Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Pegasus Secret - Gregg Loomis

2006; 369 pages. Genre : Cri-Fi (Crichton Fiction). Book #1 of the Langford Reilly series. Ballyhooed like crazy at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago. Overall Rating : C-.
After an explosion in Paris kills his sister and her son, ex-CIA and now-lawyer Langdon Reilly vows to find the perpetrators and take his revenge. But his investigation uncovers a much deeper mystery (naturally), involving an ancient mystical order, the Holy Grail, and a hidden message in a painting, a jpeg of which is at the end of this review.
What's To Like...
TPS has the standard Crichton formula - start out with a bang (okay, it's more of a "boom"), and deliver non-stop action from then on. There actually is a lot of speculation about a hidden meaning in this painting (see Wiki's article here), and Loomis puts a novel spin on it.
The flashbacks to the 1300's offer a nice contrast to the storyline, and Loomis refrains from getting "preachy" (take note, Dan Brown). Finally, the Gnostics are in it, which is always a plus for me.
Goodness me. Then why the low rating?
Because there were a lot of irritations and plot weaknesses. Here are the major ones :
Footnotes. Loomis uses them abundantly in the flashback chapters. But he puts them at the end of the chapter, so you're constantly flipping back and forth to read them. They ought to be at the bottom of each page. Critical? No. Annoying? Yes.
Castigation versus Castration. Reilly's GF is a sexy German who constantly misuses English words. At one point she means to say "castration", but comes up with "castigation" instead. Folks, castigation is not a common word. If you're fluent enough in a foreign language to know this verb, you're not going to confuse it with castration. I'm sure this is supposed to be comic relief, but after 50 of these mix-ups, it gets old. You get the tip. I mean 'point'. Yeah, she used that one, too.
Sniper Gender. For some reason, Reilly hides the sniper's gender (via ixnay on the pronouns), so that you're supposed to be in the dark about the identity. But it serves no purpose and it's obvious who he/she/it really is.
T&I (Torture & Interrogation). The bad guys are going to T&I our hero. But clever Reilly is really clever - he asks them questions instead. And they answer him. Then they give him an electro-shock to scare him into telling all. But after one jolt, they leave to go do some chanting for a couple hours before renewing the T&I. Didn't they watch those Austin Powers movies?
Paging Dr. Moriarty. The UE (Ultimate Evil) guy isn't developed at all. He makes a late entrance, blows it for the whole mystical order, and is disappointingly incompetent. Sorry, I like it better when the UE is a worthy opponent.
The ending is clunky. The fact is, Reilly doesn't have any bargaining chips, but the bad guys acquiesce anyway. "Hey, I know where the Grail is!" (So we'll move it.) "I'll expose your secret organization." (Sorry, the blaring police raid did that already) "I'll blackmail you about your blackmailing operation." (Do you realize you have no evidence of that?)
Finally, there's a superfluous epilogue, unless Reilly is going to give up lawyering to become a tent revivalist.
Bottom line - I just couldn't buy into the story, and that meant it wasn't exciting to read. Interestingly, the first four killings all took place off-screen, and for a while I thought Loomis was going to write this in "cozy" style. Now that would've been something. But then the bodies start dropping on-screen, so there went that possibility.
Maybe I'm expecting too much for a debut novel to be equal to Jurassic Park or The Da Vinci Code. There are 4 or 5 books in the series now, and it's quite possible that Loomis hits his stride with time. The Amazon reviews are more or less evenly split from 5* to 1* (the overall rating is 3½ stars). The few Book Blogs that review it are mostly positive. So while I can't personally recommend The Pegasus Secret, it should be noted that there are other fans of this genre who rate it higher.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Living Dead in Dallas and Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

Sookie, Sookie, Sookie...what are we going to do with you? Everyone's bossing you around, telling you what to do. How long are you going to take it? And what of you and vampire Bill? Meh...

Pretty Sookie from small-town Louisiana finds herself in all kinds of sticky messes in Living Dead in Dallas. Right off the bat, her good friend from work is found murdered (yes that happens again) and she and Bill (and her mind reading abilities) have been farmed off to Dallas by Bill's boss, Sheriff of Nottingham - ah, I mean Eric, to find a missing vampire kidnapped by an anti-vampire cult. Trouble ensues..

I thought this one was better written than the first, it was quicker and more fast-paced, but I'm discovering Harris likes to wrap up her plot threads in the last page or two of her books. For instance, here Sookie's good friend is murdered in the first few pages, then we don't hear much about that again until the very end of the book. I kept wondering what happened.

And Bill? Sigh...
Like Harris must've been, I'm losing interest. Fast.
Eric on the other hand-
Hmm...(Parts of me are humming. I won't tell you which. Okay, it's my toes - I'm standing on a heat vent.)
Another view point - Nikki

In Club Dead, Bill becomes distant and disappears for most of the novel, and in grand Harris tradition you're not going to find out what happened to him until the very end. But did I mention that this one was my favorite so far? Eric thinks he knows what's happened, and he and Sookie leave town again to try and find Bill, even after I tried to will them to stop. Throw in another hot werewolf and you've got, Twilight, no I mean good times at Club Dead!

Sookie really comes into her own in this novel. She's getting stronger, more independent and while getting to the root of her problems, actually tries to solve them - all by herself. A novel concept! You go Sookie!

But now I'm torn. If I hadn't seen the first in the TrueBlood series I know I wouldn't be, but these are two really cute men. Like Sookie I can't seem to be able to decide who I want to be victorious. Eric or Bill. (Or now Alcide even, but I've leaving him out here.)

Which to chose, which to chose...the dark-haired, brooding Civil War veteran Bill Compton, or the blue-eyed, blond Viking, Eric Northman. Is it really that hard of a choice? (And no, Edward Cullen is NOT even in the running here.)


Friday, September 25, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

2008; 274 pages. Genre : Modern Literature; Historical Fiction. Overall Rating : A-.
It's 1946 and World War 2 has recently ended. Juliet Ashton is a one-hit author (think Erma Bombeck) trying to adjust to a normal life after her London flat was flattened in the war by a V-2 bomb. She crosses paths with some of the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey (a British protectorate, located in the English Channel, and just off the coast of France) who are trying to adjust to a normal life after having been subject to German occupation for five years. To cover their curfew violation one night, they invented the Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, which had the unforeseen benefit of introducing a bunch of the islanders to Classic Literature.
What's To Like...
It's a great epistolary novel. There's a slew of engaging characters, none of whom are "black & white" (not even the Germans), and most of whom evolve as the book progresses. There's wit throughout and even a subtle thread of humor underpinning the storyline.
Like Rebecca, I liked the first half (where everyone is making acquaintances with one another) better than the second (after Juliet arrives on Guernsey). Like Julie, I had trouble keeping track of who's who. Especially the Londoners, all of whom seemed to have S's (how does one write that?) for initials. There was Sophie and Sidney and Susan; there was Stark and Stephens and Strachan. Sheesh.
It's an ambitious book in that it combines the themes of the horrors of war, reading the classics, and ...oog... relationships (romantic and otherwise) into one story. It's hard to say who the target audience is. But I enjoyed it, I give it a high recommendation and an "A-" rating.
Oh icky-ewwww! It has romance in it.
True, but the main romance is between Juliet and the island of Guernsey.
Yeah, there's the secondary one, where Juliet agonizes whether to choose "wealth, high society, and a life of ease in America" (but with a controlling husband) or "writing & reading, a farmer's small income, and an instant kid in Guernsey" (but with contentedness). Fortunately, not too many letters are devoted to this, so even I could get into the story. And FWIW, any guy could reason his way through Juliet's quandary in about 5 minutes. ;-)
Links to Other Excellent Reviews...
Julie, here at 5-Squared, here.
Rebecca, at Rebecca Reads, here.
Meagan, at Fifty Books Project, here.
The Bradfords, at Strictly Letters here.
On the afternoon before our wedding, Rob was moving in the last of his clothes and belongings while I delivered my Izzy article to the Spectator. When I was through, I tore home, flew up the stairs, and threw open the door to find Rob sitting on a low stool in front of my bookcase, surrounded by cartons. He was sealing the last one up with gummed tape and string. There were eight boxes - eight boxes of my books bound up and ready for the basement!
He looked up and said, "Hello, darling. Don't mind the mess, the porter said he'd help me carry these down to the basement." He nodded to the bookshelves and said, "Don't they look wonderful?" (pg 24)
"I never want to see you again."
"Juliet?". He really had no idea what I was talking about.
So I explained. Feeling better by the minute, I told him that I would never marry him or anyone else who didn't love Kit and Guernsey and Charles Lamb.
"What the hell does Charles Lamb have to do with anything?" he yelped (as well he might).
I declined to elucidate. (pgs 213-214)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich

Lula (my favoritely named person) is having a bad day. She witnesses the murder of a barbecue king by some decapitating-happy psychopaths and wants deep-fried chicken with a side of doughnuts but can't find any. Now the killers are looking to put her in a similar headless position.

