Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum

The Battle for Christmas
by Stephen Nissenbaum
4 stars - fascinating stuff
ALR Blue

Materialism - the passion for money-making and excitement, is eating up the heart of our people. We are not a happy people; our families are not happy. Men look anxious and weary. We want something more genial and social and unselfish among us.

- Home-Life in Germany Charles Loring Brace 1853

All the children are expecting presents, and all aunts and cousins to say nothing of near relatives, are considering what they shall bestow upon earnest expectants... I observe that the shops are preparing themselves with all sorts of things to suit all sorts of tastes; and am amazed at the cunning skill with which the most worthless as well as most valuable articles are set forth to tempt and decoy the bewildered purchaser. 

- Boston Unitarian Magazine 1834

Let's start by saying that pretty much everything I thought I knew about the Christmas holiday was either only marginally true or plainly false. Mr. Nissenbaum is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and in The Battle for Christmas he traces the holiday in New England from the seventeenth century up through the turning of the twentieth century (after which, we can assume that most readers can fill in the blanks).

It's a great read and it certainly pays to be informed regarding whatever decisions you make on how to celebrate the holidays. I'll summarize by saying that virtually every "tradition" we associate with the Christmas holiday was something created out of the desire to minimize mayhem. Yup, mayhem.

Start in the good old days when there were lords and ladies and everybody else. Along about the winter solstice, the harvest was in, and it was time to slaughter animals. It was the only time during the year when fresh meat would be available in quantity as most would be salted or smoked so as to survive for months at a time. Well, with all that meat and nothing to do in the fields and short days, time to party!

And party they did! Starting around the Winter Solstice and running through the early new year, there was much drinking, parading about, and generally roguish behavior. During this time, it was tradition for the lords and ladies to open up their manor houses and provide food and wine for the folks who worked the estate. There was also a significant amount of dress-up and role playing as farmers dressed as lords and visa versa. Curiously, cross-dressing was also quite common. It was, to say the least, anything goes.

The Puritans, not liking any of that nonsense, pretty much banned the holiday when they arrived in New England. Now then, what about Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ? Sorry, folks, but the church, not having any record of the precise date of the birth of Jesus, assigned December the 25th in an effort to both curtail a bit of the debauchery of the season and also to take advantage of the winter idleness to possibly induce some folks into church.

In fact, very little of the Christmas holiday as we know it has anything to do with religion. The notion of a family cozily huddled around the tree was a "tradition" that was created to try and curb the gangs of youths that would break into people's houses demanding food and drink during the holiday season. Closing of schools over Christmas was due in large part to schoolboys who would barricade themselves in the schoolhouse with plenty of food and grog and sometimes shoot at any schoolmaster so reckless as to try and gain entry. Gift giving was institutionalized by merchants who practiced segmented marketing as early as the early nineteenth century. The idea of charity was also a way to encourage the folks without to settle down and take what was offered instead of raiding the homes of the wealthy and middle-class. 

Mr. Nissenbaum dedicates chapters to the evolution of Santa Claus, the Christmas Tree, and charitable giving at the holidays. He also details the failure of the Puritans to ban the holiday and the reclamation of the winter celebration in seventeenth and eighteenth century New England. 

He does it all in the context of what was happening in society at the time; how economic and lifestyle changes played in to developing the various activities that we associate with the Christmas holiday.

For me, the moral of the book is that, once again, there is nothing new under the sun, and all our complaints about "losing the Christmas spirit" and materialism during the holidays and whatnot are as old as the hills. I'm also left with a more positive feeling about the season, because the only true tradition appears to be to do something, whatever, to lighten the load as winter settles in.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair
by Jasper Fforde
3 stars - a four star premise with a somewhat two star execution
ALR Green - cameo by a delightful dodo

It's a cool idea. Literature as the most highly valued thing around. Devotees of various authors forming not only clubs, but entire political movements. Original manuscripts guarded as the most important items on the planet. Now throw in a little time travel, layers and layers of special operations police, and a bad guy who wants to rewrite history by entering books and changing things up and you've got some interesting stuff.

Thursday Next is on the Special Literary Operations task force and her mission is to find and destroy an evil dude who can take on the guise of others, talk people into surrendering their souls, and is in cahoots with the nasty Goliath Corporation. Uh oh. Unfortunately, Thursday's clever Uncle Mycroft has invented a machine which can insert people into books and allow them to change the outcome. Worse still, he can insert people into fanciful writings which hypothesize weapons not yet created and allow them to return with the weapons in hand. After Uncle Mycroft's wife, Polly, is trapped in a Wordsworth poem, his machine becomes the ransom to get her safely back. Then, of course there is Thursday's dad. He's a time traveler who pops in and out of her life by bringing time to a standstill for a few minutes before he is once again away.

Unfortunately, while the seamlessness of all the literature, time travel, special ops, genetically engineered pets and whatnot is top notch, the characters are, sadly, rather bland and uninteresting. So, yes, I did read the entire book, but I don't think I'll read any further in the series. Too bad. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places
by Gillian Flynn
5 stars - ew, not for the faint of heart
ALR Red - some scenes of animal cruelty

Libby Day was seven when her mother and sisters were murdered in their home. As the sole survivor of the event, Libby is called on to testify against her 15 year old brother, Ben, and he is sentenced to life in prison. 

Twenty-five years later, Libby is having trouble living a normal life. Short on cash, she agrees to a paid guest appearance at the Kill Club, a group of folks obsessed with violent crime. In the case of the murders of Libby's family, a small faction of Kill Club members are convinced that Ben is innocent and they want Libby's help to prove it.

Libby agrees to contact family and friends from that dark time, for a fee, and as she does so, she begins to realize that not all is as it seems. Did she really see Ben murder her family, or does she only think she did? Was she coached by the prosecution? Interwoven with Libby's unearthing of people from the past, Ms. Flynn provides accounts of the days leading up to the murder from the perspective of Libby's brother, Ben, as well as her mother, Patty.

