Monday, May 31, 2010

May Reading Roundup

May was an okay reading month, and I think it was because I wasn't home for most of it so I had no guilt feelings about reading. Normally I'll sit down with a book and a cup of coffee, read a chapter and then start thinking about all of the stuff I could be doing around here.  But being away from home with no responsibilities is a good way to get through a hefty stack of books. Here's what I managed to get through in May:

British Crime Fiction
City of Fear, by David Hewson  (not yet reviewed/ British author, set in Italy)

Escape Reading
Fever Dream, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child  (#10 in the Pendergast series)

Fiction (general)
Tell-All, by Chuck Palahniuk
The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas (Australian)
Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel (not yet reviewed)
Lost City Radio, by Daniel Alarcon (not yet reviewed)

German crime fiction
The Murder Farm, by Andrea Maria Schenkel

Historical fiction
The Informer, by Craig Nova
Regeneration, by Pat Barker (not yet reviewed)

Columbine, by Dave Cullen.

Scandinavian Crime Fiction:
Sun Storm, by Asa Larsson (not yet reviewed)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson (not yet reviewed) 
Don't Look Back, by Karin Fossum

 Speculative fiction:
Blackout, by Connie Willis

So that's what, 14 books?

Other book/reading news:
1) My book group read and discussed The Jane Austen Book Club, and the overall census was that we didn't much care for it, but it did bring out a lively discussion which is really all that matters. 

2) Added to the Amazon wishlist:
Our Circus Presents, by Lucian Dan Teodorovici 
Nineteen Seventy Four, by David Peace
Scream Black Murder, by Philip McLaren
The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica, by Ian Thomson
Villain, by Shuichi Yoshida
Apartment 16, by Adam L.J. Nevill
Broken Glass, by Alain Mabanckou 
A Deal with the Devil, by Martin Suter

3) 10 books left home via Swaptree and Paperback Swap; an ARC of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was given away via Librarything's Member Giveaway Program; and Sheila Korman won my copy of The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo

4) I went a little nuts buying books this month -- a combination of being in close proximity to two Half-Price Books stores in the Seattle area and being released from my earlier self-imposed ban on buying new books. 

so that's it for May.  I am going to have a LOT of reading time in June, because Larry's traveling pretty much the entire month, and it's summer - time to stretch out on the lounger by the pool and lose myself in a few novels.


Friday, May 28, 2010

The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas

Penguin (non-classics)
496 pp.

This book has won a veritable slew [Irish Gaelic sluagh, multitude, from Old Irish slúag] of awards and recognition since its publication:
Winner, Overall Best Book the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2009
Winner, ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year 2009 and Overall Book of the Year 2009
Winner, ABA Book of the Year 2009
Winner, ALS Gold Medal 2009
Winner, Victorian Premier's Literary Awards 2009
Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Prize 2009
Shortlisted for the Colin Roderick Award 2008
Longlisted, The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2010 [but missed the shortlist cut]
 Its premise is simple, based on an experience from Tsiolkas' real life:

A small, humorous incident gave rise to The Slap. I was at my parent’s house, a few years ago, and they were hosting a barbeque for relatives and friends. At the time there was a couple there, friends of mine, who had a three year old son. My mother was in the kitchen cooking up a storm – pita, pasticcio, potatoes – while Dad and “the men” were firing up the barbeque. I was in the kitchen helping my mother, and she, slightly frazzled with all she had to do, was getting annoyed that the three year old boy was opening up cupboards and drawers, taking out pots and pan and using them as building blocks. She kept trying to make him stop and go out and play, but he was taking no notice of her. Nearly tripping on a saucepan, she became exasperated with him, pulled him up gently and with the smallest of taps on the bum, said ‘No  more!’
The little boy - and I won’t forget the look of shock on his face - placed his hands on his hips and said to my mother, ‘No-one has a right to touch my body without my premission!’ To which my mother replied, ‘You naughty, I smack you.’
There was no violence in her action and all the adults laughed, including the parents. (from the reading group guide at Allen & Unwin).  
The incident in his book however, in which a small boy is slapped by an adult at a family barbeque in Melbourne, was not a laughable matter to any of the participants. What was supposed to be a great party with friends and family is hosted by Hector, and his wife Aisha. Hector comes from Greek stock; Aisha is from India.  Things turn ugly when 4-year old Hugo, son of Aisha's long-time friend Rosie and her alkie husband Gary,  picks up a cricket bat and threatens to hit Hector's nephew with it. Hugo is one of those bratty, out-of-control kids unliked by the other children there, and his parents don't care.  Harry, Hector's brother and the dad of the kid who is about to be whacked with the bat, takes matters into his own hands when it's clear that Rosie and Gary aren't going to do anything and slaps Hugo, effectively ending the party and causing a great deal of turmoil, as Rosie decides that she's going to call the police and press charges against Harry. The question here: was Harry wrong to slap Hugo, or did someone need to step in because his parents wouldn't? Since friends, co-workers and family are all present, they're all involved in some manner, especially when it comes to taking sides on the issue. Ultimately friendships, family relationships and loyalties will be tested as things come down to the issue of responsibility -- not just in terms of the slap, but in other areas of the characters' lives as well.

