Friday, December 28, 2012

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Claire Roth is an artist and a fake. The only successful original painting she created was signed by another artist who was struggling creatively when he was invited to produce a work for a MOMA show of new talent. This other artist was also Claire’s lover and her former art teacher, so she did not mind helping him over his creative impasse. But the episode ends in scandal and heartache.

Fast forward three years, and Claire is supporting a minimal lifestyle in Boston by making reproductions of famous paintings. No gallery will show her original work because of her involvement in the earlier scandal. But this situation changes unexpectedly when famous gallery owner Aidan Markel offers her a one-woman show and $50,000. The deal is presented if Claire agrees to create a reproduction of a famous Degas painting that was stolen at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Claire is not convinced the Degas that Markel shows her is indeed the original, but even if it is, how bad would it be for her to just copy it? And how awful would it be if she also took Markel for her next lover?

Mystery, passion, deception, and a dose of art history make the thoroughly enjoyable “The Art Forger” anything but painting by numbers.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen


Ari Seth Cohen, in his blog-based book, Advanced Style (2012), turns ageism on its heels. His exquisite photography and meaningful words capture the essence of growing older with dignity and beauty.

I have never considered "old" a bad word, the author writes.  To be old is to be experienced, wise, and advanced.  The ladies I photograph challenge sterotypical views on age and aging. They are youthful in mind and spirit and express themselves through personal style and individual creativity...The fashion these women display is merely a reflection of the care and thought they put into every aspect of their lives.  These photos offer proof that the secret to remaining vital in our later years is to never stop being curious, never stop creating, and never stop having fun. 

Advanced Style is not only a beautiful coffee table book, it is an inspiration for any woman at any age.  Not only are the featured clothes and accessories exquisite, but the women photographed are admirable in the statements they are making. Their attitude about themselves and about life is amazing!

Check out Ari Cohen's blog at http://advancedstyle.blogspot.com/

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Vlad

I have never read anything by Carlos Fuentes, I am sorry to admit, so when I read a review of Vlad, I decided to give it a try.  Excellent.  Vlad, of course, refers to Count Vladimir Radu, also known as Vlad the Impaler (but his friends just call him "Vlad").  Vlad has left, or rather been forced out of Romania and has decided to move to Mexico City. He contacts his old friend, Don Eloy Zuringa, an attorney  asks him to arrange a house. And I mean Zuringa ia an old friend. 

Zuringa, thought to be in his 80's has been an attorney in Mexico City for as long as anyone can remember.  Navarro is one of Zuringa's staff attorneys. Navarro is tasked with finding lodging for Zuringa's friend. The client (who is nameless at this point) wants a house that is remotely located, with large lots on 3 sides and abutting a ravine on the 4th. A tunnel has to be run from the house into the ravine. And all the windows need to be bricked over. "OK" thinks Navarro - he will have his wife, Asuncion, a real estate agent find the property. Vlad is thrilled with the house and the location. Navarro's life will never be the same as Vlad starts to take over Navarro's family.

This short (125 pages) book was simply wonderful. Quirky and well written the story shows just how one man can slide into a major life transformation without realizing it is even happening. How trust in your spouse and friends can sometimes lead to unintended consequences for you. I recommend this book.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

The Innocents

In the June 2012 issue of Vogue, Francesca Segal discusses the classic from which The Innocents is based.  Whereas The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, takes place in 19th century New York, The Innocents is set in the Jewish enclave of Temple Fortune (London), circa 2012.  Like the Edith Wharton novel, The Innocents deals with young love and the allure of the forbidden.  Segal's use of literary allusion provides a timeless look at upper-class society.

Adam Newman is the childhood sweetheart of Rachel Gilbert, a good-hearted young woman raised in the security of a protective and loving family. Having lost his father at an early age, Adam has been welcomed into the Gilbert home like a son.  He is particularly close to Rachel's father and works as a lawyer in his firm. But as plans for a large wedding are being made, Adam begins to feel suffocated.  The close-knit family within the insular Jewish community offers security but insists on conformity.  To make matters worse, Rachel's cousin Ellie comes to visit and Adam falls passionately in love with this troubled beauty.  Unlike Rachel, Ellie is uninhibited and promiscuous.  Her life has been a series of bad choices leading up to a scandal with an older married man.

In beautiful prose reminiscent of  The Three Weissmann's of Westport (Cathleen Schine, 2010), Segal explores the conflict between the safe and conventional versus the exotic and the unknown.  She also deals with the dilemmas of young love amidst the strength of family bonds. In the character of Adam, we see a young man who has never dealt with the grief of losing a parent, whose very development has been stunted by repressed anger.  This is the quality he shares with Ellie, whose self-destructive bent threatens to pull him under.  The chemistry between them, and the sense of impending disaster, keeps this novel moving from the first page to the last.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Last Policeman: A novel

"The end of the world changes everything from a law-enforcement perspective."
(pg115)

Earth is about to be destroyed.  All over the world people are killing themselves, have stopped doing their jobs or are just going berserk, but Hank Palace, a homicide detective in New Hampshire, is trying to keep up with his investigations and the suicide of Peter Zell just doesn't add up.

 There are 2 stories in this book. One story line runs through Hank's life trying to just do his job while society is slowly falling apart around him.  In the background is a parallel story of the asteroid heading straight for earth.  This impending calamity is effecting people's lives - bucket lists, drugs and sex binges, religious awakenings and some people who just want to continue on with their lives.  The two lines intersect with a resounding crack when Hank realizes that everyone is not going to believe what ever  it is that is going to happen.

His sister, her husband, fellow detectives, suspects in other cases all are involved in the death of Peter Zell.  The federal police, newly created to help contain lawlessness that increases the closer the impact day comes, are deliberately not helping him.  The story line has enough twists to keep it interesting.

I am careful about what I read when it comes to apocalyptic themed books, and usually don't read them.  But I liked Winters' Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, so I broke my rule.  This is a well written murder mystery with some psychological aspects and a smattering of morality issues woven into it.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

Trapeze, by Simon Mawer

Why would a young woman, who verges on the shy side, decide to be a spy during WWII? What would go through her mind and what events would lead her to parachute in blackest night into Nazi-occupied France? Understand her thinking and follow her path in the beautifully written "Trapeze."

The latest novel by Simon Mawer, the critically acclaimed author of "The Glass Room," "Trapeze" is an exciting war-torn adventure with characters who will haunt you long after you finish reading their story. Main character Marian Sutro, a Brit, is also a native French speaker, which makes her an attractive recruit for the “Inter-Service Research Bureau.” Soon she is undergoing commando training and enrolled in a “school for spies.” But all espionage and no romance would make Marian a dull girl. And dull she is not. As her duties expand, so do the number of aliases she takes on (“Live the person you are pretending to be”), as well as the number of lovers.

