Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mimosas, Mischief, and Murder – Sara Rosett

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Prowling the library stacks at the end of a seriously stressful week, I settled on a strategy for weekend reading. All the literature on the shelves looked utterly dreary and  boring–or bloodthirsty in that pugilistic style affected by some male fiction writers. No sale there, real life was offering up enough doom and gloom. So I picked through the mysteries, searching for light and lively—figured a couple of foodie murder mysteries would provide the perfect escapes.

Mimosas, Mischief, and Murder has a lot of food in it—southern biscuits, neighborly green bean casseroles, chicken nuggets for the kids, a few candy bars for the chocoholic and one Dove Bar that was truly mouthwatering. But the heroine of this Alabama whodunit is a professional home organizer and the only recipes on offer are tips for storing mementos and clutter-clearing that appear at the end of each chapter. That’s an interesting demographic appeal–homemakers who would rather read than sort and toss or scrapbook?–although I’m not sure how effective it is as I was reminded at every cliffhanger that I should probably be clutter-clearing my own home instead of reading for hours in medias mess.

Ah well, Sara Rosett has crafted a more-than-competent, quasi-cozy. Smarr, Alabama is a small town and people are pretty hospitable, when they aren’t killing each other. Ellie Avery is visiting her fighter-pilot husband’s relatives during his home leave, two young kids in tow. Only when they arrive, hubby’s grandpa has just died suddenly and things are tumultuous. Almost right away the facts don’t add up neatly and Ellie, who is the star of a number of alliterative adventures, starts asking questions. She has a reputation as something of a busybody, nicely off-set by the fact that she does solve murders that just happen around her.

It’s definitely a light read, the stakes are lower than they might be. Smarr is the scene of an annual book fair and books and writers wander in and out of frame. Grandpa has a few secrets and a private, lifelong friendship with a famous but reclusive author whose correspondence he kept meaning to return. Various Avery relatives go greedy over the dead man’s possessions and a wild rumor about a hidden fortune in cash takes over the town. Arson occurs, threats are made, break-ins happen, a will delivers a knock-out punch of a surprise, a corpse disappears from a funeral home and gravediggers flee at discovery on a dark night. Another man dies in grandpa’s house but this one falls down the stairs and breaks his neck—or was he pushed?

Ellie gets grief for meddling but that doesn’t stop her. She keeps the kids fed and occupied while dropping off and picking up relatives in need of transportation and attention. Is her marriage in trouble? Is her/his family harboring a homicidal relation? Will Ellie’s kid score fourteen books from the book fair? When do they get to the mimosas? It all works out. Mimosas, Mischief, and Murder is not a foodie mystery, alas, but it is a good way to kill a few hours watching other characters stress about their lives. My sole quibble with the book is that Dove Bar. I would have enjoyed the read a lot more if there had been a few of the dark chocolate-chocolate kind in my freezer.

Mimosas, Mischief, and Murder (Ellie Avery Mysteries)   Sara Rosett | Kensington Books   2011

Diving into the Wreck – Adrienne Rich

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Adrienne Rich died this week. Her voice, in her poems, writing, and speaking, was never strident, always insistent that we remember our highest selves and live for them. She wrote about class differences and indifferences and the pain and joy we cause ourselves and others in concise and brilliant language that placed her at the forefront of American letters. She never compromised—and she rued the compromises we make in the pursuit of comfort. Someone, she reminded us again and again, always pays for that untroubled comfort. She was unwilling to settle for comfort.

Diving into the Wreck, a collection of poems written in 1971-72, remains one of my favorite of her books. “…poems taut with pain and intelligence,” writes Marge Piercy of this volume. “…nobody else writes quite like this,” said Margaret Atwood. The poems are observations, introspections, revelations. They range wide and go deep, skating from social commentary to searing metaphor. Even the early poems never seem dated. It’s possible to slip inside every one and experience the life it transcribes as the poet did.

The title poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” is a marvel of fact and symbol. I don’t know whether Rich was a diver but she gets the precise detail of a scuba dive on a wreck in the shallows exactly right, so I assume she’d been there. She gets the rest right, too. What is the wreck but an image of a life, an emblem for the battered heart, broken against rock or shoal? Rich writes: 

 I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

I stroke the beam of my lamp

slowly along the flank

of something more permanent

than fish or weed


the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth

the drowned face always staring

toward the sun

the evidence of damage

worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty

the ribs of the disaster

curving their assertion

among the tentative haunters. 

