Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: Our Lady of the Artichokes....

When I first saw the title, I laughed out loud and ordered it. I think I expected something on the line of 'Dave Barry poking fun at the Japanese' humor. HOWEVER....this is a serious, well-written, at times very deep, collection of stories that could only have been written by a Luso(Portuguese)-American. I'm married to one. We have many relatives in California's central valley where several of the stories are set. This morning as we ate breakfast, my husband related his memories of the Holy Ghost Festivals (today being Pentecost) and we discussed the story The Man who was made of Netting. Manny wanted his daughter to be the star of the festival and so found some creative financing to get her a gem studded cape (at a mere $10K!) to wear in the procession. The results of this desire/decision are in that category of 'would be comical if it weren't so sad.' The story of the young Portuguese girl writing to Sr. Lucia (the last survivor of the Fatima miracle and the keeper of the 'last secret') is one every woman who ever had a dream as a pre-teen can relate to. Written as a series of letters, it shows the progression of dreams being dashed by reality. The title story, Our Lady of the Artichokes --so California in addition to being so Portuguese--I won't do spoilers-- is again funny and sad. All the stories have a desolate beauty, a longing for a better life while being resigned to what is here and now. A Portuguese saudade if you will. The prose is so sharp it can cut. For example:
Women were leaning over windowsills, looking altogether like open flaps in an Advent Calendar.
I didn't like the first story Taking a Stitch in a Dead Man's Arm and put the book down over a month ago, but came back to it and found on a re-read that while I may not like it, I can feel it, and appreciate the prose. The final story, The Lisbon Story -- about two dying men--one young, one old-- who are brought together by a house in Lisbon is a stunner, and will cause me to come back periodically to pick up this book and read a story here and there again and again.
I suspected it was five in the morning, an hour I worship; the sky pounds the black pearl of the night until it is in pieces and for a brief time, right then, the white of day is the grout holding it together, a perfect tiled mosaic to greet us...
This is definitely a sleeper. If you live in California, or have any Portuguese relatives or friends, you'll really enjoy this wonderful collection by Katherine Vaz.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review: A Taste for Death

Another reviewer has said that James demands a bit more of her readers than others. How true. This one also took me over a week to read, but it was worth it. Adam Dalgleish, the detective inspector is James' renaissance man. He is also a poet, a thinker, and a cool customer who serves as an intelligent mentor to his two subordinates, detectives Kate Miskin, and John Massingham. This particular mystery concerns the death of an M.P. He was found in the vestry of a small Anglican church with his throat cut, his razor near his hand, and a dead tramp nearby. Was it suicide or was it murder? There is a well drawn cast of characters: the deceased's mother, his pregnant wife and her lover, the housekeeper, the chauffeur, the vicar, several little old ladies, the brother-in-law, the daughter and her lover, and the old lady and young boy who found the body. Each has a piece of the puzzle, and James weaves them together elegantly. No spoilers, so I can't say much more, but the motivation of each is examined, cast-off, re-examined, and it is not until the end that we have an excellent resolution. I'm betting you can still find this one in libraries and at yard sales this time of year. It's worth it.

Review: Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Nancy Mitford presents such thorough, insightful, compelling, and penetrating look at one of America's premier poets, that I often felt at times like shouting "Too much information!" Millay, her husband, her sisters, her mother, and most of her lovers/friends (they were often the same) of both sexes seemed to be inveterent letter writers. Not only did they write letters, they often left numerous drafts of those letters giving us an intimate portrait of emotions, intentions, and life in the first half of the twentieth century. Their drinking, carousing (is that a nice enough way to say "lots of sex of all varieties?"), international traveling, neglect of family and friends, and late life drug addiction is well detailed. Our herione led a less than stellar life depending on one's perspective. At times I tired of her pouting promiscuity, her incessant mooching on the generosity of others, the constant indebtedness, and the incredible selfishness which most who knew her seemed to regard as part of her genius. Her husband's acceptance of and participation in their "open marriage" was difficult for me to understand. And swimming au naturel in Maine's island waters at any time of the year was not something I was impressed with....I thought it proved she was a bit "off." I guess we can accept that anyone who downed the copious amounts of alcohol she and hubby did was probably pickled to the point that they didn't feel the water temp! In addition to many photographs, there are numerous samples of her poetry, used to illustrate the various passions and favorites in her life. Taking the time to read and absorb the poems meant this book of over 500 pages took me almost 5 weeks to finish! In spite of the subject's tragic life and its ending, the author presents us with her life in an objective yet sympathetic way without passing judgment. That made it easy to read and recommend the book to others.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Tag cloud

Now here is something very cool. Those nice folks over at LibraryThing don't just give us a place to list all our books, now they've given us a visual way to display our holdings by using the tags we assign. WAY COOL....

