Friday, March 30, 2012

Murder Most Persuasive

I like trying new authors and I love mysteries so this book should have been a good fit. Murder Most Persuasive by Tracy Kiely is an updated cozy mystery. Mostly cozies take place somewhere in the English countryside, usually a small village with eccentric characters and an older woman who has a knack for solving murders. Kiely's book takes place in current time, is located in the US and has a young woman with a knack for solving murders.

Elizabeth Parker, is a young woman who works at a newspaper and is really unhappy in her job. The paper manager is something of a fool and thankfully he doesn't appear too often. The story line starts just after the death of her uncle, Martin Reynolds. He leaves behind his second wife, Bonnie, and three daughters all with secrets of their own. Bonnie believes Martin has been murdered, but he died after a long bout of illness. The Reynolds house in the small town of St. Michaels', Maryland has been sold. As the new owners are removing the pool, the body of a man is discovered. It turns out he is the former fiance of Reynolds' daughter Reggie. The police detective investigating the murder is the ex fiance of another daughter, Ann. After the funeral Bonnie jets off for a spa week and returns with a boy toy named Julian. Who is supposedly a whiz at investments. Bodies begin to pile up once Bonnie returns.

The plot and the premise of the story are entertaining, what bothered me was that Elizabeth quotes Jane Austen and Bonnie quotes Scarlett O'Hara. Amusing at first but annoying after awhile. Once you get past that though, the story is entertaining, the mystery has a nice twist and I will read the next in the series to see what happens to Elizabeth and her boyfriend and Ann and her detective.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

When We Danced on Water

Evan Fallenberg, best known as the superb translator of A Pigeon and a Boy, is himself a creative and sensitive writer. His latest book, When We Danced on Water, is an exploration of what it means to be an artist. It explores the lives of two characters--Teo and Vivi--both numbed by very different wartime experiences.

Vivi is an Israeli and child of a Holocaust survivor. While serving in the army, she falls passionately in love with Martin, a German medical student. After he returns to Berlin and she finishes her military service, she impulsively leaves Israel to live with him. It is in Berlin, jobless and wandering aimlessly, where she is drawn day after day to the Berlin Wall. There she meets Peter, a midget who acquaints her with the plight of the Jews in Germany before and during World War II. He, too, is an outsider, having left his family in East Germany to go to West Germany just before the Wall was erected. He could not return. The Berlin Wall is a metaphor representing the isolation and alienation both Peter and Vivi feel.

Gradually, Vivi becomes estranged from Martin. She returns to Israel, disillusioned and heartbroken. We meet her when she is in her early 40s and a server in a Tel Aviv cafe. In her free time, she dapples in many art forms, although she is not able to earn a living as an artist. It is at the cafe that she meets the 85 year old Teo.

Teo is a former ballet dancer and founder of the fictional Tel Aviv Ballet. He is a Polish refugee, former dancer for the Royal Danish Ballet and currently a virtuoso choreographer. Like Vivi, he seems remote and closed off from emotion. He demands perfection from his dancers and believes that to perfect one's art, there can be no competing loyalties. He uses choreography to drown out his memories of WWII and enable him to create intellectually without having to use his body in a physical and sensory way. He is thus able to channel his emotions and express passion through the bodies of other dancers. Now, at the end of his life, he is choreographing his piece de resistance--a work called, Obsession.

Despite the difference in their ages, Teo and Vivi are drawn to one another. He senses her secretive, troubled past. She feels his artistic greatness and longs to get to know him better. They begin to meet daily. Teo becomes a mentor, insisting she use her pain in her art. Unbeknownst to Teo, Vivi starts amassing written and oral histories on Teo, creating a multimedia show on his life and work. Yet an integral part of his life is not known to her until much later.

