Search This Blog

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

the guy not taken

Weiner, Jennifer. The Guy Not Taken. I read In Her Shoes a couple of years ago and enjoyed it, and when Chrissie Brewer of Engleman & Company asked if I'd be interested in this collection of short stories, I thought I might, even though I don't usually seek short stories.

I did like them, even more than I expected. My usual manner of reading short stories and essays is to read them in between other things. They make good filler because each story can be completed in such a short amount of time, so I usually dole them out. In this case, however, the first three stories featured the same characters, the same family, and that provided a nice surprise. The sisters also bore a marked resemblance to the sisters in the novel In Her Shoes.

There are certain themes running through all of the stories: an absent father, a young woman with an interest in writing, often a grandmother, and characters who love swimming, using the swimming of laps as a means of creating a calm oasis in a crisis, a meditative exercise. Yet each story felt real. Not deep, but part of a common set of experiences.

I read pretty much straight through the stories, making a few mental notes about men who deserted their families and the damage that resulted; the romantic relationships, both good and bad; the difficulties that spouses, parents, siblings encounter. When I finished the last story, I realized that Weiner had made her own comments about these recurring themes and how they connected (or didn't connect) with her own experiences.

This quote from Weiner makes a humorous assessment of the situation:
"I wrote about my parents' divorce, and wrote about it, and wrote about it, and wrote about it. My joke about college is that everything I wrote had a single theme: My parents got divorced, and it hurt. Freshman year: My parents got divorced, and it hurt. Sophomore year: My parents got divorced, and it really hurt. Junior year: Did I mention that my parents got divorced? Senior year: No, I'm not over it yet! (I think we should all bow our heads in gratitude that I didn't go to graduate school.)"

Strangely, the story that least appealed to me was "The Guy Not Taken," which provides the title to the collection, and which has been optioned by DreamWorks and has a screenplay in the works.

My parents never divorced. I've been married to the same man for 35 years. These stories made me wonder how differently my life would have turned out without a dependable father; how differently the lives of my children might have been. It isn't that I've been unaware that divorce has had a huge impact on the lives of many children and adolescents, I taught school for God's Sake. I'd ever lived it from the inside-out before. Weiner stories gave a taste of that experience in a most pragmatic, unsentimental , and often hilarious way. Her parents' divorce may very well be the one thing that made her an author.

P.S. Not all the stories are about divorce. :) I think what I liked about them was seeing how the author used the stories (written over a 15 year period) to develop her writing skills and her own method of dealing with situations.

Thanks, Chrissie!

Short stories. 2006. 279 pages + other material.

The Janissary Tree

Goodwin, Jason. The Janissary Tree. Goodwin, who has written a history of the Ottoman Empire, Lords of the Horizons , has turned his hand to a series of mysteries set in Istanbul in the 1830's.

Istanbul/Constantinople is such an exotic setting and the Janissaries have such an intriguing background, that even if I hadn't noticed earlier this year that this novel was nominated for the Macavity Award, I would have been tempted.

Permit us to introduce Yashim,
a most extraordinary man.
Intelligence agent par excellence. Confidant of sultans.
rouble shooter. Linguist. Chef. Eunuch.

I liked the above little introduction from the jacket so well, I had to use it. I just noticed it and think it so fitting.

Four promising young cadets from the New Guard have been kidnapped and are being murdered in grisly and symbolic ways. A member of the Sultan's harem is murdered. And who has been called in to solve these seemingly unrelated murders, but Yashim...

For the first 16 pages, I wasn't much impressed, and I put the book down and went on to read Elizabeth's German Garden. When I came back to The Janissary Tree, however, I found myself becoming involved with Yashim. From then on, putting the book down was next to impossible.

The historical parts captured my attention and interest, and Yashim's character began to fascinate me. In the end, Goodwin had me engrossed with the history of the period and with the characters. His next Yashim mystery is due out this fall, and I will be sure to catch up with Yashim, "a most extraordinary man"; Stanislaw Palewski, the Polish ambassador; the sultan's mother and lender of French novels, Aimee'; Preen; and (hopefully) Murad Eslek. Since the Russian ambassador's wife departed with her husband (who was forced to return to Russia), I suppose she is gone for good, but I liked her hutzpah.


