Sunday, August 27, 2006

Good Southern Writing

Good day, ya'all!
I have to say that I am a fan of good Southern writers, like Carson McCullers ("The Heart is a Lonely Hunter") and Harper Lee ( "To Kill A Mockingbird"), and Wm Faulkner ("The Unvanquished"). I've even enjoyed a tale or two by Pat Conroy, though I am somewhat loath to admit it.
But I have to say that Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bees" took me completely by surprise, as I'd not thought of Kidd as a Southern writer, really. I read "Mermaid Chair" and enjoyed it, but thought of it as literary fiction married to chick lit.
Though "Secret Life of Bees" starts slowly and is difficult to read (mainly because I find it hard to read about child abuse and racism), I found myself pressing on, wanting to know more about Lily and being surprised by my joy each time she did something right, though she was frightened and young. The book takes place during the summer of 1964, which was a time of great racial unrest, a time when America was struggling with itself socially. Once Lily encounters the bee-keeping calendar sisters and begins growing and learning through their wise mentorship, the story begins to soar, and ther reader falls in love with the sisters and their awesome Black Madonna. This book moved me in exactly the same way that I was moved after reading "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." Really fine coming-of-age stories resonate with older readers because they are timeless and completely honest in their emotional mileau. Lily's struggle and ultimate triumph will resonate with me for the rest of my life. What a brilliant author Kidd is, to slowly mesmerize the reader and weave her way into his or her heart. I plan to add her to my list of "read everything this author has written."

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Winter Moon by Lackey, Lee and Murphy

Winter Moon contains three stories by three fantasy authors. The stories all have the moon as a major plot device and all have romantic interludes between the characters.
As expected, I liked Mercedes Lackey's story the best, probably because Moira, her protagonist, was such an interesting, strong, brilliant woman who falls for the court fool. And the story takes place at a sea-swept keep, which sounds glorious.
Tanith Lee's entry, "The Heart of the Moon" was rather fable-like, and Clirando was one tough cookie, dealing with the pain of betrayal and a curse, all at once. Much darker than Lackey's tale, I still enjoyed its mix of Homer and feminist uber-heroine.
Murphy's "Banshee Cries" was the weakest of the three, mainly because the writing was very amaterish and the characters a bit too cliched. That's not to say that her main character, Joanne (and why anyone would prefer to be called dull old Joanne instead of Celtic Siobhan, I can't imagine) wasn't interesting, because she was, as a reluctant shaman and a cop. Still, all these old men sniffing around her and her bizarre love of cars just made her seem less like a heroine and more like a head case.
Yet I'd recommend this book for any fantasy fans who like women heros, action, adventure and romance.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

An American Summer by Frank Deford

Friday I finished reading An American Summer by Frank Deford, the next book up for discussion with the Tuesday night book group at my local library.
What a joy it was to read a book that took place over a specific period of time (the summer of 1954) and captured the mood, the flavor and the gestalt of the time period so perfectly, the reader felt that he or she had lived through it.
The story is about a 14 year old boy, Christopher "Christy" Bannister, who moves with his family from Terra Haute, IN, to Baltimore, MD, and meets up with a local woman whose life has become circumscribed by polio. Ms. Slade teaches Christy to swim from the portable iron lung she's forced to live in, and Christy learns to be a better person after falling in love with her.
Beautifully wrought scenes and dialog, staunch prose that reads like a Hemingway without all the macho B.S., and a plot that moves along at a purposeful pace...all things that make this a classic work of literature, a slice of life that is intense and not to be missed.
Because "An American Summer" was so deep, I decided to follow it with a bit of fluff called "Buttercup Baby" by Karen Fox. BB is the story of a cute flower fairy who wants to have a baby, so of course she chooses a confirmed bachelor to father her child, and proceeds to fall tinker-over-teacup in love with him. Lots of hot sex ensues, and situations that are bizarre but funny. Alls well that ends well, of course, and our hero's large family is setting up the perfect wedding for the mortal and the fae at the end of the book. It took me all of 3 hours to read this book, so I'd recommend it for a beach read or a fun little distraction that you can put in your purse and read while you're waiting in line or sitting in the dentists office.
Now that the local library's book sale is over, I only have 23 more books to read! Joy!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Man Booker Prize List

