Thursday, December 31, 2009

Opportunity Lost

I am kicking myself for not having a New Year's Eve party this year. I never have a New year's Eve party. But that is why I should have had one this year -- so I could send an invitation that said, "Once in a Blue Moon . . . "

Oh well, I'll have another chance in 2028.

Happy New Year!

Review of the Day: Blue River

Blue River is the story of two estranged brothers, semi-derelict Lawrence and his successful younger brother Edward. When Lawrence shows up bedraggled on Edward’s doorstep, the uncomfortable reunion inspires Edward’s lengthy reminiscence on their shared history and reasons for the long estrangement.

Ethan Canin is an excellent writer. But his debut novel suffers, as so many first novels do, from trying too hard to tell a story without getting close enough to the story to do it justice. He is like a baker trying to make bread by smoothing and tapping and describing the dough instead of really getting in there to knead, pound, and stretch it.

Several devices keep Canin – and his readers – distanced from the story. First, instead of letting the story itself give the book strength, he strives for images. His words keep getting in the way of what he is trying to say. Sentences such as, “Sometimes it seemed to me that you had planned your own life, Lawrence, that you had sown it in rows like a field, so that later, in exactitude, it would appear before you” have more tone than substance.

Second, most of the book – the section on the brothers’ history – is narrated by Edward as if he is talking to Lawrence. As shown in the sentence above, the first-person narration is directed at a particular “you” who is Lawrence. This is an off-putting technique because it is like listening to a conversation about a story instead of watching the story directly. There is a layer between the story and the reader that does not need to be there.

Finally, and fundamentally, Blue River is no more than the “backstory” for what could be a very interesting book. The history of the two boys and the reasons they have been alienated from each other is only marginally interesting, and takes only about 200 pages. The more compelling story is the one that would start where this book ends – what now? How do the two reunite as adults, given what has kept them apart for years? That is a story that would be difficult and complicated, but more satisfying for a reader. Canin may have done better by weaving the history from Blue River into a longer book that told the “what now?” story.


my review of Canin's America, America (which I liked much more)

(If you have reviewed this or any other Canin book, please leave a comment with a link and I will list it here.)


This was my my "blue" choice for the Colorful Reading Challenge.  I have now completed the challenge -- in the nick of time, since this was the last day.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Blue River

"Sometimes it seemed to me that you had planned your own life, Lawrence, that you had sown it in rows like a field, so that later, in exactitude, it would appear before you.  I wonder how much of what we knew about you in those years -- the years you moved so calmly through the world -- was an invention."

-- Blue River by Ethan Canin.

Ethan Canin is an excellent writer. But his debut novel suffers, as so many do, from trying too hard. Instead of telling a story, he strives for images. His words keep getting in the way of what he is trying to say.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading, where you can find the official rules for this weekly event.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Mailbox Monday

Last week was Christmas, so of course many books came into our house. But we are on the road today, so this post is a pre-scheduled place holder that will have to do for Mailbox Monday this week. I'll catch up next week.

When I write this (on the 23rd), I know that these three book will have come into our home, because they are the books I got for my husband for Christmas. He fancies himself a fly-fisherman (although that is a theoretical designation at this point) and he loves non-fiction adventure books:

Angler Management: The Day I Died While Fly Fishing and Other Essays by Jack Ohman

Barrow's Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy by Fergus Fleming

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: Blue River

"On a Sunday morning in the June of my thirty-first year I open the front door of our house looking for the newspaper and find a man standing out there: stoop-shouldered, bent, blotched-skinned, his hair and beard tangled, staring with the big, wet eyes of an animal."

-- Blue River by Ethan Canin.

This is Canin's first novel and second book after his acclaimed collection of short stories, Emperor of the AirI enjoyed his more recent novel, America, America, but this one is not doing anything for me. I can't seem to engage with it.

This is my my "blue" choice for the Colorful Reading Challenge. Once I finish this, I will have completed the challenge. Woo hoo!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review of the Day: How to Save Your Own Life

How to Save Your Own Life is the sequel to Erica Jong’s debut novel, Fear of Flying. This one finds heroine – and Jong’s literary alter ego – Isabelle Wing back in New York, deciding whether or not to leave her “awful wedded husband” Bennett.

As with Fear of Flying, this novel is frank, funny, and surprisingly contemporary for being over 30 years old. It is as full of insight and spot-on commentary about the human condition as the best of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike, or any of the other male authors Jong set out to emulate from a female perspective.