You tend to realize, at the end of a line or a stanza, that you have been holding your breath, loathe to miss a beat or a syllable or the architecture of an unexpected phrase. Adrienne Rich wrote powerful, powerful poetry—poems designed to conjure or, at the very least, agitate for keen personal awareness and social change. Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award. Rich won nearly every award bestowed on a poet in her long writing life. But she never lost her edge, her discomfort, the pebble in the shoe that leads, inevitably, to the poem.     

Diving Into The Wreck: Poems 1971-1972   Adrienne Rich | W. W. Norton & Company 1993

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant – Alex Gilvarry

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Alex Gilvarry takes the gloves off in his witty, urbane, horrific and humorous novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. The story is the account of what happens to a hungry Filipino designer who makes the pilgrimage to New York after fashion school, seeking his fame and fortune. He finds a little of each. But, on the cusp of real success, with a nod from Barney’s, interest from Bergdorf’s and favorable reviews in “W” and other couture rags, he is kidnapped from his Williamsburg loft one night and spirited away to Guantanamo where he languishes for months in a hellish blur of confusion.

Boyet Hernandez is bright enough to toss quotes and attributions from Coco Chanel, Dostoyevsky, Donna Karan and the Bible into his droll observations but half the time he is comically flat-out wrong. Not so comical is his deliberately naïve view of his convenient downstairs neighbor, the duplicitous and calculating Ahmed, who bankrolls his foray into the fashion world. Ahmed triggers Boy’s bullshit sensor from the beginning but his easy cash is a lifeline to the white tents in Bryant Park during Fashion Week and Boy can’t resist. His willful blindness to what Ahmed is really up to lands him in custody for collusion and his scribbled recollections, mandated by his captors who provide him with yellow legal pads and pens, reveal his ambition and the traps that were set for him.

(B)oy (the label that signifies his name and the fact that he is headquartered in Brooklyn) builds month-by-networking-month towards acceptance and success, just as Ahmed, Ahmed’s shady accountant and his Indian moneylender launder terrorist funds through the start-up label. Boy’s Irish-American publicist has the unfortunate name of Ben Laden. The book is loaded with insider glimpses of the drug-fueled fashion business and the conditions of incarceration for guilt-by-association in America’s offshore prison. It’s both fascinating and chilling. Tons of fertilizer under tarps in the corner of a Bushwick apartment might set off clanging alarms for anyone less desperate and myopic. But the Kafkaesque world of post-911 indefinite incarceration might sour a less optimistic soul much faster than it suffocates Boy. In the middle of an inexplicable nightmare, Boy clings to his belief in the American dream.

Gilvarry has captured an almost cartoonish moment in history when what is real counts less than the fear-fiction that shadows all our lives. There are questions to be asked at the end of this very entertaining and sobering book: What defines real talent in the fashion industry? Who are the real terrorists and what price are we paying for our fantasy of security? And what the hell is a “non-enemy combatant” anyway?

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant: A Novel  Alex Gilvarry | Viking  2012

The Thief of Time – John Boyne

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John Boyne’s The Thief of Time is an unusual excursion in time travel. Matthieu Zela is 256 years old in 1999, a healthy, attractive middle-aged man who stopped aging at the turn of the nineteenth century. He’s not all angsty about loves lost and an overfull data bank of memories. Matthieu has considerable wealth, amassed in lucky ventures over centuries, an appetite for the new, and undimmed curiosity about what tomorrow will bring. He also has a family curse that traces him down through many generations and shows no signs of abating in this one.

When Matthieu left Paris in 1758 with his younger half-brother Tomas after the murder of his mother and the conviction and execution of his violent stepfather, a family history was set in motion that has repeated itself for nearly three centuries. Tomas died young and his son, another Thomas died young, too, after fathering another son. By 1999, the latest Thomas, a TV soap star, comes to ‘Uncle Matthieu’ for money to fuel a drug habit and Matthieu, for the first time, considers how to break the pattern. The book skips back and forth through Matthieu’s experiences in the French Revolution, the construction of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851 London, the Chaplin days of Hollywood, the Stock Market Crash of 1929, World War II, the McCarthy Era and contemporary forays into television in the late twentieth century. But it returns again and again to the story of his first love, the one relationship that still haunts him with its dazzling promise and crushing betrayal.

