Friday, March 30, 2007

not as informative as I'd hoped :-)

Title: The Thing About Men
Author: Elizabeth Bevarly

I've read other books by this author and enjoyed them. This one? Not so much.

Claire is a Martha Stewart-like lifestyle guru who actually knows nothing - her best friend Olivia is the real brains behind the operation, but she prefers to stay out of the spotlight at all times.

A devoted fan dies and leaves her 2-year-old daughter in Claire's care. The girl's long-lost uncle (dead fan's brother) hears about it and comes home to fight for custody. Sexual tension ensues between uber-preppy Claire and tatooed biker Ramsey. Claire's also got the overprotective lawyer Chandler who secretly wants to marry her for her money and hates the kid.

The social worker, Davis, falls for Olive despite her attempts to hide at all times. Turns out she grew up in the Witness Protection program because of something her dad saw when she was a kid. They fall in love.

Claire and Ramsey fall for each other. Chandler develops a scheme to sell the kid off to the highest-bidding adoptive parents, send Ramsey to jail for anything he can come up with, and mary Claire for her money.

Claire and Olive's secret is revealed to the public, ruining their lifestyle empire; Chandler's background search on Ramsey reveals he's a murderous drug dealer; Ramsey and Claire have a temporary falling-out.

And suddenly in the space of about 6 pages - in an eiplogue, no less! - it's revealed that the background is fake because Ramsey's been undercover for the DEA for years, a disgruntled producer revealed that Claire's not a lifestyle guru, and somehow Chandler gets found out and sent to jail or something, and Claire and Ramsey and Davis and Olive have all gotten married and lived happily ever after.

What the hell?

Not only was the plot preposterous throughout the book, the haphazard resolution was incredibly frustrating. I had a hard time making it past the first few pages, but really needed some fluffy reading at the time.

However, if any of this seemed intruiging, you can read some (or all) of the book yourself here, which I discovered when checking that I remembered the correct author. Weird.

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posted by ket at 10:32 AM


Monday, March 26, 2007

Dragons, princesses, and wizards

Title: Dealing with Dragons
Author: Patricia C. Wrede

Cimorene is a princess who doesn't want to be a princess because it's exceedingly boring. She's tired of learning etiquette, dancing, and embroidery, and would much rather learn more entertaining things like cooking, fencing, magic, Latin, economics, and juggling. However, her parents keep putting a stop to that. So, on the advice of a frog, she introduces herself to some dragons and volunteers to be one of their princesses.

Life soon becomes much more interesting. Princes keep calling to fight the dragon and rescue Cimorene, but she doesn't want anything to do with them. So she takes it upon herself to chase them away in addition to carrying out her other duties as Princess to the dragon Kazul, which include cooking, organizing treasure, and keeping an eye on the nasty wizards who come to call. She meets some of the other princesses but finds that most are extraordinarily stupid and helpless.

Add to the story a witch with about 9 cats, a traitorous dragon, a mostly stone prince, and the murder of the king of dragons, and you have the ingredients for one very tasty children's novel. It was a favorite of my brother's and mine when we were younger, and I decided to revisit it a few weeks ago when I was sick. I quickly finished it and the other three books that make up The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and discovered that I love them as much now as I did years ago.

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posted by Kate at 6:41 PM


Weird? Moderately Interesting? Eh.

Title: Weird Ohio

Authors: Loren Coleman, Andy Henderson, James Willis, Mark Moran, Mark Sceurman

I kindof skimmed this. It's large and heavy. The quintessential coffee table book.

So the weirdness is organized by category - like ghosts, cemetaries, funny statues, stupid-looking buildings, etc. Some entries are more interesting than others. As a native Ohioan, however, I was searching for an index of locations, because I really only wanted to see things from the area I'm familiar with. And that doesn't exist. The index in the back is by the titles of the entries and stuff. Hence the skimming. There's a lot of stupid stuff around what seems like all of Ohio except the Northeast portion - the area I was hoping to find the most in. Sigh. If you're familiar with Oxford, Springfield, and Muskingum, those areas seemed to pop up a lot.

Vaguely interesting - maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it?


posted by ket at 4:28 PM


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Sense & Sensibility

Title: Sense & Sensibility
Author: Jane Austen

“Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother. She had an excellent heart – her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them.

Marianne abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting; she was everything but prudent.”

Prepare yourself, readers, for I have something dreadful to relate. Two weeks ago, I read Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility for the very first time. Scandalous, I know. Please, have a seat if you’re feeling faint. Would a glass of wine relieve your distress? If not, I’ll have the maid fetch some salts. While you’re recovering, however, shall I tell you something of what I’ve read? It’s wonderfully amusing.

The story begins when Mr. Dashwood, the owner of a large and extensive estate, dies. The property is entailed, and thus passes to his son by a former marriage, leaving his widow and their three daughters – Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret – comparatively destitute.

The Dashwood women withdraw from their former home, soon finding themselves established in a modest country cottage. But before this, the eminently practical Elinor falls in love with a Mr. Edward Ferrars, the brother of her sister-in-law. Edward’s a rather diffident, dull bloke, but he suits Elinor marvelously well and seems to return her partiality.

Unfortunately, Edward’s been secretly engaged for years to Lucy Steele. Lucy is of a rather sly character, and Edward no longer respects or admires her. Still, he’s determined to honor the engagement out of a sense of duty. He doesn’t reveal the situation to Elinor, whom he truly loves. Rather, he simply leaves when called away by his family, who fear he’s becoming too attached to the impoverished Elinor. They think he should be aspiring to far loftier connections.

Meanwhile, the romantic and impulsive Marianna is chasing a rainbow one day when she falls down a hill and sprains her ankle. Along comes the dashing Mr. Willoughby, who sweeps her up in his arms and carries her home. Before long, they’re apparently in love as well. But, like Edward before him, Willoughby has a secret, and he leaves suddenly one day without explanation. Everyone, however, assumes he and Marianne are secretly engaged and that it’s only a matter of time before the wedding.