So what's a girl to do? Recruit her good friend Stephanie Plum of course, and with the super-duper help of Grandma Mazur, enter a national barbecue sauce contest to track down her would be axe murderers. But Stephanie has her own set of problems at the moment. Ranger's got a mole in his security operation and is need of her, ah...expertise. And even worse, no proud Jersey girl looks good in black.

Anyone who has ever read a Stephanie Plum novel knows "Death in the Burg was like pot roast at six o'clock. An unavoidable and perfectly normal part of the fabric of life. You got born, you ate pot roast, and you died."

This one is no different in that regard. Let's check the rest of my list of Stephanie Plum requirements to see if Finger Lickin' Fifteen passed the acid test of sexy absurdity:

-Car explodes or burns up, or get squished by a dump truck - Check
-Ranger calls Stephanie "Babe". Check ++
-Rex changes his address. Again. Check
-Morelli has the best buns in all of Jersey. Check super ++
-Lula and Grandma Mazur reek havoc at a funeral. Is the lid lifted? Check
-Morelli and Stephanie are fighting. Again, and again. Sheesh. Check +++
-The Buick makes an appearance. Check
-Joyce Barnhardt wants to do Morelli. Check
-Stephanie moves into Ranger's apartment, but nothing actually comes of it. You know what I mean ladies...Check
-Lula's hungry. I'm talking super hungry!!Check +++
-Ranger wears black shirts, black pants, black hats, black socks, pink underwear. No, wait, that's not right...Check

And then there were some new (spoiler) developments that I found not the least bit Plumish. There's a lot of farting and other forms of bowel discontentment. Good grief! Is this what one of my favorite series has evolved into?? Farts for laughs? And another thing, the flirting is sub-par, I would even say non-existent between Ranger, Morelli, and Stephanie. N-O-T-H-I-N-G happens. If Evanovich thinks I'm reading these for only the fart jokes then she's got another thing comin' Burg girl!

So, overall then, I was disappointed with this one, and probably with where the series is headed in general. Time for Stephanie to move on with her life. Introduce a new love interest, get her married, something. Anything, but this. Until then, I'll stick with books 1-10, by far the best in this tried and true tale of a curly-haired, blue-eyed babe from the Burg.

And since the barbecue sauce was a main character of sorts, I was hoping she'd include a recipe at the end (but then I remembered the super rich Janet doesn't cook), so I decided to add my own version here. Feel free to - like in the book: explode it, smash it, crash it, and cover the ceiling with it. It'd probably taste better that way.

Barbecue Beans -
6 strips of bacon, cooked
2-3 cans Pork n' Beans
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp garlic salt
1 tablespoon dried onion
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste
Heat in oven until bubbling.
Eat on toast, with a hot dog, in a bread bowl or all by its little self.
2 stars

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos

Love can be a daunting task to write about because it's not easily described into words but Marisa de los Santos does it beautifully, even majestically, in Love Walked In. I loved how it penetrated deep into my mind with its endearing and thoughtful scenes filled with words that added perspective and made me feel. I found it to be similar to watching a classic movie in black and white. It takes some effort to watch, for without the color, it can seem boring but as I pay attention, really listen, all the while really watching the actor's facial expressions and mannerisms then I simply use more of my senses in order to be transcended into where it really starts to live and takes on a whole new experience in your mind, i.e., to quote from the book:
If you have seen it then you know there's a moment when Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord steps from a poolside cabana. She's got a straight white dream of a dress hanging from her tiny collarbones, a dress fluted and precise as a Greek column but light and full of the motion of smoke. A paradox of a dress, a marriage of opposites that just makes your teeth hurt it's so exactly right.(pg. 6)

Two main voices, Cornelia and Clare, tell the story of this book from their refreshing perspectives in their respective chapters. I thought this was a nice touch and I really learned about them.
Cornelia works in a cafe, enjoying the people around her yet she is also searching, knowing it will happen, for change in her life. She loves classic movies, well-dressed men, poetry, and shining moments. I loved her lively descriptions of scenes around her, just like the old movies she endears, and loyalty to her friends and family.
Clare is eleven and under a lot of stress that should be unknown to her world but it isn't. Her life is complicated and she hides that fact as best as she is able in order to survive. To be honest, Clare tugged my heartstrings.
As their two lives begin to unravel, they also eventually intertwine, so I jumped to conclusions pondering what would happen next then I found that my conclusions were wrong. I feel this added to the whole reading experience and a learning lesson of how quickly judgments are made sometimes.
These two could be the only characters I cared about and it might be enough but they aren't and I wound up finding the whole cast memorable. Natural, warm-hearted, very flawed people that I may actually find in real life.
This is one book I'm glad to have taken my time and not rushed through it. Enchanting, really.

Two more of my favorite passages from Love Walked In:

There's a kind of tenderness that's only possible in the predawn hours, a blue-gray, lonely tenderness that comes from dim lights and sleepiness and immense quiet. A kind of tenderness and a kind of hope. I've always found it hard to feel angry in the half-hour before the sun comes up, ....(pg. 187)

Clare concentrated on the words, trying hard to press them into her memory and wishing they were solid objects that she could keep and carry around with her. (pg. 207)

307 pages, Dec. 2005, My rating: 4.5 stars

Another view:

Monday, September 21, 2009

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris

I wish I was rich. I kept thinking that over and over while I was perusing David Sedaris’s new book with the initial intensity of a child who had found a bag of old Valentine candy, knowing I’d try it no matter how old and sticky they looked. I couldn’t help not thinking it. Other than an occasional essay in the New Yorker, you know on my frequent business trips when I fly around the world…I’ve not read much Sedaris, but I’ve heard great praise for his work, so I wanted to try out his new collection of essays.

Don’t get me wrong here. Most were hysterical. He has a gift of making the mundane, the ludicrous and the little issues that hide in corners of our everyday relationships, bone-ticklingly funny. Almost every essay discusses his boyfriend Hugh in some way. Keeping up with Hugh who walks way faster than he does, putting up with the 200 year-old skeleton Hugh wants to hang in their bedroom, you know, typical relationship stuff, although I try to keep my skeletons in my closet, not hanging over my bed.


When he’s not discussing Hugh, he writes about early Sedaris family life, his parents art collection growing up, his parents cork-lined paneling, how he and his siblings survived the white trash babysitter. Interspersed in little increments throughout we hear about his multiple homes in France, his many travels by plane, his many book readings, and in conclusion, how he spent 20K on three months in Japan while trying to quit smoking. I’ll admit by that point I was tired of it, almost bored. David Sedaris, the person, seemed a little to full of David Sedaris, the writer.

The clincher might have been his bio on the last page: David Sedaris half-dozen books have been printed in 25 languages, including Estonian, Greek, and Bahasa. What? Bahasa? I guess that means he's not just famous, but really super world famous. Or maybe he's just being funny. That's the thing I'm figuring out about this man. You can never tell for sure.

But, I hear his earlier stuff is great, so maybe he’s reached a point in his career where he tries to provide his own fodder and now it feels forced? Unnatural maybe? I’m not really qualified to make that assumption, but I do know I will try his earlier stuff as I hear Naked and Holidays on Ice are some of his best, most sincere early work.

