Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens


The Elected Member
by Bernice Rubens
1969
1970 Booker Prize
***
3 stars - take it or leave it



Not a bad book, but I wouldn't feel like I missed anything if I had skipped it.

Norman Zweck is a drug addict. He's also insane. 

The story revolves around Norman and his family and takes place over the span of a few weeks. I think the moral of the story is that all families are messed up and that keeping secrets makes it worse.

Poor Norman. Confined to a psychiatric facility in 1969. Meaning a warehouse where the patients are doped up and not much more. 

Over the course of the story, the author reveals pivotal moments in the lives of Norman and his family. It is all painfully real and depressing. Not exactly holiday fare.

For literary scholars, however, the writing style is worth examination. I wish the subject matter had been more uplifting because I admired how the author spun her tale. She reveals very little about the characters, yet just enough for the reader to feel that they know exactly what is going on and motivating them. Enough to feel the pain of Norman, his father, and his two sisters as they muddle along.

The flow of the writing is exquisite. Neither overwrought with elaborate sentences, nor simplistic, she finds the right balance to bring readers effortlessly along for the ride. 

Norman's mother, Sarah, is deceased during the time the novel takes place and only appears in flashbacks. She does seem to have been a bit, well, overbearing and possibly the source of much of the familial dysfunction. 

The writing is good enough for me to want to try another one of her works. I was delighted to discover that as the years passed, she veered into thrillers and dark comedies. Put a couple in the old queue. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Book and a Couple of Movies


Burn This
by Helen McCloy
1980
1980 Nero Award
**
2 stars - just didn't grab me




Helen McCloy, an author I had not read before, was certainly prolific. I selected this volume from the Nero Award list for literary mysteries.

I'd classify it as a cozy mystery with warm, fuzzy characters and limited blood and gore.

Harriet Sutton, author, moves to Boston, buys a Beacon Hill fixer upper, fixes it up, rents the apartments out to other writers, goes about her life, until..... murder! Yup, dude is found right on her living room sofa with his throat torn out. Uh oh.

I can't fault the writing or the characters and I think that many (OK, both) of my followers might enjoy the book, but it just never really gripped me and had it been more than a scant 182 pages, I might not have finished it.

There is, however, a dog in the story. Ajax, the overly trained attack German Shepherd. Maybe I just finished to see what happened to him. I felt sorry for the poor chap, trained into total submission so that he wouldn't even eat a meatball without permission.

Let's move on to a couple of excellent, five star movies, shall we?


Hope Springs
starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones
2012
*****
5 stars - outstanding


I'm not sure that being middle aged in a marriage that has spanned more than one decade is a prerequisite for enjoying this movie, but it sure helps.

Where to begin? Short plot summary:

After thirty years of marriage, a middle-aged couple attends an intense, week-long counseling session to work on their relationship.

Blech. If not for Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones I would have taken a pass. But I really enjoy both of them so I figured, why not? 

This is no chick flick. The pain and longing attendant with complacency in a relationship are so real that my husband and I were both squirming in our seats. I found plenty to identify with in both characters. I really appreciated how totally and unashamedly middle-aged the actors looked. None of the eternal youth taught face and six pack abs crab. Real people with a little paunch and questionable fashion sense. 

The marriage started out fine and they remain devoted to each other, but life events have pushed each away from the most important person in his or her life. Plenty to think about here. 

Warning! After the movie finishes and the credits run there is a segment that is quite disarming. In fact when it concluded, my husband and I exclaimed almost simultaneously "phew, glad that's over, I was going to cry if it went on any longer." Trust me, we are *not* the cry during movies types. 


In Bruges
starring Colin Farrell, Brenden Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes
2008
*****
5 stars - will watch again



Guilt-stricken after a job gone wrong, hit man Ray and his partner await orders from their ruthless boss in Bruges, Belgium, the last place in the world Ray wants to be.

If you like dark "dramedies" like Fargo, this one is for you. Foul language, blood, but a very human story with characters one cares about. Colin Farrell is excellent as a conflicted man who is haunted by the act he has committed. His partner, Brenden Gleeson, gives us a believable portrait of a person who has reached the age where he is reconsidering his values and priorities. Ralph Fiennes is a total psycho.

The pacing is gentle and compelling, the scenery beautiful. Excellent dialog with supporting characters who come and go in curious ways to move things along.

Side note. Jordan Prentice really shows off his talent in a supporting role. Having just seen him in Game of Thrones on HBO, I was keen to see how stretchy his acting abilities are. Very stretchy. I look forward to seeing him in more movies.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

TRACON by Paul McElroy

Thank you one and all who have made recommendations for books I might enjoy. I have added a lot of books to my queue and will begin interspersing them with my usual fare (once I get through the stack of five I just got from the library).

I'll apologize in advance for no not always being able to match recommendation with recommender. But you'll know who you are. Oh, and please don't take offense if I don't enjoy your favorite authors. I will always enjoy the discovery of reading and isn't it grand that there are books for every taste?


TRACON
by Paul McElroy
2000
2001 Ippy Award
*****
5 stars - highest recommendation 



This one is getting five stars (even though I have some reservations about the writing) because I consider it an important and overlooked book.

Let's start with why 5 stars.

The novel is about air traffic controllers. It is incredibly well researched and there are forwards and afterwards detailing the book's authenticity as well as the 1981 walk out of air traffic controllers.

To be honest, before reading this book, I hadn't given the job of air traffic controllers much thought. Not any more. Imagine a job where thousands of lives are at stake and the only time anybody will notice your work is if you screw up. We're jamming the air with more and more flights and yet our airports are woefully inadequate to handle the traffic. 

The author provides chilling descriptions of what goes in to managing planes at Chicago's O'Hare airport (one of the busiest hubs in the U.S.). 

The main character, Ryan Kelly, otherwise known as Rain Main, is one of the best controllers. He's got it down, sure, but it is an all consuming job.

