Saturday, December 31, 2011

A last look back

It's time to wrap up the old year.  I do think it's valuable to look back because it helps to see where you've been and then figure out where you want to go.

In 2011 I read 149 books.  I thought I'd hit the 150 mark, but discovered I'd double counted one of my books back in August.  Oh well.....whatever.....Here's how they break down by genre:

116 Fiction
2 fantasy
2 graphic novel
11 historical fiction
56 mystery
1 Sci Fi
3 short stories
40 pure fiction
2 Poetry

30 Non-fiction
13 bios/memoirs
2 travel
2 sociology studies
1 science
6 history
6 food
Now comes the Fun part.  Listing the best reads.   Please note: these are MY best fiction reads, not necessarily the best fiction published in 2011...many were published earlier than 2011. And I'd be VERY hard pressed to choose the best of the best, so please don't ask!

Fiction (links go to the book page on

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Cloud Atlas
One Was a Soldier
Lester Higata's 20th Century
The Beautiful One has Come
God of Small Things
Nervous Condition
Sea of Poppies
Night Circus
A Trick of the Light

Best Non-Fiction Reads of 2011

Cleopatra: a life
The Social Animal
American Nations
Strange Relation: A Memoir
Curse of the Narrows

Honorable Mentions

Work Song
A Buddha in the Attic

Major Disappointments

Land of the Painted Caves
The Russian Affair
Great House
The Tiger's Wife
The Reading Promise

And finally by Format:

56 audio
10 audio /print (these were books I listened to and read in print. I often find this a particularly fascinating way to inhale a work.)
30 e books ( I love my NOOK!!)
52 print

So here's to a great year for 2012 although I don't expect the numbers will be nearly this high.  I'll be posting my expectations for the year within the next 24 hours.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

A Man Booker Prize Nominee
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Publisher-Format: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 515 pages
Audio book Brilliance Audio, 18 hrs, 14 min
Narrator Phil Gigante
Subject: Opium wars, colonialism
Setting: India, Canton
Series: Ibis Trilory
Genre: historical fiction
Source: public library

I just finished this fantastic book, and now I'm panting to get to the next one. I really couldn't stop long enough to take notes, so I just decided to let go and wallow in the gorgeous language, and the wonderful characters. I'm certainly having some love-hate relations with a couple of them, and really want to see how this story progresses. The story is set in India, and is a good exposè of the British Empire and its control of the Opium trade. One of the main characters is a young mixed race sailor from Baltimore, who has chosen to make his fortune sailing on this gorgeous Baltimore clipper ship. His rise to a place of some power in the company provides a backdrop for several other personality driven story lines.

The reader gets a really good picture of how the British used the Indian caste system to keep the natives under control. However, they also needed workers in the fields, and forced many lower caste individuals into what amounted to slavery, loaded them onto a sailing ship (the Ibis) and headed for the Mauritius Islands. I was so fascinated with this journey that I went to Google Maps to see where the Mauritus Islands were. There are wicked way out there in the middle of no-where. The voyage reminds me somewhat of "Amistad" with enslaved people totally at the mercy of a gang of hoodlums who will exercise power any time they can.

I really have to let this settle before I can write a proper review, but I highly recommend listening to this in addition to reading it. I literally did both. I would read a chapter as I listened to it. The audio was well synchronized to the book chapters, making it very easy to keep track. The incredible voice of Phil Gigante the narrator, and his ability to speak the difference languages and dialects really added a dimension of pleasure to the experience.

Sea of Poppies is volume #1 of the Ibis Trilogy. I can't wait to get the next one "River of Smoke".

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Special Christmas Wish

Although everyone may not be enjoying the peaceful romance of a White Christmas,
I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you all the blessings, peace, health, and happiness 
the idea brings with it.
No matter your faith, or your chosen holiday, this is one time of the year when everyone of us can stop to celebrate our common humanity, our desire for peace, and hopefully take the time to spread peace and goodwill through small acts of goodness, love and kindness.
May you receive the blessings promised by the Light born on Christmas
and the happiness of knowing you are loved.
May we all receive the peace we so desperately long for and that this war-torn world deserves.

Merry Christmas
Happy Hannakah
Happy Kwanza
and for all other
Joy for all days.
Tutu will be absent from the blog scene for the rest of 2011 - I'm spending some restful time with my children, sisters, mother and granddaughter.  I'll be back on the New Year with a recap of this wonderful reading year, and some news about a couple of new projects.

Here's hoping Santa left a PILE of books under your tree, along with some hot chocolate, and a warm snuggly.  Happy New Year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Double Header of Familiar Series

This time of year does not offer large uninterrupted chunks of time for reading, so I often turn to the familiar for relaxing and enjoyment. Recently, I had the opportunity to get back to two of my favorite series: Lily Bard and Salvo Montalbano. They're very different, but by now, I'm familiar with the characters, the settings, and the basic life events of each, so I can sit back with each of them and simply enjoy what's happening right now. It's like meeting up with an old friend while you're downtown Christmas shopping. You stop in at your favorite eatery, have an enjoyable mid-day meal, a glass of wine, and catch up on what's been happening. You leave refreshed, and looking forward to seeing them again.

Author: Charlaine Harris
Publisher Format: Berkley (2008), Edition: e-book 224 pages
Subject: Christmas wedding in a small town - oh yeah - a cold case missing child investigation
Setting: Arkansas
Series: Lily Bard mysteries
Genre: amateur sleuth/private investigator crime solving team
Source: electronic Epub download from public library

This is my kinda series -- I love Lily Bard, adore her main squeeze Jack, and needed a Christmas book to get me in the holiday mood. Not only is there some Christmas, there's a southern wedding, and that in itself is enough to produce lots of enjoyment. Add the old cold case of a missing girl and a few more bodies and this gets very interesting.  Nice resolution, nothing overly coronary.  This one as an ebook took only about 3 hours to cruise through. Easy, fun, and still fresh enough that I want to track down the 2 left in the series I haven't yet read.
Author: Andrea Camilleri
Publisher Format: Penguin Books- Blackstone Audio, 5 hrs, 52 min, 276 page equivalent
Year of publication: 2010 (original print copyright 2004)
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Subject: crime solving; mafia, kidnapping
Setting: Sicily
Series: Inspector Montalbano mysteries
Genre: police procedural
Source: public library audio download

In this latest of the ongoing adventures of Salvo Montalbano and his sidekicks Fazzio, Mimmi, and Catarello, we are introduced to the Italian concept of kidnap/ransom where everyone expects the victim to be ransomed, the police want to help facilitate the exchange of ransom money for the victim, and even the priest says that if the family can't afford the ransom, then the godfather of the victim must pay.  There's none of the American expectation that the bad guys should be caught and punished.  Everyone knows the mafia rules and everything will be fine as long as the money is paid.  In this case, however, the crooks appear to have kidnapped the daughter of a penniless and broken old man, and it is up to Montalbano to identify the true motivation for the kidnapping.  Classic Montalbano.  If you're a fan of this series, you'll enjoy it.  If you've never read any, I'd suggest starting a little earlier in the series (this is #8).  They're always good for a short satisfying escape from reality.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

Author: Steve Martin
Publisher- Format: Grand Central Publishing (2010), Hardcover, 304 pages
Subject: Art dealers, auctions, art history
Setting: New York
Genre: fiction
Source: my own shelves - a 2010 Christmas gift!

