Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review: The Broker

After a nearly ten-year long break from Grisham, I decided to try one. But The Broker was not nearly as exciting as The Firm or Pelican Brief -- my two favorites and still my yardsticks for measuring legal thrillers. This one just strolls along, more travelogue of Bologna than thriller. It reads like Grisham wanted to spend a year in Italy; not that he had a particularly clever idea for a novel. Nothing very exciting happens. The hero half hides, half explores Bologna; spending more time learning Italian than dodging the various international assassins hired to kill him. Then the hero solves his problems. Well, he solves all but one very major problem. And then the book, inexplicably, just ends. Highly unsatisfying.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Author of the Day: Martin Cruz Smith

Martin Cruz Smith has written 26 novels, most of them mysteries, many written under pen names.

He is best known for his series featuring Muscovite detective, Arkady Renko. The series began with the blockbuster Gorky Park, made into an excellent movie staring William Hurt and Lee Marvin. The second book takes place on board an enormous floating factory of a Soviet fishing vessel in the Bering Sea. In the third, Renko is back in Russia as the Soviet Union crumbles. Then he is off to Cuba, followed by post-disaster Chernobyl, before returning to Putin's Russia.

The series, in publication order:

Gorky Park (1981)

Polar Star (1989)

Red Square (1992) (reviewed here)

Havana Bay (1999)

Wolves Eat Dogs (2004)

Stalin's Ghost (2007)

Three Stations (2011)

The books are moody, grim, and action-packed. Smith absolutely nails the gritty disappointments of Soviet life. I have read them all except the last one. 


This list was last updated on April 19, 2012.

Red Square was the "red" book for the 2009 Colorful Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: The Stettheimer Dollhouse

"Among the many wonderful objects in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, one of the most fascinating is the Stettheimer Dollhouse, made between 1916 and 1935 by Carrie Walter Stettheimer." -- The Stettheimer Dollhouse, Sheila W. Clark, Ed. I love it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Review of the Day: Basil's Dream

Basil’s Dream by Christine Hale has all the makings of a National Book Award winner. That is not to say that it is the most lively or approachable book around, but it has the necessary ingredients: an interesting hook, a complex plot, multi-dimensional characters in complicated relationships, big ideas with some moral ambiguity, and literary merit.

The hook is setting the story in Bermuda in the months shortly after 9/11, when the lack of American tourists and global insecurity wreaked havoc on the island’s economy. Racial tensions run high after the unsolved murders of two black men and an attack on a prominent member of the island’s British community. Labor strikes, arson, graft, and corruption are all painted into the backdrop of Hale’s story.

The complex plot centers on the Langston family – American ex-patriots taking advantage of the island’s lenient corporate policies. As cranky Darrell Langston struggles to get a new insurance company up and running, Lucy struggles to create a home for the family and salvage their marriage, and their 12-year-old son Peyton just struggles. Meanwhile, Marcus Passjohn, the liberal Opposition Leader and favorite son of the island’s black population, has lost his grip on the political situation, as well on his half-white son. Close to being framed for the unsolved murders, miserable over his inability to accomplish anything politically, and fed up with his trouble-making child, Marcus finds solace in his rapidly accelerating relationship with Lucy.

While not as thorny as the affair between Marcus and Lucy, none of the relationships among the characters are simple, as Hale weaves in island history, cultural variances, and racial identity. The characters are fully developed, and no one is all good or all bad. Even the hard-charging, self-centered Darrell is more than the stereotypical corporate husband who is such an ass that he deserves to be cheated on. Hale shows Darrell some sympathy, just as she does not shy away from the damage caused by Marcus and Lucy’s affair.

Hale tackles big topics like lingering racism, post-colonial politics, corporate globetrotting, child rearing, and adultery. Sometimes her ideas get a little muddled in nuance, the specifics lost in the overall atmosphere, but give her credit for aiming beyond simply an exciting plot. Lucy sums up the sort of ideas that both give the story depth and leave final conclusions vague:
We all tell ourselves stories about our lives . . . and the telling, so we think, makes them true. Our dreams are another story, and we call them lies. But dreams happen and life happens, both true stories while we’re inside them. More than one truth at the same time is paradox, and paradox, inhabited, transforms us. Always at all times there are as many truths as there are people living lives, as many dreams as dreamers.
Hale knows how to turn a phrase. But her book demonstrates more literary merit than merely elegant phrasing. She competently uses all the tools of a good writer – her characters speak with individualized voices, the dialog is realistic, not wooden, transitions are smooth, the overall pacing is appropriate, and the loose ends get tied. These details can be hurdles in a first novel, but Hale takes them effortlessly. It is the quality of workmanship as well as the complexity of the story that set Basil’s Dream apart. This is a first novel that deserves recognition.  


