, considering what a louse this guy is, I think that was for the best.

I really can't tell if this author has simply failed miserably at having her readers like or enjoy her main character, or if she is trying to antagonize the reader, daring him or her to keep reading (which I did), despite the mess of a man that she is presenting. The first person narrative certainly doesn't cause the reader to relate or have any sympathy for the character, neither does the infernal confessing. I doubt that a priest could find a soft spot in his heart for this guy.

I don't think I am ruining anything by announcing that the woman with whom the main character has the affair ends up dieing after a botched abortion. The daughter lives. The wife, poor thing, lives. The main character, unfortunately, lives (thus, he's telling the story).

I wish he had died.

This novel reminds me of Ron McLarty's stellar novel, The Memory of Running, only because he does such a better job of taking an average (therefore, flawed) guy and turning him into a character that is endeared to the reader, someone the reader really begins to root for all the way to the end, someone who redeems himself.

Maybe, in fact, Mazzantini's effort is more true to real life.

I hope not.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

My friend, Erin, told me about these books and lent me her copy of this book to borrow. For me, it took me until the 3rd chapter to really get into it. After that, it went quite fast. Although, I did get distracted at the very end by my real life and it took me a little while to actually finish it and I did.
It's written in Bella's point of view, who is an average human being. Her parents are divorced and her mom is going to live with her new boyfriend in Florida,so Bella is moving to Forks, WA to live with her dad Charlie. She has mixed feelings about all of this - naturally. Even with a lot of the things Bella is, like being a bit clumsy, and goes through, I had wished she had a little bit more spark (even one) to her character. I needed something a bit more substantial to understand why Edward, the vampire in the story, would basically risk so much for her. I understood that he loved her but I just needed a little something extra for Bella.
I think she did a great job with the vampire characters and I really did like Carlisle, Alice and Edward. I loved the descriptions of all the vampires, even the bad ones, and I actually enjoyed picturing them in my mind which I didn't expect because I wasn't sure about reading this book about vampires in the first place. In my opinion, I think Stephenie Meyer is changing the stereotypical vampire which I really appreciate.
It is a young adult romance type book. I'm funny about romances but that has to do with my own personality and nothing about the book. It is a clean cut book and it does a great job exploring those feelings you experience as you first fall in love.
Overall, it was fun. The ending is left wide open for the next book to begin. In fact, my copy had two chapters of the next book right in it to get you started (a marketing ploy). I haven't decided if I'll finish the series. Most likely, I will and I'll be sure to post my reviews here.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

After reading another review here on 5-squared, I became interested in reading this story. I have a lot of faith in the Newberry Medal winners, and I must say I was pleased with Ella Enchanted. Not following the advice I received from Marcia, I watched the movie first, since I was able to find it at the library, though the books were checked out. Everything turned out fine, fortunately.

Watching the movie, I could sense that there was a lot of quality in the book. The movie was silly - repulsively so - but at its core I sensed a great idea being smeared about with all the predictable Hollywood tricks like adapting the plot to be more attention-grabbing and including over-the-top characters as though it were an animated film (and why must we endure them there?)

I had worried about the movie spoiling the plot for me, but decided that one would have to spoil the other and I might as well get it over with. I'm glad to say that as I read the book, I really had no idea what was about to come because it was so different from the movie. There are almost more spoilers in Disney's Cinderella. Originating from the same fairy tale, I liked many of the slight alterations made by Levine, which added to the story well. As many of us are already familiar with such a classic tale, I found the slight embellishments and refinements reflected a keen wit on the part of the author, and kept it fresh and slightly unpredictable.

My favorite aspect of Ella Enchanted wasn't the clever alteration to the basic storyline, however. What I enjoyed most was the way in which Levine didn't need adjectives when describing people. Instead, she shared a few lines of dialogue and related a few of their actions and instantly I felt more familiar with the character than if she had come out and stated things about them. It's akin to a picture being a thousand words, or actions speaking louder than words. Something. But the efficiency in her writing was admirable, and the way she chose to have characters reveal themselves to the reader was deftly handled.

The downside was really just my age vs. the intended age of the reader. The story stays very straightforward, and there is a simplicity to everything that is almost surely appropriate for younger readers, but was unsatisfying to me. In my case, I would have liked things a bit less easy. I mean, there is danger, and Ella certainly goes through her share of misery. It's just that conflicts resolved too quickly and neatly for me. Maybe I've read a bit too much George R. R. Martin, and I've come to expect a bit of harshness and despair (like, I've struggled for 2 books to return to my family only to find them betrayed and murdered hours before reuniting with them). Now, I certainly didn't expect to find stuff like that, and I believe Ella Enchanted is written very appropriately for the intended audience. I just found it to be a fault that things were so simplistic. I don't recall feeling that way about other juvenile fiction, such as The Dark is Rising or Lord of the Flies. :)

And yet, I am a hypocrite, for that dark, twisted side is exactly why I hated Wuthering Heights so many years ago. (or was it a stupid female character that should have made some different choices?) To be fair, I was a bit of sheltered sunshine back then, back before life got real. Now I'd probably find it suits me just fine. So maybe I'm not quite a hypocrite, just a split personality divided by a gulf of time.

Similarly, I say let the children imagine and dream and read books with magic and talking animals, and then I say let's not delude them with happy endings when in reality existence is so bleak. False advertising and optimism are deceptive and wrong! So do I embrace my irrationality, stop having an opinion, or become more sensible by examining my thoughts more deeply? Probably the first one. It is by far the easiest to just say I don't always make sense and then move on.

Well, that aside aside, I still though Ella Enchanted was an enjoyable book. A bit simple in some ways, yet in other ways quite witty and sharp. Example: Ella instead of Cinderella, and Prince Char instead of Charming (wait, I'm still getting there). However, when the prince comes seeking her at the end, they say she is Cinder, just a serving girl. I couldn't help thinking how appropriately Cinder and Char go together. Intentional? I'm not sure. But it seemed clever to take two names, change them, and still find another way to connect them together.

I loved the characters, and especially the way Levine describes them without describing them. I found it to be a very fun book. So overall, I believe this to be a perfect book for a younger reader, and a pretty enjoyable one even for older, bitter guys like me.