The slapping incident and the upcoming court case gives seven different characters an opportunity to examine their connections to and feelings about what happened that day, and to scrutinize their own lives -- who they are, where they are in life, their various relationships, their futures, etc.  It also provides the author with a means to examine several cross-sections of Melbourne's multicultural population and how well (or not) they interact with each other.  Each narrative is from the perspective of a character whose life crosses over into the lives of other characters, providing continuity among the players as well as important histories of the bonds (for better or worse) between them. This aspect of the novel is done well and showcases what's positiveabout the author's writing. His ability to make these people real enough to like or dislike was also well done. 

There are a couple of  things which made me feel that this book was good, but not great. First, some of the scenes tended to be a little on the heavy, melodramatic side, or droned on and on to the point where I felt like skimming to escape. I didn't -- you can't help but read on --but there it is. Second - the tie back to the original slap was often tenuous as each chapter went on and on -- if this was meant to be the one central event that linked all of these people, it needed to be brought back around a bit more strongly now and then, instead of letting the story ramble tediously off into more peripheral areas.

The premise is good, and I liked the story overall, but the writing could have been much tighter, more focused and less melodramatic. I would recommend it with a couple of warnings: first, you're in for a long ride and second, if you don't like romance-novelish sex, masturbation scenes or the gratuitous use of the word c*nt, you may want to try something different -- there's a LOT of that in this book.

 fiction from Australia

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Woot is a hoot...look what I just bought

I just bought a t-shirt with this picture on it at  Here's the blurb:

Dude, everybody can see your ISBN

If you purchased this book without a jacket, you should know that it is either stolen property or else some kind of perverted nudist that gets its sick kicks frolicking around in the altogether. It may have been reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, or it might have just shucked its garb and skipped off the shelf to prance through the countryside au naturale like a shameless pagan, but either way, neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this dirty, dirty “stripped book.”
Wear this shirt: between the covers, if you know what we mean.
Don’t wear this shirt: to the emergency PTA meeting about LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER. (Go topless!)
This shirt tells the world: “NAKED LUNCH is both my favorite book and my favorite meal.”
If you haven't met, go check it out. They have t-shirts for every occasion (and other stuff as well) but the shirts are what will catch your eye.  Seriously. 

The Devil's Star, by Jo Nesbø -- Winner of the Giveaway

and the lucky winner is  (drumroll, please)....skkorman! For all of the rest of you who entered to win, thanks very much for playing, and do check in often because I think I like doing this giveaway thing. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

catching up on reviews, part I: Don't Look Back, by Karin Fossum

Harvest Book/Harcourt
295 pp.

Don’t Look Back is the second novel in the Inspector Sejer series behind Eve’s Eye (Evas øye), which has not yet been published in English.  Whether or not I missed anything because I  do not read Norwegian is not a big deal;  I still enjoyed Don’t Look Back . I’ll just consider it the first in the series for now.
This novel is a police procedural set in a small village in Norway.  As the story opens, Inspector Konrad Sejer is called out when a small child goes missing.  While investigating that case, the naked body of a teenaged girl named Annie Holland is discovered at the edge of the lake.  Sejer takes that case and brings along his colleague, Skarre.  As the two of them interview the locals  to find out more about the victim, they cannot seem to find any reason at all for anyone to have wanted to kill this girl. She was well liked by everyone.  The only thing Sejer has to go on is that Annie had recently seemed to have become very withdrawn, but hadn’t told anyone why.  Sejer and Skarre will have to dig deeper and deeper until they come up with an answer to why Annie died.

Fossum’s writing is very simple and uncomplicated, without a lot of inner monologues  and angst from the main character.  She is quite good at developing an atmosphere of suspicion and anxiety, setting the tone for the overall investigation, and keeps you reading with prose like this, the answer to a question posed by Sejer to Annie's mother:

There's supposed to be a sea serpent in the fjord here. It's a legend, a story from the old days. If you're out rowing and hear a splashing sound behind your boat, that's the sea serpent rising from the depths. You should never look back, just be careful to keep on rowing. If you pretend to ignore it and leave it in peace, everything will be fine, but if you look back into its eyes, it will pull you down into the great darkness." (49)

The characters are all believable, especially Sejer, who is a grandfather, recently a widower, but someone you know will do the job and stay on it like a pit bull until the case is over.  The plot is straightforward, and the focus is always on the investigation without the author straying off or getting sidetracked, and she throws in a few red herrings along the way to keep the reader guessing.  While the book moves at a very good pace, the story is never hurried and the investigation and solution were both realistic, and I never saw the end coming,  which is a plus because I often do.

