Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: Inside the Red Mansion

German-born, Oxford-educated journalist, Oliver August, spent seven years tracking the story of Chinese businessman/gangster/fugitive Lai Changxing in order to write Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man.

By the time August arrived in China in 1999 as a London Times reporter, Lai was already on the lam, the subject of a massive criminal investigation by the Chinese government. August followed Lai’s trail geographically, socially, and mythically – renting an apartment in Xiamen, Lai’s home base; visiting the Lai's pleasure palace, the Red Mansion; talking to anyone he could find who ever met Lai; and parsing internet rumors of Lai that painted him as either the greatest entrepreneur of modern China, a Mafioso-style criminal, or a Robin Hood combination of both.

Lai’s story is a fascinating one, but the book is much larger than his story. Oliver uses Lai’s individual reinvention from illiterate peasant to billionaire tycoon as the vehicle to discuss the tumultuous decades of China’s reinvention as a dominate market economy. He gives enough of China’s 20th Century history to give context to the story, and he uses clues about Lai as topical springboards for examination of different aspects of modern Chinese life.

For instance, Oliver writes about popular midnight golf because he heard Lai liked to play, the world’s largest fois gras farm because Lai knew the enterprising owner, and an “underground” Christmas pageant attended by 5,000 Chinese Christians because he read a rumor that Lai had converted.

Oliver’s discussion is not merely anecdotal and entertaining, although it is both. His analysis of the political and cultural climate in China is astute, and he does not shy away from tackling the bigger issues facing the country – primarily the need for transparency in government, democracy, and the rule of law. As Oliver explains, rogues like Lai flourished because the government in Beijing needed them to change the economy while the government continued to maintain “official” positions contrary to the economic upheaval. Only when the government changes will real change come to China.  


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

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review of the Day: The Fourth Hand

The Fourth Hand by John Irving was not a captivating read -- just barely entertaining enough to drag through to the end.

Everyone has their Irving favorites, usually starting with The World According to Garp; and there are mixed feelings about others, like A Prayer for Owen Meany. But The Fourth Hand is not enough of a novel to arouse much emotion one way or the other.

Without giving away the story, it is simply too hard to buy into the woman's obsession with the hand or the man's love for the woman. And, in a very un-Irving way, there were many loose ends -- several characters with prominent parts in the beginning of the book disappear without a trace. We are told that the protagonist changed, and that the "new" Patrick Wallingford is not like the "old" Wallingford, but why did he change? And why did his changing necessarily meant that characters would disappear?

It was like Irving packed the first half of the book with typical Irving situations and characters, then got bored with the whole thing, so spent the second half resolving it all in the fastest, most simplistic, straightforward way he could. Which is the only way to finish reading it as well.


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

Friday, May 29, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: Advise and Consent

"When Bob Munson awoke in his apartment at the Sheraton-Park Hotel at seven thirty-one in the morning, he had the feeling it would be a bad day." -- Advise and Consent by Allen Drury Drury won the 1960 Pulitzer prize for this best selling novel about the Senate's consideration of a controversial candidate for Secretary of State. It is my Pulitzer pick for the Battle of the Prizes Challenge. At over 600 pages, it would also count for the Chunkster Challenge, had I signed up in time.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Oh S**t!

Here's an idea for an English major thesis: "Scatological Motifs in First/Breakout Novels by Male Authors." I came up with this idea while reading The Floating Opera, John Barth's first novel. There is a whole subplot about a crazy old man who stored his own waste in pickle jars. Which reminded me of a similar storyline in John Franzen's novel The Corrections (not his first, but definitely his breakout novel). Booker Prize winners Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre also have excrement-related scenes, as does, I seem to recall, The River Why by David James Duncan. What gives? Why do writers -- and it seems to be male writers -- feel a need to write about this subject? Does the freedom to write anything they want prompt some need to be naughty, like a teenager left home alone with the liquor cabinet? Or is there some deeper, Freudian connection between first novels and toilet training? It is not that I didn't enjoy the books mentioned (well, I could have skipped Vernon God Little), but I would be happy to never read another passage discussing bodily waste. Please let me know of other books that should be included on my list, so I will know what to avoid. And you never know -- there could be a lit major out there looking for a thesis idea who would appreciate the extra titles. THE S**T LIST The Floating Opera y John Barth The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen Life of Pi by Yann Martel Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre The River Why by David James Duncan

