Friday, May 31, 2013


Christopher Stewart writes about his adventures in the Honduran jungle while searching for the last "White City." Stewart became obsessed with find this city after reading the journals of Theodore Morde, who had tried to find the city on 3 occasions. Morde who has some experience in extreme climates and jungle exploration was way ahead of Stewart who had neither. Stewart had traveled as a writer and heard about this lost city while researching an article about the Honduran drug trade.

Stewart sets out to find this city. He studies Morde's journal thoroughly, outfits himself and teams up with Christopher Begley, a real life "Indiana Jones," who has actually done a similar search. The city is supposed to be located in the Mosquita, a 3,300 square mile area of rain forest and swamp on the Honduras/Nicaragua border. Legend has it the city contains "gold, priceless artifacts, overgrown temples and buildings and monkey gods."

There is actually some history surrounding this area. Christopher Columbus mentions a city ( or rumors of it) he heard after he landed at Trujillo. Herman Cortes also mentions a hunt for the city of Hueitapalan (the old land of red earth) and that he didn't find it. Charles Lindbergh saw a large area of white ruins while flying over Central America in 1927. So, in theory, the city should be there somewhere.

Stewart and Begley head off. The jungle is a nightmare, the politics of the region are a nightmare and Stewart is second guessing himself. Pirates, drug runners, outlaws, treasure hunters, jaguars, and howler monkeys all have runs in with the Stewart expedition. As the journey goes on, Stewart becomes more morose as evidenced in his writing.

The book moves back and forth between Morde's journey and the current one. Interestingly enough there is actually a map  from a local mapmaker indicating where the city is thought to be. Morde's journals talk about the city at the conversion of 3 rivers. But there is nothing there except some jungle covered ruins. There are lots of hints at the location but no hard data.

This story is similar in feel to Grann's Lost City of Z. Middle aged man goes off to find lost city and has an adventure. A fast read, I thought the most interesting part of the book wasn't really explored - was Morde a spy during the second world war or not? That said, the book is an adventure story of a contemporary man. It's interesting in it's humanity of both the author and the characters he meets on his journey.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Child's Child, by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

If betrayal mixed with sex and murder is the type of cocktail you like in a book, then drink in The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine, a pseudonym for Ruth Rendell. Under the name Vine, Rendell is known for creating works that deal with family dramas and the problems caused by secrets kept and by secrets told.

The Child’s Child is the title of this book as well as the title of a book that Grace, the main character, is reading. Grace and her brother Andrew have recently inherited their grandmother’s London house. Instead of selling it, they decide to move in together. Soon afterward, Andrew’s lover James settles in too. He makes quite an impression as Grace observes: “James was very bright indeed. He was—well, is— tall, slim, dark, and seems to have a permanent, perfectly natural tan. His eyes are dark blue; his teeth are like Americans’ teeth and have apparently been looked after by a dentist from Boston. He’s a flawless man with perfect, long-fingered hands and feet, which I saw bare in the in the garden on a hot day.”

What could possibly go wrong with this trio living under one roof? Actually, probably more than you can imagine. But in the midst of this family drama, Grace starts reading a long-lost work from the 1950s called The Child’s Child. More than two-thirds of Vine’s story is devoted to this novel within a novel that was never published because its twin foci - unwed motherhood as well as homosexual love and erotic encounters - was too scandalous for midcentury 1900.

This inner tale also revolves around a sister living with her gay brother. When 15-year-old Maud becomes pregnant, her parents refuse to let her stay with them; however her older brother John offers to have her move in with him. Like Andrew, John is gay, but he lives at a time when most of society frowned on such an acknowledgement.

John has an idea: What if Maud moved in with him and they told people they were married? Then townspeople would think the baby had a father, that Maud had a husband, and that John had a wife and child? What could possibly go wrong with this trio living under one roof? Once again, probably more than you can imagine!

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Friday, May 24, 2013

The Book of Salt

Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt, is a gifted young writer born in Vietnam in 1968. Her parents emigrated to the United States when Truong was 6 years old. The themes of alienation and longing for the homeland are familiar ones to her and play a significant role in this book.