I can't believe it took me so long to get to this one!  I had it as one of my top picks on my Christmas wish list last year but it just kept getting buried in other "must reviews."  I'm so glad I didn't give up on it.  Steve Martin has given us a well-written, tightly plotted view of the art world in the recent and current economy.  He certainly seems to have done his homework to be able to present realistic scenes of auction houses, private galleries, international jet-set buyers, and less than honorable wheeler-dealers. The protagonist, Lacey Yaeger, an aggressive up-and-comer in the art world, takes us on a roller coaster ride of emotions, motivations, love affairs, and monetary ups and downs. Told through the voice of art writer Daniel Franks, her career, her mentors, her co-workers, her love affairs, and her competition are all well drawn and pulled together to provide a taunt story that keeps the reader turning pages long past bedtime.

In addition to a good story and some good basic explanations of art, art history, and  how art is collected and sold, the book features twenty-two beautiful four color plates of many of the works featured in the book.  The pictures added the extra frosting to a good solid cake.  Steve Martin has certainly proved that his writing abilities are on a par with his acting and directing. 

Trying to "read" this in an audio version is probably a non-starter since the lushness of the paintings would not be available to contribute to the reader's experience.  As an e-book, it would only work on a color reader.  I think a lot would be lost in a strict black and white world.  As a print hardback, it's a winner, a definite positive, enriching, and enjoyable read.  Now that I've finished last year's Christmas book, I can look forward to this year's with a clear conscience.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't) by Betty White

Author: Betty White
Publisher-Format: Penguin Group: Putnam Adult Kindle edition, 272 pages
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: Lessons learned from life
Genre: Memoir
Source: Public library download

A recent press release from Penguin Audio announced that Betty White has been nominated for a Grammy for the audio edition of this work.  It's not hard to imagine that.  The print (or in this case Kindle) edition is just as much fun as I imagine the audio would be.  Penguin tells us:
In If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t), Betty’s wit and wisdom take center stage as she tackles topics like friendship, romantic love, aging, television, fans, love for animals, and the brave new world of celebrity. Drawing from a lifetime of lessons learned, If You Ask Me mixes her thoughtful observations with humorous stories from a seven-decade career in Hollywood. Longtime fans and new fans alike will relish Betty’s candid take on everything from the unglamorous reality behind red-carpet affairs, to her beauty regime (“I have no idea what color my hair is, and I never intend to find out”), to the Facebook campaign that helped persuade her to host Saturday Night Live despite having turned down the hosting job three times. Featuring all-new material, with a focus on the past fifteen years of her life, If You Ask Me is funny, sweet, and to the point – just like Betty.
 We downloaded this ebook from our library's Overdrive program to test our new Kindle e-reader.  The process was painless, and turned out to be a really fun.  Betty White is a tell-it-like-it-is lady whose long and noted career in TV is only one aspect of what makes her tick.  She actually reads and answers her own fan mail, confesses to be totally inept with computers, has loads of interesting friends - male and female- and as everyone knows, is absolutely devoted to the cause of humane treatment of animals.  Stories of her interaction with dogs, dolphins, chimps, cats, snakes, and humans all bring smiles to the reader.  Her easy, breezy style of writing gives the reader an experience similar to sitting down by the pool to sip lemonade together.   The e-book worked very well, even showing the numerous black and white pictures in sharp clarity.  I'm betting the audio was a definite winner given Ms. White's natural sense of timing and comedy.

This is one that would make a great Christmas gift in any format for someone who grew up watching Hollywood Squares, Password, Golden Girls, and Mary Tyler Moore. It's an easy read, and will be well received by those who like celebrity memoirs.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: A Thousand Lives: An Untold Story..... by Julia Scheeres

A Thousand Lives:An Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
Author:Julia Scheeres
Publisher Format: Simon and Schuster, Free Press, e-book galley, 320 pages
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: Jim Jones leader of the People's Temple, and the organization's structure and activities
Setting: San Francisco, and Guyana
Genre: historical narrative
Source: e-galley from publisher via Net Galley

Publisher's marketing copy:
"They left America for the jungles of Guyana to start a better life. Yet what started as a Utopian dream soon devolved into a terrifying work camp run by a madman, ending in the mass murder-suicide of 914 members in November 1978.

In A Thousand Lives, the New York Times bestselling memoirist Julia Scheeres traces the fates of five individuals who followed Jim Jones to South America as they struggled to first build their paradise, and then survive it. Each went for different reasons-some were drawn to Jones for his progressive attitudes towards racial equality, others were dazzled by his claims to be a faith healer. But once in Guyana, Jones's drug addiction, mental decay, and sexual depredations quickly eroded the idealistic community.
It's been 33 years since this tragedy occured, in which 914 people died in a mass suicide/murder scheme in November 1986, and the story still is repugnant to me.  I can perhaps understand that individuals might choose to commit suicide for a variety of reasons, but I'm not able to comprehend participating in a mass suicide event that included killing hundreds of innocent children.   Julia Scheeres has done extensive research, including interviewing survivors, and its shows in the details she was able to uncover to give us so much of the story behind the headlines.  She begins with the young Jim Jones and traces his "call" to ministry, his education, and his founding of the People's Temple.

But she doesn't stop with Jones' story.  By telling us the story of several members of the church - young, old, black, white, married, widowed, divorced, single, recovering addicts, paroled criminals - we begin to understand why people felt wanted, needed, and hopeful that here was an opportunity the world was not offering anyplace else.  As she follows these members through the years from California to Guyana, we witness the increasing megalomania of Jones and the tension, the uncertainty and the terror of those who finally come to realize that there is no way out of the situation in which they have placed themselves. 

It's terrifying, shocking,and appalling, but it's mesmerizing, spell-binding, and absolutely compelling. It was so depressing to see that the promise of hope so many accepted was perverted by someone purporting to be God, and that people could believe such a person could in fact lead them to eternal happiness.  Watching Jones turn disatisfied people into sub-human creatures who could turn on their own spouses, and children, was not a pleasant reading experience, but it was a story that once started could not be put down.

I only wish the review copy I received had been better edited, but I'm sure the publisher cleaned up those glitches by the time it was released.  It's a powerful story, and one that deserves to be shown to the world, if for no other reason than to prevent it happening again.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review : Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Author: Julie Otsuka
Publisher- Format: e-book galley: Knopf Doubleday 160 pgs,and audio: Books on Tape, Random House Audio - 3 hrs, 52 min
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: Japanese mail-order brides
Setting: US - 1st half of 20th century
Genre: historical fiction
Source: ebook- publisher galley through NetGalley; audio - public library download

The publisher entices us thusly: "... a tour de force about a group of women brought from Japan to San Francisco in the early 1900s as mail-order brides. In six unforgettable, incantatory sections, the novel traces their new lives as "picture brides": the arduous voyage by boat, where the girls trade photos of their husbands and imagine uncertain futures in an unknown land . . . their arrival in San Francisco and the tremulous first nights with their new husbands . . . backbreaking toil as migrant workers in the fields and in the homes of white women . . . the struggle to learn a new language and culture . . . giving birth and raising children who come to reject their heritage . . . and, finally, the arrival of war, and the agonizing prospect of their internment. Once again Julie Otsuka has written a spellbinding novel about identity and loyalty, and what it means to be an American in uncertain times."

Written almost entirely in the first person plural voice, the author uses this unusual point of view to give us what appears to be an impersonal overview of all that is happening - "we did such and such, one of us did this, etc." .  But as the haunting repetitious prose chants itself into our brain, we the reader realize that the events being portrayed were at once incredibly personal, intimate, and private moments of the entire group.  They may each have experienced their lives individually, but these experiences paint a collective picture of loneliness, despair, hope, encouragement, and ultimate heart-break.  