The Dogs Of Riga - Henning Mankell

1992 (Swedish); 2001 (English). 324 pages. Genre : Murder-Mystery. Overall Rating : B-
A life-raft floats up onto the Swedish shore. Inside are the bodies of two men, shot through the heart after being tortured and then dapperly dressed. There's no ID on either man, and no markings of the origin of the life-raft. With almost nothing to go on, Swedish detective Kurt Wallander tries to solve the case, which sudsequently leads him to Latvia, which is enduring the last throes of the Soviet Union.
What's To Like...
The emphasis here is on Wallander's (and several of his coworkers') plodding perseverence. No brilliancies; just dogged detective work. The plot unfolds beautifully as they try to determine the nationalities of the victims and the origin of the life-raft. It (naturally) quickly becomes clear that the two murders are simply a small part of a more complex plot.
The Swedish ambiance is a welcome relief from that "bubbly buxom blonde girls skiing around as ABBA music plays in the background" scenario. Swedish winters are gray, cold, and like our Phoenix summers, seemingly never-ending. When Wallander travels to Riga, everything only gets grayer, colder, gloomier, poorer, and darker. Kewlness.
Best of all, Wallander is a polar-opposite to a literary "Mary Sue". See here for Wikipedia's offering on Mary Sues. More about this in a bit.
What's Not To Like...
The plot unfolds nicely, but its resolution seems hurried and forced. For 200+ pages the sleuthing creeps along, then suddenly there's a 007 shoot-em-up, where a bunch of good guys get offed, while our hero amazingly gets neither a scratch nor caught. Kinda reminds me of The Last Samurai, where a couple hundred Japanese warriors get chopped into hamburger meat by machine guns, while Tom Cruise somehow handsomely survives.
While the Latvian ambiance is great, Mankell doesn't seem to have done much detailed research. For instance, when Wallander has to flee beyond Riga's city limits, all Mankell says is that he goes into various unnamed towns that Wallander never learns the names of. Sloppy, sloppy.
Finally, the translation (which Mankell had nothing to do with) just sucks. There are spelling and grammar errors, and some clunky sentence structures. One wonders if this is a much better read in the native tongue.
Mary Sue, Where Are You...
If you're tired of too-perfect heroes, Kurt Wallander is for you. He's middle-aged, somewhat overweight, and average-looking. He drinks too much alcohol, even by Scnadinavian standards. He smokes too much and is addicted to lousy coffee. He's divorced, and frankly his ex is doing better without him. His father lays guilt trips on him, and thinks Wallander made a dumb mistake by joining the police force. So far, there's nothing to prove that wrong. His (grown) daughter barely tolerates him. He hates his job, but finds that he doesn't have any alternatives. His romantic charms are non-existent. In the previous book, he threw himself at the beautiful female lead, only to have her threaten to bring a sexual harassment charge against him. Here, he falls for a mudered Latvian-detective's widow, and while she appreciates his solving the case and saving her life, she prefers to remain "just friends".
Nevertheless, I've enjoyed both Kurt Wallander books that I've read. I think Mankell is more concerned about giving you a gritty, true-to-life picture of Sweden (and in this case, Latvia as well), letting you know of some of the serious social issues there, and having you become friends with Wallander, his family, and his fellow detectives. Now if he'd just pay more attention to the plot itself...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hollow Earth by David Standish

I must admit I'm rather proud of this one. I had decided to read a non-fiction work, to add some variety to my typical fare. First I attempted The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. The premise was basically what would happen if people suddenly, for whatever reason, no longer existed on the earth? I suppose one could call it speculative non-fiction, but it was close enough for me. And it was pretty interesting, learning about nurdles, CO2 levels, native flora and fauna, and the order in which decay would bring down New York city, starting with it's subway system and up to its magnificent skyscrapers and bridges. Unfortunately, I lost interest as the level of detail and the similarity of the information began to pull away my weak attention span. Somewhere after 100 pages in, I realized that I had no more renewals at the library and needed to find something else.

In a bind, but still hoping to find an interesting non-fiction work to read, I thought of a topic which interests me but which I still felt pretty ignorant about: the hollow earth theory. You can blame my Scoutmaster, Sam Shemp, a lanky 6' 7" AC repairman and Sunday School teacher. I can't recall the first time he introduced the idea that the earth was hollow, whether it was on a campout somewhere or perhaps even during a class at church, but he was informed enough and passionate enough about the subject that I still don't know whether he was actually a believer in the theory or just pulling our legs a-la "snipe hunting."

Hollow Earth (subtitled The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface) seemed to be a pretty authoritative place to begin my investigations into the theory. Reviews pointed out its light-hearted tone and thorough coverage, so I gave it a shot.

What's to like: There's a lot of information, and the subject is pretty unique. The author presents the information pretty fairly, with just the right amount of tongue in cheek necessary with such a topic. While his humor wasn't really very funny, it kept the tone lighter than a textbook, which would have been horrible indeed. The information is presented chronologically, starting with Edmund Halley (yes, the comet guy), who believed the earth must have inner spheres which rotated independently of the surface, to explain the shifting of magnetic forces that made navigation difficult. The book follows the theory and its variations, focuses on key contributors to the theory over the years, and gives some back story to explain how such ideas fit with other events happening in the world. It is also sprinkled heartily with images that were illuminating and bizarre.

What's to meh: Two things stand out: the first is quoting the Internet - sites like the Uncyclopedia and some other online sources. While I realize that we'll be seeing more of this as time goes on, and that the Internet is a valid source when documented correctly, I just felt that getting information on things from 150+ years ago off the Internet made it feel like the validity was stretched a bit thin. Like hearing the data second- or third-hand, instead of from direct accounts. It probably shouldn't seem like that, but I guess I'm old-fashioned and haven't adjusted well enough. The other thing I wasn't sure about was the level of detail the author went into at times. I understood the importance of showing what else was going on in the world, to show how the theory fit with other things that were going on. It's probably just that I don't read much non-fiction and therefore don't know how much seemingly unimportant information is shared. Too little, and it would look poorly researched and whip by too quickly; too much and the author seems to be showing off and confusing the chronological flow. At times it felt like TMI (which I know I am guilty of, shame hypocrite Byron), and there are many things that have already slipped from my mind because I didn't have a notebook and there were too many things coming at me at once. Probably just a weakness in me, though, therefore I place it in the neither-good-nor-bad category.