Fiction. Historical mystery. 2006. Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. 299 pages.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

Von Arnim, Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Her German Garden. While there are many elements that date this book to its publication date (1898), the characters themselves are not dated. They may use horses for travel and sleighs in winter, but Elizabeth, the Man of Wrath, and Irais are remarkably current. Elizabeth relates a year in the life of her garden and her family in journal form. Her discovery of her love for gardening is a joyful one, and she is more comfortable alone in her garden with her books than she is in social settings.

Largely autobiographical, Elizabeth von Arnim (Marie Annette Beauchamp) was born in Australia and raised in England. She married a German Count and went to live on his estate in Germany where she fell in love with the garden that provided the experiences on which this book is based. Charming.

I have a copy of her biography that I will be reading next. Can't wait!

Semi-autobiographical memoir. Originally published in 1898. 175 pages.

My Computer is home...

Fee took the laptop this weekend, and I was without a computer again. Now, I have my recently rehabilitated computer back from the PC hospital and the laptop.

I have several more books to review: The Janissary Tree, Elizabeth's German Garden, and Jennifer Weiner's short story collection. I enjoyed all of them. Have just finished reviews of The Black Sun and Stealing the Dragon in my rush to catch up.

And new books have continued to arrive:

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo -- Thanks, Stefanie!!
An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere by Gabrielle Walker--Thanks to Anna Sukenov of the Penguin Group

The two M. F. K. Fisher books, Dissolution by C. J. Sansom , Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz, The Season of the Witch, and the Jane Langton mystery have arrived for the Unread Author Challenge which doesn't begin until September. I'm afraid I may have to dip into at least one of these, which will mean I will have to order something else for the challenge--but I'm going to try to hold out as I have enough to keep me occupied for a while.

Stealing the Dragon

Maleeny, Tim. Stealing the Dragon. This one was actually kind of fun. A new series about P.I. Cape Weathers and his sometimes partner Sally, a trained assassin. When a ship smuggling Chinese refugees runs aground on Alcatraz, the entire crew is found murdered, and Cape's friend Sally is missing. Cape navigates San Francisco's China Town in search of Sally, encountering some scary Triad characters, political complications with the mayor's race, and some colorful characters; at the same time, chapters about Sally's background in Hong Kong, her early training, and connections to Chinese organized crime alternate with the San Francisco sections. Cape Weathers may be intended at the lead, but Sally steals the show.

Maleeny has recently been nominated for the Macavity Award for his short story 'Til Death Do Us Part.

Fiction. Mystery. 2007. 365 pages.

The Black Sun

Twining, James. The Black Sun. Not a winner. The first chapter doesn't mention the main characters, so I didn't realize I'd read Twining's first novel Double Eagle until the second chapter when Tom Kirk, Archie, and Dominique begin making their appearances. Kirk, a former art thief, is drawn into a strange conspiracy that involves the disappearance of two cars from the Hungarian Gold Train, loaded with gold and art looted by the Nazis at the end of WWII (now this is a fascinating actual event that deserves better fiction to accommodate it) . The convoluted conspiracy/conspiracies in the novel also include brief references to the fabled Amber Room, another treasure stolen by the Germans that disappeared at the end of the war and which has inspired a number of theories about whether or not it was destroyed in a fire or remains hidden in a salt or silver mine somewhere in Germany.

The Gold Train and the Amber Room deserve better.

Fiction. Thriller. 2006. 416 pages.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

weekend results and links

Some links I want to share:

Not sure that any of us need this, but maybe someone we love does - 14 Ways to Cultivate a Lifetime Reading Habit. All of the suggestions are excellent, but as I kept reading I was waiting for this one: Blog It. And, of course, it was there. Found by way of rebecca's pocket, a good source for all kinds of interesting reading.

And from Say No to Crack, this video on Phonetic Punctuation and Inflationary Language with Victor Borge.


I started the above draft last week and when I got ready to create a new post today, found it again.

Returned from Dallas on Sunday night with a renewed pleasure in Tai Chi after participating in Tai Chi Legacy this weekend. My performances were all off (not sure what all was going on with my mind/body, but neither seemed to be working particularly well this weekend), and only got a second place in Empty Hand and 4th in both saber and straight sword. And I was lucky in each case to manage those. Thomas got a third in Empty Hand, but Ellen, Joe, and Sam got some first places in Empty Hand and Baqua.