"Let's run through them again. Number one on final is Delta 1172, then American 1650 behind him. From the northeast is Coastal 540. Or is it Continental 267? His stomach twisted a notch. Christ, that better be Coastal. Over there is Prairie... Oh yeah, Prairie 838. His eyes flicked back and forth between trips and scope, darting among the cluster of targets that blinked and danced with each sweep of the radar. Look away an instant too long and the whole house of cards would collapse."

The first half of the book deals with the challenges of managing traffic. Halfway through, there is a mid air collision and the second half focuses on the aftermath. At the center of the investigation is a software tool called TRAC which is intended to be faster and swifter than humans at avoiding collisions. Guess what? The software has bugs in it. Not only that, but awarding the TRAC contract to the government was so tied up in politics that the authoring company has little incentive to get the bugs out. Not very far fetched at all. 

TRACON is an acronym for Terminal Radar Approach Control. The TRACON team is housed in an underground bunker, out of visual contact with what it going on around them. Hour after hour, they manage the blips on the screen that represent aircraft. Trying to keep things moving despite weather, over booking of runways and faulty equipment.


Here's a TRACON photo I found on the Internet (just google TRACON if you want to learn more). Looks pretty scary to me. 






I noticed the book bore a "science fiction" stamp which means the library that sent it to me had it tucked away in the Sci Fi department and despite being over ten years old, it was in almost pristine condition. That indicated to me that the book wasn't getting a lot of circulation. I sent them an email inquiring why it was in Sci Fi and encouraging them to give it a try on the "must read" table. That's how important I believe this book to be.

I remember the air traffic controller walk out of 1981 and am embarrassed to say that in the naivete of youth, I cheered when President Reagan fired them all and restaffed with non-union workers. I would take a different stand now. There are some jobs that, sadly, require unions to protect the health and well being of their employees and to do as much as possible that their jobs are carried out in a safe, responsible way. Do you really want the person guiding your 747 onto the runway to have worked a staggered week (alternating night and day shifts - the easiest way to cloud the brain) or who is on day six of a six day work week?

Now, a bit of a caveat. The overarching plot and character writing is a bit thin. It was no effort to predict what would happen with each character as they were introduced, but don't let that deter you. If anything, it makes it easier to focus on the technical aspects.

Find it, read it, and if your library, like mine, has it in Science Fiction, make a fuss. Nothing futuristic or fantastical about this thriller (I wish that weren't the case, but it is all too real).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Something to Answer For by P. H. Newby


Something to Answer For
by P. H. Newby
1969
1969 Booker Prize
****
4 stars - highly recommend



Here's the abbreviated review:

WTF??????

Any attempt to summarize the plot is futile. I will quote from the dust cover (even though it doesn't really capture the essence of the novel)

"The story concerns itself with Jack Townrow, returned to Port Said as the 1956 Suez crisis is burgeoning. His intention is simply to help the widow of an old friend settle her affairs - and benefit as he might thereby. But nothing is simple: the widow now is uncertain what she wants to do; Townrow cannot find out how his friend died - or even where the body is.

"Subtly manipulating both his characters and his reader, the author removes the novel from the common stream of experience. Unsuspectingly, Townrow is thrust into a clockless world, one that has lost its accustomed dimensions - a world we all inhabit in sleep, in fantasy, in fever. Neither he nor the reader can distinguish the real and the unreal."

I'll say. What a total mind f&*k this book is. I oscillated between wanting to toss it aside to lusting after just a few more pages. Odd things start happening almost at once and the narration runs casually between past and present. "Reality" changes with every telling of an event. 

The writing is brilliant, but elusive. I always try to look for good quotes to provide my followers a flavor of the book, but, taken out of context, passages I selected seem to lay flat. There are bizarre sentences that somehow seem completely logical in the context of the story:

"Why Christou found it necessary to vilify Mrs. K was puzzling. He seemed to think this kind of wit so precious it had to be translated and tossed across the street to the other side."

Townrow experiences so many unusual events that one quickly loses all ability to distinguish reality from hyperbole, from pure fantasy.

"He remembered a number of naked men with long tubes in their mouths. That was the glass factory in Arab Town years ago, when he was in the army, where the workers kept going on hashish and water. [Townrow] had the same joy and excitement now as then. There was the same clear awareness of the possibility he could run about inside his own body. He could course between feet, bowels, breast, and brain, singing, laughing, making great speeches."

You'd think from these brief quotes that the book would perhaps be tough going, confusing, yet it is surprisingly linear (in a round about way). 

The book is written in the third person, but because the author focuses exclusively on Townrow, it comes across as some weird first / third, who's actually talking kind of thing.

Was the author on drugs or what? Total head case. 

If you are ready for a bit of a literary adventure, give it a go. Stick with it. Don't try to figure it out, just let it wash over you. To say I enjoyed the experience would be a bit of an exaggeration, but at the same time I am glad I read it. I tend to read a lot right before sleeping and I swear the book messed with my dreams. Wacky, nutty stuff.

Final note. I was getting so fed up with the swill the Pulitzer Prize committee was selecting that I decided to give the Mann Booker a try. I confess a fondness for British drama in literature and video. It's just a bit more edgy, more raw. Something to Answer For won the first Booker prize and it did not disappoint. I've got book number two all queued up.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Burglar who liked to Quote Kipling by Lawrence Block

The Burglar who like to Quote Kipling
by Lawrence Block
1979
1979 Nero Award
****
4 stars - excellent, fun read



Oh delightful.

Given how prolific Lawrence Block is, I am surprised that I have never read any of his books.

I decided to branch out a bit and try a different award winning book list. There are a boatload of different awards for mystery novels, but I selected the Nero award which is presented for "literary excellence in the mystery genre."