What's to revile: Okay, not revile, but here are some of the lesser-liked details. I guess I was just disappointed that I didn't feel I learned what I was seeking to. I was less interested in the who's who behind the theory than the theory itself, and how it has fared over the years. In this book, the people seemed to be the main focus. Worse than that, and my least favorite, was the amount of time spend following the history of the theory in fiction literature. A lot of space was taken up detailing how Poe, Verne, and Bradbury (and many other authors) used the hollow earth theory in some of their stories. But what they did seems secondary, insignificant (they weren't altering it, at the most they were helping the idea tread water and to make it into the consciousness of more people).

What I was looking for is the experiments that have taken place, accounts and testimonies made, and being in the thick of the arguments for and against such a strange belief. And there, it appears to me that the book didn't have the depth I was hoping for. Either my Scoutmaster had taken it farther all on his own, or Mr. Standish didn't get to nearly enough of the arguments that people use to defend it. Where were the theories about 1. the Garden of Eden being within, 2. the longevity of OT prophets resulting from living inside, and during the flood washing out, and the sun causing our shorter lives, 3. the lost tribes (including the giant races) living within, to someday return from the north, 4. experiments involving mine shafts and unexpected results?

To be fair, it did cover many of the other things I had heard about the theory, things like aurora borealis being the light from within coming out of a polar opening, the earth's flattening at the poles, and the mass of the earth in relation to the moon. What I really wanted, though, was a good breakdown of the arguments, to show how they stack up under scrutiny and scientific investigation. Instead, there were few pros or cons offered. It was "just the facts, ma'am." Even though it seems a foregone conclusion, the reader is ultimately left to wonder why the rectilineator experiment showed a concave surface, or whether some animals are actually migrating north in the winter and why. I wanted the arguments, the proofs, and enough information to be able to debate either side, but instead I feel I've learned very little beyond the distance back in time which the theory can be traced and some of the key people involved in its development over the years.

Ultimately, what I've done is learned a little history, forgotten a lot of details, and found some other sources that I can use if I want to learn more about the hollow earth theory. The book was diverting and unique, and it delivered what it promised in the subtitle. Whether it should have been more, that's for others with more experience to say. I liked much of it, but was still unsated.

And yes, I realize that a non-fiction work about a fictional* subject matter is a stretch, a bit of cheating. But whatever, I did it, let the congratulations flow.

*I am willing to state that the theory is fictional (i.e. false, in this usage), based on common sense and what I've learned my entire life, despite Cyrus Teed's warning that "To know of the earth's concavity is to know God, while to believe in the earth's convexity is to deny Him and all His works." (quoted on p. 150) I am, however, still fascinated to know what has convinced others, and reserve the right to change my mind if compelling evidence were forthcoming. Mock all you want, that's what I'm here for.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Nine Lives to Murder by Marian Babson

Winstanley Fortescue takes a trip down Kafka lane, but instead of a cockroach, he turns into a cat or rather trades bodies with a cat, Montmorency (Monty) D. Mousa. Fortescue is somewhat of a bigshot in England's theatre scene, Monty is the resident mouser of Chesterton Theatre. Winstanley inadvertently falls on Monty, tends to happen when one is pushed, and they literally butt heads and trade places. Now Winstanley is caught in Monty's body and Monty is caught in Winstanley's body, but they try to make the most of the situation. Winstanley tries to find out who tried to kill him, or his body at least, not just on the stage, but in the hospital, and later in the theatre. His list of suspects is not short by any means, his current wife, his ex-wife, one of his mistresses, his son, a critic, his manager, or someone else. The distinct advantage Winstanley has being in the body of the cat is people talk freely in front of him and he learns who really loves him, who's using him, and what a cad he could be and how to appreciate the feelings of others. On top of his recent transformation, the show must still go on. Luckily or not, dependent on point of view, Monty has adapted to his new body and eagerly steps into the role of Winstanly Forescue, Actor at Large. The results are successful and hilarious. In the end, Winstanley finds the culprit, both switch to the right body, and they live happily ever after.

This was a delightful read. Babson wrote the transformation from human to cat and cat to human very well. Even though it was far-reaching, it had an element of believability. Babson created her world and situation and stuck to those rules. The mystery also had a good twist and the characters were characters themselves. From lovable to dislikable to serious and outright funny. I'm not sure how close she kept to the theatre antics, but the story is very well crafted.

There were four books in between Nine Lives to Murder and The Winter Garden Mystery. I was so infuriated with them, I didn't bother finishing them. When I read a mystery or a cozy, I read to enjoy the story. Not all cozies are well-written, but some are down right sloppy and I refuse to accept that. The main character is either too egotistical and feels s/he is the only person in the entire world who can solve the crime (police be damned!) and take it upon him/herself to get to the bottom of things or plain lucky. Either way, it usually involves the person getting into danger. One thing I do expect when I read a cozy is a story that is well-written. One of those books has introduced a new pet peeve for me: Parenthesis. Don't get me wrong, parenthesis have a place, like any form of grammar, but not every other sentence or whole fricking paragraphs! After a while I'm wondering what am I reading, a mystery or a story with a body thrown in so the author could pass it off to the agent or editor. It's almost paramount to cheating and I find it insulting. True, I don't read cozies just for the murder, but for characters and how craftily the writer can drop clues and how clever I am. It's a genre I would like to be published in one day, so I study these books with a fine tooth comb. When I do enter the arena, I want to make sure I don't make these mistakes: Egotistical characters, bad writing, inane dialogue, stale characters, weak mysteries, and preposterous scenarios. Despite cozies not being taken seriously, there are still standards The four books I abandoned had those elements and I will drop an author or series in a heartbeat; there are too many books to read and enjoy.