As this historical novel progresses, readers see a basically ordinary girl take on an extraordinary life. After her first parachute jump, she thinks, "How will anything, ever again, be as exciting as this?" But for the reader, the excitement continues throughout Marian's training, and her introduction to what is literally the physics of war culminates in a nail-biting finale.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Heading Out to Wonderful

Heading Out to Wonderful, by Robert Goolrick, is a tale of forbidden love and its consequences. Set in rural Virginia circa 1948, it recounts the story of Charlie Beale, a mysterious stranger who walks into town with two suitcases: one filled with cash and the other containing a fine set of butcher knives. He secures a job in the butcher shop and soon meets a cast of local characters, including the richest, meanest man in the town and his teenage bride. He falls passionately in love with her movie star image. As time passes, Charlie befriends the shopkeeper's family, including their son, Sam.  Sam is only 4 years old when the story begins. We learn from the opening line that it is Sam, now in his 60s, who is our sympathetic narrator.

The thing is, all memory is fiction...Of course, there are things that actually, certifiably happened, things where you can pinpoint the day, the hour, and the minute.  When you think about it, though, these things seem to happen to other people. (p. 1)

Many themes of the book reflect the life of the author. This is graphically depicted in his memoir, The End of the World As We Know It (2007). As Janet Maslin of the New York Times writes: "It follows the senior Goolricks from high times to low ones, when 'my mother and father went on until they didn’t care enough to read or dress or cut their own toenails or defend themselves against alcoholism and cancer and filthiness and disrepair and rats in the house.'” (New York Times, March 26, 2007)  But what damaged him for a lifetime occurred when he was 4 years old. Maslin writes that it is described by Goolrick in pornographic detail. The child abuse, coupled with his general home life, led to a troubled youth and adulthood. As a child, he set his grandmother's curtains on fire. As a teenager, he roamed the streets inebriated and high on cocaine.  He began a life-long struggle with self-mutilation. He had affairs with men and women.

If events in Heading Out to Wonderful appear melodramatic, they pale next to those of his real life. Charlie Beale is sympathetic and tormented--a lonely soul who befriends a child and ultimately betrays his innocence.  Throughout the book, Charlie seeks salavation for a past not disclosed. He visits many churches but, in the end, worships at the feet of a woman.

Goolrick, perhaps through the voice of the book's narrator, Sam, tries to understand how he ended up living alone with nothing but ghosts from the past. Along the way, he exposes the bigotry of small town life before civil rights and captures the degradation of being black in the rural South. Indeed, the most decent characters in his novel are the African Americans Goolrick depicts.

Heading Out to Wonderful is a thought-provoking period piece that highlights the fragility of childhood and the difficulties of existence. It is a cautionary ballad well worth reading.

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Friday, November 30, 2012

Double Cross

Ben MacIntyre has written a series of books dealing with the Allies adventures in misleading the Nazis during World War II. Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat were his 2 previous books on this subject. Double Cross deals with the Normandy invasion, or more specifically with "Operation Fortitude." The operation was an elaborate ruse to keep Germany's attention focused on Calais, while the real invasion site was to be  the beaches of Normandy.

British military intelligence seems to be particularly adept at putting together the most surreal series of events and having the Nazis fall for it every time. The group involved in this charade were actually double agents. Several were actively recruited by the British, but others simply walked up to the British Embassy and volunteered. One actually started sending his own false information to the Germans after having his offers to spy be dismissed because he was considered a 'crackpot." The group is almost unbelievable: bored German rich boys, a double dealing import/export business owner, the organizer of a French spy network who is actually Polish, a bored rich Peruvian, a poultry farmer and a woman who actually wanted to spy for Germany and almost brought down the whole network over her beloved dog. These people were so entrenched in the German intelligence service one of them was actively involved in a plot to murder Hitler.

This book would seem to be fiction, except the background comes from recently released military documents. MacIntyre makes full use of them as he uses recorded conversations, payment histories and diaries to bring the charade to life.

I love MacIntyre's books. You simply can't make these stories up - they are almost bizarre in the way they unfold. But history supports them! These books read like a spy story, which of course they are, but they have the added bonus of being true. I recommend all his books.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pyg


Pyg.  The Memoirs of Toby the Learned Pig is edited by Russell Potter and is just what the title tells the reader it is - a memoir of a learned pig.

Toby is the first learned pig.  Others since have imitated him or performed lesser tricks. The learned pig is a pig taught to respond to commands in such a way that it appears to be able to answer questions by picking up cards.  Toby is actually a sapient pig who has learned to read and write, although he does, of necessity,  perform for a living.

Toby lived in late eighteenth-century England. After winning the blue ribbon at the Salford Livestock Fair and escaping his fate at the hands and knife of the butcher, Toby and the young human friend who rescues him, join a performing troupe, where Toby learns tricks and, then, learns to read.  Toby  goes on to study at Oxford and Edinburgh—meeting and interacting with such well known people as Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, and William Blake—before finally writing his own life story.  Toby is wise and witty.

The editor teaches Victorian literature, the history of Arctic exploration, and early media at Rhode Island College. and has the historical background and the sense of humor to create a great read.  He maintains a blog if you want to learn more: http://pygnovel.blogspot.com/

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Friday, November 23, 2012

A Hologram for the King

A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers, is a postmodern novel whose tone and style bears resemblance to other contemporary writers such as David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Richard Powers and Neil Gaiman (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_literature). The enormous desert spaces and accompanying sense of loneliness and alienation echo scenes from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami. Water and well-like imagery are remarkable similar. At the same time, Egger's book is reminiscent of the work of older authors such as Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) and Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman).

The narrator in A Hologram for the King is 54-year-old Alan Clay.  Adam was once an executive at the Schwinn Bicycle Company when it was based in Chicago.  He helped the company outsource its manufacturing to China, ultimately putting Schwinn out of business.  Unwittingly, Alan outsourced himself out of a job.  His father, a World War II vet and former factory worker, never forgives him for undercutting the union.

When the book opens, we find Alan in Saudi Arabia with three young assistants from Reliant Corporation.  His job is to get the IT contract for a city still in its planning stage.  The King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) is just being built and its condominiums stand empty.  The three techies have set up equipment in a vast tent in order to present a hologram of their vision for this city of the future.
The only problem is that King Abdullah, for whom the presentation is intended, fails to show up day after day.  He seems to be out of the country and no one knows when he will return. With their wi-fi signal weak, there is nothing for the three assistants to do.  The tent is poorly air conditioned and food for the team is not forthcoming.  Outside they are surrounded by blistering desert heat. The ennui is almost palpable.