Fans of police procedurals, Scandinavian crime fiction and crime fiction in general will like this book.  I have all of the other Inspector Sejer novels lined up, ready to read, so that must tell you something.

 fiction from Norway

It's Monday! What am I reading?

It feels like it's been forever since I participated in this fun event, hosted by Sheila (thank you ever so much!) at One Person's Journey Through a World of Books.

So let's get started.  First: I have a book giveaway going for The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo.  Click here if you're interested. 

This past week I finished the following:

Don't Look Back, by Karin Fossum (not reviewed yet)
Lost City Radio, by Daniel Alarcon (also not reviewed)
Fever Dream, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (the newest Agent Pendergast novel for those of you who follow the series)
Blackout, by Connie Willis 
The Murder Farm, by Andrea Schenkel

I'm currently reading The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk.

For this week:
Tomorrow I should be receiving my pre-ordered copy of Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson so I'll definitely read that, plus I'm planning to read The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas.  After that, who knows?

In the words of Simon and Garfunkel:
Gee but it's great to be back home, home is where I want to be. I've been on the road so long my friend...
Happy reading.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

for all of you Scandinavian fiction buffs -- book giveaway: The Devil's Star, by Jo Nesbo (sticky post -- new posts below)

To celebrate my return home after three weeks, I am giving away a copy of The Devil's Star, by Jo Nesbo.  I received a copy from the publisher while I was away, but I already own this book so this one needs a new home.

All you have to do to receive this book is to leave a comment on this post with your email address or a link to your blog by May 26th. That's it.

...and so sorry! Only US entries, please...this book is really huge!

The Murder Farm, by Andrea Maria Schenkel

181 pp.
Translated from German by Anthea Bell

The Murder Farm begins with a few introductory words from an unnamed narrator:
I spent the first summer after the end of the war with distant relations in the country.
During those weeks, that village seemed to me an island of peace.  One of the last places to have survived intact after the great storm that we had just weathered.
 Years later, when life had gone back to normal and that summer was only a happy memory, I read about the same village in the paper.
 My village had become the home of 'the murder farm' and I couldn't get the story out of my mind.
And the narrator is correct: you won't get the story out of your mind any time soon. The Murder Farm  is one of those novels that once you begin reading you shouldn't plan to do anything else until it's over.

The book is set in the 1950s, after the end of World War II in Germany and the American occupation.  The central focus of the novel is the Danner family, who live on their isolated farm in the woods.When they are not seen for a few days, a few of the villagers go to the farm to check things out and find the entire family dead -- someone has taken a pickaxe and killed the entire family -- Mr. and Mrs. Danner, their daughter Barbara, her two small children, and a young maid who has just begun to work at the farm. Throughout this dark and gloomy book, the unnamed narrator mentioned above gathers the stories of the people who live and work in the village, and through their narratives  it becomes quite apparent that the family was not popular and not very well-liked. But there are some things that not even the narrator is privy to -- interspersed with the testimonies of the villagers are other third-party narratives which leave you to wonder a) how much you're reading is simply gossip and how much is the truth, and b) who might have wanted this entire family dead.

It is truly difficult to believe that this is Schenckel's first book.  The bleak tone of the novel is set at the beginning and although the prose is sparse, it only accentuates the air of gloom that follows through the entire novel. The Murder Farm offers a psychological portrait of a family living in isolation as well as a brief glimpse at how the war affected the people in the village. But what it offers most is a crime which is at once both  realistic and believable, making it all the more creepy the further you go into the story.

Very atmospheric and bleak, The Murder Farm is a very good read, one I would recommend without hesitation to any reader of crime fiction.  It will keep you turning pages until the very end.

Fiction from Germany

Friday, May 21, 2010

Fever Dream, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group
May 2010
405 pp

Fever Dream falls under my own heading of "escape reading," meaning books that are highly improbable, fluffy or just something not serious for passing the time. I had another sleepless night last night and this book was handy.

Fever Dream  is the tenth book of the Agent Pendergast series. In this installment, Pendergast is visiting one of his many homes, this time in New Orleans, and comes across some evidence regarding his wife Helen's death twelve years earlier. As it turns out, the evidence suggests to Pendergast that his wife's demise was not accidental as he'd thought all of this time, but a deliberate and cold-blooded murder.  Pendergast realizes that he needs help and enlists the services of  Vincent D'Agosta, a lieutenant of the NYPD and past associate.  As he investigates why someone would want her killed, he begins to uncover things about Helen that he never knew, leading him to wonder just who was this woman he married. But as Pendergast and D'Agosta get close to the truth, there are those who don't want them to find it, and they find their lives in danger. 