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

List of the Day: The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

The BBC awarded its first Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 1999. The prize "is the richest non fiction prize in the UK, worth £20,000 to the winner. . . . [T]he prize aims to reward the best of non-fiction and is open to authors of all non-fiction books in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts." A few non-fiction books are included in some of the Must Read lists here on Rose City Reader, but this is the first exclusively non-fiction list I have posted. I enjoy non-fiction more and more, but my default reading choices are novels. To remind myself to read more non-fiction, I have adopted this list -- it is a short one, the books are contemporary, and (so far) only one is pure military history. A couple, shown in blue, are on my TBR shelf right now, but I haven't read any of these books yet. 2008 The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale 2007 Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran 2006 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro 2005 Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of BS Johnson by Jonathan Coe 2004 Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder 2003 Pushkin: A Biography by TJ Binyon 2002 Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 by Margaret MacMillan (the American title is Paris 1919) 2001 The Third Reich: A New History by Michael Burleigh 2000 Berlioz Volume 2: Servitude and Greatness by David Cairns 1999 Stalingrad by Antony Beevor If anyone else is reading these prize winners, please leave a link in a comment and I will add it to this post.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Give-a-Way: Home Sweet Home

I have a few home-themed books up for grabs. No fancy rules, just first come, first served. If you would like one of these books, please leave a comment and I will make arrangements to get it to you.* All are in "Like New" condition. They have been sitting around on my shelf for a while, but not getting any attention. The Home Owner's Journal: What I Did and When I Did It This is an actual journal that you fill in and use to keep track of improvements and projects on your house. I got it for my new house, but ended up with several similar journals that I received as house warming gifts and I only need one. This is good, particularly if you are building a new house or doing a whole-house remodel, because it is organized room-by-room and includes sections to note everything -- floor coverings, light fixtures, window treatments, etc. The Complete Home Improvement & Decorating Organizer This is another interactive home journal, very similar in content to the first one, but larger in size, with more room to write. It may include more sections on interior decorating, but there is space in the other to include that information too. Attics: Your Guide to Planning and Remodeling Our plans changed -- no attic remodel for me. Lots of pretty pictures, good ideas, and practical advice. Ortho's Guide to Decks & Patios This is definitely a hand-on guide to building your own deck or patio. Great stuff, but I can barely handle a garden spade, let alone power tools. * U.S. only, please.

Monday, May 25, 2009

So Many Books! Kind of a Mailbox Monday Thing

Summer weather hit the usually soggy City of Roses this weekend, inspiring all kinds of summer impulses, like cocktails on the back porch, washing the cars, and poking through boxes of garage sale books. I found a couple of garage sale treasures and also picked up a couple of others while out enjoying the glorious weather. In no particular order: Beck: A Book by John Updike Proof by Dick Francis Enquiry by Dick Francis Forbidden Bread by Erica Johnson Debeljak (a LibraryThing Early Reviewer book) Sexing the Cherry (on Erica Jong's list) Monsieur Pamplemousse Investigates by Michael Bond (an HMD from my sister) I Was Told There'd be Cake by Sloane Crosley Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (also on the Jong list) Youth and the Bright Medusa by Willa Cather (short stories)

Happy Memorial Day!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Review of the Day: Great Expectations

Great Expectations is one of the Dickens books I never read because I was sure I had read it. I knew all about spooky Miss Havisham in her wedding dress with her moldy, spider-filled wedding cake, so I must have read it, right? No, I must have watched the dreary 1970s movie version somewhere along the line and missed out on the real thing.

Too bad it took so long to get around to this one because Great Expectations is a whale of a good read. It is chock-o-block full of Dickens’s extraordinary characters, it is clever and funny, and there are exciting adventures, like prison breaks, murders, and a kidnapping. Orphan Pip goes from helping escaped convicts on the moors to keeping Miss Havisham company before being taken up by an unknown benefactor and taught to be a London gentleman. All goes awry before adult Pip can win the heart of his beloved Estella, but he learns important lessons and all comes right in the end.

As it turns out, all came more right in the end of the version I read than originally planned by Dickens. He changed the original melancholy ending in subsequent editions and mine used the later, happier ending. Having gone back and compared the two, the original seems more integral to the story. Either way, what a wonderful book. I wish I had read it 25 years ago, like I thought I had.