The Thief of Time is a very pleasant narrative. All is not always well in Matthieu’s world but all is always well with Matthieu. He has married, loved and lost countless times, shepherded the line of Thomases through young manhood and watched each of them die, watched everyone he has ever known die, actually. His slightly detached view of events is due to the perspective of age—and it is logical that he would mark the passage of time by the brief lives and deaths that he has experienced. He has killed, rescued, abandoned and embraced people. And he remains a clear-eyed optimist throughout everything from guillotines to moon shots—the heart doesn’t change. The stories repeat themselves. What’s important outlasts fad, fanaticism and fashion.

Boyne has invented an immensely interesting and likable character and a first-rate conceit for a story. It was a pleasure to read about someone who has his share of improvident adventures but who has managed to rise above gritty reality and survive with an unruffled sense of self intact. The Thief of Time will let you slip out of your own time for a couple of hours to roam in the memories of an immortal who, thankfully, is neither a zombie nor a vampire. 

The Thief of Time   John Boyne | St. Martin’s Press   2007

Mistress of the Storm – M. L. Welsh

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Mistress of the Storm by M. L. Welsh is probably a middle grade book. It would be too difficult for a very young child to follow. But I think it would be difficult for anyone of any age to follow. I was 100 pages or more into the book and I still had no idea where it was going. It is written with eccentric grammatical ticks that are deliberate but wrong—a kind of misguided style. When the protagonist, Verity, is reading from a book, the text is italicized and indented—and then at the end of the first sentence, brackets enclose an aside such as [she read, in an early chapter] or [Verity read]. Odd and jarring.

The story is repeatedly telegraphed in advance. We are told at every opportunity that this or that object or incident will not bode well for our pudgy, bullied, not-as-pretty-as-her-blonde-sister heroine. Verity is actually relentlessly tormented, alternately ignored or dressed in ugly, funny clothes by her family, insulted by astonishingly vicious kids and callous grown-ups alike. Naturally, she has a few adult, non-family friends who take their sweet time about helping her. An equally outcast boy becomes her champion. There is the arrival of a mysterious ship in the harbor, the deliverance of a strange wooden talisman and an ancient red book, the revelation of scraps of some secret about smugglers and shipwreckers, a hideous fake grandmother who shows up out of nowhere and ejects Verity from her attic bedroom, one device that summons squalls and another that calms them. And all the while, no unambiguous clue to what the point of all this is.

All the information in the book is told—including Verity’s unspoken thoughts about caustic remarks or unhappy occurrences. There is a lot of plot but it’s like a scrambled puzzle—all in pieces that are presumed to make a coherent picture but are just jammed together in the end. Mistress of the Storm is magic but it’s very sloppy magic. A fantasy for children should be as carefully crafted, as beautifully written as any good story. This one is just a blatant mess, crammed with improbabilities and presumptions and some really, really thin characters and caricatures who pop in and out in a perfectly irritating way until the requisite blow-up at the conclusion. As the fate of a few of the actors isn’t entirely clear, I suspect there will be a sequel to this lumpy porridge. I won’t be reading it.

Mistress of the Storm   M. L. Welsh | David Fickling Books   2010

The Lily Pond – Annika Thor

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The Lily Pond is a middle grade story, book two of an award-winning quartet by Annika Thor, about two young Jewish sisters who leave their parents in Vienna to become refugees in Sweden. It’s a very sweet account of a thirteen-year-old’s struggle to hold on to her academic dreams, navigate a first love, adjust to a new city and a new school, deal with growing prejudice in her safe haven and believe that her parents will survive their ordeal in Nazi-occupied Austria.

Stephie Steiner looks forward to school on the mainland after graduating from the lower school on the fishing island where she and her sister live with two different foster families. She’s a scholarship student, living with a wealthy family who sometimes use her as a maid. And she’s in love with the family’s son, who takes her to concerts, walks the family dog with her, eats his meals with her in the kitchen and never suspects that the girl he thinks of as a little sister imagines he will wait for her to grow up. Thor is wonderfully descriptive about life on the rough island where Stephie’s foster family lives and the relative sophistication of life in the city.

The book imparts a strong sense of the conditions of the time, even though the translation from the Swedish uses simple declarative sentences that tell the story as much as show it. You really don’t mind the style as events speed up and Stephie creates some complications she can’t control and encounters some grown-ups who are dangerously flawed human beings. What happens feels absolutely true and what shadows Stephie’s adventures is absolutely true and makes this an inevitably sad book. Letters from her parents reveal the increasingly dire conditions in Vienna and a basic knowledge of history points to a looming tragedy.