Not all aspects of the book have survived as well as others, as Jong herself recognizes in a new Afterward published in the 2006 edition. As has happened with several Roth and Updike novels, some of the sex scenes now seem dated and unhygienic. There is even an orgy scene (!) that inspires no fantasies other than a desire to scrub the pages with rubbing alcohol.

But the underlying issue of how to build a lasting marriage based on love, companionship, and mutual respect is as compelling today as when Jong first tackled it in the 1970s.

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

This book is on Anthony Burgess' list of Top 99 novels.
My very short review of Fear of Flying is here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Day of Christmas Romance

No book blogging today because Hubby and I have taken the day off work and are having a Day of Christmas Romance before heading out of town to join my family tomorrow. We are going to spend the whole day together doing Christmas things: He'll wrap presents; I'll bake cookies; we are going out for dim sum lunch (because nothing says "Merry Christmas!" like a shrimp-stuffed shark fin dumpling); and we'll have a cosy champagne dinner in front of the fire and unwrap presents.

It was funny to see the the reactions of people at work when I explained -- or tried to -- the Day of Christmas Romance concept. All the women smiled, sighed, and said it sounded wonderful. All the men gave me the same nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more routine. A holiday example of how women's brains and men's brains do not work the same.

Vive la différence!

And Merry Christmas!

1 Day to Christmas

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: American Lion

Jon Meacham packs a lot into his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Focusing on Jackson's time in the White House, Meacham rushes through Jackson's childhood and early years, including the 1814 Battle of New Orleans that ended the War of 1812 against the British and propelled Jackson to national fame.

But he takes his time with Jackson's years as America's seventh President, describing in readable but thorough detail the major issues and controversies of Jackson's two terms in office. Key among these were the "nullification" issue that threatened to destroy the Union and Jackson's campaign against the Bank of America. Meacham does a good job of explaining not just what happened, but the significance of the debates.

Meacham also puts Jackson and his battles into personal and national context by examining the political and philosophical condition of the adolescent United States as well as how personal feelings, events, and tragedy affected Jackson's judgment.

Jackson had deep flaws, especially viewed from the current perspective. Chief among his flaws was his lifelong support of slavery, despite his lifelong commitment to freedom and liberty. Meacham analyzes Jackson's contradictions and presents a complete portrait of this fascinating man.

Bob Sanchez's review on The Internet Review of Books
(If you would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)

This book is on my LibraryThing Early Reviewer list, leaving me with only three left to read.  It was also my "white" choice for the Colorful Reading Challenge. I only have my "blue" choice left to finish by the end of the year and I will complete that challenge.

2 Days to Christmas

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Betrayal

"He'd personally overseen the transfer of nearly six million dollars to Allstrong Security in the past two weeks and apparently Jack Allstrong couldn't find one local worker to speak Arabic to the Iraqis who needed to get into his airport?  To say nothing of the fact that against all regulations he was paying his commandos to lead offensive military strikes against the civilian population."

-- Betrayal, by John Lescroart
In case it is not obvious, the US contractor in Iraq is the bad guy in this book. So far, most of the action has taken place in Iraq in the early days of the war. But when several San Francisco murders are linked to the contractor, Dismas Hardy, Abe Glitsky, and the rest of the crew from this long-running series get into the game. 

As with all of Lescroarts mysteries, they have a big development stage. I'm already 150 or so pages into this 530-page book and Hardy has only made a preliminary appearance in the Prologue. He probably won't come into the action for a quite a while. I like that Lescroart really takes the time to build up a complicated story.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading, where you can find the official rules for this weekly event.

3 Days to Christmas

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mailbox Monday

While doing some Christmas shopping, I picked out a little something for myself, which arrived in time for Mailbox Monday.

Everyday Drinking by Kinglsey Amis

I have wanted this book for a long time because Amis is a favorite of mine, I am intrigued by the idea of literary lushes, and my limited capacity for alcohol requires me to satisfy my enjoyment of it vicariously. I am so looking forward to reading this over one of the upcoming long holiday weekends.

4 Days to Christmas

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: Betrayal

"On a Wednesday evening in early December, Dismas Hardy, standing at the thin line of dark cherry in the light hardwood floor of his office, threw a dart."

-- Betrayal, by John Lescroart

This is the 12th (or so -- I lose track) book in Lescroart's Dismas Hardy series.  This is a great series -- my favorite -- because the stories are complex in ideas and plot and there are lots of characters whose lives have entwined as the series has progressed. Also, they are thick with details about San Francisco, which I am in the mood for because Christmastime makes me nostalgic for the years I lived there. 