It is truly, as the publisher touts, a tour-de-force.  It is easy to see why it was a National Book Award finalist.  The poetic nature of the prose, and the vivid imagery of the women's adjustment to life in America, to marriage with men they did not know, and to a country that does not quite accept them, are well worth the short time needed to immerse oneself into the story.  It won't be quickly forgotten.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher /Format: Random House audio,13 hrs,40 minutes; 400 pg. equivalent
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: magic, illusions, circus
Setting: fictional circus
Genre: fiction: Magical realism, fantasy

Opening excerpt:


The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. 

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

But it is not open for business. Not just yet. 

Within hours everyone in town has heard about it. By afternoon the news has spread several towns over. Word of mouth is a more effective method of advertisement than typeset words and exclamation points on paper pamphlets or posters. It is impressive and unusual news, the sudden appearance of a mysterious circus. People marvel at the staggering height of the tallest tents. They stare at the clock that sits just inside the gates that no one can properly describe. 
And the black sign painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads:
Opens at Nightfall 
Closes at Dawn
I don't normally read or enjoy pure fantasy, but from this point I was absolutely captured. I could not put this down. At one point, as I was listening in the car, I drove an extra 10 miles out of my way because I did not want to stop. The story is one of pure magic.

A young woman, Celia Bowen, daughter of a famous magician, is trained by her father to use and enhance very exceptional powers she has. She becomes the premier illusionist in the "Cirque de Reves". Her father enters her (without her knowledge) into a contest of magical wits and powers against another magician - the protegè of the circus' owner, an old rival.  This young man Marco  also does not know at first that he is locked into this combat. As both young people grow, and become more adept at their powers, they are drawn romantically to each other; the circus gains in fame; more fans are engaged; and more incredible actors are introduced to us. The suspense builds beautifully as the reader knows that there is a contest, we know who the contestants are, but we don't know exactly what is involved. We are as much in the fog about the details as the main characters. Even with a constantly back and forth time line, we have no trouble hanging on to the illusion. We sit on the edge of our seats in that circus tent waiting to see what happens next, and every time a new magic occurs we wonder: "Is this it? Is this the contest?" Later, as the suspense builds and the characters become more involved, we undergo another kind of suspense waiting for the climax.

I can't say anything more.  I can't spoil this fabulous, wonderful, engaging, and incredible story telling.  It is a book to be read in any format, and enjoyed over and over again.  It's definitely going into my personal permanent collection, and into my library's collection too.  Grab some popcorn, settle back in your favorite reading venue and treat yourself.  It's the best thing Santa can put in your book pile. Prepare to be seduced.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Kinda Tree!

If you haven't seen her gorgeous blog, you can find this and thousands of wonderful bookshelves, and book doodads at Bookshelf Porn.  If you like on Facebook, or subscribe in a reader, you can see all of these everyday.  One can always dream.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stressed = Desserts??

A very wise friend once told me that "Stressed" is "Desserts" spelled backwards, so this week, while I haven't been writing any reviews, I have been relieving stress.  I suppose I could have done a Weekend Cooking post about my assorted squash/praline pie that I made Monday night, but the whole point of stress reduction is to avoid doing what sounds like a "COULDA, SHOULDA, WOULDA".   So I baked this gorgeous pie, and after hearing the government's report about the lack of nutrition in many of our breakfast foods, we've been enjoying it for breakfast.  After all, it has vegetables, protein, and very little fat.  And it's yummy.  And I don't even have a picture to share.  Oh yeah, did I mention the pain meds for the back and shoulder I threw out lifting a 20 pound turkey for Thanksgiving?  Working great, but not good for motivating one to do too much work.

So....Sleigh bells, snowflakes, giving, parties, cookies, wrapping, ornaments, wreaths....trees, travel, friends and relatives. Our expectation of holidays often comes from a combination of Hallmark, Hollywood, and Home and can lead to depressing let-downs when others' expectations are different (or one's old bones are creaking).

Holidays can be especially challenging if travel and distance is involved. I think the older we get, the more we value our little creature comforts--we want our own bed, our own pillows, we like our own brand of coffee, and want to watch a specific late night news show (or sports event) while our hosts want to go to bed early and turn off the TV. We look forward to visiting with family, but also value our time here at home enjoying each other's company and the quiet that is life in the woods.

The stress of meeting everyone's holiday expectations can often make it seem like more effort is being expended than is needed.  So this year, we're trying here in Tutuland to keep it simple.  We're baking cookies to share with friends and family, we've put up a gorgeous wreath on the door and candles in the windows and we've gotten some gifts for the kids.  We're going to go to "Grandma's" in Baltimore and share Christmas Eve with my three sisters, two kids and everyone's spouses and then spend a quiet Christmas day with G-ma.  The favorite cat-sitter lady is lined up, the volunteer schedule is filled at the library and the town's tree is lit. So we can sneak out of town for a few days.  Now we just need to find a good audio book for the trip down and back (actually can almost get in two - total of 24 hours on the road.)

Meantime, there are several other books I'm trying to finish, and several more that are complete you may have noticed, my reviewing genes seem to have gone on vacation early this year.  I will have at least five more reviews before the end of the year, and they're all great books, but I think when those are done I'm going to kick back, and just read without thinking about reviews for the rest of the year.

In the meantime, those cookies are certainly DESSERTS that are taking care of the STRESSED.  What are you doing this year to keep holiday mayhem under control?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Review: The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

Author: David Rowell
Publisher/Format: G.P. Putnam's Sons, pprbk galley 272 pgs
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: hope and despair
Setting: Eastern seaboard of US from New York to Wash D.C.
Genre: Literary fiction
Source: Early Reviewers program of LibraryThing

In the Train of Small Mercies, David Rowell essentially gives us a snapshot of a single day in the lives of six very different people.  The date is never given, but those of us who are old enough to remember will never forget the events of June 1968 and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.  Using the day of RFK's funeral and the interminable trip of his funeral train from New York to Washington D.C. as the backdrop, the author introduces us to a cast of characters who have nothing in common except their struggles with personal hopes, dreams, disappointments and disasters.

We meet Lionel Chase, a young college student who, on his first day working as a Pullman porter, is assigned to serve aboard the Kennedy train.  He'd really rather be with his pregnant girlfriend in North Carolina.  Michael Colvert, a fifth-grader whose father is quite absent from his life, comes dangerously close to disaster as he and his buddies play on the rails waiting to catch a glimpse of the casket as the train rolls by; Delores King, a huge Kennedy fan married to one of RFK's most ardent detractors, sneaks her young daughter out of the house to go see the train, and in doing so, puts her daughter in grave peril.

Further along Edwin Rupp is having a pool party, and hoping this opening of his personal swimming venue will somehow put some spice back into his sagging relationship with his wife.  Their yard not only has a new pool, but the train tracks run right along the fence line, perfect for viewing the rolling funeral cortege. We also follow Maeve McDerdon, Irish nanny extraordinaire, whose appointment to interview with Ethel Kennedy for a position minding the newest little Kennedy is abruptly cancelled because of the funeral.  And finally, we meet Jamie West, recently returned (minus one leg) Vietnam vet, whose life, like all the others in this saga, will never be the same, and who is just beginning to reconcile his past dreams with his future opportunities.

Each of these characters has flaws, each has dreams, each puts his or her life on hold for this one day, to watch the train go by.  Their stories are connected only by the train tracks, and the national day of mourning.  Otherwise, they are simply and crisply presented as six short stories, all of which have elements of hope woven into them. 