Who knows, maybe back then he only lived in one house and traveled by horse-drawn buggy. Well, I can dream can't I?
3 stars

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dave Barry's Greatest Hits - Dave Barry

1988; 289 pages. Genre : Waiting Room Filler. Overall Rating : B-.
I've had occasion to spend a lot of time in doctors' waiting rooms these past three months. I learned quickly to take something to read with me, as waiting rooms have the worst magazines : Belly-Button Lint Illustrated; Oil Filter Digest; Healthy Yawning; etc. You get the idea.
I never knew if my wait was going to be 2 minutes or 2 hours, so Dave Barry's Greatest Hits was an ideal book to take with me. Consisting of 81 of his 1980's newspaper columns for the Miami Herald, and at an average of 2 pages in length; there was always a convenient place to stop when finally called.
What's To Like...
Dave Barry is kind of an urbanized Bill Bryson. He is laugh-out-loud funny, and covers all sort of themes - current events, sports, politics, TV, history, etc. If you think he can only write about humorous absurdisms, think again. His column about the loss of his father ("A Million Words") will put a lump in your throat.
The only drawback to this book is that it's dated. If you remember the 80's it's NBD. But if you don't, then his cracks about people like Gary Hart, Liberace, Caspar Weinberger, Chuck Colson, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band may have you scratching your head. I recommend DBGH for the next time you have to get a physical. Everybody else in the waiting room will be jealous of you when you keep chuckling as you read.
As far as I can tell, our second basewoman is a pretty good baseball player, better than I am anyway, but there's no way to know for sure because if the ball gets anywhere near her, a male comes barging over from, say, right field, to deal with it. She's been on the team for three seasons now, but the males still don't trust her. They know that if she had to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, deep in her soul, she would probably elect to save the infant's life, without even considering whether there were men on base. (218-19)
So I go in for my last words, because I have to go back home, and my mother and I agree I probably won't see him again. I sit next to him on the bed, hoping he can't see that I'm crying. "I love you, Dad," I say. He says : "I love you too. I'd like some oatmeal."
So I go back out to the living room. where my mother and my wife and my son are sitting on the sofa, in a line, waiting for the outcome, and I say, "He wants some oatmeal." I am laughing and crying about this, My mother thinks maybe I should go back in and have a more meaningful last talk, but I don't.
Driving home, I'm glad I didn't. I think : He and I have been talking ever since I learned how. A million words. All of them final, now. I don't need to make him give me any more, like souvenirs. I think : Let me not define his death on my terms. Let him have his oatmeal. I can hardly see the road. (145)

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James

“Would you love me?” asked Jane Eyre at one point in her famous novel. “I am poor and little and plain.”

I quote that line a lot, but it’s not hard to imagine Charlotte Bronte saying the same thing about herself. She was never considered very attractive, and until Jane Eyre was published and became a huge success, her life didn’t account for much in the world. Words like, harsh and cruel, might be used to describe her life, with complete happiness arriving almost too late for her to truly enjoy it. Would we have had her great novels had her genius not been finely tuned by her grief and despair, if her life had been common and usual? Thankfully, the Bronte’s were far from usual in that sense. Their sorrow was our gain.

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte is a noble concept, for it ventures that Charlotte may have kept a diary of her thoughts; an account of her life, beginning long before Jane Eyre was published, but after her time in Brussels, until her death. We learn of her four marriage proposals, the last of which from a Mr. Arthur Nicholls, a poor curate who worked for her father for 8 years. A man so shy she never knew he was in love with her. Can you imagine if such a diary as this still existed? We are lucky enough to have her biography written by her close friend, Elizabeth Gaskell not long after her death, and we have her poetry and correspondence. It is through the latter that we know how she felt about Jane Austen and her novels:

What sees keenly, speaks softly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through…this Miss Austen ignores…if this is heresy – I can’t help it.
12 april 1850 to William Williams

But a diary, that would be something. James does a good job of including the known facts of the Bronte’s life. She leaves none of the dreaded details out here, and we all know how sad those details were, but at the same time she speculates that there was happiness in that household, as there only could have been between three kindred sisters who loved their wayward brother and their partially blind father.

My only complaints about this book would be that she borrowed lines from the Bronte’s novels, probably using them to mimic styles and patterns of speech familiar with Charlotte and her sisters. (For me, this is a common issue I have with books of this type. It feels like cheating.) Also, the whole Pride and Prejudice feel of the storyline. In the end, knowing her particular thoughts on Austen, I wondered if Charlotte Bronte was rolling over in her grave.

But that aside, my favorite part by far was the inclusion in the Appendix of some of Charlotte’s correspondence, a real treat to read, and some selected poetry by the Bronte sisters. Emily’s especially, were brilliant, passionate, and fascinating. How could anyone doubt she ever wrote one of my all time favorite novels, Wuthering Heights.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion –
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning with to hasten,
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

and -

“O mortal! mortal! let them die;
Let time and tears destroy,
That we may overflow the sky
With universal Joy!

“Let grief distract the sufferer’r breast,
And night obscure his way;
They hasten him to endless rest,
And everlasting day.

“To thee the world is like a tomb,
A desert’s lakes shore’
To us, in unimagined bloom,
To brightens more and more!

“And, could we lift the veil, and give
One brief glimpse to thine eye,
Thou wouldst rejoice for those that live,
Because they live to die.”

Reading those words alone made this book worth the reading.
3 stars.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus and Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bryce Shelley

Prometheus Bound is part of the central canon of ancient drama. The play, in short, describes the now somewhat familiar story of Prometheus, a titan who stole fire from the Gods, to give to man, thereby symbolically giving men wisdom, skill, handicraft, and free will. As a punishment, Zeus has Hephaestus chain Prometheus to a rock and sends an eagle to come every day and tear out the Titan's liver and eat it - being a god, it of course regenerates every night, leaving him in a continuous, eternal cycle of pain. Prometheus, on the other hand, is a prophetic character, and knows something about Zeus - namely, he knows how Zeus could, eventually be supplanted, just as he supplanted his father. Originally, the play was probably part of a trilogy, continuing with Prometheus's eventual freeing at the hands of Hercules, and with his return to Jove's good graces by telling him how to avoid being dethroned. The latter two plays have been lost. All three are attributed to Aeschylus, although many modern scholars apparently think this is a mistake, and that they were written later.

It was the loss of the latter two plays that, thousands of years later, gave rise to Prometheus Unbound, a chamber play (ie, one not intended to be staged and performed) by the great Romantic poet Percy Bryce Shelley. Shelley and many of the Romantics identified strongly with Prometheus, in his role as antihero and spirit of rebellion and revolution - Byron and Goethe, for instance, both wrote poems about him. Shelley, essentially, wrote what we would now call a spinoff of the ancient play - but instead of taking the road of piety that was apparently in the original, his Promethean is a brave rebel against God, cursing the heavens solemnly as he suffers the torment Zeus has appointed, knowing that one day Zeus will fall and the world will return to a free state where there is no tyrannical higher power.

To read these one after each other is an experience. The ancient play is fierce and wild in a way that osme of the other Greek plays are not - it does not tidily wrap up a moral, but leaves the reader at the end asking themselves if obedience and piety are better morals than courage and love. The Prometheus of the old play is the very figure of fierce, antiestablishment dignity, and it is easy to see why he would have appealed to the likes of Byron and Goethe, men who believed that freedom and love were the highest laws of human existence. The play DOES feel dated - it's kind of slow, and honestly, not much really HAPPENS in it. He gets chained to the rock, and then he talks. And talks. And talks. I found myself reading the play more as oratory than as drama. Some of this is intrinsic to ancient drama, however (I believe one of Aeschylus' big innovations in drama was in having more than one character on stage. No, really. Fascinating to think plays didn't use to, isn't it? They just talekd to the chorus, that's it). I'm no classical scholar, if I was, I could probably appreciate it more - in my ignorance, the language was beautiful, but it got a bit pedantic.