6 Days to Christmas

Friday, December 18, 2009

Author of the Day: Jack Ohman

A week that included Christmas shopping with a friend for her fisherman husband, reading Erica Jong, and some seasonally-induced nostalgia for my own brief time spent as a copy aide at The Oregonian inspired me to add Jack Ohman to my list of favorite authors.

Ohman is the in-house political cartoonist for The Oregonian. His cartoons are syndicated in hundreds of newspapers and magazines.  He has also published several books -- themed collections of fly fishing and golf cartoons, and compilations of his political cartoons.  His latest book, Angler Management, is a book of essays on fly fishing and includes more than 50 original cartoons.

Those I own and have read are in red. 

Angler Management: The Day I Died While Fly Fishing and Other Essays (reviewed here)

An Inconvenient Trout

Get the Net: The Crazed Fly Fisherman's Catalog

Do I Have to Draw You a Picture

Media Mania: A Collection of Mixed Media Cartoons

Fishing Bass-Ackwards: Coming Down the Pike With Off-The-Walleye Humor

Why Johnny Can't Putt . . .

Fear of Fly-Fishing (my favorite title)

Drawing Conclusions: A Collection of Political Cartoons

Back to the '80s

Last updated on September 21, 2010.

7 Days to Christmas

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review of the Day: The Italian Lover

The Italian Lover is a literary mash-up with a Hollywood spin – the heroine from Robert Hellenga’s debut novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, falls in love with the hero from his second novel, The Fall of a Sparrow, while her book is being made into a movie. For fans of the earlier books, this has the immediate appeal of visiting old friends. Unfortunately, the appeal wears off pretty fast.

The main problem is that the stories of Margot and Woody were told very well and in full in their own books. They faced conflict, grew as people, and, in their own ways, lived happily ever after – their “story arcs” were complete. There is nothing more to add to their stories in this book, so these beloved characters are relegated to being little more than props for the story about making the movie. They are involved in the plot, but they do not develop as characters.

The movie story is central to the book, but it is thin and choppy. Any of the several characters involved in making the movie – the newly-divorced producer, anxious to prove she can make a movie on her own; the director dying of cancer, trying to make one last good movie; the aging starlet questioning her life choices; or several peripheral others – would make good anchors for a novel. But Hellenga skips from storyline to storyline without delving deeply into any of them.

The Italian Lover is entertaining. It moves right along and is full of beautiful Florentine scenes. But unlike The Sixteen Pleasures and The Fall of a Sparrow, it lacks depth and it does not linger in the mind.

8 Days to Christmas

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Announcement: The IRB is Here!

The December issue of the Internet Review of Books is posted now and is packed full of worthwhile reviews.  In addition to 11 other non-fiction reviews, I am pleased that my review of The Age of Reagan by Steve Hayward is included this month. And my short review of Massacred for Gold by Gregory Nokes tops off the Brief Reviews section.

There are also several full-length fiction reviews, including a review of Nick Hornby's new novel. I am going to read that one first.

The reviews in the December IRB may inspire some Christmas gifts, as will the IRB Holiday Gift Guide that is also posted now.

Happy holiday reading!

9 Days to Christmas

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: How to Save Your Own Life

"We deserve the blame for not picking ourselves up and walking away.  We think we are buying security with our slavery -- and then, a decade later, we leave and let them keep the furniture, realizing that it is a blessing to be rid of their tyranny at any material cost and that there is no such thing as security anyway."

-- How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong.

All right, "slavery" is a little histrionic, but it rings true for anyone who has been in her situation.

I am savoring this book. It is as full of insight and spot-on commentary about the human condition as the best of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Jim Harrison, or any of my other favorite male authors.  But it hits so much closer to home, coming from a woman's perspective. I love it.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading, where you can find the official rules for this weekly event.

10 Days to Christmas

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mailbox Monday

Since I posted several reviews of Early Reviewer books, I am apparently out of the LibraryThing dog house. At least enough to get a book from the November batch. So I have one book for Mailbox Monday.

The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain, published by Words Without Borders Anthologies.

This looked really good to me. Ever since I read Steve Hayward's Age of Reagan recently, I've been interested in reading more about post-Cold War life in the former Soviet Union. This looks like just the book to scratch that itch.

Of course, this means that another book got added to my LibraryThing list. The guilt will start piling up again.