When the Royal Danish Ballet was on tour in Germany in 1939, Teo was detained. He was taken to the house of a Nazi officer and imprisoned in his home for 6 years--the duration of the war. There, he was made a virtual slave and subjected to sexual abuse. Teo became this officer's obsession. As he explains to a war tribunal later:

I was only seventeen when he lied to the police or bribed somebody and had me released to his custody and prevented me from returning to Denmark. I was a child. I didn't know anything of the world beyond dancing, but whatever I would have become, he took it away from me. Maybe it seems insignificant when you think about the unspeakable things that happened to people during the war, but in those six years I lost...everything. My freedom. My career. My personality. Even my...sexual identity. (p.224)

When We Danced on Water is an exploration of loss of identity through horrific circumstances. The book is sexually explicit, but its violence is not gratuitous; its very nature has shaped Teo into the artist and man he has become. His salvation as a person comes only with his ability to grapple with the enormity of his fate, to examine his conflicted feelings about his tormentor, and to wonder if, ironically, the Nazi officer saved him from the concentration camps and probable death.

Allison Gaudet Yarrow in an insightful review concludes:

Pregnancy, death, violence, abuse, passion, obsession, the IDF and the Holocaust leave readers overwhelmed. But the process of enduring is an experience that the characters and readers share. The novel reads like an extremely unconventional love story, though it's not clear whether the battered protagonists love each other or whether they just take from each other what they need. But perhaps that is also a type of love. (, published July 13, 2011, issue of July 22, 2011)

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Bizarre Botanicals

The weather is warming up so many of us are starting to plan our gardens. But for those looking for something outside the normal catalogs and garden guides, there is a interesting little book called Bizarre Botanicals.

This little book is packed with beautiful and downright bizarre plants. Admittedly most of the plants highlighted cannot be grown outdoors in this area but maybe in a pot? There are pictures, Latin names, growing instructions and what the plant is like. Everything from Jack-in-the-Pulpit to the common and carnivorous Venus Fly Trap. Including the Titan Arum, a plant that blooms once every 8-12 years, smells like rotting meat once it does and then collapses in a heap after 3 or 4 days.

The books claims that it includes information on weird and wonderful plants and it does not disappoint. Something a little different now that it's starting to feel like spring.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How It All Began

How much does chance play in our lives? What would happen to the lives of other people if our own life was changed in some measure? These themes form the premise of Penelope Lively's new book, How It All Began. In it, Charlotte Rainsford, a retired teacher, is accosted by a thief and breaks her hip in the ensuing fall. When she goes to live with her daughter, Rose, to recuperate, lives are disrupted and infidelities are exposed.

Charlotte is a highly literate and empathetic woman whose routines are thrown completely out of sync by her accident. Although retired from teaching, she now devotes herself to teaching English as a second language to recent immigrants. Confined to her daughter's house and dependent upon her for routine tasks, she acutely misses her avocation as well as her books. She is stoic about the pain she is in, often choosing to remain alert and not take her pain-killers in favor of losing herself through reading. One feels that Charlotte is the voice of the author; her insights into the humbling experience of aging, her knowledge of literature, and her sheer love of books reflect the persona of Penelope Lively herself.

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system....She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand and experience...She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without. (pp. 34-35)

Charlotte is, by far, the most likable of the female characters, as well as the most introspective. Her daughter, Rose, is not a reader, and in fact, might gain some insight into herself and her choices if she were. Instead, she falls for one of her mother's students, Anton, and becomes emotionally entangled with him. As with most affairs, she wonders about her feelings for this ambitious man and about the lack of passion in her own marriage. Rose, unlike her mother, has always chosen the easy route--she had married her first serious suitor and adamantly opposed having a career. Instead, she chooses a job "assisting" an aging 18th century political scholar, Lord Henry Peters.

Lord Henry is indeed a foil to the humble Charlotte. He is arrogant and completely lacks self-awareness. Like a few academics, he thinks the public is yearning to read more of his obscure writing. Yet Lord Henry was once well respected in his field--a fine orator who captured his academic audiences. Suffering from memory problems, he makes a fool of himself at a public speaking event. In order to regain his reputation, he decides to approach the BBC for a series. Lord Henry's interactions with the young women with whom he must now gain favor are some of the most comical in the book. Penelope Lively looks sympathetically at how aging makes one invisible, and how dwindling capabilities make fools of us all.