The stark, lonely surroundings mirror Alan's inner state of mind.  He has had a messy divorce from a woman described as cruel and unbalanced.  Alan has lost nearly everything.  His home is in foreclosure.  He cannot pay the college tuition for his only daughter, Kit. His one hope, like that of Willie Loman, is to make this one great sale.  If Reliant is awarded the IT contract for KAEC, Alan's commission will be in the six figures and his problems will be solved.  

(Alan) wanted to believe that this kind of thing, a city rising from dust, could happen. The architectural renderings he'd seen were magnificent. Gleaming towers, tree-lined public spaces and promenades, a series of canals allowing commuters to get almost anywhere by boat. The city was futuristic and romantic, but also practical.  It could be made with extant technology and a lot of money, but money Abdullah certainly had. (p. 39)

Throughout the book, Alan recalls the suicide of his neighbor.  The scene of the neighbor, newly converted to Transcendentalism, stepping into a pond haunts both Alan and the reader.  Alan keeps replaying the scene in his mind.  It took the man hours to fully immerse and no one tried to stop him or call the police. When the police were summoned, they acted only when it was too late.

What is Eggers saying here about our society?  That the neighbor believing, as did Emerson, in self-reliance, gives in to despair? What do the reactions of the bystanders--including Alan--mean?  Why did everyone go about their business as if nothing was happening?

Alan's sense of ineptitude (displayed through his sexual impotence) is increased by his lack of control in KAEC, Saudi Arabia. Failure and regret dog him.  But Alan, despite his many doubts and previous failures, continues to have hope for the future.  It is this optomism that distinguishes him from Willie Loman.  Is Alan a symbol of American capitalism itself?  As Pico Iyer concludes in his eloquent review:

Eggers has developed an exceptional gift for opening up the lives of others so as to offer the story of globalism as it develops and, simultaneously, to unfold a much more archetypal tale of struggle and loneliness and drift.  Public and private explorations come together, and as this groundbreaking writer grows wiser and deeper and more melancholy, evolving from telling his own stories to voicing America's, he might be asking us how we can bring the best parts of our past into a planetary future.
(New York Times Book Review, July 22, 2012)


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Friday, November 16, 2012

Skeleton Box

The latest Starvation Lake book opens in the locker room after a hockey game. Gus, the goalie and disgraced reporter, is having some beer with his teammates when the local sheriff wanders in and says Gus must leave with him. There have been a series of burglaries in Starvation Lake, while the home owners were out at bingo. Gus's mother's house is the latest and  this break-in  involves a murder.

Phyllis Bontrager, a neighbor was watching Gus's mom, was injured in the break- in.  She is the mother of Darlene Esper, Gus' ex- girlfriend.  It doesn't look good - Phyllis is severely injured and Gus's mother have memory problems. Nothing is ever taken in the burglaries, but the houses are messed up as if someone is looking for something. Luke Whistler, a reporter for the paper can hardly wait to investigate.  Gus is the current editor of the local paper.

The  exploits of the local hockey team run through the background of the story, it is after all state championship time. Small town politics, religious fanaticism and disorder and people who are not whom they appear are all in this story. This is a nice mystery, the story just flows along and it ties up some strings left over from the previous books. It works as a stand alone, however mostly because of the secret that Gus' mother has been keeping for years. That secret is at the heart of the story.

I have liked all the books in this series, they are a nice mystery with an interesting main character.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Canada


First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later (p. 3).

Thus begins this luminous masterpiece by Richard Ford, a book that captures its reader from the first line to the last.  The narrator is Dell Parsons, now 66, as he recalls his life in Great Falls, Montana and his eventual journey to the prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada. 

John Banville summarizes Canada's plot in an eloquent review for The Guardian (guardian.co.uk, Friday 25 May 2012):

The year is 1960, and the Parsons family--father Bev, mother Neeva, and 15-year-old Dell and his twin sister, Berner-- are settled, just about, in the city of Great Falls, Montana, having moved there four years previously.  Bev, a good ol' boy from Alabama, had been an air force bombardier who saw action in the Philippines and Osaka... Neeva, short for Geneva, "a tiny, intense, bespectacled woman with unruly brown hair, vestiges of which ran down her jawline," is Jewish, and has literary pretensions, or longings, at least.  She and Bev are an archetypal American married couple of the time, who just happen to become bank robbers.

Just the premise of this book is ingenious and worthy of exploring. Dell explains to us that his father returns from the war with an "unspecified gravity" (p. 7) and a misunderstanding of the world and his place in it. He has grand plans and lacks a moral compass.  In an attempt to make more money while stationed at Great Falls, he gets involved in illegal meat smuggling. He seemingly rationalizes his behavior by believing he is being passed over for promotions. His retirement from the Air Force at age 37 in 1956 may have been a face-saving move, but none-the-less, leaves him at loose ends.

As a civilian, Bev tries selling cars and then gets involved in another beef smuggling scheme with a group of Great Falls Indians.  When meat spoils and the Indians demand their payment or else, he hatches a scheme to rob a bank.  We gradually learn that he has glamorized bank robbery while still in the Air Force. That Neeva gets involved only shows the extent of her own lack of judgment. As Dell looks back on the event fifty years from when it occurred, he recalls:

Neeva came to the remarkably mistaken conclusion that robbing a bank was a risk that would facilitate things she wanted.  It was a miscalculation not very different from the one that has swayed her to marry Bev Parsons in the first place--giving up on the life she could've had , to lead what might've seemed a more adventurous and unexpected one, but wasn't.  With half the money from a robbery she wouldn't have to go back to her miscalculated life... (p. 92)

The second part of the book deals with the ramifications of a robbery that failed.  To describe what happens would be a spoiler.  How Berner and Dell cope and the characters they meet along the way make up the thematic core of the novel.

Canada is as much about alienation as it is about consequences for one's actions.  Ford's descriptions of the vast expanses of land that make up Montana, as well as his depiction of the rustic prairie across the U.S. border, are highly evocative. They call forth a sense of vastness, desolation, and loneliness.  These outer expanses mirror the emptiness the characters feel within. Despite this, the tone with which Dell recalls events is flat and utterly cerebral.  Dell's unemotional nature--his ability to get on with his life and not feel anger toward his parents--allows him to lead a full if uneventful life.  Berner, like Neeva, is inclined to make rash choices and act on her emotions.  Like that of her mother, Berner's personal history becomes a series of tragic mistakes. We learn of them as Dell does--at the end of Berner's life.