This is a story to share with a thoughtful young reader and my recommendation is to be available for plenty of conversation. It’s a poignant account, not because Stephanie Steiner’s innocent heart is at serious risk and not because anti-Semitism puts her efforts in school at risk. It is a difficult story because Stephie’s parents are trapped in Vienna and might end up in Dachau, Mauthausen or Auschwitz. The grim reality of what ultimately befell Jews who could not get out of Vienna is not specifically referred to in this book, though, so The Lily Pond does provide a glimpse of history through the moving story of a young teen for whom there is still hope.

The Lily Pond   Annika Thor | Delacorte Press 2011

Fame – Daniel Kehlmann

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Daniel Kehlmann plays with the idea of being noticed by the wider world–of fame, in all its irritating and intoxicating guises. His characters, woven into nine interconnected stories, are the playthings of the author, introspective ruminators, attached to fame, hooked up with fame, running from fame, inadvertently famous. Fame, the book, is satirical, world-weary, farcical, sad, wry, and packed with coincidence.  

A seventyish woman named Rosalie decides to end her life in a Swiss euthanasia clinic when she receives a diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer. She goes through all the steps to make arrangements and gets herself to Zurich, noticing every single thing that happens around her with hyper-awareness. But then she gets angry at the author and demands that he rewrite the story, producing a miracle cure and saving her the trouble of killing herself. A famous author plays with a loaded gun in his fabulous penthouse, after writing a cynical letter that debunks all the luminous spiritual self-help books that made his fame and fortune.

One man finally acquires a cell phone but the number belongs to someone else who receives constant calls and the phone company will do nothing to help him. So he begins to answer the calls, changing appointments, making dates with a mistress or girlfriend and standing her up time after time, messing up deals and playing havoc with the life of the apparently famous person whose calls he keeps getting. An actor plays an impersonator of himself as a joke and then loses his identity to the real impersonator who becomes him, moves into his home and career and takes on his celebrity.

Fame, in this translation from the original German, is very clever and very smart and raises serious questions about who we think we are, who we really are and who we might actually be. It’s also very European—Americans tend to a more straightforward acceptance of fame, when they are not lusting after it. But the absurdities and inconsistencies of fame, the profound alienation of living lies and the barbed privilege conferred by notoriety are worth reflection and Kehlmann provides that, too, in his odd little, very polished book.     

Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes   Daniel Kehlmann | Pantheon Books   2010

The Taker – Alma Katsu

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Alma Katsu’s The Taker, a Gothic tale of dark magic and monsters, is a compelling read, laced with unexpected twists and turns and enough depravity to keep you off-guard. The night the local cops bring a confessed murderess into the emergency room of the hospital in northern Maine, Dr. Luke Findlay is bored and dreaming of flight from the small town where he grew up. Life has soured for Luke—he’s lost his sense of direction. His marriage has crumbled and his ex-wife and daughters now live many states away. He wants out—and events open the door for him.

A corpse is found in the woods and the woman is covered in blood but unhurt. The physician examines her and then she startles him by slashing her chest open with a scalpel. As he watches, aghast, the fatal wound heals over and becomes invisible. Lanny—Lanore McIlvre—tells him calmly that she is from the town, although Luke has never seen her before. And the reason is that she was born at the turn of the nineteenth century. And for even more puzzling reasons, she asks the doctor to help her to escape.

The Taker is a story of obsessive love that spans centuries, unimaginable evil that dabbles in immortality, and incomprehensible forces unleashed on people too innocent, or too fiendish, to resist. The story bounces back and forth from post-colonial America to a Europe centuries old to the present, as Luke and Lanny slip away from the police and head for Canada and freedom. En route, she tells him her mesmerizing history and he falls under the spell of a fantastical account far removed from his own depressing existence.

It’s very dark. And very interesting. I could do with some humor in my daily decoding but this is a good book for someone not as driven by relentless deadlines to enjoy. Apparently, wishful thinking and naivety will catch you up in nefarious plots no matter what century you happen to inhabit. There are givers and takers in this tale—mostly takers it turns out—and it isn’t giving anything away to say that history repeats itself with little variation. It is worth noting that the title of the book is singular.