Monday, May 25, 2009


Today, Memorial Day, instead of burying myself in a book, I decided to accompany my visiting sister to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland ME. It was a glorious, sunny, postcard perfect day, and we could not resist being able to take our time lingering through five gorgeous exhibits. It was the last day for an exhibit called Four In Maine, featuring among other things the pinhole photograry of Chris Pinchbeck, and the shell (as in sea creatures) art of Brian White. If you ever get a chance to see his work don't miss it. Hill Country House girl has a great blog on her site complete with pictures. There were several other exhibits that left us with a mind-boggling appreciation of a wide variety of talent: The N.C. Wyeth illustrations sent me scavenging as soon as I got home to find those books we own with his works in them. The pictures are of such a vibrant and lifelike quality, that they still entice readers of all ages. I have set them aside for our grand-daughter's visit later this summer. The exhibition of Jamie Wyeth's Seven Deadly Sins was displayed with an explanation of the historic philosophy of these concepts, along with quotes from various works discussing them: Dante's Inferno, Chaucer, Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation, Bertolt Brecht's Seven Deadly Sins of the Lower Middle Class, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, and Spencer's Fairie Queene. A feast for readers to complement the artist. There was even a movie playing that showed Wyeth painting his famous Inferno. What was most moving for me however on this Memorial Day were two small etchings by an artist who was new to me: Kerr Eby. These were in the exhibit American Arts between the Wars. Artillery Train and Shadows were done as part of his series of war prints. On the wall next to them was mounted the normal museum blurb about the artist, the techique, the provenance, etc, but it was the quote from a book entitled War published by Yale University Press in 1936, that brought home the true meaning of Memorial Day. I may not have been reading, but this magnificent collection made as much impact as any book could have. I leave you with
Can't (we) do something that will allow them to become more than a all those ghastly acres of the dead?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lemonade Award - x 2!!

Is this not too cool?? I've been nominated for 2 Lemonade Awards by Harvee at Book Bird Dog, and also by Kathy at One eyed stuffed bunny.... Thanks to both of you. It's great to feel recognized. I think it came just in time because -----bells, whistles, loud applause---we are supposed to have bright sunshine and temperatures in the 80's tomorrow here in Maine. So the lemonade has arrived at the perfect time. The part about this award that I like best is that I can't keep it, it has to be shared by passing it on to other fellow bloggers who exhibit attitude or gratitude. I get to pick 10, but there are so many good ones, and I really had a hard time picking. These are the ones I really find inspiring. If you are nominated.... here are the rules for passing on the award to your favorite blogs: 1. Put the Lemonade Award logo on your blog or post. 2. Nominate up to 10 blogs that show great attitude or gratitude. 3. Link to your nominees within your post. Let them know they have received this award by commenting on their blog. 4. Link to the person who gave you your award. So my nominees are: Ruth at Bookish Ruth. "FL" at The Forgetful Librarian forgets. Stefanie at So Many Books. Melissa at Shhh I'm Reading.... and... Laura at Musings Jessica at The Curious Reader Caty at Miscellaneous Mumblings . Jules at Jules' Book Reviews Gwendolyn at A Sea of Books Michele at Michele--only one L So check them all out...they're each terrific for a different reason.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Giveway--Obama's Blackberry

No, it's not the real device, but thanks to the nice folks at the Hachette Book group, I have five copies of this new publication to giveaway. The rules are simple, and I'll draw the names on June 7th. Think you're interested? Here's the blurb from Hachette (I haven't read it yet myself, but will post a review as soon as I get my review copy):

When Obama stated that if elected, he would keep his Blackberry, debate echoed through Washington and among the ranks of the Secret Service. What would it be like to have a president who could Twitter, send text messages, and navigate the web with ease? What would it be like to receive a text message from inside the Oval Office and, most importantly, what would it say? Now, for the first time, We The People are privy to our new leader's epistolary back-and-forths on his wily hand-held device. We're about to discover that his emails (and the replies, from his wife and daughters, Biden, Palen, Rush, Hannity, the new first puppy, and even Bush) are so tuned in to the language of electronic correspondence they come hilariously close to the brink of legibility.