And thus the stage is set for one of English literature’s great romances. Can Elinor and Edward ever be together, as they both wish? Why won’t Willoughby answer Marianne’s letters? What about poor Colonel Brandon, who has a tragic past and a hopeless passion for the much younger Marianne? And is it better, after all, to love with the head or the heart…or both?

If you’ve seen the movie starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, it all plays out pretty much as expected…only better! There’s a delicious scene where Willoughby unexpectedly arrives at the house where Marianne lays ill, begging to see her. And the interaction between Elinor and Lucy is…oh, perfectly bitchy in the best way possible. It’s far cattier than in the movie. They never openly speak hostile words, yet both know they’re rivals for the same man’s affection. And because they’re women, this means that they pretend to be best friends. You’d expect a row to break out at any minute, except that Elinor is far too elegant for that ever to occur.

Speaking of Elinor, I liked her character immensely. Her sensible approach to her predicament, once she learns of Edward’s engagement, keeps the novel grounded in reality. She doesn’t weep and beat her breast, but quietly and resolutely determines that no one will ever know of her suffering. Poor girl, what else could she do?

But this is Jane Austen, so everything ends happily in marriage. Hope that doesn’t ruin it for you.

I honestly can’t comprehend how it is that I didn’t read Sense & Sensibility until now. It’s the only Austen I’ve thus neglected. I’d begun it on several occasions, but something always called me away. Either I was too overwhelmed with work, or some other story was calling me more urgently.

But once I began this time, I was engrossed. In fact, I’m almost glad it took me 10 years to read it. I’ve been an Austen fan ever since I was 15, and the experience of having a “new” Jane Austen to read after all this time was…well, just about one of the best book experiences I’ve ever had. Maybe 25 was the best age for me to read this at, and inexplicable lapses like this one happen for a reason. It’s possible.

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posted by Elizabeth at 11:25 PM



Title: Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back
Author: Norah Vincent

“As Jim extended his arm to shake my hand, I extended mine, too, in a sweeping motion. Our palms met with a soft pop, and I squeezed assertively the way I’d seen men do at parties when they gathered in someone’s living room to watch a football game. From the outside, this ritual had always seemed overdone to me. Why all the macho ceremony? But from the inside it was completely different. There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced.”

For a year and a half, Norah Vincent did something that most of us of the fairer sex only dream of. She cut her hair, bound her breasts, pasted some shadowy stubble to her chin, and presented herself to the world as her new incarnation: Ned, who’s just another one of the guys.

Just to clarify – this was an undercover social experiment, not a lifestyle choice. Vincent, a reporter for the L.A. Times, merely wanted to see how “the other side” lived behind closed doors. Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back is her chronicle of what she discovered.

And what a fascinating account it is. Vincent infiltrates a men’s bowling league, a testosterone-charged sales office ("Juice! Juice! Juice!" they chant), and even a monastery. Along the way, she navigates the difficult waters of dating women as a man (Vincent herself is gay) and pays more than a few visits to seedy strip clubs.

Some of these excursions, like those to the strip clubs and sales offices, are deeply depressing. Others are evocative and emotional. The time Vincent spends in the monastery is particularly bittersweet, as she realizes that the monks have lived together for years, and yet often feel lonely, isolated, and misunderstood by their peers. And the chapter where she goes on a weekend retreat with a male support group starts off terrifying (in a Fight Club sort of way), but ends rather humorously. These men, you see, have “rage” problems. But as the weekend goes by, Vincent realizes that it is she herself – and not the little boys playing at being warriors – who’s truly the most dangerous person there.

Self-Made Man is an incredibly engaging read, even though there are certain sections of the book where Vincent simply infuriated me. She has a tendency, you see, to draw sweeping conclusions about both sexes. And the conclusions she draws about women are often disparaging. She has some truly nasty things to say about female athletes that made my blood boil, and claims at one point that Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was the “universal guy’s anthem of troubled love.” I thought that was a rather strange conclusion to draw, seeing that “Ring of Fire” was written by a woman – June Carter – about her troubled love. Whatever, Norah. Get a clue.

But despite these drawbacks, Self-Made Man remains a true page-turner. She approaches the male-psyche with an open mind, and doesn’t engage in any of the guy-bashing you’d expect. In fact, I often felt she was sometimes overly-sympathetic in the depiction of some of her subjects. (Personally, I’ve never been able to feel that sexist jokes were “harmless” or “good-natured.”) But while I often argued with Vincent in the margins, the arguments were usually fun and entertaining. I definitely wasn’t bored. And Vincent herself is wise enough to acknowledge that she offers no universal truths in her book. Rather, she proclaims, this was merely her experience. Take it or leave it as you will.

Well, I’ll take it, with a few reservations scattered here and there. I hope some of you read it, because it’s a great book to argue over – “gender,” I find, being one of the few debates that never gets old. Preferably such conversation would take place in a bar over a few beers, but I’ll settle for an electronic forum if that’s all I can get.

[And ket, I’m planning to force this off upon Adam or Jason sometime soon – I’m dying for at least one guy’s opinion on it. I think I can probably get Brendan to bite at the apple, too. So if you consent to letting me bully you into reading it, let me know. I’m pretty sure you’d finish it faster than they would. But no pressure!]

posted by Elizabeth at 9:09 PM


Less of This Book Is More

Title: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less
Author: Barry Schwartz

Being a 20-something in today’s world can be hard. I often hear the same complaint from my friends – life is too vague and confusing. We don’t know what jobs we want, whom we want to date, or what rules we’re supposed to be following. After the structured environments of high school and college, the freewheeling style of the “real world” can be downright frightening. In short, the choices we’re faced with – in conjunction with the expectation that the perfect life awaits us somewhere out there – is overwhelming. Sometimes it’s even paralyzing.

