Thursday, December 25, 2008

Magic Hour by Kristin Hannah

The Magic Hour was a truly engaging, fascinating tale of two sisters with disparate lives who must work together when the police chief sister finds a feral child in a tree in her small town in Washington state. Her psychiatrist sister must try to find the identity of the child and attempt to get her to speak of what happened to turn her into a small, frightened animal, malnourished and covered with scars. Rain Valley, the town that cop sister Ellie runs sounds a great deal like Maple Valley or one of a dozen small burgs 30 or 60 miles out of Seattle; its rainy, green, picturesque and full of characters that seem by turns amusing and bizarre. Dr Julia Cates, her sister, has been living in Los Angeles and, through no fault of her own has been tainted by the actions of a former patient who went on a rampage and killed 6 teenagers before killing herself. With the press hounding her and the families of the murdered teens howling for blood (and money of course), Julia's retreat to her hometown comes at the perfect time...she needs a miracle to salvage her career and her fragile sense of self, and the feral child is so traumatized she can't speak, so she's in need of a miracle as well, to unlock the secret of her identity. The town doctor is a hunk with a secret named Max, who has already cut a swath through the women of the town, and can't seem to commit since the death of his son and divorce from his wife. Inevitably, he's attracted to Julia, but Julia's never been able to commit either, so there is a lot of stuttering starts and stops to their relationship. Many of the peripheral characters, such as Penelope Nutter, called Peanut, and Cal, who has loved Ellie ever since he was a teen, are portrayed as well rounded characters with lives that are realistic and interesting. The feral child, called Alice, is heartbreakingly rendered here, and the reader exults and trembles and falls in love with Alice just as easily as Julia and Ellie do. Alice reminds us of the wonders of being a child because she is free of societal constraints, yet she also reminds us of how fragile the human mind is, and how resilient children are in the face of starvation and abuse. That one tiny little 5 year old girl can survive being treated worse than an animal for at least 3 years is astonishing. That she can learn to speak and to bond with adults after such trials is miraculous.
I had the novel on CD and in hardback form, but I soon discovered that my portable CD player sucks batteries dry after only a few hours, so I switched to the reliable book, and finished the second half of the novel by page. I found it much easier to savor the prose and plot on the page than having the characters interpreted for me by an actress on CD. Speaking of the prose, it was comfortable, sturdy and yet had a nice, almost hypnotic rhythm to it. The characters were fascinating and well drawn, and the plot, though somewhat predictable, was still brisk and tight. The ending was quite satisfying in a traditional HEA way, and I found myself saddened that it was over so soon. I will certainly be seeking other books by Ms Hannah in the future. I'd recommend this book to those who like mysteries and down-to-earth romances with a little "Empire Falls" thrown in for good measure.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Brilliant Seattle Author Speaks

Below is an article on todays Shelf Awareness, and I have to post it here because once again I find myself in complete agreement with an authors choices of the best fiction and best plays ever written. I feel EXACTLY the same way about Ironweed by the glorious William Kennedy. It amazed me, filled me with wonder at the power of words and made me weep when I finished it, because such beauty had been wrought from such dire subject matter. Kennedy's "The Flaming Corsage" was also an incredible read. And early John Irving is delicious...its just in later works that he became a jerk and started saying outrageous things in interviews such as the line about prostitution being a perfectly wonderful career for women, one that most women should experience (that's just nasty).
Anyway, I also agree about the power and glory of Shakespeare, though my personal favorite is the Tempest. He created the most wonderful plays with the most exquisite language ever written. He is the once and future master of words.
I am going to have to find a copy of Kallos book and read it next year, because now she's intrigued me by her honesty and good taste in literature!

Book Brahmins: Stephanie Kallos

Stephanie Kallos spent 20 years in the theater as an actress and teacher
before coming out of the closet as a writer. In 1996, she was
commissioned by the Seattle Children's Theatre to adapt Pinocchio; her
published short fiction has received a Raymond Carver Short Story Award
and a Pushcart Prize nomination. Her first novel, Broken For You, won
the Washington State Book Award, the PNBA award and was chosen by Sue
Monk Kidd as a Today Show book club selection in December 2004. Her
second novel, Sing Them Home, will be released this coming January 6 by
Atlantic Monthly Press. Stephanie lives with her family in North Seattle
and pulled herself away from the library that is her nightstand to
answer a few questions:

On your nightstand now:

Mason-Dixon Knitting Outside the Lines by Kay Gardiner and Ann Meador
Shayne; The Fasting Girl by Michelle Stacey; Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
by Lydia Millet; Little Women by Louisa May Alcott; Sacred Contracts by
Caroline Myss; Autism and the God Connection by William Stillman;
Journey of Souls by Michael Newton; Fasting Girls: The History of
Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacbos Brumberg; and two books on writing:
Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream and Naming the World edited by
Bret Anthony Johnston. I always have many knitting projects on the
needles and many books on my nightstand--both of which drive my husband

Favorite books when you were a child:

Pretty traditional stuff, I'm afraid: A Wrinkle in Time and Little Women
for fiction--although I could never get past Beth's death. I also read a
great deal of nonfiction as a kid--biographies of noble achievers that
left me feeling very inadequate and laid the foundation for my
predisposition for guilt and shame. And there was a series of books by a
man whose name I believe was Frank Edwards. I'm sure they're out of
print now, but I'd love to find them again. They had titles like Strange
But True and recounted supernatural/inexplicable events like spontaneous
human combustion and frog downpours. I loved that stuff. Still do.

Your top five authors:

This is a toughie, because any writer I love and have learned from is a
favorite. So I'm going to treat this like a "If you were stranded on a
desert island" question: J.D. Salinger, Anne Sexton, John Irving,
Shakespeare, Ian McEwan.

Book you've faked reading:

I'm terrible at faking, which is too bad since I'm embarrassingly
ill-read. If I were inclined to fake having read something, it would
surely be something by one of the Russians. I admit to having nodded my
head knowingly when the conversation turns to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Actually, I could start faking an acquaintance with Melville if I wanted
to, thanks to my kids: the other day at breakfast my sons shocked the
hell out of me by reciting, in chorus, the opening lines of Moby Dick.
"How do you know that?" I asked, incredulous. They informed me that one
of the characters in the Bone books uses Melville as a reliable
soporific. However, since I have very little trouble falling asleep
these days, I'll probably never get to it. And now I'm outed.

Book you're an evangelist for:

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It's hard to evangelize
for a book that is so unflinching and dark, but it's an incredible work,
one that faces a hot-button, contemporary issue head-on, in all its
complexities. It's the most relentlessly truthful and thought-provoking
book I've read in years.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Recently Alice Hoffman's The Fourth Angel and a novel called Salvage by
Jane Kotapish.

Books that changed your life:

Ironweed by William Kennedy. I found it astonishing. When I put it down,
I felt that one could learn everything one needed to know about writing
a novel by reading it.

Atonement by Ian McEwan. I still study that book---and all of McEwan's
work--because no one has the ability to dive more completely and
fearlessly into the heads of characters than he does, to explode a
single moment in a person's life in a way that lends it a profound and
enduring significance. Atonement also opened up the potential power of
storytelling to me in a way that no other book has ever done. That book
was an artistic shock to my system; that's the only way I can describe

Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. The second time I acted in that play, I
played Paulina. The experience was earth-shattering in terms of what it
taught me about Shakespeare's use of language, the physicality of it,
the power of sounds in and of themselves. It was that play--and the
subsequent gift of getting cast in other Shakespearean roles--that
taught me that language is gestural. A physical force. Shakespeare still
exerts the biggest influence on my work as a writer--he just did
everything right.

Favorite line from a book:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice--not because of his
voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even
because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is
the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen
Meany."--John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Books you most want to read again for the first time:

All of Thoreau; The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand; Doris Lessing's The Golden
Notebook . . . Really, any of the books I read in my early 20s, because
for the most part they were books that weren't mandated by curriculums
or given to me by relatives; they were books I found on my own or
through friends. These were the books that helped me begin to define
myself apart from my parents. I'll also add To Kill a Mockingbird, even
though it was required (and controversial) reading at my junior high;
every time I read that book it feels like the first time.

Monday, December 22, 2008

An Incomplete Revenge and Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading

I'm thrilled to have completed the fifth in the sterling Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear, titled "An Incomplete Revenge."
I must admit the previous two novels, Pardonable Lies and Messenger of Truth were slightly dissapointing to me, mainly because Maisie was spiraled into a deep depression and wasn't acting like herself at all, especially in Messenger of Truth. Thankfully, this newest novel is classic Maisie Dobbs, enthralling and full of fascinating characters, including the peripheral characters like Billy that we've come to know and love in the past books. Incomplete Revenge finds Maisie embroiled in a mystery in a village in Kent with a dark secret, and, spoiler alert, we learn of her gypsy heritage, which explains her sensitivity with people and ability to get them to tell her the truth. Maisie's shell-shocked former amour dies, which by now is a relief, and Billy and his family are taking steps to recover from the horrible death of their youngest child. The novel is set in the 1929-31 depression, and the people of England are still feeling the aftershocks of losing so many young men in The Great War (WW1). Maisie has recovered from her malaise, and takes on her challenges with vigor and good humor, as well as her trademark common sense and sensitivity. The case unfolds in due course, and Maisie manages to set things right with the village and mend her bridges with Marcus as well. The prose is elegant and the pace of the plot deliberate but sedate and unhurried, allowing the reader to savor the setting and characters of the England of a simpler era. I highly recommend this book to those who appreciate a brilliant female sleuth who doesn't simper or pout or constantly fuss about the men in or not in her life.
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan was a bit of a surprise to me. I was expecting a running commentary on all the books Corrigan has read and delicious snippets of prose that would send me salivating to the nearest bookstore. Alas, such was not the case. Leave Me Alone is riddled with that dry and academic critical analysis of books that tends to leave undergrads snoring on their books in the college library. There are some paragraphs on Corrigans life as an only child in an Irish Catholic family in Queens New York in the 50s and 60s, which is interesting, but readers are only given so much of an insight into Corrigans life before she switches us back to the boring commentary on how this or that genre connects to another and why....yawn. She focuses on the hard boiled mystery genre of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the "extreme adventure" novels that involve women, including Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters works, and tales of Catholic martyrs and secular saints. Other than the classic literature of Jane Austen and the Brontes, I am not really interested in hard boiled detective stories, nor do martyrs interest me, really, so 2/3 of the book was lost on me. I did enjoy Corrigans all-too-brief discussions of her adoption of a Chinese orphan girl, her unique insights (they're really quite odd, which amazes me as I've read other commentary on Austen and the Brontes and Alcott, and Corrigan manages to find the original thought in a haystack) and her sense of humor about teaching and finding time to read all the millions of books that land on her doorstep (I don't have a lot of pity for her there, as I wish that would happen to me!). For others who are bibliophiles, I imagine more than a few of them would find the book interesting, especially if they're of Irish Catholic heritage from NYC. Those of us who are middle class, middle of the country WASPs, though, might find some chapters a bit tedious. As a commentator on NPR, Corrigan has learned to create clean and brisk prose, which keeps the book from lagging. I give Leave Me Alone a 3 of 5 stars for pimping the classics, if nothing else.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fascinating Handwriting Book

Below is an article from Shelf Awareness about a book that I'd love to own that recounts the history of handwriting. And I totally agree with the quote about valuing handwriting in this age of keyboarding and emails.

Kitty Burns Florey, author of Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of
Handwriting (Melville House, $22.95, 9781933633671/1933633670, January
23, 2009), is a novelist, grammarian (Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog)
and self-proclaimed penmanship nut. "Since I first picked up a pen, I
have been under the spell of handwriting." Decrying the demise of the
Palmer method in favor of "keyboarding," she has written an ode to
penmanship. She covers handwriting history, calligraphy, Spencer and
Palmer, ink, pens and pencil factories. She tells us penmanship is
important: "The aesthetic appeal of good handwriting is something we
should not cease to value . . . even seeing attractive writing on a
dental-appointment reminder card . . . is a nice moment in the day." And
what would be lost if we didn't have writer's manuscripts to study:

"Even more than a personal possession, a writer's script, with its
smears, crossings out, second thoughts, and marginal notes, seems to
take the viewer directly into his or her mind. The poet Philip Larkin
once said, 'All literary manuscripts have two kinds of value: what might
be called the magical value and the meaningful value. The magical value
is the older and more universal: this is the paper he wrote on, these
are the words as he wrote them, emerging for the first time in this
particular miraculous combination. The meaningful value is of much more
recent origin, and is the degree to which a manuscript helps to enlarge
our knowledge and understanding of a writer's life and work.' In the
words of the poet and former NEA chairman Dana Gioia, 'Reading is never
more intimate than with script. The hand of the poet reaches out to
greet the reader.' When you see the manuscript of a work that's
important to you, it's difficult not to be very aware of that hand
holding the pen and forming the letters--and to feel a bit closer to the
mind behind it all.

"Now that most writers no longer labor over holograph manuscripts, there
will come a time when this kind of magic will be gone. Little that's new
will be added to the vast store of manuscripts that have come down to us
over the centuries. The shape of the letterforms, the cross-outs, the
substitutions, the puzzling illegibilities, the changes of mind and
slips of the pen, the color of the ink and the type of paper, the
egotistical capital I's and the randy loops on the g's--gone, all of it.
Someday the job applications and charge-card receipts of the famous may
be all that's preserved in manuscript collections.