Dolce Bellezza (warning: contains spoilers)
Book Psmith

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: Nell Hill's Style at Home

"We do things a bit differently at Nell Hill's, my home furnishings and accessories store in Atchison, Kansas, population 11,000." -- Nell Hill's Style at Home by Mary Caroll Garrity. I don't know from Atchison, Kansas, but I plan to spend this long weekend feathering my nest and am looking for inspiration. The letterpress card used for the title caught my eye and the pictures inside are luscious.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Challenge Progress: The Sunshine Smackdown -- Battle of the Prizes

The first reviews are in from participants in the Sunshine Smackdown -- Battle of the Prizes! Caitlin at Chaotic Compendiums posted her review of Sophie's Choice, her National Book Award winner. Joy at Joy's Blog posted her review of The Optimist's Daughter, her Pulitzer pick. And Tea at Living Life and Reading Books has put up her review of National winner Middle Passage. Tea has opted to read two National winners and two Pulitzer winners, rather than one of the double dippers. Thanks! It is not too late to sign up. The challenge runs through Labor Day (September 7) and it only takes three books to complete. Find the details here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review of the Day: The Floating Opera

Published in 1956, The Floating Opera was John Barth's first novel and a finalist for the National Book Award. According to the back cover, The Floating Opera is, "among many curious things":
the story of the day when Todd Andrews, hero and narrator, confirmed bachelor, convinced nihilist, practicing lawyer, rake, saint, cynic and potential suicide, decides not to commit suicide.
Like other books that supposedly take place in one day – most famously, Ulysses; more recently, Saturday – Barth’s novel really tells the story of Andrews’s entire life, including the loss of his virginity, his macabre WWI experience, the death of his father, and the long-running affair with the wife of his best friend.

In classic picaresque tradition, Barth uses humor and adventure to examine the most serious of subjects. And he succeeds – it is funny, primarily in Barth’s clever wordplay and in the juxtaposition of ordinary, small town life such as the old men murmuring away the day on the sunny bench outside the general store or the audience appreciation of the rinky-dink showboat vaudeville show, and the extraordinary issues Andrews faces as he plans his suicide, such as the nature of marital fidelity and the value of life.

Barth is best known for The Sot Weed Factor (which made the All Time-100 list) and Giles Goat-Boy (one of Anthony Burgess’s 99 favorites). Floating Opera is far shorter than either of the others makes for an accessible introduction to an author vaunted in post-grad lit programs but not often popularly read.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Re-Run of the Day: The English Major

While in Boston for my step daughter's graduation from medical school, I am re-running a couple of earlier reviews. This one was first posted on November 17, 2008. For newcomers to Jim Harrison’s work, The English Major is a delightful introduction to the fiction of this sometimes overlooked American treasure. Fans will enjoy another boisterous romp along Harrison’s literary highway, although the particularly jaded among them may find the themes getting a bit tread worn. When Cliff and Vivian split after a long marriage, sixty-something Cliff heads off on a mind-clearing road trip inspired by a childhood map of the United States, while Vivian stays in Michigan launching her real estate career with the sale of his family farm. Along his journey, Cliff falls into an affair with a former student, reconnects with his big shot son in San Francisco, visits an old buddy at a snake farm, and undertakes his magnum opus of renaming all the states and birds. The pages are filled with Harrison’s usual wit; curmudgeony charm; and musings on food, liquor, round bottoms, favorite dogs, and just how square peg loners can adjust to living in round hole society.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Re-Run of the Day: Wide Sargasso Sea

While in Boston for my step daughter's graduation from medical school, I am re-running a couple of earlier reviews. This one was first posted on November 22, 2008. I am perfectly ambivalent about Wide Sargasso Sea. Every reaction I had to the book is balanced by its opposite reaction: • The moody, languid prose captured the tropical setting; I longed for a more direct narrative. • The switches in perspective deepened the relationships among the characters; it was frustratingly difficult to track who was saying what and when they were saying it. • The themes of madness, alcoholism, cruelty, and love were fascinating; the characters were all horrible and it was awful to watch them destroy themselves and each other. • The connection between the heroine and the insane wife in Jane Eyre is an inspired literary device; the tie-in with Jane Eyre is a manipulative gimmick. See what I mean? Everything I like about the book, I dislike about the book. Equipoise. But it made it to both the Modern Library and Radcliffe lists of best novels of the 20th century, so the half of me that disliked the book is at least pleased to have accomplished two tasks.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Re-Run of the Day: In Hovering Flight