I'm not sure about the literary part, but this sure was a great book and I found my fingers itching to pick it up and continue reading even when I was really supposed to be doing other activities.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar living in New York City. This is the third book in a series and we find him running a used book store (but still not ready to give up his old life). Not only does he run the store, but he really is a book junkie and there are great snippets about the love of books. In particular, towards the end of the story, Bernie can tell he is holding a copy (albeit a copy true to the original) of a rare book. How? Because he loves handling books, knowing them tactilely, and he can just "feel" that it is not the same volume as the original. That's a man after my own heart.

The breaking and entering descriptions are fascinating and it's hard not to like Bernie even though he is routinely stealing what is not his. He does have a conscious (as in thoughtfully topping off the gas tank on a car he "borrows" for transport before returning it to its parking spot).

The mystery itself centers around Bernie for hire to acquire a rare edition of Kipling for an avid collector. Well, things don't go as planned and before he knows it, Bernie is on the run, having been framed for murder, and his mission is to identify the real killer before the cops close in on him.

He picks up a sidekick, Carolyn, a dog groomer and good friend, who becomes quite enamored with Bernie's skills at breaking and entering. Carolyn is a lesbian, so no romantic interest, which suited me just fine. When I first meet a character, I'd rather get to know him or her before I have to deal with their love life.

The story is plausible, not overly complex (my poor brain) and the ending, while a bit rushed, is satisfying. 

Note that 1979 was longer ago than I care to think, so even though the writing has a contemporary feel, I had to keep reminding myself that there was no Internet, no cell phones, no laptops because there are some frustratingly low tech moments (who remembers Polaroid cameras).

Ten books in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series. I've gone ahead and ordered a copy of the first book, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, form the library. At least that way I'll have a sure thing to cleanse my reading pallet after I slog through the next Pulitzer winner.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Laughing Boy by Oliver LeFarge


I'm going to apologize up front for the curiously shrinking fonts in this review. When I cut and paste from Amazon I was sent into some HTML vortex that I am too damn lazy to figure out. Just bigify, OK?


Laughing Boy
by Oliver LeFarge
1929
1930 Pulitzer Prize
**
2 stars - I read this book so you don't have to



Oh for crying out loud! I almost ditched this one after about thirty pages. The book is about Laughing Boy, a young Navajo living on a reservation somewhere in the US in the year 1915 (I got the year from the forward even though I don't recall it actually being mentioned in the book).

The writing was awful. What struck me immediately was the feeling that the author was writing in primitive, simplistic terms because he was writing about a strange and primitive people. OK, I decided to cut him some slack given the book was written in 1929. But with a Pulitzer Prize nod, I figured that there would be something hidden between the pages. Nope. Nothing.

Here's the summary of the plot from Amazon:

Capturing the essence of the Southwest in 1915, Oliver La Farge's Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel is an enduring American classic. At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive "American"-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences.

Promising. Right? Oh boy, I will maybe learn something about life for the Navajo during the early 20th century and it will be a beautiful love story. 

Oh yeah? Here's the story. Laughing Boy gets seduced by Slim Girl. He marries her against his family's wishes and they setup house just outside the local city. Slim Girl keeps Laughing Boy out of the city. Why? Because Slim Girl is a retired prostitute who now just hangs with one American guy who gives her big wads of money for sleeping with him. It's all part of her master plan. Laughing Boy finds out about her side job and gets totally PO'd and puts an arrow into her john and one into Slim Girl for good measure. But Slim Girl survives and all is forgiven and they decide to pack up and move back to the tribal community. Not so fast. On the way, Slim Girl is shot to death by some other dude that she threw over for Laughing Boy. Laughing Boy buries her and goes home and he's kind of sad. The end.

You know what else? This book was originally written as part of a Master's thesis by some twenty something dweeb college kid who went out into Indian territory to do a little anthropological research. Guess what? That kid couldn't write.

At one point (page 220 to be exact) Laughing Boy gets drunk and has some drunken moments of lucidity about what is really going on with that Slim Girl chick.

"We should have had children. I want children. I want to go home. What is happening to me? I am losing myself. She holds the reins and I am becoming a led horse."

Wow! That's deep, isn't it?

My first instinct was right. I'm thinking the reason this won the Pulitzer Prize is because it was, and I'm quoting from the dust jacket now, "... a daring experiment, triumphantly successful. To choose Navajo Indians as your material." Yeah, and write about them like they were simpletons. I shake my 21st century fist at the implication. A Navajo as an actual interesting human being! Wow! How revolutionary.

I have to share some of the reviews from the dust cover:

"La Farge has done for the Indians in this book what Porgy did for the Negro. His prose approaches the level of poetry. There is hardly a cliche in the entire volume. There isn't a trite situation in the plot"

Open your eyes Mr. New York World Telegram. The whole thing is trite and insulting. I missed the poetry part. Oh, here's one from the Philadelphia Public Ledger:

"The first thing of its kind. It is, as well, a prose poem of rare beauty, depth of feeling and emotional power. It is the finest American novel this reviewer has read in ten years."

I'm wondering what he read ten years ago, aren't you?

As a final note, rather than be left to obscurity, the book was made into a movie in 1934. In typical Hollywood style, Mexicans, rather than real live Native Americans were cast in the leads. Close enough, right? I love the one of the reviews on IMDB:

The combination of the two dynamic Mexican actors Ramon Novarro and Lupe Velez should have guaranteed a dynamite movie.

But someone at MGM, in their wisdom, cast them as Native Americans - a disastrous decision that doomed this film to failure even before it was begun.

Both struggle to make their characters even slightly believable, as they try to curb their Mexican passion into some sort of wise aboriginal spirituality. The spitfire in Lupe just can't help but surface, and all Ramon can do is try to maintain some dignity under that terrible wig. His singing is nice but anachronistic, and there is far too much of it.