Other characters whose lives are affected by Charlotte's mishap are Marion, Lord Henry's equally smug, interior designer niece. When Rose is unable to accompany Lord Henry to his speaking engagement, Marion does so. Lives change when she texts her lover--the married Jeremy. His high-strung wife, Stella, reads the text and immediately goes to a divorce attorney--a lawyer interested only in the bottom line. What follows is a delightful comedy of manners.

The novel's greatest strength, though, resides in its development of its central character--Charlotte. Her stoicism and her resolute determination to get better and live independently are admirable. The reader feels great compassion for her as her pain renders the language of Henry James too difficult to appreciate. She elicits both sympathy and laughter when she runs out of reading materials at Rose's home, having to resort to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code to accompany her to the doctor. In a hilarious scene in the waiting room, poking fun at England's health care system, she worries that reading this sort of book casts her in a poor light. Any reader of literary fiction will laugh aloud at the snobbery that affects us all.

The very title of this book, How It all Began, reflects Penelope Lively's love of literature. Her novel is a tribute to books and reading wrapped in a comedy about love, loss, and self-awareness. The very essence is about what it is to be human.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Cecelia and Fanny

This small and very interesting history of the relationship between slave and mistress was based on just 5 letters. These letters, all from a run away slave named Cecelia to her former mistress, show the remarkable relationship that existed between the 2 women from before the Civil War to after it. The 5 letters were found among the papers belonging to the Ballard family of Kentucky. All of the letters are from Frances T. Ballard (Fanny) to her slave Cecelia. They were saved by her son, Rogers Clark Ballard. The letters from Cecelia to Fanny are missing.

The story starts in 1846. Cecelia is 15 and Fanny is 20. They live in Fanny's father's house in Louisville. The 2 women have been visiting Fanny's relatives in Washington, D.C. and Fanny's father decides to take them to Niagara Falls, a popular tourist destination at the time. Across the falls is Canada and freedom for Cecelia. For reasons that are not documented, Cecelia decides to escape to Canada, leaving her mother and brother in the Ballard household. This would not have been hard for her to do. Canada was a short 8 minute boat ride across the river and there were systems in place to help slaves who wished to escape.

Fanny and her father woke up one morning and Cecelia was gone. Fanny's father was angry, he rarely had a slave escape and he blamed the abolitionists who were in Niagara Falls. Fanny had received Cecelia as a gift for her 14th or 15th birthday, a common practice of the time. The 2 women had basically grown up together as Cecelia had arrived at the Ballard house as an infant when her mother was purchased to work there.

Local Canadian records indicate that Cecelia was in Toronto, arriving before November 1846. She chose a name for herself: Cecelia Jane Reynolds. In that month she married Benjamin Pollard Holmes, who was also an escaped slave. This was a monumental event for Cecelia. Slave marriages were not recognized in the southern United States.

Beginning in the early 1850's Cecelia started writing Fanny. Cecelia was concerned about her mother and brother and wanted to make sure they were safe. The correspondence was interesting because in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act had become law. Giving Fanny her address could have been trouble for Cecelia. Cecelia stayed in Canada until 1861. Her husband had died and Cecelia, her daughter and 2 sons moved back to the US. to Rochester, New York. Rochester had a thriving black community at the time. She met her second husband while working as a housekeeper for a white family. She married William Larrison in April 1862. William enlisted in the Union Army in December 1863. A marriage certificate of this wedding still exists.

Meanwhile in 1861, Fanny's husband was appointed clerk of the US District court, a position he would hold throughout the war. Kentucky was a Union state in the war, but those sentiments started to wane as the war went on. Fanny and Cecelia reconnected in Louisville in the late 1880's or early 1890's.

Cecelia was interested in purchasing her mother's freedom. Little is known about this event, but Fanny did indicate in a letter that Cecelia could buy her mother out after her servitude was over in about 6 years. Cecelia also contacted Fanny for monetary help after her husband had died and she was not receiving a Civil War widows pension. Fanny's son also help Cecelia out financially.

