Saturday, November 16, 2013

Another Try

Holy cow!!  More than a YEAR since the last post?!?!  That is worse than bad.

Well, I certainly have plenty of time on my hands, so that is no excuse.  I have been pretty sick, so I supposed I could use that, but that seems so evasive.  So I am just going to apologize and renew an attempt to share the fun I have reading.  I am going to add some of what I am watching, too.  I never watch regular TV, partly because it is crap and partly because I never remember when what I like is on.  Pathetic.

And I want to get as much writing done as possible because in addition to MS, I have received the devastating diagnosis of Stage IV breast cancer.  I am never going to win the Pulitzer Prize.  But I can have a good time with this.

I am going to keep things super simple, just giving thumbs up or down unless there is something spectacular to describe.

So, reading:

I went through a Maeve Binchy phase.  She is not my favorite, but sometimes her multilayered novels with a wide variety of characters are just like comfort food.

Even better were the books of Marcia Willett, which I could not read fast enough for their very Englishness and human, flawed characters.


These two were terrific fun, written in the '30's, telling the story of impoverished Miss Buncle and how she triumphs through writing a novel about her little village and it's inhabitants.


I have long adored Stephen Fry and recently discovered a series he did for UK television.  He plays a small town solicitor who is perpetually solving other people's problems.  A wonderful cast and amusing stories make for true escapism.

(Also on Netflix.)

When the original Inspector Morse was on PBS in the 1980's, I was busy having and raising four children, so I missed the whole series.  I have been catching up recently with the introduction of "Endeavor", the prequel to the stories.

So now I am madly in love with John Thaw, which is extra heartbreaking as he passed away in 2002.  But his body of work is remarkable in these mysteries and the ancillary series of Inspector Lewis and Endeavor just add to the fun.

My only quibble with Endeavor is in endeavoring (tee hee) to establish Morse as the solitary figure he becomes, they overdo it a tad, making him appear more creepy and emotionally disturbed than quirky.  But the writing and acting are just wonderful, across the board.


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Monday, August 20, 2012

And Now for Something Completely Awful…

I love mysteries, especially, no surprise as an Anglophile, English mysteries.  There are some really, really great reads out there, probably more suspense than truly a mystery, but artfully written with plots that make sense and characters with personality that come to life.  Almost novels, really, with a twist.  Off the top of my head some fantastic ones, some that I have mentioned here before, include Denise Mina’s Garnet Hill series (actually anything she has written), Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (anything she’s written as well), In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson, anything by P.D. James.

Then there are what the industry has named “cozy” mysteries.  On the surface, they sound like they will be fun.  The protagonist is usually a female, of varying ages, who lives in a small town and stumbles upon a mystery.  There is frequently a love interest as well, and most of the time the relationship is a conflicted one.

Now I have not written a book myself, so I am reluctant to be critical of someone who has done something I haven’t had the gumption or discipline to do myself.  But I have to say, I have found that “cozy” mysteries usually mean awful, terribly written, preposterously plotted non-mysteries.  The dialogue is stilted and the narrative is full of clich├ęs.  The characters are flat, one dimensional cardboard cut outs, straight out of central casting.

Some examples:

From Million Dollar Baby:

The door creaked open ominously…

Marjorie slid him a snotty look.

A fiendish glint leapt into her eyes.

From A Killer Read:

Mark turned beet red.

(speaking of a tenacious individual) “She reminds me of a Jack Daniel’s terrier…”  Umm, do you mean a Jack RUSSELL terrier?!?

From Hearse and Buggy:

The front door of the shop opened, its telltale door-mounted bell announcing the presence of a shopper.

She followed the finely graveled road as it wound to the left and headed down into a valley of farmland, the peace and tranquility of her rapidly approaching surroundings allowing a sense of true contentment to seep in past the worry she’d felt lapping at her heart all day long.  Now that is a mouthful!

The winner for the most enormous hole in the plot: The Orchid House

The gist of it is this, starting in the 1930’s, a manor house with landed gentry has one Son and Heir.  Possessive mother marries him off to Eligible Girl.  Eligible Girl cannot understand why he is not as, er, affectionate as she would like.  Eligible Girl, now Neglected Wife, discovers Son and Heir in passionate embrace with – gasp – his best male friend.  Consequences ensue.  Son and Heir goes off to war, is imprisoned by the Japanese.  He survives and while waiting to be shipped home he meets The Love of His Life (female, that male stuff was just a phase).  She gets pregnant.  He goes back to England promising to send for her.  But he never does.  Instead, he sends his estate manager to Thailand to find her, which he does, at death’s door, so he brings her baby back to England and he and his barren wife raise it as their own.  AND NO ONE EVER SUSPECTS A THING!!  A Eurasian child born to a thoroughly English couple?!?!  No one ever notices?!?  It is a big shock to everyone when the “truth” comes out?!