I usually enjoy this format in fiction, but..... while the writing was superbly readable and descriptive, and the characters well drawn, I found it difficult to find a thread that really pulled them together as tightly as I've come to expect.  There were continual mentions of RFK and his influence, sprinklings of expectations from segments of the population about the premature ending of not only his candidacy but also his life, but I just could not feel them congealing into a whole work.  It's a well-written, well-edited piece of fiction.  I just wish the six stories hung together in a more specific and coherent whole.

Friday, December 2, 2011

All I want for Christmas is a book.....

What a marvelous idea! Often parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles come to teachers and librarians asking for suggestions about "good" books to get for special kids in their lives for Christmas gifts. Rather than develop a list of what other people's kids have liked, or what teachers and parents THINK their children SHOULD read, why not let the little ones pick out a few of their own. Even if you ask them to make a list to send to Santa you at least will know what appeals to them.  Children definitely have a better chance of reading a book they pick themselves than one foisted on them because someone in authority said they SHOULD read it.

If your budget this year doesn't stretch to buying books, don't forget the public library. Establishing a regular library visiting schedule with your children is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child. Pat Conroy, in his bestseller My Reading Life, credits his mother's habit of taking all her children to the library every week, and letting them choose their own books as one of the biggest factors in his adult literacy and success as a writer.

So, make a day of it tomorrow. Visit a local bookstore, stop and get a hot chocolate, and go home to read a good book. And just think.....the children may be so enthralled with their books, they'll disappear so you can get the grown-up holiday chores done.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Author:Tsitsi Dangarembga
Publisher/Format: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Second edition, Pprbk, 224 pages
Year of publication:  2004
Subject: treatment of women in colonial Rhodesia
Setting: Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
Genre: fictional autobiography
Source: Maine Humanities Council "Let's Talk About It" book club

From the beginning this story grabbed me.  Young Tambu opens by telling us she is not sad when her brother dies.  Whoa!!!  Who would not mourn the loss of a sibling?  She gives us a picture of her life as one of poverty, lack of education (or opportunities for anything other than the very basics), and utter hopelessness that things might improve.  Until her brother dies.....There are no other sons, so suddenly, she is next in line to be educated, to have a chance to improve not only her life but that of other women of her village. Until then, her life is encapsulated in this quote:
My father thought I should not mind (Not going to school) Is that anything to worry about? Ha-a-a, it's nothing, he reassured me....'Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?  Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.'  pg. 15.
My father (who was the son of immigrants) had much the same thought about the value of higher education for women. Fortunately my mother had a more enlightened attitude. And Daddy did eventually admit that he was quite proud of all his daughters' accomplishments.

In "Nervous Conditions" Dangarembga gives us a portrait of two cousins in Rhodesia during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Tambu, the main protagonist, is constantly compared and compares herself to her cousin Nyasha, who was raised in England where her parents were studying, until her early teens. After her brother's death, Tambu goes to live at the mission complex when her Uncle (Nyasha's father) is made headmaster of the school. Nyasha is uncomfortable living in Africa, having never been given the chance to experience the language or mores of village life. Tambu, on the other hand, is fascinated with Nyasha's Englishness on the one hand, but repelled by the fact that the English influence is gradually destroying her family and its traditions.

There are other women's stories woven into this one: Tambu's mother, who is unable to see herself as other than the possession of her husband. Tambu's aunt (Nyasha's mother) struggles to reconcile her African identity with the life she lived in England, and the creature comforts she enjoys by virtue of her husband's position and their relative wealth. Lucia, a woman who lives in the village and who has a child by father unknown, wants to better herself, get an education, and doesn't care a fig about social status, or cultural taboos.

Watching all these women react to the men in their lives could paint a picture of bleak despair, but Dangarembga manages to give us hope, offers us a picture of women overcoming the ravages of colonialism, educating themselves and their families to recognize the dignity of human beings, taking control of their own lives, salvaging the traditions of their culture and molding it into a life to be valued and celebrated. Through Tambu's eyes we experience the open-eyed wonder of a young girl who suddenly has clean clothes, a real bed, modern bathing and toileting facilities, not to mention a more varied diet than she'd been used to and her ambivalence about these "privileges" when she returns on school holidays to the family's hut.

Her uncle is viewed as almost omnipotent by both the men and women of the village, the family and the school, and she struggles to come to terms with the power he can exert, his seeming generous support of her family, and the often confusing contradictions of his actions and his English education. It's a fascinating book, beautifully written, and full of puzzling juxtapositions, examples of cruelty and of kindness. The picture it paints of the life of women in Rhodesia during that time period does not give us as many answers as it provokes questions. I certainly hope the author will write a follow-on book about young Tambu. It would be intriguing to see how she turns out as an adult.

I read this book as part of a series of book discussions sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council who provided the books to our library for the "Opening Windows: Women's Stories from Different Cultures" series.  Our group has certainly learned a lot, and enjoyed the previous books in the series.  We all agreed that this was definitely our favorite so far.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: American Nations by Colin Woodard

Author: Colin Woodard
Publisher/Format: Viking Adult (Penguin Group), Hardcover, 384 pages
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: Cultural differences throughout North America
Genre: Historical narrative
Source:Public library ( but I'm buying my own copy).

Colin Woodard has given us a thought-provoking, deeply researched, easy to read look at the various ethno-cultural groups making up the North American continent from Canada to Mexico, from the Native Americans who were subjugated by the Spanish (or annihilated by the Anglos) to the Inuits of Canada who are enjoying a resurgence of their identity and culture.

He posits these 11 "nations" to be Yankeedom, New Netherlands, The Midlands, Tidewater, the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, New France, The First Nation, the Far West, El Norte, and the Left Coast.  For each, he introduces us to the earliest members, traces their original settlement and the subsequent expansions to other areas of the continent, their expectations, educational levels, governing style, religious and cultural influences from the "Old Country", and analyzes their influence on key historical events of the North American development  from elected officials, wars, and legislative achievements to looking at the current political gridlock occuring in the US.

His insights are exceptionally provacative and give the average reader pause to re-examine what we have been taught.  For example ....
In the end, The U.S. Constitution was the product of a messy compromise among the rival nations.  From the gentry of Tidewater and the Deep South, we received a strong president to be selected by an "electoral college" rather than elected by ordinary people.  From New Netherland we received the Bill of Rights, a set of very Dutch guarantees that individuals would have freedom of conscience, speech, religion, and assembly.  To the Midlands we owe the fact that we do not have a strong unitary state under a British-style national Parliament; they insisted on state sovereignty as insurance against Southern despots and Yankee meddling.  The Yankees ensured that small states would have an equal say in the Senate, with even the very populous state of Massachusetts frustrating Tidewater and the Deep South's desire for proportional representation in that chamber; Yankees also forced a compromise whereby slave lords would be able to count only three-fifths of their slave population when tabulating how many congressmen they would receive. pg.  148
 It's a profound book that is not a quick read; neither is it a plodding read.  He often offers us "What ifs?" that introduce stunning possibilities e.g., if South Carolina hadn't fired on Ft Sumter, the Union might have been able to negotiate a settlement, and eventually the many nations would have re-aligned themselves into several --up to four--separate confederations, or ended forming a collaboration somewhat akin to today's European Union.   To supplement several well-drawn and clearly notated maps, Woodard's style is enjoyable, clear and concise.  He gives us an especially thoughtful look at the role the Canadians and northern Mexicans have played (and continue to play) in the culture and politics of the US.  He poses questions, synthesizes the best of scholarship available at the moment to give us intelligent and interesting answers.  Never did I feel I was reading a text book, although I'd certainly hope that all US history and political science majors will be required to read this.  It is simply one of the most interesting and fascinating  books I have read this year.  It will certainly be on my Top Ten Non-Fiction list for 2011.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher/Format: MacMillan Audio 13 CDs, 16 hours, 416 pg equivalent
Narrator: David Pittu
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: literature, love, mental illness
Setting: New York, Rhode Island, Cape Cod
Genre: fiction
Source: Review audio furnished by publisher

When MacMillan first offered me this book on audio, I essentially said "No thanks, I really don't 'get' Eugenides".  I was reluctant to accept the audio book knowing that it would probably languish in the corner pile of my personal TBR mountain range, in spite of my avowed love of the audio format.  Their wise publicist, Esther Bochner,  encouraged me by saying that the audio was awesome and she thought I would enjoy it.  She was right!

