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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

2/17/12        I read and reviewed A Reliable Wife, an ARC from Algonquin in 2010; I didn't exactly like it, but in many ways I appreciated it.  Algonquin has sent me several more books lately, including Heading Out to Wonderful by Goolrick, and I was a bit hesitant about reading it because of my mixed feelings about A Reliable Wife.

However, in the way of things, I opened and read a bit from the first few pages and found myself falling into the language.  Even reading some aloud to my husband, something I rarely do.  The language, though, is so beautiful and the imagery so vivid that I couldn't resist sharing.

How I hope I love the entire book as much as I've loved the first few chapters.  Even if I don't end up loving the book-- I will.  

What a paradoxic, self-contradictory statement!  Yet Goolrick's writing in Heading Out to Wonderful is so lovely, so painterly-- as if he limns each sentence.  It has the beauty of an illuminated manuscript in its context, if not with visual decoration, in the clarity of the images he creates with words.  It fairly glows.

It isn't a book to read fast, to rush through.  There is a building of tension, but it isn't as important as Goolrick's voice which lingers in your head when you put the book down.

The language is elegantly simple, luminous and lovely:

"Brownsburg, Virginia, 1948, the kind of town that existed in the years right after the war, where the terrible American wanting hadn't touched yet, where most people lived a simple life without yearning for things they couldn't have..."  (5).

"The people moved about their daily business and did the things that life laid out for them to do, always aware of the mountains that ringed them in, blue in the summer twilights, the light turning from white to gold to rose as they sat on their porches.  In the black winter, they sat in front of their wood stoves and listened to the sad and joyous songs of mountain women and plains cowboys on the radio before they went to their early beds"  (9).

"All this country music was new to him, and he liked it.  It felt like home, the thin, high mountain voices singing about heaven and hell and betrayal and loss.  There were songs about love and murder.  Something about these songs made Charlie remember what it was like to be in love, made him want to feel that way again" (25).

"It was music.  It was gospel.  It was their hearts' true belief, those old men, and Charlie, listening, believed, not so much in the gospel, but in the foreverness of the thing, the music, the brothers, the valley itself, and that was more forever than any man could take into his mind" (37).

(I included page #s even though this is an advanced reading copy,  just to give a sense of rhythm and chronology to the excerpts)
2/25/12       I finished the book a couple of days ago.  Just as I suspected, my feelings are mixed.  It is a beautifully written novel in which I was always eager to immerse myself, but  from the very beginning I knew that things would happen that I'd rather not.  

No wonder I picked so many passages about music.  The novel is a folk song, a country song--it is a ballad, and you know the content of ballads.   Not only is Goolrick's writing lyrical, but the narrative is set to a kind of silent music and belongs in the Appalachian tradition with roots back to medieval England and Scotland.   This is a story whose setting and characters will remain with you.

The book is scheduled for publication in June, but can be pre-ordered.  

Fiction.  Literary Fiction.  2012.  292 pages.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

The House of Silk has an elderly Watson ensconced in a nursing home and finally writing a Holmes adventure that will be sealed from publication for one hundred years--plenty of time for any of those distinguished individuals caught in scandal to have died and been largely forgotten.

Since I have a fondness of Holmes and Watson, I am tempted by any novel that offers another glimpse at the duo.  I didn't find this novel either particularly engrossing or terribly dull.  Two narrative lines intermingle, but for some reason, neither one engaged my interest to any great degree.

Nor did I find the characterization of either Homes or Watson especially interesting.

While in many ways, Horowitz remained true to the Holmes canon, the novel lacked a certain vivacity that I'd hoped to enjoy.  I suppose my modernist self wants both the atmosphere of Victorian London with a more 21st century representation of character and plot; either that or a closer approximation of Conan Doyle's original, rather terse style.

I prefer Laurie King's (oh, smite me for my blasphemy!)  Mary Russell, and a more human, if elderly Holmes, and another Mycroft altogether than the one Horowitz depicts.

Readable, but not as engrossing as I had hoped.

Fiction.  Mystery.  2011.  304 pages.