Since the end of the so-called Diogenes trilogy (Brimstone, Dance of Death and The Book of the Dead), the quality of the Pendergast adventures has gone a bit downhill. Wheel of Darkness I could have done without, and Cemetery Dance was much better than its predecessor but still not the same old Pendergast. The same holds true for Fever Dream.  The descriptions of place are well written (there's one scene describing an abandoned family home that was downright creepy) and how the authors get Pendergast in and out of some very sticky spots are fun to read. However, Preston and Child seem to be stretching on this one (missing paintings, parrots, etc.,) and then there's Constance Green, Pendergast's ward, who has returned from Tibet.  Why she was even written into this story is a mystery unto itself --she plays absolutely no part of the investigation; she just takes up space.

While the book was overall a fun read and a good way to spend a few hours, I think the authors could have done much better. Maybe they should go back and reread their earlier Pendergast novels to find out why their readers got hooked on this character in the first place.  

I would recommend this novel for those already fans of Pendergast; don't make this one the first of the series that you read.  The authors are slowly getting back on the right track, but they're not there yet.  However, when the next book in the series is announced, I know I'll be right there, with my finger on the "preorder" button. For some reason I can't resist.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Blackout, by Connie Willis

Ballantine Books/Spectra
February 2010
491 pp

Two things before I get to the review:

First, let me skip all the way to the very last lines of the book (don't spoilers here):

 For the riveting conclusion to Blackout, be sure not to miss Connie Willis's All Clear. Coming from Spectra in Fall 2010.
 Yes, that's correct. When you get to the ending, pumped up on adrenaline because you just have to know how things come out, there's a sucker punch waiting for you -- to find out what happens and to see if the three main characters can resolve their dilemmas, you have to wait until October. So you might wish to fight the urge to read the book now and wait until you have both volumes safely in hand so as not to have to wait. I bought this book at the airport to read on the plane, and had no idea is was a two-parter, so imagine my surprise. However, as soon as I finished this one, I immediately preordered my copy of  the second book, All Clear, due out in October. Although this is perfectly timed for me,  other people may not be so happy for the wait. Oh well...what can you do?

Second, I liked this book -- didn't love it, but I have been a huge fan of Connie Willis for years since I read Doomsday, her first Oxford time-travel novel.

The year is 2060, and at Oxford a time travel project allows history graduate students to go back to a specific time and place to further supplement their learning experience. By this time, these historians are able to have specific and essential knowledge of the period implanted for immediate use, and then off they go into the Net, which leaves them at a specific place at a specific time, and this spot becomes "the drop" through which they can return to Oxford either at the end of their time or when they need additional information or props for the period.  There's also a safety net: if something goes wrong (which it's not supposed to because of the rules of time travel), the drop serves as a portal through which a "retrieval team" can effect a rescue if necessary. As the story opens, a handful of historians are preparing to go back in time to the World War II era -- Merope (who uses the name Eileen) is studying the evacuation of children from the cities to the countryside, Polly is going to London during the Blitz, and Michael is off to Dover to witness the rescue of soldiers from Dunkirk. But all is not well at Oxford, it seems -- drop schedules are being changed and no one understands why, no one can get in touch with the elusive Dunworthy, the head of the program -- things are in a word, chaotic. But eventually, each student gets to their appointed place and time, but it's not long until things begin to go wrong -- most notably, with Michael.  He is not supposed to actually be at Dunkirk, but is shanghaied into going there -- and things happen that make him wonder if he has actually changed the course of history.  Each of the historians have his/her own stories, and the author alternates the action among the three.

Willis obviously spent hours upon hours upon hours researching this part of Britain's history.  In fact, she notes in her acknowledgments that one group she had to thank was

...the marvelous group of ladies at the Imperial War Museum...women, who it turned out, had been rescue workers and ambulance drivers and air-raid wardens during the Blitz, and who told me story after story that proved invaluable to the book and to my understanding of the bravery, determination, and humor of the British people as they faced down Hitler.
 She has turned those interviews, along with the rest of her incredible research, into a portrait of life in 1940s Britain that is rich in detail as well as interesting to read from an historical point of view, so much so that at times you may forget you're reading a novel about time travel. Aside from the history of it all, the narrative is often funny, lifting the reader out of the darkness of war-time Britain for a short period of time.  The characters, for the most part, are well drawn and the author is also able to build suspense throughout the novel to create an interesting mystery that keeps you reading until the end for the solution (but as I noted above, the revelations must wait until October). 

While the story is compelling and unputdownable,  Blackout does have some minor niggling distractions, such as storylines or scenes that tend to drone on when they could have been shortened (for example, in Eileen's time at the manor with two rambunctious children) with no loss to the overall story itself. There's also nearly an entire chapter in which one of the characters tours St. Paul's cathedral, which survived the Blitz due to the diligent efforts of many, which also could have been gone with no problem in terms of plot or even character development. Finally, there's the cliffhanger ending: this may be my fault, for not knowing beforehand that the book came as a two-volume set, but when you've read 491 pages, and the last words let you know that there's no resolution for a few months, that's just wrong. 

