"While we are reading, we are all Don Quixote." ~ Mason Cooley

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Still Life by Louise Penny

With so many unread books waiting throughout our home and more on my Kindle, I am reluctant to reread even my favorite books.  But my agreement with my siblings for our family book club is that we will read whatever one of us recommends, even if we have already read it.  

When it was my brother Jim's turn to select a book, I was not surprised that he chose Still Life, Louise Penny's introduction to her popular award winning mystery series and a book I had already read. Penny is a favorite author of both of us.  I was a bit concerned that our sister Mary would enjoy it, however, as she rarely reads mystery...not uncommon, though to an avid mystery reader like myself, a concern whenever I recommend one.

My concern was short lived, however, as she enjoyed this charming, literate and ingenious tale as much as Jim and I have.  What did surprise me, pleasantly to be sure, was how much more I enjoyed and appreciated this book the second time around.  Penny's plots are tight and intelligent.  The central murder to be solved in this novel is who killed a beloved elderly woman with an arrow and why.  In itself, not especially intriguing, but Penny develops her plots with care and thought.  No inane red herrings.  No gratuitous sex or violence.  

What makes Perry's novels special, from my viewpoint, are the wonderful, multi-dimensional characters she creates.  And having read the series to date, what struck me this time was how beautifully she foreshadows the strengths and flaws of these characters, strengths and flaws that emerge naturally as the series progresses, as naturally as they do in real life.  Whether it is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Montreal Surete, one of my favorite fictional detectives, or any of the unique supporting cast of characters, they never become caricatures.  Never become predictable.  Never black or white. These are characters who evoke the gamut of emotions from fondness, empathy and concern to frustration, and downright dislike. Characters as interesting, if not more so, as those in most novels on fiction shelves.  Given Penny's writing skills, even the small Canadian town of Three Pines (whose murder rate must be outrageous) acquires such a rich personality that I consider it a character in its own right.

If you are a veteran mystery fan but don't know this series, by all means give it a try.  If you have resisted mystery, thinking it formulaic, predictable, give Still Life a shot.  And, please, let me know what you think.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King

Were it not our book club selection, I doubt I would have chosen this book and had I not agreed to lead the discussion, I most likely would not have finished it.  Leonardo and the Last Supper is a dense, sometimes laborious read.  Filled with historical, political and cultural information to provide a context for Leonardo's famous painting, this book is not for the reader who reads chiefly for entertainment.  It reads like a series of an art historian's lectures rather than historical narrative (such as the work of Candace Millard, a much easier read).

But if you read to learn, or also read to learn, this book is  worth every one of the 275 small print pages.  King provides a rich tapestry of data about the players - the European monarchs and popes and artists,  and the times - the High Renaissance in Italy - that generated the iconic mural that continues to fascinate after more than 500 years.    He details the reasons the Last Supper took so long to complete and why it is sadly deteriorating.  And he creates a deeper understanding of the charismatic and brilliant genius who would have preferred a career, and fame, as an architect and military engineer. 

 We had a lively book club discussion, as the variety and depth of information allowed for everyone to contribute from a different angle.  Be forewarned that if you prefer to use a reading guide, I couldn't  find one.  Didn't create a problem, however.  All I had to do was ask "What did you learn?" and "What most fascinated you about the book?" and we were off and running.

 At the conclusion of our discussion, I asked, "Would you recommend this book?" and to a person, the response was, "It depends."  I, we'd, recommend this to anyone fascinated by  the period, the artist, the work and/or the controversy around it.  (A caveat - King loves the detail, the names, the dates, the obscure vignettes.  There are pages of footnotes, in themselves an interesting read.) In the final analysis, I can't recall a book I've learned so much from in many years.  If that tweaks your interest, at least check out Leonardo and the Last Supper.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes is one of a handful of authors whose books I order without reading  reviews or even knowing anything about the content of the book..  I have never been disappointed.  Clever writing, a quirky sense of humor, interesting insights into the human condition, challenging questions.  I love the way he writes, but even more, I love the way he thinks - and provokes my thinking.

So when my brother called to suggest Levels of Life, I immediately downloaded it and read it in an afternoon - it's a short read.  This time, I was glad to have a heads up about the structure of the book, divided into three sections that didn't come together until the final section - and the nature of the last section, the powerful, deeply personal and pain-full essay, "The Loss of Depth", in which Barnes shares his five year journey in "the tropic of grief", following the death of his wife from a brain tumor.