Hard to believe this disaster was directed by Woody Van Dyke, who had made one of Ramon's best silent movies "The Pagan". Novarro was deeply ashamed of this film, and it's no wonder. What is saddest of all about it though is the way it wastes what could have been one of the most exciting star combinations of all time. Just imagine if Novarro and Velez were playing a pair of violently passionate Mexican lovers - what fireworks we would have seen!

Shame, MGM, Shame!

There. Happy? Yeah, I'm going to keep slogging through the Pulitzers. They have to get better, right? They started off so promising.


Friday, December 7, 2012

World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z
an oral history of the zombie war
by Max Brooks
2006
*****
5 stars - highly recommend, will read again



This book was a real surprise in a good way. Let's start by saying that I'm a big zombie movie fan, always have been. So of course I had to get this book, right? I was all set for a nice, campy zombie fest.

Nope, what this book really is about is how individuals and nations respond to a threat of unimaginable proportions. It's plausible and chilling.

The book is a series of interviews with survivors of the zombie war. Zombies, how to stop them? They are relentless, they never sleep, nothing kills them save the total destruction of their brains. Can't nuke 'em, can't poison 'em, can't outrun 'em.

Now, zombies are overrunning the world. What do you do? He's got stories of the early infestations, wrenching stories of government decisions to protect a few citizens and let others die, government conspiracies to keep people "calm," fruitless military attacks. You name it. There is even a chapter about zombie sniffing dogs. 

I read a book like this and I think "what would I do?" "In the event of a global crisis, would I make the call to get out of Dodge soon enough? Would I be able to survive even if I got out?" Nothing like the threat of total human destruction to bring out the worst in people. 

There are villains, politicians, military, regular people. Nobody is a hero. People just survive, at whatever cost. I'll quote from Wikipedia:

"Reviewers have noted that Brooks uses World War Z as a platform to criticize government ineptitude, corporate corruption and human short-sightedness."

Yup, all of that. You want a book that will really make you think? Look no further.

Hey, bonus, looks like they're making a movie based on the book and starring Brad Pitt. Watch the trailer here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Care of Wooden Floors
by Will Wiles
2012
***
3 stars - but maybe 4 for you


I'm reviewing this books as if I were recommending them to myself. So, for me, this is a three star book, but I think that for others it is easily four stars. 

I heard about this book on my local NPR news station. They interviewed the author and it sounded delicious. 

An unnamed British copywriter agrees to house sit his friend's apartment in an unnamed Eastern European city. A city where our hero, unfortunately, does not speak the language. The gig comes with the simple instructions of "feed the cats, don't touch the piano, and make sure nothing harms the priceless wooden floors." Easy peasy, right? Wrong.

Warning, this is a very dark novel. A bit Kafka-esque. The writing is exquisite. Describing a supermarket:

"The supermarket occupied the ground floor of one of the spearhead-shaped blocks, a wedge like the prow of a ship. A heavy antique iron clock was cantilevered out from the sharp point of the block, above the store's front entrance, layers of cellulite-lump black paint and hefty Roman numerals speaking of another age. It was a purgatory of sticky linoleum and radium-blue insectocutors."

Or when he describes being caught up in the market crowd:

"...the market was heaving; one's direction of travel was utterly limited by crowd consensus... and often your course was entirely away from your intended direction, dictated only by a new shudder of peristalsis in the folds and creases the stalls left for their wretched consumers." 

The entire novel takes place over the span of eight days. During those days, there is, of course, the inevitable spillage of wine on the precious hardwood floors. A small stain, how bad can it be? 

But our hero is drawn into an ever more desperate circle of misfortune and before long, dealing with a circle of wine is the least of his worries. Along the way, he is confronted by the carefully placed notes of his friend which seem to anticipate his every move. Every cabinet he opens, even the books he chooses to page through have notes that seem to have been written in response to what he is thinking at that moment.

A lovely touch is the cleaning lady. The hero doesn't understand a word she says, but she is clearly not happy with him. Her words in the book are written as "-------!"

Just when the reader thinks it can't get any worse... it does. Many surprising twists. Reading this book was a claustrophobic, panicky experience. Wow! That's great writing.

So why just three stars? Because, for me, the ending... ARG! Just NOT what I wanted at all. 

No spoiler I. I will leave it to others to decide if they like the ending or not. Even if you, like me, are frustrated by the conclusion, it's worth reading for the fabulous writing.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Victims by Jonathan Kellerman


Victims
by Jonathan Kellerman
2012
****
4 stars - highly recommend


I've been a fan on Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels since he first started pumping them out back in 1985. This is the 27th book in the series and while there have been some along the way that would have merited just three stars, this one is certainly of the four star variety.

Alex Delaware is a forensic psychologist who works with the Los Angeles police department as a consultant. He's called in whenever there are particularly grisly and vexing crimes, most likely committed by persons who have slipped their cogs. 

I'll reiterate... grisly. The murders in these books are frightening. Almost icky and scary enough to cross the author off my list. But he keeps me coming back because his writing is just so darn good.

Alex's sidekick is Milo Sturgis, homicide detective. The reader learns just as much about Milo as about Alex. Kellerman does a great job filling us in on the private lives and intricacies of his characters. That's a must for a series to survive. Great descriptions of minor players as well, so I never have the feeling of a character appearing as a convenient prop. They are all three dimensional beings.

In one of the books, Alex picks up a girlfriend, Robin. I wish he would dump her. I don't like her at all, but that's not terribly important.

He also acquires a French Bulldog somewhere along the way (I forget how). She's awesome. 

The writing makes the novel. Kellerman has a knack for pacing. Sure, the earlier parts of the books allow for nice pauses to go do whatever, but by mid book he has usually wound things up to the point where I will miss sleep to keep going. The books are written in the voice of Alex which means that we only know what he knows. Super. So we get to puzzle things out along with Alex. There are plenty of plot twists, but nothing predictable or usual about them. Not so convoluted as to frustrate and when the pieces fall into place it is logical and satisfying.