Canada's achievement as a literary work lies not only in the unique story it tells, but in its empathetic character portrayal.  The book's narrator, Dell, bears witness to his parents' misguided endeavors.  He later witnesses a much more horrific crime and even partakes in part of it.  That he is able to look at everyone, including himself, with detached understanding and forgiveness makes him remarkable.

Canada is a book whose appeal will negate age and gender differences.  It examines misguided decisions and their tragic repercussions.  But, ultimately, this book is about the redemptive powers of truth, self-awareness and responsibility.  To this reader, it bears some similarity in theme and style to Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.  And like that fine work, it too is likely to become part of the canon of great American novels.

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night, the second book in Deborah Harnkness' trilogy begins where a Discovery of Witches leaves off.  Exactly where it leaves off.  Diana and Matthew have traveled back in time to the reign of Elizabeth I.  Matthew, a spy for the queen, and Diana are still searching for the alchemical manuscript, Ashmole 782.  Diana believes this might be able to explain her powers.

The book follows the exploits of Diana and Matthew as they search. Matthew's group of friends include Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Percy, Lord Northumberland among others.  Not everyone is who they appear to be.  While searching for a witch to teach Diana how to control and use her powers, they are turned into the church for punishment.  As there are witch trials going on in Scotland at the time, this is especially perilous for Diana.  Matthew has risked the wrath of the Congregation by marrying Diana, vampires marrying witches is a strictly forbidden act.

Using his connections ( after all Matthew has lived in this time period before) Matthew tracks down where the manuscript is. But can they get it? The story line rips through Matthew and Diana's time in London and continental Europe while they try to stay alive and find the manuscript all without changing the future. And then get back to the present intact.

I loved this book. Part love story, thriller and lots of historical settings and characters. I am a big fan of the first book, A Discovery of Witches, and I loved this one too.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bond on Bond

Just in time for the new James Bond movie Skyfall (opening Friday) we've got a fun new addition to celebrity books as Roger Moore himself takes us through 50 years(!) of James Bond on film in Bond on Bond. Moore goes out of his way to include trivia and history encompassing all the Bonds, although his best stories are his most personal ones.

Both Moore and co-writer Gareth Owen, who also helped Moore's earlier autobiography My Word is My Bond, do an excellent job in exuding what we assume is Roger Moore's real charming voice. The sound of the writing is somewhere between Moore's Bond and wealthy playboy, which makes it even easier to enjoy the many anecdotes that populate the book.

We learn of Moore's relationship with the other Bonds, and despite our desire to see him compete with Sean Connery in the public's eye the men appear to be friendly with each other. In fact, Moore states that Connery is his favorite Bond (besides himself, of course!) We also get colorful stories about the rest of the actors, producers, stunt people and directors who brought Bond to life. In fact, the only person in the book that Moore seems to dislike is Grace Jones, his costar from his final Bond flick, although his comments towards her are more snarky than mean.

The book is also filled with a potpourri of backstage photos, old advertisements, and my favorites, the old movie posters for every Bond film. We also get handy tips on how to dress, drink and smoke like Bond. It's also a treat that Moore treats Connery's Never Say Never Again (which competed with Moore's Octopussy at the box office) and the earlier comedic Casino Royale (starring Woody Allen and David Niven) as part of the Bond canon.

I'm not going to even pretend that this book has any depth, but it's a quick, fun read that you can knock off while getting your Bond fix on DVD at home. We can all argue about who made the best Bond but until Sean Connery writes his Bond-focused memoir we'll all have to agree that this is the best Bond-written Bond book around!

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Hot Art

This book claims that it is about "chasing thieves and detectives through the secret world of stolen art." And it does. What Joshua Knelman has really written about how easy it is to traffic in stolen art.  The author starts by interviewing a known art thief going by the name "Paul." Paul explains how he started out in Brighton, England as a "knocker." He would basically knock on the front doors of peoples homes and ask if they wanted to sell him something, a painting, some silver or any other treasure. Once inside the house he would check out what items he could steal at a later date. Paul was very successful at this.

Knelman interviews art thieves, individuals who have had art stolen, museum officials and gallery owners about thefts and how they are handled. He goes into depth about the various art theft investigative squads that are now in existence through out the world and how the stolen items travel around the world in a matter of days, if not hours. The first investigative agence in the United States was in the Los Angeles police department. Then came INTERPOL, Scotland  Yard, the FBI, Toronto police department and a squad in Quebec, Canada. There are also several international databases now in existence among then the Art Loss Register and one from INTERPOL called IFAR (International Foundation for Art research.)

It was surprising to me that it seems that there is very little oversight in the art world.  Titles are not registered anywhere on a routine basis and alot of art is sold for cash.  Considering the global fine art business is worth about $20 billion,  in 2008,  I couldn't believe it wasn't regulated. The figures for art theft from 2008  indicate that 16,000 pieces of art were registered as stolen or lost.

The book is an interesting one. It is populated by police and investigative characters who seem to genuinely want the art world regulated. It is also populated by those who want to keep things just as they are. If you want to learn about the dark side of the art world, this book is for you.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Atlas of Unknowns

Atlas of Unknowns, by Tania James, is the story of two sisters linked by a tragic past.  When Linno was 7 and her sister Anju was 3, they lost their mother (Gracie) in a mysterious drowning accident.  The girls are then raised in Kerala, India by their eccentric father and religious grandmother.  Like the author, the family practices Christianity.

As in most families, the sisters are very different.  Anju yearns to go to the United States, believing whole-heartedly in the American dream. She wins a scholarship to a private school in Manhattan and seizes the opportunity to better herself.  Linno remains behind, using her artistic skills to earn money for her family.  She is highly independent and refuses to marry a man she does not love.

The story weaves back and forth through present and past, Kerala and Manhattan. In Manhattan, we meet 2 secondary characters, Bird and Mrs. Solanki, who represent opposite poles of the American success story.  Bird was once a beautiful and talented actress in India where she met the young Gracie, an aspiring actress. Bird was smitten by Gracie--a secret, simmering love that lasted well after her death. When Bird emigrated to New York, Gracie sought to escape her abusive father and married the kind and generous Melvin.  Anju and Linnu were the offspring of that marriage.

Neither Gracie nor Bird led gratifying lives.  Gracie longed for a career in the theater and fantasized the life she thinks Bird is living. In reality, Bird is just scraping together mere sustenance working in a Manhattan beauty salon.When we meet her, she is an elderly and faded beauty, still secretly pining for Gracie.  When she spots a notice in an Indian newspaper announcing Anju's scholarship along with her picture, memories of Gracie flood her memory.  She decides to help Gracie's daughter in this unfamiliar new land.

