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Archive for July, 2011

It has been a sad week as you can see from my post below. In other news youngest and eldest will fend for themselves this week – the longest period of time they have been alone together in a long while. Himself and I are in Oregon, he for a conference, and me for a visit with my parents (and a leisurely morning at Powell’s).  I do have lots of reading material: Diane from Bibliophile by the Sea graciously sent me her ARC copy of Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp (I finished in the car and I loved it); I am reading Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard on my Kindle and youngest picked up three books for me from the library – The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, A Good Hard Look by Ann Napoloano, and The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stucky-French. The week ended on a high note – Friday was the last day of class at Satori Camp and Himself’s class of 18 campers flew the rockets they built during the week. Only one cato (a so not good landing) and three motor malfunctions. Only one rocket ended up on a roof and one near the football field – other than that it was pretty much picture perfect flights. It was great to see the kids so excited about their rockets.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Stuck in a Book has a brief mention of Let Not the Waves of the Sea, a memoir or elegy by Simon Stephenson about his older brother (by 16 months) who died in the Indian Ocean Tsunami. As Simon Simon quotes the jacket blurb,  “more than a book about what it means to lose a brother: it is a book about what it means to have one in the first place.” I have been thinking a lot about oldest and youngest’s relationship as they embark on this next stage of their lives as well as members of my own family – my brother and my second cousins particularly. There is something about the person you were raised with – who knew you back then, the good and the bad. Simon also links an article by the author in The Guardian and I find I cannot resist a book by someone who can write the following passage – particularly the last lines. The rest of the article is just as breathtaking.

When we entered our teens, our hormones surged and with them the seeming differences we’d first glimpsed so many years before. I overtook him in height, but he developed impressive muscles in places where I did not seem to have any. He started crew-cutting his hair and I grew mine long. Most obviously, there was our music, our perpetually competing stereos an awful cacophony of the bright rhythms of his reggae interspersed with the rainy introspection of my grunge. Yet even as we grappled with these changes we indelibly remained the boys: many teenage nights we’d stand out on the Meadows in Edinburgh, silently throwing a Frisbee back and forth until long after it was dark and every throw and catch had become an act of fraternal faith. (Simon Stephenson, The Guardian, July 23, 2011)

On a slightly lighter note, Danielle from A Work in Progress reviews Losing Nicola by Susan Moody and it looks like a great summer read. Set both in the immediate years after WWII and the present, the book is both a coming of age story and a murder mystery at the same time. Eleven year old Alice lives in a small seaside town in England with her mother, brother, and her mother’s aunt in a boarding house. Her father works in Oxford but due to the war, housing is both scarce and expensive. Soon a young girl, Nicola, comes to live in the house as well; she is seems captivating and charming at first but her “thoughtless cruelty” comes forth. Nicola is soon murdered and the culprit is never found. In the present, Alice returns to the seaside town seeking understanding about what happened and how it effected Alice. Unfortunately, this one isn’t at my library yet so it will go on a “watch for” list.

One book getting a lot of buzz is recently published Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante reviewed here in the New York Times and by Rebecca of The Book Lady’s Blog. This novel is told through the point of view of Dr. Jennifer White who has had to retire from her career as a noted orthopedic surgeon because of the onset of dementia, an unreliable narrator in the extreme. Dr. White’s best friend has been killed in such a way that Dr. White is a person of interest. Dr. White cannot remember or is unwilling to remember if she did or did not commit the crime. It seems like it would be easy to peg this as a genre book but the Times says it isn’t quite that simple, “But to call “Turn of Mind” a thriller — or a chronicle of illness, or saga of friendship, for that matter — would confine it to a genre it transcends. This is a portrait of an unstable mind, an expansive, expertly wrought imagining of memory’s failures and potential. ”

Another book with Demntia at the center is The Birdhouse by Kelly Simmons found here at Shelf Awareness and here in a review by Rundpinne. This novel seems to fit within the Women’s Lit genre but I won’t necessarily let that run me off – I like the genre if it is very well done and the reviews I have seen have been good.  I like the premise of mothers and daughters, family secrets, and finally, memory and the role it plays in family dynamics. Little eight year old Ellie has to do a school project on her family history. Ellie’s grandmother, seventy year old Ann Biddle, uses this as an opportunity to grow closer to her grandchild as well as reflect back on a troublesome past while at the same time she cannot remember simple things from the present. And this is a family with the death of a young daughter, infidelity, secrets galore, debt, and lies. What got me the most about the book is a line that appears at the end when Ann declares, “”We had our own constitution now, our little family, built on a solid foundation of lies, secrets, regrets, and debts. But even dark underpinnings can support something solid and light, can they not?”

Finally, a book recently published is getting a lot of press and reviews so it caught my interest numerous places – the novel is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. This is going to be one popular read if you can judge by my library’s hold list. The library has four copies, all checked out, and I am number 11 on the list so this one seems like it will be a popular one.  Set in the late 1930’s, Rules of Civility takes place in New York City where two women, Katey and Eve, navigate the intricacies of life in the bustling city. There is jazz in Greenwich Village clubs, scandal in the secretarial pools of Wall Street Banks, and the high fashion of society in the offices of Conde Nast. On New Year’s Eve of 1937, the two women meet solitary and enigmatic Tinker Grey and they all become fast friends. Of course there is a tragedy waiting in the wings. Reviews mention echos of Wharton,  Fitzgerald, and Capote. I just have to wait for several people to finish before I can tell you if the novel reaches that high of a standard for me. Reviews of the novel can be found at the following blogs: Bookdwarf (mini review); Linus’ Blanket (“exquisitely written book”); Literatehousewife (with quotes); and Rundpinne (with link to the author’s website).