Internet Review of Books

(If you would like your review to be linked here, please leave a comment with your link and I will add it.)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Powell's Indiespensable Program

Thanks go to Reading Local for introducing me to Powell's "Indiespensable" program. Every six weeks, participants receive a package from Powell's containing a signed first edition of what Powell's considers to be a "best new book" -- usually from an independent publisher. Also included are "exciting surprises: bonus DVDs or CDs, prepublication copies of books we're looking forward to, mugs, posters, chocolate . . ." How wonderful! All for $39.95, which includes shipping in the US. I signed up for the next three shipments, but I hope to continue. I have been hoping Powell's would start some kind of program like this ever since I moved back to Portland from San Francisco two years ago and gave up my membership in Book Passage's First Editions Club. I'm already behind, since it looks like Powell's started this more than a year ago -- I wasn't paying enough attention. Thank goodness Reading Local is here to fill me in!

Quote Quiz

"I would hate to see legalized gambling in [our state], nor do I favor a lottery. We ought to finance the state by the strength of our people and not by their weaknesses." Who said this? This quote really struck me because my state, Oregon, depends so much on the lottery and video poker for revenue, at the same time we have double-digit unemployment and a struggling economy. Free choice and all that, I know. No one forces anyone to buy a lottery ticket or play video poker. But in hard times, it seems particularly insidious for the state to sponsor the tantalizing idea of easy riches in order to fill the public coffers. Maybe I should have called this post Soapbox Sunday.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: Red Square

"In Moscow, the summer night looks like fire and smoke." -- Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith This is the "red" book on my Colorful Reading Challenge list. Before May 1, when I dive into the three books I'm reading for my own Battle of the Prizes challenge, I want to make a little headway on my Colorful list. Also, I am looking forward to an entertaining mystery after finishing the excellent but dense Basil's Dream. Hey . . . if Rebecca at Lost in Books counted wall paint colors, that one would count as a Colorful book too!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Blog Interview: Bookphilia

In addition to skillful, substantive reviews of mostly "classic" books, updates on her French Literature Project, and ruminations on running her own book store, Colleen at Bookphilia hosts a sporadic feature called "The Reading Lamp" profiling fellow book lovers and bloggers. In Q &A format, these "interviews" are entertaining and completely suck me in every time one pops up. I am excited to be the subject of Colleen's current Reading Lamp interview. She posted it today. What fun to be a part of such a creative endeavor! Please visit Bookphilia and browse through earlier Reading Lamp interviews and Colleen's wonderful posts. She welcomes requests to participate -- just leave her a comment. Thanks Colleen!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Challenge: Sunshine Smackdown -- Battle of the Prizes

May 1, 2009 to September 7, 2009
No time like Spring and Summer
to catch up on prize-winners!

This challenge pits winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction against the winners of the National Book Award. Does one prize have higher standards than the other? Pick better winners? Provide more reading entertainment or educational value? Maybe challenge participants will be able to answer these and more questions – maybe they will simply read three great books!


Chose three books that you have not read before:

1) One that won both the Pulitzer and the National (here is a list of double dippers);
2) One that won the Pulitzer but not the National (Pulitzer winners are here); and
3) One that won the National but not the Pulitzer (National winners are here).

OPTION: For those who have already read all six of the double-dippers, or otherwise do not want to read one of those six, pick two Pulitzer winners and two National winners for a total of four books.

Read all books between May Day and Labor Day. Overlap with other challenges is allowed -- and encouraged! The Pulitzer Project and The National Book Award Project are logical crossovers. The great thing is, for those working on both these lists, completing the challenge means reading three books, but crossing four items off the lists.

Please sign up here by leaving a link to your post in a comment, or the list of your three choices in the comment. I will add the links to the participant list in this post. As you progress, please let us know with progress reports and reviews.

My three choices are:

1) The Fixer by Bernard Malamud as my choice for double dipper;
2) Advise and Consent by Allen Drury as my Pulitzer winner; and
3) Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth as my National.

I chose these three because they have all been on my TBR shelf for quite a while and they all have that Mid-Century feel to them. I plan to "compare and contrast" the three.


Tip of the Iceberg
half of Hotch Pot Cafe (J.G.'s wrap up post is here)
Book Psmith
Obsessed Reader
Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Regular Rumination
It's all about me (time)
Joy's Blog
Remember to Breathe
chaotic compendiums
Living Life and Reading Books

Sophie's Choice on Chaotic Compendiums
The Optimist's Daughter on Joy's Blog
Middle Passage on Living Life and Reading Books
Advise and Consent on Rose City Reader
Empire Falls on Chaotic Compendiums
Gilead on Tip of the Iceberg
Olive Kitteridge by J.G. on Hotch Pot Cafe
The Fixer on Rose City Reader
The Fixer on Hotch Pot Cafe
The Great Fire also on Hotch Pot Cafe
The Magic Barrel on Book Psmith
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter on Chaotic Compendiums
The Fixer on Book Psmith


Update: Pulitzer Prize

The 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to Olive Kitteridge, a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Strout. The up-to-date list of winners is here. As always, others working on this list are welcome to send me a link to their progress reports and I will add the link to my list post.