At least, I feel that way sometimes, which is part of the reason I picked up a copy Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less: How The Culture of Abundance Robs Us of Satisfaction.

Schwartz’s general thesis is that while having no choice at all in life is unbearable, a surfeit of choice can be equally agonizing. In the first part of his book he outlines how the number of everyday choices has mushroomed in recent years. There are more jeans to choose from, more restaurants and more books. There are more financial, medical, and legal decisions needing to be made. And this, Schwartz argues, makes us unhappy.

Reading that made me feel good. That’s why this whole living-as-an-adult thing is so damn hard, I thought with satisfaction. It’s not my fault if I feel lost at times. It’s the evil curse of the culture of abundance. That’s the boogeyman making me unhappy.

But that’s only the Part I of the book. Parts II and III deal with the psychological processes of choice, and why choices often make us suffer. Schwartz analyzes doubt, indecision, regret, disappointment, and depression as related to the process of decision-making. It reads rather how I remember my old Psychology 101 book reading, and wasn’t very interesting. (Although, Kat, you would probably enjoy it.) My eyes often glazed over. Will I be more or less happy, I wondered, if I made the choice to drop this book down the sink disposal?

But I didn’t, and I’m glad I continued. Because Part IV tells us what we can do to protect ourselves from the evil of choice. And this is where I got scared.

Schwartz proposes an 11-step plan we can utilize to mitigate the stress of making decisions. I won’t delineate all the steps, because they wouldn’t make sense if you haven’t read the book. But Step 11 was probably the most troubling of all: “Learn to Love Constraints.”

This is where Schwartz and I irrevocably parted ways. Because despite the stress and unhappiness that an overabundance of choice can sometimes inflict upon us, I’d rather labor under that burden than have my choices removed. Oh, I may bitch and moan about having to decide what health insurance I want, but after the final analysis, I do want those options – even though they sometimes suck.

[Of course, there’s always the argument that the choice of health insurance isn’t really a true choice at all, but merely a deliberate manner of confusing the consumer, thus making us responsible for crappy decisions we never truly understood to begin with. But this is rather different, I find, than the mere problem of choice, and something I really don’t have the energy – or interest – to analyze at the moment.]

Schwartz ends his book with a cartoon in which a parent fish and a baby fish both live together in a fishbowl. The parent fish says to the baby fish, “You can be anything you want to be – no limits.” The following is how Schwartz analyzes this fishy scenario:

“You can be anything you want to be – no limits,” says the myopic parent fish to its offspring, not realizing how limited an existence the fishbowl allows. But is the parent really myopic? Living in the constrained, protective world of the fishbowl enables this young fish to experiment, to explore, to create, to write its life story without worrying about starving or being eaten. Without the fishbowl, there truly would be no limits. But the fish would have to spend all its time just struggling to stay alive. Choice within constraints, freedom within limits, is what enables the little fish to imagine a host of marvelous possibilities.”

Is it just me, or is that language rather frighteningly Orwellian? Reading it, an image popped unwillingly into my head. Two rebel fighters are camped out in a mountain cave. One is a grizzled old veteran of the battle, and the other is a fresh young recruit, who until just recently had been living with her family in the valley below, where everyone is happy and the same. There are no choices anymore, and so no unhappiness. The veteran is telling the recruit of how their world fell this way. He remembers how it used to be, in the days before the revolution. Squinting into the fire and poking it with a stick, he rumbles, “None of us saw the threat until it was too late. We didn’t realize the monster we were facing. But you see, it all began very simply: with a book… A book about the evil of choice. And from then, there was no looking back.”

That’s an overly imaginative, “slippery slope” exaggeration, to be sure, but it’s still the reason I ultimately felt rather uncomfortable with Schwartz’s arguments. If we start giving up choices, where do we stop? Perhaps before we know it, we’re all ticking along to the rhythm of the giant brain pulsing in the center of the city, happy mindless citizens of Camazotz – which makes me think that I can deal with a little stress from choice every now and then.

Still, The Paradoc of Choice was an interesting read, and can be something impressive to talk about during parties (blah blah blah...paradox of choice...blah blah blah blah). I disagree with Schwartz on some things, but I’m still glad I read it.


posted by Elizabeth at 7:17 PM


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Robin Hood

Title: The Outlaws of Sherwood
Author: Robin McKinley

Robin had no memory later of taking to his heels. He ran, his traitorous bow still clenched in one hand, till he could run no more; and then he walked till he caught his breath, and ran on. Once or twice he fell. He did not know where he went or where he was going; as he lay on the ground the second time, the wind knocked out of him, the ragged ends of the broken arrow in his belt digging into his flesh, his foot aching from the root that had tripped him, he thought, I will run till it kills me, for I have killed a man, and my death is demanded by the king’s law. And he got up, limping a little, and ran on. He ran till he was blind with running, till he thought he had lived his entire life running, one foot pounding down in front of the other endlessly, till his bones were on fire with it, and every time either foot struck the ground his whole body cried out against the jolt. He set his teeth and ran on.

~ Robin McKinley, The Outlaws of Sherwood

There are as many versions of Robin Hood as there are tellers of tales. But this version – The Outlaws of Sherwood, by Robin McKinley – is my favorite.

In some ways, McKinley’s Robin Hood doesn’t depart all that greatly from Howard Pyle’s classic tale. The bare bones of the plot will be recognized by anyone who has a passing familiarity with that beloved book. Little John and Robin battle with staves on a bridge over a stream; the lands of Sir Richard of the Lea are bought out of debt by outlaw gold; and Guy of Gisbourne makes a late appearance as the sadistic mercenary more terrifying than the paunchy Sheriff of Nottingham ever could be. Purists will find many of the things they’re looking for.