For those of you who might have read Ms. Flynn's most popular novel, Gone Girl, let me just say that of her three books, that is the most benign. Dark Places, like Sharp Objects, is really disturbing. I mean really disturbing. 

The Day family is beset by crushing poverty. Patriarch, Runner Day, is an abusive alcoholic who abandoned his family years ago, but still drops by now and then to slap them around and mooch money off his ex-wife. Mother, Patty, is trying to run the family farm in Kansas, but is hopelessly unable to make ends meet. And while showing up for school in raggedy clothes and getting free lunches are not the only elements required to twist one's mind, the conditions that the family lives in, the whispers and gossip about them around town, are certainly contributing factors in shaping a family which seeks out desperate solutions to problems. 

Maybe you're saying, "Hey, Mango Momma, why do you keep reading Gillian Flynn's books if they are so disturbing?" I'll tell you why. Because Ms. Flynn is one of the most exquisite writers I have come across. Her skill with the English language is breathtaking. Not one misplaced word, not one draggy scene. And she pulls you in. There are places in the book where you can see something dreadful coming, yet you can't stop reading. She has you. Every sentence, every word, pulls you along, pulls you down into a dreadful pit of sometimes sad, sometimes sociopathic, sometimes both behavior.

Just take in the opening paragraph:

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something's wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. Little Orphan Libby grew up sullen and boneless, shuffled around a group of lesser relatives - second cousins and great-aunts and friends of friends - stuck in a series of mobile homes or rotting ranch houses all across Kansas. Me going to school in my dead sisters' hand-me-downs: Shirts with mustardy armpits. Pants with baggy bottoms, comically loose, held on with a raggedy belt cinched to the farthest hole. In class photos my hair was always crooked - barrettes hanging loosely from strands, as if they were airborne objects caught in the tangles - and I always had bulging pockets under my eyes, drunk-landlady eyes. Maybe a grudging curve of the lips where a smile should be. Maybe.

Do you want to get to know that person better? Yeah, you do, but you also don't, right? Can't bear to look. Can't turn away.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Triple Header - two books and a TV show

Northanger Abbey
by Val McDermid
1 star - nope
ALR Blue

Let's get this one out of the way first. I stopped reading this book almost a week ago, but I've been loath to write a review as it pains me to give one star to an author whom I have heretofore enjoyed and who is also still living (and presumably running search engines for reviews, or at least her publisher is).

So even as I struggled to finish this book, I stuck with it as long as I could thinking that surely Ms. McDermid would pull things through. Alas, she did not.

Home schooled Cat Morland has spent her life in the sheltered Piddle Valley in Dorset. At the age of 17, she is offered the opportunity to travel to Edinburgh, as the guest of neighborhood friends, to enjoy the annual Fringe Festival. I did like Cat at first. Her view of the world had been derived primarily from books and so she embarked on her journey with all sorts of romantic notions of what adventures might await. She meets some people around her age, gets wooed by a mysterious young man, also wooed by an obnoxious bore, bonds instantly with a couple of other young ladies. They drive around and talk to each other and, finally, around page 200, Cat arrives at the mysterious abode that is featured on the cover of the book. 

Too late, too late. 

I'm going to suggest that this book would be a delight for a young girl in her early teens, but for a middle-aged woman, well, as I said before, nope. What really pushed me over the edge was reading the text messages the characters sent to each other. While they were admittedly, few and far between, every time I saw something like "Jst got bk 2 house. C u @ bookfest in 10?" my literary brain experienced extreme agony. 

Don't know what happened in the end. Don't care.

The Epats
by Chris Pavone
4 stars - ah, that's better
ALR Blue

Phew! Good thing I had this one in my queue (thanks to a recommendation by a reader pal). 

Kate Moore, ex-CIA, just wants to live a normal life. She marries the most benign man she can find, has two children, and when her husband's job as a computer security expert requires a move to Luxembourg, it seems like the opportunity she's been looking for to leave all that spy stuff behind once and for all.

If only. While Kate goes out of her way not to investigate her husband, his comings and goings and secrecy are a bit disconcerting. Enter Julia and Bill. Nice, normal American ex-pats, or evil assassins? 

Kate can't ignore the signs that something is amiss and she sets out to discover the truth about her new friends, as well as her husband. Plenty of twists and turns and nail biting scenes. It's a stay up late to finish kind of book. 

Henning Mankell's Wallander
starring Krister Henriksson
based on the characters created by Henning Mankell
2005 -
5 stars - more!
ALR Green - the main character has a nice chocolate lab who appears in most episodes

Not to be confused with the English language Wallander series starring Kenneth Branagh. Ick. Don't watch that one.

You know, when I think of Scandinavia, I envision lots of healthy, glowing people enjoying the benefits of socialized medicine, long vacations, and generous maternity leave. Their houses gleam, the snow is clean, and everybody is smiling and talking in those beautiful languages.

Well, that's not quite the Sweden of this series. Kurt Wallander is police inspector in the town of Ystad, Sweden, and things are very much not clean and bright. Murder, kidnapping, child abuse, extortion, all the yucky stuff that unfortunately keeps police forces busy around the world.

Krister Henriksson in the title role, captures the lonely, aging, supremely effective detective created by Henning Mankell extremely well. In fact all of the roles are well cast and the characters are developed as the series unfolds. I enjoy TV series where there are story lines showing the day to day of the characters. So in addition to watching Wallander and his team solve mysteries, we also see Wallander struggling with his life choices, the chief prosecutor trying to manage her teen aged children, an officer trying to balance work and family, and, in season 2, a couple of rookies fumbling their way through their first year on the force.

The episodes are an hour and a half long which is a great format. It provides opportunity to really develop the stories. I found the Swedish (with English subtitles) a bit disconcerting at first, but now that I'm used to the cadence of it, I really like that this version is in Swedish (heck, isn't that what they speak in Sweden?).