On the whole, Blackout is quite good for what it is, and is a reading experience that should be enjoyed by fans of speculative fiction, time travel, historical fiction (if you don't mind some sci-fi to go along with it), and fans of Connie Willis' previous works.  Don't expect fine literature, but it's a great book for a few hours of relaxing entertainment.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Informer, by Craig Nova

Shaye Areheart Books

A few posts ago I commented on the general lack of respect on the part of people who will go to a bookstore, order a coffee & a chocolate chip cookie and then proceed to leave evidence of their presence on the pages of a brand new book. As noted, I had the misfortune of discovering this nasty habit while at my local B&N, when I went to buy a copy of The Informer, by Craig Nova. If you don't want to go back & read the post, the long and short of it is that there was only one copy available in the store, and not only were there chocolate fingerprints on it, but the first page had been torn as well making it totally unbuyable. Aaargh. Shortly after I made that post, a knight in shining armor in the form of Mr. Stephen Will, a publicist at The Hendra Agency, took pity on my plight and offered me a copy. Mr. Stephen Will I offer my most hearty thanks.

I liked this book -- it appeals to the part of me that loves intelligence in the written word. As a work of historical fiction, it is very well written.

The Informer is set in Berlin at the end of Germany's Weimar Republic (1918-1933) and Germany's politics are fractured among the lines of three main political groups: the Communists, the various right-wing groups (including but not limited to the Nazis), and the prevailing Socialist government. On the streets these divisions often play out as brawls and skirmishes between rival factions, each with its gang of thugs, and this fracture continues on up into city and governmental bureaucracies where thuggery is more or less official yet clandestine.  Everything is played according to where one's loyalties lie.

Without going into the plot, at the center of this well-written novel is Gaelle, the disfigured 22 year old prostitute and "The Informer" of the story.  Gaelle is protected as well as pimped out by Felix, a 16 year old boy who lives on the streets with his ears to the ground. She often supplements their earnings by selling secrets she learns from clients, which works well for the two of them until she happens upon some intelligence regarding a man who works at the Soviet Embassy and spies on the Red Front for the Brownshirts. While all of this is happening, Armina Treffen,  a police officer in Inspectorate A (a division of the kriminalpolizei  that investigates homicide),  is seeking a serial killer who is stalking young women in the Tiergarten park area. Armina is a professional and cares about  her work, but she has her own personal issues which are compounded by the politics of her boss Ritter, which hamper her work on the case.

The Informer is not your average "Berlin noir" type of novel like Jonathan Rabb's series (beginning with Rosa),  nor is it like Kerr's Berlin novels, both of which are both more plot driven. It is more character driven, with its atmosphere of place and time acting as the headliner. From the very beginning, the book draws you into the  "malice" (the author's word) pervading the streets and the very air, not to mention the uncertainty of what is to come. In this sense, the suspense aspect of the novel permeates throughout -- not so much as an aspect of the novel's plotline, but in terms of  the future of the German people. There are several scenes in which the author offers a brief foreshadowing of the future -- a line of people at the local vet having their dogs killed as a solution to their inability to feed their pets because of the high rate of inflation, and the description of Armina going daily by the children from the "special" school -- both send a shiver up the reader's spine because we know exactly what these scenes allude to in only a matter of a few years hence.

The dustjacket blurb calls the book a "literary thriller," but the scales tip heavily in favor of the literary side, and to label this book merely a "thriller" is really to cheapen it. This is my first novel by this author, but definitely not the last.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Totally off topic: The end of an era -- goodbye Law and Order


Today I received an email about how to reset my Twitter account password and panicked because I hadn't asked to reset it. So I figured someone's trying to get into it (for the life of me I don't know why because I barely use it and then only for book-related things) and went to see if I made any postings I didn't know about in case I had been hacked (which I didn't). However, I was scanning down the tweets I've missed in the last couple of days and someone from Living Social (where I use Visual Bookshelf from Facebook) posted that Law and Order was being canceled. I'm like "WHAT??????????" and clicked on the link for the New York Times that the person left. Imagine my surprise when I found out that this was not just another rumor, but the truth.

Many people wrote in to the NYT  (myself included) to bemoan L&O's fate, and I read one comment there that said  "get a's just a tv show." While that may be the case, and while the loss of one long-running show may not change how the Earth spins on its axis or make me want to jump out of a window or something, it's still one of my favorites and I'm not alone in that category.