This giftable, imagined glimpse into Obama's beloved Blackberry traverses the mundane and momentous contours of the Commander in Chief's life, from security briefings to spam, basketball practice to domestic bliss, and the panic of oops-I-hit-reply-all, to, of course, the trauma of dealing with the First Mother In Law.
To wit: BidenMyTime: Hey U, whatcha doin? BARACKO: M rly busy BidenMyTime: Right :( Can I lv at 4:45
So here's how to enter: Leave a comment below. Please make sure to leave your e-mail address if not visible in your blogger profile. For extra entries, you can do one or all of the following - please leave a separate comment for each:
  • tell me what was the last book you enjoyed reading;
  • follow my blog (see right sidebar);
  • subscribe to my feed by e-mail (see subscribe button at the bottom);
  • blog about this giveaway linking to this post and get 2 entries;
  • email three people about this giveaway and copy me
The deadline to enter is June 6, 2009, 11:59pm EST. I'll select the five winners randomly and notify you by email. If you don't acknowledge within 72 hours, I'll draw another winner. Sorry, but this is open only to residents of U.S. or Canada. No P.O. box addresses, please. One book per person. Winners will receive their prizes directly from Hachette Book Group. Good luck!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Review: The Frozen Thames

In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. Thus begins this stunning collection of short stories which presents 40 short fictional account of events tied to each of those deep freezes. Humphrey's prose is as crystal clear as the ice she describes. Each vignette addresses how the river is so central to many lives in London, and how the ice floes in a tidal river impact that life. Living on a tidal river, I can truly appreciate how the ebb and flow of the tide effects the ice that forms in winter. We don't get the solid freeze described in the book, (although many rivers in Maine do!), but we do get the 'iceberg' effect so eloquently described in one of her stories. Her words give us a clear picture of the tribulations of waterman who normally ferried people across the river, the shopkeepers who depended on goods being delivered by boat, the inability of people such as stone cutters to work properly due to the extreme temperatures, and the difficulties getting animals to walk on ice. The stories of sweating sickness on the one hand, and the glorious tented fairs on the other provide sharp contrasts. One really touching story tells of families bringing birds into their houses and letting them build nests inside to prevent them from freezing to death. Stories of plague, fire, heriosm, and city life from 1142 to 1895 are exquisitely written and easy to read. The book itself is beautifully done with excellent illustrations to enhance the text. It's a beautiful afternoon read.

Review: Girl of His Dreams

Another marvelous Commissario Brunetti story. The urbane, well-read Brunetti discovers the body of a young girl floating in a canal. The search to discover how and why she died eventually leads him to a camp of gypsies where he must struggle with the prejudices of his fellow workers, and his own distress at the lack of apparent interest in the girl's death. The young age of the victim, coupled with bureaucratic indifference he must overcome to pursue answers, deeply disturb Brunetti. He keeps comparing this death to Greek tragedies he is reading, and at one point, is unable to continue reading because the similarities are too close. He is unable to sleep and often sees the girl in his dreams. He keeps asking himself who would not report a daughter missing? As usual, Leon provides us with an outstanding plot, incredibly rich characters, and a resolution that is true to real life.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Review: Solider's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace & War at West Point

I suspect I had rather undefined expectations of this book, which the work did not live up to. While at times it is thought provoking, after the first 100 or so pages, it became repetitive and unfocused. Some serious editing would have tightened this up a lot. Prof Samet seems to jump around a lot, using current and former students as examples of points she is trying to make, but because these central characters are not developed, it is difficult at times to remember just which soldier she is referring to. The writing is dry, and often uninteresting--at least to me, and I served in the military. The author is a civilian English Lit professor at West Point, trying to explain why the study of literature and poetry is important to today's soldiers. However, it sometimes seemed as if she were writing a treatise on the army's mission, instead of trying to enlighten us about how cadets react to studying literature and poetry. She makes her point(s), over and over and over again. She also seems to spend a lot of time defending the Army itself (particularly the officer corps) to the detriment of talking about the impact and methodology of teaching English to that Army. Some of her best writing is explaining the difference in attitudes towards non-military studies among both students and staff at the Military Academy prior to and then after 9/11, but by the middle of the book, I found myself beginning to say, and so??? and So???? It just seemed to drone on. Not on my favorites list.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review: Last Night at the Lobster