Here we have one of those rare occurrences where the television series is just as good as the original books. The books and the series are different enough that you can enjoy them both. I'm watching the series on Netflix streaming. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Lacey Blue and the Rejects by Bill Hart

Lacey Blue and the Rejects
by Bill Hart
4 stars - for total animal lovers and / or young readers
ALR Green - even though there are some scary parts and some sad parts

Lacey the greyhound is back with another adventure. This time, she's partnered with Meg, a young girl who has been shuffled from one foster home to the next. Meg is currently living with Granny Greer at Granny's animal shelter. It's her last chance to show that she can straighten up by doing community service and following the rules.

But danger lurks. After a near death experience, Meg finds that she can communicate telepathically with animals, and boy do those animals have a lot to say. She meets Lacey and right away Lacey senses trouble in Meg's future. So much so that Lacey abandons her owner, Ryan, to keep an eye on Meg. 

With Granny in the hospital, Meg is left alone on the ranch with some pretty rough dudes and as she talks to the animals she begins to realize that things might not be as caring and loving there as they seem on the outside. With the help of Lacey Blue, Dusty the retired race horse, and a couple of crazy cats, she sets out to expose the nefarious doings.

This one is really over the top for adult readers unless one is, like me, totally enamored with animals. In that case, you'll love the conversations between the animals as well as the different animal characters who somehow manage to assist Meg in her quest for the truth. 

For young readers, this book should be a delight. There is plenty of suspense as well as some humor. There are also lessons in loving and caring for our fellow creatures as well as some harder lessons in keeping those who are gone close to the heart. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

The White Earth by Andrew McGahan

The White Earth
by Andrew McGahan
3 stars - uneven
ALR Blue

Well, yes and no. How can you not like the classic tale of a youngster (in this case an eight year old boy) who falls on hard times and is forced to live with a mysterious and heretofore unknown relative?

Thus we have young William. William and his parents are barely getting by on a farm in Australia when his father is killed in a sudden brush fire. Before you know it, his mother (who is plagued by mental illness) packs up and they are moving in with William's great-uncle, John McIvor.

Uncle John is appropriately gruff, secretive, and mysterious. He lives on the sprawling Kuran Station estate, a once grand farm, now in ruins. In fact the majestic house is so tattered that the second floor is entirely off limits, lest somebody fall through the rotting floors and land unceremoniously downstairs. The house also comes with a fossilized old housekeeper who lurks in corners and generally scares everybody. 

Of course William's mom has a bit of an agenda. She knows that Uncle John is obsessed with restoring Kuran Station to its original splendor and that he is seeking an heir. If she can just convince him that William is the son he never had, all will be right as rain.

Or will it?

It's an odd book. It plods along at a leisurely pace for the first half and is bursting with delightful descriptions of the Australian landscape and the Kuran estate. There are chapters that trace old John McIvor's life so that the reader sees how he came to be the man he is and what Kuran means to him. But about mid-way, the book gets a bit ugly, a bit frenetic, and more than a bit political. Some pretty odd stuff goes down and I found myself thinking I was trapped in a Carlos Castaneda novel. 

Sill in all, a good read, although it did put me off Australia a bit as the climate seemed unendurable.

As a bonus, the edition my library sent me came with a book review from the local paper tucked into it. Total score, right? Two more books to add to my queue.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Million Dollar Arm - a movie review

Million Dollar Arm
directed by Craig Gillespie
starring Jon Hamm, Asif Mandvi, Alan Arkin
5 stars - a feel good movie that isn't saccharine sweet
ALR Green - animals as background only

Every now and then, I like to watch a "feel good" movie so I can, well, feel good. But I limit my viewing since most of them leave me feeling a bit sickly from the swelling orchestral score and manipulative scenes (now you laugh, now you cry).

Million Dollar Arm was an exception for me. I didn't find it overly sentimental or contrived, and the characters weren't altogether one dimensional (except for love interest, played by Lake Bell, cool name, by the way).

The movie is a fictionalized account of down and out sports agent, J.B. Bernstein, who sets out to revive his career by recruiting Indian cricket players to train for major league baseball. Over the past decade, I've come to know India from afar as my company has significantly expanded its workforce into that country. I found the depictions of India to be honest, particularly regarding some of the cultural differences from the United States. 

Mr. Bernstein staged tryouts in several major Indian cities looking for young men who could throw both fast and accurately. He finally locates two candidates and brings them to the US to undergo intensive training, all as a prelude to major league tryouts. Ultimately, Mr. Bernstein learns how to chill and think more about people than the bottom line. That's kind of what you'd expect, right? But it happens in a way that is delightfully subtle and his stumbles along the way give one pause to think about their own actions and, perhaps, what is really important in making our way through the world.

Alan Arkin is, as always, delightful in his supporting role. The young men portraying the two lucky ones to fly to the US provide shaded performances which conveyed both their longing to do well and their desire to cautiously partake of all that is American (pizza, yum).

Yeah, the ending isn't all that surprising, but the journey is very pleasant. 

No Way to Treat a First Lady by Christopher Buckley

No Way to Treat a First Lady
by Christopher Buckley
2004 Thurber Prize winner
2 stars - not my kind of humor
ALR Blue - no animals

When the president of the United States is discovered dead, in his bed, the First Lady is accused of his murder / assassination. Enter Boyce "Shameless" Baylor, ruthless defense attorney and former First Lady fiancee. Mayhem ensues.

Christopher Buckley is a talented satirist with a gift for words, but this one missed the mark for me. Allow me to enumerate.

  1. I enjoy humor that allows us to see my own absurdity, not humor that focuses on identifying "them" as the target of derision. In this case, the "them" being politicians, various government institutions, lawyers, the media, and the well-monied. 
  2. If one is going to poke fun at powerful institutions or horrific revelations in the news, best to make it totally over the top (think Hogan's Heroes). 
  3. Sex jokes only carry the day for so long before one feels engrossed in the literary equivalent of a National Lampoon movie.
  4. Having failed in items 1-3 above, attempts to paint protagonists as flawed, but ultimately likable, rouges is too little too late.
So, that's a big "nope" from this reviewer.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser (and some movies too)

Command and Control
Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
by Eric Schlosser
5 stars - chilling
ALR Blue

Command and Control is the story of the age of nuclear warfare. Beginning with the development of the atomic bomb that ended World War II and ending in the present, Mr. Schlosser draws on recently declassified documents and extensive interviews to lay out the nuclear history of the United States in all its horrific detail.