A Canticle For Liebowitz - Walter Miller

1959; 313 pages. Genre : Post-apocalyptic fiction. Awards : Hugo (1961). Overall Rating : B.
A Canticle For Liebowitz chronicles a monastery in the futuristic American Southwest, and is divided into three parts : Fiat Homo ("Let There Be Man"); Fiat Lux ("Let There Be Light"), and Fiat Voluntas Tua ("Thy Will Be Done"). The first part takes place in the 25th century, as mankind struggles to survive in the aftermath of a devastating 20th-century nuclear holocaust. There are mutants, wolves and brigands, and a potent anti-knowledge movement which executes all intellectuals and burns all books.
The second part takes place 600 years after the first (3174 AD); when technology is being re-learned, for better and for worse. The third part takes place 600 years after that, (3781 AD) when galaxy-travel has been perfected, and when a nuclear holocaust again is a distinct possibility.
What's To Like...
The emphasis is on historical reflection here, not on thrills-&-spills action. Miller explores the "history repeats itself" motif : Holocaust, Dark Ages, Renaissance, Holocaust, Dark Ages, Renaissance, and so on. He also looks at the inherent conflict between Scientific Knowledge and Church Dogma, and the respective roles of Church and State on issues such as Euthansia. And he focuses on the contributions (past and future) of manasticism to civilization - copying books and preserving knowledge when no one else is/was there to do it.
There are a number of interesting characters. Brother Francis, who stumbles upon pre-holocaust relics. The wanderer who manages to show up in all three books. And the Poet, who's a man after my own heart : quick of wit, and short of common sense.
Oh yeah - and there's "booklegging". The art of locating, smuggling, copying, and preserving books, for the sake of Knowledge, even at the cost of one's life. Hey, everyone at 5-Squared should aspire to this noble criminal activity, should worse come to worst.
What's Not To Like...
The characters may be interesting, but except for the Wanderer, they all die off within 100 pages/600 years. So don't get too attached to anybody.
There's an abundance of Roman Catholic-sounding Latin throughout the book. I hate Latin. If you saw my grades in it from Junior High, you'd understand why.
Those who don't learn from History are condemned to repeat it.
A Canticle For Liebowitz received mixed reviews when it came out. Some loved it (hence the Hugo); some hated it, including the Catholic Digest. Miller joined the Catholic Church in 1947 (prior to that he called himself an atheist), and there is an aura of Catholicism througout aCfL.
The Catholic Church didn't like aCfL, because there are a lot of theologic foibles here. For example, "Saint Liebowitz" was in fact a Jewish engineer. And some of his "relics" revered in the monastery, are things like a shopping list ("pound pastrami; six bagels") and a cover page for an intra-office memo. Then there's the canonization of Saint Liebowitz, due to ailing penitents who swear they prayed to him, and were healed.
This novel took a huge toll on Miller. Prior to this, he was a prolific short-story writer. Indeed, aCfL is actually three of his short stories, re-worked and synchronized into a coherent novel. Alas, after this, he suffered from depression and writer's block; and he never had anything else published during his lifetime. He devoted himself to writing a sequel (technically a "midquel") to aCfL. In 1996 (that's 37 years later), when the midquel was just about done, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. A Miller-appointed author-successor, Terry Bisson, put the finishing touches on the midquel.
In closing, this is a great book for when you want to reflect upon history, mankind, and "the big cosmological picture". However it's not a good choice if you're in the mood for the clichéd Starship Troopers action-hero-against-the-monsters sci-fi tale. Read it to muse, not to be amused.

The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn

This is the second in the Daisy Dalyrmple series, the first was Death at Wentwater Court previously reviewed. The author definitely improved in the mystery category, so perhaps the first one was a fluke. Dunn creates charming characters in a charming setting, however, sometimes it seems a little too charming. Even with the murder and the "secrets" one can't help but feel that Daisy's world is a little too perfect. In this adventure, her article on Wentwater Court was a huge success, so Town and Country have decided to indulge the flapper, Daisy, for another article, this one about Occles Hall who she wrangled an invitation from her school chum, Bobbie Parslow. The only one against the visit is the lady of the hall Lady Valeria, aka, Lady Vee. Pretty soon, Daisy is responsible for unearthing another body, this time of the parlor maid, Grace Moss. The only thing upsetting about this murder, is not the death of the girl, but the fact that she was found. Everyone seems pretty relieved the poor girl is dead, of course being a pregnant blackmailer might have had something to do with it. But Grace isn't the only one with a secret. It appears Bobbie and her brother, Bastie, have secrets of their own, but are they willing to kill for it? Sensing the local constable is brushing her off, Daisy arranges her chum, Alec Fletcher, to make some inquiries. Under the obligatory 48-hour deadline, Alec dives in to see what he can uncover. Long story short, Bobbie's and Bastie's secrets are uncovered and the rebel against Mommie Dearest (Bobbie wants to work for a living and Bastie is gay), case gets solved (that actually had a very thought out twist) and our heroes drive off into the sunset.

I think the author may enter the dangerous realm of falling in love with her main character, Daisy Dalrymple. As mentioned earlier, Daisy seems just too perfect. She's got the right perkiness, which never crosses the line of being annoying, and everything she does has a happy ending, except for the murderee and the murderer. Daisy's flaws are limited, except that she's working in a society where she's expected to stay at a manor and live the good life. But the perfection doesn't end there, Daisy's always has the perfect solution for every problem and everything ends like a Disney movie. As much as I love to escape in a book, I don't expect everything to be perfect. I need some flaws in the characters and their actions. If it's too perfect, what's the point of reading because the element of surprise has been taken away from me.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Holidays On Ice - David Sedaris