Every book deals with some sort of mental illness or another. Fascinating and scary stuff. 

Here's the dust cover teaser from Victims:

"Not since Jack the Ripper terrorized the London slums has there been such a gruesome crime scene. By all accounts, acid-tongued Vita Berlin hadn't a friend in the world, but whom did she cross so badly as to end up arranged in such a grotesque tableau?"

More murders occur, Alex and Milo go to work, and we are away. 

Lots of information about the nature of mental illness throughout all the novels, but never in a preachy way. More creepy than anything else, because what protection does the average person have against the mind that has lost its grip on reality? 

If you choose to read this, I will add a semi-spoiler footnote.... I think the author likes dogs. 'Nuff said.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin


Scarlet Sister Mary
by Julia Peterkin
1928
1929 Pulitzer Prize
****
4 stars - recommend with some caveats



Banned in Boston! Woo hoo! Now that's what I'm talking about.

Turns out there was a bit of a change by the stuffy old Pulitzer committee in 1929 and I say, "Hear hear!" The language of selecting the annual winner had heretofore called for a book which "best present[ed] the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standards of American manners and manhood."

Seriously? Get over yourselves.

That clause was changed to read "preferably one which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life." Now we're talking.

The action takes place on a Carolina plantation sometime during Reconstruction. The players are entirely African American (startling in itself) who live in the old slave quarters of a plantation and scrape out a living by continuing to pick and sell cotton. Mary marries at the tender age of 15 and within a year her philandering husband has abandoned her and their infant son (conceived prior to the wedding - uh oh).

Mary decides to turn her back on the church which holds the little community in its grip and proceeds to engage in dalliances with a variety of nameless, faceless men, which results in her giving birth to nine children in about 15 years. No welfare mother she. Mary supports her brood through her hard (yet overly romanticized) toil in the cotton fields. She loves all of her children, cares for them as best as she is able, and continues to view men as tools. Go Mary!

The writing is seductive and drew me in quickly. Intentionally or not, the author does a fine job showing how difficult it can be at times to distinguish between extreme religion and belief in magic. In fact Mary gets better results from the local shaman than she does from all the bible thumpers chastising her for her lifestyle. 

All that said, if this book were written today, I think the author would have a hard time finding a publisher. The author, herself a white woman who grew up on a southern plantation, never gets past the image of African Americans as "other." I applaud her discussions of primitive, human emotion, but also recoil from her need to populate her novel with a "primitive" population (at the time), thereby allowing the uptight, well mannered, white folk to reassure themselves that they are above all that. Given that this was a best seller when first published, methinks there were more than a few of those "Age of Innocence" corseted, whiny women huddled under the blankets, experiencing equal amounts of thrill and envy at Mary's scarlet ways. 

So I'm recommending this novel as a period piece only. 

All in all, I'm glad the Pulitzer committee pulled the plug out of their collective butt holes and awarded the prize to Scarlet Sister Mary. Hopefully the next few years of novels will be equally intriguing.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hangman's Root by Susan Wittig Albert


Hangman's Root
by Susan Wittig Albert
1994
***
3 stars - good, predictable fun



Ah, sweet relief.

After a bad run on one and two star books, I settled in for a cozy mystery by an author mentioned by one of my followers. 

Just what I needed to freshen up my reading pallet.

China Bayles, lawyer-turned-herbalist in Pecan Springs, Texas is the heroine. The mystery centers around the apparent suicide of a professor at the local university. A professor who was engaging in dubious animal experimentation and the sworn enemy of one of China's good friends, Dottie the cat collector.

Suicide... or was it? After Dottie is arrested and charged with murder, China sets about finding out what really happened. She calls an old law school pal in to help with the investigation and we are away.

Plenty of twists and turns and enough quirky characters and subplots to keep my interest. 

Absolutely formulaic and that is just what I was looking for. Bad guys are really bad, good guys are vindicated, nobody gets hurt (OK, except for the dead guy, but we didn't like him anyway, did we).

Friday, November 9, 2012

Things Your Dog Doesn't Want You to Know


Things Your Dog Doesn't Want You to Know
by Jeff Johnson and Hy Conrad
2012

*
1 star - ugh



Dammit! This book had so much promise. Dogs telling tales about what they are really thinking? Fantastic.

But, no, icky, barely got into it. Why? My biggest complaint is that the dogs all had the same voices. And their voices were mainly well constructed sentences with complete thoughts. Even the attempts to go into short attention span activities (like waiting for dinner to be served) lacked punch.

The authors should have consulted with some of the amazing dog bloggers out there who pen blogs on behalf of their dogs. Now those dogs have personality. In dogs that blog land there are dogs who can't spell, dogs with peculiar speech patterns, and, most of all, dogs who really express themselves as, well, dogs. 

Ish. Since the binding isn't broken, my edition is still good as new so I'm donating it to the charity auction at work. 

You want to know how dogs really think? I'll give you one example from the blog of my (now deceased) mastiff, Mango. Read it here. Or check out Dexter's blog here. Then, of course, there is Miss Puddles who has a remarkable way of telling her stories. Check her out here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder


The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder
1927
Pulitzer Prize
*
1 star - could not finish



Calgon - Take me away!

What is up with the Pulitzer Prize committee of the late 1920's? Oh blech.

A nice, thin volume, of barely 100 pages. Surely I can get through that. 

Here's the premise. A bridge in Peru collapses, sending five people to their death and a local cleric, Brother Juniper, seeks to find out what led those specific five people to be on the bridge that day. That sounds pretty good. Almost like a reverse Final Destination.

The book opens with the bridge collapse and then there is a section for each individual victim (well, I suppose there is since I didn't make it through victim number one).

On page 20 and I am really struggling with the dense prose, so I flip back to the dust cover for support. That read well. "Be strong." I counseled myself. But before I even reached page 30 my wee little brain was crying out for relief. "Don't care! Don't care! Don't care!"