But the similarities end there.

McKinley completely revitalizes the legend. For starters, her Robin is a terrible archer, who can only hit the side of the barn “if it’s not walking too fast away from [him].” Indeed, he’s not much of a fighter at all. Nor is he particularly merry.

Rather, this Robin Hood is – as he himself admits – a pessimist. He doesn’t chose outlawry, but is forced into it when he accidentally kills a man. He frets constantly over the safety of his people, and would far rather spend his time digging privies than dreaming up the Saxon revolt against the Normans. He’s pragmatic. Rain falls on him when he sleeps, and he has no interest at all in going to Nottingham town to win the archery contest and the golden arrow that the sheriff has set for him as bait. After all, what would one do with a golden arrow? He’d far rather have a sheep or a cow. As one of his followers cheerfully remarks to him, “You are the most pessimistic killjoy a band of honest rogues ever had to bear with.”

But I’m afraid this all sounds rather dull so far. A Robin Hood who can’t shoot? A leader more dour than dapper? No thanks. I prefer Kevin Costner flying off a catapult, or Cary Elwes dancing in tights.

Well, the incredible thing about The Outlaws of Sherwood is that McKinley writes a “realistic” Robin Hood while somehow maintaining all the romance and magic of the legend. Her Robin is a reluctant – and rather accidental – hero, but he is still a hero. By the end of the book, you’ll be in awe of him. Not because he’s superhuman, but because he’s an ordinary man who did something extraordinary without even realizing it.

Robin’s band of merry outlaws is equally impressive. McKinley is a master of affectionate characterization, and each individual gets his or her chance to shine. The personalities of Little John, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller’s Son, and Allan-a-Dale are all deepened and expanded in completely believable ways. They become their own individuals, and not merely appendages to the big man in green.

And then there are the women.

McKinley’s books are known for their strong female characters, and Outlaws is no exception. Several female outlaws find their homes in Robin’s band, and nor are they “token” appearances either. Sibyl, Eva, Marjorie…they all leap from trees and fight alongside the men. And then there’s one whom I can’t name here for fear of spoiling the story for you, but she’s…amazing. And, of course, there’s Marian.

McKinley’s Marian, a nobleman’s daughter, is no damsel in distress. She’s strong, intelligent, and – surprise surprise – a brilliant archer. She climbs trees with the boys, comes and goes as she pleases, and saves the day more than once. Indeed, it is upon Marian’s shoulders that the burden of “burnishing a legend” ultimately rests, and it’s a burden she feels heavily before the book ends. Robin doesn’t love her merely because she’s there and she’s pretty. He loves her because he needs her – even as he tells her to go away, fearful that her association with him puts her in danger. It’s a great romance.

Finally, I should mention that Outlaws is heart-wrenching and bittersweet. The climactic battle between Robin’s band and Guy’s mercenaries isn’t a battle of glory and derring-do. It’s a slugfest complete with blood and dirt and tears. The outlaws, after all, are fighting for their lives. But it’s not offensively gory, nor is the violence cheap or gratuitous. It’s merely real. When a character gets sliced with a sword, they do not grit their teeth and continue with superhuman strength. They fall. Sometimes they die. Wounds don’t swiftly heal. They fester, and make their recipients fearful of future maiming.

But I don’t mean to frighten readers away. For me, a book can only show heartbreak after it’s shown joy. And there’s lots of joy in Outlaws. There’s also humor and adventure and love and – most important of all – comradeship. Indeed, it’s the fast friendship among the outlaws that is ultimately the most compelling and memorable aspect of Outlaws. The characters all rely on each other some way or another, and their loyalty lasts through laughter and hunger and the fear of death.

If you haven’t realized it yet, I love The Outlaws of Sherwood. I’ve read it many, many times over the years, and was just as amazed re-reading it this past weekend as I’d been when I was a mere lass of thirteen. Indeed, I was probably more impressed, because now I realize how rare books like McKinley’s are. It would be wonderful if I convinced one of you to read it, although I do realize that not everyone is as infatuated by McKinley as I am. Still, if one of you picks it up one day and gets some moderate enjoyment from the reading of it, this would be enough for me.

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posted by Elizabeth at 10:35 PM


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Murder Mystery Extravaganza

The following were all decent books, nothing either spectacularly good or bad. I figured it was easiest to review them all together.

Title: Lord Edgware Dies
Author: Agatha Christie

Beautiful actress Jane Wilkinson wants her husband, the creepy and cold Lord Edgware, dead. Everyone knows this, for she laughingly proclaims it aloud it public. But since murder yet remains a criminal offense in England, she calls in detective Hercule Poirot to act as her agent in order to procuring the next best thing – a divorce. Lord Edgware, she asserts, has stubbornly refused to grant her one. Monsieur Poirot pays a visit to the husband and is mildly surprised when he readily agrees to set his dear wife free.

But the following morning, Lord Edgware’s found dead, stabbed with apparent expertise in the head.

Anyway, Poirot sets out to prove Lady Edgware’s innocence in what seems to be to be a typical Christie mystery. Red herrings abound, Poirot gently mocks the intelligence of his friend Hastings while crowing over his own, and numerous characters traipse about who had a motive to do the old man in. Unfortunately, the character I initially found most intriguing, expert mimic Carlotta Adams, bites the dust within the first fifty pages. Maybe that’s part of the reason I never really read Dame Agatha all that much – she kills off everyone I like.

Title: The Skull Beneath the Skin
Author: P.D. James

The Skull Beneath the Skin is P.D. James' second and only other novel after An Unsuitable Job for a Woman starring female detective Cordelia Gray, which I liked immensely and already reviewed. Similar to Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, it also revolves around a blithely selfish and amoral blonde actress. Except in James’ book, the actress becomes the corpse.