Let me just say that this is definitely the end of an era, not just for Law and Order, but for me as well. I can honestly with no hesitation whatsoever say that there is absolutely nothing left for me to watch on any of the big three original networks. Now that L&O is going away, there won't be a need to look at the on-screen directory to see what's on the regular network channels; it's only cable channels and PBS that will be on in the house when I'm ready to sit down for some television watching. I feel like something of a certain quality and intelligence has been taken away and I'm a wee bit sad -- after all of the many years of watching this show, I'm going to miss it. And to the powers that be at NBC....I have just one question: what were you thinking???????????

Goodbye, Jack McCoy and the DA's staff; see you later, Lt. Van Buren and all of New York's finest working with you -- it's been a pleasure.  You will all be missed. To the actors who played all of these people throughout the rock. Thank you. To everyone connected with producing the show, well, you was robbed by the network.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

another award!

 I received this from Book Quoter at A Thousand Books With Quotes. Thanks! I'll be definitely passing this along, most likely after I get home next week.

Here's the scoop on this award:
A prolific blogger is one who is intellectually productive, keeping up an active blog with enjoyable content. After accepting this award, recipients are asked to pass it forward to seven other deserving blogs.

I love it that my own little space is sometimes noticed by others. Thank you. I'm so far off the beaten book path that very few people ever come by -- your thoughtfulness is appreciated.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tell-All, by Chuck Palahniuk

May 4, 2010

My thanks to the Amazon Vine Program for sending this book.  I am a huge and long-term fan of Palahniuk's books so I was eager to get into this one.  Although a bit slow at the beginning, it turned out to be an awesome satire well worth sticking around for.  One of the biggest criticisms I've read about this book is that this is not the same Palahniuk who wrote Fight Club (which is one of the best books I've ever read, quite frankly), but I tend to get a bit tired of hearing this sort of thing. People blasted Ian McEwan's Solar because it wasn't the same McEwan that wrote Atonement or Saturday -- but come on. Why aren't our favorite authors allowed to do something different once in a while?  Is that such a bad thing? If I were an author I'd be bored staying within the confines of the same mold of every book I'd previously written and I would want to be different once in a while.

(note: page numbers are from the galley copy, not the finished work)

 Without going too much into plot details, Tell-All is a sendup of  that genre of book which according to Palahniuk, Walter Winchell called the "bile-ography," and especially of those who write them -- the "literary equivalent of a magpie, stealing the brightest and darkest moments from every celebrity..." (33).   I give you the Kitty Kellys of the world who latch on to the seedy details of a person's life hoping to sell millions of copies based on reader titillation, or  the Christina Crawfords who publish their hard-life stories that deface the public image of their celebrity parents, showcasing "flaws and faults" to hopefully launch their own careers (83), which Hedda Hopper (the famous gossip columnist), according to the author, would call a "lie-ography." (96) But it's not just biographies in the spotlight here. The book is also a satire on those who get caught up in celebrity worship and gratuitous name-dropping, and on the celebrities themselves for whom life imitates art.  The famous people whose names are highlighted in bold print in Tell-All may be unfamiliar to modern readers, because the book is set in Hollywood's heyday, but substitute any modern celeb name and it's all the same. Nothing much has changed, down to celebrity adoption of less fortunate babies. 

--intermission and illustration--
Personal anecdotes:

a)a few years back, my husband was flying from FL to CA and heard a conversation between two men sitting in the two seats ahead of him. One man was going on about how he was an exec at a record company in Los Angeles, and asked the other what he did. The second guy said "I work for Will." He went on to tell him that he'd just talked to Will that morning, and yada yada yada Will this, Will that. As the conversation progressed, "Will" turned out to be Will Smith, and it turns out that the guy was the principal of Will's kids' school.

b) there was a secretary at a school where I once taught in Los Angeles whose claim to fame was that she used to be  in "the business" (like big deal, everyone in LA is either in the business or wants to be).  Every day she'd tell whoever would listen about how she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Beyonce, and other popular singers.  On and on and on, each day someone else's name would drop from her lips, holding her co-workers enthralled with her stories. Turns out she was a receptionist for Warner Brothers music.

--back to the review--

But this is Chuck Palahniuk, a master of the postmodern, and the best part of his book is his treatment of that other form of -ography, the autobiography.  To say more would be to wreck it for others, but consider that one of the central characters in this novel is Lillian Hellman, author and playwright, who was notorious for penning a series of memoirs in which the facts weren't always the facts. I'll leave it to others to figure out...I ended this book with a huge chuckle. And I liked it.

Read slowly, don't focus on the names too much ...there's an awesome and very ironic story here that will make you either laugh at the end or smack yourself in the head when you figure it all out. To all the naysayers of this book -- go read it again -- it's near genius. This is a book that demands active reader have to think about this one.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

happy mother's day to all of my reader friends

My hat's especially off to those of you with small children who still manage to find time in the day to read. I've totally forgotten what a tremendous feat this is! I'm in Seattle with my son & his family and reading time doesn't manage to catch up to me until about 8 pm.

I hope everyone has a great mother's day ...and now I'm going to go get dim sum.