List: Pulitzer Prize/National Book Award Crossovers

A handful of books have won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award -- the two heavyweights of American literature.

These double-dippers are:

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx;

The Color Purple by Alice Walker;

Rabbit is Rich by John Updike;

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud;

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter; and

A Fable by William Faulkner.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Challenge of a Challenge

I have a couple of idea for reading challenges that I want to host. I'm still pondering the details, but my ideas involve using my Must Read lists, maybe in some comparative manner. I wouldn't duplicate existing challenges. But there are so many questions I have! I am challenge challenged. Please help! I would greatly appreciate any information you can share or resources you can direct me to regarding at least the following: 1) Is it acceptable or advisable to start a challenge mid-year? Most challenges start in January -- will it work to launch a new challenge in May? Would it be better to limit the number of books? Like maybe five or even three? Or do I have to wait until next year? 2) How do I make a button for my challenge? Everyone has such cute buttons and I am stumped. I'm talking basics -- like how to add text to a picture. I could do it as a Word document (Word is my only computer "tool" so I can do just about anything with it), but I don't think that will work as a blog button. Are there any on-line instructions available? 3) Assuming I can figure out how to make the button, how do I make the button into a link? I don't want someone to click on the button and have it simply open as a picture. I like the kind of buttons that people participating in the challenge can add to their own blogs. 4) The big question: What if I host a challenge and nobody comes? To avoid ignominy, could I then sign up imaginary participants? What about my cat and immediate family members? 5) With that in mind, what are the best ways to let people know about my challenge? Like I said, I'd appreciate any guidance. I don't want to be a challenge dunce!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Review of the Day: Crusader's Cross

James Lee Burke is one of the best, but I think his more recent books sometimes rehash the plots of some of the other ones. Crusader's Cross felt like I had read it all before: Dave Robicheaux acts holier than thou, Clete Purcell beats someone up, a shoot out in a hunting cabin on stilts, colorful mob characters, a drunk/insane lady hits on Dave, a serial killer, Dave's wife is kidnapped, the three-legged raccoon . . . .

It is like all the components are on the computer and a program rearranges them, picks new names, and prints it out. Maybe Roald Dahl was right -- these books are all written by the Great Automatic Grammatizator!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Update of the Day: Followers

I finally figured out how to add the little gadget to show who follows my blog. Since I really do appreciate the people who now only read this blog but took the time to become an official "follower," I added the gadget over on the right-hand side. Thanks followers!

List of the Day: Portland Bookstores

Gabe at Reading Local has compiled a list of Portland area bookstores, complete with links to their websites. This is a terrific resource for local Portland readers as well as visiting bibliophiles. It is also expandable, as Gabe will add a missing bookstore if you leave a comment for him. Thanks Gabe!

What a Lovely Award!

I am tickled that Rebecca at Lost in Books gave me this One Lovely Blog Award. Pretty exciting for someone whose visual art talent doesn't get much past color coordination. Thanks Rebecca!

Friday, April 17, 2009

List: The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction is the now the name for the award formerly known as the Orange Prize for Fiction. The prize is awarded to the woman who, in the opinion of the judges, has written the best, eligible full-length novel in English.

Something rubs me the wrong way about prizes based on gender (or race, for that matter) because they suggest an inability to compete in an open field. But that does not stop me from appreciating that the winners may well be very good books, worth reading.

I am particularly interested in reading reviews of these books, so if anyone is working on this list, please leave a comment with the link to your reviews or progress posts and I will include your link in this post.

So far, I have read six of the winners. Those I have read are in red; those on my TBR shelf are in blue.

2017 Naomi Alderman, The Power

2016 Lisa McInerne, The Glorious Heresies

2015 Ali Smith, How to be Both

2014 Eimear McBride, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing

2013 A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven

2012 Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles

2011 Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife

2010 Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna

2009 Marilynne Robinson, Home

2008 Rose Tremain, The Road Home

2007 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun

2006 Zadie Smith, On Beauty (reviewed here)

2005 Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin

2004 Andrea Levy, Small Island (reviewed here)

2003 Valerie Martin, Property

2002 Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (reviewed here)

2001 Kate Grenville, The Idea of Perfection (reviewed here)

2000 Linda Grant, When I Lived in Modern Times

1999 Suzanne Berne, A Crime in the Neighborhood

1998 Carol Shields, Larry's Party

1997 Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

1996 Helen Dunmore, A Spell of Winter

Last updated on April 4, 2018.


The Orange Prize Project is no longer active, but has reviews of winners of this prize, as well as books that make the long list and short list, through 2013.

Hotchpot Cafe's progress list

If you are reading these books, please leave comments with links to related posts and I will list them here.

