Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: The Ice Chorus

"An ocean-hued piece of silk rests over her hand like a landed butterfly." The Ice Chorus by Sarah Stonich I am excited about this one! And not just because it has a book trailer. This is the romantic treat I promised myself after reading many serious books lately. .

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Julie & Julia

. "Because Boeuf Bourguignon is meant to cook three to four hours, and it was already after ten o'clock at night. And so I made the fateful -- or maybe I should just come right out and say "very bad" -- decision to drink a vodka tonic or two while I waited." Julie & Julia by Julie Powell I'm about halfway through this and can understand why it is so popular -- it is a clever idea and Powell can be funny. For myself, I love the cooking parts, like the Boeuf Bourguignon story. But Powell can also be coarse and spends most of her time writing about her non-cooking life, which I didn't expect. Mixed review on the horizon. Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading, where you can find the official rules for this weekly event. .

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mailbox Monday

Fall is here, so we have a new Mailbox Monday picture for the new season. It was a mixed bag as far as book acquisitions went last week: The Happy Island by Dawn Powell (because Powell intrigues me even though I haven't read any of her books yet) Packwood by Mark Kirchmeier (which looks like a pretty sensational, instant exposé published in the midst of the Senator's tribulations -- I found it for $1 at a library sale) Miss Gabby: Memoirs of a Country Schoolteacher in the Frontier West, 1910 - 1912 by Sue Oakes (which is my favorite of the bunch because Sue is a family friend and she self-published this account of her paternal grandmother) .

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: American Rust

Philipp Meyer deserves praise for his debut novel, American Rust. The writing is excellent – evocative of Dreiser, Farrell, and other masters of American realism to whom he has been compared.

Also, Meyer accomplishes at least two of his goals. For one, he captures the blighted spirit of the depressed rust belt town of Buell and its desolate citizenry. Isaac English is a 20-year-old genius who gave up college plans to care for his wheelchair-bound father, crippled in a steel mill explosion shortly before Isaac’s mother killed herself. A violent altercation with three homeless men pulls Isaac, his best friend Billy Poe, and their families into the grinding gears of desperate circumstances.

For another, he creates definite voices for each of the six main characters who present the story from their own points of view. Dividing narrative duty among multiple characters is tricky. So often, especially with a new author, the voices become muddied and the personalities intermingled. Meyer’s characters maintain their individuality throughout. But there are two fundamental flaws in American Rust. First, Meyer only partially succeeds in keeping the story in the fascinating gray area of moral ambiguity. He gets credit for tackling the big question of when a homicide might be morally justified. There are only a few ways to handle this theme:
  • There is the traditional Crime and Punishment method found in Dostoevsky’s classic – and in American classics like Native Son and An American Tragedy – where a crime is certainly committed and justice, while not speedy in any of those examples, is certain.
  • Then there is the justifiable homicide – self defense or rescue – that wraps up so many mysteries and adventure novels, but is not particularly interesting for launching a story.
  • And, finally, there is the most interesting method, which is to make the killing morally ambiguous. Was it justified? Was it an accident? Or was it a crime? For example, Annie Proulx sticks to this fertile middle ground in her fascinating first novel, Postcards.
Meyer’s problem lies in reaching and then staying in this middle ground of moral ambiguity. The “crime” as committed appears patently justifiable. Meyer pulls his punches when it comes to making his two young heroes possibly bad people, so it is not the killing itself that is morally questionable. Instead, it is the boys’ subsequent cover up and other poor decisions that get them into a legal bind and moral morass. This extra step in reaching the moral gray area distracts from the story.

But it is the ending that is jarringly disappointing. After struggling to drag the story into the moral middle ground, Meyer pulls it way over the line into cold-blooded criminal territory for the finale. This “crime pays” (at least in the short run) ending feels like a cop out after watching the characters grappling with moral conundrums for most of the book.

Which leads to the second major problem, which is that all six of the main characters are martyrs. Each and every one of these people is willing to give up education, careers, and personal happiness; stay in an unhappy marriage, leave a happy marriage, or forgo marriage altogether; risk injury or death; injure others; and even kill others or themselves – all for their son or brother or father or lover. None are motivated by anything but the desire to sacrifice themselves for a loved one. Self interest, or even self preservation, does not come into play. Moral codes and legal systems do not affect decisions. While each character speaks with an individual voice, they are all motivated by the same, one-dimensional force. But while one martyr might be sympathetic, an entire cast of martyrs is tedious.

Because of these cracks in its foundation, American Rust is not the next Great American Novel. But Meyer is definitely an up-and-comer. i

The Bluestocking Society
Word Lily
Devourer of Books
William J. Cobb

(Many people have reviewed this book. If you would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)

NOTE American Rust was one of my choices for the Colorful Reading Challenge and another of the books I can scratch off my LibraryThing Early Reviewer guilt list.