I noted there is a recent movie edition. Uh oh. The reviews were far more entertaining than the book. 

From the NY Times:
...has appeared virtually out of nowhere, sneaking into the market with a stealth that reeks of flop sweat. [But] how bad could a movie be that features talent as serious as Robert De Niro, Kathy Bates...
That bad, alas.

Sounds like a pass.

Listen up oh Pulitzer Prize committee of old. Just because these books are supposed to be about the human condition, that doesn't require them to be dreadful, overly verbose tragedies. I, for one, engage in the human condition every day and I assure you that there are bright moments when it is great to be alive. 

Now then. Reading through my reviews of the earlier winners, I am nostalgic for those volumes which, although marked with the inevitable tragedy, were still quite readable and, dare I say, frequently enjoyable. One must assume that the award committee was water logged in the fashion of the day when it came to what was considered great literature. Hopefully those pompous committee members who subjected me to not one, not two, but THREE one star disasters in a row have something better coming soon.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield


Early Autumn
by Louis Bromfield
1926
Pulitzer Prize
*

1 star - couldn't finish



Oh come on, Pulitzer Prize committee. Please. 

I never even heard of Louis Bromfield. OK, I don't know everything. "Perhaps," I thought, "I will discover a wonderful new author. Isn't that part of why I am reading these Pulitzer Prize books in the first place?"

The book got off to a rocky start. I found the introduction of characters a bit convoluted and almost needed a scorecard. It didn't help that there were so many names that were the same: Sabina, Sybil, Sabine (yes, both Sabina and Sabine). I stayed strong and within fifty pages or so I had them mostly sorted out.

Then there was the fact that the action takes place in Massachusetts, but in the fictional town of Durham. I never got my head around that and part of me kept thinking everybody was at their summer place in the Carolinas.

So, what of the story? Rich family. Snobby. Black sheep. Crazy lady locked up in the north wing. Sick kid. Blah, blah, blabbity, blah, whatever.

The main character is Olivia Pentland. Sad lady. Trapped in loveless marriage. Boo hoo. Sorry, but I wasn't getting into it at all. 

The author almost drew me back in with the promise of revealing some family secrets as well as the budding romance between poor Olivia and the common landowner, O'Hara. Almost. Lots of words, lots of details, but all the wrong details. Cardboard figures. 

By page 100 I was skimming, by page 150 I was done. Blech.

Good thing, too, because I went online to see how it all turns out and I had I struggled through the remaining half of the book I would have been pig biting mad by the end. Turns out none of the surprises were very surprising after all.

Let's see...

The great founder of the Pentland family was a bastard child who stole the name from an aristocratic family. Uh oh. The old man really was having an affair but he kills himself by riding his horse off a cliff. Whoops. Olivia decides that the noble thing to do is to become the leader of what is left of the Pentland clan rather than taking a chance on love (i.e. running off with O'Hara). Please. Seriously?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Wallace by Jim Gorant


Wallace: The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls - One Flying Disc at a Time

by Jim Gorant

**
2 stars - it's complicated, see review


I wish I could have given this book more than two stars, but I'm trying to be honest here. 

There's good news and bad news. I'll start with the good news.

Wallace is a pit bull whose life nearly ended more times than once early on. He had a bad start after which he was put into a shelter where he did not fare well. Not only did Wallace suffer from breed discrimination, but he had behavioral issues which put him at risk of forever being labeled a dangerous dog which would have ended his life.

Thanks to the dedication of Roo Yori and his wife, Wallace's true calling in life was discovered. Roo and his wife took in Wallace, issues and all, and found that the perfect release for his drive and energy was to participate in the sport of dog Frisbee. 

Sounds great, right? The problem is that Jim Gorant is the author. I tried to read Mr. Gorant's book about Michael Vick's dogs and I had to put it aside about halfway through. Why? Because Mr. Gorant's writing lacks heart. 

Jim Gorant is a sportswriter by trade and his writing style feels more like an article in Sports Illustrated than a story about dogs, humans, and how their devotion to each other can make miracles happen. I almost didn't finish Wallace. That's how dispassionate the writing was. 

The focus on the competition, the winning, overshadowed the emotional parts of the story for most of the book. Even when writing about the sacrifices made by Roo for his dog, the love of Roo and the bond he had with Wallace, there was something missing. In fact something so seriously missing that I began to wonder if Roo himself was more focused on competing and winning than in salvaging Roo and giving him a great life. 

A quick trip to Wallace's YouTube site set my mind at rest on that question. Sure, the competition videos are amazing, but what I really enjoyed were the videos of Wallace going through his bucket list (now that he is, I believe, retired from competition). Roo did a short PR movie of Wallace (you can watch it here) and that is the video that reassured me that there really is a special bond between Wallace and Roo. 

There are several videos of Wallace performing. It's awesome stuff. You can watch a sample here.

In summary. Great story. Not so great book.

The Avengers


The Avengers
2012
****
4 stars - recommend



First off, I will tell you that I am a big fan of super action, blow things up kinds of movies. If there are aliens, monsters, natural disasters, I am there. I put The Avengers in my Netflix queue just because it was an action movie. I didn't have a lot of hope that it would actually be good.

But it was. Wow!

This movie is just plain fun. There aren't any icky love stories, no social commentary, just lots of things blowing up, monsters, and super heros. Woo hoo!

What put this movie into the four star category was that it never tried to be more than it was and it sure felt like everybody involved in it was out to have a big old party. The writing is great. Seriously. Overblown statements about dominion over the Earth are made with tongue firmly in cheek. The actors all play their characters straight. The Avengers themselves have their own personal agendas and they don't always get along with each other. They make fun of themselves and their fellow super heros.

The scenes add enough clever details that I might even pitch into the five star category by watching it again. For example. In the super spy control room, all seriousness in discussion of what to do next and as Samuel L. Jackson wanders off screen, we briefly see one of the workers flip his computer screen to a game of Tetris. 