1997, 134 pages. Genre : (Semi) Non-Fiction, Humor. Overall Rating : C+.
Six Christmas-themed stories (3 new, 3 previously-published) by David Sedaris. Among them : an over-the-top Christmas letter, a review of the neighborhood kiddie Christmas pageants, and a Christmas-is-Giving rivalry between two famiies that gets out of hand.
What's To Like...
Sedaris' wit is dry and hilarious. I kept laughing out loud, which isn't always desirable when one's spouse is trying to sleep. It's a quick, easy read. If, on December 30th, you realize you're still one book short of your reading goal (and a 5-squared review too!), Holidays On Ice is your answer.
The best of the six stories is Santaland Diaries, recounting Sedaris' job at 33 years old of being a seasonal "Santa's Elf" at Macy's. The Christmas Pageant Review story, and "Dinah, the Christmas Whore" are good as well.
What's Not To Like...
The Christmas Letter story is a bit too in-your-face, even for me. Somehow, a tale with a dead baby (Spoiler alert : "I said WATCH the baby, not WASH the baby!) in a Christmas book is just inappropriate. The "Christmas is Giving" story goes on way too long. Overall, this is an uneven set of stories, and not a good choice as your first Sedaris book. Finally, this book sold for $8.99 new?! For 134 pages?! What a rip.
"Congratulations, Mr. Sedaris. You are an elf!"
There apparently is some controvery about Sedaris' books. The NYT lists them in their Non-Fiction list, yet it is alleged that some of his essays are ...erm... hyperbolized. I've read three of his books so far, and all I can say is : I certainly hope Sedaris availed himself to hyperbole. If not, he was raised in the most dysfunctional family imaginable, and half the people he's met in life are shoe-ins (shoo-ins?) for the loony bin.
In closing, here are two quick teasers from the Santaland Diaries. If you find them funny, you'll enjoy David Sedaris. If not, Art Linkletter books are still around.
"A spotted child visited Santa, climbed up on his lap, and expressed a wish to recover from chicken pox. Santa leapt up." (pg. 25)
"Today a child told Santa Ken that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone wants those Turtles." (pg. 30)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist (Plus)

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is a story of a Spanish boy shepherd who sells his sheep so that he can travel to the Pyramids on a journey to find his Personal Legend, the treasure that awaits him if he follows his heart. On the way, he finds love, desert, war, the wind, and God.

I found this book to be a delight, an easy read. It is a parable about the travels we all make to find our true calling.

In this story, I was reminded that it is the seeking that matters, not the end goal or result. What we see and the people we meet along the way are the things that make life enjoyable.

“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart. “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve known that every hour was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.”

Recently in following my heart down a new pathway, I have discovered magic on my own journey. In the first few chapters of a friend’s book I discovered a character with my grandmother’s name. My grandmother has been a muse to me, a spirit guide I talk to for comfort, for direction, for answers. When I listen to my heart, it is my grandmother’s voice I hear. And now, she is an omen, a sign that I am heading in the right direction.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer

I finished reading Breaking Dawn today. There might be a few spoilers, if you haven't finished reading it yet. Here are my thoughts:

First, let me say that I first started reading Twilight about a year ago just to see what the big deal was. Stephenie Meyer has a way of sucking the reader in with an intriguing tale and interesting characters. I've heard all the complaints from people who don't like the series or can't see what the big deal is. I agree with some of it. Yes, Bella is immature and spoiled. Yes, Edward is controlling, and yes, Jacob is immature. Despite all their flaws, they still make for interesting characters and for fun reading. I'm not reading these books in search of morals or because I think the guys are dreamy. So, I've read each book one time and have borrowed them or checked them out of the library. I did buy Breaking Dawn because I wanted to read it right away and wouldn't be able to get it from the library soon. I don't think I'd ever reread any of them. One time is enough. Bottom line, Stephenie Meyer is a great storyteller and has created intriguing characters. She's getting a lot of flack for the choices her character makes in the books and for how she depicts Bella. She's also getting a lot of negative reviews because it ends too happily and because Bella gets everything she wants. No negative consequences for her poor choices. I say, geez, it's just a book.

So, here's my honest review. Breaking Dawn pulled me in right away. I read the first half quickly. I loved the part that was from Jacob's point of view. I thought the titles for each of his chapters were fun & creative. It was so refreshing to watch the story unfold from his point of view. That was my favorite part of the book. When it went back to Bella's point of view, I was disappointed, and those first two chapters after Jacob's part were very annoying and hard to get into. Bella was so annoying, and I stopped reading for two days. It really bothers me the book and all the secondary characters revolve around Bella. They would all give up everything for her and her baby, like their lives don't matter.

After those 2 chapters, I got back into it again. Overall, I thought it was well-written and kept me wanting to read. (Once I got past those 2 chapters) Sure, some of the things that happened were a little strange, like Jacob imprinting on the baby. But, I'm not up-in-arms about it. The ending was fine and yeah, she lived happily ever after. Fine with me. So, I give Stephenie Meyer credit for an overall enjoyable series of books and congratulations to her for her success. Sure, I recommend the book if you can get past Bella being annoying.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Awakening
By Kate Chopin

On the front cover of the book I read, there is a quote by Willa Cather which states; “A Creole Bovary is this little novel of Miss Chopin’s.” I thought that was a clever description. I can’t say that this is my favorite book of all time but I did gain a sense of the characters that Kate Chopin created in the story. Also, her details were interesting enough to keep me reading. Her writing haunted of human nature, whether good or bad, which had literary value and perhaps keeps people reading or studying it and regarding it as a classic.
I really liked Robert. He was a playful, fun and a unique individual. I think if I knew him in real life I would have a hard time figuring out his intentions. His little tease about the spirits being around just because it happened to be the 28th of August made me smile.
Of course, I thought Mrs. Edna Pontellier was selfish. I could sympathize that her struggles in her life came from within. She had a nice life by material standards but she couldn’t handle what was expected of her ordinary life. She desired to be extraordinary, such as being a painter, but it seemed unobtainable to her. I feel she was in pain, depressed and tormented a lot of the time.
There were fleeting moments of joy, like when she was listening to Mademoiselle Reisz as she played the piano. She was fond of music because “Musical strains, well rendered, had a way of evoking pictures in her mind.” I think she loved those daydreams. She had a hard time communicating with others especially her children and Mr. Pontellier. Her troubled marriage, hardships of motherhood and depressed thoughts led to her downfall because she could not be content in the life she was in and was always searching for what she truly desired.
I have to share this quote, regarded as a crazy thought from Mademoiselle Reisz, but I liked it and you do find yourself thinking about it. “Well, for instance, when I left her today, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she(Mademoiselle Reisz) said. ‘The bird that would soar above the level of plain tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted and fluttering back to earth.’”
In the end, I do consider this story to be a tragedy.

The Bourne Betrayal - Eric Van Lustbader

2007, 717 pages. Genre : Action.

When Arab extremists kidnap his only friend in CI (Covert Intelligence), it's up to Jason Bourne to find and rescue him. But the kidnappers have already invaded Bourne's mind, and they are able to anticipate his every move.