Actress Clarissa Lisle’s husband hires Cordelia to act as something as a personal assistant/bodyguard/private detective for his wife during a weekend island sojourn. Clarissa will be starring in the notoriously bloody “The Duchess of Malfi” over the weekend, and she’s rather paranoid about the thing since she’s been receiving death threats. Clarissa’s supposed to look after her and lend comfort and support. But immediately before the performance, Clarissa’s found in her bed with her face bashed in – dead, of course. And Cordelia has another crime to solve.

I didn’t like this nearly as much as An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, although it does have its moments. And I do enjoy how James wields an incredibly diverse vocabulary. Words lie threnody, plangent, and postprandial abound, and I often found myself reaching for my dictionary. But the novel’s also rather derivative, revolving around a murder in a closed setting with the suspect pool limited to an interesting cast of characters who were the only ones present at the time. Blah blah blah. Been there, done that. It’s also far longer than it needed to be, and Cordelia, whom I do like immensely, sometimes fades into the background. I missed her in this book.

Still, it was enjoyable and entertaining, though not quite moving.

Title: Cover Her Face
Author: P.D. James

More Baroness James. This was her first novel, introducing the detective who was to become her most famous creation, Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard. It wasn’t nearly as impressive as I’d hoped it to be. I think I’ll be taking a hiatus from James after this.

Plot: Sally Jupp is a beautiful unwed mother given a job at Martingale Manor, inhabited by matriarch Mrs. Maxie; her daughter, the young widow Mrs. Deborah Risoe; and her son Simon, the doctor. When Sally’s found strangled in her room behind a locked door – the morning after she announces Simon has asked her the marry him – they’re all suspects. There’s also the local preacher, the warden of the orphanage, the housekeeper, a charming and rather Peter Wimsey-esque war veteran in love with Deborah, and one of Simon’s past affairs, a girl who firmly believes she will one day be mistress of Martingale manor.

Enter Adam Dalgliesh, who comes down into the country from London to solve the crime. But despite being the supposed main character, the reader spends very little time with Dalgliesh, and seldom gets a glimpse in his mind. James limits her readers’ perspective to what the suspects themselves see. Which isn’t that much of a problem, except it doesn’t make me all that eager to read the next Dalgliesh book.

I guess what troubled me most was a rather real streak of nastiness and snobbery running through the book. There seemed to be the implication throughout that the upstart Sally – whom everyone knew to be scheming and devious – got what she deserved in aspiring to a match far above her. Essentially, she brought her murder upon herself. That left a rather bad taste in my mouth.


posted by Elizabeth at 9:50 PM


Friday, March 16, 2007

50 Ways to Kill Your Lover

Enough Rope
Lawrence Block

This is a huge collection of short stories by a man who apprently misses the good ol' days of pulp fiction and noir detective stories. It's clear that Block has read and loved a lot of these, and after reading his work, I want to go back and check out some of the authors he liberally references throughout these strange tales. There are brutal crimes, petty theft, crafty killers, and through it all is Block's amazingly dry, sardonic wit. You can't help but laugh the matter-of-fact observations of everyday people, or the utterly believable and human dialog he delivers to his characters.

In some ways, it's formulaic. Most of the stories involve loved ones getting killed in puzzling and varied ways, often at the hands of those who profess to love them. Block gets his points from the bizarre characters he births into these worlds. Some characters are so big that they live through their own series of stories, with entire books outside of this one dedicated to their existence, while others star in stories that may be stand-alone novellas without ever getting a proper name. In these instances, it's often the situation or the character's interactions that make the story.

A grown man sleeps with a 27" teddy bear. A young girl foils her own kidnapping, and still manages to take her dad for a ride. A chess-playing burglar makes a play to save his life when cornered by the homeowner. Block even makes a couple journeys to Schuyler County, where crime still happens, but with a more homegrown, Cletus-and-Jethro feel to it. Schuyler County seems to exist solely so that Block can practice writing in Good Ol' Boy.

In the second hale of the book we enter the realm of the recurring characters, and it's no wonder that Block loved tehm so much that he gave some of them multiple stories. Yet it's the most despicable characters that last the longest. Martin Ehrengraff, impeccably dressed, is a criminal defense attorney who only gets paid if his clients go free--and they always go free. Marty should be a case study for every aspiring law student. He gets more stories of his own than anybody else. I prefer Bernie Rhodenbarr, a bookselling burglar who also happens to solve crimes (not the ones he commits). Oh, and he somehow ends up shagging the hottest female in each of his stories. Bully for him.

Bernie breaks a mold, but nowhere near as well as Matthew Scudder, who starts his section of the book as the typical hard-boiled, hard-drinking, ex-semi-dirty-cop-turned-unlicensed-PI, and evolves into a much more complex character, even joining AA and sticking to cranberry juice and seltzer in the later stories. Oh, but he does marry a hooker he knew from his days on the force. (Hey, if we evolved completely, we wouldn't be human anymore)

Block sometimes offers a great story where the crime is a relatively minor point. A couple of the stories don't even involve a crime, but you never really care. Sure, there's the disappointment that nobody's dead, but the storeis themselves, even when formulaic, are so enjoyable that you don't care. I read this whole tome years ago, when I first got it for Christmas, and dug it up again to re-read it just so I could post it hear. An instant favorite. Plus, with its size (and fairly short stories overall), it's great to leave on the table for a couple months to pick up whenever you need a quick distraction, or to bury yourself in the couch for a few triscuit-munching days to drill through all of them.

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posted by reyn at 6:22 AM


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Nauseating Prose

Title: Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them
Author: Francine Prose

In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.

Skip it.

While Reading Like a Writer is not the worst guide to writing out there, it’s definitely one of the most annoying. Prose’s instruction technique amounts to nothing more than presenting the reader with a long passage from a book and asserting that this is an example of how it’s done. There’s little genuine literary analysis, and many of the selections are from obscure books I’ve never heard of – which makes reading long chunks of text from them rather pointless.