There are no painful jokes or gags (and nobody gets kicked in the nuts). 

Best scene by far (and this won't spoil it) is the Hulk kicking Loki's ass. Almost hit the replay button for that one. 

Yeah, people get killed. Hey! That's what happens when Norse Gods duke it out, but it is all comic book style action. No guts spilling out, or arms flying through the air, so I would rate this as OK for kids as well.

Oh, and of course, the battle scenes and special effects are quite satisfying.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis


Arrowsmith
by Sinclair Lewis
1925
1926 Pulitzer Prize
*
1 star - could not finish


Well, I suppose it was only a matter of time before my persistent trek through Pulitzer Prize novels landed in my lap a book that I could not bear to finish.

Finding a copy was not easy. Only one wee little Modern Library edition existed in our entire eastern Massachusetts library network. Situated on the shelves of the somewhat obscure Pine Manor College, I have come to believe it hadn't left the library in decades. The back insert still had the old fashioned due date insert with the last date being November 21, 1977. At first I was feeling quite smug "Hah! Poor dusty prize winning book." The feeling didn't last.

Arrowsmith is the story of Martin Arrowsmith. He's a young man living in the fictional Midwestern state of Winnemac in the early twentieth century. Martin decides to become a physician and the book deals with his struggles over private practice v. research and his frustrations over the lack of attention in the medical community and population to the threat of contagious disease.

I wasn't very happy after the first hundred pages or so, but I kept going. As that story unfolded, Martin became more involved in public health. OK. I settled in for an education in the state of public health during a time when most people had no notion of the role good hygiene and lifestyle plays in good health. 

The problem was the writing style. The players come and go and are universally painted in the broad strokes of cartoon characters. I could not get my head around any of them enough to care. 

Sinclair Lewis seems to have sussed out the literary trick of putting a teaser at the front of the story to draw in readers. The first scene is of Martin's great-grandmother driving her father's wagon (with father dying of unknown illness in the back and brothers and sisters crawling about) into the Midwestern prairie. Just a few short paragraphs and then she vanishes, never to be heard from again (at least in the 216 pages I dutifully read). What the heck was that all about?

Online discussions of the book proclaim that it remains quite a popular novel with young medical students who continue to struggle where best to apply their skills; research, private practice, specialization, etc. I admit that the information regarding public health appears well researched The author's acknowledgements are all towards one Dr. Paul H. de Kruif who apparently filled him in on bacteriology and took him on a medical world tour.

I would have been happy for a book with even less character development and more medical science or the other way around, but this one landed tragically somewhere in the middle. 

I confess that I will be relieved when my Pulitzer Prize list moves me far enough along in the twentieth century so that the topic of sex and reproduction is at least suggested. It's getting old to see couples who engage in just a brief kiss or embrace and suddenly a baby comes along. Not to mention the fact that in an era totally lacking in birth control, Martin and his wife somehow manage to get through years after her first unfortunate pregnancy without the Mrs. finding herself once again with child. 

I have to go and cleanse my reading pallet with a dog book.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Raw Food Detox Diet by Natalia Rose


The Raw Food Detox Diet
by Natalia Rose
*****
4 stars plus one extra for entertainment



I've dabbled with this book (and others by Natalia Rose) for about three years.

Let me say right off that Natalia Rose is kind of a whack-a-do (albeit a wealthy one thanks to her clever marketing).

She's an extremist of high order when it comes to food and bodily functions. Much of her advice is not only peculiar, but even self contradictory (as in her rule about not eating fruit and vegetables together except, of course, for the recipes that contain both - huh). She is a devotee of colon cleansing as well as eating the majority of your food in the evening (not my thing since I almost never actually eat dinner and prefer to get my nourishment in decreasing doses throughout the day).

But the lure of a healthy diet full of raw, vegetarian food is strong for me. Despite the fact that I eat meat and dairy, it is not without remorse over the treatment of food animals and I try to limit my intake (I was a vegetarian for years, but after increasingly frequent dreams of eating chicken, I finally relented).

This is the least complex and time consuming of all her diet plans, but it is still a lot of work. The great thing about this book is that it provides a quiz to tell you what level you're at in regards to switching over to a raw diet. Then she outlines a seven day meal plan for you based on your level.

I confess that I have only ever managed three days in a row at any level before I am once again supplementing my meals with cooked foods and the always satisfying fat. But when I am eating her meal plans, I might yearn for more, but I am never hungry and I do feel better.

My approach is to look at what she outlines for the day, say "I am going to eat those foods today" and then consume them whenever I see fit (as opposed to eat fruit, but wait at least an hour before having a salad).

Those who know me know that I am not a fan of traditional salad. I scorn the salad bar with those skinny bitches picking out spinach leaves one at a time. Yuck. So much work. So much chewing and cutting.

So it was a happy discovery to find recipes for salads that are low on leafy stuff and yummy. Her salads usually call for chunky vegetables in bite sized pieces. Much better. I made the mistake of bypassing her homemade salad dressing recipes in the beginning. Bad decision. Her salad dressings are delish and more subtle and flavorful than anything I've had from the store.

Now comes the entertainment portion of our program. That being that some of the concoctions are downright vile. I have tried almost every recipe in this book and some of them have been crossed out with big letters declaring them "NASTY." In fact I just tried a blend of coconut, dates, olive oil, lime juice, garlic, ginger and soy sauce which is billed as Thai Coconut Bliss. One sip and I was scrambling for a hunk of cheese to wash away that bit of bliss forever. In fact, pretty much anything that has coconut in it has turned out to be nasty (as have carrot juice based recipes).

Then of course there was the Power Soup. A blend of strawberries, beets, and juiced lettuce that I had the misfortune of showing off at work and then choked down with a smile on my face during snack time (note to self - a little beet goes a long way). But I have been pleasantly surprised by some things such as in the discovery that raw fennel is actually tasty when combined with the right companion root vegetables (meaning try stuff even if it looks scary at first).