Oy vey.

But there have been a few good ones as well.

As far as cozies go, Twenty-Eight and a Half Wishes by Denise Grover Swank was a cute, fun read.  Nicely written and funny it also is moving in places as the main character comes out of the shell her narcissistic mother kept her trapped in, solves a mystery and maybe finds love as well.

I loved Darkside by Belinda Bauer.  In a small town in England, someone is killing elderly people and taunting Jonas Holly, the local policeman, who is already stressed from caring for his wife who has multiple sclerosis.  This story and its ending haunted me for weeks, it was stunning.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty was truly unusual.  The premise is 15 year-old Louise Brooks (a real life character who was soon to be a major silent picture star) needs to be chaperoned on a trip to New York City from hometown Wichita, Kansas.  Local matron Cora Carlisle volunteers for the job, having her own personal reasons to want to visit New York.  The twists and turns of the story are both implausible and believable at the same time, with likeable, complicated characters.  I loved the twenties atmosphere and the follow up to the story.


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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Another Try

A girl can change her mind, can’t she?

I realized if I am going to commit to writing at least one post a week about books and put it on my Nourish blog, I might as well just put it here. So that is what I’m going to do…

Back to my Kindle. I, a person who reveres books and had sworn to uphold the printed word, have only read about five hard copy books in the past year. The rest, over 120, are all on Kindle. I never imagined I would be so enamored. But convenience definitely wins in this case. I no longer have the luxury of hopping in the car and driving to the bookstore to browse. It is so easy, actually too easy, to just peruse the Amazon site to find something I want to read, whether it is 3 o’clock in the afternoon or 3 o’clock in the morning. The disadvantage is how deceptively ‘reasonable’ many kindle books appear to be. “Only $8.99?!?” “Only $9.99?!?” The next thing you know, those $8.99 and $9.99’s have really racked up. I have found many free books on line, though, as well as some that are a dollar or two, so there are bargains out there.

Looking at my overflowing bookshelves, it amazes me I could have brought another 100 books in the house. I am not sure if I am sorry or not. Some of what I have read has been wonderful and some simply awful. It would be nice to have a hard copy of the books I really loved, but I always can do that anyway. And the books that fall into that category are few. More are in the “I enjoyed that” group and can easily forgo owning. And, of course, the awful ones are no great loss.

So while I will always prefer a real, in-my-hands book to read, the Kindle is a great alternative for someone like me who is virtually housebound.


A few of the things I’ve read this year:

I found a really fun, beautifully written series by S. J. Rozan. Set primarily in New York City, it follows private detectives Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, at first tentative and then firm partners. I love the details on Chinese culture that come from the Lydia Chin character and Bill Smith is utterly believable as a jaded, wounded misanthrope. Rozan uses the interesting technique of having the novels alternately narrated by Lydia and Bill, so the tone of the story is completely different depending on the narrator. Their bond is platonic on the surface but full of tension underneath. Great ancillary characters, too.

Two non-fiction books I had really looked forward to left me with differing reactions.

The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker should have been riveting. I wanted it to be riveting, I kept waiting for it to be riveting, but…it just left me cold and bored. Which is some feat because I LOVE stories about other people’s lives. What could be more fascinating than all the characters at the New Yorker during the 1950’s?!? Surely a beautiful, brilliant and educated receptionist who watched the comings and goings for more than 20 years would have a fantastic story to tell. But Janet Groth just didn’t engage me for some reason. I could not muster all that much interest in her and her angst-ridden love life (which was entirely separate from the New Yorker.) The best part was at the end when she goes into detail about the travails her family had endured due to her father’s alcoholism, something she had made veiled references to throughout the book. But it is too little too late. And I was entirely creeped out by her description of Joseph Mitchell, a writer I have revered, who apparently, although married, had a penchant for lunches with pretty young women. She was his Lunch Partner for a time until she was replaced by someone younger. Ick.