11 Days to Christmas

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review of the Day: The Tricking of Freya

The first couple of pages of Christina Sunley’s debut novel, The Tricking of Freya, seem a little awkward. But once it becomes clear that the narrator is writing a letter to an unknown cousin, her Aunt Birdie's child. When things fall into place, the book takes off and powers along right up to the last page.

In her never-finished letter to the cousin she hopes to find, the troubled heroine examines her family’s tribulations as well as her own, following family history from Iceland, to Canada, and back. Sunley does not flinch when writing about mental illness and how people react to it, which makes her book sometimes difficult, but more rewarding that the typical coming-of-age novel.

This is a complex story, well told and thoroughly entertaining.

This book was on my LibraryThing Early Reviewer list. One more scratched off.

Book Dilettante (review and interview)

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

12 Days to Christmas

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: American Lion

"It looked like war."

-- American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham (referring to the 1832 secession threat by South Carolina).

This is another off my LibraryThing Early Reviewer list. It is also my "white" book for the Colorful Reading Challenge. Once I finish it, I will have only a "blue" book to go to complete that challenge.

I know nothing about Andrew Jackson except that a mob crashed his inaugural party at the White House. So far, it is very lively and reads like a novel. No wonder Meacham won the Pulitzer prize for history for this one.

13 Days to Christmas

Friday, December 11, 2009

Review of the Day: The Fire

The Fire is a complicated adventure novel involving a centuries-long search for a famous chess set and the solution to its mysteries. Parallel stories set in present day and in the 1820s track the efforts of the Black Team and the White Team to find the missing game pieces, discover the meaning of The Game, and figure out just who is on which team -- and if it matters.

This is definitely an adventure story rather than a thriller. It is full of symbolism and riddle-solving, all interwoven with history, but it is more Mists of Avalon than Da Vinci Code. The story unfolds but never heats up.

The story drags as the characters dither and, while the plot is moderately interesting, it is not an exciting book. There is a lot of talk about the heroine being in danger, but there is never any actual danger. The only deaths occurred in the past and usually involved historic figures. There are no chase scenes, sneak attacks, near misses – no immediate risks or sense of suspense at all.

The big conclusion when the heroine solves the mystery of The Game once and for all is a big snooze. At least the solution of The Da Vinci Code was profound – blasphemous, but profound. The solution of The Game is no more profound than a brochure for a New Age spa.

14 Days to Christmas

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: How to Save Your Own Life

"I left my husband on Thanksgiving Day."

-- How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong.

After working diligently on my Guilt List for the last couple of weeks, I am treating myself to a book that I want to read for no reason other than the pure enjoyment of it. This is a sequel of sorts to Fear of Flying a book that I enjoyed way more than I thought I would.

As an extra bonus, this one is on the Anthony Burgess list of Top 99 novels, so I will make some headway on one of my lists. But I did not realize that until after I started reading it.

15 Days to Christmas

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Opening Sentence of the Day: The Fire

"Solarin gripped his little daughter's mittened hand firmly in his own."

-- The Fire by Katherine Neville

 Neville wrote the precursor to this book, The Eight, in 1988. I haven't read that one, but this is supposed to be OK as a stand alone. It is also being heralded as the next Da Vinci Code, which gives me mixed feelings.

16 Days to Christmas

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: The Italian Lover

It was going to be a difficult shot, a huge scene to mount, and she still didn't have written permission to use the piazza, though the mayor, whom she'd taken to lunch at Cibreo, with Franco Bevilacqua and Michael, had promised that there would be no difficulties.

And they still had the sex scenes to do, and they'd have to be careful because they couldn't release the film with an NC-17 rating.

-- The Italian Lover by Robert Hellenga

I picked this teaser because this book is about making a movie. If you aren't interested in how movies get made, this book won't be interesting to you. I'm trying to expand my brain to take an interest, but I find myself reading through this quickly. I love the parts about being in Italy, but I am not drawn into the story.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading, where you can find the official rules for this weekly event.

17 Days to Christmas

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mailbox Monday

Only one book came into my house last week for Mailbox Monday (other than Christmas gifts for other people).

Bend Sinister by Vladamir Nabokov

This was his first novel published in America (I think I read that right). I want to read more of his books, because when I read them, I love them. I was a little frustrated by Lolita because I couldn't catch all the references and word jokes, but I loved Pnin and Pale Fire is permanently on my Top 10 list of all-time favorites.

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