A short, well drawn portrait of inner conflict and life behind the scenes of restaurant chains, this book was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist in 2007. Manny DeLeon is the manager of a Red Lobster restaurant chosen by upper management to be closed. He has two girl friends, one of whom is pregnant, in the process of becoming an 'ex' but whom he can't quite let go of. The Red Lobster company owns Olive Garden, and has offered Manny a position at OG as an asst manager. It's a job, but it's a demotion. He can also bring along 4 others from the many who work at the Lobster with him, and making those choices is not easy for him either. The story plays out in less than 24 hours, starting the morning of the last day the restaurant will be open. The closure has not been publicized, but the staff has been told, and mutinously, most don't show up. A true New England Blizzard has already begun, it's Christmas week, and in true New England style the 'plow guy' is nowhere to be found. As he clears the walk and spreads snow-melt, Manny tries to decide whether to keep the restaurant open with the few staff who have come to work--mostly to pick up their checks--and very sparce patronage. He desparately wants to make a good showing on his last day. Throughtout the day, we are treated to a series of incidents as the nasty waitress deals with the obnoxious 4 yr old and even more obnoxious mother, the prima donna 'hostess' refuses to chip in to help out, the retirement party (the only big business of the day) complains about one thing or another, the cook continually criticizes everyone and everything, every member of the staff threatens to walk out, the pot of freshing cooked pasta hits the deck, a bus load of sick old folks pulls in the use the 'facilities', the power flickers and fails, booze is disappearing from the bar, and Manny tries to concentrate on just getting through the last day. The subtle psycological drama being played out here is exquisitely written. Humor lightens the severity of the story, but in the end, it's an excellent portrait of life today. "Stuff" happens, life goes on--not always the way we want it to-- and not many people even notice.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: Lethal Legacy by Linda Fairstein

Yesterday during the long rainy drive from Maine to D.C., I was finding it difficult to read due to constantly changing light conditions (and maybe old eyes?). So I decided to listen to one of the books I had loaded in my MP3 player. What an unexpected delight this was. Not that I expected anything unlikeable from Linda Fairstein, it’s just that this particular book had an underlying mystery that really appealed to me. There are of course the cast of regulars: Alexandra Cooper “Coop”, an assistant DA who is also a member of the NYPD special victims squad; her side-kicks , detectives Mike Chadwick and Wallace Mercer; her gorgeous lover, french chef/entrepreneur Luke?? -who cares what his last name is? There are the obligatory murders to be solved, and then there is the setting....Somehow the murders appear to be connected with the New York Public Library, its magnificent collection of rare books and maps, its assortment of endowed collections, its not to publicly known underground vaults and tunnels, and several less than amiable trustees. As they question librarians, curators, custodial staff and trustees, the reader is treated to an incredible lesson in cartography, rare book collecting, and book preservation. As a librarian who does not deal in antiquities, I was fascinated by all the detail she manages to impart so painlessly. (Did you know there are books bound in human skin??) It is a subject that could easily have become boring, but she instead has me running to the train station to buy a ticket to New York! As the book progresses, new clues and new characters are introduced, so the reader is kept guessing right to the end. It has something for romance, mystery and history lovers. A real treat! In case you're worried, hubbie was driving.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Review: The Scarecrow and His Servant

A tattered scarecrow stands in the middle of a muddy field, taking no notice of the violent thunderstorm around him. But when a bolt of lightning strikes him, fizzing its way through his turnip head and down his broomstick, the Scarecrow blinks with surprise–and comes to life.
Thus begins one of the most fun reads I've done in years. Although advertised as juvenile fiction, this is a humorous and sophisticated story with appeal to all ages. If the adult in you won't let you read a child's book for yourself, find a youngun' and start reading aloud. The wee one will not let you put it down. The scarecrow appoints a young starving homeless boy to be his 'servant' and they run away from the evil Buffaloni family who have taken over the field where the scarecrow lived. Along the way they have a series of wonderful adventures: performing in a street theater, serving in the army, being lost at sea and shipwrecked on an island, all the while being pursued by the evil Buffalonis. Near the end, a courtroom scene with a raven acting as defense counsel for the scarecrow, had me howling in laughter. This is a heart-warming, feel good, happily ever after the will be re-read for generations. Put this on the summer list and share it with someone you love.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Here with a loaf of bread
beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse--and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness-- And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
Sound familiar? I had never read this enchanting work before, but have looked at it sitting on my shelf ever since I picked up a beautifully illustrated volume at a used book store in London years ago. I suspect it must be the source of the oft-quoted "loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thee..." I don't think I'm qualified to do a formal review, because I'm not an english lit or poetry major. But I did find the poetry moving, the rhyme scheme melodic, and the illustrations definitely enhancing the words. I came away with an appreciation of the beauty of the words, the pictures, and life in general. It can be read in about an hour. It could be studied and analysed for a lifetime.