While in Boston for my step daughter's graduation from medical school, I am re-running a couple of earlier reviews. This one was first posted on December 3, 2008. The characters in Joyce Hinnefeld’s first novel, In Hovering Flight, fall into two teams that could be called “the Artists” and “the Suits.” The Artists include the heroine, Addie Sturmer Kavanagh, an avid birder, artist, and environmental activist; her husband Tom, a literature-loving ornithology professor; their daughter Scarlet, a poet; Addie’s two best friends; and various supporters, fans, and hangers-on. The Suits include Addie’s archenemy, a big-shot land developer; corporations; Republican Senators; publishers; college administrators; and the like. All these characters come into play, directly or through recollection, as Addie’s loved ones gather to mourn her recent death and consider her dying wishes, some of which are unorthodox or even illegal. Hinnefeld’s writing is elegant and she tells an emotionally complex, multi-layered tale. The problem is that the Artists are all good and the Suits are all bad. Sure, there is some variation and even tension among the Artists themselves. There is the acknowledgement that Addie’s “moral superiority” puts off her loved ones; that some of her ardor may stem from untreated depression rather than healthy concern; and that her fellow activists may be too extreme. But the Artists are fundamentally right in their interests and outlook. The Suits (none fleshed out as characters) range from evil fiends to buffoons. There is absolutely no question about which team we are expected to root for. Just as the issues are clear to Hinnefeld, team membership is as well. There is no crossover, except as object lessons. For example, the scientific side of Tom’s profession and character is shown in poor contrast to Tom as a writer, musician, and lover of bird songs. Likewise, although Scarlet’s first love Bobby suffers adolescent tragedy, it is his involvement with corporate America that brings him close to death – both slowly with alcohol and quickly with an office in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Bobby is redeemed only when he abandons the world of the Suits and returns to the Artists’ fold. Hinnefeld means well, that is clear. In Hovering Flight is an earnest novel dealing with heavy subjects (cancer, death, environmental degradation, art, infidelity, autism, motherhood, and suicide, for instance). But Hinnefeld offers no sugar to help the medicine go down. The book is devoid of any humor: there are no jokes, quips, or even wry observations. The book takes itself too seriously and comes across as the same sort of smug, self-righteous lecture Addie herself was wont to give.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Re-Run of the Day: So Many Books, So Little Time

While in Boston for my step daughter's graduation from medical school, I am re-running a couple of earlier reviews. This one was first posted on December 18, 2008. Sara Nelson had a great idea for a book lover’s book: She would spend one year (2002) reading a book a week and writing about it, compiling her efforts in So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading. Although she started off with a list of 26 or so books that she wanted to read, there was not a lot of rhyme to her reason. She did not have a definitive list like Pulitzer Prize Winners, or Books I Meant to Read in College But Never Did, or anything like that. She ended up choosing the books each week in a pretty spontaneous fashion. Likewise, she did not have a formula for how she wanted to write about the books. She did not want to simply write reviews of the books she read. She wanted to write about each book’s connection to her personal life, such as what was going on in her life that made her chose a particular book, personal views that made her react to a book in a certain way, or memories a book conjured. In keeping with her theme, I considered my own personal connections with So Many Books as well as the books Nelson read. As she described, I decided I would try “matching up the reading experience with the personal one and watching where they intersect – or don’t.” There were a lot of intersections. Following Nelson’s bibliophile footsteps led me through familiar territory. For example, she and I share an aversion to over-hyped books (White Teeth and Everything is Illuminated are two we both avoided), we both think Philip Roth is the cat’s pajamas, and we had the exact same reaction to Anthony Bourdain when we read Kitchen Confidential (hard crush followed by exasperation and a desire to break up – although he and I have since reconciled over The Nasty Bits). And there several places where are reading paths did not cross. Unlike Nelson, I very rarely abandon a book once I start it. I can think of only two – A Frolic of His Own and some V.I. Warshawski mystery. Nelson seems to favor contemporary novels and does not share my taste for nineteenth century books (although it is hard to tell from just one year of reading). Nor does she share my compulsion for prize winners and “must read” lists. But the biggest personal jolt I got from So Many Books was realizing that Nelson is living the life I, as an English Lit major back in the ‘80s, had planned for myself. She lives in New York – in Greenwich Village no less – where she works for a magazine and writes books. She married an interesting man at a reasonable age and has one child. That is pretty much what I had in mind for myself until, a month before college graduation, my life took a turn for the old-fashioned when I fell in love with a local newspaper reporter and stayed in Portland, where we married at what now seems the ridiculous age of 23. Of course, had I gone to New York, my life would have been different, but not better. I would not have gone to law school, so I would not now have a profession I find enormously satisfying, I would not have met and (after taking a marital Mulligan) married my adored husband, and on and on. It’s not like I sit around pondering what my life would have been like had I followed my original post-college plans, but reading Nelson’s book really stirred up some memories and a few what-might-have-been fantasies. Which was what Nelson hoped would happen. She wanted to write about how books “get to” her personally. Hers certainly got to me.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: India: The Rise of an Asian Giant