Friday, September 25, 2009

List: The Daily Telegraph's 1899 List of “100 Best Novels in the World”

In 1899, The Daily Telegraph of London offered its readers a list of the “100 Best Novels in the World,” as assessed by the editor and a small committee of consultants. Although compiled at the end of the 19th Century, the list is not limited to that century. Allan Massie has a good essay comparing the 1899 list to a similar list compiled by The Daily Telegraph in 1999.

I have been halfheartedly (more like deci-heartedly) working on this list for a couple of years now. Inspired by Rebecca Reid’s Classics Circuit – described as “A Blog Tour of Classic Authors” – and a lively discussion on Wuthering Expectations about “overrated” books, I am adding this list to my List of Lists, with the hopes that I will then devote more attention to it.

Those few I have read are in red. Those on my TBR shelf are in blue. Several are out of print or otherwise hard to find, so I am resigned to the fact that I will never finish all these books. Which isn't such a bad thing -- those Victorians sure did love their seafaring tales!

The Tower of London by W. H. Ainsworth

Old St Paul's by W. H. Ainsworth

Windsor Castle by W. H. Ainsworth

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin

Pere Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

A Window in Thrums by J. M. Barrie

The Golden Butterfly by Walter Besant and James Rice

Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood

Lady Audley's Secret by M. E. Braddon

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

The Deemster by Hall Caine

Valentine Vox by Henry Cockton

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Last of the Mohicans by J. Fenimore Cooper

The Pathfinder by J. Fenimore Cooper

The Prairie by J. Fenimore Cooper

Mr Isaacs by F. Marion Crawford

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

The Firm of Girdlestone by Conan Doyle

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

Mary Barton by Mrs Gaskell

The Aide de Camp by James Grant

The Romance of War James Grant

Gabriel Conroy by Bret Harte

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Elsie Venner by Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo

Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Two Years Ago by Charles Kingsley

Alton Locke by Charles Kingsley

Hypatia by Charles Kingsley

The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn by Henry Kingsley

Soldiers Three by Rudyard Kipling

Guy Livingstone by George Lawrence

Harry Lorrequer by Charles Lever

Charles O'Malley by Charles Lever

The Atonement of Leam Dundas by E. Lynn Linton

Handy Andy by Samuel Lover

Rory O'More by Samuel Lover

Last of the Barons by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Night and Morning by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Rienzi by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

The Caxtons by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

The King's Own by Captain Frederick Marryat

Peter Simple by Captain Frederick Marryat

Jacob Faithful by Captain Frederick Marryat

Midshipman Easy by Captain Frederick Marryat

Diana of the Crossways by George Meredith

John Halifax, Gentleman by D. M. Mulock

Under Two Flags by Ouida

It is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade

Peg Woffington and Christie Johnstone by Charles Reade

Hard Cash by Charles Reade

The Headless Horseman by Captain Mayne Reid

Virginia of Virginia by Amelie Rives

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

Tom Cringle's Log by Michael Scott

Cruise of the Midge by Michael Scott

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott

The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott

Old Mortality by Sir Walter Scott

Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott

Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

Woodstock by Sir Walter Scott

The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott

Frank Fairlegh by Frank E. Smedley

Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett

Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett

On the Face of the Waters by Mrs F. A. Steel

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (reviewed here)

Soapey Sponge's Sporting Tour by Robert Smith Surtees

The Wandering Jew by Eugene Sue

The History of Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Newcomes by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope

Robert Elsmere by Mrs H. Ward

£10,000 a Year by Samuel Warren

The Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell

Market Harborough by G. J. Whyte-Melville

Inside the Bar by G. J. Whyte-Melville

East Lynne by Mrs Henry Wood

Last updated on July 17, 2016.


Wuthering Expectations
My Reader's Block

If you have adopted this list, please leave a comment with a link to any related posts -- progress reports, reviews, similar or personal lists, etc. -- and I will add the link below.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

How Sad!

. This week's Booking Through Thursday question asks what is the saddest book you have read recently. I'll go with Suite Francaises by Irene Némirovsky. The book includes two novellas set in occupied France during WWII. Both are compelling and polished stories, and not terribly sad in and of themselves. What makes the book so sad is that it does not contain the last three novellas that Némirovsky had planned for the series. Némirovsky was a Russian-born Jew who converted to Catholicism and lived in France, where she was a popular novelist and prominent figure on the Parisian literary arts scene. She had completed only the first two manuscripts before she was captured by the Nazis in 1942 and died in Auschwitz at 39. Her daughters, who escaped capture, were too traumatized by their mother's death to look at the manuscript she had left behind. Suite Francaises was not published until 60 years after Némirovsky's death. .