Review: Audio --New England Days by Sarah Orne Jewett

I've been trying to acquaint myself with as many Maine authors as possible (we have almost 100 in our little town library) and stumbled across this one on the state's audio download list. It is actually a collection of some of Jewett's best. There are 8 stand alone stories set mostly in Maine, many of them featuring 'old' (or as we pc people now say 'chronologically advantaged') women and how they dealt with the hardships of either widowhood, or spinsterhood. Many highlighted how their fellow townspeople helped out. One story "Flight of Betsy Lane" features 3 woman who are living in the 'poorhouse' ---an actual instutituion that existed here in Maine until 1977 (I looked it up!). One of them (Miss Lane) is visited by an old friend who gives her some money. She neglects to tell the town selectmen about her good luck (shades of early welfare fraud?), nor does she share the news with her friends. Instead, one mornin' she ups and walks off -- she wanted to go see the exposition in Phillie. Those left behind begin to believe she may well have 'done herself in.' When she returns, with small gifts for each of them, she brings enough wonder and stories of what she saw to keep them all in gossip for at least a lifetime. The last story, "The Hilton's Holiday", almost made me cry. It is the story of a couple who have a barebones existence on a farm, whose only son, who would have been expected to help out and do the hard work with the father, had died. The Hiltons however, instead of bemoaning their bad luck, were thankful for and accepted, nurtured and valued their daughters. In fact, Mr. Hilton decides the girls need a little vacation, so he hitches up the wagon and takes them to town (17 miles away!) for a day of sights, treats , and just enjoying a day off from chores with their dad. The fact that he was able to show off his girls made it a great trip for dad too. Many years ago, my dad drove me and 5 of my friends to high school (I went to private school so there was no bus) every day and that time we spent together was precious beyond words. This story brought it all back. So well written, and exceptionally well narrated, it just made you ache for the simple life and people who could live with so little and still be happy.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: Wife of the Gods

Inspector Darko Dawson has been sent to Ketanu, a village several kilometers away from his home base of Accra, the capital of Ghana, to investigate a murder. He has mixed emotions about going, since Ketanu is the site of his mother's disappearance more than 25 years ago. In fact, he still has relatives living there. While in Ketanu, not only must the urbane Dawson contend with a population fixated on witchcraft, but the murder investigation involves him with many local superstitions, faith healers, and priests with several wives. While the publisher compares this book to Alexander McCall Smith's 1st Ladies Detective Agency series, the only similarity is the setting. This is a good police procedural, with well developed and believable characters, an engaging setting, and a cleverly twisting plot that kept me guessing until the end. Dawson is a wonderful character-- a dope smoking, firey tempered, independent, 'take no prisoners' detective. He reminds me very much of J.A. Jance's J.P. Beaumont character. While he fights his own demons, sneers at inept superiors and peers, and constantly annoys everyone, he befriends the helpless, listens to his inner senses, and cleverly solves the crime. Dr. Quartey writes eloquently, in spare but beautiful prose. The book proceeds quickly from the opening to the end, --in fact, the cliche 'page-turner' is very applicable. I especially enjoyed having a glossary of Ghanian terms available. It made the dialogue (which is masterful) readily accessible to a reader unfamiliar with the area. I was thrilled to see that he is already working on book #2. Both the character of Dawson and the author have the makings of a great series. I was lucky enough to get this as an Early Reviewer for LibraryThing. Watch for it in July!

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Second 999 Challenge

I have so many books I want to read, and keep finding to read, that I was having trouble fitting them into my original 999 challenge, so I've started a second one. That really means I've challenged myself to read 9 books in each of 18 (9x2) different categories by the end of 2009. If you're interested, here are the Categories (with the current number completed) for the Original challenge: (there are 10 and the first nine will count, the one not finished will slop over into challenge #2) 1. Fiction - including mysteries and thrillers 9/9 Category Finished !!! 2. Books about books, libraries or language 4/9 3. Things Portuguese 4/9 4. Re-reads/finish ups/cleanoff the MP3 5/9 5. Politics/History/Biographies 5/9 6. Award winning books/authors 5/9 7. Poetry/letters/short stories 4/9 8. Books recommended by others 5/9 9. No place else to put them 9/9 Category Finished!!! 10. Theology Category Finished !!! The second Challenge has the following 1. Mysteries 2. Leftover's from challenge #1 3. Maine - authors or settings 4. Historical fiction 5. Early Reviews from LT (or ARCs) 6. Recommendations from LTers or other books 7. Surprise ! (Books that scream "Pick me" for no particular reason) 8. Audio books-- I always have at least one audio going 9. Another "no place else to put them." Wish me luck, or join me if you want to can follow my progress on the links from the sidebar.