Internet Review of Books

The April edition of The Internet Review of Books is out -- it has taken me almost a year to figure out that they publish on the 15th of each month, not the first. The IRB keeps getting better and better, qualitatively and quantitatively. There are 14 non-fiction reviews and seven fiction reviews this month, plus an interview with Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, and a selection of Brief Reviews. I am pleased as punch that my review of Towers of Gold is included in such a fine selection.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Author of the Day: Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is the author of 18 novels, most of which are set in Baltimore. Tyler was born in Minneapolis in 1941 and still lives in Baltimore. She won a Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons, but is probably best known for The Accidental Tourist because it was made into a major film with William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and Geena Davis.

I came late to Tyler’s novels, after randomly grabbing the audio version of Digging to America off the library shelf. I was hooked immediately. Her stories are about real people and, while not rip-roaring exciting, are completely engaging – like finding out that your neighbors’ ordinary lives are really very interesting.

Those I have read are in red. Those on my TBR shelf are in blue. I plan to read all of her books eventually.

If Morning Ever Comes

The Tin Can Tree

A Slipping-Down Life

The Clock Winder

Celestial Navigation

Searching for Caleb

Earthly Possessions

Morgan's Passing

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

The Accidental Tourist

Breathing Lessons (reviewed here; Pulitzer Prize)

Saint Maybe

Ladder of Years

A Patchwork Planet

The Amateur Marriage

Back When We Were Grownups

Digging to America

Noah’s Compass

The Beginner's Goodbye


(If you have reviewed any of Anne Tyler's books and would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)


Last updated October 4, 2012.

Book Blogger Retreat

Trish at Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'? is organizing a "Book Blogger Retreat" for July 18 - 19. This sounded like a lot of fun to me, and when she proposed meeting here in the Rose City, I jumped right on her bandwagon. Details are available here. It sounds like it is going to be a low-key but enjoyable weekend spent visiting Powell's (the City of Books), poking around Portland, and getting to know fellow book bloggers. If you are interested, please visit H.L.W.R. and leave a comment for Trish.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review: The Letter from Death

In The Letter from Death, Lillian Moats personifies Death as the author of a letter explaining how a historical misperception of death has created all kinds of problems for mankind. This literary device allows Moats to deliver her secular, pacifist harangue while hiding behind a façade of Art - maybe no one would be interested in listening to Moats's opinions on war and psychology, but they will listen to the Grim Reaper.

Laced with macabre drawings by her son and pages devoted to pithy pull-out quotes, The Letter from Death fills only 128 well-spaced pages. Nonetheless, Moats manages to pack in a lot, presenting the following case:
  • Humans have always feared death, so they invented the concept of Hell to explain the afterlife. But Hell does not exist, as proven by the silly attempts people make to describe it. Nonetheless, because people are afraid of going to Hell when they die, they try to protect themselves from death with bigger and more complicated weapons, which has only lead to continuous warfare - a state of Hell on Earth.
  • But people do not really like killing each other, even soldiers fighting in wars. They are manipulated into fighting wars by human concepts of good and evil - "good" being the label humans misleadingly apply to "purity," the conceptual opposite of evil. By learning to value purity, people come to hate "The Other," which is then considered "evil" and made the object of destruction through war.
  • Individuals are willing to fight in wars because, as children, they are not properly nurtured - they are weaned too early and taught to suppress negative emotions, such as anger, frustration, and humility. These pent up emotions lead to hostility and violence. If we were to nurture children better, we would end hostility and could turn our attention to saving the planet. Why can't we all just get along?
  • Oh, and by the way, there is no Heaven either. You are here, you die, you melt back into the cosmos. You are like a wave on the shore. Get over it.
Wow. Those are some pretty big ideas for a little book. While one might consider tempering criticism with a qualifying, "I'm no theologian, but . . . ", why bother? Moats is no theologian either, and that did not slow her down.

Judging from the hefty bibliography at the back of the book, Moats read a lot in preparation for writing her own book. But conspicuously absent from her list of source material are any holy texts - it seems no Bible, Torah, or Koran informed her decision to reject all religious tradition concerning death and the afterlife. Nor did she read theology, philosophy, political science, or history books. What she read were a lot of sociology and anthropology materials, mostly of the traditionally leftist variety.

It is not just that there are holes in Moats's arguments; there is no argument in her arguments. She just presents these enormous conclusions - in overwrought language - that she admits in her later notes depend on selectivity, sarcasm, "purposeful reductionism," and a "biting tone." It would be one thing if Moats presented a fully developed case; it is another to have conclusions presented as facts from a snarky Death persona claiming to have acquired its wisdom by sucking in the last breath from every dying person throughout time.