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming

All Mortal Flesh is the fifth novel in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mystery series featuring Clare Fergusson, an Episcopalian priest and former Army helicopter pilot in the Adirondack town of Miller’s Kill, New York.

This is the best of the series so far, as Fergusson and her love interest – the married Chief of Police, Russ van Alstyne — find themselves solving a murder mystery one step ahead of those who think they are the most likely suspects. With All Mortal Flesh, Spencer-Fleming abandoned the 24-hour format she experimented with in the prior book, To Darkness and to Death (reviewed here), returning to a standard murder-solving timeframe that allowed her to develop the plot and the characters more thoroughly.

Both the mystery and the personal side of the story are spritely and satisfying, right up to the exciting finale.

Spencer-Fleming is doing a terrific job with this series. So far, she has come up with plausible enough circumstances in each book to get Fergusson involved in solving the mystery – a difficult task with any “amateur sleuth,” but particularly tricky when the sleuth is a priest. Also, she is building up a solid cast of supporting characters that bring depth to the series. Finally, she is remarkably adept at stretching out the relationship between Fergusson and van Alstyne, maintaining the sexual crackle between them, always moving the relationship forward, but never – so far – bringing them together.

There are two more books in the series. Hopefully Spencer-Fleming has more in the works.


If you have reviewed this book and would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: American Rust

. "He had no idea how long he'd be on the train, he'd watched the powerlines hurdling up and down until the motion made him sick. Several times they'd pulled over, sat watching on stub lines as other trains passed, hours, it seemed, he was restless and bored but there was no point to getting off -- it was days trying to get on." American Rust by Philipp Meyer. This is a very well-written book. It is also really interesting in that it captures the town and character down to a gnat's eyebrow. I can't figure out why it isn't doing anything for me. Maybe because it is so relentlessly depressing. I have to make myself read it. If it weren't on my guilt list and one of the books I picked for the Colorful Reading Challenge, I might not finish it (big words for this reader who has only stopped reading two or three books ever). As it is, I started it six months ago, abandoned it, started it again a couple of weeks ago, lost it at the gym, didn't care, retrieved it from the gym, and am now struggling to get to the end. Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading, where you can find the official rules for this weekly event. .

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mailbox Monday

I am excited about my Mailbox Monday list this week. Even though none of these books actually came in the mail, they are three that I picked only because I want to read them. No obligation. No guilt. Paradise News by David Lodge (because I am on a David Lodge kick) Memoirs of the Ford Administration by John Updike (because I am always on an Updike kick) The Gathering by Anne Enright (because I do like to read the Booker Prize winners) .

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Author of the Day: Andrea U'ren

. We have a new next door neighbor, Andrea U'ren. We were intrigued to learn that Andrea is a children's book illustrator and author of two of her own beautiful books: Mary Smith and Pugdog I know what the kids on my Christmas list are getting this year! .

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: Julie & Julia

. "At seven o'clock on a dreary evening in the Left Bank, Julia began roasting pigeons for the second time in her life." Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell This is the last of the four books I am reading for the Spice of Life Challenge. After the first 50 pages, I am torn between, "I love reading this book!" and pea-green envy that I didn't think of something like this myself. .

Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Au Revoir to All That

For years, wine writer and ardent Francophile Michael Steinberger ignored the doomsayers trying to hang crepe on France’s gastronomic culture. He dismissed out of hand a 1997 New Yorker article with the interrogatory headline, “Is There a Crisis in French Cooking?” He refused to consider the emergence of super star Spanish chefs and their la Nueva Cucina as a real threat to France’s dominance in the kitchen. And he discounted his own sub-par dining experiences as well as the accelerating death rate of France’s restaurants, closing by the hundreds each year.

But, eventually, the totality of the evidence overwhelmed his denial. The “snails fell from [his] eyes,” he explains, after a particularly bad lunch at his favorite Parisian restaurant. His “adored institution” had changed, replacing its classic dishes with a dumbed-down menu and the equally classic waitresses with “bumbling androids.” The experience forced him to consider the unthinkable idea that French cuisine might really be in trouble. He decided to find out for himself.

In Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, Steinberger opens the cupboards of France’s culinary heritage and makes a compelling case for how and why the situation looks so bleak. Topics he examines include chefs who leave the kitchen and toque behind for the boardroom and business suit; the economic and bureaucratic quagmire sucking down French restaurants and associated businesses; competition from innovative Spanish, British, and American chefs; France’s wholehearted embrace of fast food and willing abandonment of culinary tradition; the mess of the Michelin star system; the mess of the wine appellation system; the demise of handcrafted cheese and lack of support for other artisan producers; and the general malaise of the French public who seem not to notice or care that their fabled cuisine may soon be a thing of the past.