Although I was a math major in college, and never have understood others' fascination with Jane Austen, etal, I was able to follow this story pretty well.  I'm sure I missed many literary allusions, but that does not spoil the story.  Set in the early 80's (just as I had finished grad school) at Brown University in Rhode Island, and then in Cape Cod and New York, the story follows the coming of age angst of Madeleine Hanna who is completing her senior thesis on the Marriage Plot theme prominent in the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot.  In the meantime, she becomes involved with Leonard Bankhead, a Darwinist from the west coast, and at the same time develops an intellectual relationship with a semiotics classmate Mitchell Grammaticus who thinks that Madeleine is his destined mate.

As Mitchell travels to Europe, India and Asia between senior year and graduate school, Maddy and Leonard move to Cape Cod so he can pursue a research fellowship.  At the same time, Leonard also develops a full blown case of manic depression.

This could have been an awful book with disparate pieces floating all over the place.  Instead, Eugenides keeps all the players and their stories tied together, interesting, and ultimately brings us to a conclusion we should have seen coming, but in my case at least, we didn't.  The references to places, music, literature, history, politics of the era made this one easy for me to relate to, but are also clear enough for younger readers to understand. 

While the setting and the plot are well developed, this is truly a character driven work.  The expansion of the three main characters is done with precision and insight.  We don't understand Maddy, because she doesn't really understand herself.  We feel great pain for Leonard's mental illness (and for Maddy's inability to deal with it).  Several times I asked myself if medical science hasn't come further along in treatment of bipolar disorder than what was portrayed in the setting 30 years ago.  Mitchell's seemingly unorganized ramble through Europe and India seems out of character with his professed desire to enter divinity school, but does give us an excellent picture of the state of his brain and his emotions.

The reader can take this at several levels:  as the plain and simple story of three mixed up college graduates with too much learning, and too little grip on the reality of adulthood and the need to settle down and take care of themselves; or one can read this as a very complex mimicry of the 19th century English novels where women and men were meant to be paired for life (at least I think that's what the Marriage Plot is - never could read Austen, nor have I ever read Eliot).  Eugenides' genius seems to be in creating a story that can be enjoyed by readers coming from either level.

I certainly enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.  The audio was exceptionally well done.  David Pittu manages to give each character a distinct voice, and his clear enunciation helps us to understand at least the words if not the literary concepts presented.  I can't compare it to Eugenides' previous works, but this one is definitely a winner.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Mailbox Monday - Nov 28th

Mailbox Monday is the gathering place for readers to share the books that came into their house recently, but here's a warning: Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists!

Created by Marcia at The Printed Page, Mailbox Monday, now has its own blog. Hosting duties are rotated every month.  November brings us to the wonderful community blog Wonders and Marvels edited by Holly Tucker.  This will be the host site for the month.  Be sure to stop by and discover a new and wondrous (for me anyway) addition to your blog roll and take a look at everyone's Mailbox lists. This week's list includes

Lost Trail , Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness 
by Donn Fendler

Donn Fendler's harrowing story of being lost in the Maine wilderness when he was just twelve, was made famous by the perennial best-seller, Lost on a Mountain in Maine. In Lost Trail, more than 70 years after the event, Donn tells the story of survival and rescue from his own perspective. Lost Trail is a masterfully illustrated graphic novel that tells the story of a twelve year old boyscout from a New York City suburb who climbs Maine's mile-high Mt. Katahdin and in a sudden storm is separated from his friends and family. What follows is a nine-day adventure, in which Donn, lost and alone in the Maine wilderness with bugs, bears, and only a few berries to eat, struggles for survival.
This one is sure to be a hit in our library in Maine.  The original book is one of our most circulated, even after all these years have passed.  Many thanks to Down East Books for sending a review copy.
The Partials
By Dan Wells
I don't usually read sci-fi or fantasy, so I'm not sure how this one landed in my mailbox, but one of my ardent YA readers at the library eagerly accepted my request that he read it and let me know what he thought.  I'll keep you posted.   Here's the pub blurb: 

The human race is all but extinct after a war with Partials—engineered organic beings identical to humans—has decimated the population. Reduced to only tens of thousands by RM, a weaponized virus to which only a fraction of humanity is immune, the survivors in North America have huddled together on Long Island while the Partials have mysteriously retreated. The threat of the Partials is still imminent, but, worse, no baby has been born immune to RM in more than a decade. Our time is running out.
Dan Wells, acclaimed author of I Am Not a Serial Killer, takes readers on a pulse pounding journey into a world where the very concept of what it means to be human is in question—one where our humanity is both our greatest liability and our only hope for survival. 

The Trail of the Wild Rose
English garden mysteries #4
by Anthony Eglin

I haven't read 1-3 yet, but this one looks intriguing.  This gorgeous paperback was a reward for entering the giveaway on Lesa's Book Critiques, one of my all-time favorite blogs.  Many thanks Lesa for consistently great reviews and giveaways. Here's the blurb:
 The hunt for an ancient Chinese rose turns deadly in this latest English Garden Mystery featuring Dr. Lawrence Kingston.

A plant-hunting expedition haunted by tragedy leads to a perilous trail of greed, larceny, and deceit. Has Peter Mayhew, the man who plunged to his death on a mountain in China, come back to life? Which of the expedition members is hiding an explosive secret? Why are some being targeted for murder?
Ecco Press sent an ARC of this travel bonanza..London is one of my favorite cities so I'm looking forward to strolling through this one.

Here are the voices of London - rich and poor, native and immigrant, women and men (and a Sarah who used to be a George) – witnessed by Craig Taylor, an acclaimed Canadian journalist, playwright and writer, who has lived in the city for ten years, exploring its hidden corners and listening to its residents. From the woman who is the voice of the London Underground to the man who plants the trees along Oxford Street; from a Muslim currency trader to a Guardsman at Buckingham Palace; from the marriage registrar at Westminster Town Hall to the director of the biggest Bethnal Green funeral parlour – together, these voices and many more, paint a vivid, epic and wholly fresh portrait of Twenty-First Century London.
I also received an E book from the Member Giveaway program on LT.
Irreparable Harm
by Mellissa Miller

There's a smartphone app capable of crashing a commercial jet. And it's for sale to the highest bidder. Attorney Sasha McCandless is closing in on the prize: After eight years of long hours, she's about to make partner at a prestigious law firm. All she has to do is keep her head down and her billable hours up. Then a plane operated by her client slams into the side of a mountain, killing everyone aboard. She gears up for the inevitable civil lawsuits. But, as Sasha digs into the case, she learns the crash was no accident. She joins forces with a federal air marshal and they race to prevent another crash. People close to the matter start to turn up dead. And Sasha's next on the list. She'll need to rely on her legal training and Krav Maga training in equal measure to stop a madman and save herself.