For instance, her whole premise is that humans created war out of fear of Hell, but this premise completely ignores the concept of Heaven as a motivating force, or at least a consolation. What about wars fought for the purpose of obtaining divine glory? Whether jihad or crusade, the promise of eternal life, not eternal damnation, can be a powerful motivator. Moats dismisses the idea of a holy afterlife early on, arguing that humans never believed that more that one in 100,000 or maybe one in 15,000 would go to Heaven. That is her only discussion of Heaven until abruptly declaring at the end of the book that it does not exist.

Likewise, to avoid any analysis of how moral and ethical values determine what is "good" or "evil," Moats simply declares that by "good," humans really mean "pure." Under her construct, anything that contaminates a defined set by crossing its boundaries -- whether those boundaries are "tribal, national, [or] personal" -- is defined as evil. Thus, she argues, humans do not really fight for good and against evil, they fight against what is different to them -- if they could just learn to accept differences, there would be no more fighting. She bolsters her argument that there is no qualitative difference between what we call "evil" and what we consider to be "good" with this:
It strikes me as bizarre that you see evidence for the existence of evil only in the behavior of your own kind. You do not call violent weather "evil," though whole cities can be ripped apart by storms. You are more likely to call them "acts of God." You do not label predatory animals "evil," though they may eat alive their screaming prey. Only in deceitful or vicious acts committed by fellow humans do you find confirmation that evil is alive and active in the world.
"Bizarre"? How is the traditional understanding of the nature of evil bizarre? Moats's position -- presented by her Death narrator -- completely begs the question of free will. Acts of God, forces of nature, and animal instinct are not "evil" because they do not turn on the choice of the agent to commit or not commit the act.

These criticisms only scratch the surface of what is wrong with The Letter from Death. According to her publisher, the book is intended to be a "politically charged" polemic on "unnecessary war, injustice and self-destruction," so Moats must anticipate disagreement. But to argue the points she makes is to argue everything -- religion, philosophy, human nature, the causes of war, and the future of the planet. A book that only takes an hour to read does not warrant that level of attention.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: Basil's Dream

"From the air, through the plastic porthole of a descending plane, Bermuda appears improbable." -- Basil's Dream by Christine Hale. Lucy Langston moves to Bermuda with her husband and 12-year-old son in 2001, when economic troubles and racial tension are threatening the idyllic serenity of the island paradise. I'm 50 pages into it and completely absorbed.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Review of the Day: The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

C. M. Mayo’s The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is the historically accurate, fictionalized account of Emperor Maximilian’s short reign over Mexico in the 1860s.

Mayo’s hook is Maximilian’s “adoption” of the half-American grandson of the first Emperor of Mexico, General Agustín de Iturbide. The childless Maximilian makes the toddler his “heir apparent” to help shore up Mexican support for his French-backed regime, bribing the parents with pensions and promises of aristocratic lives in Paris – a bargain the Inturbides soon regret.

But the book is more than simply the story of the Iturbide family. It encompasses Maximilian’s entire, brief reign, from his forced relinquishment of family rights as a Hapsburg and Archduke of Austria when he accepted the Mexican crown from Louis Napoleon, to his wife Charlotte’s crack up, and his ultimate defeat at the hands of Mexican nationalists.

Mayo spent years researching the story of Maximilian and the Inturbides, focusing on obscure primary source materials stashed away in historical archives. The underlying story is fascinating. It is one thing to have a general understanding that the French were meddling around in Mexico the same time America was fighting its Civil War and the Prussians were vying with France for power in Europe. It is another thing to have all those moving parts come together in a coherent, entertaining novel that weaves the personal in with the political.

As Mayo explains in the Epilogue, she chose to write the story as fiction because:
I wanted to tell it true, which means, of course, getting the facts as straight as possible but also, and this was the most interesting to me, telling an emotional truth. Why did Alice, Angel, Pepa, Maximilian, and Charlotte do what they did? Who encouraged and supported them, and who criticized, intimidated, and frustrated them – and for what motives? The answer is not only in historical and political analysis, but in their hearts, and the hearts of others can only be experienced with the imagination, that is, through fiction.
Mayo tells the story from the perspective of several characters, from Maximilian and Charlotte down to illiterate servants and even the toddler Agustín himself. This is an effective technique for layering details and pulling the most out of every aspect of the tale. But the continuous switching around made it difficult to become completely absorbed in the story.

Despite this and a few other minor flaws – the diplomatic maneuvering got a little repetitive and the ending was rushed – The Last Prince deserves attention. It is an ambitious book for tackling such a complicated little sliver of history, and Mayo brings her historic characters to life with a compelling story for a modern audience.


Savvy Verse & Wit
Medieval Bookworm

(Please leave a comment with a link if you would like your review posted here.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Review: The Innocent

Ian McEwan may now be the hottest thing going, but his earlier books are hit or miss. The Company of Strangers? Creepy. The Cement Garden? Disturbing. The dexterous elegance of books like Amsterdam and On Chesil Beach were still a long ways off.