As usual, seeing great competitors inspired me, and after laying off for most of this past year, I'm ready to return to class and park sessions with several things in mind for improvement. Stella and Vivian were big influences with their performances, and another girl whose name I failed to ask (a student of Master Christophe Clarke at his school in Colorado) has a beautiful Yang style routine that I envy. Her hands were a language in themselves, and she was smooth as water. Molly from Atlanta had the precision and clarity I'd like achieve.

While I was gone this weekend, books began to arrive. More on Monday and Tuesday. I'm inundated with books. Also have two more to review.

Another neat site, Dogeared, discovered by way of the Indextrious Reader. Sonya Worthy's Dogeared is where she records pictures and interviews of people reading: "In September of 2006 I began interviewing people reading books, on public transportation, in coffee shops and parks in San Francisco, where I've lived for the past five years." And her locations have expanded as she travels around the country...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Unread Author Challenge

Here are the rules for The Unread Author Challenge:

September to February (six months total):

1) In this time, read six books by authors you have never read before. If you would like to read more in this time frame, go for it!

2) You are welcome to approach the Challenge in any of several different ways. You can choose one or two (or 3-5) unread authors and read several of their works, or you can choose six neglected (by you) writers and read a book apiece by them. Authors of fiction, non-fiction, genre fiction, graphic novels/comics, drama, and poetry are all welcome inclusions, although the individual works you choose should be book length. I will leave the definition of "book length" to your discretion, but in my mind a full length play or epic poem would certainly count, as would collections of shorter works.

3) Anytime before the start of the Challenge (September 1, 2007), write a blog entry that links back to this post and lists the authors and works you have chosen. You should feel free to change this list as you go along, or list "alternates," as I have below.

4) Then leave a note in the "Comments" section of this post, letting me know that you have joined and linking back to the blog entry that discusses your list. [If you link back to the specific post rather than to your main blog address, it will make it easier for your fellow participants to find your list.]

My choices:

(1 and 2) I've never read anything by M.F.K. Fisher although I've said for years that I'm going to. I've chosen Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon and The Art of Eating and have no doubt but that I will love them both.

(3) I almost ordered Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (A C.G. Jung Foundation Book) by Marie-Louise von Franz for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, but got Mirror, Mirror on the Wall instead, so now is the time for it to step up.

(4) Jane Langston's mystery Emily Dickinson is Dead recommended by iliana.

(5) C.J. Sansom's Dissolution, because I'm fascinated by this historical period and Jill recommended it and gave terrific links in this post. Then I can move on to Dark Fire. Sansom has received high marks from Mary and Ann as well.

(6) Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert will fit into this challenge and into Carl's R.I.P Challenge.

I have some alternatives in mind, but since the Challenge doesn't start until September, I'm not worried about it yet...and we have 6 months to complete the challenge. I don't really think I'll need any alternatives as these are all books I've been interested in.

UPdate (Friday): I've already ordered them.

I'm almost packed, have a few chores and some errands to run, then off to pick up Thomas and head to Dallas and Tai Chi Legacy. My books and weapons are packed and ready. My uniform and shoes are in the car. Fingers crossed...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Echoes of Honor

Weber, David. Echoes of Honor. Since I can operate no technology without help and have no mathematical ability, it surprises me how much I enjoy the technical aspects of these novels. Then again, military tactics have never been high on my list before, and I find myself totally engrossed with battle tactics. Of course, without the connection to the characters, not all the action and adventure in the world can hold my interest, and Weber manages to succeed on all fronts.

I liked the way Weber branched off into the lives and situations of some of the minor characters in this one, but I was relieved that he concluded this adventure without another cliff hanger. I don't feel compelled to move on to Book 9 and can go back and pick up the ones I've missed.
Fiction. Science fiction/space opera. 1998. Baen. 569 pages.

More Flannery

In my last post I mentioned Dr. Sura Rath, a favorite professor, although I've not seen or talked to him in years. I decided to google Dr. Rath and have now placed his Flannery O'Connor: New Perspectives on my wish list, and as soon as I finish the current stack, I'm placing an order for at least 5 books on my wish list (I'm not sure how long that list is right now, it is just so easy to click "add" that I rarely give it much thought).