Interwoven with the historical narrative is the tale of one of the most alarming near misses in United States history. That being the accidental release of fuel and the subsequent perfect storm of oversight, human error, poor judgement, and ignorance that resulted in a Titan II missile in Damascus Arkansas blowing out of its silo in 1980.

I confess to having trouble getting through this book. While Mr. Schlosser's prose is quite readable, the subject matter quickly becomes overwhelmingly nightmarish. Reading about decades of in-fighting over control of the nuclear arsenal, reckless experimentation, and dangerous budget cuts can leave one with a feeling of despair. However, it's an important book and I encourage you to read it and consider the implications.

It could leave you yearning for simpler times when the Cold War was fully operational and the primary focus of the nuclear program was a series of posturing and bluffs between the Soviet Union and the United States. Now, with the major military powers realizing that "controlled nuclear warfare" is a fantasy, less circumspect countries around the globe are building up their nuclear arsenals. If nothing else, you'll have a renewed interest in news reports regarding the weaponry of countries like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran (to name a few).

The reader will also be reminded of the manipulative rhetoric of both politicians and military leaders as well as their own primal inclinations to yield to fear mongering, the desire to feel safe, and trust in modern technology. Just as the systems and controls around our nuclear program have suffered from neglect and human foibles, so too, does our current government control of technological defenses. Make no mistake.

Here are just a few of the things I learned along the way...

  • During World War II and the years following, our military strategy was focused on maximizing civilian loss of life. Yup, no "collateral damage." In fact, statisticians developed models for how best to target civilians to tip a nation from determined patriotism to total psychological defeat.
  • The Berlin Wall went up in my lifetime (sure I knew it came down recently, but I'd always thought it went up right after WW II).
  • The US felt it was too dangerous to fly fully assembled nuclear weapons over US soil, so they convinced their allies to store bits and pieces resulting in the ready to go devices only being flown over countries like England, France, and Spain (well at least we weren't going to blow up the US).
  • Figuring out how to arm, transport, fire, and safely detonate a nuclear weapon is a lot harder than it looks and there were so many transportation mishaps that one wonders how we ever survived.
My parents' book shelf contained a small paperback book about how to survive all sorts of horrific events (I can't find the exact title since there have been many, similarly themed, books published in the succeeding decades). As a youngster, I read it many times so as to always be prepared, but the chapter I read over and over was the one on how to survive a nuclear attack.

The advice consisted primarily of covering your ears, closing your eyes, and curling into a ball to minimize the amount of your body that would get scalded by the blast. And I confess that even as a naive youth, the information never quite jived with me. I practiced the position in my room and I reread the details on the many ways an atomic bomb will kill you and it just never seemed like any of us were going to make it. Not only that, but that most of us were going to perish in agony. I think I understood nuclear war very well.

For readers that enjoy a good movie now and then as well as those who might not feel they can stand up to almost 500 pages of stomach clenching history, here's a sampling of five star movies to watch.

Fail Safe
directed by Sidney Lumet
5 stars

I didn't see this movie when it came out, but I do recall watching it on television when I was in my early teens. It made such an impression that I can still visualize the final moments. The plot? American planes are sent to deliver a nuclear attack on Moscow, but it's a mistake due to an electrical malfunction. Now what? Because, yeah, both the US and the Soviet Union scrambled their bombers on several occasions when one or the other had an early warning system that glitched due to bird formations, rays of sunshine, and once when a worker loaded the thermonuclear warfare simulation tape into the system by accident.

Dr. Strangelove
directed by Stanley Kubrick
5 stars

Here's a movie that deals with the tug of war between military and civilian control of nuclear weapons when a general sets off the system of bells and whistles towards nuclear war. Makes you a bit more worried about countries today with their nuclear program totally in the hands of the military. Plus, this movie was directed by Stanley Kubrick and stars Peter Sellers and George C. Scott (worth it just for that).

If you want a movie a bit less disturbing, but also somewhat eye opening, try Wargames.

directed by John Badham
5 stars

An impossibly young Matthew Broderick confuses the United States nuclear launch system with a fun filled computer game and sets to playing Thermonuclear War, blithely unaware that he's actually launching missiles. This one might make you worry about "hackers just wanna hack" types who try to break in to secure networks just for fun.

The Day After
directed by Nicholas Meyer
5 stars

According to the book, Command and Control, when president Ronald Reagan saw this movie it scared the bejesus out of him and led him to a strong commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons stockpiling and seek better checks and balances on the weapons at hand.

I can imagine. It sure scared me. This movie deals primarily with the aftermath of a nuclear blast and, yes, it's totally icky and makes you kind of want to be at ground zero if the big one ever drops.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Paradise - TV Series

The Paradise
4 stars

Fans of lush BBC dramas with extravagant costumes, understated performances, and lots of upper crust angst will enjoy this short series (8 episodes). 

John Moray has opened a department store in a time when one was used to going to separate shops for every small item (one shop for a dress, one for a hat, one for gloves, etc.). It's revolutionary and, well, a bit coarse for some of the locals.

Nevertheless, he continues to enjoy success and is surrounded by a delightful cast of characters including an ominous right hand man, a manipulative fiancee wannabe, and a painfully corseted (in body and spirit) head of ladies' wear. 

Enough character intrigue to keep me watching and a visual delight.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Hounded by David Rosenfelt

by David Rosenfelt
3 stars - lightweight entertainment
ALR Green - two dogs get patted and go for walks, but no dog characters (despite the cover art)

Let's get the "this is not a dog book" out of the way up front. Despite the adorable photo on the cover, the two dogs in the book get no play and are not involved in plot advancement whatsoever. 