When Truong was an undergraduate at Yale, she bought a copy of the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book in search of a hash brownie recipe. What she discovered was an unappealing recipe contained within a memoir. In a chapter entitled, "Servants in France," Toklas complains about the unreliability of hired help. She writes that she and Gertrude Stein, her life partner, place an ad in a Paris newspaper seeking a live-in cook. A Vietnamese man, Trac, applies for the job and is hired. He remains with the family for the next five years. Christopher Benfey, of The New York Times, conveys the sense of whimsy that soon befell the Stein-Toklas household. As he quotes from the Cook Book:"(Trac) would say, not a cherry, when he spoke of a strawberry and a pineapple was a pear not a pear." "Trac's inventive use of negatives slips directly into Toklas's prose: 'It was then that we commenced our insecure, unstable, unreliable but thoroughly enjoyable experience with the Indo-Chinese.' " (The New York Times, "Ordering In," April 06, 2003)

Monique Truong takes this mere footnote and creates a living, breathing character from it. Binh, called Thin Binh by Gertrude Stein, is the narrator of our tale. We first meet him in 1934 in Paris, as he waits with Stein and Toklas to begin their journey back to the states. He has now been employed by them for the past five years. Binh must decide if he wishes to depart with them or remain in his adopted homeland, France. Or, should he simply return to his native Vietnam? The narrative weaves from present to past as Binh weighs his options and tries to come to terms with his life.

Binh was the youngest of four sons born to a kind mother and an abusive Catholic cleric. He was taught both French and the culinary arts by his eldest brother, a seus chef in the home of the French governor-general in Vietnam. But after an affair with the French chef, Binh loses his job and is disowned by his father. He ultimately comes to Paris with nothing but poverty and regret.

Truong depicts the period of time in Vietnam when it was a French Protectorate (1802-1945). Some of her most poignant passages are of Binh's recollections of his life in the poor, rural village of his birth. She contrasts it with the literary life of American Ex-Patriots in Paris during the 1920s. Among some of the guests at the Stein-Toklas household were F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos, Henry Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Their soirees at the famed 27 rue de Fleurus were ripe with avante guard artists and modernist thought.

Through fiction, Monique Truong has allowed Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and some of the period's "greats" to come alive once again. But above all, she has created a poignant novel that explores the meaning of home and its relationship to food. Truong's evocative language teases the senses on all levels. Read it and enjoy.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Where'd You Go Bernadette

I read this book in two days: it was that fun. Snarky, funny, sad, bittersweet - this book is all of that and more.  Bernadette is a wife and mother living in Seattle. She is not happy on any level. She is married to a tech wiz who works at Microsoft, her daughter is a near perfect student, and she is a mess. She was once a well respected architect. She has promised her daughter, Bee, that they will go anywhere she wants if she gets perfect grades. Bee does and wants to go on a cruise to Antarctica. Bernadette doesn't "do" people.  Anti-social boarding on pathological, she is truly afraid of having to deal with other people and a cruise would require her to interact with other people.

She wants to be disengaged from humans so  much she hires an assistant in India to deal with everything.  Bills, dinner reservations, planning and booking the trip, everything. Her husband, Elgie, is so immersed in his career he isn't really paying attention. After a series of increasingly bizarre acts, he finally starts to pay attention. He stages an intervention, during which Bernadette disappears. No one can locate her and it appears she actually went on the cruise to Antarctica and disappeared from the ship.

This story is told with different narrators; Bernadette, her daughter, the psychiatrist, Elgie. But the story line isn't disrupted. Plus the snarky comments add to this book. Semple skewers: Microsoft, Seattle,  private schools, social climbers, environmentalists among others. I think ending is wholly implausible, but I still really liked this book. A light easy read there are some laugh out loud moments. There are also some heartbreaking ones. I recommend this book.

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Friday, May 17, 2013

All Over Creation

All Over Creation (2003), written by Ruth Ozeki, is especially timely given the May 13th Supreme Court ruling protecting the patent on genetically modified soybeans. The case involves a 75-year-old Indiana farmer, Vernon Bowman, who harvested crops from seeds that Monsanto created and patented. These seeds were modified to resist the weedkiller, Roundup. As Justice Kagan wrote in the unanimous ruling: "Bowman was not a passive observer of his soybeans' multiplication; or put another way, the seeds he purchased (miraculous though they might be in other respects) did not spontaneously create eight successive soybean crops.)" (Washington Post, May 13, 2013)

While the ruling will encourage and protect innovation in developing new technologies, such as genes that identify disease, it none-the-less supports huge companies, such as Monsanto, who increasingly control agriculture. To quote Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety: "The court chose to protect Monsanto over farmers. The court's ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics because it improperly attributes seeds' reproduction to farmers rather than nature." Article Link

All Over Creation fictionalizes this issue in a fast-moving and engaging novel. Cynaco Corporation is a Monsanto-like company that is aggressively marketing a pesticide-resistant potato to Idaho farmers. Lloyd and Momoko Fuller, now in their later years, have thus far refused to buy this product.