On the other hand, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund De Waal was riveting (his website is beautiful as well; I've linked it to his name.) Dramatically written in elegant, poetic prose, it is the story of De Waal’s secular Jewish family and their talent for collecting valuable art, beginning in nineteenth century Paris, continuing through to Vienna and the horrors of the Nazi regime to present day. Going back over a century, he describes various relatives and the roles they played in creating this treasure trove, with the focus on a collection of antique netsuke purchased by his fifth great uncle. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that will fascinate anyone who loves art and history and the triumph of a family over changed circumstances.


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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Time to Admit Need For a Change

If this blog was a child I would be in prison for neglect. I clearly bit off more than I could chew when I started it. But I love books!!!! What am I to do?!?

I have given it a lot of thought and have decided that I will try to do a weekly Bookworm post on my Nourish blog, complete with the Bookworm logo, and [choke, choke] shut this one down. I am also considering transferring the posts over gradually to my other blog and keeping them in an archive there. It will be the same content, except maybe there will finally be content, as I haven’t posted here in months.

I hope you will all come along with me. I am going to aim for every Sunday right now.  We'll see how it goes and if it works I will make it permanent.  Thanks so much for your readership and support all this time!!!


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Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Bookish Confession

I have to come clean.

I have a Kindle.
What's that you say?  You didn't hear me?

I have a Kindle.  
You still can't hear me?  Alright, alright!!  I HAVE A KINDLE!!

There.  I've admitted it.  Me, the book elitist who put up a Pledge to the Printed Word.  I have succumbed because I think the Reader in me ultimately was stronger than the Booklover.  I never thought I would find myself saying those words and I am just shaking my head in wonder at this turn of events.

It was a gift.   That's how it started.  I expected to hate it.  And it did take some getting used to.  I can't tell you how many times I went to turn a non-existent page (you must press a button instead).  And I read so fast that I found myself pushing the button too fast as well, going on to the next page before I had read the last few words.  So in a way, it has forced me to slow down.

It is unbelievably, and expensively, convenient.  Two o'clock in the morning and you have nothing to read?  No problem.  With one click a book is delivered, usually less than $11, to your device.  And in less than a minute, you are reading.

Many Kindle versions of books are ten dollars or less.  But those ten dollars can rack up really, really quickly when you read three or four books a week.  And then you feel you don't even have anything to show for it.  At least with a book you can still look at it, put it on your shelf, see it in all it's tangible bookish glory.  The Kindle is all about virtual.  Your book is just a title on your Kindle home page.  Yes, you can read it again.  But it is still not the same. And, at least for my model, there are no pictures!!  So that leaves biographies out.  I love biographies and the pictures are my favorite part.  However, there are also a lot of free books out there in the public domain, great stuff like Twain and Jules Verne.  One of the free books I read was The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne.  Before he wrote the Winnie the Pooh stuff, he wrote one of the first modern detective stories and, while it was dated, it was great fun.

Because of my limited mobility, I have not been able to browse in a bookstore in a long time.  I truly miss that.  That, to me, is the all time high point in book shopping.  To be intrigued by the cover art, a title, and then to have a synopsis on the back be as promising as you would hope, it doesn't get any better than that to a geek like me.

Until I get a lift for my power chair, which is $1900 away, I am forced to virtual browsing.  I wouldn't say I have a love/hate relationship with my Kindle.  I don't love it and I don't hate it either.  It is more like a grateful/tolerant relationship.  I tolerate it's shortcomings as an un-book and I am grateful I have access to such a wonder of technology.   It will never, ever take the place of a real, in-your-hands book.  But, at two in the morning, it is a nice substitute.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Another Perspective on "The Help"

The Help by Kathryn Stockett has been a publishing, and now a movie, phenom. On the immediate surface, it is a nicely written story of triumph over racism by oppressed black maids. But scratch that surface just a tiny bit, heck just blow some of the dust off of it, and you are left with some considerable problematic issues at the heart of the book.

Because of who I am, I was ripe for The Help. When I originally went back to school for my Master’s, I started in the Social Work program. I am simply fascinated by people’s stories: where they came from, how they got to where they were, how their lives were different, or the same, as what they had envisioned for their future. Unfortunately, that fascination did not extend to helping people solve their problems. I just wanted to hear their stories and yell “Next!” Not helping people with their problems is less than a stellar quality in a therapist. So it was time to reconsider my goals. But my love of a good story has abided.