What we have here is very nearly a cozy mystery. It's got a few more icky murders than your average cozy and the lead character is a guy, but other than that, all the elements are there. Nice guy, self deprecating humor, various colorful sidekicks, and a touch of romance. 

Andy Carpenter, defense attorney, is the main character. His pal, policeman Pete Stanton, has just been arrested for murder and it's up to Andy to prove him innocent. In the meantime, Andy and his girlfriend, Laurie, are taking care of the victim's young son and dog. 

Some interesting courtroom manipulation during the trial. Good enough plot and nice suspense towards the end of the book. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Yellow Room
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
3 stars - a nice procedural
ALR Blue - a friendly dog barks, but that's it

This book arrived unexpectedly on my doorstep some weeks back. What better surprise for a book nerd than an unexpected package from a friend containing a nice little mystery?

The Yellow Room is a straightforward procedural mystery written in 1945. I mention the date because stylistically the book is a bit old fashioned, especially when it comes to women fainting or dying of fright. 

No problem, it's still a delightful read with some, possibly unintentional, humorous touches.

The Spencer family is decidedly wealthy and not suffering much, other than having to cut back on servants, due to the current world war. With brother Greg on his way stateside to receive a service award in Washington DC, twenty something Carol Spencer makes her way from New York City to the family's summer house in Maine (where Mother Spencer feels certain young Greg will want to spend some time "cooling off" from the war while on leave). 

But things are in a bit of a tizzy down east. No sooner does Carol arrive with her paltry entourage of three maids when a body is discovered in the linen closet. Not only that, but the caretaker of the "cottage" is in the hospital having suffered a tumble down the stairs and a broken leg when some person unknown assaulted her one evening right in Chateau Spencer.

And so we begin. The story unfolds in delightful layers with plenty of twists and false leads (or are they). Most curious, is the new neighbor, one Mr. Dane, who is nursing a war wound in a rented cottage but also investigating the murder in the closet mystery on his own. 

One of the most delightful aspects of the book was all the rich folk wandering about late at night in their robes and slippers. My goodness. So much foot traffic up and down lanes, glimpses of other persons, possible clues left secret, and other mayhem. I think the town was more active at night than during the day.

Another telltale to the vintage of the book is the duration of hospital stays. Several days for a broken leg, as an example. No such thing as out patient procedures at the local clinic. 

The title of the book comes from the name of the room occupied by the mysterious dead woman. Yes, the Spencer's cottage has so many rooms that they need to name them to keep them sorted. And so all roads lead back to The Yellow Room and the secrets it holds both to the identity of the murdered woman and the reasons behind her untimely demise.

In a way, this is also a mid century sort of cozy mystery with blossoming romance as a subtext to the more sinister goings on. It's a lovely book for a rainy day. Make some tea, settle in, and enjoy.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects
by Gillian Flynn
4 stars - ew, just, ew
ALR Blue - OK, maybe yellow for sensitive readers. There's one scene in a slaughterhouse that might put you off your bacon for a bit.

I knew up front that I'd have to read this in one big gulp. Ms. Flynn writes some icky stuff and it doesn't pay to spread out your "enjoyment" over too many days.

This story is wicked icky and also so well written, so seductive, that I found it impossible to stop reading. 

Camille Preaker is a reporter for a small Chicago newspaper who is sent to her Missouri hometown to dig up a good story on the murders of two preteen girls. Camille hasn't been home for a while. Why? Well her mom is kind of, um, controlling, her stepfather is more of a piece of furniture than an actual human, and then there's her half sister whom she's hardly ever met (who turns out to be, well, icky).

Oh, let's not forget that Camille isn't all that tightly wrapped herself. She's recently had an extended sleepover in a psych hospital for reasons that are revealed as the story slithers along.

Camille is on a budget and has to bunk with mom, stepdad, and creepy sister. She's running in to a lot of people she grew up with, digging up some rather unpleasant memories, and all the while trying to figure out just what happened to those two young girls. 

Ms. Flynn brings the reader ever deeper into crazy land with a style that is wondrous to behold. Here Camille is about to interview the family of one of the murdered girls.

I was hoping Betsy Nash would disappear. Literally. She was so insubstantial, I could imagine her slowly evaporating, leaving only a sticky spot on the edge of the sofa. But she lingered, eyes darting between me and her husband before we even began speaking. Like she was winding up for the conversation. The children, too, hovered about, little blonde ghosts trapped in a limbo between indolence and stupidity. The pretty girl might do all right. But the piggy middle child, who now waddled dazedly into the room, was destined for needy sex and snack-cake binging. The boy was the type who'd end up drinking in gas-station parking lots.

Because aren't those the kind of thoughts that anybody would have? Maybe, yeah, a little, but who wants to admit it? Grotesque and artful. This is Ms. Flynn's first novel and it isn't quite as flawless as her later works, but still, hardly a misplaced word or sentence. Every turn of phrase pokes down your spine and makes you want to hide in a hole from the nastiness that exists in people.

As a final note, the library copy I received was quite swollen from water damage. Wonder if the last borrower flung it into a puddle. I liked that the book was physically misshapen and injured. Kind of went with the story.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Buffalo West Wing by Julie Hyzy

Buffalo West Wing
by Julie Hyzy
3 stars - super cozy and light as a feather
ALR Blue - 

Olivia Paras, executive chef at the White House is in trouble again. Sheesh. It's always something.

This time around there's a new president. On the day the new First Family moves in, Olivia finds a mysterious box of Buffalo Chicken Wings in her kitchen. How did they get there? And why is there a note that says they are a special gift for the First Kids?

Following protocol, Olivia sequesters the food away until the source can be found (can't be too careful at the White House). Is there any reader out there who doesn't know the wings are poisoned? Of course they are and after they are consumed by some innocent White House staffers looking for a late night snack, things begin to unravel.

So we've got an attempt to poison the First Kids. If that isn't bad enough, the new First Lady has decided to bring in her own chef. One pompous attention seeking dork face of a guy. Sheesh! 

