Wednesday, November 9, 2011

5 Stars - "The Girl...

...With The Dragon Tattoo"
...Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest"
...Who Played With Fire"

By now, most of you are familiar with Swedish author Steig Larssen's best selling trilogy and his sudden and untimely death after completing the three books. I've read all three and they certainly are what is termed 'a good read'. The main characters are well defined and intriguing, the plots are original, as is the location. "I couldn't put it down" certainly applies.

The 'bad guys' range from corrupt bureaucrats to deranged psychopaths - sometimes embodied in one person. The descriptions of perpetrated violence are harrowing compared to the average crime novel in which the leading character takes a beating that would disable a person for weeks but immediately gets up with a 'few aches and pains'. Not so in these books.

The only thing that bothered me were the many characters named in the book- often with names so similar that it was easy to mix up the characters. And the street names. When a character travels around Stockholm or the countryside on foot or in a car, every street, highway and alley enroute is named - and believe me - nothing as simple as 'Elm St.' A minor kvetch to be sure.

It's sad that there will be no more books by Larssen.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

It should be stated that I am hugely interested in English history (as well as American History) and am delighted with books like Carolly Erickson's "Royal Panopoly: Brief Lives of The English Monarchs". Indeed they were generally brief, in fact - as well as in the accounts in this book.

As an account of every day life, it is fascinating. Their lives were colorful, if brief - and through much of English history it's evident that even minimal intelligence was not a prerequisite to ruling. War was constant, the masses led miserable lives. When a king was dethroned - it was seldom with dignity. Many met ghastly deaths at the hands of their own courtiers. The kings had so many bastard children by various mistresses that we all have to be descended from princes, as well as peasants. Sounds grim but it makes fascinating reading.

The pace is so fast that's it's hard to keep track of 'who's on first' but to trace the history of a country through such a span of time, starting with William the Conqueror, demands brevity
"the fiddler in the subway" by Gene Weingarten

I recently read "the fiddler in the subway" by Gene Weingarten (the lack of caps is his idea). Weingarten is a humor columnist for The Washington Post and has snagged two Pulitzers for his columns.

The title column rose from his speculation of what would happen if a world class violinist - Joshua Bell - was in a Washington subway station, playing. Would anyone notice? They did not. While there is a wry humor in his writing - there is something else - something touching. He writes about his stay on a small, isolated island just off the coast of Alaska. In the Bering Sea, it is closer to Siberia than Alaska. The native people there live without any promise of the future and smuggled alcohol is a constant source of woe. Yet they persist.

Another essay deals with his assignment to find a town that could truly be called 'the armpit of America'. Butte Mountain, Nevada won hands down according to Weingarten's research. (Interestingly, that town was one of the places where Jeannette Walls and her nomad family of "The Glass Castle", alighted for a brief period). He captures the feel of such dead end places perfectly with humor - and empathy.

Getting back to that violin player. Many years ago we visited Washington DC, spending several consecutive days on The Mall. Each day when we headed for the subway to take us back to our hotel, a tall black man stood at the entrance, playing his classical violin. On the last day, I halted my husband, said 'wait a minute', hauled a $5 bill out of my wallet, placed it in his violin case and said 'thank you'. He nodded and said the same thing to me...

It surely is a 'different kind' of book but one that held my attention.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I couldn't put this book down but it was a bit like watching a train wreck from which you can’t look away! It traces the strange story of a family of six that moves around the country aimlessly while the persistently jobless, alcoholic father promises them a great future in a fabulous house that he will one day build.

He 'skedaddles' every time they have unpaid bills or a brush with the authorities, and they often wind up sleeping in the car or on the ground or in shelters scrounged from whatever is available - but the family continues to love and believe in him. Both parents are highly intelligent and encourage inquiring minds in the children and independence to the point of endangering them. Until the children get older and begin to question their life style, they maintain unquestioning loyalty and love for these two eccentrics.

The author seems to keep an emotional distance in her account - especially when she recounts her father’s attempt to set her up as a sexual decoy for his bar room gambling when she was a teenager. Her reaction was not shock or anger but rather… annoyance. In the beginning of the book, the author states that it was her husband who convinced her that she should write the story of her background. My guess is that the only way she could do this was with a certain detachment - by putting space between the remembered facts and the emotions that must have been engendered.