Steinberger did his research. He interviewed star chefs, rising stars, falling stars, restaurateurs, wine makers, wine merchants, cheese makers, and PR flaks. He visited restaurants, wineries, and farms; eating, drinking, and listening his way through the French culinary scene. He amassed a staggering mountain of statistics. And then he turned these raw ingredients into captivating vignettes that tell a story so much bigger than the sum of all these parts.

For instance, it is interesting to learn that 90 percent of the Camembert cheese made in France is made from pasteurized milk by industrialized producers. But it is absolutely fascinating to read Steinberger’s story about visiting François Durand at his dairy farm outside the virtually extinct hamlet of Camembert. Here in Normandy, in the legendary birthplace of France’s most famous cheese, there are only seven producers left who make raw-milk Camembert. Of these, Durand is the last one who makes cheese by hand, using only milk produced from his own cows. The only one? How can that be? Stories like this one of a lonely cheese maker ladling milk in his barn put a face on the problems Steinberger seeks to explain.

But Steinberger does more than string together individual snapshots. He uses stories like Durand’s to illustrate the larger problems -- including French social attitudes and politics -- threatening French cooking. For example, sticking with the cheese theme, Steinberger questions why there is not greater demand for products made by masters like Durand; why the French seem content with industrialized, bland, plastic-like cheese. He compares Durand’s constant struggle to make a living selling hand crafted cheese at the same price of supermarket, machine-made cheese with artisanal cheese makers in America. Why, he wonders, do Paris chefs not drive two hours to buy Durand’s superior product, like New York chefs are wont to do? Why do rich French yuppies not retire to the French countryside and start making their own fancy cheese, like so many urban refugees in America have done? The answer, he decides, is in the French outlook:
[T]hat sort of thing wasn’t likely to happen here in France; here, your chosen career, your métier, was considered your station for life, and you definitely did not give up a well-paying job in Paris to go milk cows in Normandy.
Steinberger blames the French government as much as societal ennui for the culinary crisis. He offers example after example of how politics and excessive regulation are crushing France’s food industry. These examples range from irritating regulatory details, such as a new rule prohibiting wine merchants from displaying “AOC” (premium) wines next to more ordinary vins de pays wines; to onerous laws such as the 19.6% value added tax on restaurant meals; to the biggest political issue of all, the economic legacy of François Mitterand’s socialist policies, which eroded the standard of living for ordinary citizens (left with shorter work weeks and more vacation, but stagnant wages and high inflation) and bled the country of talent as hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs (including chefs) left for more promising markets.

Steinberger is no libertarian zealot. His political conclusions are based, not on partisan ideology, but on his first-hand observations and discussions with the people trying cook and run culinary businesses in France. It does him credit that he does not shy away from these bigger issues. His clear-eyed approach allows him to provide a comprehensive picture of his subject matter.

Which is not to say that his chosen subject matter is comprehensive. Where the book falls short is in not providing a fuller picture of the current state of French cooking. With the exception of Durand’s cheese making, Steinberger limits his scope to restaurants and, to a lesser extent, wine makers. Discussion of other parts of the French gastronomic scene is missing, such as the state of home cooking in France, the condition of farmers (other than grape growers), and the popularity of food trends like “eating local,” farmers markets, and cooking shows. But this is small criticism, based mostly on wanting more of Steinberger’s keen observation and lively writing.

With luck, and hard work, maybe France can reinvigorate its culinary reputation and Steinberger will write another terrific book about the comeback.


This review was first published in the Internet Review of Books. Reading and reviewing this book allows me poke one paw out of my LibraryThing Early Reviewer doghouse. It also counts as one of the four books I'm reading for the Spice of Life Challenge. And, it is going on my French Connections list.


(If you have a review, please post a link in a comment and I will add it here.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Love it!

. This week's Booking Through Thursday question asks what is the most enjoyable -- not just funny -- book read recently. For me, Debra Ollivier's Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl was pure enjoyment, for the reasons discussed in my review. Not only was it fun to read, but it inspired me to create a whole list of books with a French connection. And there is nothing more enjoyable for this obsessive bibliophile than making a new book list. .

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Announcement: The September IRB is Here!

The September issue of the Internet Review of Books is up now and well worth checking out. There are non-fiction reviews of books about truckers, Italian spies, computer nerds, addicts, a founding father, and a ballerina, among others; an interview with Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks; an essay on "Rubbing Elbows with Authors"; fiction reviews; and the always useful Brief Reviews section. I am very pleased to score an IRB double header this month. My review of Shawn Levy's Paul Newman: A Life is there, along with my brief review of Forbidden Bread by Erica Johnson Debeljak. The IRB is also soliciting submissions for its 2009 Holiday Gift Guide. The 2008 Guide gives you an idea of the format to use. Use the IRB "Contact Us" link to submit your choices or ask questions. .