Furthermore, the margins of my copy are filled with snarky comments, because Prose drove me crazy with her vague assertions, inaccurate analysis, and her often mean-spirited judgmental attitude to other people. She freaks out waiting in a bus stop, because the other patrons “looked like they’d happily blow my brains out on the chance of finding a couple of Valiums in my purse.” If you took her word for it, this bus station was her equivalent of a “Heart of Darkness” journey. I couldn’t stomach it.

But Prose and I never had much chance of getting along. We have completely different tastes in books. I knew there was a fundamental difference between us when she confessed to struggling with the last hundred pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Why, might you ask? Well, because she “kept having to put the book down because my eyes kept welling with tears.” B*tch, please. Those same hundred pages had me rolling my eyes and snorting with cynical disgust into my latte. Crying during Cholera is akin to sniffling over an Anne Geddes photograph.

Worst of all, Prose is often clueless about the very books she’s analyzing. And I do mean clueless. I’ll share the most egregious example. She presents her readers with a passage from Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, instructing them to study it so they can see how deftly Jane painted the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. All well and good. There’s no one better than dear old Jane to teach characterization. But then Prose actually writes the following:

“Lest we receive a skewed or harsh impression of the Bennet’s own marriage, Mr. Bennet compliments his wife by suggesting that she is as handsome as their daughters. In fact, as we are discovering, theirs is a harmonious union, and indeed the whole conversation, with its intimacy, its gentle teasing, and with Mr. Bennet’s joking reference to his old friendship with his wife’s nerves, is a double portrait of a happy couple.” [Emphasis added.]

Bullshit. That’s complete and utter bullshit.

Those of you familiar with the novel probably know the passage Prose is discussing – and how wildly inaccurate her description of the Bennets as a “happy couple” and a “harmonious union” actually is. Did Prose even read the book? Lizzy implicitly describes her parents’ marriage as a partnership where neither party “loves nor respects the other.” Mr. Bennet himself admits he looks down upon his wife (“My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”). And here are Austen’s own words on the subject:

“Had Elizabeth's opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had, very early in their marriage, put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.”

Are we to suppose that Prose understands the characters of Jane Austen better than Jane herself? Is Prose that much of a genius? Is she that perceptive? Call me crazy, but I doubt it.

Anyway, once I read Prose’s inexplicable analysis of Pride and Prejudice, Reading Like A Writer was over for me. A book just doesn’t recover from that kind of blow. From then on, it was just one long, downhill slide towards mediocrity.

Oh, and who wants to take bets that Prose at one point changed her last name? I mean, a writer called ‘Prose’? C’mon. I bet her real name is Smith, or Jablewski, or perhaps even Biscuit Barrel.

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posted by Elizabeth at 10:03 PM


A Rummy Good Time, Indeed

Title: Carry On, Jeeves
Author: P.G. Wodehouse

Now, touching this business of old Jeeves – my man, you know – how do we stand? Lots of people think I’m much too dependent on him. My Aunt Agatha, in fact, has even gone so far as to call him my keeper. Well, what I say is: Why not? The man’s a genius. From the collar upward he stand alone, I gave up trying to run my own affairs within a week of his coming to me. That was about half a dozen years ago, directly after the rather rummy business of Florence Craye, my Uncle Willoughby’s book, and Edwin, the Boy Scout.

The hapless and idly rich Bertie Wooster is suffering from a diabolical hangover when his doorbell rings. A man named Jeeves stands outside, claiming he’s been sent by the agency to serve as Bertie’s new valet. Without waiting for orders, he glides insides, flickers about here and there, and promptly produces a magic elixir (containing Worcester sauce, raw egg, and red pepper). Bertie chugs it down in a desperate hope. Presto-chango, hangover cured! Jeeves is hired on the spot. It was a meeting of Destiny.

Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse’s most famous creation, is the epitome of the discrete, all-knowing British butler, the mold after which specimens such as Bunter and Alfred are cast. Time after time, he preserves his young master from disaster, and, on certain occasions, a fate worse than death -- that is, marriage with Honoria Glossop.

Carry On, Jeeves is actually a collection of short stories, narrated by Bertie, each detailing a particular scrape from which Jeeves saves his helpless employer. It’s comedic fluff of the highest order, and the language and British slang – well, you have to read it to believe it. It’s to die for. Here are some examples:

At this point, when everything was going as sweet as a nut and I was feeling on top of my form, Mrs Pringle suddenly socked me on the base of the skull with a sandbag.

You see, I had decided – rightly or wrongly – to grow a moustache, and this had cut Jeeves to the quick. He couldn’t stick the thing at any price, and I had been living ever since in an atmosphere of bally disapproval till I was getting jolly well fed up with it.

This was news to me, that Bicky’s uncle was a duke. Rum, how little one knows about one’s pals. I had met Bicky for the first time at a species of beano or jamboree down in Washington Square. He was a frightful chump, so we naturally drifted together, and while we were taking a quiet snort in a corner that wasn’t all cluttered up with artists and sculptors, he furthermore endeared himself to me by a most extraordinarily gifted imitation of a bull terrier chasing a cat up a tree.

As you can see, Bertie isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Jeeves has his hands full. It's great.

So read it, and after you do, watch the British television series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. If nothing else, you’ll be amazed that Laurie (currently famous as television’s “House”) can be so adept at playing the complete buffoon. Honestly, all the guy has to do is twitch an eyebrow to make me laugh.

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posted by Elizabeth at 8:27 PM


Of Trolls and Rings and Fantastical Things

Title: The Farthest-Away Mountain
Author: Lynne Reid Banks

Soon she had left the village behind. She climbed a little green hill and ran down the other side, and when she looked back she couldn’t see any of the village except the tip of the church steeple. She crossed a rushing, mint-green river by jumping from rock to rock, and then she was as far away from home as she’d ever been.