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

ISBN: 9780446548928
Twelve (Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group) 2009
First Trade Edition, 2010

Back in 1999 my daughter was 10, still in elementary school and I never worried about sending her there each day. I mean, why would I? We lived in Santa Barbara, CA, a beautiful city on the coast where life was good and the worst thing we had to worry about at her school was the occasional episode of kids picking on other kids (not on my kid, but the parents were all aware of the major troublemakers). Then things sort of changed for a while on April 20th, when in Littleton, Colorado, high-school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to school like they did every other day, bringing an arsenal of guns and bombs and going on a killing spree that left 13 dead and several others wounded.  I couldn't get past the fact that the parents of the children who'd been killed had said good-bye to their kids that morning, never to see them again.  So for some time, I just sat and let CNN take me through the day's events, waiting for any new information they would broadcast about Columbine.  And from that day until this past week, I totally believed that the Columbine shooting was all about a couple of misfit kids who went into the school to take their revenge on all of those who had made fun of them or who had scorned them. I believed that Harris and Klebold were members of some creepy group known as the Trenchcoat Mafia who got some of their ideas from Marilyn Manson and waited precisely until April 20th because it was Hitler's birthday. And you know what? I wasn't alone.

Columbine is Dave Cullen's attempt to set the record straight.  It is the culmination of ten years of the author's research and hard work, based on witness testimony, police reports, survivor accounts, FBI files and psychological investigations, and last but not least, Harris and Klebold's own writing and video. As part of his work, Cullen  examines and attempts to debunk the "truths" put forth by  the media at the time, which we probably accepted because we were so eager to understand how this could happen and why. For example, rather than being outcasts at their school, both Klebold and Harris had friends, did quite well academically and participated in school events and were considering the senior prom.  However, Cullen argues for the fact that Eric Harris was a psychopath who could play the game and play it well, knowing precisely how to act for authority figures, while Dylan Klebold, who was more of just a follower, was suffering from severe bipolar depression and ultimately suicidal. Not that he's trying to excuse their behavior, but his research gives readers more of an insight into the why. Furthermore, the diaries and videos left behind indicated that Harris' plan was to take out the entire school (not just selected targets) with bombs and napalm placed in strategic locations, even as far as having bombs explode from the car to reach people who escaped the building and the police and medical personnel who would come once word got out.

Cullen offers a chilling recreation of what probably happened that day, which is extremely disturbing. Nearly as frightening were the actions taken (or not taken in some cases) by the Sheriff's department, whose officials realized they had made some really bad mistakes prior to Columbine as far as Harris and tried to cover their own butts. He also examines the aftermath of the shooting on the survivors and their families as well as the families left behind, does so very professionally -- no tabloidish reporting here. The book is obviously well researched, leaning on facts and eyewitness accounts, and never comes across as contrived.

If you're interested, after reading Cullen's account, you just might want to go back and revisit what you think you know about that day in April 1999.  I wasn't there, so I can't possibly swear to the veracity of everything that Cullen says, but his account is highly credible and makes for an intense read. If you are at all curious about the events of that day and want a fuller picture than the one offered by the media at the time, I most highly recommend you read this book.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

trouble with comments!!!!!

I was just told via an email that I'm evidently having trouble with comments. So if you've posted one somewhere and it's not published or answered, I apologize...I didn't do it on purpose!

(continuing from April) The Harvard Psychedelic Club, by Don Lattin

ISBN: 0061655937
Harper One

The real title of this book is a long one: The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. It's a good book if you're into this sort of thing, easily readable and it raises a lot of questions for further exploration.

Lattin's central thesis is that these four men, "three brilliant scholars and one ambitious freshman," who were all together at Harvard University in the early 1960s, were able to transform not only their own lives but much of American culture as well, stemming from their involvement (or in one case, non-involvement) in a psychedelic drug research project started by Timothy Leary.  He notes that these people, collectively the Harvard Psychedelic club, "each in his own way" led Americans to think about themselves from an inner point of view regarding mind, body and spirit. And it all started in 1960, when Leary, on a summer vacation in Mexico with his son Jack, tried some psilocybin mushrooms known as "flesh of the gods" along with a bottle of beer.
The book goes on to sketch out the lives of these four men and their involvement with Leary and his mind-expanding research. Timothy Leary, whose slogan "turn on, tune in, drop out" would become a catchphrase for the counterculture movement of the 1960s, was a Harvard professor of psychology in 1960. Along with Richard Alpert, who had a PhD in psychology and did research into human consciousness (and who later went to India and was reborn as Ram Dass), he started the Harvard Psilocybin Project (which ultimately became the "Harvard Psychedelic Project as mescaline & LSD were introduced) at the university's Center for Personality Research, where participants would take controlled doses and report their experiences. Huston Smith (author of The World's Religions) was a friend and admirer of Aldous Huxley, whose mystical experiences with mescaline became the basis of his famous work The Doors of Perception. Smith met Leary through Huxley, and was talked into taking part in the psilocybin project because Leary wanted someone who knew "something about mysticism" and religion to experience the drug and then analyze the reports in terms of the mystical. The fourth member of the group, Andrew Weil, a student (now a well-known advocate of alternative medicine & wellness), tried to get involved in the Psychedelic Project by the time LSD was drug of choice in mind-expansion research, but was turned down due to his undergraduate status. Weil's roommate was befriended by Alpert and let into the program, and in revenge, Weil became a whistle blower and basically shut down the project and got Leary and Alpert ousted from Harvard. That's when everything really started, and when LSD and Leary started making their way out into the public, away from the confines of the ivied halls.