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Plainsong

. "Raymond sat at one end of the table bent over the Holt Mercury newspaper spread out before him, reading, licking his fingers when he turned the pages, his wire glasses low down on his nose. While he read he rolled a toothpick back and forth in his mouth without once touching it."


-- Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Haruf can really capture a character in a couple of sentences. Great book. Quiet, but very good. Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading, where you can find the official rules for this weekly event.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Mailbox Monday

Massacred for Gold by R. Gregory Nokes arrived in my mailbox last week, so makes it onto my official Mailbox Monday list. I am looking forward to this one, even if I have already read my "gold" book for the Colorful Reading Challenge. This short history book is "the first authoritative account of the long-forgotten 1887 massacre of as many as 34 Chinese gold miners in Oregon's Hells Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America." My list is deceptively short today, because I also got a couple dozen books last Friday when Rachelle from Second Glance Books had a "clear out the basement" sale. Wow! Mine was quite a haul, including six books from C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers series that I want to get a start on one of these days. But between my mother's 70th birthday, a two-year-old Bavarian staying in my house, and this dang job of mine, I do not have time to list them all. .

Opening Sentence of the Day: Plainsong

"Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking over the back lot where the sun was just coming up." -- Plainsong by Kent Haruf. This is my book club book for September. So far, the consensus is that it is a "sweet" book. Hopefully we can all come up with more than that to say about it. .

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mom!

. No blogging for me this weekend. More Bavarian relatives are in town to celebrate my mother's 70th birthday. We have cake to eat! .

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Review: The Last Chinese Chef

The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones is a satisfying novel about the connections between food and culture and, specifically, the cultural role of cooking in imperial and communist China.

The story centers on magazine columnist and recent widow, Maggie McElroy, as she travels to China to handle a matter involving her husband's estate. She combines the trip with an assignment to write about an up and coming Chinese American chef competing for a spot on the "culinary Olympics" team. Through Sam, and his grandfather's famous book, The Last Chinese Chef, Maggie is introduced to the culinary history of China.

She also comes to appreciate the Chinese concept of guanxi -- "connection, relationship, mutual indebtedness . . . . the safety net of obligation and mutuality that held up society." She sees how guanxi works among the people she meets, and also how the concept is reflected in China's cooking and dining. Sam teaches her that the finest Chinese cooking looks to make connections, not only between flavor and texture, but between the food and literature, art, and history.

There are several layers to the story. Like the classic Chinese cuisine Mones writes about, the book combines flavors and textures in ways that are enjoyable, complex, and often surprising.


This was my fiction choice for the Spice of Life challenge.


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

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Just the Facts, Ma'am

. This week's Booking Through Thursday question asks what is the "most informative" book you have read recently? The book that springs instantly to mind -- because it is still staring at me from the nightstand -- is India: The Rise of an Asian Giant by Dietmar Rothermund. This book is informative the way the County Extension Service Five-Year Cumulative Report on Crop Rotation is informative. Mind numbing statistics are corralled into chapters by topic, with the bare minimum of narrative thread. If I want to know which political party gained a majority in a regional election in 1967, or the percentage fluctuation in rice production in the Uttar Pradesh region, I know the book to turn to. Unfortunately for me, my obsessively Teutonic reading habits will likely cause me to finish this one. I got half way through it because it was the only book I had with me on a long airplane ride. I set it aside. But a nagging little voice in my head -- is that a German accent I hear? -- keeps telling me to just finish it because maybe I'll learn something and at least I can add it to my list of Books Read in 2009. .

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Notes on Paul Newman

. My review of Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy is in the hands of my able editor at the Internet Review of Books. It was a difficult book to review because there isn't much to criticize -- it is a quality book that tells and interesting story. It is well written, organized logically, accomplishes its goals, and doesn't have any flaws worth mentioning. So I tried to explain just why I thought the author did a good job of making a celebrity biography interesting to readers who do not usually read celebrity biographies. The September issue of the IRB, including my review, will be out on September 15. In the meantime, here are a few tidbits I learned from reading Newman's biography: • Newman really did concoct his “own” recipe for the salad dressing he used to launch the Newman’s Own brand. His Westport, Connecticut caterer, Martha Steward, judged the taste test for the original commercial recipe. • Although not starting until his mid-forties, Newman became an avid race car driver. He came in second place at the famous 24-hour race in Le Mans and, at seventy, became the oldest person to win an officially sanctioned auto race. • Newman and Joanne Woodward were as famous for their 40-year marriage as for their careers, despite Newman’s brief and tawdry affair with a Hollywood gadabout named Nancy Bacon. The affair began during the filming of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bacon later wrote about it in her 1975 autobiography, Stars in My Eyes . . . Stars in My Bed. • A “functioning alcoholic,” Newman typically drank a case (as in 24 beers) a day. A penchant for exercise and a hummingbird metabolism kept him lean, handsome, and apparently sober, in spite of his prodigious consumption. • Newman was a true philanthropist. In addition to giving away several hundreds of millions of dollars to charities, he rolled up his sleeves and worked himself. For example, not only did he come up with the idea of a summer camp for children with cancer, he designed the first Hole in the Wall camp himself, hired the doctors to staff it, and visited at least twice every summer to play and eat with the kids. What a fun book!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Challenge Wrap Up: Battle of the Prizes