His 1990 novel, The Innocent, is a flawed but absorbing transition between McEwan’s earlier works and the later novels.

The book is set in post-war, pre-wall Berlin, where 25-year-old Leonard Marnham is a British post office technician assigned to a secret spy mission (based on an actual Anglo-American joint spy effort). He falls in love with Maria Eckdorf, a German divorcee, five years older than him.

When things go wrong, they go horribly, sickeningly wrong. Yet McEwan deftly shows how each step down the slippery slope was justifiable and even necessary for the two lovers. Despite the violence, this is a love story. McEwen uses violent tragedy to speed up the natural termination of the romantic, passionate phase of the couple’s relationship. Unfortunately, his gruesomely accurate descriptions distract the reader from McEwan’s astute examination of the male/female dynamic.

Still, although moved along by espionage and homicide, it is the bigger themes of romantic love and the nature of intimacy – not the events of the plot – that are the core of the book.


(Please leave a comment with a link if you would like your review posted here.)

Friday, April 10, 2009


Good Friday! I have always loved Easter weekend, especially when my family gathers to host its traditional "Waifs and Strays" party, which will be at my house this year. But I even loved Easter the years Hubby and I spent it alone in San Francisco (the highlight being the year we opted for Easter jazz service at the Church of St. John Coltrane). Out of nostalgia for my favorite Easter parties -- and blog posts of one year ago -- I think I will make a batch of Silver Palate Toffee Bars. But family, friends, and even toffee bars won't change the fact that it is going to be FREEZING here in the Rose City this weekend. At least the forecast no longer calls for snow like it did yesterday, but the low temperature is supposed to get below freezing. Yikes! My Easter bonnet will have to be a wool ski cap! So when my friend Mike Brown sends me articles like this one about his vacation rental and concierge business in Costa Rica I wonder how one web-footed friend from the Pacific Northwest ends up living in a vacation paradise and I end up bundled in fleece on Easter weekend? The closest I will be to tropical sunshine is cracking the cover on Basil's Dream, set in Bermuda. And maybe the family can start a new tradition of Easter mai tais.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

List: The Well-Stocked Bookcase

In celebration of its 60th anniversary, The Book of the Month Club compiled a list of 60 American novels, published between 1926 and 1986, whose "impact still endures — novels that have changed how we Americans talk, think, write, feel and see ourselves." The club published its recommendations in a book called The Well-Stocked Bookcase.

(They have since updated the list with a new edition, expanded to 72 books through 1998.  I've stuck with the original.)

The list is in chronological order. Trilogies are listed as one book, by the date of the first volume. Two of the trilogies are available in one-volume editions and are linked as such.

Those I have read are in red. So far, I have read 39 of the 60 – or 43 of the 66, if you count the separate volumes of the two trilogies, U.S.A. and Studs Lonigan. Those currently on my TBR shelf are in blue, although I intend to get to them all some day, mostly as they double up with other lists.

As always, if anyone has adopted this as a "Must Read" list, and would like me to link their progress post, I would be happy to do so. Just leave your link in a comment and I will add it.

Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (reviewed here)

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

U.S.A. by John Dos Passos

Light in August by William Faulkner

Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell (reviewed here)

Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Mallahan Cain

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Vein of Iron by Ellen Glasgow

Heaven's My Destination by Thornton Wilder

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson Mccullers

Trees by Conrad Richter

What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (reviewed here)

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

The Wall by John Hersey

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

From Here to Eternity by James Jones

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud (reviewed here)

The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

The Magic Christian by Terry Southern

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley

Them by Joyce Carol Oates

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (reviewed here)

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Burr by Gore Vidal

Nickel Mountain by John Gardner

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

The World According to Garp by John Irving

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Last updated on September 30, 2016.

(If you would like to be listed here, please leave a comment with links to your progress reports or reviews and I will add them here.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

More Lists Coming Soon . . . Well, Eventually . . .

J.G. from Hotch Pot Cafe recently commented on the conspicuous absence of The Orange Prize winners from my list of Must Read lists. It's not that I have anything against The Orange Prize (well, actually, I kind of do -- prizes based on gender or race rub me the wrong way because they imply, to me, an inability to compete in an open field -- but that is a discussion for another day), it is just that I have not yet posted all of my lists. Over on Lists of Bests, I am keeping track of 91 book lists -- including Orange Prize Winners -- and have completed nine. These are prize winners, recommended reading, and favorite author bibliographies. So far, I only have 14 lists posted here. Another one will be up tomorrow. My hope is to get them all up eventually, but that will take some time. And I would welcome suggestions. Just leave a comment with your favorite Must Read list. Chances are the list is already on my radar, but you never know. In the meantime, you can track J.G.'s Orange Prize progress here.