Both Lloyd and Momoko are very ill. Lloyd has had a series of heart attacks and is now battling cancer.  Momoko suffers from dementia, though she is physically well. Her days are spent cultivating the unique collection of seeds she has created throughout her long marriage.

The plot centers on the homecoming of their estranged daughter, Yumi. Yumi was a wild child who, at age 14, had an affair with her high school teacher.  She got pregnant, had a back alley abortion and ran away.  Now, 25 years later, she reluctantly returns to the farm to make see her dying father and amends. Her childhood best friend, Cassie, along with husband Will, have bought her parent's farm and are caring for her parents. They are also testing the NuLife Potatoes from Cynaco, believing they have less pesticide than the conventionally grown brand.

The plot becomes more involved when Eliot, the teacher with whom Yumi had her affair, returns as the PR representative for Cynaco. He has changed very little from the needy, self-involved man he was. Adding to this mix is an activist group called The Seeds. Proponents of  peaceful yet guerrilla tactics against large agribusinesses, they roam the country in their RV. They have seen Momoko's seed catalog and have heard of Lloyd.  He becomes a kind of rebbi to them and they put down some temporary roots on Lloyd's farm.

All Over Creation contains sympathetic, three-dimensional characters. Ozeki brings to light the many issues facing contemporary farming. Above all, she illuminates the complexities of family dynamics, questioning whether forgiveness is truly possible. As Josh Emmons concludes:

(Ozeki's skill at weaving together) dual narratives of family reunion and corporate malfeasance is extraordinary. The Fullers' drama is as real and organic as the method of farming promoted by the book's itinerant activists, and the ways in which the personal becomes political and vice versa are thrilling to watch. (San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, March 16, 2003)

Ruth Ozeki has once again written a book that is hard to put down.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Black Count

The Black Count by Tom Reiss, is the biography of Alexandre Dumas. Not the author Alexandre Dumas, but his father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. The son of an interracial couple, Dumas had the fortune to grow up in Paris and the French sugar colony of Saint-Dominque at a time when racial prejudice was unheard of.

Dumas was born in 1762 in Saint-Dominque (now Haiti). His father was a French noble man who had renounced his family and run away, his mother was a black slave. Alexandre's father eventually reconciled with his family, sold off his other children and took Alexandre back to France. His father, Alexandre Antoine Davy was now the Marquis de la Pailleterie. After receiving the education of a French nobleman, Alexandre renounced his father, took his mother's name of Dumas and enlisted in the French army as a dragoon.

Dumas was a superb soldier. Tall for his time, dark skinned, intelligent, and extremely gifted athletically, Dumas rose to the rank of General. His military career is filled with escapades and exploits that his son (the novelist Alexandre Dumas) used in his novels. The three duels in one day in the Three Musketeers? True.  Betrayed and held captive on a deserted island for years as told in the Count of Monte Cristo? Also true.

This book was very interesting. General Dumas was an amazing person. He had the luck to live in a time when he could be successful and his race was not an issue. He married a white noblewoman and he had a son who was a writer who preserved the General's exploits for history. The book however was very heavy on French history - really heavy on French history. Which is fine for me as I don't know much about it. However, I do recommend this book. Dumas is a fascinating character who lived in very interesting times.

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Friday, May 10, 2013

Bitter in the Mouth

Bitter in the Mouth, a semi-autobiographical novel, is about a Vietnamese girl (Linda) who grows up in a small North Carolina town. Linda is the only minority child in all-white classrooms. Making life even harder for her is the neurological condition she suffers from--synesthesia. Words evoke tastes for sufferers of this genetic anomaly. "Incomings," as Linda calls the speech she hears, can be upsetting because too many senses are stimulated at once. Linda feels acutely different from others--especially her white parents--and her feelings of isolation and loneliness are acute. The only relative she truly bonds with is her uncle, Baby Harper. Linda senses he is a kindred spirit from the moment she sets eyes on him.

A quality that distinguishes Truong's books is her descriptive language as well as her use of food--literally and figuratively. In this passage, Linda is telling us about synesthesia.