Shelley is not perfect either - he is NOT exactly a novel writer. The play reads like somethign a poet would wrote, rather than a prose writer - it doesn't worry about the plot as much as it worries about ideas and ideals. There are long speeches in fact where I would forget who was talking. That being said, Shelley's characters have a vividity and epic sweep that made me feel, ironically, as if they were on stage (ironic, since it was written to be read in a boudoir, not performed on stage - this would be one whacked out play on stage). And the language! The language is where you're thankful it was written by Shelley. Take this, for instance, a poem spoken by the moon to the earth:

[The feeling of love is] As in the soft and sweet eclipse,
When soul meets soul on lovers' lips,
High hearts are calm, and brightest eyes are dull;
So when thy shadow falls on me,
Then am I mute and still, by thee
Covered; of thy love, Orb most beautiful,
Full, oh, too full!

Or, my favorite line, and one that I won't forget soon, sung to Prometheus by his lover:

My soul is an enchanted boat,
Which, like a sleeping swan, doth float
Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing;
And thine doth like an angel sit
Beside a helm conducting it

The language is powerful, and rich, and is as much of a character as the people in the play, speaking, changing, fading back and growing strident with all the vigor of a master poet. This is a play that ought to be sung.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)
The first of a trilogy of books written just before Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s death, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fast-paced mystery wrapped up in a financial article from Business Week, a manual on hacking, and a statement of women’s rights.

I loved this fast-paced book filled with wicked plot changes. And I certainly didn’t anticipate the outcome of the ending at all. I won’t give it away.
I really enjoyed getting to know the main characters, and I am still trying to figure out what makes them tick. Especially the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

A word of warning: some scenes are explicit descriptions of sexual violence. Might not be for the faint of heart or the easily offended.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

When this book first came out last year, I felt I was seeing it in every store I went and even though the cover intrigued me initially to make me curious about reading it I put it off. I thought about asking people about it but I struggled to remember the title or synopsis correctly so I didn't ask around about it either. During this year, however, it was chosen for a book group that I'm in and since I enjoying going to talk about books I quickly put a copy on hold at the library so that I could read it and take part in the discussion.
My first attempt at reading it wasn't quite as successful as I had hoped it would be and I had a hard time focusing on each letter, since the book is an epistolary novel, I had to reread several of them in the beginning since it felt important to grasp what was being said in each letter in order to fully understand what lay ahead in the upcoming pages. I remember feeling a bit frustrated when I was only about 36 pages into it. A friend of mine was reading it at the same time and was really enjoying it so her encouragement kept me reading it. As I plunged ahead, I read as much as I could before the initial book group meeting. Since my book was on hold at the library and I had to return it I ended up borrowing it from my friend then finishing it, on my second attempt, some weeks later. I had to reread some pages all over again to remember and keep the characters sorted out in my mind. So, it takes a bit of memory and work at the beginning of reading this book but I found out that once you're engaged in it then it is well worth the effort. For me, it was hard to remember the relationship between each of the letter writing characters when I firgured it out and made a list to refer to, i.e., Sidney (publisher) and Juliet (author) and Susan (publicist) and Sophie (Sidney's sister and Juliet's best friend) etc.., then it really helped me out. Otherwise, I just kept forgetting who was who. Later, when Juliet started corresponding with the residents of Guernsey, I knew I would be totally lost if I did not keep track with a list of all of these characters. As soon as I did this, it was a smoother read until the end.
Basically, this book takes place in London and on the Guernsey Islands. It movingly reveals the story of the Guernsey Islands during and recently after WWII and how the war intitially changed the very lives of its inhabitants. Juliet Ashton, the main character, is a famous writer who learns about Guernsey and becomes drawn into the small island, at first by discovering about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society via letters from its residents and then later receiving more details of the horrors that the people on Guernsey suffered during the German occupation, as well as what they did to overcome their bitter situation while making significant efforts to keep human kindness and love intact.
I enjoyed all of these little efforts displayed by each character. I'll never forget Juliet's red dress, or the adoring Sidney, the kindness of Dawsey or the mysterious letters inherited by Isola from her Granny. I really fell in love with some of the characters and even the ones I didn't I could see the goodness in them. I really found out that even though the book seems to be only about Juliet at first in the end it is really about a unique group of people. There is just something about reading people's back and forth correspondence, the writings in one's diary, or dare I say, comments at the end of the blogs, to really get to know them . In this regard with the correspondence, the author was quite successful as I really got a good sense of what the island went through, a feel for this time period and what each person was all about. In the end, if money were no object, it did make me want to actually visit this tiny little historical island.
One last note, I really liked one of the underlying themes about books and reading - that it is and can be so much more to a person's life than a simple pastime or hobby. It made me love to read all over again!

288 pages, July 2008, My rating: 4 stars

Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva

The first part of the 20th century was the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, the time of many of Russia's greatest poets both inside and outside the Soviet system: Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Blok, and lots of other folks that we, as Americans have never heard of (except for Pasternak, and that's for his novel, after all). Marina Tsvetaeva was one of these poets. Born into a well-to-do but very unstable family, and coming of age just as the Russian revolution came to fruition, married to a man who was first a white Russian officer and later a Soviet spy, friends with Red and White Russians and distrusted by both sides because of it, Marina Tsvetaeva had a very tumultuous life.

This omnipresent feeling of pain in Tsvetaeva's life is inescapable in her poetry. BUT. So a sort 'I burn my candle on both ends' lust for living. It's this tension, between love and hopelessness, between life and death, that gives her best poems power:

A kiss on the head--wipes away misery
I kiss your head.

A kiss on the eyes--takes away sleeplessness.
I kiss your eyes.

A kiss on the lips--quenches the deepest thirst.
I kiss your lips.

A kiss on the head--wipes away memory.
I kiss your head.


It crawls, the underground snake,
crawls, with its load of people.
And each one has his
newspaper, his skin
disease; a twitch of chewing;
newspaper caries.
Masticators of gum,
readers of newspapers.

And who are the readers? old men? athletes?
soldiers? No face, no features,
no age. Skeletons--there's no
face, only the newspaper page.

All Paris is dressed
this way from forehead to navel.
Give it up, girl, or
you'll give birth to
a reader of newspapers.

Tsvetaeva's poetry (as you can see in the first one above, particularly) is inextricably tied up with the idea of love, which to her is always forbidden (partly this is because she was bisexual, partly because she never seemed to find someone willing to burn as bright and fast as she did). To her, the world is a great, grey place, dotted with the beautiful streaks of color, and life - the poet's life particularly - is a struggle to bathe in that color as long as possible.

Tsvetaeva despite her intensely political surroundings was not a politician - which, in a sense made her the best political writer possible. Her best friends were poets, and she loved them whatever their political stripe. Her politics, such as they were, were based in a love for beautiful things, for a world that makes beauty sacred. Thus, when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, a nation that she had been happy in and loved deeply during her exile from Russia, her voice woke up to the world and spoke outside her deeply introspective daily life:

They took quickly, they took hugely,
took the mountains and their entrails.
They took our coal and took our stell
from us, lead they took also and crystal...
Bullets they took from us, they took our rifles
minerals they took, and comrades too.
But while our mouths have spittle in them
the whole country is still armed.

This poem is from 1938. A year later, she and her family returned to Russia. Her daughter Alya was seduced by a man she did not know was an NKVD (precursor to the KGB) agent, who married her in order to spy on the family. Alya and Tsvetaeva's husband were executed for espionage shortly thereafter. Tsvetaeva was forced to leave her home during the German invasion and subsequent migration in World War II. Two years later, deprived of a living by the government who suspected her poetry of being disloyal, forced into an unfamiliar town in the middle of nowhere, completely alone, living in a broken down hovel (which one can still visit, apparently), Tsvetaeva hung herself from the rafters of her house.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bloodsucking Fiends - Christopher Moore