By contrast, Mrs. Solanki is host of a popular television talk show that sounds a bit like The View.  She is wealthy, successful and happily married.  It is she who sponsors the scholarship that Anju wins.  Having an Indian girl come live with her while continuing her education is Mrs. Solanki's way of expressing gratitude for her success.

The plot of the book revolves around Anju's act of deceit and her expulsion from the New York school.  Rather than come home, she runs away, ultimately living with Bird.  Meanwhile in India, the family is heartsick with worry.  Linno is especially distraught. When she and her new employer open an online card company, she is determined to save enough money to apply for a visa and come to Manhattan.  Against all odds, she hopes to find Anju.

Atlas of Unknowns (2009) is the first published work by Tania James.  Although the plot of the book is a bit convoluted, the characters are well-drawn.  If you are a fan of Indian literature, and if you enjoyed Ms. James new collection of short stories, Aerogrammes, this book is certainly worth reading.  Here, as in Aerogrammes, the author poignantly depicts the losses suffered when leaving one's homeland.  She also portrays family in all its quirkiness.  Above all, she takes a hard look at the complicated love of two sisters and the illusions inherent in "the American Dream."

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Friday, October 26, 2012

The Scent of a Scandal

Here is the premise of this book: a true crime story about orchids. I had to read this book. In the family orchidacae there are approximately 25,000 to 30,000 different species. There are approximately 100,000 hybrid versions of these flowers. The industry is worth an estimated $44 billion per year with an extensive black market trade despite world wide trade tariffs. I will admit I do not know much about these flowers, but  I think they are a very pretty flower. Apparently some people believe they are more than just a beautiful flower and are obsessed with them to the point of committing criminal acts.

Outside of Sarasota, Florida is a small botanic garden known as the Marie Selby Botanic Garden. Not one of the larger botanic gardens in the world, it had carved out a niche for itself as a orchid specialist garden. The garden included research facilities for the study and propagation of orchids, although this was not its only stated mission. The garden was started in 1971 when Marie Selby died and left her house and $2,000,000 for maintenance of the house as a botanical garden. A local doctor who was on the board pushed for the emphasis on orchids as they were his favorite flowers. In 2002, the garden was being run by a woman named Meg Lowman. She had a botany PhD., and her real interest was research in the rain forest canopy. She had no experience running a garden but was apparently a whiz at soliciting donations. The scientists on staff did not agree with her style and wanted to change the focus even though the garden was flourishing.

In 2002 the Redland International Orchid Festival was held outside of Miami. It is the largest orchid show in the world. One of the vendors had a plant from Peru for sale that was being hawked for $10,000. The scientists were very interested. After the show one of the scientists received a picture of an orchid he had never seen before. He realized it had been at the show, was a new species and assumed someone else had started to classify the plant. The way the taxonomy works with orchids is that once the name is cataloged and then published the name sticks. In 2002 the American Orchid Society had just 23 approved taxonomists available. 7 of them worked at Selby.

In order to classify a plant you must have the plant. In order to get the plant out of the country of origin, the plant must have a name. And the plant must have a permit to be both exported and imported. This is all governed by international law. Sometimes it is also covered by the FDA , the US Customs Service and the USDA. Everyone can have their say. Rarely is anyone ever prosecuted for smuggling an orchid. Usually the plant is confiscated and sent to a garden to be warehoused while someone, somewhere decides what to do with it. Not so in this case.

The taxonomy for the orchid was done at Selby and published. The garden thinks everything is in order but soon comes to realize that this is not the case. There are no permits for this orchid,  even though the man who brought the orchid into the US said her had the proper permits. The US attorney gets involved as does the government of Peru, who not only wants its orchid back but wants to change the name so it reflects the country of origin.  The investigation starts and the lawsuits begin.

I found this book fascinating. Not the dry legal case it sounds like, the book is filled with myriad characters - some savory; some not so much. There is so much information packed into this book about international treaties, the US attorney's office and just plain odd characters I could not put the book down. A short read, this book will be an interesting way to start the growing season.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I really enjoyed reading this book, but I wish the author had used a pseudonym instead of her real name! Yes, she is the author of the fabulous Harry Potter novels, but don’t expect this to be Harry Potter for adults. There are no magic spells, transforming staircases or fantasy characters to be found in The Casual Vacancy, and the book doesn’t need those elements.

The Casual Vacancy, set in contemporary Pagford, England, opens with the death of local councilman Barry Fairbrother. The reader is introduced to several of Fairbrother’s friends, and through their eyes, we learn about the controversy regarding who is going to fill the now empty council seat. At issue is an undesirable neighborhood called “The Fields”, substandard housing hastily thrown up which houses, in the eyes of Pagford residents, undesirable people. Fairbrother was in favor of keeping The Fields as a part of Pagford, but his opponents want it, as well as a drug rehab facility, annexed to a nearby town instead.

Not surprisingly, the author is very skilled at drawing characters who you feel that you know. She is especially adept at portraying the teenaged children of the townspeople, and their relationships with each other and their parents. These high school kids have some real life problems, which the author does not gloss over.

There are dark elements in the book, particularly surrounding the character Krystal and her family who live in The Fields. Issues of drug use and neglect surface in Krystal’s story line, but they are realistically portrayed. J.K. Rowling has set up a foundation to help disadvantaged children, and I suspect she is writing about what she knows here.

I enjoyed getting to know the townspeople of Pagford. Typical realistic novel components such as politics, romance, sex, and suspense are all there and well done.

I urge you to take a chance on this change of pace from this highly regarded author.

But again, don’t expect it to be Harry Potter.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

The Columbus Affair

Tom Sagan was an award winning journalist.  He had covered stories from all the world's hot spots and was always in demand, until he was accused of fabricating a story and his career ended in disgrace.  Eeking out a living ghost writing, he is suicidal and his surviving family has shunned him.   That all abruptly changes when he receives a picture of his estranged daughter (Alle)  bound and gagged.  He is told to cooperate in finding some information or his daughter will die.

Alle is a history scholar concentrating on post Columbus America.  She has become friends with Zachariah Simon, a billionaire interested in Jewish causes and possessing the money to fund them.  His current search is for the temple treasure from the second Jewish temple.  He is looking for, the golden table of Divine Presence, the silver trumpets and the seven branched menorah.  The man called the "Levite" knows where the items are.  Sagan's father wass a part of this group and was the last Levite. Alle has told Simon she buried her grandfather with several documents. Simon wants to exhume  the body to see what was buried with him - he believes it is the route to the lost treasure.  Simon is the one who gave Sagan the picture of Alle.