Therefore, when I found The Help last summer, I really enjoyed it as a decent, engrossing read. The book told many intertwined stories and it told them smoothly. I am a sucker for a well-crafted narrative and I especially love it when it is complex and multi-dimensional, which The Help was. Contrasting the experiences of middle class white women and their maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s, individual stories abound. Even though it is fiction, the stories in The Help ring utterly true. Black women labored for white families cooking, cleaning and raising their children with insulting pay and crushing hours. They were heaped with abuse and insults, both petty and egregious. You just know every anecdote about racism, indifference, paternalism and humiliation told in The Help has a basis in reality. As you read you cheer on these women who are brave enough to share their experiences with Skeeter, the character who is the driver of the plot. A forward thinking recent college grad, she has the brilliant idea to interview the help to get their perspective on the inequities in the South of the early 1960’s. Initially reluctant, multiple women are eventually persuaded that they are answering a call from God, serving a higher good…WAIT!! STOP!!!!

While it bothered me a little at the time, it took almost a year for some things to fully occur to me.

The 1960’s? Mississippi? Where beatings, shootings and church burnings to prevent integration were routine? Where Medgar Evers was murdered in front of his wife and children in 1963 (as is briefly referenced in the novel)? Where in 1962 the Governor of the state defied the President of the United States by blocking the enrollment of a black student at the University of Mississippi?!?! In this setting, black women, maids, of humble origin and little education and with absolutely no one to protect them, chose to tell their stories for a book? For a white girl?!? Amazing!! Then this must be the story of how that happened and, boy, do I want to read that original book!

Except…there was no original book. Nothing like this ever happened. Oppressed and exploited women did not rise up at the behest of friends and their preacher to tell the stories of their mistreatment. Because, pure and simple, it would have cost them their lives. Right there, we have a major plot problem for The Help – the characters are lively, the stories are compelling, but the entire basis for the book is not only improbable, it is impossible. No black woman was going to risk her life and that of her family to indulge a white girl in her curiosity. They were too busy simply surviving. That is why there is no tell-all book.

So it couldn’t have happened, big deal, you say. So it is a fairy tale. Other books are about made up scenarios. Well, I still have a problem with it, because it does not promote itself as a “what if” book. What if black maids banded together and told their stories in the 1960’s? What if it became a best seller and discussions about race led to a better understanding and an abbreviated civil rights struggle? The Help does not ask those questions. It tells us, this is what happened. It tells us to feel good about the victory of good over evil. And we know in our hearts it didn’t.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I cannot comment on it with any credibility. I have watched several trailers for it and, to be honest, it looks beautiful. The acting is earnest and funny. The dignity of the main black character, Ailbilene, is transcendent as portrayed by actress Viola Davis. But I became more and more uncomfortable as I watched the clips and listened to commentary by people involved in making the film. They spoke of the bravery of these fictional women. Check. But they spoke of the bravery of these women speaking out as if it were an actual fact, as if this had happened. And that was just embarrassing to listen to. There was cheering as ‘the book’ was published, a triumph for these ladies. But in real life there was no such triumph. There were just more years and years of subjugation and exploitation.

The Association of Black Women Historians took enormous issue with the film and book and issued a blistering condemnation. A published statement says, in part, The Help “distorts, ignores and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.” I do have to disagree with that. If anything, the book creates rich, multi-dimensional black characters that are worthy of admiration and honor. The ABWH goes on to denounce the perpetuation of the “Mammy” stereotype “…asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites.” Again, I disagree. In the novel, these strong and decent women seethe against the injustices they face every minute of the day. I do agree with their opinion that The Help misrepresents history and minimizes the Civil Rights movement.

There are others in the black community who argue this book is significantly racist, written from the perspective of a white savior (Skeeter) raising these poor downtrodden beings out of the mire. Once again, I do not see that. Maybe that is because I am white and inherently insensitive to the nuances of racism. I am the first to admit that is entirely possible. But I had the reverse impression about the albeit mythical situation. The characters were doing Skeeter the favor by sharing their private and personal experiences. She is clueless really, they are the ones who have the knowledge and ultimately the power to make or break her book.