Fourteen-year-old Dakin vows she will not marry until she has done three things – traveled to the farthest-away mountain, met a gargoyle, and found a prince to be her husband. As a result, her matrimonial prospects are hardly rosy. No one, not even her father, the most-traveled man in the village, has been to the farthest-away mountain; everyone knows gargoyles are wicked creatures of fantasy; and the country’s prince can’t marry until the missing Ring of Kings, stolen so many years ago, is found.

But then Dakin wakes one morning, to hear the farthest-away mountain calling her. She has to go.

She embarks on her quest to the mountain secretly, taking with her nothing but a beloved brass troll belonging to her family. Numerous adventures await: a new friend that she never expected, a talking frog, magically-colored snow, ogres and witches and – yes – even gargoyles. And while she doesn’t quite find a prince to marry, she does manage the next best thing: a book dork.

The Farthest-Away Mountain
, written by Lynne Reid Banks, has been one of my favorite books ever since I was a little girl. I loved it then, love it now, and will probably love it when I’m old, grey, and crooked. It was another of those books I read way back over Christmas during a lazy afternoon, pretending I was a kid again. Personally, I think anyone could enjoy it, regardless of age, gender, and predilection for fantasy. Check it out if you haven’t already, or at least remember it when it comes time to buy a present for a little ‘un.

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posted by Elizabeth at 7:14 PM


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Orchid" Comes from the Greek Word for Testicles

John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games. […] Laroche strikes many people as eccentric. The Seminoles, for instance, have two nicknames for him: Troublemaker and Crazy White Man.

~ The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean


“Anne, this is certainly your night for looking handsome. But I don't like orchids on you. No; it isn't jealousy. Orchids don't seem to BELONG to you. They're too exotic—too tropical—too insolent. Don't put them in your hair, anyway.”

“Well, I won't. I admit I'm not fond of orchids myself. I don't think they're related to me. Roy doesn't often send them—he knows I like flowers I can live with. Orchids are only things you can visit with.”

~ Anne of the Island, Lucy Maud Montgomery

Despite appearances, Phil always seems to know what she’s talking about.

Anyway, so apparently we have a lot of orchids blooming in the world. No one knows exactly how many, but estimates range somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 species. And everyday there are more, because collectors crossbreed them like crazy, creating funky mutant orchids. They can look like dogs or rocket ships, and can smell like anything from chocolate to peach ice cream. But mostly, they are the ultimate unattainable passion for those who obsess over possessing them – because you can never, ever collect them all.

Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is that elusive book that inspired Charlie Kaufmann’s Adaptation. Adaptation is one of my favorite movies, and I was eager to take all that geeky love and shower it down upon Orlean’s original work. However, there was a big problem with this – Orlean doesn’t come even close to possessing Kaufmann’s unique and whacky weirdness. Inevitably, I was going to be disappointed.

I won’t deny that The Orchid Thief has its moments. The tales about historical orchid hunters are fascinating, particularly when the individual dies gruesomely in a steamy tropical jungle. And John Laroche, as the eponymous "orchid thief," comes across as something more than man. He’s mythic, a character who inspires admiration, fright, and revulsion in those he meets.

But Orlean inexplicably abandons Laroche and orchid hunting history for long stretches of the book to explore the current Florida orchid industry. And this is DULL. Nurseries don’t have the mysterious ambience of the Fakahatchee Strand, and their owners don’t have Laroche’s ability to mesmerize. As a reader, I felt she had enticed me out to the swamp in her dingy pickup truck with the promise of some glittering dream, only to dump me in the stinky mire with the alligators and speed away, tires squealing – which also leaves me vulnerable to disgruntled patent examiners/wedding guests prowling the swamp looking to commit bloody chainsaw murder. And that’s just rude.

Also, Orlean's personality can be wince-inducing (I don't see her as Meryl Streep at all). She stays in her parents’ Florida condominium, and spends much time ruminating on her wardrobe. You might be wondering, what does this have to do with orchids? It’s a simple answer, really – absolutely nothing. Why she thought I’d be interested in that crap, I don’t know. I could happily see all those pages burned. It would be a much better book.

So read The Orchid Thief for three things – John Laroche, swamps, and death (in swamps). Feel free to skim everything else. I did.


posted by Elizabeth at 9:57 PM


Sunday, March 04, 2007

From Alaska to South America

Title: Hide and Seek
Author: Cherry Adair

I hadn't realized I read two books by this author so close together until I discovered this one in the pile of things to review. And it just gets worse.

Delanie's a repressed kindergarden teacher posing as arm candy for a South American terrorist. She had a brief fling with Kyle a few years ago, then ran away from his hotel room.

Kyle's this super-brilliant MD/PhD who finished up school at like 20. He also happens to be the brother of Derek. Sigh.

The crazy terrorist is planning to create a giant smallpox-like epidemic. Conveniently, he knew Kyle in college, so Kyle's brother gets him to turn into a secret agent and infiltrate the terrorist's group.

Delanie's there because her flighty little sister was last seen with the terrorist.

Kyle and Delanie only knew each other that one weekend - he picked her up in a hotel bar, they never spoke again, but apparently she fell for him so hard that she knows his voice when he happens upon her sunbathing topless by the terrorist's pool.

They finally have to reveal their secrets to each other to save the world and her sister. The terrorist is totally nutso. But, conveniently, he's either asexual or gay, and only likes to have arm candy for the image it projects, and Delanie's not really a slut.

So Kyle and Delanie battle the terrorist and his cronies and his evil mother, and then he brings in reinforcements (like his brother... actually, there's a few brothers - they're bound to show up soon enough in other books), and everyone lives. Except the terrorist, who gets fed to piranhas. Yay!