The staple of the diet is something called Green Lemonade which is essentially kale juice. I can get that down (but not without grimacing) and I admit that my innards feel better for having consumed it, so I do "enjoy" that now and then.

If you decide to give it a try, I advise you to do it when you have a few days at home without a lot of appointments. As I said before, it is quite labor intensive until you get the hang of it. Also, don't buy more than one day's worth of food at a time if you can help it. That way, you can always bail or skip meals without the depressing sight of good intentions gone bad in the form of rotting vegetables (a sight  with which I am sadly all too familiar).

Most US grocery stores have everything you'll need (thank you land of plenty). If nothing else, this book will give you pause to reconsider your eating habits and (if you are like me) introduce you to some yummy ways to up your intake of fruits and vegetables. So it's all good, right?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin (book and movie)


We Need to Talk About Kevin
Starring Tilda Swinton
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
2011

*****
5 stars - highly recommend



This movie is getting five stars even though I'm not certain I will ever watch it again. That's how disturbing it was.

Let's cut to the chase. Just shy of his 16th birthday, Kevin Khatchadourian murders seven of his classmates, a cafeteria worker, and a teacher. Lest you think this is a slice and dice movie, it is told from the perspective of Kevin's mother, Eva, and all the violence is off screen.

In a way, I think the movie would have been less chilling if I had seen the his acts on screen as the imagination is so much more powerful at conjuring up just the images that leave us sleepless than any special effects and acting can ever be.

Tilda Swinton as Eva, Kevin's mother, is amazing. You can feel the tension and frustration oozing out of her as she watches her son grow into a monster. But a very clever monster. One who is not "lock him up" crazy and who can fool people into thinking that he's really OK. His mother is helpless to stop the unraveling of his life into sociopathic behaviors.

Ezra Miller, as Kevin, also does a great job. He is creepy, but not over the top.

The thing that really stuck with me is the borderline normalcy that allowed Kevin to carry out his increasingly malevolent deeds without every doing anything blatant that would draw attention to himself.

I wish I could have found something I would do differently under the circumstances. But I couldn't. And that, my friends, is what left me so disturbed. Because some horrors cannot be avoided.


We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver
2003

*****
5 stars - highly recommend







After watching the movie, I went online to read some reviews and found a lot of people commenting that the book was just as good, if not better, and watching the movie in no way detracted from enjoyment (if that is the proper word) of the book.

They were right.

This is a densely packed 400 page novel. By densely packed I mean that the writing is so rich and compelling that every word of every sentence matters. The story unfolds as a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourain to her husband. In the letters, she relives the time leading up to Kevin's birth and the experience of raising him.

I found that the movie had been quite true to the book, but the book included more scenes and insights. Scenes and insights which only served to intensify my feelings of helplessness when I watched the movie. Because, again, I could find no flaw in the character of Kevin's mother.

Sure, she was a flawed human being. Aren't we all? But she did everything right and still her son was a sociopath.

Eva expresses herself with magnificent eloquence. I could feel her inner turmoil and frustration. I never lost faith in her. Even as she admitted to her character flaws, I clung to her humanity in the face of a life out of control.

Open the book at random, and you'll find the words of an exceptionally gifted author. Here's an example;

"I know you doubt me on this, but I did try very hard to form a passionate attachment to my son. But I had never experienced my feeling for you, for example, as an exercise that I was obliged to rehearse like scales on the piano. The harder I tried, the more aware I became that my very effort was an abomination. Surely all this tenderness that in the end I simply aped should have come knocking at the door uninvited. Hence it was not just Kevin who depressed me, or the fact that your own affections were increasingly diverted; I depressed me. I was guilty of emotional malfeasance."

As to the "why" of Kevin's central act, I will reveal nothing save that the discussion of same is handled very well and it leaves one feeling as if the bottom has dropped out of the room.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

So Big by Enda Ferber

So Big
by Edna Ferber
1924
1925 Pulitzer Prize
*****
5 stars - great book, will read again



I've read Enda Ferber's novel of Texas, Giant, many times, but for reasons unknown, it never occurred to me to try any of her other books. So when her name popped up as next in line on my list of Pulitzer novels, I was juiced (in a sedate, nerdy, library junky kind of way).

I enjoy books that exam ordinary lives (well, interspersed with exciting books where things happen on every page). So Big is about the life of Selina Peake DeJong, daughter of a professional gambler. After her father's death, Selina leaves Chicago at the age of nineteen to begin a new adventure in life. She is armed with the optimism of youth that life is a grand enterprise and that all sorts of wonderful things will happen (some good, some bad, but every one noteworthy). 

Before long she is married to an Illinois vegetable farmer and her life is an endless cycle of running a farm and household near the turn of the century. The idea of being totally consumed by the day to day is timeless. While I don't have to drive goods to market, wash clothes by hand, or spend hours toiling in the field, I still feel that the ordeal of "just keeping up" is overwhelming most of the time (will generations to come read about the early 21st century and tsk tsk over how much time was spent in tasks that are no longer a bother, one wonders).

But Selina faces the reality of her life with calm resolve and gets genuine pleasure from it. Let's face it, most of us will toil away in obscurity and, in the absence of a biographer, fade into oblivion, remembered by a scant few, after our passing. If we are lucky, our lives will be, to us, fascinating, interesting, sometimes dull, but always worth having. Ms. Ferber is a master at capturing the import of the ordinary.

An amazing gift of Ms. Ferber is that she can skip over years, sometimes decades of time so smoothly in her novels. She sets up a rhythm of life in a deceptively casual manner so that when the next chapter turns out to be ten or twenty years hence, the reader doesn't feel a jolt as if they have missed anything. 

One could say that nothing really happens in this novel. Perhaps. But nothing happens in a way that is a delight to read.