"The Indian giant is rising like Gulliver after being released from the web of threads with which he had been pinned down." -- India: The Rise of an Asian Giant by Dietmar Rothermund. This book about India's economic rise by a German scholar has not gotten much play yet. But it looks interesting and, judging from the opening line, it is not going to be horribly dry.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Review of the Day: Fear of Flying

What a surprise! I put off reading Fear of Flying for years, afraid it was just some outdated, feminist apologia. I was wrong. It is funny, charming, and completely engaging. I was alternately reminded of Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Two for the Road, and Sex and the City. Loved it!


Regular Ruminations

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Favorite Author: Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is a master of literary fiction. Some of his earlier books take some strange turns and are downright weird in parts, but his later novels are astonishingly elegant. He has a lot of years ahead of him, so the best may still be yet to come.

Listed below are McEwan's novels and short stories.  I left off screenplays and other dramatic works.  Those I have read are in red; those on my TBR shelf are in blue. If anyone else is reading the McEwan Bibliography, leave a comment with a link to your progress report and I will post it.

First Love, Last Rites (short stories)

In Between the Sheets

The Cement Garden

The Comfort of Strangers

The Child in Time

The Innocent (reviewed here)

Black Dogs

The Daydreamer

Enduring Love




On Chesil Beach(reviewed here)


Sweet Tooth


Last updated October 27, 2013.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Review: The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth is a What If? historical novel. The idea is that, instead of FDR, anti-semitic Charles Lindbergh gets elected President in 1940, after running on a strong isolationist platform. It is a good yarn, as well-written as any of Roth's novels.

Politically, the book is particularly interesting because, while the Republicans are the anti-Semitic bad guys and the heroes are the liberal Jewish family of the charming 9-year old narrator (little Phillip Roth), Roth's clear message is that it is wrong for America to turn its back on evil, especially if that evil will then infiltrate America. It seems that the lesson Roth tries to get across is that liberals can be hawks -- and should be to protect the American way of life.

That lesson may come across more clearly in the audio book narrated by Ron Silver. Silver described himself as a “9-11 Democrat” and is a robust hawk in the war on terror.

The Plot Against America is very entertaining, as much for the central story as for the side stories about being a young, Jewish kid in Newark in the 1940s. Worth reading. Or, better yet, listening to, because Silver does an incredible job.


Ross Douthat
Books 'N Border Collies

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

Monday, May 11, 2009

Review: The Stettheimer Dollhouse

The Stettheimer Dollhouse is a little gem, appropriate enough for a book about miniature art.  The dollhouse itself – designed by, built for, and painstakingly decorated by Carrie Stettheimer from 1916 to 1935 – is itself a work of art.  It is also, to its lasting fame, filled with actual paintings and sculptures created for Stettheimer by some of the leading artists of her day.

The dollhouse is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York.  The book is a small catalog of the dollhouse exhibit, filled mostly with pictures, with written descriptions of each room of the dollhouse.  There is also a preface by the museum curator, a brief history of the dollhouse by Sheila Clark, and a reprint of the original remarks written by Stettheimer’s sister Ettie when she donated the dollhouse to the museum after Carrie’s death.

What the book was not intended to provide but noticeably lacks is an in-depth biography of Stettheimer.  She and two sisters never married, the three living with their mother in Europe and New York.  Florine was an artist who only came to modest fame after her death.  Her enchanting portrait of Carrie is reproduced in the book and a black and white miniature version hangs framed in the dollhouse dining room.  Ettie was an author.  Unfortunately for her own creative endeavors, the role of house manager and hostess fell to Carrie, who devoted her energies to running the house for the four women and hosting “one of the most notable literary and artistic salons of early twentieth-century New York society."  Carrie's dollhouse was her only artistic outlet.  These sketchy details create a melancholy picture.