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posted by ket at 11:23 PM


the Iditarod. Really.

Title: On Thin Ice
Author: Cherry Adair

Yes, you've seen things from this author on here before. And this one's just as believable. :-)

Lily Munroe's a recent widow; her husband was a lying jerk, but she stuck with him as he spent 3 years dying of cancer because she's a nice person.

She's always had a rivalry, personal and professional, with Derek Wright. She thinks of him as a useless playboy, because he's always jetting off places. But she may have been mistaken...

They both happen to be really good sled dog racers. And so they set out for the Iditarod. Along the trail someone tries to kill her, and Derek's always there to save the day. And to sleep with her.

And by the end, I don't remember why they're trying to kill her, though I think it had something to do with the dead husband, but Cherry manages to have Derek actually be a super-secret government operative who works with the guys from this book.

Then Lily and Derek have a silent battle of wills for a few months where neither will compromise, even though they're meant to be together, and then it all works out.

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posted by ket at 10:40 PM


stupid talking cats

Title: Cat in a Quicksilver Caper
Author: Carole Nelson Douglas

Temple's a PR agent in Vegas. She's in an on/off relationship with Max, a professional magician who also works for some secret organization. And she's also falling for Matt, the ex-Catholic priest who lives upstairs. And she has this cat named Midnight Louie who solves crimes and gets to narrate his own chapters.

This whole cast of characters has been around for a few other books, which I think I may have read at least one or two of.

There's an exhibition of Russian Diamonds going on, Temple's working PR, and some guy dies trying to steal them. There's other stuff involved, which, again, I don't remember because I read the book a while ago. But they figure it all out.

And at the very end of the book, after he's already decided to be selfless and encourage Temple to go for Matt, someone sabotages Max's equipment and he dies. Which sucks, because he's way more interesting than Matt... And the death takes place in the last chapter, setting up the next book. I hate when they do that.

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posted by ket at 10:28 PM


...set in one of my favorite decades for female clothing...

Title: Death at Wentwater Court
Author: Carola Dunn

I totally read this like a month ago.

Daisy's this flapper in England shortly after WWI; her fiance died while serving as a medic. She's trying to make a living as a reporter/writer for a magazine, so she talks her way into visiting the large country home of some of her acquaintances to write an article about it. The other people there include the children of the home's owner (about her age - mid-twenties) and some friends/significant others; the owner's second wife; and some random guy who kindof pressured one of the sons into inviting him and who seems to have an agenda with the second wife.

The random guy dies suspiciously. Everyone's a suspect. The police come, and Daisy hits it off with the lead detective. They solve the crime, which involved a son being in love with the step-mother and attempting to cover up an accidental death, and a bit of lying on everyone's part to save the day. It was better when I actually remembered details.

And of course there's the whole thing with Daisy and Alec. But apparently the author would prefer to hold off on that until a sequel...

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posted by ket at 10:15 PM


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Mary Poppins would've killed them all

The Nanny Diaries
Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

I was introduced to this by somebody who insisted on reading her favorite passage, and laughed so hard during said reading that when I read it for myself, I discovered entire paragraphs of text that had previously been indecipherable fits of giggling.

It's that good.

It's also that horrific.

If there resides in you any humanity at all (I borrowed some when i read it), you will spend the entirety of this book torn between two emotions: gales of laughter brought on by Nanny's descriptions of her surroundings, charge, employers, and conversations, and burning fury at the same things.

Nanny works for Mr. and Mrs. X, raising their 4-year-old because they are far too busy to notice that there is a miniature person living in their apartment (I have occupied, for periods up to years in length, entire buildings smaller than their home). Mr. X is some sort of philandering banker (I'm not spoiling anything for you there) while Mrs. X... ok, as near as I can tell, she divides her time between avoiding all contact with her son, acting like she spends all her time her son, berating and abusing the hired help, and spending untold sums of money on labels which are almost universally unfamiliar to me.

In the course of the book (again, I'm not ruining anything for you) it becomes obvious that A) Mr. X carouses through life with the single emotion of contempt, B) Mrs. X isn't on nearly enough medication, C) Grayer (the kid) exists only as an accessory and conversation piece. They have no contact with their son. That's what nannies are for! I was particularly pleased when a young playmate of Grayer ("I have two daddies!") is picked up from a playdate by one of her gay fathers. Mrs. X asks why they don't have ananny to take care of some mundane task he mentions, and he replies that he wants to spend that time with their child, because "they're not this age forever!" Her facial expression makes it clear that this was her hope, rather than a regret.

Her first week on the job is fine (except for the rough transition, as they fire the old nanny without really telling anyone), but it quickly becomes the Job From Hell, and threatens her ability to graduate NYU, find an apartment or job, and maintain some semblance of health. The one reprieve is the Harvard Hottie upstairs. This is where I break in to point out that she's falling--and how!--for another privileged rich dude whose hair is really awfully long and whose only fault appears to be his poor choice in friends. He's the least believable character in the book because he's so damned perfect, and yet so close to what she's coming to hate. That's sort of scary; as awful as the Xes are--to their son, to each other, to the people who make their lifestyle possible--they are completely believable characters. In my heart of hearts, I know such people exist, and not just because I always see them on Law and Order. Their parenting style is "well-funded neglect," and if not for the constant stream of Nannies they and their contemporaries employ, we'd find ourselves beset with legions of preppy psychopaths.

Lucky us they have Nanny.

Happy ending? Debatable. You keep hoping for her, but the situation just keeps getting worse (and more complicated). And although she wants to tell them off for all the horrible things they've done to her and their son--I wanted her to do it, too--she manages to end the book with Grace. I still hope Grayer gets adopted by some nice bumpkins in West Virginia.

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posted by reyn at 12:38 PM