My first memory was a taste. For most of my life I have carried this fact with me not as a mystery, which it still is, but as a secret...There was something bitter in the mouth, and there was the word that triggered it...It was bitter in the way that greens...were often bitter. Or in the way that simmering resentment was bitter. (P. 15)

In an interview for Lamda Literary (posted 26.Aug, 2010 by Jihii Jolly), we come to understand that the author and her main character share past experiences and past hurts. As Truong writes:

I set Bitter in the Mouth in Boiling Springs, NC, the small town where my family first lived in the U.S. because I wanted to revisit those first three years that have defined me in so many ways. I like to say that I am a Southern girl, twice over: south Vietnam and the American South.  It's only the former that defines me in people's eyes. But Boiling Springs is where I learned how to speak English. Boiling Springs was where I became--in a blink of an eye--not just a little girl but a Chink, a Jap, and a Gook (all the names my classmates called me). Boiling Springs was where I learned that I was physically different, ugly, and a target. So yes, I wanted to revisit this small town that I have carried with me with so much anger, and I wanted to make it mine. I wanted to tell my version of its story.

And tell it she does. Truong creates a moving coming of age story with a happy ending. This is a good book for readers who enjoyed The Book of Salt, as well as for those who are fans of multicultural literature.  Although the author does digress into historical narrative that seems unrelated to the plot, this is none-the-less a well-crafted story with eccentric, three-dimensional characters.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Racketeer, by John Grisham

According to the dictionary, a racketeer is “one who obtains money illegally, as by fraud, extortion, etc.” In John Grisham’s latest legal thriller, the main character, lawyer Malcolm Bannister, was unaware the work he was doing at his law firm was dirty work, work that qualified him as a racketeer. Perhaps a more accurate title for the book would have been “The Unwitting Racketeer," but that's not nearly as catchy as Grisham's signature proper nouners ("The Client," "The Firm," and even "The Bleachers").

Even though he was unaware of any wrong-doing, Bannister was sentenced to 10 years at a federal prison camp where he is “the only black guy serving time for a white-collar crime. Some distinction.” Eight months into his sentence, his wife Dionne asked him for a divorce, and now his young son Bo is being taught baseball by Dionne’s new husband. Things indeed are bad for Bannister, who has lost his family and his friends, has been disbarred, and has no chance of an early release.

But then Bannister’s bad luck turns good because the Honorable Raymond Fawcett’s luck has turned awful. Dead awful. The 66-year-old married federal judge and his young secretary have been found murdered in the remote lakeside cabin Fawcett liked to frequent on weekends. There’s been no forced entry, no sign of struggle, no muss nor fuss save an empty metal safe and two bodies with bullets in their brains. The FBI is stumped by the crime, but Bannister knows who did it, why they did it, and what was in the safe. Or so he claims. That’s his get-out-of-jail card. He’ll trade the information for a new life on the outside, complete with witness protection, plastic surgery, and the six-figure reward money.

But in the bestselling, page-turning Grisham tradition, there is more to Bannister's agenda than just an early release, a new face, and a fat bank account. That agenda spins out of control, but the book is as fun (though not as much as “The Litigator”) as it is unrealistic. The verdict? A not totally guilty pleasure.

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Friday, May 3, 2013

Two Graves

The last book in the Helen trilogy from Preston and Child begins where the last book leaves off. The title comes from a Confucius quote: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." This quote underscores the theme of the book.

Pendergast's wife Helen, long thought to be dead is actually alive. She is currently hiding from the Nazis who have been holding her captive as part of a horrific biological experiment started during the Second World War. She is scheduled to meet Pendergast in Central Park in the middle of New York City. Pendergast believes the open area will be safe. He is wrong and there is an ambush waiting.

Helen's brother is killed, Pendergast is wounded and Helen is recaptured. Pendergast is once again on the hunt. Meanwhile, Pendergasts friend, D'Agosta is investigating some bizarre murders. The suspect leaves clues - his fingerprints, some of his skin and he allows the hotel cameras where he commits the murders to photograph him both before and after he commits the crimes. But he is seemingly impossible to capture. Pendergast's investigation into Helen's disappearance leads him to some startling news about his relationship with Helen. This news will effect the way both investigations proceed.

Preston and Child write a great book. Thrillers to be sure but the story lines and the characters are very interesting. Just  what kind of human is Pendergast really? And this book reveals some of Constance's background as well.  Some characters from the previous books make a reappearance in this one. I love these books and read them as soon as I can get my hands on them. I am looking forward to the next Pendergast adventure.

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