Happy Reading

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Best Dog Ever

Just before Thanksgiving in 1999 we put our beloved sheepdog down. I told Himself that I had to wait before I could think about another dog so we packed ourselves up and went to my mom’s for the holiday. When we came back home, I lasted one day – literally could not stand to be dog-less, so we looked in the Sunday paper, made some calls and went interviewing. Oldest (the dog person) liked every dog we saw, but youngest (the cat person) then a few months into first grade,  looked at this one dog and said quite firmly, “This is my dog!” and so Chico, a German Shepard-Husky cross came to live with us. He was between 9 and 12 months of age and had gone on a walk-about ending up with some college students. He waltzed into our lives and became the “best dog ever”. Chico had a sweet disposition and an absolute sureness about his place in the pecking order of life. If an alpha dog came along, Chico would just say – Hey, everything is cool, let’s just mellow out. It never bothered him what other dogs thought because he was Chico and that is all that mattered.

He loved running around the backyard with his boys and chasing monsters away for his cats. He loved to sleep on beds and bury bones in the backyard with his long nose. Fall and Spring were very busy seasons for a dog that had to check on each bone, its placement, and of course moving them from one precious spot to the other. He loved the snow and even got to pull his friend Ann in a couple of skijoring races. He loved the beach, if only to chase away the seagulls. He did not like the geese that flew overhead each fall – they should at least have the decency to fly around the airspace above his home. He loved to go to rocket launches because that meant lots of head rubs and the chance for a long hike or two going on recovery. He liked the fact that his friend Bob had a penchant for losing rockets and spent many a happy day in his company searching for the elusive beasties.

He absolutely loved girls – Chico was the biggest flirt of all. He would spot a girl (and he liked them pretty) and cock his head and bat his eyes at them. He even flirted with the Starbucks barista at 6 am one morning when the Jazz Band car pool convinced me to stop for hot chocolate. He was a chick magnet which our youngest used to his advantage one summer not too long ago. Youngest would put Chico on the leash and go off to the park to watch the movies with his friends. The girls all liked to bury their toes in his fur to keep them warm. Above all – Chico was a happy dog. Life was good and meant to be enjoyed whether it is the sunny concrete on a warm summer morning or the soft chaise downstairs while one of his boys watched TV. As long as you had your bones, a stash of food, a dad to follow around, a car to ride in, rabbits to sniff in the wind, birds to chase, people to walk with – life was good!

Chico had some of his best days at Bob and Ann’s place happily wandering their acreage no matter the weather or the conditions (rain, snow, or sun). If Himself was up in the shop working on rockets, Chico would check in and out, occasionally staying, but he had work to do often spending his time with his friend Mookie. However, when people gathered by the bonfire to watch fireworks, he was right there. He loved going back and forth between the watchers and the launchers.

Chico was an expert at filching food, once ever so carefully opening the lid of a box of donuts, taking one, and then again, carefully putting the lid down. He also stole a pound of butter softening on the counter, eating three sticks and then squirreled the fourth in between the couch cushions. Fortunately I found it fairly soon. I loathe to clean the couch because I know there is at least one chew stick and one dog biscuit, all tucked tidily away. What is even harder to see is the pile of dog bones that our other dog has collected in a pile, along with her most precious toy which she has not had the heart to play with. She is waiting for Chico to come home so she can show off her stash.

It is always hard to say good-bye to pets because they become such integral parts of our lives, twining their way into our hearts, always there with a wag or the thump-thump of a tail on the floor. Dancing in the air for a walk, chasing back and forth with a friend, or even the simple soft snores as they sleep beside their person. As Himself says, we should all be so lucky to have one year of feeling old, a month or so of being slightly more uncomfortable, a few days of awful, and one short day of miserable before going to sleep by the people you love for the last time.

We lost Chico this week – he left us on Tuesday night having said good-bye to both boys. Chico is buried up at one of his favorite places, near enough to the pheasant pen so he can dream of chasing them, facing the morning sun. He is in sight of the fireworks and next New Years Eve he will be with us, sitting by the fire and celebrating a New Year – because after all, that is what matters most – the company of people you care about and who care about you.

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House of Silence

I used to wonder if Alfie chose me because I was an orphan and on only child. Was that part of the attraction? I came unencumbered, with no family.

We were kindred spirits in a way. Detached, self-centered, yet both obsessed with the past. Our past. The difference was, I had no family and Alfie did. He had a family – a large one – but mostly he behaved as if he didn’t, as if he wanted no part of them, however much they might want a piece of him.

