Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The House of Velvet and Glass

The House of Velvet and Glass is set in Boston in 1915 with frequent flashbacks to April 1912 and 1868.  The story is about Sibyl Allston, her father and her brother after the sinking of the Titanic which Sibyl's mother and sister were on.

Helen Allston and her daughter Eulah, have just complete a grand tour of Europe.  Eulah is the youngest of the Allston children and she and her mother are headed back to the U.S. on that most modern of marvels, the Titanic.  Sybil is back in Boston with her father (Lan), and her brother, Harley, is at school.  Sibyl is 27 and still unmarried - the man she loved having married another woman.

When the Titanic sinks, it sends the Allston's into a grieving tailspin.  Helen had frequented a spiritualist named Mrs. Dee and Sibyl continued to go hoping to reconnect with her mother and sister. Mrs. Dee gives Sibyl a glass orb to help her "see" her mother at home.  When Harley suddenly arrives home from school and a woman named Dovie arrives the next day annnouncing Harley has been badly beaten, Sybil withdraws even more into the spiritualism life.  One of Harley's teachers, Benton Derby contacts the family, adding to Sibyl's dismay.  Benton is the man Sibyl loved who married another woman.  Through all this, Sibyl continues to look into the glass orb hoping to see her mother and sister.  She sees more than she ever thought she would.

Normally I don't like books that jump around in time.  In this book it works beautifully, adding background and layers to the main story line.  While Sibyl is not the most sympathetic of characters, you can feel how lost and lonely she actually is dealing with her selfish brother and her detached father.  This book is well written and the story was interesting.  I recommend it.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

The Weird Sisters

The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown, is the perfect summer book for literature-minded readers.  The story revolves around an eccentric family:  Dr. James Andreas, renowned Shakespeare scholar and college professor; his three daughters-- Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia, all named from characters in Shakespeare's plays; and their loving but dreamy mother.  Rose, Bean, and Cordy, as they are called, have all returned home, supposedly to help in their mother's convalescence from breast cancer.  In reality, each is grappling with her own sense of failure.

Rose, smart but plain, suffers from a lack of self-worth and is afraid to venture beyond the Iowa town of her birth.  She is a non-tenured math professor whose contract is due to run out in a couple of years.  Jonathan, her kind and nurturing fiance, is teaching at Oxford and beckons Rose to join him.  She has always acted as "mother" to the family and believes they will fall apart in her absence.

Bean, the insecure middle child, feels she has neither the academic acumen of Rose nor the charm and beauty of Cordy. Desiring to lead her own life, she runs off to Manhattan and secures a job in a law firm.  Unable to pay for the expensive lifestyle, complete with designer shoes and clothes, she  steals from payroll and gets herself fired.  Promising to pay the firm back, she returns home, and with Rose's help, gets a job in the town library.  But her lack of a moral compass follows her.  Seeking to forget her failure, she uses sex and alcohol indiscriminately.  Her secrets weigh heavily upon her.

Meanwhile, Cordy has a secret of her own.  She has lived like a gypsy for 4 years, following bands, living shabbily and loosely.  Her one-night-stand with an older artist leaves her pregnant.  She returns home, gets a job in the local coffee shop, and re-kindles the spark between herself and the owner of that shop.  Wishing to keep the baby, she non-the-less still longs for the open road.

Then there is Dr. Andreas, a father who seems removed from everyday life.  He spends his days re-reading Shakespeare's plays and quoting the Bard.  Like the Victorians who used the language of flowers to express their feelings, the Andreas family communicates solely though Shakespeare's words.  And like the Victorians, their deepest emotions remain unexpressed. Recalling an evening when they were fifteen, twelve and nine respectively, the sisters are wistful about their feelings for one another.  "We think about that night often," they remark, "but what comes back to us isn't the terrible ending but how free and happy we were together, and how we felt like together we could do anything, rule the world and damn the consequences. We remember ...the promise we made never to hurt anything ever again, and we wonder where those girls went, if they died with the doe that night on the road, or if they would have disappeared anyway." (p. 259)

The Weird Sisters is an endearing story of three 30-something sisters who must finally take stock of their lives.  It is comic as well as redemptive--a tale about making poor choices based on unresolved conflicts and coming to terms with the consequences.  It is about love--both filial and romantic.  In the hands of a lesser writer, the plot, with its literary allusions, would not work.  But Eleanor Brown has written a charming tale whose characters are well-developed, sympathetic and believable.

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Come to our lively book discussion of this book on Wednesday at 1 p.m, August 8, 2012. The discussion is led by Judy Levin.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Antiques Disposal

Barbara Allan has written a niche cozy mystery series dealing with an antiques hunter and her family.  Think not Antiques Roadshow and Christie's auctions but more Storage Wars.  Vivian Borne and her daughter Brandy not only live together they have an antiques selling business together.  This situation allows them to get into all kinds of trouble.  They have recently been joined by the third member of the family, Peggy Sue, who is getting over the untimely and sudden death of her husband.  He left  her a mountain of debt so she has moved in with her mother and sister.  Also residing in the family home is Sushi, a blind Shih Tzu belonging to Brandy.