Here are some quotes I've posted before, straight from Miss Flannery's mouth:

"Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."

"When I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it's because we are still able to recognize one." Pure Flannery!

Here is a link to an earlier post with quotes from The Habit of Being. And a link to Susan's post with Flannery's comments on her reading influences.

I'm trying to decide on some "new to me" authors for The Unread Authors Challenge at Sycorax Pine; the authors may be new or used, as long as they have not been used by me. That sure leaves a lot of possibilities. I have to get this list in order because when I place my next Amazon order, some must fit this category. Or I may cheat and add something I already have, but have not yet read...

AND have you visited Miss Information lately? She entertains me no end, and I usually let her posts build up a little before paying a visit.

AND I think this is such a great idea. Many of us have remarked uponthe way covers can influence our initial interest in books, and Kerry has posted pictures of covers she likes with a warning not to take the fact that she's posted it as a recomendation.

AND can you tell that there are things I need to do (pack, practice, finish my sewing project, clean house, write the review for Echoes of Honor), but really don't want to? Displacement activity...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hey, Maggie!

Maggie has found some of the language in Flannery O'Connor's stories distressing. This I understand full well, as O'Connor's fiction often makes me distinctly uncomfortable for several reasons. When my daughter fell in love with O'Connor's work, I was surprised, but decided to give O'Connor a go. With mixed results: appalled and admiring at one and the same time. Then I discovered that my much admired Dr. Rath was an O'Connor scholar...made another effort, and I did fall in love with Hulga and her wooden leg, but still found O'Connor's writing caused me great tension. And then I discovered her letters and almost immediately fell in love with the woman behind stories.

From Flannery's letters:

"I mortally and strongly defend the right of the artist to select a negative aspect of the world to portray and as the world gets more materialistic there will be much more to select from" (173).

After selling the rights to The Live You Save May Be Your Own to the General Electric Playhouse, she writes: "Mr. Shiflet and the idiot daughter will no doubt go off in a Chrysler and live happily ever after. Anyway, on account of this, I am buying my mother a new refrigerator. While they make hash out of my story, she and me will make ice in the new refrigerator" (174).

"At Emory they had a list of questions for me to answer and the first one was: Do you write from imagination or experience? My inclination at such a point is always to get deathly stupid and say, 'Ah jus writes'" (204).

"My parent took advantage of my absence to clean up my room and install revolting ruffled curtains. I can't put the dust back but I have ultimated that the curtains have got to go, lest they ruin my prose" (215).

One of Regina's (Flannery's mother) hired hands had taken the test for his driver's license numerous times and was tutored by Regina with gradually improving results: "...Wish to announce that Willie Shot Manson was granted license to drive by the State of Georgia in Sparta, Georgia on June 3 at 4:31 p.m. EST, 1957 A.D. I tell Ma she should send out engraved announcements..." (224).

An aunt had decided to finance a European tour for Flannery and Regina, and Flannery had worried about it in letters to several people, then "Here I am misinforming my dear friends a mile a minute. No I am not going to Rome nor nowhere else (except Missouri). The doctor as of yesterday says I can't go. You didn't know I had a DREAD DISEASE didja? Well I got one....I owe my existence and cheerful countenance to the pituitary glands of thousands of pigs butchered daily in Chicago Illinois at the Armour packing plant. If pigs wore garments I wouldn't be worthy to kiss the hems of them. They have been supporting my presence in this world for the last seven years. What you met here was a product of Artificial Energy" (266).

from the Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being

I'm only half way through this huge tome, but each time I sit down with Flannery, listen to Regina, visit Andalusia and Milledgeville, hear about her pea hens and Regina's farming difficulties and the escapades of the hired help--I enjoy every minute of the visit.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Quiz and Books in the Mail

You're A Prayer for Owen Meany!

by John Irving

Despite humble and perhaps literally small beginnings, you inspire
faith in almost everyone you know. You are an agent of higher powers, and you manifest
this fact in mysterious and loud ways. A sense of destiny pervades your every waking
moment, and you prepare with great detail for destiny fulfilled. When you speak, IT

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

I think I need to retake this one...this is so not me. I have no sense of destiny, and I don't think I'm loud. Persistent, maybe, but not loud. And (shame-faced admission) I've never read A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I've seen the quiz posted on several blogs, but my visit to Pages Turned made me laugh at Susan's "You're Prufrock and Other Observations," and the responses at Gentle Reader's Shelf Life are also funny.