1995; 290 pages. Full Title : Bloodsucking Fiends - A Love Story. Genre : Vampire Satire. Overall Rating : A.
At last a vampire story I can sink my teeth into. It's set in San Francisco, and look, it's even got the words "A Love Story" on the cover!
Jody is a newly-turned vampire, but somebody forgot to give her an instruction manual. Some things she learns quickly - like stay out of sunlight and go to sleep at dawn. Those hours make doing certain chores - like getting her impounded car back and picking up her severance check from her former place of employment - nigh near impossible. She is looking for love, willing blood donors, and a gofer.
Tommy (more literarily formal C. Thomas Smith) is a 17-year-old wannabee writer newly-arrived from the midwest. He is looking for a money, a job, and wild sex. You can figure out the romance plot-line from there.
What's To Like...
I found this to be a laugh-out-loud book with some great characters. In addition to our romantic duo, there's a street-person who calls himself The Emperor of San Francisco and Protector of Mexico. His two armor-wearing dogs, Lazarus and Bummer (great names for dogs, eh?) are as street-wise as he is. There's a gay cop/straight cop team investigating the blood-draining slayings. And seven socially-inept co-workers of Tommy's who call themselves The Animals.
There are copper-plated snapping turtles; a frozen cadaver in a living room freezer; the great sport of turkey-bowling; and some outrageously funny Lestat-spawned research into what parts of Vampire Lore are true and what parts are myths.
A word of caution - there is some profanity, and the sex scenes can be somewhat lurid. Attempted (but failed) necrophilia, anyone? So this isn't a book for the kiddies. And there is a sequel to this ("You Suck - A Love Story"), so there are some loose ends.
Still, I personally thought it had a good ending. I give Bloodsucking Fiends an "A", because it was a delight to read. Will you find it funny? Well, the best description I can give of the humor here is "one part Charles Bukowski, one part Tim Burton, and two parts Kurt Vonnegut". Highly recommended. I suspect I'm about to go on a Christoper Moore reading kick.
An Excerpt...
She had fifteen minutes before she was supposed to meet Tommy at Enrico's. Allowing for another bus ride and a short walk, she had about seven minutes to find an outfit. She walked into the Gap on the corner of Van Ness and Vallejo with a stack of hundred-dollar bills in her hand and announced, "I need help. Now!"
Ten salespeople, all young, all dressed in generic cotton casual, looked up from their conversations, spotted the money in her hand, and simultaneously stopped breathing - their brains shutting down bodily functions and rerouting the needed energy to calculate the projected commissions contained in Jody's cash. One by one they resumed breathing and marched toward her, a look of dazed hunger in their eyes : a pack of zombies from the perky, youthful version of The Night Of The Living Dead.
"'I wear a size four and I've got a date in fifteen minutres," Jody said. "Dress me."
They descended on her like an evil khaki wave.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is the story of Henry, a Chinese boy growing up during World War II. His father is a Chinese nationalist who send Henry to a mostly white school, rather than with other Chinese kids in his neighborhood. He makes Henry speak only in English in the home even though neither parent understands English very well. Henry's father hates the Japanese and makes Henry wear a "I am Chinese" button so that others won't mistake him for Japanese.

Henry is ridiculed by his Chinese peers for going to a while school and by the whites in his school. He feels so alone; his parents hardly communicate with him. His loneliness improves a little when he meets Keiko, a Japanese girl who begins attending his school. At first, he stays away from her because of his father's ant-Japanese sentiments. They soon become friends as they realize they have a lot in common. Their friendship blossoms and soon Henry finds that he is always thinking of Keiko and wanting to be with her. Then, the anti-Japanese sentiment in the country increases and Japanese people are sent away to interment camps. Henry's only friend, Keiko, is taken away from him.

I loved this book so much. There were chapters from 1942-1945 when Henry was a boy of 13-15 years. These chapters were then followed by Henry in 1986. The chapters went back and forth as we saw Henry as a grown man whose wife just passed away and with a college-aged son. I loved going back and forth in time, and found that when I was reading the earlier chapters, I couldn't wait to get to 1986 and when I was in 1986, I couldn't wait to get back in time. The flip flopping of the chapters was a technique that worked well and kept me engaged throughout.

In 1986, in Seattle's Panama Hotel, items were found that had been locked in the basement for 40 years. These items had belonged to Japanese families who'd left them behind when they were taken away. The hotel had been boarded up for 40 years and the finding of the items is what prompts Henry to reminisce about the past.

This was a beautiful love story that showed the bitter with the sweet.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Makna Sebuah Nama (The Namesake)The Namesake is a novel by Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. Set in late 20th century New England and New York City, it is a coming of age story of the Ganguli family, an immigrant family from India. Gogol Ganguli is hastily named for a Russian writer, and we see how this family decision effects the way he lives his life. We also see the impact moving to America has had on the rest of the family. We see the family develop through births, deaths, marriage, and divorce.

Lahiri has a wonderfully fluid and descriptive prose style that is warm and genuine. Her descriptions of the smallest details throughout the story lead the reader to believe that she has experienced this rich story herself. Her characterizations are rich, and by the end of the story, the reader knows the characters as well as the author must.

Lahiri switches from character to character to view the story and timeline from each person’s perspective. One criticism is that we do not fully understand each character's reaction to some of the events in the story. For example, we do not see Gogol mother’s reaction to pitfalls in his life. One can imagine the emotions any mother would have, and yet, Lahiri does not describe these reactions.

I am greatly looking forward to reading more by this author. I have her story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (for which she won the 2000 Pulitzer) on my list of 100 books for the Fill-in-the-Gaps project. I also now plan to read Unaccustomed Earth as well because I have heard that it is even better than this one.

This book review is also on my blog Reading and Writing about It.

Dirty Martini - J.A. Konrath

2007; 324 pages. Book #4 (out of 6 now) in Konrath's Jacqueline 'Jack' Daniels series. Genre : Psycho-killer thriller. Overall Rating : B.
Chicago cuisine is to die for. Literally, because someone calling himself 'The Chemist' is poisoning food in all sorts of restaurants and supermarkets. The Chicago Police Department tries to keep things calm by not announcing all the deaths. They appoint our hero, Detective Jacqueline Daniels, to head the crime team, and give her two choices. Solve it and be a hero; don't solve it and be demoted to traffic cop.
What's To Like...
The story is formulaic, but it works. A smug, psychotic killer committing gruesome murders as part of a larger plan; eventually taking on Jack herself. In the meantime, anyone knowing Jack is also a target, including her BF Latham, who seems to end up in IC in every book.
The action is non-stop. The humor will make you chuckle - especially the repartee between Jackie and her former partner, Harry McGlade. You gotta love any bad guy who goes by the moniker "The Chemist".
OTOH, Dirty Martini is the polar opposite of a police procedural story. Clues are routinely ignored, so don't try to solve the case alongside Jack. The Chemist brazenly invades two precinct houses to destroy old records, and the cops somehow don't find that worth looking into. When he releases thousands of cockroaches into a police station, no one stops to ask themselves why. The case-cracking clue comes out of nowhere, and with no explanation as to why the normally meticulously cautious Chemist suddenly gets sloppy.
Read this book for what it is - a page-turner. Turn off the analytical half of your brain and enjoy a story with a strong female lead (with more lives than a cat) and lots of thrills, spills, and chuckles. Ignore the implausibilities and rejoice in the fact that in the end, Jackie won't be directing traffic. Konrath isn't trying to give you a feel for what it's like to be a police detective; he just wants to entertain you for a few hours. He gets a "B" from me for his efforts.
A couple of trivia tidbits...
Despite several dozen people dying in a variety of ways, not one drop of blood is spilled in Dirty Martini. This is a pleasant change-of-pace from the previous book in this series.
After Book #3, Rusty Nail, Konrath went on a 3-month promotion tour, visiting 600+ bookstores in 27 states and driving more than 13,500 miles. He met over 1100 booksellers, and takes time at the end of Dirty Martini to thank them all by name. Kewlness.
Finally, if you read the hyping blurbs in the front of this book (OCD readers do), you will note that two of them are David Ellis and Jim Munchel. By strange coincidence, one of the characters in Dirty Martini is named Davy Ellis, and one of the characters in the sneak-preview of Book #5 (Fuzzy Navel) at the end of Dirty Martini is named Jim Munchel. So be sure to write Konrath and let him know how much you enjoy his books. You just might end up seeing your name in the 7th book in this series.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

"The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human."
Adolf Hitler

Probably the most powerful narrative I've ever read about the Holocaust, the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Complete Maus should be required reading in high school. It should be required reading before entering the Holocaust museum in D.C.

Written and illustrated in graphic novel form, Art Spiegelman has related the history of his Jewish parents and their horrific experiences during WWII with tiny pictures. Pictures and words that impact your very soul.