The story moves from Jamacia to Europe and back again.  Simon believes that Columbus was really a "converso"  ( a Jew who converted to escape the Inquisition) and smuggled the items to the new world on his ships. It is a fact that he took a Hebrew translator with him on his voyages. There are clues that support Simon's theory but he can't find the actual treasure.  Simon's thugs are following Alle and Sagan as they follow the leads they piece together from the documents found in the coffin.  Sagan's problem is that he doesn't know whom to trust - everyone has betrayed him.

Once again Steve Berry has written a book filled with poor good guys, rich bad guys, political intrigue, lost religious treasures and double crosses ad family problems.  The story moves at a torrid pace even though it is constantly shifting between threads.  Not to worry though, it all comes together in the end.  This book is a good choice for a fall read.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Award Winning Fiction!

There are a number of award winning fiction lists newly available. If a book is not currently available then please let us put a hold on it for you.
  
The National Book Award (short list)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Man Booker Prize (short list)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel **winner**
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (not currently available)
The Umbrella by Will Self (due out 1/2013)

The Carl Sandburg Literary Prize
Don DeLillo for Underworld and The Angel Esmeralda
Nami Mun for Miles From Nowhere

The PEN/Faulkner Award
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Orange Prize for Fiction
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Commonwealth Literary Prize
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Newlyweds


Nell Freudenberger's new book, The Newlyweds, is yet another mark of her literary achievements. Freudenberger is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and the Pen/Malamud Award.  She first came on the scene at the age of 26, when one of her short stories was published in The New Yorker. She has since been named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists and one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40."

Like Lucky Girls, her 2003 collection of short stories, The Newlyweds deals with the immigrant experience, complete with the expectations and realities of living in the U.S.  The narrative centers on the marriage of a 20-something young Bangladeshi woman, Amina, and her somewhat older American husband, George.  Amina and George first meet on an online dating site. Both are looking for a foreign match--Amina, in order to bring her near-destitute parents to America and George because he has not met an American woman to his liking.  The couple engages in a year-long correspondence, culminating in George's visit to Bangladesh and subsequent proposal.

As the story unfolds, we are introduced to Amina's extended family and former love-interest, Nasir--a man she gave up to marry George.  Similarly, we learn more about George, a decent but rather lack-luster engineer whose previous romances have ended in failure. In marrying, they both embark on a difficult cross-cultural relationship. Amina's closeness and feelings of responsibility to her parents baffle George.  He wants to start a family but strongly disagrees with Amina concerning the issue of her parents living with them. Ultimately, Amina wants George to sponsor her parents' immigration to the United States.

Freudenberger takes us through four years of their marriage, culminating in Amina's citizenship.  At that point, Amina and George are living in separate bedrooms because George has been deceitful about his past.  This seems to be a turning point for them both:  George realizes he loves and needs Amina and Amina has now become independent-minded, more educated and more mature.  Her various jobs have given her a sense of some financial independence.  Her current job--at Starbucks--provides her with benefits now needed when George loses his own job. This event puts their relationship on a different footing.

When Amina returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents back to Rochester, New York, the author paints a picture of that country that is quite harrowing.  The disparities between rich and poor, village and city life, and the complexities of family relationships are starkly drawn.  Equally shocking is a close look at a justice system that allows men to disfigure women with acid.  It is not surprising that Amina has wanted to leave her homeland and everything connected with it since she was a girl.

In an interview for the New York Times Book Review Podcast (April 29, 2012), Freudenberger discusses the real-life story that was an inspiration for the novel.  On a trip to Rochester, New York to visit to her grandmother, the author meets a young, Bangladeshi woman and an American man.   They are her seat-mates. Thus begins a friendship and collaboration between the author and the woman that spans five years and culminates in this novel. The Newlyweds is based on stories accrued during those years of their correspondence and Freudenberger's subsequent visit to Bangladesh.

The Newlyweds has an engaging plot and offers a realistic depiction of life as a new immigrant. Whether you like books about relationships or tales of foreign lands, you are sure to enjoy this new work by a promising young writer.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Third Gate

A woman is brought into an emergency room after being in a car accident.  Ethan Rush, one of the doctors on call continues to work on the woman even after the other doctors want to declare her dead.  He has an interest in keeping her alive - she is his wife.  He eventually revives her 14 minutes after her brain has stopped functioning.  He discovers that she now possesses extraordinary ESP powers.  Fast forward 3 years.

Jeremy Logan receives a phone call from Ethan, a friend from college.  It seems that Ethan has some work for Jeremy who is an enigmalogist.  Intrigued, Jeremy meets Ethan at the Center for Transmortality Studies (CTS).  Ethan left the practice of medicine after his wife's near death experience to join a think tank that studies near death experiences and how they change the survivors life.  Ethan informs Jeremy that he has a job for him that will involve some travel and research and work for a man named Porter Stone.  Stone is a treasure hunter of some reknown. Jeremy signs on and they head out to Egypt.

Stone believes he has found the real tomb of Narmer, the king that united upper and lower Egypt.  The tomb they have found is located in the Sudd and is protected by a curse. Stone wants Logan to investigate the curse and gain access to the tomb.  Rush's wife appears to be able to channel the spirit of Narmer  who keeps repeating the curse.  The Sudd is a swamp, about 200 miles wide and 250 miles long located in the South Sudan. it is almost not navigaible.  Stone's research facility is located in the Sudd.  Since they have foud some artifacts, strange things have been occuring at the facility.  Things related to the curse.

Lincoln Child has written another great book.  I love his books (especially the ones with Douglas Preston).  They have little twists through out them that keep you reading and they are just the slightest bit creepy. This one is on par with the rest.  The story moves nicely and the characters have just enough hidden issues that they are interesting. Perfect for a long summer weekend read.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Beautiful Ruins: A Novel by Jess Walter

The cover of Beautiful Ruins has an old-fashioned Technicolor look that is the perfect complement to Jess Walter's exceedingly witty social satire, which spans five decades; two continents; humor, heartbreak, and a gamut of feelings in between.  

The book begins in 1962 in an Italian town called Porto Vergogna, whose only hotel is owned by the family of a young man named Pasquel. Pasquel wants to doll up his village to attract American tourists; up until now, his family’s hotel (with a name that translates to The Hotel Adequate View) has had only one guest from the U.S., an unknown writer named Alvis Bender, who has struggled in his annual visits to complete just a single chapter of his first book.