The book has a different style to it.  While the story line moves forward in a straight manner, alternating chapters are written either by Brandy or her mother.  There are many asides and snarky comments spread throughout the book and they can distract from the story.  What I really liked about the book was the tip at the end of every chapter relating to antiques sales.  In this book Brandy and her mother have purchased a storage unit, so the tips relate to that type of antiquing.

After purchasing the unit Brandy and her mother move some of the items back to their house, including a cornet  allegedly belonging to Bix Beiderbecke. When they return for a second load, they find the locker empty except for the dead body of the owner of the storage facility.  The police arrive and they are not happy to see Brandy and her mother.  The book makes numerous references to other titles in the series, but I had no trouble following the story without reading any of the earlier books.  The story line winds it's way through the investigation, an attack on Peggy Sue and Sushi and more murders all related to the cornet.

This type of book is known as a "cozy mystery" and this one fits the bill.  An easy read it was none the less entertaining.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

The Truth of all Things

The Truth of all Things, a first novel for Kieran Shields, is an interesting, well written book.  Set in Portland, Maine in the early 1890's, the story deals with detective deputy Marshall Archie Lean and criminalist Perceval Grey and a series of murders with a connection to the occult.

Lean has been assigned to look into the brutal murder of Maggie Keane, a prostitute.  She is protected by one of the major criminals in town and the mayor is very interested in the circumstances of her murder.  At the scene of the murder there were religious sayings written in the language of the Abenakis Indians, a tribe local to the area.  Grey, part Abenakis and part white recognizes  not only the language used in the writing, but the meaning of the words as well.

Dr. Virgil Steig is the local coroner.  He examines Keane's body and is disturbed by the manner of death.  It is actually his niece, Helen Prescott, a local library worker, who connects the manner of Maggie's death to the Salem witch trials 200 years earlier.  Another dead body soon follows, and Grey is sure that Maggie is actually the second murder in a series.  This connection to the Salem witch trials is the heart of the book.

Lean, Grey, Dr. Steig and Helen piece together the motivation of the murderer by looking at the information that is being used to do a presentation at the local library ( which Helen works at) celebrating the 200th anniversary of the witch trials.  This leads to the investigators discovering there are even more murders in the series and there is a local connection, and an ancient book at the heart of the murders.

The story line moves in a relatively straight forward manner. That's  not to say there aren't some twists and surprises that will keep you reading.   What's even better is that while the author doesn't neatly wrap everything up, the loose ends will make for another excellent read.  I recommend this book and am looking forward to the next one.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Delicacy, by French author David Foenkinos, is a quiry romance between a beautiful, young widow, Natalie, and her plain and insecure colleague, Markus. Natalie has had the perfect marriage and has been grieving her husband's sudden death for the past three years. She impulsively kisses Markus one day after feeling the sudden stirring of passion. Little does she know that Markus, a Swedish Woody Allen, has been in love with her for years.

The book is a satire on office life, complete with nosy staff who reek of false sympathy and concern, as well as a clownish director who lusts for Natalie and hopes to take advantage of her grief. The chapters are brief, some being a mere one page. Foenkinos, a screenwriter, writes creatively and includes unusual footnotes and chapters on background trivia. All fit into this clever, short book.

Now a motion picture starring Audrey Tautou and Francois Damens, Delicacy is well-written and funny. The reflections of Markus as he analyzes his feelings throughout the affair deflect from the sadness inherent in Natalie. One criticism of the novella is that it falls short in its character development of Natalie. Aside from her beauty and aloofness, we are not privy to her inner thoughts. Still, the book is engaging.

Take it with you on a weekend trip. The plot is sure to please.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye and The Age of Grief

Reading Anne Tyler's latest novel, The Beginner's Goodbye one is reminded of the tenuousness of life as well as its unpredictability. It brings to mind another novella -- The Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley. In both, the authors deal with loss and examine the conflicting truths inherent in marriage.

The narrator in Jane Smiley's novella deeply loves his wife and has three young daughters with her. When he suspects her of having an affair, he is forced to re-examine everything he holds dear. Most of all, his innocence is shattered.

I am thirty-five years old, and it seems to me that I have arrived at the age of grief. Others arrive there sooner. Almost no one arrives much later...What it is, is what we know, now that in spite of ourselves we have stopped to think about it...But when you are thirty-three, or thirty-five, the cup must come around, cannot pass from you, and it is the same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from. (p. 154, The Age of Grief, Ballantine Books, 1992)

In The Beginner's Goodbye (2012), Aaron Woolcott must come to terms with the sudden death of his wife and his less than perfect relationship with her. He, too, is thirty-five years old, although his set ways make him appear older. Unlike Smiley's narrator, Aaron is not handsome, but rather, is afflicted with a limp and only partial use of an arm. He also has a slight speech impediment. Having suffered a childhood with an over-protective mother, he seeks out the cold and unnurturing Dorothy Rosales as his wife. Unlike the marriage of Smiley's narrator, his was not one of passion and common interests. They lived parallel lives: she as a radiologist and he as editor of his family's small vanity press. This press publishes a beginner's series--The Beginner's Childbirth, The Beginner's Book of Kitchen Remodeling, The Beginners Book of Gifts, and many more. Hence the book's unique title.