Told through the eyes of himself, the child of survivors, and his father, Vladek Spiegelman, Maus begins, and is interspersed with, an account of his relationship with his father in Vladek's later years, and then travels back in time, to Poland in the 1930's as his father remembers in great detail what happened to his mother, his brother, and the rest of his family during the war.

I cried.
It was gut-wrenching.
It was horrific.
It was interesting and historical.
When discussing his current relationship with his father, it was even funny.

To look at its cover, you'd have no idea of the epic beneath. A comic book about the Holocaust, who would've thought? The perfect outlet for adults and especially children to learn about one of the most tragic events in world history.

In an age where the term "Nazi" is thrown around like the word "the" nowadays, a book like this brings back the harsh reality of the insurmountable error of using a term that caused such misery and suffering to millions upon millions of people, and not just them, but their descendants.

This book is a triumph to the human spirit and what we are capable of enduring and surviving as a human race. Probably the best book I've read so far this year.
5 stars

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, a man of some repute in traditional Igbo society in Nigeria. As the story unfolds, the British colonials come in, introduce Christianity and British government, and begin to influence the culture and ways of the local people. Okonkwo's inability to accept these changes and his desire to follow Igbo tradition strictly eventually lead to his undoing.

The book takes the tribe through many different rituals, explaining each one. It describes reasons for wars between neighboring tribes, tribal government, ways of offending, preparing food, living quarters, arrangements of relationships. (I don't say marriage here because that is not the right term for the arrangements.)

I enjoyed this book, not because it entertained me, but because it taught me a lot about African culture in this part of Africa. I thought it was fascinating to see the clash between traditional African society and the influence of British rule.

[spoiler alert] The final lines sum the clash of these perspectives best when the British Commissioner was pontificating about the book he would write about this region: "The story of this man [Okonkwo] who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading...He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger." With those lines, it is obvious that the British are just as strict about the practice of their own rituals and unaccepting of any change to their own cultural perspective.

My copy has front notes about the author and the history of African literature which I have yet to read. I'm sure that will offer more information and insight into the novel.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wicked - Gregory Maguire

1995; 519 pages. Full Title : Wicked - The Life & Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Genre : Revisionist fiction. Overall Rating : B.
In The Wizard of Oz, the nasty old Wicked Witch of the West is done in by Dorothy and water. Maguire postulates that L. Frank Baum's story is a slanted account; Wicked tells the story from Elphaba, the WWofW's point of view.
What's To Like...
Maguire creates a wonderful fantasy world of Oz. There are munchkins, dwarves and elves; and rumors even of dragons. There are various competing religions - unionists (with their Unnamed God), pleasure faithists (with their Clock of the Time Dragon) and Lurlinists (waiting for the Fairy Queen Lurline to return) being the most interesting. There are some great political, spiritual, and philosophical ponderings in the book, the main one being how the world determines what is wicked and what isn't.
Kewl stuff, but as a story, Wicked leaves something to be desired. Most notable are the annoying gaps in the tale. First we are introduced to Elphaba as a toddler. Then "poof, it's years later and she's heading off to college. "Poof" again, and it's years later, and Elphaba's now a revolutionary. "Poof" once more and she's leaving a nunnery after seven years to become a recluse in a castle in Vinkus. The final "poof" jumps us years ahead again to the fateful encounter with Dorothy.
Also, the issues Maguire presents (such as Animal/animal rights) are provocative, but never answered. Ditto for the plot details. We never really know why Elphaba came out green; who killed Porfessor Dillamond (he's a Goat, not a goat); whether Fiyiero is really dead; and what happened to Sarima and her sisters.
Moreover, while we're introduced to some well-developed and fascinating secondary characters (such as Elphaba's mom Melena, Boq, Glinda, and the flaming twosome of Crope and Tibbett), it's best not to get too attached to them, because most of them don't make the jump across the gaps.
Finally the sex scenes and cuss words felt ill-fitting and unnecessary. I don't mind such things when they enhance the story (they certainly fit well in anything written by Bukowski), but here they detract. TMI.
An excerpt...
"You're not wicked," said Boq.
"How do you know. It's been so long," said the Witch, but she smiled at him.
Boq returned the smile, warmly. "Glinda used her glitter beads, and you used your exotic looks and background, but weren't you just doing the same thing, trying to maximize what you had in order to get what you wanted? People who claim that they're evil are usually no worse than the rest of us." He sighed. "It's people who claim that they're good , or anyway better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of." (pg. 457)
We're off to see that no-good Wizard...
Wicked had the potential to be either a superb fantasy story or a superb philosophical treatise. But by trying to be both, it failed to be great at either. It dragged at times, especially the first half. Yet it's still a good book, and there's no denying it's well-written. Perhaps some of the unanswered questions and plot details are addressed in the sequels. Ditto for the engaging, but short-lived characters. So we'll give it a "B", plus kudos to whoever managed to turn this into a highly-successful musical.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

There’s something about working the land, about farming it, about feeling the earth deep under your fingernails and when mingled with sticky sweat, rubbed permanently into the grooves of your skin, soap never seeming gritty enough to remove it. I’ve seen it happen to people over and over again, my grandparents especially, and they would all probably say the same thing: It’s renewing. It’s satisfying and fulfilling. Working in the dirt, making things grow, it fills a void where none else can fill.

But where something is given, something is also taken away. Ask anybody whose ever tackled gardening. We are tied to the Earth and she is tied to us, like irremovable shackles, each one affected by the moods and actions of the other. In The Good Earth, a novel about life in pre-revolutionary China at the beginning of the 20th century, the farmer Wang-Lung understands this. He feels it in his bones, in his heart, even his very soul. When speaking of his family he says:

“Well, and they must all starve if the plants starve.” It was true that all their lives depended upon the earth.

At its very core, I believe that statement describes one of the main underlying principles of this novel. Just skimming along under the surface of the main characters lives, almost controlling their actions, it seems to make them like puppets in some grand unknown scheme. We follow the life of the honest farmer Wang-Lung, his long suffering first wife O-Lan who bemoans her lack of beauty and his second wife, the beautiful Lotus, an orphan sold into prostitution, and later his relationships with his children and extended family, but mainly I think this novel explores the complex relationship Wang-Lung develops with his land and the consequences thereof. The consequences of success and failure with it.

Heavy, heavy stuff. It was sometimes difficult to take an honest look back in time, the poor treatment of women especially, toward principles that still lay sway today even, decades later. Are we really that predictable of a race? Are we capable of even tiny change? As a whole the book was thought-provoking and yet like its main characters, simple and true. In the end we are left wondering, do things change “when the poor become too poor and the rich are too rich?” When do the poor become justified if they must steal to survive, as Wang-Lung did at one point in the novel? What about later when his wealth ruins his children, making them greedy and complacent? Is it possible to be too rich?

I don’t know, but after reading this book, I feel not so far away from an answer. But then again, do I really want to know?

Or maybe my good friend's observation about the book was better:
It sucked to be a woman in 19th Century China. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Either way, still an excellent read.
4.5 stars

Other really good reviews:

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Aeneid, by Virgil

Reading the Aeneid, my first thought was kind of a silly one: I could completely tell why Dante wanted him to be his guide through Hell, instead of Homer - because Virgil looks AROUND for goodness sake! Homer, in the Iliad, spends a great deal of time telling us how people feel and what happens, but it's just that - telling, not showing. If he describes a river, it's only because that river is a God, and they're about to leap abotu and interfere in the battle. Troy itself is there, with it's tall towers, I suppose, but really, it felt like a military report, not a story, at times. All business, no time for flowers. Virgil - the TOTAL opposite. Particularly after reading osme of his other poems recently before this one, I felt an intense sense of place everywhere that Virgil took me: the craggy cliffs of the Cyclops island, the rolling hills where the exiled Arcadians live, the shining city of Carthage - this is a story written by a man with eyes. And the underworld - the underworld of Homer felt like a temple with weird rituals. The underworld of Virgil felt like the precursor of the Inferno, foreboding, powerful, and vivid. Homer was a reciter. Virgil was a writer, and a writer in the sense that we think of writer, even today.