The Battle of the Prizes Challenge ended yesterday on Labor Day. This was the first challenge I hosted and I want to give a huge THANK YOU to everyone who participated. To recap: This challenge pitted winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction against the winners of the National Book Award. The goal was to read one Pulitzer winner, one National winner, and one that won both prizes; to read all three books between May Day and Labor Day; and to post reviews and comments here. A list of all the reviews follows (if I missed one, please leave a comment with a link). Also, a couple of people did wrap up posts with some comparing and contrasting of the prizes. For those who signed up but did not finish the challenge, I am still so pleased that you participated -- good intentions definitely count when it comes to reading challenges. REVIEWS 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 March on Remember to Breath The Fixer on Remember to Breath Sophie's Choice on Remember to Breath Invisible Man on Tip of the Iceberg WRAP UP POSTS J.G. on Hotch Pot Cafe Mine here on Rose City Reader Remember to Breath Book Psmith THOUGHTS? IDEAS? COMMENTS? Hosting this challenge was a lot of fun for me. It helped focus my attention on a couple of the lists I am working on and it was fun to "hang out" with other list-obsessive readers. I plan to host the same challenge again next year (there are still many Pulitzer and National winners I haven't read yet). But I might expand the dates. This was "the Sunshine Smackdown" this year because I didn't think of the challenge until the spring and tried to contain the dates somehow. But I might make it a year-long challenge in 2010. Also, as Psmith guessed in her wrap up post, this was "the American version." I have plans for the British version of a Battle of the Prizes Challenge. That one would pit Booker Prize winners against . . . I don't know yet. Costa winners? Too short and too dissimilar to the Booker, I think. Probably James Tait Black winners. But I can't launch that challenge until I get the JTB list added to my List of Lists there in the right hand column. What are your thoughts and suggestions? .

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mailbox Labor Day

HAPPY LABOR DAY! My Mailbox Monday list is very short: Plainsong by Kent Haruf finally showed up after a long time en route. I have to jump on this one because it is my Book Club book for September. Much more exciting -- the book I have waited for for eight years is finally here: The Age of Reagan (Vol. II): The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980 - 1989 by Steven F. Hayward. The first volume of Hayward's two-part biography, The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964 - 1980, came out in 2001. Although volume one is over 800 pages, it seemed like a "quick read" because it is full of interesting information and Hayward is a terrific writer with a light touch. Unlike Dutch, Edmund Morris's strange, semi-fictional "memoir" of Reagan's life, Hayward's biography relies on primary source material and analysis. Hayward is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, so it is no surprise that he approaches his subject from the right, but his work is definitely biography, not hagiography. I am so looking forward to volume two. This one covers Reagan's years as President and Hayward was able to use Reagan's Presidential diaries, which were published in 2007. I am going to review it for the Internet Review of Books. .

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Author of the Day: James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke writes wonderful, literary mysteries. He has a couple of series going, but his most famous is his Dave Robicheaux series, featuring an ex- boozer and ex-New Orleans homicide cop now settled in New Iberia Parish.

The series has gone on for so long, that Robicheaux has gone from cop, to bait shop owner, to sheriff, to ex-sheriff, to sheriff again. He's on his 4th wife. It's hard to say how old he is, but he must be over 70. His three-legged pet raccoon named Tripod is the oldest living raccoon in history, since it first appeared in Heaven's Prisoners in 1988 and was still scampering around, at least as of The Tin Roof Blowdown in 2006. Just how long do raccoons live?

The series is dark, complex, plenty gritty, and rich with lyrical details of beauty and evil. Once you sink your teeth into one, you want to gobble them all up. But I have found that more than a couple at a time are too much. I get tired of Robicheaux's dry drunk sermonizing, bored by the 700th description of rain on the bayou, and as worn out by the parade of creepy bad guys as Robicheaux himself must be. But then a few months or so will pass and I am ready for another.