As a lonely child, then a solitary adolescent, I used to fantasize about having a family – a proper family, teeming with rowdy siblings, jolly aunts and uncles and of course doting parents. Alfie had that. But I suspect his fantasy was that they had all died, leaving him in peace as sole owner and occupier of Creake Hall. (From House of Silence)

Linda Gillard, in her novel House of Silence gives the reader a traditional Gothic mystery with a few twists. We have the orphaned Gwen, a costume mistress for movies and Alfie, actor, the son of a massive old house in the country –dismissive of his family much to Gwen’s dismay, because of “how much they expect” of him. Then there is the family – Rae, mother and reclusive author of a popular book series for children based on the adventures of Tom Dickon Harry, the perfect boy and based on Alfie. Rae also has four daughters: Francis and Deborah who do not live at Creake Hall, Vivian – the caretaker of her mother, the Hall, and Hattie, the youngest and most fragile of the daughters.

Finally we have Creake Hall itself, large, old, with extensive gardens. Complete with a lady of the house, Rae, who doesn’t seem like she is quite all there, a handsome, mysterious gardener, hushed silences, broken off conversations, and to top it off, it is Christmas with the requisite mist and snow.

It turns out Alfie only goes home for Christmas and for the first time, he is bringing someone with him – Gwen, happy to be sharing Christmas with in a home and with a family. All this might sound as if it is a formulaic novel but it is much more than just a simple cliche. Gillard is a master at creating a Gothic atmosphere and the mystery surrounding the family’s secret is also well done but she does all this with a wickedly subtle sense of humor. I found Gwen to be a delightful character and I liked Hattie and Alfie as well. And I also understood Rae and what she had been through in her life as the dynamics she grew up with also were the same dynamics in my father’s family. It isn’t a spoiler to say that in Rae’s family, males were prized and females were after thoughts – my grandfather felt the exact same way and even as a little girl of six I could feel it. Luckily for me I had a very strong role model in my mother but Rae was not so lucky.

I found this to be an excellent travel book – fast paced, good storyline, funny in spots – it kept my interest. And it was a great bargain to boot. The bad news is that it is only available as an e-book on Kindle. The good news is that it was only $2.99. I enjoyed it so much that I plan on down-loading Gillard’s other book Emotional Geology.

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Youngest is back from his big road trip adventure – many days in Portland and a few in Seattle. They also managed to get to the coast one day and they all survived having a Grandma as a home base. My mom made sure there was plenty of berry mess and Ben and Jerry’s in the house along with fresh cookies. Breakfast and dinners were provided as well as lots of pool playing. Oldest and the last of his stuff came home on Friday, the first time he has been home since October of last year. He is now off to EWU to serve as a counselor for the Satori Summer Camp. Himself kept busy this week preping for the mid-power rocket class he is teaching at the camp this year. I got lots of reading done with one book not meeting expectations and one book exceeding them – perhaps I should work on having no expectations but that seems really hard to do.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Alyce from At Home with Books mentions a find she found this week called Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two College Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden, the story of two educated young women from New York, who in 1916, decided to go to Colorado to teach in a small schoolhouse in the country. Written by New Yorker executive editor Dorothy Wickenden—the granddaughter of Dorothy Woodruff and based on the ladies letters home, this sounds like a wonderful exploration of frontier America. One reason why this caught my interest is that my Grandmother taught in a small, rural two room schoolhouse and my favorite novel of hers, Born to Teach, is based on her experiences. Nothing Daunted is also reviewed at NPR.

Stefan Zweig, whom I have never heard of, is described as a “master of the psychological novel” and his novel The Post Office Girl, published posthumously after his suicide in 1942, is reviewed by Matt of A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook.   Christine, at age 28, works at a mind numbing job at a post office in a small village outside of Vienna. It is 1926 and poverty abounds. Christine is barely making ends meet when she is invited to a Swiss holiday by a rich American aunt – going from the cellar to the ball like Cinderella, however there is no happy ending and Christine finds herself dropped by her aunt and back at the post office. She meets a dissatisfied young man and together they come up with a scheme to get themselves out of their situation. Matt writes,” Zweig finds a universal story of psychological struggle, spiritual testing, as well as class conscience in a bitter but humane indictment of social inequality. The frightening sense of a premonition–the horrible turn of events–hangs over one’s head to the very end.” I have ordered this one from the library.

Many years ago I went 0n a Flannery O’Connor spree reading everything I could get my hands on including a biography or two. So finding her as a fictional character in A Good Hard Look, a novel by Anne Napalitano definitely caught my interest. And reading what Becca of Bookstack says about the book really caught my interest – she raves about it. A Good Hard Look takes place in Milledgeville, Georgia and the O’Connors live on a farm just outside of town. Flannary is dragged to the wedding of Cookie, the epitome of Southern womanhood and her fiancee, Milton who has come to Georgia for a fresh start. There are other characters many of whom interact with Flannary, who while dying of lupus, is very vibrant and alive – something I remember from reading some of her letters. This is a novel about redemption, of picking up the pieces after tragic events and carrying on with life. I cannot wait for this one to be in my hands.

I have been hearing a lot about Everything Beautiful Began After, a novel by Simon Van Booy who is the author of short stories the New York Times calls “tender, Maupassant-like fables”. Van Booy has also edited three volumes of philosophical thought and is a prolific essayist.  The novel is about three young people: Rebecca, George, and Henry who are all lost for various reasons and who find themselves in Athens trying to put the pieces together. Almost everything I can find about this book mentions the beautiful writing. Sometimes when a book receives such rave reviews I am a little hesitant but Chrisbookarama has alleviated these fears saying, ” It’s a story of loss and grieving and about finding your way out of it. It’s also about fate and being at the right place at just the right time. I want to read it again, right now, just to read all that I’ve missed the first time. Yeah, it’s that kind of book.” And Beth Fish Reads also highlights the novel including the first two paragraphs:

For those who are lost, there will always be cities that feel like home.