Pasquel soon has things on his mind other than making his village more tourist-friendly, because a stunning, blond, American actress named Dee Moray has checked into the hotel.  Moray has a small part in the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton epic Cleopatra, which is being filmed nearby. A fictionalized version of the latter, aided and abetted by a character named Michael Deane, takes on a key role later in the novel.

Skip ahead 50 years and Michael Deane and his assistant Claire Silver are working in Hollywood when Pasquel shows up, barely speaking English, determined to find Dee, and accompanied by a man named Shane who Deane assumes to be a translator.  Why does Pasquel want to find Dee now? Why does Deane jump on board so fast?  Is Shane really a translator? How does Claire fit in?  Did Alvis Bender finally finish his novel?  And will Pasquel ever meet Dee again?  Find out in this charming, escapist book, which transports readers back and forth in time, seamlessly weaving the funny, tragic, and tender stories of half a dozen characters.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Keeping the Castle

This small (in size) book may a perfect beach read for the summer or fireplace read for the fall.  A little irreverent homage to Jane Austen this book is just delightful!

Seventeen year old Althea must find a rich husband so she can save the family manse.  Located on a cliff on the North Sea the house is crumbling and threatening to fall into the sea.  Crawley Castle was built by Althea's grandfather who had no structural nor architectural sense but plenty of money.  The house has been in a constant state of repair since it was built.  Althea's mother  (Mrs. Winthrop) has survived 2 husbands.  Her first husband, Althea's father simply didn't have enough money but he had property. Mrs. Winthrop's second husband died shortly after the marriage leaving her with 2 evil, ugly step daughters and pregnant with a son. Winthrop also left all his money  (he had money but no property)  to his daughters leaving Mrs. Winthrop no money and the falling down house.  Hence Althea's situation.

There are simply not a lot of eligible men in Lesser Hoo.  Then  Lord Boring buys a local estate, fixes it up and moves to the country.  He arrives from London with his mother and friends, including his loathsome business manager, Mr. Fredricks.    Boring throws a ball and Althea decided to try and snag Lord Boring, but Fredricks has other ideas.  The story romps through the country ball, the near death experience of the Crawley castle heir, Alexander (4 years old), and various schemes to marry everyone off to someone with greater social position and or wealth.

Charming, delightful and an easy read.  Pour something cold and sit down and read this book!

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Friday, September 28, 2012

Calling Invisible Women

Clover Hobart wakes up one Thursday, walks her dog, takes a shower, looks in the mirror and finds that she is invisible.  As in nothing reflects in the mirror but her bathrobe.  She is upset to say the least.  Clover is married to Arthur, a pediatrician extraordinaire, who is very busy with his practice.  Her son Nick, is an unemployed college graduate who has moved back home.  Her daughter Evie is still in college, the epitome of a coed, beautiful, smart, a cheerleader in love with a handsome undergraduate.  Clover is in her mid fifties and she will readily admit that she has not been keeping track of herself for a few years. She realizes the invisibility is more than just a physical thing.  It has become a psychological state for her within her family. 

Clover decided that she must tell someone, so once she comes back into view she confides in her best friend Gilda.  Gilda has no comment at first.  She simply can't believe that Clover's family hasn't noticed Clover's clothing doesn't have a body in them but when she sees her son react as if Clover is physically visible in their kitchen she becomes a believer.  According to Clover she is "definite substance and no form."  She doesn't know how correct she is.

Clover finds a group of similarly invisible women.  They meet in a local hotel and since no one can see them if they don't have clothes on, they carry a piece of tissue so they know where they are.  This group is empowering for Clover.  She starts to realize that she is not a victim, even though the invisibility is caused by a combination of drugs that the manufacturer knows will have this effect.  She becomes more assertive with her life.  Getting her job back, thwarting a robbery, saving a woman from a beating.  In her invisibility she actually becomes more visible.

The book is a quick read that will appeal to most  women.   I loved this book! Short, snappy and wholly improbable, it made me feel good. I recommend this book!

And now for some trivia: Jeanne Ray is Ann Patchett's mother!

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Banned Books Week

Banned Books week celebrates it's 30th anniversary next week, September 30 through October 6. Sponsored by the American Library Association, this week celebrates the freedom to read along with the right to free and open access to information, both of which are protected rights under the first amendment to the U.S. constitution.  Every week books are challenged in the United States. Most challenges are done in an attempt to protect children from what someone perceives as inappropriate or offensive.

According to the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom, the top 3 reasons to challenge materials are:
1. Material is considered sexually explicit;
2. Material contains "offensive" language;
3. Material was "unsuited" to any group.

Parents challenge materials more than any other group. In 2010 the most frequent challenger was a parent and their most often cited reason for the challenge was that the material was sexually explicit. The American Library Association's Librarian Bill of Rights puts the onus on parents to track what their children are reading.

The Glencoe Public Library is sponsoring a program called Books on the Chopping Block on Sunday September 30 at 2:00pm. The City Lit Theatre Company will be reading excerpts from the top 10  most frequently challenged books of 2011. There is bound to be some discussion afterwards!  While the program is intended for adults, children grade 6 and up are most welcome.

Come see what this is about. Children want to read.  Freedom to read assures they can.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Just published in September, this is another book in the "light but good" category!

It's 1920, and Elsa Emerson lives in Door County, Wisconsin.  She is the baby of the family who runs the Cherry County Playhouse, which caters to the summer tourists.  This amateur theatrical company brings in "professional" actors to supplement the family's talents, and with four lovely blond Emerson daughters, summer romances are in the air.  Elsa marries one of the actors, goes to L.A., and is reincarnated as "Laura Lamont," a contract actress to one of the big studios.  A very enjoyable read, with likeable characters and a happy ending.  Good writing moves the story along, and the book is told in a start to finish manner, which is a refreshing change of pace. 

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Yard

The setting is London, just after Jack the Ripper made his name.  Scotland Yard is still something new and the reputation of the London police in general is not good.  This is the backdrop for Alex Grecian's first novel, The Yard.

Detective Inspector Little has been found dead - his dismembered body stuffed into a trunk.  The detectives at Scotland Yard are taking this murder personally.  So the rank and file is somewhat dismayed when DI Day is assigned to lead the investigation.  Day has just arrived from Devon and has very little experience in investigating major crimes.  Constable Pringle, Dr. Kingsley, the medical examiner, and Hammersmith, an up and coming policeman round out the investigative group.  But it's not just Little's murder they must investigate. There is a kidnapped boy, another dead policeman and a man who has been garroted after having his facial hair shaved off.  All these crimes are seemingly unconnected but all must be solved.