This is an interesting little (less than 200 pages) book. It details the life an urban slave in Kentucky, which was a border state in the Civil War. The book starts off slowly giving background information on the status of slaves in Kentucky. The book also slides off onto tangents most notably the history of some black Civil War regiments and legal cases dealing with slave's rights after the war. It is however very interesting. This is a great choice for students who have to read a book for Women's History Month or Black History Month.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Love and Shame and Love

Peter Orner's Love and Shame and Love (2011) is a novel linking three generations of the Popper family with Alexander Popper--the main character and perhaps the voice of the author. His nickname is "Popper." The book is written in vignettes. Some of the most poignant ones are from Alexander's grandfather, Seymour. We come to realize how little Seymour knows of his dancer wife through his letters to her during WWII. Maria Russo, in her recent review of the book, sums up the Popper men.

As (Seymour) tracks the final days of the Pacific conflict, wild with desire to get back to her, we sense his fundamental lack of understanding of the woman he will return to. He is all forward motion, everything Popper is not, and yet we can see a deeper pattern that Popper and his father will inherit, of not quite knowing how to hold onto the women they love.

(New York Times Book Review, December 9, 2011)

We get glimpses of Bernice's loneliness when she reflects on the dancer she could have been. Then, in a chapter entitled, 1308 Lunt Avenue, we see her looking out of the dirty window in the attic, contemplating the next day's move to Highland Park. Orner beautifully captures the sense of entrapment she feels as she gazes at the "brown lawns and leafless trees" through "a blur of spit and dirt."

And tomorrow? Tomorrow we will box ourselves up and move northward to become a new address. But we lug our old ones around with us, don't we? Isn't a new house number a sham? At least in the beginning, before it begins to weigh anything? Like those first few hours in a wedding dress when you're lulled into thinking the ring on your finger will change things. (p. 43)
Alexander's parents are no happier than his grandparent are, despite their comfortable life on the North Shore. Alexander grows up in a tense home where his parents don't speak to each other; if they do, they merely argue. Popper's best friend is Manny, the son of Haitian refugees who live and work in a crumbling estate. It is barely habitable. He feels a kinship with him, as well as a sense of being denied his rightful place on the rougher streets of Chicago.

Race and class issues of the 60s and 70s are touched upon, as are Chicago politics and suburban lifestyles. Whereas other Highland Park families employed housemaids, Popper's parents employed Hollis, a middle aged man- perhaps black- who cooked and maintained the day-to-day running of the house. When Popper was sick, it was Hollis he woke. And it was Hollis whom Miriam talked to at night, after she washed the dishes. She would go to his room in the basement, the blue light of the television encircling them as they drank some wine. "Hollis never asked Miriam why she stayed. He wasn't one to underestimate the power of a roof, any roof." (p. 139)

When Hollis dies of a massive heart attack in their basement, family from elsewhere come but do not claim him. He is buried near the Popper family plot, but in a grave without a headstone or marker. The author, through Popper, makes no comment on this, but the implications are jarring.

Some of the vignettes deal with the power of the Chicago Machine under Mayor Richard J. Daley. There is an especially funny opening chapter with a twelve-year-old Popper meeting Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz. Marovitz equates the failure of Moses to not being a team player in a land of Chicago cronyism. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the scene would have fallen flat. In Orner's hands, Marovitz is larger than life--the brilliant son of unskilled immigrants who rose to become "the machine's favorite judge."

Some of the vignettes, however, seem extraneous and may cause the reader to complain, "Enough already." Ron Charles, the wonderful critic for the Washington Post agrees, although he,too, enjoyed the book. As he writes:

Paragraphs we might have happily sailed through sometimes sink under the burden of being set alone on a blank page. So many signs of despair in a row risk making the story hyperventilate. When Alexander's girlfriend accuses him of loving melancholy more than anything else, she may have hit on his problem as well as this novel's. For some readers, like me, that's a lovable weakness. As Alexander says, "I'm trying to write a sad story, a good, said story." Orner has done just that.
(Washington Post, November 29, 2011,

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Friday, March 9, 2012

The Innocent

Vanessa Michael Munroe, the information procurement specialist is back. This time Munroe is being asked to rescue a young girl who has been kidnapped and is being held by a cult. Her mother escaped, but the girl was taken.