Places where lonely people can live in exile of of their own lives—far from anything that was ever imagined for them.

Finally, if you are interested in books set in Italy, A Work in Progress has a lovely list in this posting.

Happy reading!

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Before I Go To Sleep

I try to breathe, to relax, but find I cannot. There are two of me now in the same body; one is a forty-seven-year-old woman, calm, polite, aware of what kind of behavior is appropriate and what is not, and the other is in her twenties, and screaming. I cannot decide which is me, but the only noise I hear is that of distant traffic and the shouts of children from the park, and so I guess it must be the first.

(From Christine’s journal) Something has been added. Something unexpected, terrifying. More terrifying than anything else I have seen today. There, beneath my name, in blue ink and capital letters, are the words:

DON’T TRUST BEN

SJ Watson, author of Before I go to Sleep, has written the latest sensation in the genre I call “Woman in Peril” – a genre that has a little mystery, a few thriller-like elements, and is punctuated by a woman who must, in some way, save herself. Sophie Hannah is a author who writes a lot of these types of books as is Chevy Stevens who wrote Still Missing. I haven’t liked the Hannah books I have read and also didn’t care much for Still Missing so I was a little hesitant to pick up Before I go to Sleep and after reading it I will say that it was both a hit and a miss for me.

Christina, who has suffered an accident several years before, wakes up each morning in a state of amnesia. She is unable to remember the day before or even who the man in bed with her is. She thinks she is either a child or a young woman in her early twenties. So in horrifying minutes after she wakes up, her husband Ben fills her in on what is going on and she looks at photographs taped by the bathroom mirror as she shakily tries to gain footing in a body she does not feel is her own. To complicate matters, when Ben is at work, Christine gets a phone call from a Doctor Nash who tells her he has been treating her. Dr. Nash meets with Christine and hands her back her journal she has been writing. Christine hides the journal each night and in the morning Dr. Nash calls her and tells her where to look. Most of the book is Christine’s journal so the reader is learning things along with Christine. We don’t know who to trust; we don’t know what is happening or why; and it is all very frightening.

What I did like:

I thought the author did a very good job on the subject of memory –the impact loss of memory has, how scary it is to not have memory to grab onto, or ground you, as well as the difference between memory and invention and how they can interchange with each other. Watson also does a good job with atmosphere contrasting the horrors Christine goes through each day with the normalness of everyday living. I also liked the tension the reader feels about not knowing what happened or will happened.

What I didn’t like:

I had a hard time telling where the journal left off and where real time began. Perhaps that was the author’s intention but I found it a little irritating. I also did not feel the tension the author was trying to create between the two men and who should Christine trust. I had very decided ideas and nothing the author wrote persuaded me any differently. Finally, I found some portions of the plot to be implausible in part because the author focused so much on Christine that it became more difficult to ascertain other character’s motivations.

A few people that I know through the internet are currently reading this book and most of them are not happy with it so far. On the other hand, other reviewers have really liked this book. My final impressions – it was an easy, quick read with enough tension to keep me turning the page. I wanted to know what happened to Christine and will happen to her in the future.

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The London Train

Paul couldn’t summon the energy to explain that he had only meant the past was precious because it was different, no better. When their guests had gone, Paul and Elise washed up in fatigued silence in the kitchen: they didn’t have a machine. He progressed stoically at the sink from glasses through plates to heavy pans that filled the washing-up water with floating rice and turmeric-yellow grease; Elsie sorted leftovers, dried and put away dishes, turning the rooms to their daytime selves, shoving the heavy table noisily across the flagstones. Her clothes had wilted from their carefully prepared bloom: her red dress sagged over her stomach, the skin of her cheeks were oily in the overhead light they had switched on when the guests went. Paul thought he had acquitted himself honorably, considering how miserable he had felt all evening, in the flood of bright pointless chatter that no one would remember the next day. Elise saw social life as a series of complex obligations, to please and be please, whereas he didn’t see the point of talking,  if you didn’t say what you meant. The irony was that they had first met at a party, when Elise rescued him from an argument that almost became a fight. Why were women drawn to there resisting frictions in men, which they then set about smoothing away?

Hostile, exhausted, Elise turned her rump to Paul in bed. Usually he fell asleep pressed up against the landscape of her shape; cast off, he floated, detached, in the cold margin of the bed, not knowing how to comfortably arrange his limbs. Sometimes he wife seemed to him shrunken and caught out in vanity. At other moments she surrounded and surpassed him; he was smaller, his was the deficit, he was the lamed one. Perhaps he was wrong about the dinner parties. Perhaps kindness was all that mattered. (pgs. 41-42)

The London Train by Tessa Hadley is in two parts. Part one is about Paul, a writer living in a small village in Wales with his second wife and their two daughters. His mother has just died and he is somewhat unsettled with life and feels separate from his family. Paul frequently travels to London by train for his work. When Paul’s eldest daughter disappears in the city leaving word that she is fine, is ex wife begs him to look for her. Paul finds his daughter living in a dilapidated flat and becomes enamored with her low-key lifestyle eventually leaving his family in Wales to move into the flat with his daughter and her boyfriend.  The second part is about Cora, recently separated from her older Home Office employee husband and currently living in her childhood home in Cardiff. She too is feeling separate and unsettled, dissatisfied and likes the anonymity of her current job as a part-time clerk in a library. Prior to the separation, Cora lived in London and would travel back and forth to Wales on the train.