This book is not for the faint of heart.  Barnes' pain is palpable, and he is unflinchingly honest - whether he admits to contemplating suicide or describes the reactions of others, some helpful, and others not.  (I winced when I recognized some of my own inadequate, unhelpful responses to loved ones traveling this terrain.) He doesn't seek to reassure or instruct.  No sidebars about research on grief, no details that might evoke sympathy. 

In the Independent from the U.K., the reviewer concluded with this paragraph: " "Every love story is a potential grief story," writes Barnes early on.  Anyone who has loved and lost can't fail to be moved by this devastating book."  I would add that anyone who has been bewildered, uncomfortable or impatient with the grief of another, as I admittedly have, can't fail to be enlightened by this intimate and courageous essay. It may well be that ultimately this latter contribution may be the most significant.

If you want to know more about the book in its entirety,  I found this review to be particularly well done...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

I'm back - haven't blogged, simply because....I haven't.  Have been reading though.   With the heat in Utah, and the hiatus of many activities I otherwise engage in, I've been on a reading marathon these past three months.  Such luxury!

In fact, have read a couple books a week, several short stories, magazines, blogs.  Fiction and non-fiction. Some memorable and some I gave up on after only a few pages.  The best, the highlight of my summer, the work that most engaged me, that most moved me was The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.

My synopsis will be brief - (this book is more than adequately introduced, outlined and reviewed elsewhere).  It is the recounting of the author's last months with his mother as they coped with her treatment for pancreatic cancer and eventual death.  It is a tribute to an incredible woman, their relationship, the informal book club of two that they created, the books they read and discussed and the insights Schwalbe got in the process.

What I want to share here is why this book has touched me so - why, though I read it on my Kindle, I bought a copy to place on the shelf that holds the dozen or so books that have impacted me most over my lifetime.  In no order of importance -
  • "Mom" was a phenomenal woman.  Intelligent, courageous, compassionate, committed - she was the founding director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, only one of several accomplishments in her life, including the raising of three children.  The kind of woman I would have loved to spend an afternoon with.  Getting to know her through the eyes of a loving son, through her responses to the various books, to get a glimpse of the woman, not just her accomplishments - I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the book.
  • Will - well suffice it to say that had I had a son, I would hope he would write, speak of me, remember me with the obvious love and respect that he conveys throughout this book.  It is, indeed, a tribute.
  • Being an avid reader, I was enthralled by the literary discursions.  Some of their choices I had already read - The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Olive Kitteridge, Crossing to Safety among others.  And admittedly, I was more than just a bit pleased that I often shared their reactions. Their opinions regarding other books, sometimes very divergent, intrigued me enough that I have already downloaded a couple.  Others, I'll skip, thank you!
  • I found the style and the tone of the book to be very accessible.  Having had cancer myself, and caring for my husband during his bout with cancer, I was grateful for the honest, yet circumspect way in which Schwalbe relates both treatment and death - never maudlin, never gratuitous.  Not that I didn't cry - well, truthfully wept.  But I also laughed, out loud belly laughs. 
A final note - after I wiped away the last tear, I called my brother in Wisconsin, the most well-read individual I know, who constantly is calling me to read something he has just completed.  I asked him to read this and tell me what he thought of it.  Which he did - and called me within a couple days to say he loved it, so much so that he had just bought a copy to bring to a high school buddy who had recently lost his mother.  I plunged in, asking if he would consider creating our own book club (no, neither of us is dying, but we are close, value each other's opinions,  and getting on in years).  And held my breath wondering if he would consider my request an obligation.  Not only did he readily agreed, but so has our sister.

To be drawn to think, to feel, to relate, and to take action - doesn't get much better than that for me!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner

I am embarrassed to say I have just read this amazing book..  My husband read it 25 years ago and has continued over the years to sing its praises and to encourage me to read it.  But daunted by its length and thinking I would need an engineering degree to understand it, I kept deflecting his recommendation.  Strange, then, that I should suggest it as a selection for our book club, and stranger yet that I would offer to lead its discussion.  Admittedly, while reading the first chapter I questioned my sanity for doing so.  Within 50 pages or so, however, I was hooked - by the content and by the quality of writing.

Cadillac Desert is the riveting tale of "the American West and Its Disappearing Water." It is also a tale of greed, fraud, duplicity, arrogance, hypocrisy, cronyism, graft, blind ambition, and plunder...to list some of the words that thundered in my mind as I poured through Reisner's expose. It is the story of "rivers diverted and dammed, of political corruption and intrigue, of billion-dollar battles over water rights and ecologic and economic disaster." A course in history and political science.   It is well-documented, compelling, perceptive and even occasionally witty. 