Whatever - she’s tells a wicked good story! You keep reading to see what happens next! I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Borderline - a mystery by Nevada Barr

Barr's books are always a 'good read'. This is the latest in her series about National Park ranger, Anna Pigeon. Barr knows her terrain since she has worked as a NPS ranger. I enjoy reading her books because of the authenticity of her locales and in spite of the sometimes preposterous twists and turns of the plots.

This book is set in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Anna and her husband have undertaken a rafting trip on the Rio Grande River while she is recovering from the trauma of her previous assignment. Naturally, murder and mystery ensue. It's an exciting (and over the top) journey to the resolution of the mystery and in the aftermath, Anna's confidence and peace of mind, which had been sundered by her previous assignment, are restored.

U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton - the latest of her 'alphabet' mysteries

Aaah - opening a book by Grafton is like sinking into a comfy chair with your feet up. I love Grafton and her newest book is up to and beyond her best. It employs a device - going back and forth between the present and the past in alternating chapters - that can be confusing and/or annoying. In this case there may be a feeling of confusion/disorientation at first - but it becomes more and more interesting as the book progresses. I finished it with a feeling of sadness - for both the innocent and the guilty - an almost unheard of reaction to the 'bad guys' in any book.

There are only five more letters in the alphabet. What in the world will she do with 'X'? A crime takes place within Xerox? A murderer who plays the xylophone? (I'm getting goofy here). And what about when the series finishes with 'Z'? Will the author stop writing and rest on her laurels and her bank account? If so, she will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Books waiting to be reviewed:

I've been back on a mystery reading spree - a respite from some of the 'heavy lifting' reading I've been doing. For pure relaxation, there's nothing like a good mystery by a favorite author. I've read "Borderline" by Nevada Barr and "U is for Undertow" by Sue Grafton and they are in line for review and I'm reading "The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet's Nest" now. I'm always skeptical of 'best sellers' but the latter has grabbed me by the throat and won't let go!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon

Until I read this book, I knew virtually nothing about Emily Dickinson other than the fact that she was a reclusive, 19th century poet whose work was highly acclaimed. Now - thanks to Gordon - I know a lot more.

Like most biographers of long dead subjects - especially one so reclusive - there is much supposition and detective work involved in the biography. Curiosity aroused by the book led me to research Dickinson on Wikipedia where I found a very lengthy essay about her life and poetry. Much of it correlated with Gordon’s work, naming people & incidences familiar from the book.

Some salient facts: Emily Dickinson was plagued by unnamed periods of ill health throughout her life. Gordon makes a good case for epilepsy - which would have qualified as a reason for her mysterious withdrawal from society, especially if the seizures became more frequent. Her family largely recognized her genius early on and did not discourage her. I suppose poetry was deemed a satisfactory pursuit for a genteel Victorian lady.

It is about half way through the book, after Emily’s death, that things take a dramatic and quite lurid turn. It seems that the entire family 'took a viper to its bosom' in the lovely form of one Mable Loomis Todd, who proceeded to seduce the entire family with her charm and finally – literally – seduce Emily's brother. The feud between the brother’s wife and children and her brother and his mistress and her family was long and bitter and its effects proceeded well into the twentieth century. What is amazing is that Emily’s work survived. It had been parceled out into caches in the custody of the various warring factions - some of it unavailable until decades after her death. I would assume that only the hope of great financial rewards kept it from destruction. Most of the poems that did come to light were heavily edited to conform to prevailing notions of proper form and the poet’s intentions were circumvented till much later editions published from the original copies. This would have been a formidable project since the poet wrote her poems on any scraps of paper she happened to pick up. Only a few had any form of organization.

Gordon’s scholarly treatment and research are thorough but two things make it a bit of a dense ‘read’. In the early portions of the book, the author seemed to frequently lapse into language that would be used by educated mid-19th century women. Perhaps she experienced what I call the ‘Immersion Syndrome’. It may have been a total immersion in the era that inspired the author’s language, particularly since she often quotes lines from Dickinson's poems and letters. Toward the end of the book, the account of the machinations of the many various competing factions seeking control of Dickinson’s papers tends to become repetitious. Certainly, by its nature, it was complicated - many different groups and personalities were involved.

As an account of the manners and mores of the era and in its account of Emily Dickinson’s life, I found the book interesting and thought provoking and would recommend Lives Like Loaded Guns.