While in north Africa, Michael receives a call from her friend Logan. Logan is himself an escapee from the cult holding the girl. It is his request that Michael find Hannah, the 13 year old daughter of Logan's friend Charity. Logan helped Charity along with her boyfriend and Hannah, escaped from a cult known as the "Chosen." Hannah was then taken by her mother's boyfriend back into the cult. Since that time Hannah has been moved around to different locations in several South American countries. This has been going on for 8 years. Logan has received information that Hannah is now being held in Argentina.

Logan asks Michael to help as a personal favor to him. But Michael is dealing with her own demons and Logan is bringing 3 other ex-cult members into the investigation. Logan decides to bring Miles Bradford in to keep an eye on Michael. The Chosen are a dangerous lot, charged with allegations of systemic child abuse.

The story line moves at a rapid pace. From New York to South America, Michael searches for the havens, the secret hiding places of the Chosen. Finally Michael discovers where Hannah is being held, but Logan's friends seems to be getting in the way. Filled with mounting tension the story rapidly comes to a conclusion. Michael's skills are deadly and when combined with the talents of Miles the two make a formidable pair.

I like these books for the action and the fact that the hero is a woman. A flawed woman to be sure, she is at her most basic a very effective assassin, but still it is a nice change from male action heroes. The first Vanessa Michael Munroe novel is The Informationist. The books do not have to read in order. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Marriage Plot

Back in the late 70s and 80s, the literary canon was being challenged in English Departments across the nation. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Henry James and the Bronte Sisters were considered passe, replaced by theorists such as Derrida and Foucault. "The marriage plot"--a story driven by the courtship of a man and a woman--was considered antiquated; Deconstructionism reigned supreme.

Jeffrey Eugenides uses this literary revolution to serve as the backdrop of his new novel. His heroine is Madeleine Hanna, an English major at Brown. Madeleine, who is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, is trying to adapt to changing times. She takes a course from a well-known semiotics professor and meets Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant and erratic student who will change her life. Leonard suffers from bipolar illness, and Madeleine falls passionately in love with him. Theirs is a highly charged relationship with Madeleine craving him physically and Leonard needing her emotionally. At the other end of the spectrum is Mitchell Grammaticus, who loves Madeleine but to whom that love is not returned. He goes off to India to explore religions and come to terms with his unrequited passion. Through him, as well as through Leonard, Madeleine comes to a better realization of the meaning of love in real life.

The Marriage Plot
is a literary novel that draws it strength on the author's ability to understand the young adult mind. We first saw this in Eugenides' portrait of Calliope in Middlesex. Eugenides once again creates a sympathetic female protagonist. The reader cheers for her and is afraid for her as she innocently plunges into romantic entanglements. Madeleine is the living embodiment of the characters about whom she reads.

The Marriage Plot offers insights into bipolar illness. Eugenides is very detailed in his descriptions of the side effects of medication, the euphoria/depression experienced by the sufferer, the possible psychotic episodes, and the impact all this has on loved ones. Madeleine is seen as the long-suffering heroine who wants to be a martyr for love. Leonard is portrayed as rendered egotistical by his illness, but ultimately, becomes selfless through his love for Madeleine.

Does this plot sound familiar? It is the stuff of great literature from Shakespeare to present. Jeffrey Eugenides has succeeded in showing us that the canon is great after all.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Bound by Antonya Nelson

This book was recommended to me by one of our library patrons, and was one of the New York Times Notable Books of 2010.

I really enjoyed it. It is partly a story about relationships, partly a suspense novel that kept me reading to find out what happened next.

It begins with a riveting scene in which a woman (Misty) accidentally goes off the road in Colorado in her car, and her dog escapes. Subsequent chapters take the reader to her friend Catherine, Misty's now orphaned daughter "Cattie", and Catherine's marriage to a much older man, Oliver, and Catherine's mother who is in a nursing home.

The ending has an interesting twist, and I like that it was left so open ended. Recommended to those who want a good read, as well as those who want a good book to discuss.

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