This is a good story.  The time period is interesting.  There is no real forensic science to speak of, but Kingsley has discovered the early research into fingerprinting and he thinks this may be of use in the investigation.  London is a good setting- still skittish from the Jack the Ripper murders and the police are anxious to show they can solve crimes.  And the characters are interesting - Hammersmith has a somewhat dubious background, Pringle is a social climber, and Day just wants the job done.

This book wins my trifecta - good writing, good plot, good characters.

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Fallen Angel

If, like me, you have never read a Daniel Silva novel before, reading The Fallen Angel, his latest, might make you a fan of not only the author, but also of his signature literary creation, Gabriel Allon. Allon is a busy guy.  He is an Israeli intelligence officer, an assassin, and a master art restorer. If that’s not enough to make his resume stand out, he’s also on a first-name basis with the Pope.

In this fast-paced novel, Allon is employed to restore a Caravaggio painting when a curator in the Vatican's antiquities division, Dr. Claudia Andreatti, is found dead on the floor in St. Peter’s Basilica. Did she jump to her death, or was she pushed over the balcony? The Pope’s private secretary, Monsignor Luigi Donati, asks Allon to investigate. Allon reluctantly accepts the invitation, and soon he and his beautiful wife Chiara are not just investigating Andreatti’s death, but are also immersed in the deadly worlds of art theft, the Mob, and global terrorism. Along the way, the pair meet up with a variety of indelible characters, some of whom are dangerous men and others women—such as Monsignor Donati’s "special friend"—who are almost as beautiful as Chiara.

With great dialogue and vivid characters, The Fallen Angel is a pulse-pounding thriller that takes readers deep inside the antiquities market, the Vatican, and ubiquitous Middle East tensions.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Blood of Flowers

The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani, is a coming of age story set in 17th century Persia.  Written in first person narration, the speaker is a grown woman recalling her adolescence.  As a 14 year old village girl, she looks forward to becoming engaged that year. She describes herself as attractive but not beautiful.  Yet she is imaginative and creative and has taught herself the art of rug-making.  In fact, she has made a beautiful turquoise rug that she hopes may serve as her dowry.

But when her beloved father dies, life changes drastically for her and her mother. The narrator must sell her rug to have some money.  Having no means of support, they travel to Isfahan to live with the family of her father's half-brother, Gostaham. Gostaham is a rug designer in the court of the famed Shah Abbas. His wife, the daughter of a famous rug-maker for whom Gostaham was an apprentice, treats them as servants.  The only bright side is that Gostaham is willing to teach this young girl the fine art of rug making and ultimately, rug design.

Amirrezvani uses evocative language to describe the rugs and how they are made.  But she does not glamorize the lives of the women who made them.  Though the medium of her narrator, she writes:

I had heard stories about women who became deformed by long hours of sitting at the loom, so that when they tried to deliver a child, their bones formed a prison locking the baby inside. (Both) would die after many hours of anguish.  Even the youngest knotters suffered aching backs, bent limbs, tired fingers, exhausted eyes.  All our labors were in service of beauty, but sometimes it seemed as if every thread in a carpet had been dipped in the blood of flowers. (p. 351) 

Likewise, women's lives were hard in other ways.  Neither poor nor wealthy women could choose their husbands: these were chosen for them by their parents.  A good dowry would ensure a wealthy man but not necessarily a kind one.  Such is the fate of Naheed, the narrator's friend.  The narrator's choices are still more limited. In order to help family finances, she is forced into a secret marriage with a wealthy man.  She continues to live with Gostaham and his wife and servants, but spends nights with this man whenever he requests her presence.  This contract is for three-month periods renewable at the man's request.

The reader is reminded again and again of how little power women had at that time under Muslim law.  The narrator has a very strong will and asserts her desires in a manner unheard of at that time.
In the home of Gostaham, the narrator proves to be an able and talented student.. She weaves her rugs during spare moments, forgoing sleep when necessary. Aspiring to be a great designer, she knows she can never sign her own pieces because of her gender.  Still, she relishes the sense of well-being her work gives her and hopes for economic independence.  Given the belief system around her, this is no ordinary aspiration.

The Blood of Flowers is a perfect book for those wishing to learn more about Persian society and the art of hand-woven rugs.  Amirrezvani paints lush details of the city of Isfahan, teeming with life and natural beauty. Likewise her depiction of the life of women in 17th Century Iran is as captivating as it is disturbing.  One point of note, though--there is explicit sexual content in this book that might offend some readers. Although the story is of a young girl, this book is not intended for a middle-school child.

If you are interested in fiction set in the Middle East, this book should definitely be put on your reading list.

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Friday, September 7, 2012

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

The setting is Tokyo, Japan. Lucie Blackman, a 21 year old British woman  has moved to Tokyo with her friend Louise.  Lucie, tall, slim and blond has held several types of jobs including a flight attendant.  Nothing seemed to get Lucie out of her debt.  A friend of Louise told her they could make a lot of money in a short period of time by 'hostessing."

The type of hostessing being referred to is not the call girl type.  Apparently in Japan there are bars where Japanese business men (called salary men) come in with clients to drink and have conversations with western women.  The objects are to get the men to spend money and for the hostess to develop a regular client base, in order to get more money.  Pivate meetings called dohans are allowed and the men must pay for this extra time.  Lucie assumed that since other young women had done this it would be safe.  And according to reported statistics, Tokyo is one of the safest cities in the world.  Once arriving in Tokyo Lucie and Louise rent a house in the Roppongi district.  By day this is a respectable business area, at night it is filled with bars of all kinds.

Lucie and Louise spend their days  hungover, sleeping, shopping and preparing for another night's work.  On Saturday, July 1 Lucie prepared for a dohan with a mysterious man.  The man had promised Lucie a cell phone as a gift for her time.  Louise didn't know the man's name but she and Lucie were close - had never lied to each other and always kept promises to each other and Lucie said she would be back latter that afternoon, in time for dinner.  Lucie never returned.  Louise became concerned and called friends, other bars and finally the hospitals.  Finally she and a Japanese friend contacted the police.

When the police weren't interested, Louise contacted the British embassy.  They in turn contacted the police and tried to get them moving.  While this was going on, Louise received a phone call from a man saying Lucie had joined a cult, didn't want to speak to anyone and that she would never be coming back.  So begins the search for Lucie.

The book is written by a British journalist stationed in Tokyo who covered the case. It gives extensive details of the hostess trade, the lives of the women involved,  the character of the men who frequent them, the turmoil of Lucie's family and the inner workings of the police department.  In this instance, once a suspect was apprehended the case took an astounding 6 years to work its way through the Japanese legal system. This book is more than just a  tale of a horrific murder and a surreal trial.  It is a warning to be wary of situations that seem to good to be true.

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