Paul and Cora are both only children and both have recently lost their last parent, their mother. They also have another connection which you don’t learn until Part 2 of the novel. I must admit, I was a little surprised but in looking back, the author does a masterful job of stewing Part 1 with subtle clues. And for me, Paul and Cora were also connected in that I didn’t care for either one of them – I found them to be self-centered people without many redeeming qualities even with taking into account their grief.

The London Train is one of those novels that I liked better after I finished more than I did reading it. Not to say that it was bad – actually I thought the writing was well done. For me, it resembled the Slap by Tsiolkas – another book I liked better after it was done. Both novels use the specific to bring light to the global. Many of the characters in the novel, Paul’s mother, Paul himself, Cora’s husband, Paul’s daughter, etc. want to leave the life they have. They may not know what life they want, they just want something different. There was also a push and pull between the past and the future as well as a need to “nest”. Paul’s mother leaves her room in the assisted living facility to her “nest” in the bushes in the garden; Cora remakes the house into the modern image she envisions but leaves the garden alone so she can remember her mother.

Throughout it all, Hadley uses the train to and from London as a metaphor for these themes and if you think about it, a train journey is like no other. A car can travel between the same two spaces but it has a lot more freedom of movement – a lot more options to which route it ultimately takes. A plane is fast and you move up into the air away from earth. Even a bus doesn’t have the same feeling as a train which moves on a fixed line between two destinations, on a schedule, consistent in movement, and close to the landscape it moves through yet somewhat anonymous.

I don’t think The London Train will be one of my favorite books this year but I am glad I read it. It made me think about family and how it defines us. It made me wonder about losing my own mother, about my relationship with my brother. It has made me think of my own sons and how their relationship will evolve over the years. And it made me think of inertia, what keeps on our path and what bumps us into another direction, when we want to nest and when we want to flee – all important questions about life worth considering every once in a while.

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In some ways this was a hard week, we thought we were losing our eldest dog but he slowly rallied around. We think it is going to be a roller coaster ride until the end. The youngest dog is slowly getting better so that was the good news. Himself did an overnight trip to Bellingham to pick up eldest’s stuff and eldest himself will arrive next Friday. Youngest took off on a road trip today – the planning of which drove me crazy – but at eight p.m. last night plans were settled to everyone’s (including parents’) satisfaction. I have read some good stuff this week – The Old Romantic was excellent, The London Train was worth reading, and Before I Go To Sleep is a page turner. Next up is To Be Sung Underwater.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

If you like unreliable narrators then this book is for you. Diane of Bibliophile By The Sea reviews A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth (published in May 2010 and now available on Kindle for $6.66).  Annie, a 27 year old, newly single, obese, and socially awkward young woman relocates to a suburb in England. She throws herself a house warming party and after her neighbor, Nick, is friendly to her, she begins to think that his overtures mean far more than just friendship. The fact that he has a girlfriend is of no consequence to Annie. Annie is vague about her past and you are never quite sure if she is telling the truth but as time goes on and her obsession with Nick grows the reader does find more about her and her intentions. Diane raves about the novel saying, “I LOVED this book, and it is without a doubt, my favorite book read in 2011.” That is high praise so this book may be downloaded to the Kindle very soon.

If you are looking for a book to keep by the bedside – one of those books that you can dip in and out of, Danielle of A Work in Progress, recommends Second Reading by Jonathan Yardley. Mr. Yardley writes book reviews for The Washington Post and this is a collection of reviews from his column, Notable and Neglected. I really enjoyed Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree and this one sounds just as fascinating.  I think this one will make a good start for this year’s Christmas list. Here is some of what Danielle had to say:

The book is made up of about sixty columns that appeared in the Washington Post between 2003 and 2010.  Sounds fairly standard, right?  It’s been done before and done a number of times, but what I like is the way Yardley approaches his subject and the books he chooses.  His column ‘Second Reading’ focused on mostly worthy older books, books he had read and loved growing up.  Revisiting them through his writing and sharing with other readers amounted to something of an “autobiography of a lifelong reader”.

Melody of Fingers and Prose has introduced me to a unique concept that I have not heard of before. For six days last fall, thirty-six Pacific Northwest writers participated in a live event (on stage with an audience), each writing a chapter to Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices. While writers have certainly collaborated in group efforts before, I have never heard of them doing so live with the synergy of the audience as part of the package. Hotel Angeline is about a fourteen year old girl who assumes responsibility for managing a residential hotel in Seattle when her mother falls ill. Reviews do say the plot is at times far-fetched but the novel is a cohesive, engaging story. Melody writes, “This book seemed to be more about collaboration, community, and story telling than it is about character development or plausibility…The special part about this is how all of these authors were willing to work together, putting aside their writing quirks–turning a typically isolated exercise into a social, community-wide event.” I love the idea of meeting new writers from the area so this one is going on the list.