Part of my Amazon order arrived today: The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery and Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim; Elizabeth of the German Garden (the biography) arrived yesterday. Also in today's mail, Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking by Aoibheann Sweeney from the Penguin Group (I wonder how you pronounce Aiobheann?)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Reading, Sewing, Practicing

Check out iliana's post on Celebrating Books and follow the link to see the work of some outstanding book artists. Iliana posted a picture of what turned out to be one of my very favorites (perhaps because I'm involved with the Honor Harrington space opera series) : Starship Log and Pod by Peggy Johnston. Fat Chance by Roberta Lavadour is another favorite, and the two "bird" books, and the more traditional but beautiful bindings.... Oh, I could go on and on, they are all wonderful.

I finished Echoes of Honor last night and was afraid that it was going to be anther cliff hanger, but fortunately, it had a conclusion to this two-book adventure involving Honor's capture by the enemy. I guess I must place another Amazon order to pick up books 3-6, before moving on in the series, but not until I finish the stack that I have right now. I have an Amazon order that will be here in the first week in August, too.

Yesterday, Mademoiselle Victorine arrived in the mail. Another one from Yolanda Cardin at FSB. I'm looking forward to reading soon as I finish my current stack!

I was a bit startled to read Lotus' post about "Dark Tourism." Should we throw out all the history books, folks? Lotus always comes up with such interesting stuff.

Tai Chi Legacy is this weekend, and I'm still practicing for three events, but I've also been working on a couple of quilting projects that I'm determined to finish today. So far, I've put in about 20 hours on the two projects, but I'm almost there. Now...out for a walk, some more practice, then back to sewing!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

In Enemy Hands

Weber, David. In Enemy Hands. Science fiction was one segment of Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge, so I read Off Armageddon Reef by Weber. It was so good that looking for other books by Weber seemed a fine idea. I ordered the first 2 in the Honor Harrington series (a futuristic takeoff on Horatio Hornblower - reviewed here) and liked them as well. I found two more in this series at the library, finished this one, and am about half way throught the next one.

In Enemy Hands is the 7th in the series (arghh...I have to back and pick up #'s 3-6). I will though because I enjoy them so much. Honor, McKeon, and several other old friends are captured. A bit darker that the first two, and this one ends in a cliff hanger...which is why I dived into the next one, Echoes of Honor, immediately.
Fiction. Science fiction/ space opera. 1997. 530 pages.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Sonnet Lover

Goodman, Carol. The Sonnet Lover. If you've read Goodman before, you realize that she likes creating a sort of microcosmic world in some way connected to academia, and preferably set in a way that isolates its small community (usually a school) somewhat. No surprise here. Rose Asher, a professor at Hudson College in New York, tries to avoid returning to La Civetta, a villa in Florence that hosts the college's summer program. Having been a part of the summer program twenty years ago as a student, Rose is not eager to revisit her past and her lost love, but circumstances eventually persuade Rose to return, ostensibly as an adviser for a film based on the possible connection between Shakespeare and Ginevera de Laura, who may have been Shakespeare's "Dark Lady." There are other reasons for Rose's return to La Civetta, however, and not all of them is she willing to acknowledge.

A light, literary mystery with lots of Italian atmosphere. I love all of the literary allusions that Goodman scatters throughout the novel - sonnets, poets, works of literature and art all find their way in. There is a brief appearance by an Anglican nun whose mother, fond of Virginia Woolf, names her Clarissa Dalloway; a reference to one of the theories Stephen Greenblatt mentions in his biography Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; a version of that despicable folk tale Patient Griselda; several direct references to Elizabeth Browning who is buried in Florence, and an indirect (maybe) reference to Robert Browning's My Last Duchess ( the story sounds too similar to be a coincidence) -- lots of fun literary tidbits.