Hopefully someone will pick up where this book leaves off and write a definitive biography of the Stettheimer sisters. In the meantime, The Stettheimer Dollhouse is a charming introduction to this distinctive family.


Ready When You Are, C.B.
Kittling: Books

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mothers' Day!

Author of the Day: Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim is a favorite of mine, ever since I read it in college. Kingsley Amis's description of a hangover being like a huge raw egg rolling around inside Jim's skull has stayed vivid with me for years.

The Old Devils, which won the Booker Prize, was a great novel about friendship, fame, identity, and booze. The Green Man was entertaining, although veered alarmingly into science fiction there at the end. The Alteration, an alternate history imagining England if there had been no Protestant Reformation, was a quick read that gave a lot to ponder.

Amis wrote novels, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. Those I have read are in red. Those currently on my TBR shelf are in blue. Many are out of print.

1947 Bright November (poems)

1953 A Frame of Mind (poems)

1954 Fantasy Portraits (poems)

1954 Lucky Jim

1955 That Uncertain Feeling

1956 A Case of Samples: Poems 1946-1956

1957 Socialism and the Intellectuals (a Fabian Society pamphlet)

1958 I Like it Here

1960 Take A Girl Like You

1960 New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction

1960 Hemingway in Space (short story, Punch Dec. 1960)

1962 My Enemy's Enemy (short stories)

1962 The Evans County

1963 One Fat Englishman (reviewed here)

1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest)

1965 The James Bond Dossier

1965 The Book of Bond, or Every Man His Own 007 (as Lt. Col. William "Bill" Tanner)

1966 The Anti-Death League (Burgess favorite)

1968 Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure (as Robert Markham)

1968 I Want It Now

1968 A Look Round the Estate: Poems, 1957-1967

1969 The Green Man

1970 What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions

1971 Girl, 20

1972 On Drink (reviewed here)

1973 The Riverside Villas Murders

1974 Ending Up

1974 Rudyard Kipling and his World

1975 The Crime of the Century

1976 The Alteration

1978 Jake's Thing

1979 Collected Poems 1944-78

1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek

1980 Dear Illusion: Collected Short Stories

1983 Every Day Drinking (reviewed here)

1984 How's Your Glass? (reviewed here)

1984 Stanley and the Women

1986 The Old Devils

1988 Difficulties With Girls

1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill

1990 The Amis Collection

1991 Memoirs

1991 Mr. Barrett's Secret and Other Stories

1991 We Are All Guilty

1992 The Russian Girl

1994 You Can't Do Both

1995 The Biographer's Moustache

1997 The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage

2001 The Letters of Kingsley Amis, Edited by Zachary Leader

Last updated on February 24, 2018.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: The Alteration

"Hubert Anvil's voice rose above the sound of the choir and full orchestra, reaching the vertex of the loftiest dome in the Old World and the western doors of the longest nave in Christendom." -- The Alteration by Kingsley Amis In this alternate history novel, there was no Protestant Reformation and the Catholic church is the only (Christian) game in town. Church higher-ups have their eye on musical marvel, ten-year-old Hubert Anvil, as the next great castrato. Ewwww . . . where is this going?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Book Notes: Skeletons on the Zahara

It is a running joke in our house that my husband's favorite books all contain the line, "And then, we had to eat the sled dogs." Yes, he mostly reads history books and historical biographies, but his favorite favorite books involve arctic adventure, shipwrecks, exploration, cannibalism, lost treasure, and the like. So when Hubby recommends a book, I give him a long hard stare before I take him up on it. I even cross examine him: "Is it all about battles? Does anyone freeze to death? Does it involve cannibalism?" When he answered "no" to the above questions, I agreed to read Skeletons on the Zahara, his recent favorite and one he has been recommending to everyone he talks to. It sounded fascinating -- in 1815, shipwrecked New England sailors are captured in the Sahara desert and forced into slavery. An interesting slice of history from the pirate age. Now, halfway through, I am struggling to finish and I have a new question to ask before I read any book Hubby suggests: "Does anyone in the book drink urine?" I am too German to stop reading a book once I start, but this one is testing my resolve. It was bad enough to read about slaughtering a pig while adrift in a lifeboat, eating it raw and drinking its blood. But drinking urine -- human and camel, so far -- is a major theme of this book. Including a Moby Dick-like digression into the science and anecdotal history of shipwreck survivors drinking urine. Hubby owes me, big time.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Favorite Authors