What's To Like...

The book is constant action, so at 717 pages, you're certainly getting your money's worth. There's a plethora of plot twists to keep you reading. As with any Bourne novel - there are well-described locations (Ethiopia, Odessa, Istanbul) to fall in love with. There are four major plotlines going on at the same time, yet you have no trouble keeping track of them.

What's Not To Like...

There's a lot of action, but not much progress. The core of the trilogy written by Robert Ludlum - the inner struggle between the assassin Jason Bourne and the "normal" David Webb, is missing here in book #5. Only Jason Bourne exists.

The technical portions of the story will strain your limits of believability. EvL's attempt to write ebonics is just irritating. Then there are all those spy-novel clichés.

Three clichés I've had my fill of... (and they're all here!)

1. Western Girl falls in love with Arab terrorist. This is always the kiss of death. If the evil BF doesn't kill her first-hand, he betrays her and the last thing she sees is his uncaring face. Just once I'd like to see a different ending. Maybe she betrays him. Maybe she perishes, fighting by his side. I don't care. Any new angle will do.

2. The hero mistakenly thinks he killed an innocent bystander. Of course, he didn't. Evil people did and made it look like he did. For goodness sake, Bourne's an assassin. There is bound to be some collateral killing. If he wants to cry in his beer afterwards, so be it. But enough of the "only evil bullets kill innocent people" concept.

3. The Ultimate Evil deliberately lures the hero to his central headquarters so he can finish him off. This sounds like something out of a bad Austin Powers movie. Folks, if I'm the UE, there's no way I'll ever let the hero get within 100 miles of my HQ, let alone show him the way. If we're going to duke it out, we'll do it out in the boonies somewhere, so that if/when the hero kills me, my evil plan will still go forward.

Overall Rating : C

In retrospect, this story should not have had the Bourne name associated with it. There's nothing inherently wrong with clichés and unbelievable technology. Clive Cussler enthusiasts have enjoyed them for decades. But the Ludlum-penned Bourne trilogy doesn't rely on Batmanesque gizmos, and is really about one man's reconciling his polar-opposite inner beings. The Bourne Betrayal has strayed a long way from Ludlum's premise. It is a decent read, as long as you are able to think "Dirk Pitt" instead of "Jason Bourne".

A Dark Oval Stone by Marsena Konkle

When her husband drops dead of a heart attack in their neighbor's driveway, the main character of this novel must create a new life for herself as a sudden widow. It doesn't help that she's pregnant.
As she goes about deciding whether or not to keep her baby, whether or not to keep her house, whether or not to join a support group, something about this narrative just doesn't resonate. Despite, or maybe because of, the first person narration, I just did not feel the character's grief. Maybe I just didn't trust her the way I would trust an omniscient narrator. When someone reports their own feelings, I question it. When someone else's feelings are reported, it feels as if the feelings are witnessed through a peephole; there is that voyeur's satisfaction of having seen it for yourself, much more having seen something at its most raw and real, when defenses aren't up for the benefit of others. Also, with omniscient, there seems to be a lot more room for description of the main character in a way that the main character would not describe herself.
For example:
"I was so angry, I tore off my ring and threw it across the room." versus
"Her face reddening as she tugged, the widow was so angry she tore off her ring and threw it across the room."
In any case, the novel was a decent read, yet left me feeling empty, as if I hadn't really experienced any emotion at all. Perhaps, though, that was the point. Who am I to say what a young widow might feel, or not feel?
The fact remains that I like nearly every other character except for the character whose perspective I was presented. She seemed unaffected by her husband's death, beyond, that is, the bother of a baby. Her actions thereafter seem hollow, not in the mechanical way that a grief-stricken wife might perform tasks in a stupor simply to survive, but truly shallow.
Even the novel's namesake, a dark oval stone that appears past the halfway mark, is empty of meaning, thus truly, it turns out, a symbol for the entire novel.
There are a few scenes where the wife seems to remember her husband in some semi-substantial way, but, more than anything, she seems to be all too ready to give away her husband's presense, from his clothes to his morals, eager to rub off his mark.
Again, I have never lost my spouse (don't have a spouse), so cannot really imagine that process afterwards, yet I have to say that I truly did not like this main character.
I must also say that I consider myself a feminist, and do not believe that a woman's entire world should be wrapped up in "her man," or any other human being for that matter, but, ultimately, when an assumed loved one dies, I do expect some degree of falling apart. I don't expect, for example, that person to sell their loved one's clothes, their shared house, give away their car, at least not without some serious display of emotion, confusion, conflict.
That's it! That's what was lacking in this piece. Beyond the unacceptable (nil) level of grief, there was very little conflict, very little push and pull on this character. She seemed to slice through her husband's death, even the more difficult decisions it presented, like a warm knife through room-temperature butter, bothered some, but not much.
Someone read this and tell me I'm wrong.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Gray

I just finished reading this book. I read it because I finished the adult reading group book in two weeks and was looking for something to read for the rest of the month. This was the shortest book in my library that I hadn’t already read, 127 pages.

I got it for a filmmaking class that I took at Gemini Ink a few years ago. The pre-class assignment was to watch to watch Stagecoach, Witness, Clerks and Swimming to Cambodia. Amazon shipped the first three as videos, but the fourth came as a book. It’s Spaulding Gray’s monologue about the filming of The Killing Fields, the genocide in Cambodia at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, which was seeded when the Vietnam War spilled across the border. The parallelism between the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Militant Islamists in Iraq is enlightening, as is the eventual abandonment of the Cambodian allies by the withdrawal of the Americans.

According to Gray, the American ambassador sent a message to all Cambodian and American officials, advising them that the evacuation was taking place. “You have two-and-a-half hours to make it here to the embassy and then we’re taking off.” Prince Sirik Matak replied in a letter, “I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.” Two days later, his liver was carried through the streets of Phnom Pehn on a stick.

The movie was made in Thailand. Spalding describes SOBs in Thailand. That’s sexually oriented businesses. He also tokes up frequently, pursues the Perfect Moment, seeks magic mushrooms, feels guilty and worries about getting bitten in half by a shark.