Very decently done. Good Gothic. Lots of nasty stuff. Unpredictable and surprising. I’m not always susceptible to the “undying love at any cost” narrative and I failed to empathize with this one—but empathy isn’t necessary to enjoy a well-made story and The Taker is that.

The Taker   Alma Katsu | Simon & Schuster   2011

The Bird Is a Raven – Benjamin Lebert

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Ravens suffer from mixed press. They are known as death birds, secret keepers, portends of disaster, the familiars of witches. But they are also thought to have helped Noah to find dry land after the Flood, hold the key to powerful magic, bring sunlight to the dark and serve as a warning of danger. Benjamin Lebert’s The Bird Is a Raven hovers over the dark side.

On a sleeper train to Berlin, two young men spend all night talking and listening to tales of sexual frustration, painful loneliness, the angst of soured friendships. The talkative one describes a platonic ménage a trios that ventures into connection, rejection and physical danger. The other traveler listens but says little. His story is that he fell in love with a prostitute, who was not interested in love—or him. The train barrels on; the one story unfolds in exhaustive detail. An obsessive bond with an obese man and an anorexic is difficult and doomed. The other story lies hidden until the journey’s end. It cannot be shared in a sleeper on a train.

Lebert examines and re-examines the sorrow of isolation, the desperate compulsion to be seen and wanted, the frailties and failures of the human body and the broken places in the human spirit. It’s a very short book. The writing, translated from the German by Peter Constantine, is spare and evocative. The story is depressing. That’s basically it. Misfits on a train as stand-ins for humanity. I can appreciate the craft but I’m not a somewhat unbalanced, sex-fixated twenty-something, loser guy so I can’t relate. Benjamin Lebert has talent. His characters have big problems. End of story.

The Bird Is a Raven   Benjamin Lebert | Alfred A. Knopf   2005

Bunheads – Sophie Flack

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Bunheads is a coming of age story for balletomanes—or teen ballerinas, or anyone interested in the world en pointe. Sophie Flack writes her first-person life-of-a-company-dancer in a smart, straightforward voice. Heroine Hannah Ward, a member of the corps de ballet in a company meant to be the New York City Ballet, is both naïve and self-aware, half-starved, and an almost-standout in the troupe of dancers vying for solos and promotion to soloist.

The story is entertaining but not exactly engaging. Nothing actually happens. The dancer does question her choice of lifestyle and her own dedication to giving up everything for those exhilarating moments in the spotlight. She grapples with first boyfriends, the lure of the world beyond the stage and the rehearsal rooms, an ounce or two gained and the resultant hunger, exhaustion, sore feet and pulled muscles. She shares the triumphs and disappointments of the other girls in her dressing room as they swig Diet Coke, obsessively check casting posts and offset catty remarks with camaraderie.

It seems very real—even though it is endlessly irritating to read Avery Center as a stand-in for Lincoln Center. Avery Fisher Hall is the home of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and I wished Flack had selected a fictional name that seemed less like a repeat mistake. But mostly I kept waiting for the story to begin. That’s probably unfair—Bunheads (the title is a common, slightly dismissive name for ballerinas who coil their long hair into a bun every day for rehearsals and performances) does recount life in the ballet. For its intended YA audience, that is likely enough. But it felt more like a recycled journal than a novel–and the jacket copy reveals Flack was a company dancer with NYCB before quitting to pursue a creative writing degree. 

The details are believable and authentic. The characters are very lightly sketched and somewhat cliché—although people like them do exist in the dance world and the wealthy environs that support major companies. My roommate is a dancer so I could follow along and recognize the rituals of practice and preparation for going onstage. Someone who knows the French terms for ballet moves would get a more vivid picture of the scenes portrayed but it isn’t essential to know ballet to understand what is happening.

Flack’s book will take the reader on a backstage tour of a life most people see only from the glamorous side. Bunheads is a little like the double-decker Big Apple bus tour that Hannah and her non-dancer boyfriend manage on one of her rare days off. It’s a fascinating glimpse of a foreign culture, but only a glimpse. As a primer for pouring yourself into a monumental challenge and then knowing when to walk away, the book is instructive. As an encounter with the fierce, demanding absorption required to scale the heights or accept the limits of an extraordinary profession—not so much. For that, better to read a dancer’s memoir–both messier and more memorable than a young adult romance delivered through the medium of ballet.

Bunheads   Sophie Flack | Little, Brown and Company   2011