I'd love to have seen what an author like Wilkie Collins could have done with the would have become a much denser novel, and I like dense. Goodman has written an enjoyable mystery that takes place in contemporary times, but is linked to another--perhaps more interesting--mystery involving the Italian poetess who may have been Shakespeare's "Dark Lady."

I keep wanting more than Goodman gives, but her novels are quick reads and entertaining.

Fiction. Mystery. 2007. 350 pages.

Rewarding Library Visit

I did go to the library the other day and came away with a big ole' batch of mysteries and science fiction. This has resulted in a reading marathon that has occupied me for the last couple of days starting right after dinner and lasting until late in the night.

I've finished The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman and In Enemy Hands by David Weber. When I suffer from high anxiety, I delve into the books, and both of these were effective antidotes, completely involving me in the fictional characters. And I have about 5 more in the same vein! Rather like some people who go on chocolate binges, my appetite for mystery and mayhem becomes voracious, and I become a glutton. With no apologies!

While part of me wants to go ahead and post about my pleasure in these two, part of me is saying, "Go, on! Pick up the next one! Read, read, read!"

And, uh, I also need to straighten the house, wash clothes, pick up Laddie's meds and deliver them to The Cottage, and get to the grocery store at some point. Responsibility is winning out, I'm off to pick up the meds. That is all of the planning ahead I can manage at the moment.

I may even stop by the library on the way home and pick up the Maisie Dobbs (Pardonable Lies) that I missed and look for The Golden Child, Emily Dickinson Is Dead (via Bookgirl's Nightstand) and Foreign Affairs (Of Books and Bicycles). No, I really should not do that today- too little time, too many books left to read here, too many books on order.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Messenger of Truth

Winspear, Jacqueline. Messenger of Truth. The latest in the Maisie Dobbs series doesn't disappoint; Winspear's Maisie is a dynamic protagonist, and in this novel discovers some aspects of herself that have not previously had the opportunity to make themselves known. Through the course of her investigation to determine whether the death of a talented young artist was an accident or murder, Maisie discovers a lighter side of life, visits clubs, dances, and develops a deep appreciation of art and the people who create it.

The underlying "Great War" theme that has been present in all of Winspear's novels (usually interwoven in several different threads and consequences, both directly and indirectly related to the war) is present in this one as well. Messenger of Truth deals with the artists who were assigned to work on war propaganda. Nick Bassington-Hope, after being wounded and long after any remaining ideals about the glory of war had disappeared, was required to design propaganda posters for the war effort. In the years after the war and following a long period of adjustment and recovery, Nick's post-war paintings provide a way of working through the despair so many returning soldiers suffered...and he is no longer concerned about who might be offended by his work.

Messenger of Truth is the 4th in the series, and I quickly realized that although I'd read the first two, I'd skipped Pardonable Lies, the third novel. This is an error to be rectified because I'm in the dark about the problems that developed concerning Dr. Maurice Blanche, Maisie's former mentor. While these mysteries can be read and enjoyed alone or out of order, because of the growth and change Maisie exhibits in each novel, I would have preferred to have read Pardonable Lies before Messenger of Truth.

At any rate, Maisie continues to be a young woman who takes her responsibilities to others seriously, but this novel introduces her to individuals who are more creative, more bohemian, more colorful than she has known before, and Maisie finds aspects of this artistic life appealing.

I can't wait for Winspear's next installment -- which will no doubt carry Maisie and her broader perpspectives into new adventures. There is a definite atmosphere of renascence at the conclusion of this novel, and like other fans of this series, I want to see where it leads.

Thanks again to Yolanda Carden at FSB for sending me a copy of Messenger of Truth.

Fiction. Mystery/Historical. 2006. 319 pages.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Chess Machine

Lohr, Robert. The Chess Machine. Lohr has written a fascinating fictional account of historical events. In 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen created a machine that could play chess , a thinking machine. Except, of course, that it was a deception that required a real person to think and play chess. Kempelen and many of the minor characters existed, but Lohr has fashioned an intriguing story around Kempelen's invention by including Tibor, the dwarf who is recruited to operate the machine in the fictional version, and Jacob, the cabinet maker who builds the automaton and cabinet.
Jacob and Tibor, both social outcasts, add humanity and interest to the factual and imaginative elements of the narrative. Tibor is a chess prodigy, and when Kempelen hears about Tibor's ability, he searches him out to become the brains of the Mechanical Turk. While Tibor's life improves in many ways, he is kept in seclusion as nothing must reveal the truth about how the Mechanical Turk plays chess. Tibor's isolation wears on him, but thanks to his friend Jacob, he eventually finds ways to leave Kempelen's compound on occasion. Jacob, a Jew with a lively sense of humor and an irreverent view of life, is largely responsible for Tibor's growth as an individual.