Halfway through the book I found myself doing additional research and came upon a series of videos on the Internet produced before Reisner's death in 2000, capturing interviews with him and with a villain of this saga,  Floyd Dominey, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation for 10 years.  I downloaded Beyond the Hundredth Meridian by Wallace Stegner, a book Reisner cited and respected. I found myself learning more than I had from any other book I've read in the past 10 years.  I decided that whether anyone else in the book club applauded this selection, I thought it was one of the best and most important selections chosen in the two years I have participated. 

As it turned out, I need not be concerned.  Everyone in our group of 15 found Cadillac Desert valuable, intriguing, an important contribution, a powerful learning experience.  And agreed that he or she would recommend it to anyone who is concerned about the issue of water or the future of the western states in particular.  I'm only sorry I didn't read it sooner.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I know that Gone Girl has received its share of kudos, even rave reviews.  I've just plowed through 20+ reviews and it's easy to see I'm in a distinct minority of folks who not only didn't like it, but strongly disliked it. 

After the third woman told me that I HAD to read Gone Girl, I succumbed. Well, almost.  Started it three different times, wondering what I was missing.  Finally just jumped to the ending (after all, each woman had emphasized how stunned she was by the ending) and still didn't get it.  Didn't enjoy the writing - felt too studied, too affected.  Disliked the characters - an apathetic wimp married to a narcissistic sociopath...ugh. Was turned off by the style - alternating chapters that illuminate the inner thoughts of characters I wouldn't want to meet, let alone get to know so intimately!  Thinking that made my skin crawl.  A plot that felt contrived - granted I don't know any sociopaths...don't want to either. For me - nothing redeeming.

So rather than go into the content any further (you can find the same reviews), it might  clarify my reaction best if I share that I don't watch Criminal Minds or Law and Order: SVU.   I prefer Elementary or Castle to Hannibal or The Following; and when I'm blue, I search for a classic musical or a Golden Girls rerun. I enjoy the psychological mysteries of PD James or Ruth Rendell; I stopped reading Patricia Cornwall when her plots became darker and darker and doubt I'll try another Gillian Flynn.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Italians Are Coming!!

Didn't set out to read only Italian crime novels these past few weeks, but one led to another and before I knew it, I'd read four.  Reading the four, by four different authors, taking place in different parts of Italy, and each of the protagonists having a distinctly different personality (shaped by their age and environment), I feel as though I've just had a crash course in Italian geography, history and sociology.

The four:

The Age of Doubt by Andrea Camilleri, takes place in Sicily.  Camilleri's novels have been made into tv movies, occasionally seen here on PBS.  Because I have been to Sicily and all my grandparents were Sicilian, three born there, this series holds a particular fascination for me.  Inspector Salvo Montalvo captures the Sicilian character as I experience it.  With a dark sophistication, a heavy dose of cynicism, softened by a strain of humor, the series continues to fascinate me.

In this installment, Montalbano is increasingly preoccupied with aging, and coupled with his on/off again relationship with Livia, finds himself falling in love with a younger woman, a beautiful harbor official who he comes to know as a result of his investigation into two murders that take place in the harbor. 

I loved this novel, found the emphasis on the love story, the humor, the Sicilian angst to be particularly engaging.  Might be my favorite in the series.

The Golden Egg, by Donna Leon, is the most recent (just released this week) in this series that takes place in Venice.  The protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is a moral, intellectual man striving to stay afloat in an ocean of amorality and corruption.  What I most appreciate about this series is the consistency of plot development, the social commentary, and thoughtful exploration of the human condition.  Not only is Brunetti a multi-dimensional character, but his wife, Paola, continues to take on more depth and breadth.  The descriptions of Venice are charming and include a background into the city's cultural heritage.

In this episode Brunetti is asked to look into a minor shop-keeping violation committed by the mayor's future daughter-in-law, a case he would prefer not be placed on his plate.  Then, Paola comes to him with a request to look into the sudden death of a handicapped man who worked at their dry cleaner, a man who turns out to have absolutely no legal papers, no record of existence.   

As is common to this series, there are many references to the corruption that runs rampant in Italian business and government, and my biggest concern is that Brunetti will resign and the series will end!

Death in Sardinia  by Marco Vichi, is the third in the crime series set in Florence in the l960's.  Inspector Bordelli is younger than Brunetti or Montalbano.  And much more consumed by his, and Italy's, past in World War II.  Although the crimes are well developed and explored in detail, Bordelli's memories of combat and the factions that existed in Italy during the war are a recurring motif - one that I have found intriguing and informative, so far.  Vichi also injects snatches of 60's history - Bordelli discovers The Rolling Stones in this novel - which lightens the serious atmosphere of the novel.   Because this is a young series in comparison to Leon's or Camilleri's, however, I don't have a good sense of Bordelli yet (and for some reason the second in the series is not available on the Kindle).  Haven't decided how much further I continue with this series.