I didn’t know that novelist John Banville (author of The Sea, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize) had an alter ego, Benjamin Black who is the author of a series of mystery/thrillers featuring Dublin pathologist Quirke. In The LA Times, Carolyn Kellogg reviews Black’s latest work A Death in Summer which she calls, “…a beach read for the brainy, with a backdrop of sweltering Dublin to remind readers to go for a dip every now and then.” Set in the 1950’s, Quirke finds himself investigating the murder/suicide of a wealthy Jewish businessman. Other words used to describe this book are “page-turner”, “tightly plotted”, and “simply remarkable”. This is the fourth book of the Quirke series but it sounds like it can stand alone. The book starts out at a country estate and becomes a police procedural with lots of twists and turns.

Another recommended summer read is Incognito by Gregory Murphy reviewed here by Jen of Devourer of Books. Set in 1911 New York, wealthy, high society lawyer William Dysart, is given a task by a client to buy a parcel of land on Long Island sound which is owned by the beautiful Sybil Curtis. Sybil refuses, the client gets nasty, and Dysart finds himself drawn to the woman who provides a sharp contrast to his greedy, social climbing wife. So the lawyer tries to find out why the land is wanted as well as secrets in his own background. Who is Sybil Curtis and why are both men and the Queen of New York society obsessed with her and what does all this have to do with the Dysart family.

Finally, if you are at all interested in African Fiction – you must read this post at The Blue Bookcase by guest blogger Leslie.

Happy reading!

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The Great Lenore

When I first met Lenore, she’s been dead for four days.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. She stood on the back patio with water dripping on the back patio with water dripping from her hair. She looked cold. “I feel awful for barging in like this, I hope I’m not being a bother. I couldn’t go next door, you know.”

“I know,” I said.

The Atlantic stretched out behind her like an angry black sheet. The rain chased itself into the water.

In J.M. Tohline’s novel The Great Lenore, Richard is an author staying in Nantucket during the winter for the peace and solitude, struggling for inspiration for his next book. Next door is the vacation home of the Montanas, a gaudy structure Richard calls “The Palace”. Richard has recently been introduced to Maxwell Montana and the Montana family invites Richard over for Thansgiving. The Montana family consists of a mogul father, who is a snob only interested in finance and business, the Italian mother fussing around the kitchen and three children: the married son Chas who doesn’t measure up, the daughter Cecilia, and Maxwell who drinks and does drugs with abandon. The family is accompanied by the father’s perfect employee Jez. And he is introduced to the idea of Lenore, Chaz’ wife, but not the actual person as she is in London visiting family.

Richard finds himself becoming entwined in the family, even more so when the plane Lenora is traveling on crashes with no survivors. The family goes into mourning but unbeknownst to them, Lenora left the plane before it took off. What would you do if you met a beautiful woman, one who is perfect in almost every way, alluring, personable, with an “aura of perfection”, and she asked you to do something different, to help her keep a secret, to spy for her? This is the question J.M. Tohline’s main character must answer because Lenore asks for his help so she can have closure before she starts a totally new life. Lenore wants to know how her absence affects the Montanas. She knows her husband was having an affair and she doesn’t much care for the rest of the family and wants to know if they feel the same way.

Richard readily agrees to this, not only because Lenore is so alluring, but also to satisfy his own curiosity. Earlier Richard had explored the Montana’s house when no one was home:

A family like the Montana’s – so spoiled and affluent and overflowing with the possibility of fascinating adventure – who knew what I might find? Who know what secrets they hid?…I sought no treasures. I intended no harm.

I was merely a ghost who wandered through a world in which he existed but did not belong.

Conversations rose and merged and dwindled. Words that seemed important at the time were sucked away and forgotten the moment they hit the air. The days dragged on for ages, and they disappeared in a flash.

A life compromised of nothing more than food and shelter and stories…and a desperate search for meaning inside the muck and mire of a muddy existence.

Throughout the novel Richard often references his own personality and how people use him “as if my reticence and contemplativeness provide for my social counterpart a sort of empty vessel, into which they may pour all the elements they desire me to have.” It is this personality quirk that draws Richard deeper into the Lenore’s world and the life of the Montana’s and at the same time sets Richard apart, isolated by differences in rank, occupation, as well as the secret he carries about Lenore.

This wasn’t a comfortable read – there are serious ramifications of Lenore and Richard’s actions. The reader is given a picture of people in mourning and it isn’t necessarily pretty. And I didn’t much care for any of the characters. But it turned out to be a worthwhile read not only for the atmosphere Tohline creates but also for his musings on writing and books –the writing experience, the conversation the author tries to have with the reader, and the interplay between novel and reader. For example, Tohline writes:

I think of a book.

I think of the finished product – how we hold it and feel its texture while we dive within its pages. How we sometimes read a book in a single, exhilarating sitting.

For those of us whose lives are too busy to allow for single-sitting reads I think of how a book accompanies us on the subway, or how we keep it in our car. How we sit in bed at night and burn through the pages until we’re ready to fall asleep. I think of that fortunate fraternity who is lucky enough to have found someone to love – how that someone lies beside you with their body curled and their eyes closed, saying, ‘Darling, please turn out that light. Please, I’m ready to fall asleep.’ And how you say to them, ‘Just one more section, sweetheart. Just one more chapter.’ And your love sighs, and you rest your hand on their back, and you continue to turn the pages until you can’t keep your eyes open one more minute.