When he returns to the States, he gets a Hollywood agent, because he has a sudden urge to get rich. He visits several television and movie producers in Los Angeles, then returns to New York, to live in Krummville, do his monologues off-Broadway and possibly appear on the David Letterman show.

When I didn’t get the video of Spalding, I bought the audio tape of his Head In A Box and was not disappointed. You can see him perform part of Swimming to Cambodia at

The Secret of Mojo by Regina Walker McCally

I grew up with four brothers who enjoyed watching football and wishing they could play. So, I became accustomed to football game noise in the background. In an effort to get to know my brothers, have something in common to talk about with them and understand the game, I found out that I had a fun obsession – I liked learning about the history of football. So, here’s my review of a book that was published in 1986 that follows the success of the Permian High School Panthers in Odessa, TX.

The Secret of Mojo
By Regina Walker McCally

This book is jam-packed with stories of coaches, football players, and games that were interesting to me and seemed surreal, like once in a lifetime experiences for those involved. The black and white photos, although few, enhance the appeal. It covers the span of time from 1951-1985 of high-school football in Odesssa. I also liked that the author dedicated a chapter to the band, pep squad and cheerleaders and how they contribute to the “Spirit of Mojo.”
I really enjoyed the fresh and honest eyes of the author, Regina Walker McCally, who claims in the introduction that when she moved to Odesssa she was not a football fan. For two years, she didn’t make any effort to join in the jubilation that the town seemed to possess for high school football. By chance, she reluctantly attends a football game because she couldn’t find a decent movie instead. The “Mojo” bug hit her and she became an avid fan following every move of the Permian Panthers for the next 15 years or so. It’s fun to read how much knowledge she has about this team and its history. I mean, she really got into it. I like her writing style. I’ve heard the saying “the truth is stranger than fiction” and she does a great job in making this book ring true with its rich football history.
I would have to agree with Coach Grant Teaff, a former head football coach at Baylor University, when he states “This book is recommended reading for anyone who has ever played the game, wants to play the game, watched the game, coached the game, or simply loves the game.”
“MoJo, MoJo, Go Panthers!”

Friday, August 8, 2008

Reasonable Doubt, by Marcia Mickelson

DISCLAIMER: I know the author. Kind of. She's a friend of my wife, and we've met, she's a very nice lady. I don't imagine she'd consider me a friend per se, but I know her well enough that I'm sure that colors my reading.

Do you know, I mentioned this before in sort of askance, in Kilmeny, but the problem with great literature is that usually it doesn't work out for the characters. Like, somehow, all great artists see some intrinsic sorrow in the world, and they write it, and that's why their art is great. I dunno, maybe that's true, and maybe it isn't, but sometimes I like people to fall in love and get married, and have birds sing when they kiss. You know. I really do. This is even more challenging, being as I happen to be of the male persuasion (did that come out wrong? I only mean to imply that I am, myself male, not... oh, nevermind). My acquaintances at work do not, as a general rule, find it culturally acceptable to discuss the great book they just read that made them cry their eyes out at the end. Just, generally, doesn't happen. Great basketball games, yes. Great genre novels, sure. Great new romantic books, not so much. So, pretty much, I never hear about any good weepers, and I never indulge myself, because given that romance has come to involve so many types of books that are... outside of my interests... well, you get the picture. I mostly just don't end up reading much that's new at all, really, romances even more so.

Well, as it so happens, my wife is personally acquainted with a very nice lady, who apparently, has a good handle on my weepy-eye switch. Now, I will admit, I did not cry in this book, but bear in mind taht I read the last three chapters today in one sentence bursts while on my way here or there, or while waiting for a system image (can you imagine the equivalent of that 120 years ago, by the way? Oh yes, I just got through this lovely novel, called Wuthering... Wuthering something, but I had to sneak in chapters between darning Josiah's socks, and interviewing for a new scullery maid, you know...). And I will not pretend (sorry Marcia) that it was a CLASSIC, as it were. It wasn't. It wasn't, you know, a Bronte, or anything. I hope that doesn't hurt to hear :/, I told Amanda I'm not so good at this.

But, oh, it was nice, to just have people, nice, gentle-hearted, damaged, beautiful people, who meet, and just... make everything better for everybody, and it all comes together nicely in the end. It wasn't just that - I know it seems stupid, when you aren't readign a novel, but nonetheless, it fels really... not GOOD, but really invigorating and spiritual to go inside of someone in a book, and hurt with them, and be afraid with them, and cry wtih them, and then find you r way to some sort of home (even if it's a sad home). Catharsis, I guess. You never get catharsis in real life - at least I don't, I don't have the moral courage to let any one thing matter that much. Most of us, I think (or I hope, or, no, I don't hope, but I guess we tend to believe others are just as stupid as we are), don't have that moral courage, much of the time, most of us have some of those yawning maws that we know we'll probably never dynamite shut, but its a basic human need to do so, and sometimes, at least for me, I need to feel that sensation of burial, and cleansing, even if it's vicarious.

This book reminds me fo when I was fairly young, we went to the temple to do baptisms for the dead. Out of a strong respect for my birthed faith, I won't say anything, I think, that a good Mormon would reveal, but I remember going, and I didn't believe the church, or I didn't think it was a force for good at the time, and I had this thought that perhaps all these little souls that were being baptized in proxy perhaps did not want to, that it hurt them, that it pained them, or that it was sort of a sin outside of their control in whatever faith they held. And so I built up this entire story in my head, of carrying the people who did not want to be there out, I thought of it the entire time I was there, doing the things one does in a baptism ceremony in the temple. I'm not particularly proud of that event, it was an ugly thing for me to do, very disrespectful and dishonest, and it didn't really mean anything to me at the time, it was really just a game in my head that I played with myself to feel something in that quiet lulling period in your life when you can't feel anything. But that's what this book reminds me of, it's a - albeit far healthier and kinder - salve not for the moments of abject sorrow in your life, but for those empty moments, when you don't have the strength, the ability, or the courage to do something for someone that you can feel, but when you desperately need to remember what it is to be human.

And, I guessed the murderer the first time we met him, but Amanda tried to mislead me!

By the way, I don't know who the gentleman in the photo is, apparently he's on the run for murder in Australia right now. Doesn't he look like he just pulled off the biggest joke in the world, like, he believes any minute his murdered wife will jump up and laugh it off? IT's kind of a funny picture, until you realize it's kind of a disturbing picture, and that almost makes it funny again, but not quite, because it's a real person. Eeh....