Here are the nominees for Britain's Man Booker Prize, which is somewhat equivalent to our National Book Award or the Pen/Faulkner Award. I should state that I've not read any of the books nominated, but I have read an earlier novel by Sara Waters called "Fingersmith" that was rather bizarre and nasty. I have her nominated novel on hold at the library.
The Man Booker Prize Nominees List:
Peter Carey Theft: A Love Story
Kiran Desai The Inheritance of Loss
Robert Edric Gathering the Water
Nadine Gordimer Get a Life
Kate Grenville The Secret River
MJ Hyland Carry Me Down
Howard Jacobson Kalooki Nights
James Lasdun Seven Lies
Mary Lawson The Other Side of the Bridge
Jon McGregor So Many Ways to Begin
Hisham Matar In the Country of Men
Claire Messud The Emperor's Children
David Mitchell Black Swan Green
Naeem Murr The Perfect Man
Andrew O'Hagan Be Near Me
James Robertson The Testament of Gideon Mack
Edward St Aubyn Mother's Milk
Barry Unsworth The Ruby in Her Navel
Sarah Waters The Night Watch

Monday, August 14, 2006

A Good Dog by Jon Katz

Here's my review of "A Good Dog, the story of Orson, who changed my life" by Jon Katz. This was an ARC sent to me by Random House.
A damaged dog meets a damaged man. They bond, they heal one another, change one another, contract to never give up on the other, and, surprise, they never do.The relationship between these two creatures of different species is an amazing testament to the empathy of humans for canines, and dogs for the walking wounded among us.For those not familiar with Katz's work, and not obsessed with dogs, the first 50 pages of the book might seem slow going, as the reader wends his or her way into the world of Katz and Devon (who will be renamed Orson) a dog that seemed to me to be so insane he was unsalvagable. Yet Katz seemingly has no end of patience and money to lavish on this sheepdog that won't herd sheep, but will herd Katz through a midlife crisis. As a native Iowan, I grew up spending time on my grandparents farms, and learned early that animals are, in general, not the smart, empathetic and creative creatures that authors have anthropomorphized them into for decades in childrens storybooks. Most animals are dumb creatures whose purpose is to feed and clothe us. They do little beyond eat, poop and reproduce. That is not to say my family didn't value animals or pets, we did, certainly, but we didn't become obsessive about them or ascribe human emotions and actions to them. My grandparents were unfailingly kind to their animals, and my grandfather once horse-whipped a man who was beating an animal nearly to death. He despised cruelty to critters, and had a whole barn full of happy cats and dogs who would follow him to the ends of the earth.Though Katz seems obsessive and off-kilter in the first part of the book, he recovers his sanity and moral compass in the second half, and by the end of the book, the reader finds himself/herself weeping with compassion for Katz and Orson, and their heartfelt journey that came to an unavoidable end. My mother had to put down her beloved cat last year, after Paddington, 18, became too weak to eat or jump or move. Another friend, a pen pal from the East Coast, just this past weekend had to put down her German Shepard, who could no longer walk. Euthanizing an animal is harrowing, and I laud Katz for dealing with his grief in such a spiritual and poetic manner, and with such gentle compassion for his friend Orson.The authors honesty and vulnerability make this book a rarity, I think, among male authors. It takes courage to bare your heart to readers, and to display a relationship that was so personal, so intense, and so meaningful. Even for those who don't currently have a pet, like myself, this book is a good read for the insight and understanding of the human/animal bond that it provides. The prose is what is now called "long form" journalism, made popular by authors like Susan Orleans, so most readers will have no trouble with it. Yet for all its workmanlike prose, Katz still manages to slip in a lyrical, poetic description here, or a lovely narration there.My only two problems with the book were its redundancy, which one can blame on the lack of great editors at publishing houses (gone are the days of Harlold Ross and Malcom Cowley) but which adds a sour note to an otherwise lovely song. We read, at the beginning of several chapters, a repeat summation of what has happened in past chapters with Orson, and this isn't necessary at all. The other problem I had was that, on page 44, Katz expresses his love of Devon/Orsons horrible tendancy to try and bite or maim service dogs. This is just reprehensible on the part of the dog and the human, for admiring a dogs desire to wound a hard-working seeing-eye dog just because they exist. That is cruel and stupid, and not worthy of someone of Katz's seemingly gentle nature. Other than that, I'd recommend this book to all those who have ever had a beloved pet or lived on a farm with many such pets.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Something Rich and Strange