All the usual one would expect from a White House Chef Mystery (this being #4). Plenty of behind the scenes stuff about how the White House runs in general, and how the kitchen runs in particular (love it), plenty of Olivia working hard to do the right thing and struggling with her lack of social life. Bad guys, a bit of mystery, a couple of twists. In short, exactly what I was looking for to relax my brain.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian

Armenian Golgotha
by Grigoris Balakian
translated by Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag
2009 translation
5 stars - devastating
ALR Blue

It saddens me that prior to reading this book, I was unaware of the genocide which took place in Turkey during World War I. To simplify, Turkey took advantage of World War I to carry out a brutal plan of exterminating the Armenian people. So convinced were they that any war outcome would benefit them in the long run, that they quite nearly wiped out an entire race while the rest of the world was otherwise occupied.

Armenian Golgotha is a first hand account of the years 1915-1918 in Turkey. Written by an Armenian cleric, it chronicles his years in exile, near escapes from death, horrific experiences, and ultimate escape to freedom. 

The English translation is quite new, having been published in 2009 after a painstaking decade of work by the translators, Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag. The resultant volume is rich and very readable, albeit emotionally draining. 

If you, like me, become easily overwhelmed by complex characters, events, and maps, do not let that discourage you. The writing itself is enough to keep you going. 

I found it both heartbreaking and astonishing to learn the abuse the human body can take and still survive (long after the soul has been taken). While the author does not turn away from sights of unspeakable suffering, he does not glorify it, nor dwell on it. He merely logs the facts of his journey and describes what is around him. It is terrible beyond belief. Men, women, children by the hundreds of thousands tortured, starved, abducted, murdered. There are some brave souls along the way who attempt to assist the Armenian people. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they are destined to suffer horrendous fates, but one cannot judge too harshly those who turn their backs out of fear for their own lives, the lives of their loved ones.

I found the opening chapters particularly chilling as they set the stage both for World War I and for the ensuing genocide. How easily a country, a people, can be turned from striving to better themselves to living in fear once war is declared, once hate is the primary tool of control, once the "others" somehow responsible for all the misery in the world have been identified and labeled for extermination.

It's a theme that repeats itself and is always lurking just under the surface. I see it bubble up all too often here, in the relative safe zone of the United States. One need look no further than the current threat of Ebola to see people tipping over the edge from rational thought to a mob mentality. 

But I feel it is incumbent on me not to turn away from the repeated acts of hatred that the human race perpetrates on itself. To deny the past is to hide from the present. So, I recommend this book, strongly, but with the caveat that it will affect the reader deeply. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
4 stars - delightful
ALR Blue

Poor A.J. Fikry. He's a mess. The owner of the only bookstore on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, A.J. has retreated into the world of books completely. He doesn't much care for customers, he only buys books he likes (i.e. none of that popular crap) and most evenings he drinks himself into oblivion. 

Sure things were better before. Before his wife was killed in a car accident, leaving him alone to nurture his less savory character traits. 

Thus we find our hero. Then, a package is left for him at the bookstore. An unexpected package with no return address that compels him to shake off his malaise and begin, ever so slowly, to move himself slowly forward into the land of the living. 

This is a wonderful little volume which centers around Island Books and the transformative power of books. Well, what's not to like? 

Interspersed between the chapters are A.J.'s reviews of books, novellas, and short stories. I particularly enjoyed this one.

The Luck of Roaring Camp
1868 / Bret Harte

Overly sentimental tale of a mining camp that adopts an "Ingin baby" whom they dub Luck. I read it for the first time at Princeton in a seminar called the Literature of the American West and was not moved in the least. In my response paper (dated November 14, 1992), the only thing I found to recommend it were the colorful character names: Stumpy, Kentuck, French Pete, Cherokee Sal, etc. I chanced upon "The Luck of the Roaring Camp" again a couple of years ago and I cried so much you'll find that my Dover Thrift Edition is waterlogged. Methinks I have grown soft in my middle age. But me-also-thinks my latter-day reaction speaks to the necessity of encountering stories at the precisely right time in our lives. The things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.

Please don't get the notion that the book itself is overly sentimental. It isn't. It's rich, touching, sometimes funny, and sometimes sad. It made me want to move to the fictitious Island of Alice and join one of the Island Books book clubs. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The View from Pompey's Head by Hamilton Basso

The View from Pompey's Head
by Hamilton Basso
1955 National Book Award Runner Up
2 stars - um, hello?
ALR Blue - nope, no animals

*** WARNING ***

Well, ugh. Dated doesn't begin to describe this book. Let's start with the basics, shall we?

Anson Page is a New York City lawyer who specializes in the publishing industry. He's called upon to figure out if there is merit to a lawsuit brought by the wife of a prolific author alleging that the (now deceased) editor had siphoned off $20,000 (that's about $175,000 today) of royalties. Said author is now blind and living on a small island off the coast of Georgia. Said wife rules his world and allows no access to her husband. 

The publishing house calls on Anson to go to Georgia and get the real story and try and spare the publishing house from paying out and being scandalized by having a dead editor who was also a thief. Why Anson? Because he grew up in Pompey's Head and getting through to Mr. Big Author is going to require an insider who can negotiate the social waters of the south. 

Well, seems that our pal, Anson, hasn't returned to his home town in 15 years. Yup, got the heck out of Dodge and never looked back. Why is that? Hmmm... therein lies a tale.

Listen, I was all over this book for the first 200 pages or so. I liked the way it kind of meandered between past and present as Anson's arrival in Pompey's Head caused all sorts of memories to be stirred up. In fact, the big mystery of the money theft was pretty much sidelined as the author dedicated page after page to tales of the old south. No problem.

Where things started to fade was when Anson's musings entered into his young adulthood. Suddenly, he's hyper focused on meeting the right girl and observing the sensibilities and gentile manners of his hometown (which prohibit certain behaviors and even thoughts). 

So now you're thinking, "Hey, that's for real and a serious topic." Hey, I'm with you. However stylistically, what begin as a lyrical journey through life quickly succumbed to the sterile, stilted story telling that was so common in the 50's. Everything is so white washed that it becomes an agony for the reader. 