That being said, the second point I felt the need to make about this book: Odysseus was, as far as Virgil was apparently concerned, a jerk. He comes across as a sneaky, conniving guy every time he's mentioned which, after my feelings about the Odyssey, felt great. Thanks Virgil!

But, now for the meaty question: Aeneas. In each of the three ancient epics I've read, the central hero displays an ethic, that defines them as a hero. For Achilles, this ethic was honor, for me, for Odysseus it was what I would call cleverness. For Aeneas, it was piety (and I don't THINK I'm alone in saying this is his defining characteristic). More than any other hero I've read in ancient lit, Aeneas is a worshipper, a believer. He exhibits what a Christian woudl call faith and humility. He always listens to the gods, he does not try to subvert prophecy (think of, for instance, Laertes), and his quest is very much a struggle of faith, not a struggle for personal power. In many ways, Aeneas reminded me of, say, Moses and Joshua combined, leading the exiled peoples, by the will of the Gods, to their new promised land, casting out the Canaanites, etc.

And this brings up the great question of Aeneas: is this piety a virtue? On the one hand, while he fights a war at the end (a rather brutal one), he fights only when his hand is forced by the other side, and gives very generous terms of surrender when he's beaten his foes, which is far better than I can say for the Greeks. He loves and respects his father, he loves his son, etc. But, then, there's Dido, the queen of Carthage.

For those who are not familiar with the story, at the beginning of the poem, Aeneas has been cast up by a storm on the shores of Carthage. He and his crew crawl to land, and tell their story to the queen of Carthage, Dido, who cares for them, then falls in love with Aeneas (it's a little more complicated than that, but there you have it). She helps them recover, and Aeneas and her begin an intimate relationship. Then, one day, Venus comes and tells Aeneas to leave. Dido has offered him half her kingdom, offered to make the Trojans full citizens of the country. And, Dido is deeply in love with him, and Aeneas knows that what he is doing isn't fair to her. But 'it's fate'. Fate says, he needs to go found Rome, so he goes - sneaks off without telling her, I might add. Dido, in despair and fury, kills herself (and the scene where she dies in the arms of her sister, Anna, was the most powerful, heartwrenching moment in the entire book).

Now, part of this is, of course, just to explain the traditional hatred between the cities of Carthage and Rome. But, Virgil spends a long time showing us how Dido has been hurt, and in fact, return to show her again in the underworld, and shows us how troubled Aeneas is. Maybe I'm overreading it, but I felt like here we had the essential conflict of piety - what if following God and following your conscience don't match? What if God ISN'T out to make everyone as happy as possible, or what if it isn't God you're listening to, and you just dont' know it? The Greek Gods are a perfect example of this, being terribly manipulative, and caught up in their own petty struggles at the expense of mankind, but the same struggle is one of the conflicts I read in, say, Emily Dickinson's poetry, and it's a question that, growing up in religion, I always struggled with - if I am to believe there is a God, if we accept that for a moment, what is to say he's a nice person, or that he knows what he's doing?

Anyways, the question is brought up here, for me, and was oine of the more interesting parts of th ebook. AT the moment I'm reading Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bryce Shelley. Maybe that will offer some insight.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Fifth Woman - Henning Mankell

438 pages. 1996 (Swedish); 2000 (English translation). #6 in the Kurl Wallander series. Genre : Swedish noir police procedure (sounds a lot fancier than just saying it's a Murder Mystery, eh?). Overall Rating : B+.
An elderly bird-watcher steps out one night to watch a migration, and is impaled on sharpened bamboo stakes under his booby-trapped bridge. Shortly thereafter, the owner of an orchid shop disappears on his way to the airport. He is found a couple weeks later emaciated, tied to a tree, strangled, and quite dead. Detective Kurt Wallander and his team have the daunting task of tracking down a myriad of clues and leads and trying to see if there is a serial killer on the loose.
What's To Like...
As with all Kurt Wallander novels, the story takes place in southern Sweden, around Ystad. If you have Google Earth, find it and look at the photos posted there. It's absolutely gorgeous.
Detective Wallander, who was totally burnt out in the previous Mankell book I read ("Dogs of Riga", reviewed here), has improved significantly. His drinking problem is now under control, he has a better relationship with his family, and he's no longer thinking about quitting the force. He even has a girlfriend, in Latvia, who he calls every couple weeks or so when he thinks about her.
The Fifth Woman has a feel of being how a team of police detectives would really go about investigating a string of murders. There are lots of meetings, lots of legwork, and lots of reporters and politicians clamoring for a quick solution. You plod along with the detectives, keeping on keeping on, and hope that something eventually leads to a break in the case(s).
I liked this book because of its true-to-life feel. OTOH, if you're looking for excitement, 438 pages of "real detective work" can get a bit tedious. Also, Mankell seems to set all of his novels in the dreary autumn and winter months of Sweden. Gray skies, freezing temperatures, and persistent dampness abound. Hmmm. That sounds kinda nice right now sitting here in Phoenix.
All Whodunit books are the same, right?
I used to think that. Plop down a corpse early on, sprinkle a few clues here and there along the way (with an option of a couple red herrings), and somehow have the perpetrator get his/her just desserts at the end. But as I read more murder-mysteries, I'm becoming aware that there are sub-genres.
First of all, there are the Cozies, which I never heard of until reading Christina's reviews. One of these days, I'm going to have to find a suitable "starting out" Cozy. Any suggestions?
Then there are the "Thrills & Spills" murder-mysteries. Lots of car-chases and close encounters with the bad guy. You know you're reading one of these when the killer invariably decides to go after the protagonist.
Third are the "Needle In The Haystack" stories. Somebody gets killed; the good guys/gals spend most of the book talking with suspects and getting nowhere, until a case-breaking clue magically falls out of the sky and into their lap.
And finally we have the "Police Procedural" type, such as The Fifth Woman. Not a lot of excitement, but eminently believable. I'm developing quite a taste for these. I imagine there are still more sub-genres to discover, which makes reading murder-mysteries fun.
Bottom line - if you're tired of raising your eyebrows and hanging out on the Suspension Bridge of Belief (yeah, I admit it, I plagiarized that from Christina), you may find a Kurt Wallander book to be a pleasant change-of-pace.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

This joint review has been posted on The Zen Leaf.

Recipe: Gignac Tiramisu

Ingredients: 24 Milano cookies, 5 egg yolks, 1/3 C sugar, 1/2 C
heavy cream, 2 tsp REAL vanilla (no extract!), 14 oz cream cheese, 3/4
C expresso

Jason: So... this isn't exactly a book you can synopsize... I
suppose the closest I can come is that this is a book of magical
realism following a woman who is the inheritor of her family's legacy
of cooking, as she falls in love with a man she's not allowed to be
with. And, the book is told in the form of a cookbook, the story being
woven into a series of 12 recipes. Did I miss anything? Do you want to
talk about Magical Realism? This was my first Magical Realism novel...

In a heatproof bowl, beat eggs and 1/3 C sugar on high, until thick
and pale yellow. Put the bowl in a skillet of barely simmering water
to make a bain-marie, and whisk until the mixture begins to thicken.
Remove and let cool for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. It's
important that the bain-marie not be too hot, because the eggs will
curdle, much like Jason's face when he reviewed 'Lair of the White
Worm' - but luckily not today, today his face above the steam of the
bain is shining and glossy just as the yolks.

Amanda: I think this might be my first Magical Realism book,
too. At least for modern times. I mean, there were a lot of elements I
recognized from old-old literature: stories from the Arabian Nights,
ancient Greek stories, even some of the older stories from the Bible
(like Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt). I'm not sure I even
knew what magical realism was until I read this book. It was
really hard for me to classify it altogether. Historical fiction,
cookbook, a bit of romance, a bit of the fantastical... thrown
together, that made it all very unique. At least for my experience.

Mexican vanilla is the best kind, with a lower alcohol content and
a much purer taste. It also comes in a wine-sized bottle with a
convenient long neck that Amanda grasps onto as she takes several
quick, greedy sniffs after the bottle is opened. This leaves her
brain-drunk and giddy for several hours, proving the good quality of
the vanilla.