Friday, February 17, 2012

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

I loved Ephron's short essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck, even if I didn't always identify (because, well, I can't imagine living in New York, being that talented, being rich, or having much of an interest in cooking).    Still, I found something with which to identify in each essay.

Some of the essays are so funny and revealing of our culture of youth, and it feels good to discover shared feelings with those who also fail to keep track of their reading glasses, are unable to locate what they need in their purses, and recognize the benefits of an empty nest.

The essays provide glimpses into the funny side of being a woman of a certain age as recounted by a woman who can see the humor in the mundane and writes with a clear and vivacious voice, but in the midst of humor, Ephron doesn't try to hide her definite regret about the process.

I saw an interview with Ephron several years ago and found her witty and refreshing and  added the book to my "list," then promptly lost that particular list and forgot about the book.  When Nancy of Pomegranate Trail recommended it, and I ordered a used copy.  Thank you, Nancy!

A short read, mostly amusing, sometimes serious, the book is revealing about the positive and negative aspects of Ephron's personality.  She's human and honest, self-deprecating and funny.  She wrote the screenplays for Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally; was married to Carl Bernstein, wrote Heartburn, and knew who Deep Throat was long before the rest of us.  She may share some universal feelings, but her gift is the ability to make us laugh.

Nonfiction.  Memoir/Essay.  2008.  160 pages.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

No More Fat Andy

I was devastated to learn that Reginald Hill has died.  No more Fat Andy Dalziel.  Hill is my very favorite writer of mystery and police procedurals, and I have loved his novels in the Pascoe & Dalziel series.  Truly. Loved. Them.

It reminds me of my sense of loss when I realized that Kate Ross had died and that there would be no more Julian Kestrel mysteries.

I can't explain why these two authors and their characters appealed to me in such a fundamental way, but I will always feel a deep and abiding loss that I can no longer follow the adventures of Lord Julian and Fat Andy.

Oh, unfair, unfair to have these wonderful characters die with their authors.

The death of Ariana Franklin (Diane Norman) is another loss, and I will miss Adelia Aguilar, the medieval pathologist as well, but not nearly as deeply.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Murder in the Marais by Cara Black

Murder in the Marais short review:

Two time periods; old betrayals surface.  Collaborators, politics, old memories, concealed identities. 

I used to enjoy doing the 6 word reviews (I can't remember who started this trend), but 6 words were just too difficult.

Murder in the Marais is the first in the Aimee Leduc series and is an interesting debut novel.  Reading the first novel in a series one can both see potential and note flaws that one can hope will be corrected in succeeding novels.  It is even better when the first novel was published over a decade ago because it is relatively quick and easy to move through the series.

I'm starting the Aimee Leduc series (recommended by a friend) at the beginning, but the example I'm going to use is from my favorite mystery/police procedural series by Reginald Hill, the Pascoe and Dalziel series.  I began reading this series with Midnight Fugue, then read everything the library had to offer, and eventually ordered some of the out of print novels from the 1970's.  It was fascinating to see the difference in quality from those first novels--the promise was there, but the promise wouldn't have engaged me sufficiently if I'd begun the series with the earliest books.

Sometimes reading a series from the beginning can be a mistake because the author has yet to get to know his characters sufficiently to engage the reader.  Going back and reading the early novels though, after becoming enthralled with the series, can provide such a fascinating examination of an author's developing style.  At least, I found it so with Reginald Hill's Fat Andy series featuring Pascoe and Dalziel.  (side note:  I could just cry when I think that Hill's death in January means no more Fat Andy, no more intriguing and intelligent novels, no more wonderful allusions....)

Back to Murder in the Marais, Cara Black does engage my interest and has interesting characters that hold great promise for development.  If her plot is sometimes over-complicated and digressive, it nevertheless is an engrossing look at the collective guilt left from the German occupation of France during WWII.  Active collaborators and those who simply turned their heads, committing the sin of omission; the self-righteous anger after Paris is liberated of those who did not actively collaborate (or who managed to keep their activity secret) and who engaged in violent retaliation against known or suspected collaborators; and the scars and sometimes open wounds that exist 50-60 years later still carry weight and influence behavior.