Opening Sentence of the Day: The Letter From Death

"To Those It May Concern,
That should leave none of you out." - The Letter From Death by Lillian Moats. According to the forward by Howard Zinn, "Moats uses death not as a threat, but as a prism through which to examine the most profound questions that confront the human race today." We'll see.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Hot List

There are too many books vying for my immediate attention right now. I do not like it -- I feel pressured. My plan is to work my way through this yammering stack of books so I can turn my attention to whatever strikes my fancy at that very moment. But my immediate reading future includes the following: The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (I am two-thirds of the way through and am enjoying this book a ton, but I set it aside to read Towers of Gold in time for an April review for The Internet Review of Books); The Letter From Death by Lillian Moats (yikes!); Basil's Dream by Christine Hale (looks like it could be very good) American Rust (another good one) The Stettheimer Dollhouse, edited by Sheila W. Clark (love this one); Joker One by Donovan Campbell (I've read some good reviews); The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley (this one showed up in my mailbox today -- why?); and The Italian Lover (I'm saving this for last). These are actually books that I have been looking forward to reading and that I think I will enjoy. They just seem to be ganging up on me right now.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pulitzer List: Update

I have updated my Pulitzer Prize Winners list by indicating which books I have read and which are currently on my TBR shelf. I am less than half-way through the list of winners. If anyone else is working on reading all the books that have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and would like me to include a link to their progress reports on my Pulitzer page, please leave me a comment with your link and I will add it. So far, I have added the link to Rebecca Reads so we can track her progress. Any others?

Review: Towers of Gold

It beggars the imagination to think of the sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles as a frontier town of 4,400.  But when Isaias Hellman arrived from Bavaria in 1859, Los Angles was a tiny pueblo, slow to transition from Mexican to American sovereignty. The gold rush – and later silver rush – that enticed thousands of people to Northern California and transformed San Francisco into a glittering modern city had almost no effect on tiny, isolated Los Angeles. Landing in the mudflats of San Pedro, 20 miles from Los Angeles proper, a 16-year-old Hellman set out to make his fortune, free from the religious restrictions that had limited his opportunities back in Germany.

In Towers of Gold, Frances Dinkelspiel explores the history of California, using Hellman – her great-great-grandfather – as a compass.  As the subtitle explains, this is the story of “How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California.”  Hellman soon outgrew his modest storefront, and eventually Los Angeles, going on to become a San Francisco-based banker and financier with his hand in the industries that shaped California.  Dinkelspiel’s summation also provides her outline:
From humble beginnings, Isaias had grown to be a banker with international statute, a man noted for his fiscal sobriety and his canny instincts for a good business deal. By bringing capital to the frontier, Isaias had come to symbolize the opportunities available in the West. He not only had grown enormously wealthy, but had helped create a state that was an economic powerhouse, an engine that drove the national economy. He played a major role in the creation of two cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the development of eight industries – banking, transportation, oil, water, wine, land evelopment, electricity, and education.
The book moves along at a good clip, written in a clear, journalistic style that reflects Dinkelspiel’s decades in the newspaper business.  Although Dinkelspiel is related to Hellman, Towers of Gold is no mere family memoir, of interest only to Hellman’s scattered descendants.  She keeps her eye on the bigger picture, looking first at economically significant events such as bringing the railroad to Los Angeles, starting the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the University of California in Berkeley, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the discovery of oil in Southern California, and then explaining Hellman’s significant role in each of these events.

Dinkelspiel knew little of her forefather, other than that he had something to do with Wells Fargo Bank, before she started poking around in the California Historical Society looking for genealogical material on her family.  Over forty cartons of archived materials later, Dinkelspiel understood the scope of Hellman’s involvement in setting the foundations of California’s economy.  She ultimately reviewed more than 50,000 pages of primary source material held in archives and by distant relatives – and even traveled to Hellman’s hometown of Reckendorf, Bavaria – working for almost ten years to distill an enormous amount of information into a cohesive, hugely entertaining story of California’s history. 

Despite the mountains of source material, the book has a few thin spots, mostly concerning Hellman’s family and religious life.  It could be that Dinkelspiel, in her effort to give the book broader appeal, omitted purely personal details; or that the surviving records have more to do with Hellman’s business dealings than his personal life.  But seeing what Dinkelspiel was able to do with dry economic data – making even municipal bond offerings and the standardization of trolley track gauges interesting – it is a shame to miss out on any details, no matter why.

What personal anecdotes Dinkelspiel includes are highlights of the book, such as the story of how Hellman’s family left San Francisco immediately after the earthquake.  Piling grandchildren and a pregnant daughter-in-law into one new-fangled automobile, servants following in a horse drawn carriage, and Isaias and his wife chauffeured in their new Peerless, the family traveled most of a day down the peninsula, across the southern end of San Francisco Bay, and up the shore to their summer house in Oakland.  Details such as these bring new life to the familiar earthquake story.  Which is why a lack of personal details in other areas is noticeable.