I think of the manner in which we behold a book – the manner in which we behold any work of art, in fact, whether it be music or paintings or stories – how we explore, and absorb, and rejoice and enjoy, and how we so rarely stop, and so rarely think: what did it take to make this?

When I finished this novel, I truly wondered how the author made it – how did he write this book with characters that are not particularly admirable or loveable, with a story that, at times, redefines normal (even if we have fantasized about the effects of our own death, seriously who really acts like these people), and a staccato writing style with the sweeping backdrop of winter coastal New England, how does he take all these desperate items and form a cohesive whole – one that I stayed up reading saying – just one more chapter, just one more. I don’t know how the author did it – all I know is I would like seconds please.

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Another Sunday – It was the weekend of fitness here in the Hinterland. Yesterday was the fun run led by the boys from the high school team and today was the local woman’s sprint triathalon. I had two friends running that have undergone some health challenges – the race was hard but they both finished! Our dogs are not doing well this week, one due to old age and the other to an inflamed facial nerve. But the good news is the 16 pound leg weight is down to his summer weight of 14.5 pounds (if only we all lost 10% of our body weight) – I guess those early morning sprints in and out of the house are paying off. Youngest finally finished Infinite Jest and is wondering what to read next. My first thought was William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and his friend has suggested Thomas Pynchon. Does anyone have any suggestions? Youngest’s favorite books are Hamlet, Catch 22, and Infinite Jest.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Literary thriller – just what I need for the summer and Diane of Bibliophile By The Sea makes Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp sound so good, “This novel has it all, a mystery with an addictive plot and plot twists, complex characters, a scandalous affair, complete with details of clandestine meetings. Literary thriller fans will enjoy this creative work.  I was hooked from the very beginning, and I was able to read this book in just one afternoon. It is certainly one of the best literary thrillers, that I’ve read in a while.” Game of Secrets is about the disappearance of Jane’s father some fifty years earlier. The return of Jane’s daughter, the discovery of a skull, and Jane’s weekly scrabble games with her father’s mistress all lead to a desire to know what happened in this complex, tightly woven tale. I also like how the secrets come out during scrabble games – my grandmother could play a mean game of scrabble.

Many years ago I remember watching a movie called The Shooting Party, set in Edwardian England, it was about the changes that happened in England at that time. I was reminded of the movie reading a review of Isabel Colgate’s novel Winter Journey on A Work In Progress. Colegate is the original author of the shooting party. Winter Journey is about two aging siblings who meet at the family’s ancestral home. The two week visit forces the siblings to reflect on their memories and their relationship. It is described as a quiet, character driven novel – just what I like, so this one is going on the inter-library loan list.

This week I compiled a set of books for a friend of my mom’s. Her friend is planning a trip to the Balkins and I had a lot of fun looking up good reads both fiction and non-fiction. I have to give a special shout-out to Winston’s Dad who has a great site if you are interested in translated books. He got me started and I went from there. And of course I have added some of the books I found to my “To-be-Read” list. The first is  Gardens, Ashes by Danilo Kis. I was able to find a review at Danny Yee’s Book Reviews as well as a description and excerpt at Dalkey Archive Press. The novel is about Andi Scham’s childhood during World War II as he and his family traveled across Europe during WWII. The author focuses on Andi’s relationship with his somewhat problematic father. At first glance, this may seem to be another WWII “we must survive” story but what caught my interest is the focus on a creative person struggling to come into his own and establishing an identity separate from his father during a period of great personal strife.

Another author that caught my interest was Milorad Pavic featured here in an author spotlight on The OF Blog. A Landscape Painted with Tea is described as “a tale of mysterious quest that is part modern Odyssey and part crossword puzzle” and The Dictionary Khazars is described as, ” Entries are alphabetically arranged and can be perused at random, read start to finish or back to front. The publisher is offering two different versions, designated “male” and “female,” and differing by only 15 lines. The narrative purports to be the historical record of the Khazars, a fictional Indo-European tribe that vanished in the 10th century”. Both concepts sound so interesting.

Finally I want to read a book by the 2009 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Herta Muller, particularly The Appointment reviewed by Rudpinne and The Passport reviewed by Winston’s Dad. The Appointment is about a Romanian young woman on her way to yet another interrogation. In the tram, she reminisces about her life and life under the Ceausescu regime giving the reader an inside look into a very different culture. The Passport is a very short novel about a village miller in Romania seeking a passport.  Or I could read Traveling on One Leg, a novel of exile and alienation which was briefly reviewed in The New York Times. It is described as a book of thought more than action and I love books like that. Too hard to decide.

Often times I come across a book that just doesn’t interest me  even though there are many positive reviews on blogs. Then you read a review that strikes a chord and now the book has caught my interest.Such a book is Aminatta Forna’s 2010 novel The Momory of Love which was short-listed for last year’s Orange Prize. Forna is the daughter of a Scottish woman and a Sierra Leonean father who is a physician. Forna’s father was hanged during the war in Sierra Leone. The review is by Laura of Laurasmusing’s and there is just something about her review that increased my interest. The Memory of Love is about a British psychologist, Adrian, who goes to Sierra Leone to help after the war is over. His life intersects with a Sierra Leonean doctor as Adrian treats his patients and from there the author interweaves stories between patient, doctor, and psychologist into a tightly woven whole. I am thinking if you liked Cutting for Stone, you might also enjoy this book.