Supporting characters are Aaron's doting sister, Nandina; Gil, the contractor with the heart of gold, and the motley assortment of people who make up the office staff. Tyler describes each person endearingly with his or her share of strengths and foibles.

This is the first Tyler novel that makes use of the supernatural. When the book opens, we meet Dorothy as a ghost. But neither the reader, nor Aaron himself, is fully sure whether Dorothy is an apparition, or merely a part of Aaron's unconscious. Either way, she provides a means for him to analyze his marriage and the reasons for his initial attraction. Ultimately, talking with a ghost allows Aaron to come to terms with his life and to finally move on.

The Beginner's Goodbye is an easy and enjoyable read. It deals with serious issues, but never with a heavy hand. Anne Tyler, no stranger to loss, examines grief and the corresponding emotions it engenders: regret, anger, loneliness. But she mixes her book with laugh-out-loud humor that furthers our empathy for her quirky characters.

Similarly, The Age of Grief: A Novella and Stories of Love, Marriage and Friendship, by Jane Smiley, is a collection that explores the mysteries of love in all its facets. Both writers capture the mysterious in the mundane.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Cat's Table

Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, comes the beautifully crafted semi-autobiographical tale The Cat’s Table.

In the story, a wealthy art collector explains that there is much more to a tapestry than what can be seen when it hangs on a wall. There is the seemingly random assortment of threads that lie on the work’s other side— “the underneath.”  The collector continues, "That is what gives truth, depth, to this sentimental tableau." The opaqueness of an artwork’s foundation, as well as what lies unseen below the surface of the sea, and—most of all—memory that has been long submerged are woven throughout this story that focuses on a 21-day sea voyage between Sri Lanka (now Ceylon) and England, taken by an 11-year-old boy traveling nearly 60 years ago.

Unescorted on the voyage to meet his mother who moved to England years earlier, the narrator Michael is assigned to sit at meals with a motley group of other solo travelers that include a pianist, a botanist, two other young people (sickly Ramadhin and troublemaker Cassius), and a lady traveling in the company of pigeons, some of whom she keeps on occasion in her pockets.  It is this woman who says that the group is sitting at “the cat’s table,” the table located the farthest from the captain’s and, in fact, “the least privileged place” to be on the ship.  But it is with and because of the people seated at the cat’s table that the narrator, looking back, said he experienced the adventure of a lifetime and one that shaped the rest of his life. He comes to understand that, “It would always be strangers like them, at the various cat’s tables of my life, who would alter me.”

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Trigger Point by Matthew Glass

This book starts out with the notation that the author' s name is actually a pseudonym, that he is believed to be a government insider living in Britain. Now put that out of your mind.

The year is 2018. The United States has a moderate president and a dysfunctional cabinet. The country is slowly recovering from the crash of 2008 and the monetary upheaval of 2014. China still holds a majority of our debt and we still don't trust other politically. China had sent advisers to the South Sudan to protect it's mineral rights there. The Chinese ruling government is split between 3 men, the president, Huang, who is stuck between Fan, who controls the army and Xu, the spineless the defense minister.

There is a terrorist raid in Uganda that results in many dead including 39 Americans. President Knowles has to decide how to retaliate. It is close to the midterm elections and he wants to appear decisive in order to keep the house and senate balance in his favor. His cabinet is full of hawks who want to go in with guns blazing. Secretary of State Bob Livingstone has been frozen out of the inner circle by John Oakley a presidential advisor and close personal friend of the president. Knowles consults with Huang. The Chinese agree to do nothing as long as the US stays in Uganda, but the borders are blurry and pilots may cross them without realizing it.

While this is going on Ed Gray the principal partner of Red Rock Investments decides to put some money into Uganda while at the same time shorting stock for Fidelain Bank, which is 26% owned by the Chinese and short of cash. Then everything falls apart. The bank needs not $10 billion but $26 billion to stay alive. And will not agree to a sale. The short sales net a large amount of money but then the market completely falls apart. The US accuses China of interfering and causing the collapse in order to influence the elections. And the elections are a disaster for Knowles. Meanwhile in Uganda, the rescue mission, was fired upon by South Sudanese military who have Chinese soldiers in their ranks. The captives and would be rescuers are moved deep into South Sudan.

Things continue to escalate. Military hardliners, confusion in motives, not understanding other cultures, FED and SEC ineptitude and general government dithering by both the US and China bring the world to the brink of war. China has an internal power struggle going on that no one knows about. The end will surprise you.

This book required some work on my part. With so many US government financial agencies involved I was curious to see if they could even remotely act in the way the author portrays them as acting. As far as I can tell it's accurate. Which was the most interesting thing about the book. It's a good case study in what not a government should do. Take the Cuban missile crisis, substitute China for Cuba, and then add a scenario worse than the 2008 financial meltdown, throw in a US mid-term election and you have this book.

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