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer

I began reading the Twilight series at the request of a friend while waiting in line for the release of Halo 3. Reading that first book I wasn't sure what to expect, but I ended up enjoying it very much--enough to wait eagerly for the next books in the series to get released and even purchase the hardback editions (I would typically wait for paperback). Breaking Dawn is the fourth and final book of the series. I wouldn't recommend it as a stand alone read because there is a lot of back story that is important to the final novel, but if it should definitely be read to complete the series.

The series follows the stories of Bella, a human who falls in love with a vampire, Edward, the vampire, and Jacob, a Native American werewolf/shape shifter. It all takes place in modern times, and Breaking Dawn picks up right where the previous book lets up, before the marriage between the human Bella and the vampire Edward.

The book keeps three points of view, starting with Bella's, then going to Jacob's, and finally going back to Bella's, but after she has been changed into a vampire. Without wanting to give too much away I'll just say it follows the wedding of Bella and Edward, their honeymoon, and their life immediately following.

I have to admit while I enjoyed the book very much, it was pretty predictable. Bella's visions and nightmares in the beginning of the book show almost exactly what is to come. There were no obstacles the protagonists could not overcome so I never felt too worried for the characters. Things always seemed to work out amazingly well for them. Stephenie Meyer kept the book very clean (after all, it is considered young adult fiction and she is Mormon), but it wasn't too sugarcoated. My only beef was that things worked out a little too well. Well, that and can vampires really get humans pregnant? I don't know how I feel about that.

All in all, the book was a good, quick read that left me feeling generally happy for everyone. Now that I finished this series I can say I'm curious to take a look at her sci-fi book The Host. It should be an interesting read.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye—wow, how do you even start an analysis of the Salinger classic that most everyone is familiar with.

The first time I read The Catcher in the Rye, several years ago, I was expecting something disturbing. I had heard tales of how the book was found on the man who killed John Lennon and how Ronald Reagan’s assassin had been obsessed by it. And then I read it. There wasn’t any gore. It wasn’t the manifesto of some Unibomberesque sociopath. It reads as a conversational narrative by a frank high schooler. But I saw how Holden Caulfield could be a sympathetic character to those who perceive themselves to be outsiders because I think he relates to the outsider in each of us.

The second time I read this book, in the last couple of weeks, I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time, but with perhaps a little more appreciation for its literary elements. The book is timeless—aside from the popular vernacular of the time, the story could have happened today. The main character (Holden) is extremely critical of others while at the same time he exhibits the traits of all of the people who annoy him. He feels depressed, lonely and misunderstood in a way that is common to all of mankind, and it is only more pronounced because the reader gleans that he is rich (for a high school kid) and well-liked. Holden is an unreliable narrator—I didn’t realize that until the second read-through; he admits that he lies often and profusely, which leads one to question the veracity of some portions of his tale (for example, the classmate who had borrowed his turtleneck and then jumped out of a window). And until reading some analysis it hadn’t occurred to me that the whole book could be a conversation he is having with his therapist.

The Catcher in the Rye has been controversial since its first publication in the forties, due to the language that runs throughout the book as well as its depictions of sexuality. And yet it has been on (and off) high school reading lists since the sixties. It is the sort of book that, although no sentence in itself seems significant, I was left at the end feeling overwhelmed with Holden’s inner battle and wondering if he will find happiness, in a way that I wouldn’t normally feel about a fictional character. Holden feels like a little brother that I hope makes it through, and, because of that attachment, the book transcends the mundane and anchors its place among the classics, whose characters begin to feel like extended family.

The Crossroads of Time - Andre Norton

170 pages; 1956. Genre : Sci Fi (Young Adult).
By having a premonition to help someone out, Blake Walker finds himself drawn into dimension-travel, and the tracking down of a rogue who's importing sophisticated weaponry into less-advanced dimensions for personal gain.
Andre Norton (1912-2005) was one of the top Sci-Fi authors in the 50's/60's. While she didn't introduce the concept of time- and space-travel, she popularized it by using it as a repeated theme in her books. tCoT is one of her earlier stories, which she then developed into a 4-5 book series.
What's To Like...
This is a perfect story for a young teen boy. There's a fair amount of fighting and killing; and no yucky romance. Parents will appreciate that there's no sex or drugs. The bad guy is a UE (Ultimate Evil), but at least he's resourceful and cunning. And our hero doesn't start out as a perfect defender-of-all-that's-good. Indeed, he's as much of a liability as an asset in this present UE-hunt.
I like Norton's treatment of our timeline. All too often, Alternate History authors portray our particular time/space continuum as being the most advanced there is. We boldly go where no one has gone before, benevolently enlightening the rest of the Cosmos.
No so here. Our dimension comes off as being quaintly naive, psionically primitive, and dangerously prone to violence. Just the sort of place a UE would want to take over. That's a refreshing viewpoint.
What's Not To Like...
Not a lot. Norton doesn't spend a lot of time fleshing out most of the alternate worlds here, but I suppose that's to be expected in a 170-page book. And I swear, although every Norton book ever issued has at least two completely different bookcovers, none of them (including the one shown above) have anything to do with the story itself.
What If...
Norton's general hypothesis here is that an alternate timeline spins off at every critical juncture in history. Thus you end up with thousands of parallel universes.
The one that Norton does take some time to explore here is a world where Hitler wins the Battle of Britain. The remnants of the British army and government flee to Canada, and the main phase of World War 2 consists of Germany and Japan besieging North America from both coasts. The effort eventually fails, but at the cost of tremendous destruction and anarchy in the United States. tCoT is set in the present (well, mid-1950's), and while Blake and his associates try to catch the UE, a few plucky, local New Yorkers are trying to re-establish civilization.
Overall Rating : Adults : C+; Young Adult : A-
In the end, the plot is just a bit too straightforward to keep an adult reader's interest. And it has to be asked just how the universe decides what constitutes an critical juncture, worthy of an alternate world spin-off. But for a kid into science fiction, this should be a fun story. And it is cool to read someone who blazed the path for present-day Alt-History writers.