And it gets worse. Anson discovers that he is really in love with the hapless Dinah, who was just a teenager when he left town. Of course she is in a loveless marriage, has always loved him, blah, blah, blah, and, well, here, how about this dialog as Dinah and Anson (a.k.a. Sonny) discuss lunch plans?

"No, I won't. It wouldn't only be lunch, and you know it. If I should see you today, alone -- "
"Oh, Sonny, why -- "
"Let's not ask why, Dinah. It's too late for whys."

Queue swelling violin music, pan camera back to show hopeless couple under the shadow of Pompey's Head. Ugh, barf.

Once Dinah made her entrance, everything unraveled. 

Now then, how could this possibly have been shortlisted for the National Book Award? My guess is because of the themes of the book (however syrupy the exploration). Throughout, people are being hamstrung by class prejudice. Seems that where you live and who your ancestors were pretty much dictates your life. Um, yup, that's been true for a while and it really stinks. 

But, wait, what about that whole embezzlement thing? Oh, I almost forgot (as, I fear, did the author) because it isn't until the last 20 pages or so of this leaden 400+ page tome that the big reveal happens. Apparently Mr. Author's mother was black. Yup, albeit white enough to pass. The payments were to take care of her until she died. Well, well, well. 

I'm not trying to dismiss the import of this discovery nor the tragedy of knowing that if Mr. Author's parentage were revealed, all would be lost. However, Mr. Boss makes little of the whole thing. In fact it only gets as much attention as required to state the facts. Done and dusted. Meanwhile, we are bludgeoned with more smarmy stuff between Anson and Dinah. So much so that one is relieved when Anson finally boards the train home to NYC, yup, he leaves her to her hollow marriage and returns to his, because what is true love compared to honor after all?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Grave Peril
by Jim Butcher
4 stars - a 3 star story, but 5 star action
ALR Blue - no animals (except a couple of Hell Hounds)

Here comes another adventure of Harry Dresden, the only professional wizard in the Chicago area phone book. Hey, somebody has to fight all the ghosts, goblins, and nightmare creatures that walk among us. 

This time he's struggling with some extraordinary ghost activity. They've gone way beyond the usual spooky stuff and are now causing real trouble in the mortal world. Some fairly yucky activities including chains of barbed wire, visible only with a bit of magic, that bind and torment their victims. Well, ew. And if that isn't bad enough, the local vampires are sniffing around and have even invited Harry to their annual vampire ball. Huh?

Bonus on the vampires in this book. They've got some extra features like slobber that causes their victims to go into a hypnotic state and bat bodies under their skin disguises. Oh, ew again.

As usual, Harry takes a beating and keeps on kicking. Sheesh. I think the entire book takes place during about a week of time and in that time Harry just keeps running into trouble and getting all banged about and robbed of his wizard mojo. 

From the dust cover:
Jim Butcher strikes just the right narrative balance between wizard and wise guy, mystic and mobster.

Yup. Because Harry isn't all "I must fight evil!" Actually, his sidekick, Michael the Good, is the straight arrow here. Harry? Well, he has no problem trading insults with demons and giving pretty young ghouls a good whopping. 

Mr. Butcher pens some of the best action scenes around. How good? Let's just say that I was mulling over one of the scenes from this book and momentarily forgot whether I had read it or seen it in a movie. It was that vivid. Somehow he is able to give just enough detail that the reader knows what's going on, who is there, the setting, but leaves the right amount out so that you fill in the blanks with your imagination. The result is fantastic. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Good House by Ann Leary

The Good House
by Ann Leary
4 stars - not the same book as the dust cover
ALR Green - some dogs make a few brief appearances

I'm fairly certain that somebody recommended this book to me. Thank you. It was awesome.

Nothing "darkly comic" that I can see here. The story is narrated by Hildy Good. She's a realtor, operating out of her hometown of Wendover (choke - see final paragraph) on the pricey north shore outside of Boston. At the age of sixty, or thereabouts, she's living a solitary life (divorced) with her two dogs. While she's familiar with all the inhabitants of the community, not many she would call friends. Why? Well, that brings us to what I believe is the central theme of the book. Alcoholism.

While Hildy as an alcoholic is given brief mention on the dust cover, it is really the driving force behind how events unfold for her. Kudos to Ms. Leary who really has the alcoholic mind down pat. 

So while Hildy struggles with her addiction, into town comes Rebecca McCallister. Hildy and Rebecca become friends of sorts, but unfortunately Rebecca has a few screws loose and isn't necessarily the person one should seek out as a buddy. 

The writing was great. Like stay up too late reading great. In retrospect, nothing particularly extraordinary happened, but perhaps that was part of the allure. As I've said before, the life one lives in one's own head is always of overwhelming import and so as rather mundane (in the bigger picture) things happen, they become as large to the reader as to the characters experiencing them. We've got adultery, lying, stealing, hurt between family members, and small town gossip. You can find that everywhere. 

Annoying nit... while the author uses the names of just about every town on the North Shore of Massachusetts, she sets the novel in a town that doesn't exist. I had to place the action in Winthrop, even though geographically it seems a bit removed from the other towns the characters frequent. I just kind of had a brain fart every time I saw the word "Wendover."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

What is the What by Dave Eggers

What is the What
by Dave Eggers
5 stars - hypnotic

What is the What is the fictionalized account of the life of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Let's get the whole fictionalized part out of the way right up front because it's a major focus of most of the reviews I've read. The preface indicates that this is Valentino's story as told to Mr. Eggers and that some conversations have been recreated and characters combined. Hence fiction. From there one is left to speculate how much fiction, how much fact, if one chooses to do so. 

I found the book to be hypnotic, lyrical, exhausting, and difficult to put down. Events that cannot be fathomed pile up on top of each other. All presented in a style that does not seek to be overly dramatic or manipulative. There are heroes and villains, but throughout, the voice of the author is kept small, modest. "These things happened, this is how I felt, this is what I did."