Lattin quickly traces these four people from their beginnings through the whole hippie and counterculture movement on into the present, and his book makes for really interesting reading for many reasons, not just because of the whole drug thing. Now here come the buts:
1)I'm still not sure why Huston Smith is included as a major player as a member of the Harvard Psychedelic Club.  He did have some early involvement in the psilocybin project, but wasn't so much known for his advocacy of mind-altering drugs but for interfaith understanding as a step toward peace in the world. Huston had actually begun to slowly disassociate himself from Leary some time later.
2) There were already movements afoot for changes away from the status quo going on already in the 1950s leading into the 1960s: poets and writers were already taking steps in moving toward nonconformity, the civil rights movement was already drawing young college students into action, and Jack Kerouac and other members of the  beat movement were looking for something new within themselves, urging others to follow. It doesn't seem just that Lattin would place Leary's ideas of consciousness expansion through the use of mind-altering drugs as the cornerstone of change from the 1950s to the 1960s.
3) While I understand that the author would have to interject some of Leary's autobiographical material into his work, my guess is that some of the  information gleaned from it was probably fabricated or at the very least, ramblings from a disturbed mind. Leary was probably so far gone in 1983 by the time the autobiography came out that it would be difficult to trust a lot of what he said. Let's just say he may be an unreliable narrator at some times.

Lattin's book on the whole is interesting, and it's a good read if you're interested in the psychedelic revolution and its proponents in the 1960s and the whole counterculture that existed and grew at the time. A lot of space is also given over to what happened as these people moved on in life as attitudes changed.  It is an extremely readable book and made me want to explore this time period a bit further, and any author that can pique my curiosity like that is okay by me.

April Reading Roundup

 There's no denying that April was a good reading month. Not buying any books for two months forced me to focus on what I had at hand, and it was good to get through so many of them.  Here's the list of what I finished in April:

Australian Crime Fiction:
Crime of Silence, by Patricia Carlon (review to come)

Books Which Became Movies

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote*
The Ghost, by Robert Harris*
The African Queen, by C.S. Forester*
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene*
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett*
Shattered, by Richard Neely* (Originally published as The Plastic Nightmare)
The Stoning of Soraya M., by Freidoune Sahebjam*
The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham*
Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, by Daniel Wallace*

Crime Fiction

Asia Hand, by Christopher G. Moore

Fiction in Translation
The Thursday Night Widows,by Claudia Pineiro (review to come) 
New Fiction
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, by William Irwin [ed.] (review to come)
The Harvard Psychedelic Club, by Don Lattin

Scandinavian Crime Fiction
Arctic Chill, by Arnaldur Indridason
Hypothermia, by Arnaldur Indridason

I count 17 for total number of books read for the month. Not as good as last month, but that's okay.

In other book stuff for the month:

1) my book group read and discussed Colm Toibin's Brooklyn with mixed feelings about the book all around

2) Added to the Amazon wishlist:
  • The Weight of a Mustard Seed: The Intimate Story of An Iraqi General and His Family During Thirty Years of Tyranny, by Wendell Steavenson
  • Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts
  • Shadow and Light, by Jonathan Rabb
  • Darkness Falls From the Air, by Nigel Balchin
  • Castle, by J. Robert Lennon
  • Anonymous Celebrity, by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao
  • The Summer of the Ibume, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku
  • The She-Devil in the Mirror, by Horacio Castellanos Moya
  • The Sleeping Dragon by Miyuki Miyabe
  • The Eye that Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, by Frank Morn
3) several books left for new homes via Swaptree, Paperback Swap and Librarything's Member Giveway program, and for the local Goodwill as I continue to sift through books in order to gain some control over my library

4) Maintained the book-buying moratorium with one exception.

That's it (and that was a lot!).

Monday, May 3, 2010

home. tired. leaving again shortly.

home again after a mini-vacation and ready for sleep. How come whenever I go on vacation I come home exhausted? And it's off to Seattle the day after tomorrow for two weeks.

I got a lot of reading done but that's all going to have to wait for tomorrow, along with the roundup for April. I can't even think right now.