Aimee reluctantly take an assignment from an old friend of her father's, but when delivering the material to Lily Stein, she finds the old woman dead with a swastika carved in her forehead.  Her attempts to discover the murderer involve her in the residual evil left from the Occupation still smoldering in present-day Paris.

Yes, I will be reading more in this series and discovering more about Aimee Leduc's Paris.
I'm grateful to Teresa for this recommendation, and I have ten more books in the series to look forward to!

Fiction.  Mystery/Crime.  1999.  354 pages.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Bring Me One of Everything by Leslie Hall Pinder

Bring Me One of Everything was an ARC from Grey Swan Press.  Book Description:

"Bring Me One of Everything is a novel which weaves real-life facts and fiction into an eloquent tale of suspense and intrigue. The title of the book is based on what the management of the Smithsonian is said to have demanded when sending ethnographers to native villages to gather artifacts for its collection: "Bring me one of everything." The novel is several layered stories centered around a troubled writer, Alicia Purcell, who has been commissioned to create the libretto for an opera about an anthropologist named Austin Hart. He earned fame in the 1950s for cutting down and bringing back to museums the largest remaining stand of totem poles in the world. They belonged to the Haida tribes who inhabit the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia. Hart's subsequent suicide creates the mystery Alicia attempts to solve as she consults present-day tribe members, Hart's friends and family, and his personal journals. Added to the complications of her search are Alicia's imperious though ailing mother, a cast-off lover, a narcissistic composer, and her own demons of disaffection. But an overarching question dogs her and the reader: why she is so obsessed with Austin Hart and this quest?"

Leslie Hall Pinder's writing is a poetic examination of several themes:  the role (and ethics) of museums in acquiring Native Indian artifacts, parent/child relationships, suicide, betrayals and reconciliations, and Haida myth and culture.  The novel is at least partially inspired by the life of Wilson Duff, the Canadian anthropologist who became immersed in the world of Haida art and culture and eventually committed suicide.

Alix Purcell must examine the life of Austin Hart who, like the real-life Wilson Duff, becomes obsessive in his study of the Haida, and who also commits suicide. In her pursuit of background on Hart for the libretto she has been commissioned to write, Alix  must confront her own youthful intention to end her life which was thwarted by a strange, almost prescient phone call from her mother, a distant and dominating presence during Alix's youth.  

Now in her forties, Alix must re-examine and re-work her relationship with her ailing mother as she researches the material for her libretto.  Although she was "no longer host to the suicide visitor" that her mother had banished when Alix was 18, her fascination with and need to understand the reasons for Hart's suicide becomes consuming.  She feels a distinct connection to Austin Hart and a compulsion to decipher his reasons for his ending his own life.

Fiction.  Psychological.  2012.  331 pages.

Friday, February 10, 2012

In Progress

I've been reading The Eight by Katherine Neville, a complicated conspiracy novel that pre-dates Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.  I've marveled at how many historic characters Neville managed to include or mention in the novel:  Marat, Robespierre, Talleyrand, Jaques-Louis David, Ben Franklin, Jefferson, Wordsworth, Blake, James Boswell, Rousseau, Napoleon, Catherine the Great, Bach, the mathematician Euler, Benedict Arnold, and on and on.  The French Revolution, modern and historic chess players,  the Freemasons, OPEC are all included.

It's pretty silly, really--shifting from the period of the French Revolution to the 1980's and back again with a grand and ancient conspiracy of good versus evil in which almost every historic personage has played a part.
Today, I picked up the book A Visit to Vanity Fair:  Moral Essays on the Present Age by Alan Jacobs.  Coincidentally:

1) the epigraph is a quote from W.H Auden, and I am currently rereading The Dyer's Hand, essays and lectures by Auden, and

2) the introduction includes references to Boswell, Blake, and Rousseau, although certainly not in the line of the fantastic conspiracy of The Eight, but rather in the sense that the three were famous essayists.
I've just finished The House of Silk, a modern Sherlock Holmes mystery.  Holmes and Watson are always fun; Laurie King writes my favorite modern Holmes' stories featuring Mary Russell, but I've also enjoyed Carolyn Douglas' Irene Adler series.