Over in the right-hand column, you will see that I added a new feature -- a list of my favorite authors. The idea is to list all the authors whose works I plan to read in their entirety, eventually. Each name links to a post with either a complete bibliography, a list of novels, or at least a particular series that I am working on. So far, the list includes: Cara Black James Lee Burke Lee Child Penelope Fitzgerald Richard Ford Jim Harrison John Lescroart Martin Cruz Smith Julia Spencer-Fleming William Styron Anne Tyler John Updike Simon Winchester Right now, the list is heavy on mystery writers because if I like a particular book in a series, I want to read the entire series. But there are many authors I have to add, including Anthony Powell, Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, P.G. Wodehouse, Philip Roth. It it going to be a long list. Like with my award winners and Must Read lists, if anyone is working on reading the entire bibliography of a particular author on my list, please leave a comment on that author's post with a link to your progress report, and I will add the link to my post.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: Davita's Harp

"My mother came from a small town in Poland, my father from a small town in Maine." -- Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok. I have never read any of Potok's books, but I gather that he is the most popular author I had never heard of. Every time I mention that I am reading Davita's Harp for Book Club, people tell me how much they love his books. But at least one Book Club member was disappointed by the opener -- let down that it did not include any of Art Scatter's favorite midgets or elephants.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

List: The Edgar Award for Best Novel

Every year, the Mystery Writers of America award the "Edgar" in nine categories of mystery and crime writing, plus a handful of special awards. I'm working my way through the list of winners of the Best Novel award.

Named in honor of Edgar Allen Poe, the the first Edgar award was given in 1946 to Watchful at Night by Julius Fast for Best First Novel by an American Author. The "Best Novel" award for the MRA choice of the best mystery novel of the year has been around since 1954.

Although I enjoy a good mystery, there are few on this list that I have read. Why is this? There may be many clues, but I suspect foul play.

As always, if anyone else is working on this list, please leave a comment with a link to your corresponding blog post and I will add it to this.

Those I have read are in red. Those on my TBR shelf are in blue.

2017 Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

2016 Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy

2015 Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

2014 Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

2013 Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

2012 Gone by Mo Hayder

2011 The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

2010 The Last Child by John Hart

2009 Blue Heaven by C. J. Box

2008 Down River by John Hart

2007 The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

2006 Citizen Vince by Jess Walter (reviewed here)

2005 California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker

2004 Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin

2003 Winter and Night by S.J. Rozan

2002 Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker

2001 The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale

2000 Bones by Jan Burke

1999 Mr. White's Confession by Robert Clark

1998 Cimarron Rose by James Lee Burke

1997 The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H. Cook (reviewed here)

1996 Come to Grief by Dick Francis

1995 The Red Scream by Mary Willis Walker

1994 The Sculptress by Minette Walters

1993 Bootlegger's Daughter by Margaret Maron

1992 A Dance at the Slaughterhouse by Lawrence Block

1991 New Orleans Mourning by Julie Smith

1990 Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke

1989 A Cold Red Sunrise by Stuart M. Kaminsky

1988 Old Bones by Aaron Elkins

1987 A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine

1986 The Suspect by L.R. Wright

1985 Briar Patch by Ross Thomas

1984 La Brava by Elmore Leonard

1983 Billingsgate Shoal by Rick Boyer

1982 Peregrine by William Bayer

1981 Whip Hand by Dick Francis

1980 The Rheingold Route by Arthur Maling

1979 The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

1978 Catch Me: Kill Me by William H. Hallahan

1977 Promised Land by Robert B. Parker

1976 Hopscotch by Brian Garfield

1975 Peter's Pence by Jon Cleary

1974 Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman

1973 The Lingala Code by Warren Kiefer

1972 The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

1971 The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo

1970 Forfeit by Dick Francis

1969 A Case of Need by Micheal Crichton (as Jeffery Hudson)

1968 God Save the Mark by Donald E. Westlake

1967 The King of the Rainy Country by Nicolas Freeling

1966 The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall

1965 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre

1964 The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

1963 Death and the Joyful Woman by Ellis Peters

1962 Gideon's Fire by J.J. Marric

1961 The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons

1960 The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin

1959 The Eighth Circle by Stanley Ellin

1958 Room to Swing by Ed Lacy

1957 A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong

1956 Beast in View by Margaret Millar

1955 The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

1954 Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay


List updated on April 4, 2018.