Note: Vichi's translator is Stephen Sartarelli, who also translates Camilleri, with the same fluency and sensitivity to the English language.

River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi, is set in the Po Valley in 2000,and introduces a new protagonist, Commisario Soneri and his young female partner, Angela. Soneri reminds me a bit of Montalbano, so it will be interesting to see how he develops.  The novel is richly atmospheric, with the valley's inhabitants and history as dark and meandering as the river that runs through it.  The mystery at the heart of the novel, the separate but ultimately related deaths of two elderly brothers leads, Soneri into the shadows still cast by the second World War, 55 years after its conclusion.  This is the only title in the series to be translated so far (and I wish Sartarelli had done it), but the series appears to have a following in Italy, so I suspect more will be coming.  And I will check out them out when they do.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Complete Stories of David Malouf

From the reviews I've read of Australian David Malouf's books, folks either love him or dismiss him out of hand.   I'm one of the former.  In fact, I consider him to be one of the finest writers of our time, perhaps my favorite.

Having read four of his novels, I was delighted when my brother (to whom I had introduced Malouf several years ago) sent me this volume of all the short stories Malouf had published to the date of this publication - 2007.  It is, admittedly, not an easy read.  Malouf's sentence structure can be complicated, his characters multi-dimensional and sometimes quite unappealing, his short stories vignettes that can leave you perplexed and discombobulated filled with what one reviewer described as angst.  But the writing - lyrical, magical.  Suddenly a phrase appears and I ask myself not only how he thinks that he could describe a place or a behavior with such exquisite clarity, but also how he looks at the world to see what I know I would not see.

But I don't intend to review this book here....for that, I recommend http://www.waterbridgereview.org/102007/rvw_complete.php where Abby Pollak has a thorough, well-written review.

However, if you read to learn, not merely to be entertained, if you enjoy exploring another place or culture, if you are comfortable with the discomfort of having your thinking challenged, your perceptions altered, if you can appreciate the craftsmanship of a piece whether or not you like the content, if you are intrigued with intricacies and paradoxes of the human condition, try Malouf.  And if you are already familiar with and appreciate him, The Complete Stories will not disappoint you.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Gift from the Sea - Anne Morrow Lindbergh

"she read, or rather, reread.  Chasing up old friends in the pages of her favorite books to see how she or they had changed over the years, or to discover with a little shock of affection, the earlier self who at sixteen or thirty had first been touched by them."
                                                                          The Complete Stories  ~ David Malouf

There it was, in clear and exquisite language, the reasons I've been rereading a handful of "old friends".  The most recent, Anne Morrow Lindbergh's classic, Gift from the Sea.  I first read it in the 70's, when floundering in the aftermath of a painful divorce, I read every book I could get my hands on that might offer insight, respite from the confusion and self-doubts I struggled with.  It helped significantly then and I have revisited it every decade since  - "chasing up", checking in.

Gift is a collection of meditative essays, written while Lindbergh was taking a quiet, solitary retreat from her hectic life as mother of five, wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh, writer and aviator in her own right.  Using shells she collected from the beach as impetus for her reflections and as metaphors for the various stages of a woman's life, she created a slim volume that has touched and inspired generations of women.  That touched and inspired me yet again as I reread it this past week.

Has the book held up, changed?  Certainly, it is dated in some ways - originally published in l955, many of the challenges Lindbergh addresses are those of home bound women.  (In a postscript that she wrote in l975 and included in the 50th anniversary edition of the book, she gracefully and gratefully acknowledges the impact of the Women's Movement.)  However, while much of the context may be different, the issues she raised remain pertinent - the need for solitude (for men as well as women?!) in order to regain a sense of serenity and balance, the need to know oneself if we are ever to know another, the acceptance of the natural ebb and flow of life in general and relationship in particular, the value and impact of lessons learned from the simplicity of nature, the joy of creating.  And the writing itself holds up beautifully, as peaceful, tranquil and serene as the quiet beach that inspired her.

And have I changed?  Did I get a little shock of affection for the younger woman who first was touched by her musings?  Perhaps this is the greatest gift - to be able to look back and see that her words resonate more today than then.  That I am more comfortable in my own skin.  That I do take regular breaks of solitude.  That I am creating, able to say I am creative.  That for the most part, I am at peace with the ebb and flow of life.  That the young woman who first was touched by her musings was smart enough, has worked hard enough to more fully understand and appreciate the wisdom she imparted almost 60 years ago.