Most conspicuous in its absence – although more when pondering the book afterwards than during the reading – is a more definitive explanation of whether and how Hellman’s religion limited his role in California’s development or as a national financier.  Dinkelspiel’s premise is that frontier California was more welcoming and more religiously tolerant than Europe, or even America’s East Coast.  Hellman and other Jews were accepted at the highest levels of Los Angeles and San Francisco business and government.  At least at first. In her Introduction, Dinkelspiel hints at changes in this welcoming attitude:
[F]rom the start, these Jews were accepted an integrated into society. They were elected to public office, built their homes alongside their Christian neighbors, and became the established mercantile elite. In both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Jews were community leaders. It was not until the 1890s that intransigent anti-Semitism gripped California. And while barriers were erected after then, the Jews had already indelibly shaped the state.
Throughout the book, Dinkelspiel provides several examples of anti-Jewish prejudice, including derisive name calling in the press, verbal attacks, and exclusion from private clubs.  But other than a couple of paragraphs suggesting that an influx of white, Protestant Midwesterners “diluted the multicultural population” and that orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe refused to assimilate like earlier German Jews, Dinkelspiel does not examine the “intransigent anti-Semitism” she proclaimed in the opening pages. A thorough discussion of anti-Semitism in early 20th Century California may be beyond the scope of her book; but by raising the specter early on, Dinkelspiel leaves her readers hanging when she fails to bring resolution to the issue.

 But such criticism is merely picking at loose threads. Dinkelspiel’s book is as enjoyable and lively a history of America’s largest state as one can hope to find.  Towers of Gold deserves a top spot on any To Be Read list.  


Internet Review of Books (first posting of my review)

If you would like your review to be linked here, please leave a comment with your link and I will add it.


This was my "gold" pick for the Colorful Reading Challenge.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Links of Lists

As I find and visit so many wonderful book blogs, I see that many other bibliophiles share my compulsion to follow a "Must Read" book list. I would love to know which of you have adopted any of the lists that I have featured here. Please take a look at the list of lists below (or over in the right-hand column). If you are working on any of these lists and have written about the list or your progress, I am happy to link your post. Just leave a comment here or on my post for the particular list.

The Lists

I know that some of these overlap with challenges, Lists of Bests, etc., but I would still like to know which of my blogging friends follows which list. Happy reading!

Friday, April 3, 2009

New Favorite Bookstore: Ampersand

Thanks to a note on Reading Local yesterday, I visited a wonderful new bookstore in my neighborhood. Actually, the bookstore -- Ampersand -- has been there since last November, but I am new to the neighborhood. So after reading about Reading Local's upcoming interview with Ampersand owner Myles Haslehorst, I walked over there to take a look. Ampersand has a small storefront in the "arts district" of NE Alberta Street, here in Portland. It is as much a gallery as a book store. Or, as Haslehorst describes on his web site:
Ampersand is a gallery, bookshop & retail archive . . . . Committed to cultural preservation, we buy & sell vintage photography, paper ephemera, historic documents & collectible books. Our book inventory, consisting of both new & used volumes, is focused primarily on visual content, with particular emphasis on art, design & photography books. Our monthly gallery shows feature either contemporary artworks or curated selections from our vintage inventory. In both cases, our intent is to investigate the colliding point between now & then, past & present, vintage & contemporary.
It works. Ampersand is peaceful and lovely, with its eclectic wares displayed with the tidy precision of a Japanese garden. It is the kind of shop you would come across in Hayes Valley in San Francisco or Nolita in Manhattan. As for books, Haslehorst definitely concentrates on visually pleasing volumes. He also has a small but impressive selections of used paperback literature in very good condition at reasonable prices. I picked up a pristine copy of Vladimir Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark for $6. But better yet, on my way out I spotted and nabbed a new copy of a Taschen book called Jazz Covers -- a collection of 1,000 classic jazz lp covers -- for my jazz loving hubby's upcoming birthday. I love my new neighborhood.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Review: Bel Canto

The set up for Ann Patchett's Orange Prize winner, Bel Canto, is attention-grabbing -- an international group of businessmen and diplomats, one female opera singer, and a polyglot translator are held captive by a gang of revolutionaries in an unnamed banana republic for several months.

But despite the premise, the story has no zing. It plods along, focusing on the personal relationships among the people involved, particularly the relationships between some of the captives and captors.

The story is written well enough, but the issues it raises about the nature of talent, love, and communication are pretty banal. Not that it had to be an adventure or a thriller -- but it was surprisingly ho-hum given the potential.


If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Inspired by Lezlie's articulate and thoughtful mission statement on Books 'N Border Collies, I have re-assessed my priorities and what it most important in my life. After great deliberation, I have decided to revamp my blog -- from here on out, this blog will be devoted entirely to KITTENS. Primarily, I will be posting cute pictures of kittens. Send them in!

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