"And then there's the rather stunning idea that if you can't write
cursive, you have a lot of trouble reading it, too. Will my mother's
diaries look like Sanskrit to her great-grand-children? Will it be only
a small group of specialists who can make sense of the original
handwritten manuscripts of Jim Harrison and Wendell Berry, the
heartbreaking letters home from soldiers in the American Civil War, or
artifacts like this Christmas note Walt Whitman sent to his publisher in

"Shakespeare reportedly wrote a sequel to Love's Labors Lost, entitled
Love's Labors Won--what if, in 2108, it turns up in a dustbin somewhere
in Warwickshire? Will there be any¬one around who can decipher it?
Who will be the last person to send a handwritten postcard? Who will
read it?

"In an eloquent lament in the Oregonian (January 13, 2008) for the
decline of the handwritten letter, Jim Carmin suggests: 'Perhaps our
many creative writing programs should emphasize that one of the
important facets of being a writer is to express one's thoughts in the
writing of letters, and to remind authors that for history to have a
more complete and accurate understanding of their work, the
millennia-old tradition of letter writing is a good way to do it . . .
Just as there is a "slow food" movement, to counteract fast food and
fast life, perhaps we should begin a slow writing movement, to regain
the appreciation of writing letters as an important meditative and
historically significant activity, especially to literary studies.' "

"My own advice is: if you get a letter in the mail, save it! Posterity
will thank you."--Marilyn Dahl

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Joy of Quotes and other books

I've just gotten a used copy of this thick, small little tome called "1001 Pearls of Wisdom" and I'm in quote heaven as I look through it and read insights into all manner of things, from travel to the soul.
"You don't have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body" says CS Lewis, that marvelous Narnia author.
"Love yourself and be awake today, tomorrow, always. First establish yourself in the way, then teach others, and so defeat sorrow. To straighten the crooked you must first do the harder thing--straighten yourself. You are the only master. Who else? Subdue yourself and discover your master." Buddah, the ever wise.

So while I am gourmandizing on quotes, I am also reading Maureen Corrigans thoughtful "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading" which is more critical analysis of books than a nice juicy listing of all the great books she's read, (as book critic to NPR, a job I'd love to have) unfortunately. So far I'm about a third of the way through it and I have fallen asleep reading it twice. Nervous and irritating and grumpy and cynical as she is, I still like Ms Corrigan because she's a fellow book lover, and I understand her obsession with reading.
I'm also reading the sublime and ridiculous (and wonderful) PG Wodehouse's "The Girl on the Boat." What a delight it is to read Wodehouse, because his farces are always riddled with subtle asides and scintillating wit.
For next months book group, we're reading the also wonderful Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear, one of the few female sleuths I will bother to read, as most modern mysteries leave me bored.
I've also gotten a lithe tome called "Ten Eternal Questions" that contains some fascinating essays by popular authors, celebrities and general pundits. I try to ration myself to one or two essays a week so I won't finish it too soon.
I am also still struggling through Brisinger, the final novel in the Eragon trilogy by Christopher Paolini. I have found it to be kind of convoluted and dry so far, which is odd considering I enjoyed the first two books tremendously. It seems Mr Paolini got a bit more windy as he matured, unfortunately.
Still, though I have all these books arrayed around me as I cuddle into my snuggly blanket, I find myself yearning for a good SF/Romance hybrid ala Linnea Sinclair, or a space opera via Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. That's why I begged a Baen webscription from the kindly Scott Raun of the Liaden Listserve, so I could download Duainfey, a story by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller that I've not had the chance to read yet. I find it difficult to read on the computer screen, but I also know my ancient printer would gasp and die if I were to try and print it out, so I will just have to don my reading glasses and get to it.
BTW, I plan on giving books as gift whenever possible this year for Christmas. I would love it if I could go to Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle to buy my gifts there, but driving to Seattle has become expensive and it takes two hours to get there and get home with traffic, so I doubt I will be able to support my second favorite independent bookstore this year with my wallet. My first favorite indie bookstore is Island Books on Mercer Island, run by the amazing Roger Page, bless him. Never was there a kinder bookseller on the planet than Sir Page, king of the written word and benefactor to many on Mercer Island, myself included. I really miss getting to shop there on my birthday, and for the holidays. But that shouldn't stop those of you who live in closer proximity to Mercer Island from stopping in and selecting a good book from Rogers stacks...if he doesn't have what you want, he can get it within 48 hours and ship it out, usually for free.