And smart enough to plan to read it again.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A New Find - Marco Vichi

I have stumbled on a new, delightful mystery series, another set in Italy.  Florence this time.  The early 60's.  The Inspector, 53 year old, Inspector Bordelli, a non-smoker wannabe who prefers the company of a petty thief, a former prostitute and other societal misfits.  Bordelli reminds me somewhat of the Sicilian Montalbano, direct, compassionate, accustomed to the harsh realities of life, yet still an optimist and a bit of a romantic.  Like other Italian mystery series, this is filled with references to food and attention to the atmosphere of the fascinating cities in which the mysteries unfold.

The first installment in the series, the one I finished in a day, Death in August, sets the stage for the rest of the series (four in translation at this time), the crime itself being of lesser importance than the creation of context.  There is a lot of information about Bordelli's background, which in itself makes this introduction a tad unique.  Information about his war experiences, his early introduction to sex, his family, his moral code.  And the minor cast characters are developed with enough detail to make them interesting and reasonable as folks a man like Bordelli would consider his friends.

I like characters like Bordelli, full of contradictions, using both reason and intuition to address the crime (and his personal life as well), flawed yet admirable, characters who reflect and in those reflections give me something to reflect upon, too.  Like Montalbano and Inspector Morse, Hercule Poirot and Adam Dagliesh.  I enjoy a mystery that depends more upon clues and old-fashioned persistence and teamwork than modern forensics for its solution.  A mystery more about the human element than blood and core, even with a touch of humor.  A mystery that teaches me something about history and/or other cultures. And I love Florence.  Will definitely continue with this series!

A footnote - the translation of this novel was done by Stephen Sartarelli, who also has translated Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano series.  So there is a decent section of notes to help with the Italian references as well as a natural rhythm that only a good translator can achieve.  Having recently read another translated novel without notes and with awkward phrasing and strange analogies, I more thoroughly appreciate Sartarelli's contribution and skills.


Monday, February 4, 2013

A Mystery Maven - Ruth Rendell

Someday I may understand why I suddenly go on a binge of murder mysteries - there may be none for months and then, a half dozen in a row.  This time, four Ruth Rendell novels in two weeks!

Baroness Rendell is my second favorite English mystery author, second only to her good friend, P. D. James.  Like James, Rendell is a prolific writer of psychological thrillers, whose characters are etched in shades of gray and whose plots are clever and engrossing. Articulate, without being affected; murder, without mayhem, undue violence or gratuitous sex; an easy, but not simple, read.

Now in her 80's, she is still writing, with a new novel to be published this year.  With over 20 novels that feature the popular Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford and an interesting cast of family and colleagues, and over 20 stand alone mysteries, plus a series written under her alternate ego, Barbara Vine, I doubt I will ever exhaust the supply of her writing...thankfully.

Although I typically prefer to read a series in chronological order, I have not done so with Rendell's, jumping across decades and mixing the Wexford novels with a few stand alones; I can truthfully say I've never been disappointed.  The four this binge have been Simisola (1995), The Veiled One (1988), Best Man to Die (1969) and Guilty Thing Surprised (1970). My favorite - Simisola.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

"Sweet Tooth" by Ian McEwan

Having enjoyed Amsterdam and rarely being disappointed by anything written by an author who has won the Booker Award, I ordered Sweet Tooth, without consulting any reviews, or anyone who had read it.  I wish I had.  This spy novel, McEwan's most recent, was a letdown from the first page through as much of the book as I was willing to pursue.  I deleted it from my Kindle, unfinished, and that, in itself, is a critique. 

Normally, I don't need to like a character to find it engaging. Think Olive Kitteridge, a less than charming character, but in the long run, at least interesting, with some redeeming qualities.  In fact, I've often been surprised when someone has told me he/she disliked a book because he/she didn't like the main character.  And then I encountered MI5 agent, Serena Frome (rhymes with Plume).  Vacuous, insipid, self-centered, opportunistic - a bore.  I couldn't imagine spending several hours with her.  Add the fact that the outcome of this tale is told in the very first paragraph, and I'm surprised I lasted as long as I did.

Now, having said this, my brother, an avid reader and a McEwan fan, did finish Sweet Tooth.  His assessment - enjoyable, though not as good as previous novels.  So, if you decide to give the novel a shot, I'd be interested in whether you enjoyed it?