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

The Neon Rain

Heaven's Prisoners

Black Cherry Blues

A Morning for Flamingos

A Stained White Radiance

In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead

Dixie City Jam

Burning Angel

Cadillac Jukebox

Sunset Limited

Purple Cane Road

Jolie Blon's Bounce

Last Car to Elysian Fields

Crusader's Cross (reviewed here)

Pegasus Descending

The Tin Roof Blowdown (reviewed here)

Swan Peak (reviewed here)

The Glass Rainbow


Last updated October 4, 2012.

Review: The Tin Roof Blowdown

Sometimes fiction can make real what the news or government reports, no matter how immediate or thorough, cannot. In The Tin Roof Blowdown, the 16th novel in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, Burke describes the devastation and tragedy of Hurricane Katrina with a gut-wrenching emotional intensity that no amount of news footage could ever achieve.

While the hurricane rages and floodwaters rise, Robicheaux and his sidekick, Clete Purcell, track down the usual assortment of psychopathic deviants and lost souls, including several rapists, Mafioso hooligans, a junky priest, and mercenary black marketeers.  The details of the plot get a little shaggy, but as a historical record and ode to a New Orleans that is gone forever, this one deserves its fourth star.  


If you want your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link. .

Saturday, September 5, 2009

List: The Observer's 100 Greatest Novels of All Time

In December 2003, the BBC presented its "Big Read" list of the Top 100 favorite books in Britain. Going for a scoop, The Observer published its own list of 100 Greatest Novels of All Time – more precisely defined as "essential fiction from the past 300 years" – in October 2003.

Unlike the Big Read, which was compiled through a months-long people's choice process, The Observer list was put together in-house, after much wrangling over the nature of enduring literature as well as the merits of individual works. The process is analyzed and explained in the companion piece to the list itself.

Those I have read are in red. Those currently on my TBR shelf are in blue. The comments following the titles are the original notes included in The Observer's publication.

1. Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes
The story of the gentle knight and his servant Sancho Panza has entranced readers for centuries.

2. Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
The one with the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair.

3. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
The first English novel.

4. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
A wonderful satire that still works for all ages, despite the savagery of Swift's vision.

5. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
The adventures of a high-spirited orphan boy: an unbeatable plot and a lot of sex ending in a blissful marriage.

6. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
One of the longest novels in the English language, but unputdownable.

7. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
One of the first bestsellers, dismissed by Dr. Johnson as too fashionable for its own good.

8. Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos
An epistolary novel and a handbook for seducers: foppish, French, and ferocious.

9. Emma by Jane Austen
Near impossible choice between this and Pride and Prejudice. But Emma never fails to fascinate and annoy.

10. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Inspired by spending too much time with Shelley and Byron.

11. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock
A classic miniature: a brilliant satire on the Romantic novel.

12. The Black Sheep by Honore De Balzac
Two rivals fight for the love of a femme fatale. Wrongly overlooked.

13. The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
Penetrating and compelling chronicle of life in an Italian court in post-Napoleonic France.

14. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
A revenge thriller also set in France after Bonaparte: a masterpiece of adventure writing.

15. Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli
Apart from Churchill, no other British political figure shows literary genius.

16. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
This highly autobiographical novel is the one its author liked best.

17. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff have passed into the language. Impossible to ignore.

18. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Obsessive emotional grip and haunting narrative.

19. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The improving tale of Becky Sharp.

20. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A classic investigation of the American mind.

21. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (reviewed here)
"Call me Ishmael" is one of the most famous opening sentences of any novel.

22. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
You could summarize this as a story of adultery in provincial France, and miss the point entirely.

23. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Gripping mystery novel of concealed identity, abduction, fraud and mental cruelty.

24. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
A story written for the nine-year-old daughter of an Oxford don that still baffles most kids.

25. Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott
Victorian bestseller about a New England family of girls.

26. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
A majestic assault on the corruption of late Victorian England.

27. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The supreme novel of the married woman's passion for a younger man.

28. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
A passion and an exotic grandeur that is strange and unsettling.

29. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Mystical tragedy by the author of Crime and Punishment.

30. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The story of Isabel Archer shows James at his witty and polished best.

31. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Twain was a humorist, but this picture of Mississippi life is profoundly moral and still incredibly influential.

32. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
A brilliantly suggestive, resonant study of human duality by a natural storyteller.

33. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
One of the funniest English books ever written.

34. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
A coded and epigrammatic melodrama inspired by his own tortured homosexuality.

35. The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith
This classic of Victorian suburbia will always be renowned for the character of Mr Pooter.

36. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
Its savage bleakness makes it one of the first twentieth-century novels.

37. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
A prewar invasion-scare spy thriller by a writer later shot for his part in the Irish republican rising.

38. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
The story of a dog who joins a pack of wolves after his master's death.

39. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
Conrad's masterpiece: a tale of money, love and revolutionary politics.

40. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (reviewed here)
This children's classic was inspired by bedtime stories for Grahame's son.

41. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
An unforgettable portrait of Paris in the belle epoque. Probably the longest novel on this list.

42. The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence
Novels seized by the police, like this one, have a special afterlife.

43. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
This account of the adulterous lives of two Edwardian couples is a classic of unreliable narration.

44. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
A classic adventure story for boys, jammed with action, violence and suspense.

45. Ulysses by James Joyce
Also pursued by the British police, this is a novel more discussed than read.

46. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Secures Woolf's position as one of the great twentieth-century English novelists.

47. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
The great novel of the British Raj, it remains a brilliant study of empire.

48. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The quintessential Jazz Age novel.

49. The Trial by Franz Kafka
The enigmatic story of Joseph K.

50. Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway
He is remembered for his novels, but it was the short stories that first attracted notice.

51. Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine
The experiences of an unattractive slum doctor during the Great War: a masterpiece of linguistic innovation.

52. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
A strange black comedy by an American master.

53. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Dystopian fantasy about the world of the seventh century AF (after Ford).

54. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
The supreme Fleet Street novel.

55. USA by John Dos Passos
An extraordinary trilogy that uses a variety of narrative devices to express the story of America.

56. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Introducing Philip Marlowe: cool, sharp, handsome - and bitterly alone.

57. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
An exquisite comedy of manners with countless fans.

58. The Plague by Albert Camus
A mysterious plague sweeps through the Algerian town of Oran.

59. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
This tale of one man's struggle against totalitarianism has been appropriated the world over.

60. Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett
Part of a trilogy of astonishing monologues in the black comic voice of the author of Waiting for Godot.

61. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
A week in the life of Holden Caulfield. A cult novel that still mesmerizes.

62. Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
A disturbing novel of religious extremism set in the Deep South.

63. Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
How Wilbur the pig was saved by the literary genius of a friendly spider.

64. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Enough said!

65. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
An astonishing debut: the painfully funny English novel of the Fifties.

66. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Schoolboys become savages: a bleak vision of human nature.

67. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Prophetic novel set in 1950s Vietnam.

68. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Beat Generation bible.

69. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Humbert Humbert's obsession with Lolita is a tour de force of style and narrative.

70. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
Hugely influential, Rabelaisian novel of Hitler's Germany.

71. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Nigeria at the beginning of colonialism. A classic of African literature.

72. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A writer who made her debut in The Observer- and her prose is like cut glass.

73. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Scout, a six-year-old girl, narrates an enthralling story of racial prejudice in the Deep South.

74. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
"[He] would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; if he didn't want to he was sane and had to."

75. Herzog by Saul Bellow
Adultery and nervous breakdown in Chicago.

76. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A postmodern masterpiece.

77. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
A haunting, understated study of old age.

78. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre
A thrilling elegy for post-imperial Britain. (reviewed here)

79. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The definitive novelist of the African-American experience.

80. The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge
Macabre comedy of provincial life.

81. The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
This quasi-documentary account of the life and death of Gary Gilmore is possibly his masterpiece.

82. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
A strange, compelling story about the pleasures of reading.

83. A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
The finest living writer of English prose. This is his masterpiece: edgily reminiscent of Heart of Darkness.

84. Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
Bleak but haunting allegory of apartheid by the Nobel prizewinner.

85. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Haunting, poetic story, drowned in water and light, about three generations of women.

86. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Seething vision of Glasgow. A Scottish classic.

87. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
Dazzling metaphysical thriller set in the Manhattan of the 1970s.

88. The BFG by Roald Dahl
A bestseller by the most popular postwar writer for children of all ages.

89. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
A prose poem about the delights of chemistry.

90. Money by Martin Amis (reviewed here)
The novel that bags Amis's place on any list.

91. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
A collaborator from prewar Japan reluctantly discloses his betrayal of friends and family.

92. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey  (reviewed here
A great contemporary love story set in nineteenth-century Australia by double Booker prizewinner.

93. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
Inspired by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, this is a magical fusion of history, autobiography and ideas.

94. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
In this entrancing story Rushdie plays with the idea of narrative itself.

95. LA Confidential by James Ellroy
Three LAPD detectives are brought face to face with the secrets of their corrupt and violent careers.

96. Wise Children by Angela Carter
A theatrical extravaganza by a brilliant exponent of magic realism.

97. Atonement by Ian McEwan
Acclaimed short-story writer achieves a contemporary classic of mesmerizing narrative conviction.

98. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass in America)
Lyra's quest weaves fantasy, horror and the play of ideas into a truly great contemporary children's book.

99. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
For years, Roth was famous for Portnoy's Complaint. Recently, he has enjoyed an extraordinary revival.

100. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
Posthumously published volume in a sequence of dream-like fictions spun from memory, photographs and the German past.

Updated last on January 6, 2019.

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