I'm always interested in strong female protagonists, so this one is definitely worth a look.  Thanks to the author Melissa Miller for making the review copy available.

What's in your mailbox this week? 
Edited 2:58pm Monday to correct inaccurate sourcing on "Trail of the Wild Rose".

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mini-Reviews: Cozies in Audios

Earlier this summer, I stacked up some audios to listen to as part of my cozy-readathon. Here are two that were enjoyable enough to while away an afternoon at the beach, but which I wouldn't run right out to buy. As you can see, my reactions to them were quite different.

Title: Maybe This Time
Author: Jennifer Crusie
Publisher/Format: Brilliance Audio, 10 hrs, 58 min, 352 pg equivalent
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Subject: Rescuing Orphans
Setting: Southern Ohio
Genre: Chick lit, light mystery
Source: public library download

My sister-in-law has been bugging me again...she got me to read one of Cruzie's book this summer- Bet Me- which I enjoyed. This one? Well I don't normally get into the para-normal, and although I have enjoyed some lightly haunted ghost stories (Charlaine Harris e.g.) but this one got a little bit deeper than I normally would read.

By the time I realized this was as ghostie as it was, I was hooked on the romance and the rest of the story, so I soldiered through. I was surprised that at the end I could say I really enjoyed it, although I hope the rest of her stories aren't quite so weird. I really don't want to spoil the story, but will say it's vintage chick-lit on steroids: divorced strong female in love-hate relationship with ex-spouse (drop dead perfect gorgeous stud), interesting side kicks, heart-pulling orphans, Victorian haunted houses, nasty housekeeper, imperious mom-in-law, ditzy relatives, other very stereotypical ghost busting personalities, etc etc etc. Fun fun fun, in spite of my normal aversions to ghosties. Worth checking out.

Title: Silver Girl
Author: Elin Hilderbrand
Publisher/Format: Hachette Audio, 14.5 hrs, 416 pg equivalent
Narrators: Janet Metzger and Marianne Fraulo
Year of publication 2011
Subject: life after bankruptcy
Setting: New York, Nantucket
Genre: fiction
Source: publisher provided review copy

I got this one in audio from Hachette to do a review. Good thing I read Stephanie Madoff's memoir first! This thinly veiled fictionalized account of that woman's ordeal really stretches the disclaimer " of fiction....any resemblance to real people purely coincidental....yada yada yada"  As pure beach read chick lit, it was a "meah" an audio, it was OK.

It's basically the samo samo story of rich girl married to crook, has to find her way in life when there is no money, no home, no friends, etc. By moving the scene of the trauma to Nantucket, Hilderbrand is able to create a lone remaining friend who takes in the poor about to starve spouse, create an interesting diversion of the friend's romance, and let us play voyeur as we watch them reconstruct their traumatically scarred lifes. As a story, it was just short of "Oh puhleez....can't you write anything original"? As relaxation, it was OK, but nothing to rush out and get.  Glad I read the real story first.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mailbox Monday - Nov 14

Mailbox Monday is the gathering place for readers to share the books that came into their house recently, but here's a warning: Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists!

Created by Marcia at The Printed Page, Mailbox Monday, now has its own blog. Hosting duties are rotated every month.  November brings us to the wonderful community blog Wonders and Marvels edited by Holly Tucker.  This will be the host site for the month.  Be sure to stop by and discover a new and wondrous (for me anyway) addition to your blog roll and take a look at everyone's Mailbox lists.  This week's list is short by oh so sweet....

From Barnes and Noble, in their Free Books Friday program for NOOK owners, I was able to nab
The Journey Home by Michael Baron.

Joseph, a man in his late thirties, awakens disoriented and uneasy in a place he doesn't recognize. Several people are near him when he opens his eyes, all strangers. All of them seem perfectly friendly, but none of them can explain to him how he got there....Joseph doesn't know where he is and he has no way to contact his wife, who he is sure is worried sick over him.
Antoinette is an elderly woman in an assisted living facility. She’s spent the last six years there since her husband died, and ...her son comes to visit often. But in recent months, she’s had a tougher and tougher time leaving her room. Her friends seem different to her and the world seems increasingly confusing.
Warren, Antoinette’s son, is a man in his early forties going through the toughest year of his life. His marriage ended, he lost his job, and in the past few months, his mother has gone from hale to increasingly hazy. Having trouble finding work, he spends more and more time by his mother’s bedside. Joseph, Antoinette, and Warren are three people on different searches for home. How they find it, and how they connect with one another at this critical stage in each of their lives, is the foundation for a profound and deeply moving story.

I was lucky enough to be selected by the Early Reviewers program of to receive this brand new memoir. As you know, memoirs are one of my favorite genres, and I've always admired and respected Justice Stevens, so I'm putting this one at the top of the TBR queue.

 FIVE CHIEFS  by John Paul Stevens

When he resigned last June, Justice Stevens was the third longest serving Justice in American history (1975-2010)--only Justice William O. Douglas, whom Stevens succeeded, and Stephen Field have served on the Court for a longer time.
In Five Chiefs, Justice Stevens captures the inner workings of the Supreme Court via his personal experiences with the five Chief Justices--Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts--that he interacted with. He reminisces of being a law clerk during Vinson's tenure; a practicing lawyer for Warren; a circuit judge and junior justice for Burger; a contemporary colleague of Rehnquist; and a colleague of current Chief Justice John Roberts. Along the way, he will discuss his views of some the most significant cases that have been decided by the Court from Vinson, who became Chief Justice in 1946 when Truman was President, to Roberts, who became Chief Justice in 2005.
Packed with interesting anecdotes and stories about the Court, Five Chiefs is an unprecedented and historically significant look at the highest court in the United States.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Weekend Cooking -Remembering the Nonas

Beth Fish Reads sponsors this weekly meme where we foodies can chat about cookbooks, cooking gadgets, recipes, or anything else gustatory. Be sure to stop over there to find other terrific weekend cooking posts.

Smart cooks realize that the easiest cookbook to use is the Yellow Pages and the handiest appliance in the kitchen is the telephone. ~ Miss Piggy

If you don't do Yellow Pages, phones or Take-Out Taxi, you can still rely on your Nona. One of my fondest memories is having my grandmother pull a fresh fig off the tree, break it open, and stuff the inside out fruit dripping with sweetness and juice into my mouth, and then show me how to lick my chin to catch it all. So I don't think she would have thought much of Miss Piggy's philosophy.To my grandmother, food was life.  Not just the preparation and serving, but the growing, harvesting, preserving, and to a lesser extent the shopping, kept her going.  In fact, although I have fond memories of rolling, squeezing, peeling, chopping, cutting, tasting, picking from the garden. I don't think I ever went shopping with her until I was in my late 20's when  my sister brought her for a visit from Baltimore to Long Beach California where we were living.  We were having good some Navy friends to dinner and Nona wanted to make gnocchi.  Off we went to shop.  She made little turned up nose faces at much of the produce, and almost all of the meats, but we managed to get enough decent (but certainly not perfect) ingredients.

So I really appreciated the sentiment and story in this memoir cum cookbook celebrating food as a way of life.  The residents of the town of Campodimele Italy, a small town in the mountains between Naples and Rome, are noted for their longevity.  Tracey Lawson, an English teacher who had been living in Tuscany heard of the village and set out to learn more.  As she says on the back cover:
I came to Campodimele hoping I might learn how to live longer, but discovered something much more important -- how to live well.
 For over three years, she visited with the residents, was allowed into their pastures, their gardens, their vineyards, their olive orchards, their kitchens, their cantina, and their hearts.  By observing, then working as she was instructed, she was able to see the value in living off the land, eating seasonally, but still preserving the bounty for times when fresh was not available.  She pressed olive oil, made sausage, shelled beans, picked various greens, made goat cheeses, rolled pastas, and climbed mountain roads with 80 and 90 years old residents to tend the goats, pick the olives, and call the hens home at night to roost.