Sherlock Holmes is well-represented in both films and television.  The British television series with Jeremy Brett and some of the old movies with Basil Rathbone have great atmosphere.  In sharp contrast, the new series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbach, features a modern Sherlock who uses cell phones and texting.

I'm planning to watch Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes tonight.  Even if the reviews were pretty bad, it will be fun to watch Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law--I hope.

On my list of Holmesian books/movies:  They Might Be Giants (a 1971 film in which George C. Scott imagines himself to be Holmes) and The Final Solution by Michael Chabon.  I like Chabon and don't know how I missed this one.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

How Far Behind...

can I get in reading blogs?  Very, very far.

As I try to catch up, I have to stop and write down titles of books and names of authors, check them out on Amazon, add some to the wish list and, after reading several reviews of Moonwalking with Einstein, finally placing an order.  I could have waited to get a copy at the library, but this is one of the "brain" books that I'm sure I'll want to keep.

Algonquin has sent me a bunch more ARCs, I have books I've purchased sitting in a stack by my reading chair, I have overdue library books.  A surfeit of reading material and still not reading at my usual pace.

I do have a couple of books to review and have 3 books in progress, but I'm still spending most of my time upstairs in the studio stitching away on prayer flags.  I love the idea of having these little flags sending prayers on the breeze.

"Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. The flags do not carry prayers to gods, a common misconception; rather, the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space. Therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all."

Mine aren't the traditional Tibetan version with their bright, symbolic primary colors.  Mine are usually more subdued, but I've had fun choosing words to include on my flags and embroidering each flag is a meditative process.

I think I've made about eight so far.  I spend hours each night stitching while watching Netflix, instead of reading, which is my usual evening activity.

However, I really must return my library books, read some of the backlog of books that have accumulated, and write a couple of reviews!

Sunday, February 05, 2012

A Place of Secrets by Rachel Hore

A Place of Secrets (an ARC) sounded so interesting.  Jude works as an appraiser of old books for an auction house, and when she takes a call asking for an evaluation of old books on astronomy, she must go to a country estate in Norfolk to evaluate the library's collection.

While going through the books on astronomy, Jude also discovers the notebooks of Anthony Wickham, the eighteenth century amateur astronomer who collected the books, and she becomes interested in Wickham's own work in astronomy.  Then the handwriting changes, and Wickham's daughter Esther is making notations of their studies of the night sky.  A woman astronomer adds even more interest and value to the books and instruments in the collection.

In the meantime, Jude is re-connecting with her grandmother, her sister, and her young niece who live near Starbrough Hall where Jude is staying, appraising and researching the library.  Old memories and dreams begin to coincide as an ancient mystery and generational repetitions appear.  Can dreams be part of a family's inheritance?

Unfortunately, the interesting possibilities never quite work.  The writing never fully engages the reader, nor do the characters.  The writing takes potentially suspenseful situations and renders them tedious.  The author should have stopped after the conclusion to the main mystery, but no, more and more information continues to dribble out, diluting any possible effect of the climax.

The highlights are connected with Euan, the naturalist author living in the game keeper's house on the estate.  His character remains pretty flat, but I like his comments about the book he wants to write about astronomy and its cultural importance:  "I'm passionate about the necessity of the stars to us as people.  Living in cities and towns, and with so much artificial light, we're in danger of losing our connection to the night sky--that sense of wonder about the universe and our place in it."

Close to the end of the book, Euan takes Jude into the woods at night on a moth hunt.  Using a mercury vapor light and other equipment, Euan attracts hundreds of moths and Jude records the various species.  He tells Jude that "There are twenty-seven hundred species [of moths] in the U.K."  and "only sixty-four kinds of butterfly."

I liked these small sections because I love the kind of books that Euan is supposed to write--books about science and nature written for the layman; books that engage the general populace in terms we can understand and with imagination and wonder.

I've just finished reading some very positive reviews by people who found the novel "riveting," but my own opinion is quite different.  I liked several elements, but not the book.

Some stringent editing might have been able to pull the many threads together better and weave them together into a more cohesive whole.

Fiction.  Historical Mystery.  2012.  382 pages.