The novel has mystery, murder, love interest, social commentary, and suspense. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

My copy (thanks again to Brian Yingling) is an Advanced Uncorrected Proof.
Aside: the chess machine played the likes of Benjamin Franklin and in a definitely funny incident, Napoleon.

An articled written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1836: Maelzel's Chess-Player (Maelzel purchased the machine from Kempelen).

Fiction. Historical novel. 2007. 344 pages.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Recommended by...

After reading "favourite" on A Fair Substitute for Heaven, receiving The Indextrious Reader's comment on yesterday's post recommending Leslie de Charms' biography on Elizabeth Von Arnim, and announcing my own desire to read more by Morag Joss, I placed an Amazon order. I now have L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle, De Charms' biography Elizabeth of the German Garden, Elizabeth Von Arnim's Elizabeth and Her German Garden, (my interest in Von Arnim was revived by Jill's post), and Morag Joss' Puccini's Ghosts on order. They won't be delivered until the first week of August--so maybe today or tomorrow, a trip to the library will be in order.

Right now, I've just finished The Chess Machine (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and have the new Maisie Dobbs' mystery waiting by my chair. Oh, yes, there are others as well, but the Winspear and Maisie are calling to me, and I'm in the mood for a mystery and some characters I haven't visited for a while.

Half Broken Things

Joss, Morag. Half Broken Things. There is so little I can say that won't reveal too much, but I recommend this one highly --in spite of the fact that the tension kept me on edge (dread?), and I had to put it down frequently before I could read on. A powerful and emotional psychological study of three lives, the way they become entwined, the bonds forged, and the eventual consequences, a haunting story of suspense...

Joss does a remarkable job with the characters, letting them gradually insinuate themselves into your good graces, allowing them to grow and broaden their horizons, even as you know that the deceptions will lead to no good. Her writing is smooth and flowing, sensuous, creating a remarkably visual novel as the characters enjoy the pleasures of a beautiful home, good food, the finer things of life.
The story unfolds slowly. Nothing is rushed. The details accumulate, layer after layer. New beginnings seem possible to Jean, Michael, and Steph, and each discovers a family denied to them as they forge their own family unit and luxuriate in the previously unknown love and support a family can offer.

And all the time, my heart was pounding. The more beautiful, relaxed, and delicately happy the scene, the more I dreaded the end of their sanctuary.

Read this one if you can. I will be reading her other books as soon as I can get them.

Fiction. Psychological suspense. 2004. 303 pages.

Friday, July 06, 2007

More Good Books

My copy of The Chess Machine (an uncorrected proof) arrived yesterday, and I'm even more eager to read it after Sam's favorable review. My thanks to Brian Yingling and the Penguin Group.

Also received a copy of Jacqueline Winspear's Messenger of Truth (I'm a big fan of Maisie Dobb's) from Yolanda Cardin at FSB. Thanks, Yolanda.

Jill at My Individual Take has gotten me interested in Elizabeth Von Arnim (Enchanted April), and I searched for a biography, but came up empty. Her life sounds more than interesting enough to merit a biography, I mean, she and H.G. Wells were lovers and her cousin was Katherine Mansfield, so maybe there is a biography out there that I've missed.

Susan at Pages Turned mentioned several books that appeal to me (July 5th post) so I'm waiting for her reviews.

I'm love 18th century stuff, and Dorothy Of Books and Bicycles keeps me interested in Johnson and Boswell.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Rollins, James. Sandstorm. Last week when I was at Walmart, I noticed that all of the checkout lines were long and were not moving very fast, so I picked up a paperback to read as I waited. At first a rollicking adventure of the Indiana Jones sort seemed possible (there is even a character named Omaha Dunn); however, none of the humor, the tongue-in-cheek, the playful elements of Indiana Jones appear in this novel that takes itself seriously in the midst of the absurd.