Her month by month description of food, recipes and traditions brought back many memories of the Italian kitchen of my Nona, and gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the hows and whys of many of the foods.  It held a few surprises.  The inhabitants of Campodimele, who regularly live well into their 90's, use very little salt, but are very generous with peperoncino, a red chili pepper they grow, dry and sprinkle liberally on everything.  I don't remember that ingredient in my grandmother's repertoire, (although my mother assures me that the shaker of red pepper flakes was ALWAYS on Nona's table) and she did love her salt.  It's a perfect example of regional differences.  Each area used what grew well there and was readily available.

Subtitled The Lifestyle of Longevity in Campodimele, Italy, it's a treasure of a book - particularly if you love Italian food, have an Italian ancestor, or just want to learn, as Lawson says, "to live well."  It's yummy, it's interesting, and it's a definite plus for your food collection.  Even if you don't want to try the recipes, the philosophy of living off the land, living simply, and looking at your food as an enjoyable gift will light up your reading and eating day.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: Turning the Tide by Ed Offley

Author: Ed Offley
Narrator: James Adams
Publisher/Format: High Bridge Company; Audio, Unabridged; 17.25 hours
Year of publication:  2011
Subject: WWII - Battle of the Atlantic
Setting: North Atlantic Ocean
Genre: Naval History
Source:  Publisher review copy furnished through Early Review program at

I actually received this book last July - just before the Independence Day holiday. It took quite a while to finish it. As I review this, I need to separate the format from the content. As you know, I normally LOVE audio books, and was delighted to receive the audio from the Early Review program.

BUT...................this is a book that has to be read in hard copy to be fully appreciated. The narrator, James Adams does a yeoman job of getting through this tome but it simply is not a book well suited to audio. There are hundreds of alpha-numeric designations and numerical descriptors that do not lend themselves to oral recitation. For example, at the beginning of chapter 6, pg. 107 of the print copy, we see:
Three weeks earlier, U-653 had damaged the 9,382-ton Dutch Madoera, a straggler from westbound Convoy ON166, and just four days before it had dispatched the drifting 7,176-ton American freighter Thomas Hooker, which had been abandoned by its crew after suffering major structural failures during the previous week.
Try reading this aloud (Pay close attention to every syllable and you'll get an idea of how cumbersome this is to the ear):
Three weeks earlier, U -six-five-three had just damaged the nine thousand three hundred eighty two ton .....a straggler from westbound Convoy O- N-one-six-six, and just fours days .....the drifting seven thousand one hundred seventy six ton......yada yada yada.  
There are literally three to ten such sentences on every one of the 392 pages of the print edition.  Trying to follow the story from the audio was painful....there was simply no way one could track who was doing what to whom without resorting to pencil and paper.  After the first of 13 discs, I gave up and went hunting for the book.  I finally located the one copy in the State of Maine system, and had it sent from a community college library to mine here on the coast.

I then was able to listen to the audio, but had the book at hand to supplement the story with all the enlightening illustrations, maps, charts, glossaries, Convoy lists, etc. It's a wonderful wonderful history of one of the most important battles of World War II, and the audio simply does not do it justice.  Our ears and brains just don't register that kind of data without having to stop and make mental notes.  Audio books should tell a story in a continuous flow so that the listener/ear-reader can follow along seamlessly.  Listening to this was like driving along a turnpike that had speed bumps every 1/2 mile.  You never get up to speed, and you're constantly off on the shoulder to check the map and make sure you know where you are.

Enough about the audio.  The book itself, as I mentioned above, is incredibly well-researched, coherently written, elegantly edited (I didn't see a misspelled word or dangling participle anyplace!), has ample supplemental material enhancing the text, and should stand as one of the best naval history books of World War II.  While the author has a limited scope (the time frame is quite short: the first six months of 1943), he gives us both the Allied and German perspectives on what was happening, who was involved, what lessons were learned, and how it impacted the rest of the war.  It was fascinating, and surprisingly easy to follow in print.  Our eyes and brains seem to have been conditioned to grasp "Convoy ON166" as a single reading bullet vice the seven syllables we had to absorb in the audio.  The charts, maps and pictures added so much- giving us faces to go with names, outlines to go with ship shapes, and places to imagine.

I'm thinking alot today about my father who served in the Merchant Marine during WWII, my father-in-law who marched with Patton through Sicily and Italy (and who probably depended heavily on these convoys being able to get across the Atlantic), my several uncles who served in various branches and those of my generation who served during subsequent wartimes.  Preserving and telling their stories is one of the best ways we can honor them.  I'm so glad I was able to finish this book (it takes a long time) in time to feature it for Veteran's Day today.

We will probably end up buying the print edition of this one for our personal library.  It's a tremendous reference book if you have any interest in this battle at all.  Offley certainly has given us the definitive work on the subject.  I just wish that James Adams' wonderful narrating voice hadn't been so wasted. I'm giving this one 4 1/2 stars as a print book, 1 1/2 as an audio.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Two More British mystery series

Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Publisher Format: Penguin, Paperback (2005), 336 pages
Subject: unorthodox detective work
Setting: London and environs, post WWI
Series: Maisie Dobbs
Genre: private investigator mystery
Source: public library

In this second book in the very popular Maisie Dobbs series, Maisie has been hired to find the "missing" daughter of a wealthy business man.  This is evidently not the first time the 30 year old woman has chosen to remove herself from her father's overbearing household, but as Maisie begins tracking down her whereabouts, she becomes aware of several other mysterious deaths of women who were at one time or another connected to Maisie's missing lady.  Maisie is convinced that all the deaths are somehow connected and that her client's daughter might well be in danger.  When she finally tracks her down, it takes all her powers of persuasion to get her cooperation.  In the meantime, Maisie is confronted with her assistant Billy's increasingly aberrant mood swings and she embarks on a mission to fix that problem at the same time as she's looking for the missing heiress.

Once again, Maisie's powers of reasoning, ability to think analytically, and sense of daring-do and fair play---all qualities not normally expected in a woman of the 1930's--give us a plot worth solving, characters worth following and a story that makes the reader thirsty for more.


Author: Deborah Crombie
Publisher/Format: Avon , Mass Market Paperback (2004), 288 pages
Subject: crime solving
Setting: London and environs
Series: Duncan Kinkaid/Gemma James Novels
Genre: police procedural detective
Source: Public library

This series has been around for awhile. I read the first one over five years ago, and always wanted to follow up with another to see if the series turned out to be as enjoyable as it promised to be. When I went looking for an audio of this second in the series, it was SO OLD, it was only available in cassette format. I had to hunt up an old, but still working walkman to play the tapes! I couldn't even listen in the pool.  Oh Well....

In spite of those drawbacks, I'm definitely going to keep on reading more in this series.  Superintendant Duncan Kinkaid of Scotland Yard, finds himself not only grieving the unexpectedly early death of his downstairs neighbor (she had been terminally ill but did not seem that close to death), but then drawn into an official investigation of her death when it is determined that she perhaps had some assistance to her end.   Kinkaid asks Inspector Gemma James (divorced mom with the normal child-care, more-bills-than-money problems) to help him on the case.