Valentino survives the journey from Sudan to Kenya and ultimately settles in the refugee camp of Kakuma. Started in 1992, the camp survives to this day, now host to 138,000 men, women, and children. People housed in the most desolate place imaginable, totally dependent on aid for food, water, and all the other necessities of life. It's overwhelming.

In 2001, Valentino finally makes the journey to the United States and settles in Atlanta. 

It's a challenging book, because there are no answers. The resettlement of the Lost Boys in America was a mixed success, and possibly not a kindness. To move from one world to another so different, with limited resources seems more like an experiment in happenstance. Of course the United States offers opportunity, but it is also fraught with bedevilment and pitfalls and a culture that is confounding to many who have spent their lives fighting to survive in war torn Africa. 

If nothing else, though, I feel it is important to be aware of the world around us. The very small world that somehow contains an extraordinary variety of human experience, both good and bad. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Lucky Dog Matchmaking Service by Beth Kendrick

The Lucky Dog Matchmaking Service
by Beth Kendrick
3 stars - for dog lovers
ALR Green - see **SPOILER** at end for possible caveat

If you are mad about dogs, then it's likely you'll find this book fun. Otherwise, well, it's pretty light, as in Lifetime Happy Movie light.

The plot, as such, is straightforward. Lara Madigan and her best friend run an of off the books orphan dog matchmaking service. They take in as many orphan dogs as they can to foster in their homes and then they go to adoption events and try and find the perfect match between dog and human. That's really it.

Along the way, Lara has mommy issues and boyfriend issues which all resolve in happy, predictable ways. No worries, because hardly any pages go by without dogs. Dogs walking, dogs drooling, dogs being cute, dogs being naughty, you name it. As a bonus, Lara gets wrangled into showing a dog and so both purebred and mixed breed dogs get their fair shake. 

There are also some gentle tips about dog training as well as reminders about where to get a dog (not a pet store) and how to take care of dogs that might have had a difficult time of it.

It's a nice little piece of fluff to keep in mind when you need something uplifting without being overly smarmy. 

*** SPOILER ***

One puppy has to be euthanized due to parvo. It's sad, but doesn't spoil the overall feel of the book.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor

The Edge of Sadness
by Edwin O'Connor
1962 Pulitzer Prize
4 stars - intense and moving
ALR Blue - just people

After skipping a few years of books by the likes of Hemingway and Faulkner, I'm back to the Pulitzer reading list. This was a great point of re-entry.

The Edge of Sadness is a dense, meditative volume. Being the same age, 55, as the narrator, I fit perfectly into the target audience. People who have definitively crested the halfway mark in life and tend to have ruminations involving looking forward and back in equal proportion.

Most of the book takes place in the span of a few months. The narrator is Father Hugh Kennedy, a priest in an unnamed New England city. A sudden invitation to the birthday party of an old family friend is the launch point. Charlie Carmody, now in his eighties, is not a nice guy. In fact, he's a slum lord. But Father Hugh grew up with Charlie's family and is anxious in ways both good and bad to attend the party and reconnect with his childhood pals (those being the children of Charlie). 

Events aren't really the focus of the novel. In fact, nothing much happens at all. What does happen is that Father Hugh reflects on his life and the lives of those around him... a lot. While it was a bit stifling at times, I never found it to be dull. Because here I am, in my fifties, with so much of the same thoughts going through my head. Not just thoughts about myself, but about those around me. Understanding my peers in a new light as I consider from the vantage of middle age, the decisions made along the years and the whys and wherefores. 

The writing is brilliantly timeless. Almost devoid of any historical references (fashion, technology, politics), one is left only with the musings of people being people which transcends all time. The human condition. There aren't any great tragedies, alarming reveals, or heroics, but the reminder that all of our lives are momentous, at least to us.

I confess to feeling some fatigue after about 300 pages. Not because I was tired of the story, but because the constant intimacy of Father Hugh's thoughts almost overwhelmed me. 

I don't think this book is for everybody, but for me it was pretty darn awesome. 

Here's a nifty quote that made me smile in which Father Hugh encounters a fellow New Englander who sums up New England weather rather nicely.

They say it's the tropics that destroy health, but have you ever stopped to consider who the 'they' are who say this? They all come from Bangor or Providence. Not one of them ever mentions the simple medical fact that the month of March in the Massachusetts bronchial belt is infinitely more debilitating than malaria time in Panama. It's no accident that all the country's best hospitals are in Boston, you know: they want to be close to the source of supply.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Stone Cold by C. J. Box

Stone Cold
by C. J. Box
4 stars - a very satisfying mystery series
ALR Green - happy yellow lab as sidekick

Hard to believe, but this is already the 14th Joe Pickett mystery. It isn't easy to keep a series going that long without things going off the rails, but Mr. Box has the touch. 

Joe Pickett, Wyoming game warden, and special troubleshooter for the governor is assigned to find out what's up on a ranch in the Black Hills. Some super rich fat cat has inexplicably selected one of the most impoverished counties of Wyoming to build his grotesquely huge ranch. Nobody is sure where his money comes from, but rumor has it that it just might be from brokering hits on unsavory characters. Uh oh. 

Joe is supposed to go for a couple of days, have a look around, and report back home. No biggie. Except, well, Joe just isn't the kind of guy who can look and not act and before long he's embroiled in some pretty nasty business that appears to involve the entire county. Yikes!

There are a couple of things which keep this series fresh for me. Primarily, that there is more going on than the mystery itself. Joe's family members have always been important characters in the book and this time around is no exception. In addition to trying to stay a step ahead of the bad guys, he's got one daughter worried about a creepy character in her college dorm and another daughter hell bent on taking off with a shady rodeo champion. 

Then of course there is the setting itself. Wyoming, big country, wild, lots to see. Mr. Box does a great job describing the western territory, the climate, the wildlife, and the way of life. 

So while I have lost interest in some mystery series that got off to a good start, I'm still scanning the new release shelves at the library for the next Joe Pickett adventure.