The main characters have some combination of the following traits: brilliant, beautiful, handsome, wealthy beyond measure, physically gifted with extraordinary reflexes, speed, and/or stamina, have a tragic past... well, you get the idea. Any interesting plot element seems borrowed and any other plot element requires much more than a "willing suspension of disbelief.

It is fast-paced and there is action; the purpose of the action, unfortunately, appears to be to add to the book length and has little suspense or sense of purpose.

Fiction. Action, adventure. 2004. 569 pages.

This and That

Hope everyone had a good 4th of July! Ours was wet. I guess at least half the country is tired of all this rain.

Interesting article about Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons--an "autobiography of a family." Talk about dysfunctional. After reading the article, I don't think I'll ever think the same of Evelyn Waugh.

On Shakespeare: Shakespeare the Thinker by A.D. Nuttalll sounds sounds like a winner and a book that I'm really interested in reading, but believe I can skip Shakespeare's Philosophy by Colin least based on this review/comparison of the books.

Our old friend Nancy Drew...and generational differences.

I've been reading a Morag Joss novel, Half Broken Things, and find myself having to put it down frequently because of the suspense. The characters are complex and compelling, the writing beautiful, but at times my dread of the consequences of the characters' actions just overwhelms me.

I'll be sending Shadow Cities on to MyUtopia (send me an email with your address, and I'll get it in the mail); hope you enoy it!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Shadow Cities

Neuwirth, Robert. Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World. Have written about this book here, so this post is just the final evaluation. In 1996, the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements--or Habitat--held a conference to discuss the housing issues they had been studying, and Robert Neuwirth began questioning both the policies in effect and his own responsibilities. With 70 million people entering entering urban areas, and neither government nor private builders prepared to handle these overwhelming numbers, Neuwirth decided to write about these squatters and the communities they built themselves.

He chose four cities-Rio, Mumbai (Bombay), Nairobi, and Istanbul- for his investigation and, securing a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, he lived in each of the slums, favelas, or "shadow cities," examining the infrastructures first hand, meeting his neighbors, and experiencing the life of the squatters for himself.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, Neuwirth has a pretty positive view of these squatter communities, seeing human innovation and persistence paying off in three of the four. Kibera, the slum in Nairobi, was so immersed in a system of corruption and poverty that it didn't produce the forward movement that occurred in the other three areas.

Corruption was evident in all of the areas, the Kibera slum was just much worse. In Rio, Mumbai, and Istanbul, the communities in which Neuwirth lived achieved much, although at great difficulty and over a long period of time.

Since I've already written so much about the book, I'm going to cut this short and say that Neuwirth had no guaranteed solutions to this growing problem, but felt that governments trying to solve the problems without extensive input from the communities themselves had little chance of improvement. Self-determination seemed to be his by-word.

This article gives an excellent overview of the book. Neuwirth also keeps a blog, Squattercity that records developments around the world.

Another book that covers many of the problems with slums is Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found which I reviewed here; Mehta's book covered much more than the slums, but many of the problems Neuwirth mentions are discussed in Mehta's excellent book (one of the best I've read this year).

Nonfiction. Journalism, travel, memoir, social criticism. 2005. 315 pages.

***Lotus sent me this book complete with Bookcrossing label. If you are interested in reading Shadow Cities, leave me a comment. I'll put the names in a bowl, have a drawing on July 4th, and send the book to the winner.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Trying Again

Fee brought home a laptop for me to use until my computer recovers. Will have to take mine in for a check up and, hopefully, will soon see improvement in performance. I'm kinda' liking this laptop, though.

I've finished a couple of books that need reviewing (still pondering Neuwirth's take on squatters and squatter cities)and am catching up some on Flannery O'Connor's letters, which continue to delight me. I love her courage and her sense of humor and will have to fish out a few more quotes to share.

I watched a squirrel calmly seated on a branch eating one of my sunflowers, and for the life of me, can't figure out why the squirrels have to eat both sunflowers AND tomatoes from my garden. Actually, he was just after the seeds on the sunflower, but had plucked the entire flower and used the petals as handles as he dined on the center.