The trouble with reading English bloggers is that you come across a lot of books that are not available in the United States. Lucky for me Elizabeth Speller’s The Return of Captain John Emmett has just been published  in the United States and I have my name on the copy being cataloged at the library.  The books is reviewed by Fleur Fisher in her World (side note: I have a fondness for anyone named Fleur due to Fleur of the Forsythe Saga). John Emmett has survived the horrors of WWI as well as the death of his wife in childbirth and now he is floundering when he receives a plea from the sister of one of his school friends. Her brother has committed suicide and she asks John if he will help her understand why. He accepts the commission and is soon involved in a mystery. Fleur writes of her reading experience, “The story revealed was so powerful, and had so much to say about the strengths and weaknesses of humanity, the burden of knowledge, the horrors of war, and the iniquities of the class system. ” My one problem is that now the sequel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, is out in England and I have to read about how everyone is enjoying that book.

Finally, the Los Angeles Times reviewed Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. NPR also has a brief excerpt of the book here and is reviewed by Rhapsody in Books. Set in Atlanta in the 1980’s, The Silver Sparrow is about two sisters and their father who is a bigamist. One of the sisters knows the secret and the other doesn’t. When the two girls become friends, the lies and deceit all start to come out. First of all, I like novels about sisters, and second, I love novels about family secrets so this one looks like the best of both worlds. The book is in two parts, each narrated by one of the sisters and the writing is getting very good reviews. This one is on my hold list as well.

Happy Reading!

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I divide my life into two parts. Not really a Before and After; its more as if they are bookends holding together flaccid years of empty musings, years of late adolescence or the twenty something whose coat of adulthood simply does not fit. Wondering years I waste no time in recalling…

She featured not at all during this period and I realized she was the color that was missing. She clasped the years either side of this waiting and held them up as beacons, and when she arrived in class that dull January morning it was as she herself was the New Year; the thing that offered me the promise of beyond. But only I could see that. Others, bound by convention, found her at best laughable and at worst someone to mock. She was of another world: different. (pg. 1)

He was different from other boys his age; an exotic creature who secretly wore our mother’s lipstick at night and patterned my face with kisses that mimicked impetigo. It was his outlet against a conservative world. The quiet rebellion of a rank outsider…

I never felt complete without him. I truth I never would. (pgs. 6-7)

Reading When God was a Rabbit, a debut novel by Sarah Winman, I felt like I was putting on a comfortable, old sweater. One that settles around you and makes you feel right at home, cozy and safe. The novel is the story of Elly and her family – mom and dad, a legal aid lawyer, her brother Joe and her aunt Nancy. Elly feels like an outsider at school until Jenny Penny moves onto the street and they become the best of friends. Winman follows Elly from when she is a little girl, to moving away to the coast of England, growing up, losing Jenny, finding her, etc. moving from 1968 until just after September 11, 2001.

Along the way, friends come into her life, and leave, and reappear. Elly is given a rabbit she names god and she has a part in what becomes one of the funniest Nativity plays I have ever read about – funny served with a slight twist of morbid. During this time, Elly struggles to find herself, to be comfortable in her skin, wanting to be different and hidden at the same time, learning hard lessons along the way and always accompanied by her big brother Joe. Winman uses Elly’s story to subtly discuss sexual abuse, domestic abuse, terrorism, sexual identity, and woven through it all is the struggle to maintain an equilibrium with the person you are and the person you portray to the world.

This is a book where good and bad things happen, a book that describes people seeking balance, love, happiness – all the things that we want. It is a book about loss and a book about gain – and most of all,  it is a book about finding a new normal when the old normal doesn’t work anymore.

Elly’s relationship with her brother was so believable – when I was reading it I remembered when my own brother stood up for me. We were attending church services with our cousins for the first time and I was told to go to a different room for Sunday school. My brother could tell I was scared and he puffed himself up and said in a loud voice, “she is my sister and she is coming with me.”

And while, I didn’t have a Jenny, I had friends that accepted me as I was and at the same time, pushed me to become even more. I had an Arthur, Elly’s elderly gentleman friend who lives on the grounds of their house on the coast. My Arthur was even named Arthur and he would take me to lunch, claim me as his, and talk to me about life in such an easy way. My Arthur played such a huge part in building the foundation of who I would be, when I was introduced to Elly’s Arthur I felt an instant connection. I even had a Mr. Golan.

I did not live Elly’s life – in fact, there are only superficial resemblances between me and the character. But the beauty of this book is the author cast out these threads of connection in such a way that they formed the sweater I felt I put on. Winman’s writing is good, occasionally it seems a little over the top but that didn’t matter to me. Her descriptions of moving from the only home you have ever know, the death of a loved on, the estrangement of your parents, even the heartbreak you feel at the end of your first love – these universals are what Winman wants the reader to connect with, to remember, to be comfortable with, to wear within ourselves like we would wear an old sweater.

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