Jason: I wasn't sure how to think of the magic when you
described it to me, before I read it. In the experience, though, it
was part of the real power of the book, sort of this metaphor for the
bubbling, powerful energy that lives in the woman, her family, in
love, in the world, in food, etc. The entire conflict between the
bubbling, earthy magic, that comes from the old 'pagan world' (the
cook, the protagonist, the Navajo mother) and the cold necromantic
magic of religion (her mother and her mother's ghost, her older
sister) felt like one of the real themes of the book. But then, I know
you weren't sure if you thought the book was supposed to be symbolic -
what do you think, now, after a few days of reflecting?

The cream and the vanilla - together, and alone, they are like a
very thick glass of milk. It is the whisk that changes them; you whip
and they thicken - but it's not like a sauce. A sauce thickens when
you make it heavier - flour or corn starch or roux. The cream is akin
to the clouds, and when it is reintroduced to its old friend air, the
two intertwine themselves into a powerful, pale nimbus.

Amanda: It's not that I didn't think the book was symbolic so
much as it had symbolism woven in, rather than being a single
metaphor. It wasn't like a fable, where everything stood for something
else, but it definitely made careful use of symbolism. I can't
honestly say what the overall symbolism stood for, though. In some
ways, the book's message was really confusing to me because I'm so
unused to the genre. In others, I think it's fairly straightforward:
love is the essence of life; a strong, powerful, burning force that
can't be controlled or put out. Not without a lot of work, at least.
Any symbolism beyond that, someone would have to teach me and point it
out. I'd love to learn some of the deeper layers of this. Right now
I'm too ignorant to see them alone.

The cream cheese must next be beaten until whipped and fluffy. Fold
this and the yolk mix into the vanilla-perfumed whipped cream. This
must be done as lightly as possible, to keep the custard airy, else
the Tiramisu will be flat and heavy with disappointment.

Jason: See, one thing that I thought was interesting, there was
a sort of cosmic conflict going on it: good versus evil, chaotic
energy versus ordered apathy, domesticity versus high-flown religion.
In fact, it's interesting to me, that there was a sort of
Christ/Buddha/Orpheus symbolism surrounding the antagonist the whole
time (think of, for instance, her being pierced by thorns, and then
her sister eating the food that had her blood in it, and being
redeemed by it, in a way...). But what was really GREAT about it was
that it WAS a very normal story - girl wants boy, girl can't have boy,
girl fights for and pines for boy. If she was a real person, she would
seem ordinary, even boring - she's just a girl who lives with her mom
and likes to cook, you know? But, the magic in the story reveals the
real power of the everyday and the domestic, versus the phantasmic and
eventually illusory power of the opposing force. There is more power
in rolling out tortillas then in a mass, that was the message, I
guess, that I got. How did the book make you feel?

Lay the first layer of milanos, drizzle them with espresso, and
spread half of the creamy filling across the top, tucking them in like
a blanket. The milanos, before you spread them are like headstones or
bassinets, and when filled with bubbling energy of the coffee bean,
they leap and grasp towards the lips - the cream must lay down beside
it and wrap it in its arms, to soothe it back to sleep, to lay it down
again in its grave and rock it gently into the sleep. Now, do all that
again, with the other milanos, the other water-of-life, the other
blanketing custard.

Amanda: Interesting ideas - I love the idea that the domestic
woman taking care of her whole family is shown off as the one with
real power - the real head of the household, despite being held down
by the people around her. So often, the domestic person is the one
that is ignored, even by the writer, unless they break out of their
domestic role. In this book, however, Tita's role in the kitchen is
what influences everything. That isn't an ordinary statement.
Very refreshing. And very endearing.

I loved Like Water for Chocolate. It was not at all what I expected
going into it, and it's going to stick with me for a long time. I
really want to read more by Esquivel in the future. You?

The last layer of custard lies across the top of the pan like an
unsullied, creamy blanket. With a sifter, sprinkle a generous amount
of unsweetened cocoa evenly across it, creating a unique Rorschach
test that bleeds into the custard below.

Jason: Oh yes! I'd love to read the new book about Malinche,
particularly, and I'd really like to try some of the other giants of
this genre: Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, etc. That's
interesting about the power being in being the 'housewife' not in
breaking out of that role. It was wonderful to read someone who loved
taking care of people, rather than who was being slowly destroyed by
it (you, know like The Awakening. Which I loved, don't get me wrong).
It was beautiful to read a book that glorified an 'art form' that we
usually ignore, like cooking, it reminds me of the art displays they
do now of old quilts, or incidental needlework. Overall, this was a
very warm, comforting book, one that glorified in small things, and
made you feel life has meaning for everyone, not just the famous and
the obvious heroes. Any parting thoughts?

The Milanos are wed to the custard, and laid down in their beds.
Their marriage is blessed by the pixie dust of cocoa across the top.
And now, cover it loosely with saran wrap, like a sly rose laid across
the nuptial pillow; set it away in the fridge; and leave it be. An
hour is fine, but a day is better - food, like love, takes time to be
at its best, and with time, the cream is filled with the invigorating
seed of the cookies, the cookies filled with the subtle transcendant
intoxication of the cream.

Amanda: Nothing much, just that I'm so glad to have read this
book. Plus, I didn't realize Marquez did magic realism and I'm now
looking forward to his books even more!

About the recipe:

Amanda: The first time we made Tiramisu was back when we were a
young couple in college. We didn't know where to find ladyfingers
(plus, our rundown grocery store in 3rd ward Houston probably wouldn't
have had them anyway), so we substituted Milano cookies, which worked
infinitely better in our opinion. We've used them ever since. We also
didn't drink coffee, nor did we know how to make espresso, so our
"espresso" involved hot water and some spoonfuls of instant coffee
granules. We also kept out the normal alcohol content for simplicity's
sake. Our version is not at all like the Italian recipe it comes from,
but it actually tastes far better and is always a hit when we serve

Jason: We've made this recipe a number of times over the years,
though, in classic Jason style, the recipe is a little fuzzy (nothing
I cook is ever the same twice, unfortunately). But, we hope you enjoy
eating it, as much as we enjoyed reading this book. It's at least a
LITTLE easier than some of the recipes in this book - holy cow, Laura

(Thanks for putting up with our poor attempt at replicating the tone
of the book in this review!)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Rescuers by Margery Sharp

My boys are getting older, now, and so we've been reading some longer books together. This is the first one (they've chosen Bambi for the next one, so watch out for that - apparently, we're on a 'read books that were made into Disney films' kick, though the books have never seen either).

The Rescuers is the story of the members of the Prisoner's Aid Society, said society being peopled entirely by mice. The mice work hard to help the prisoners of the world, mostly just by comforting them, etc. However, there is one prisoner who they decide that, rather than simply comforting him, they need to take the next step, and help him escape. Three mice take on the task: the brave, humble Bernard, the pampered, but sincere Ms Bianca, and the stalwart Norweigian sailor, Nils. The book details their mission.

The Rescuers is a very old book - this will be it's 50th anniversary. I'm compelled to note, first of all, that it's age shows, and it shows pretty badly, particularly from a gender roles point of view. Ms Bianca is a pampered, stupid creature, sweet and adorable and lovable, but only in the object sense. Nils and Bernard are brave gentlemen, always working their hardest to keep her safe, always gallant and chivalric. This gets not only tiresome, but a bit embarrasing when reading the book to your children. I am a little embarrased to admit that I relieved my embarrasment by makign occaisional sardonic remarks abotu the book, and occaisionally pointing out that Ms Bianca is a silly, not a model of womanhood. It's difficult to know how one ought to handle such a thing, I'm curious if anyone else has run into this, reading something outdated to children. I had a similar experience in fact reading Tikki Tikki Tembo to them, with it's caricature of Chinese people...

Now, I don't mean to imply that the book is entirely worthless. It's a fun story, and there is a charming imagination to the whole idea of the Prisoner's Aid. And, the affection of the mice for the poet, their courage IS a good lesson. If only, it wasn't so regimented. It's difficult to seperate the one message from the other, and only one of the messages is one I'd wish my children to take in. I wonder what it is in books today that I'll be embarrased of when I read them to my grandchildren?