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

Re-Run of the Day: The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

In honor of Cinco de Mayo and, appropriately enough, the official launching of C. M. Mayo's historical novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, I am re-running my review, first posted back in April: 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.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Review: Red Square

Red Square is the third book in Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series, following Renko’s introduction in Gorky Park and Siberian exile in Polar Star.  In Red Square, Renko is back in Moscow, reinstated as an investigator with the militia. His efforts to discover the killer of a black market financier lead him to the world of high-stakes art smuggling, the Munich studios of Radio Liberty, and the arms of his lost love Irina.

Set at the brink of the 1991 “August Coup” that precipitated the final breakup of the Soviet Union, Red Square is as moody and grim as all the Renko novels. Mafioso capitalists – still more robber than baron – vie for control of the fledgling new economy while people stand in line for beets and Party apparatchiks cling to the shreds of power. Smith captures the inherent dichotomies with snapshots such as this scene at the end of Renko’s interview of a suspect at the man’s Western-style sports bar:
Borya . . . dropped his voice. . . . “[D]o you think I’d endanger all this, everything I’ve achieved, to take some sort of primitive revenge? That’s the old mentality. We have to catch up with the rest of the world or we’re going to be left behind. We’ll all be in empty buildings and starving to death. We have to change. Do you have a card?” he asked suddenly.
“Party card?”
“We collect business cards and have a drawing once a month for a bottle of Chivas Regal.” Borya controlled a smile, barely.
It is detailed touches like this – as well as emotionally evocative lines such as “despair saturated the air” and “the threadbare overcoats of Soviet crime” – that create the authentic atmosphere in Smith’s novels and raise them above the typical thriller.


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

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: The Floating Opera

"To someone like myself, whose literary activities have been confined since 1920 mainly to such pedestrian genres as legal briefs (in connection with my position as partner in the firm of Andrews, Bishop, & Andrews) and Inquiry-writing (which I'll explain presently), the hardest thing about the task at hand -- vis., the explanation of a day in 1937 when I changed my mind -- is getting into it." -- The Floating Opera by John Barth. My goodness, what an overpacked suitcase of an opener! This looks like it is going to be quite a romp. Published in 1956, The Floating Opera was Barth's first novel and a finalist for the National Book Award. Barth is best known for The Sot Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, both on my TBR shelf. But I am happy to start with this one as it is far shorter than either of the others and looks like it may be an accessible introduction to what is, for me, a new author. According to the back cover, The Floating Opera is "among many curious things":

the story of the day when Todd Andrews, hero and narrator, confirmed bachelor, convinced nihilist, practicing lawyer, rake, saint, cynic and potential suicide, decides not to commit suicide.

One reason I picked this up at Powell's the other day is because the shape of the book is super cool. It looks like the cover pictured above, but the corners on the right side are rounded. I've never seen a paperback like it.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Blog Pays Off!

Well, I am pleased as punch today because I have $50 in book store gift certificates coming my way from Reading Local. In addition to keeping the Rose City informed of book-related events, up on local authors, and generally entertained, Reading Local hosts a monthly contest aimed at keeping the blog lively. Points are based on the number of comments or links to community events posted. The person with the most points each month wins a $25 gift certificate to Broadway Books, a $25 gift certificate to the local book store of the winner's choice, and, starting in May, a $25 gift certificate to Title Wave, the used bookstore run by the Friends of the Multnomah County Library. The contest is open to those within 75 miles of Portland -- so local readers, get over to Reading Local and leave your comments! I chose Ampersand for my second award. I can't wait to go book shopping!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Hooray! Hooray! The Challenge Starts Today!

It is May Day! And even the usually gray skies here in the City of Roses have cleared because it is time to start the Sunshine Smackdown - Battle of the Prizes challenge. Read three books between now and Labor Day, September 7. One book that won the Pulitzer Prize, one book that won the National Book Award, and one book that won both. Details and links to the lists are here. To sign up, please leave a comment on the details page with a link to your blog post or a list of your books. Thanks to everyone who has signed up so far! Please leave a comment here on on the main page with progress reports and reviews. I will add links and post updates as the challenge progresses. Read on!

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