Before we begin with Patricia McKillips fantasy novel, I'd like to post a listing of independent bookstores from public broadcasting via the librarians internet list.
On this site "you will find a list of independent booksellers [in the Puget Sound area of Washington state] ... along with their book recommendations -- 'Best Picks' for that month." Includes bookstores in Seattle, Bellingham, Olympia, and Whidbey Island. From KPLU, a public radio station from Seattle/Tacoma.URL:

Now on to "Something Rich and Strange" by Patricia McKillip, with a cover illustration by Brian Froud.
As with all of McKillips fantasy novels, this book is beautifully written, rife with hypnotic prose that wisks you away to another world that exists alongside our mundane lives. In all fairness, I must state that I've read nearly everything McKillip has written, with the exception of "Harrowing the Dragon," a short story collection in my TBR. I've loved all of her works, and found myself wishing that I had half McKillips talent for crafting gorgeous paragraphs that read like dreamy poems. As I don't, I just have to satisfy myself with being a fan of her work, and pushing them on friends and relations who haven't heard of her fine texts.
This novel is the story of Megan and Jonah, two oddballs who fell in together and are both fascinated with the sea. They encounter two mer-people who bascially lure them under the sea, and make them responsible for all the misdeeds humans have perpetrated on the oceans of the world. Why these two is not fully explained, but the descriptions of the underwater world, the sea creatures of legend and the beauty of the waves, tidepools and shore all make great reading. I would recommend this book for those who love sea legends and artistry.
Now if McKillip would only grace us with her presense here in the Seattle area, I could get my collection signed!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner

I could really identify with Goodnight Nobody, as it's about a mom living in suburbia with a husband who she rarely sees and surrounded by neighbor moms who appear to be living perfect lives. Other mothers always seem more together, always have nutritous snacks on hand, always make sure their kids don't say or do the wrong thing, and the mothers themselves never have stained clothing or unkempt hair. Yet these same soccer mommies also have enough money that they can hire designers to fix their home, clothing consultants to buy them the right clothing, personal trainers to get them in shape, shop at the expensive Whole Foods store for groceries and hire maids and nannies when they need a break. So I've never felt too competative with them because I've never had that kind of dough, never had the parents who lived close by so they could care for my kid when I needed to interview somebody for a freelance article, or I just needed a break. And of course, I can't afford the chain-childcare prices, either, so you can assume that I don't have the money for trainers, nannies or designers. That's one of the few problems I had with the book, as the main character, Kate, kvetched and whined about her borning suburban life caring for her kids (she misses being a tabloid journalist) and not having anything decent to wear and being overweight, when from what was said about her husband, it sounded like she could easily have afforded maids, nannies, trainers and everything else to go with her ultra-expensive Connecticut home. I would have had more sympathy for the woman if she was like me, and had to do it all and still try to keep a freelance career going when you're facing bankruptcy from your husbands lack of financial acumen and you can barely pay the mortgage. That's a lot tougher than being wealthy and just not able to manage your time and your kids (and for some reason, though Kate is obviously furious that she became pregnant with twins soon after the birth of her ill-behaved daughter, she never considers abortion, though that was a good option for someone who felt over-burdened with one child, let alone three. The fact that she made the decision to have two more children that she clearly did not want also lessened my sympathy for her--she could also have used birth control). My other problem with Kate is that she's obnoxious and rude, which I assume we are supposed to find charming because she's from NYC, and she is gutless and stupid when it comes to some total airhead jerk named Evan. She fell for the guy when he was affianced to a b*tchy supermodel, and it was clear he was spineless and wouldn't leave the supermodel for chubby Kate, though he clearly found her attractive. Instead, Kate carries a torch for the guy until she meets a guy she finds to be kind and decent, and apparently good enough to marry, though she never really makes us believe that she loves the guy. When Evan shows up again after Kate finds her neighbor mom dead with a knife in her back, Kate goes back to being childish and stupid about him, and allows herself to get into several compromising situations with him, though he knows she is married (his marriage to the evil supermodel didn't work out, what a surprise). Again, though she is getting more sexual satisfaction from her showerhead than her husband, I didn't have a lot of sympathy for Kates lusty crush on Evan, because she just sat on the fence about it, she never actually got into bed with the man and left her husband, nor did she tell the jerk Evan to f-off because she wants to keep her vows to her husband. And the only thing she seemed to find attractive about Evan was his looks. He didn't seem to be a guy with good character, morals, brains or anything else that most women would find attractive, he was just good-looking, which says something about Kate being shallow, in addition to being ridiculous around Evan. And inevitably, Weiner never did tell us if Kate left her husband for good or planned on having a life with Evan. She left it all up in the air, which was frustrating. I've read all of Weiners previous books, and few of them had such unsatistfying endings. This book was her first murder mystery, and while I think she did a fair job of tracking down clues and making Kate a bungling sleuth, I wish to heck Weiner had worked on making Kate more likable and less obnoxious, and certainly smarter when it comes to confronting the perp. Yet, as a chick lit writer, Weiner is still a better writer than 75 percent of the chick lit scribes in existance.