I do agree with the argument that racism is presented as an evil centered in that period only and we can sentimentally look back and say “Phew, thank goodness we don’t act like that anymore!” I have been doing a lot of reading about the controversy and some of the comments people leave make it obvious the concept of ongoing racism is truly foreign to them. They really believe that people of color no longer face discrimination or injustices. Others are clearly astonished by the perceptive and intelligent black characters. It is both appalling and embarrassing to see the ignorance that people demonstrate with remarks like “Why do we have to talk about such unpleasant things?” and “I don’t even notice people’s color” or, worst of all “I have a black friend and she…”

On the whole, I think the novel has opened an interesting door for discussion and consideration. I am disappointed that Stockett and the story, movie and book, have produced such vitriol. Because the novel is well intentioned. And because it is a perfect opportunity to talk about the status of race relations in America today in an amicable way. Racism diminishes all of us. It should go without saying that we need to always try to have insight into what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of it and do what we can to eliminate it. We need to recognize subtle racism and how it reduces value in our culture. We need to transmit these messages to our children in the strongest way possible.

What I would love to see is a real “Help” created. Like Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project, let’s get these true voices and stories recorded before they are gone. There was and is strength and courage and nobility in the lives that were led and we need to know those brave women who were the help but were kept silenced by danger and disrespect.

I would say read The Help if you like a good, if fantastical, story. The narrative in The Help may be told through a white lens, but that is the only have the lens white people have. We can try to imagine another's experience, but that is all we can do. I feel even if it is imperfect on many levels, the book still tells a story that many people need to read. I suspect it presented some people with ideas and concepts about race that they had never considered. Just as some people are astonished by any controversy surrounding the book and movie. But even if imperfect, someone expanding their humanism cannot be a completely bad thing.

However, an even better representation of the black experience can be found in Isobel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. It is an analysis of the south to north diaspora told through the perspective of three real individuals. An absolutely haunting and gorgeously written epic, it should be required reading in every school. You read this book and you get some inkling of what it is like to feel fear and experience deprivation every waking moment just because of the color of your skin.

I wrote this in a comment in response to a woman who said “I wish we could stop looking at color.” I don't think we should stop looking at color. I think we should stop assuming things based on color. I wish we could consider things like skin color and national heritage to be beautiful, fascinating but superficial features. Maybe someday that will happen and we will be able to celebrate our common humanity. But until that distant day arrives, we have to continue to discuss the realities of the past and the present.

I think more than anything the book reminded me that we are all human beings. At the end of the day, we are the same in what matters to us, dignity, respect, our families, our friends, the lives we lead. We have to keep working at understanding each other and at getting it right.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sorry I’m running late this week!!

The winner for the April 9 giveaway is – drum roll please – Rachele!! Yay! Congratulations Rachele and thank you to all of those who stopped by and left comments. There were actually only 4 of you, but that’s ok, it is a cozy group! Lol

Rachele, just send me an e-mail with your address and I will get the books out to you.

Alright, this week’s giveaway…

The Last Kashmiri Rose
By Barbara Cleverly

Set in Calcutta in 1922, this is the first in a mystery series featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Joe Sandilands. The Inspector is a survivor of the Great War and he has been stationed in India for six months. He is about to head home when he is asked to investigate a suspicious death. His inquiries find there is probably a connection to a series of mysterious deaths that have occurred over the preceding decade. All the vicitms have been offiecer’s wives and they have all died experiencing what has been known to be their greatest fear.

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, this is a well written and memorable story with an unusual twist in the solution to the mystery.

The Thirteenth Tale

By Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale contains all the Gothic elements: a reclusive writer with a secret, a young writer with a troubled past, the unraveling of a long ago mystery. I found it a bit long, but it was a huge hit in 2006 when it was published, becoming the number one bestseller on the New York Times list within a week.

The New Yorkers

By Cathleen Schine

This book follows five people who live on the same block in New York City and end up being connected by their dogs. Over the course of a year, we follow their ups and downs, falling in and out of love and learning about each other and themselves. A really nice story about engaging people, set in one of my favorite places in the world.

Water for Elephants
By Sara Gruen

A huge bestseller, I resisted this book for over a year. I am so contrary. For one thing, I hate going along with the crowd. For another, I hate, hate, HATE circuses. Even when I was a kid.

So I was really shocked when I started reading and couldn’t put it down. Not your typical circus story, it is mostly a story about love and loss and devotion. And it has pictures! It is wonderfully illustrated with archive photos. Simply wonderful.

So there you have it. Leave a comment between now and Sunday, April 24 and you will be entered in a drawing for these books.

For those of you who don't win but are interested in these titles, I added links to Amazon.

(Because the pool of entrants is so small, I am going to apply an amendment, borrowed from the radio station I listen to, WQXR in New York. To give everyone a chance, winners will be limited to once every four weeks.)

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