I really like the relationship developing between Kinkaid and James.  It promises to continue to bloom in future volumes of the series (there are now 14 of them).  The setting is nothing special, but Crombie's plot and character development are exceptional.  There were at least 4 good solid suspects in this one, and it wasn't until near the end that I began to see a narrowing down of the field.   Definitely worth a look if this is a genre you enjoy or a genre you'd like to try.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast

Author: Bill Richardson
Publisher Format: St. Martin's Griffin (1997), 152 pages
Subject:  life as we wish it could be
Setting: Pacific Northwest island, small town inn
Genre: short essay, memoir
Source: public library I keep smacking myself to refrain from describing this as a "sweet little book." OK--I said it. It is a calming, soothing, elegant, portrayal of the life of twin brothers who, now in their late middle years, have turned the family house where they grew up into a bibliophile's retreat. There is no TV, there are no nearby restaurants, there is little to do except show up, eat good food, and read good books.

No the BBB&B (as they call it) is not in heaven, but it sure sounds pretty close to it to me. There is a resident cat Waffles, whose naming story begins the telling of the tales. There is an articulate swearing parrot in residence named Mrs. Rochester, whose appearances throughout the book add just the right touch of colorful zest. The brothers themselves, Hector and Virgil, give us their birth history (including their conception under the oil pan of a truck), and a portrait of their unmarried (and never married) mother who raised them with a love of books that has never left them. The twins give us reading lists of favorites, among them: "Virgil's List of Books for when you're feeling low" and Hector's "List of Favourite Authors for the Bath."

In the story "Love and Skincare" we meet Altona Winkler, the local Avon lady, newspaper reporter, and novelist wannabe whom Hector describes thus: " association with Altona Winkler..has gone on for a long time now. It suits us both.It is relaxed and casual. Comfortable. In one way or another, we tend to each other's needs."

Guests come toting bags of books to be read, or find an appealing volume in the BB's library. Breakfast is served by the brothers every morning, but guests, who are given the run of the kitchen, are responsible for fixing their own lunch and dinner. Lasting friendships are formed, and guests are encouraged to leave their thoughts in the guest book. In between vignettes from Hector and Virgil, we are treated to stories written by various temporary residents, some of whom have been returning for years.

Virgil, who took up playing the bassoon several years ago, shuts himself in a closet to practice under the watchful eyes and ears of Mrs. Rochester. He also can recite from memory hundreds of poems he learned as a child, including the poetry of the town's now long dead reigning poet Solomon Solomon. This talent is especially well regarded since the local newspaper where the poems were published never kept an archives, and old copies don't seem to exist anymore. Speaking of his poetry reciting prowess Virgil says "I love the phrase learning by heart, especially when it is applied to poetry, because it seems such a perfect description of the process of memorizing words that have been carefully chosen and weighed and handled. The heart, I think, which is the home of all things rhythmic, is where learned poems go to live."

This small easy-to-read tome is easy to love.  It gives us literature, poetry, enchanting vignettes of life and makes us want to find this real  Shangri-la in the Pacific Northwest.  When I find it, I probably won't tell though. I want the whole place to myself.

Though written almost twenty years ago to collect stories recounted on the Canadian radio by author and raconteur Bill Richardson, this is a timeless piece of writing.  Do try to find a copy and make it your own.  My thanks to my friends on LibraryThing for pointing me in this direction.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: The End of Normal by Stephanie Madoff Mack

Author: Stephanie Madoff Mack with Tamara Jones
Narrated by the author
Publisher/Format: Penguin Audio, 2011,6 hr, 42 min
Subject: betrayal, suicide, coping with grief
Setting: New York, Greenwich CT, Nantucket
Genre: Memoir
Source: audio download from the Publisher Penguin audio

Stephanie Madoff Mack had it all: homes in Soho, Greenwich and Nantucket, a doorman, a dog walker, reliable childcare for her two beautiful children, a handsome rich husband who adored her, a famous even wealthier father-in-law, luxury cars, nice clothes.  Then in December 2008, her father-in-law Bernard Madoff, confessed to his two sons that his entire life and business was a giant lie.  The rest is history.  Thousands of people lost millions of dollars from "investing" with Bernie Madoff, including Stephanie Madoff's own step-father.

Over night all members of the Madoff family became pariahs, hounded by the FBI, the SEC, and the media.  Mark and Andrew, Bernie's two sons, were the ones who turned their father in to the FBI, but no one would believe that the sons had not been involved in the fraud.  As lawsuits piled up, and bankrupcy loomed, Mark and Stephanie faced total isolation, and became estranged from the rest of the family who refused to sever relations with Bernie.  Mark spiraled down into a deep depression and attempted suicide. After his failed attempt, he went into counseling and seemed to be recovering.

Two years to the day from his father's arrest, Mark hanged himself in the Soho loft, while his wife and daughter were in DisneyWorld, and his son slept in the next room. His final texts, sent on December 11, 2010, at 4:14 a.m., while Stephanie slept, simply said: Please send someone to take care of Nick and I Love You.  Suddenly Stephanie's life was totally upside down. Now she not only had no money, no job, and myriad legal problems, but she had no husband, and her children had no father.

I was hesitant to listen to this in audio, although it is a format I really enjoy, because the author reads this herself.  I thought it might be self-serving, or whiny, but it's not.  It's a straight forward account of a young woman's change in circumstances and how she is dealing with the problem.  Oh. Yes. there is certainly some rancor toward her mother and father -in law. There is certainly still an unsteady relationship with Mark's brother Andrew.  And yes at times it is difficult to feel sorry for someone who still has a dogwalker, nice cars, a doorman, and several houses.  But she is very clear that all that privilege does not make up for being deprived of Mark's presence.  She tells her story, from the beginning of her relationship with Mark, to their early days together, meeting the senior Madoffs, their wedding, early days of marriage and pregnancy and parenthood.

She is bluntly honest about the trauma and terror of the days following finding out about the Ponzi scheme, and her anguish as she watched the agony her husband and brother-in-law went through trying to convince the world that they were not involved.  Her animosity toward her mother-in-law Ruth Madoff is especially well documented.  She relates her panic at receiving those last two text messages from her husband, her frantic efforts to get her step-father to gain access to the apartment home to check on her son, and the subsequent flight home and how she had to explain to her 4 year old daughter that "daddy had a boo boo in his brain, and it made him die, and now he's in the sky and you can talk to him anytime you want.  He can't come home but he's there for you anytime you want to talk to him."

She ends by reading from the first paragraphs of Mark's unfinished book that he had begun writing before his death.  He wanted desperately to vindicate himself, to recapture the respect he felt he'd earned by all his hard work, and that he'd lost because of his father's transgressions.  Her heart-felt passion is at once emotional and composed.  No matter whether the reader believes that the sons were involved or not, and no matter what other financial tragedies that Bernie Madoff unleashed on the world, this story is a compelling personal one that presents a story needing to be told.

Penguin sums it up in their press release: "Stephanie Madoff Mack has written this at once searing and poignant memoir in order to tell her husband’s story—for him, for their children, and for the world."  It works especially well in the audio format.  Ms. Madoff gives us just enough  emotion to be able to understand her feelings, without having to wallow in them.

About the Author
Stephanie Madoff Mack is the widow of Mark Madoff, whom she married in 2004. She worked at George magazine and for the fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez, and since 2007 has been pursuing a master’s degree as a Child Life Specialist and working at Mount Sinai Hospital. She lives in New York City with her two children.

My thanks to Penguin Audio for making this available for review.