Friday, August 04, 2006

A Book That Won't Die, and V For Vendetta

The little paperback that could
"Seattle Post Intelligencer book critic John Marshall presents a rather cool story of a book that's been out in paperback in years still selling very well at one of the city's independents. So why is Robert Wilson's A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON still doing great business at Seattle's legendary Elliot Bay shop?Chalk it up to a t-shirt.Marshall explains that Leah Brock, a veteran bookseller at Elliott Bay, happened to wear a T-shirt from Gilley's (of URBAN COWBOY FAME) to work last summer, which caused customer Paul Goode to strike up a conversation. It turned out that Brock is from Conroe, outside Houston, Goode from Kingsville, 250 miles away. Lone Star matters were soon dispatched and talk turned to books. Brock had been reading through mysteries set in World War II, and that immediately made Goode, an avid reader of mysteries with historical settings, think of A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON.And she loved it too. Then came the shelf-taker. Then came more sales. Then the newsletter Shelf Awareness caught on, and as Craig Burke, Berkley director of publicity, reports, sales increased 44 percent in April over March and have continued an upward trend since. Wilson's pretty pleased about the results, too: "I've been delighted by this story, not only because it relies on coincidences, which are NOT allowed in crime novels, but which happen all the time in everyday life, but also because this is what every writer craves: word of mouth."
That was taken from famed "Galleycat" blog, mainly because I once interviewed John Marshall for the Mercer Island Reporter, and because its heartening to read of a book that has made it on word of mouth, from one of Seattles last indie bookstores, heaven bless them.
I also wanted to post about a movie that my husband, the comic book and graphic novel fan, insisted that we both view, called "V for Vendetta." I don't know that I was expecting a movie based on a graphic novel based on a futuristic Guy Fawkes ("Remember remember the 5th of November, the gunpowder, treason and plot..") to be quite so violent, bloody and obvious in its rant on fascism, but it certainly delivered in the big bang dept. I kept thinking that I'd heard that deep, luscious voice before, when I first heard "V" in the movie, and the end credits enlightened me that it was the marvelous Hugo Weaving, who was the cruel agent in the Matrix movies. At any rate, Natalie Portman was the chicken-hearted female lead, who, through torture and letters from a former prisoner of the state, found the means to be free of fear. Rather like the Shawshank Redemption, but since its Portman, and they cut off all her hair, poor dear, I gather we're supposed to be impressed. In all honesty, I was glad that we rented the movie on DVD, because there is no way I'd have paid movie theater prices to see such cliches brought to life. But the DVD is worth it for Hugo Weavings voice alone.
I read the wonderful "If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor" by the hilarious Bruce Campbell last weekend, and was fascinated by all his behind the scenes musings. The one thing I didn't like about the book was the way the humor sometimes went a bit over the line into snarky bitterness. But for the most part, it was a very entertaining read, with some memorable anecdotes and interesting insights on Campbells long career and friendship with famed director Sam Rami. If you ever wondered what real acting is like, what Hollywood is like behind all the supposed glamor, this is your book.
I have to note that my TBR stack is now 21 books high, and teetering, so I need to get back to reading.