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SassyLassy still sailing through 2013

This is a continuation of the topic SassyLassy sails through 2013.

This topic was continued by SassyLassy sets sail for shore and year end.

Club Read 2013

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Apr 10, 2013, 11:23am Top

From my first thread this year:

2012 was my first year in Club Read and paradoxically, although I read some excellent books, it was my worst year in terms of amount read. This year I hope to address that and have some broad categories to help me focus.

This is one of the tags in my LT library, indicating my love of books dealing with any and all aspects of life in, around and on the seas. An early book to read will be The Toilers of the Sea as part of a group read for Author Themed Reads.

If you followed my threads last year, you know that books from and about China are a big part of my reading and this year I hope to read some of the excellent recent non fiction about China, along with trying to complete all Mo Yan's books in the Read Mo Yan group.

Russia and Scotland
Two countries I love reading books from and about, although my attention to them has fallen off lately with last year's reading slump. I hope to address this in 2013. Club Read 2012 certainly added to my wish list on Russia!

The European Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
One of my goals last year was to read more about these fascinating times when people were torn between the old beliefs dictated by religion and the new ways of thinking arising from contact with new worlds and the developing sciences. If ever there was a time for individual turmoil, this was it. I didn't achieve this goal at all last year, but since I'm still interested, I've rolled it over to this year.

I am a member of Victoriana, a decorous group on LT. I have been amassing quite a collection of social history from this era in my TBR pile and want to get to it. This is also a favourite area for rereads, like going home again is supposed to be. There are always new books to read too.

Books from the Rest of the World
Like many other Club Read people, I'm also in Reading Globally and hope to keep up my reading from around the world. I'll probably be focussing on South America in preparation for the Reading Globally fourth quarter, but will also be participating in the Zola year long read.

All in all, reasonably ambitious. I wonder what it will all look like by December 31st because after all there's the

And Now for Something Completely Different category which always seems to come hurtling at me out of left field and throw all planning out the window.

Edited: Aug 12, 2013, 11:04am Top

Books added to my primary wish list so far this year

The Google Book V C Vickers 1913 edwinbcn
Fiere Jackie Kay edwinbcn
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow Wang Anyi steven03tx
A Walk on the Wild Side Nelson Algren deebee1
Firefly Severo Sarduy steven 03tx
One Day the Ice Will Reveal Its Dead avaland, linda92007
Communion Town Sam Thompson kidzdoc
Le colonel Chabert Balzac edwinbcn
Soldiers of Salamis Javier Cercas arubabookwoman
Decadence Mandchoue Edmund Backhouse tomcatMurr
Fanon John Edgar Wideman kidzdoc
Leonardo's Judas Leo Perutz baswood
The Island of Dr Moreau H G Wells baswood
The Crime of Father Amaro Jose Maria Eca de Queiros arubabw

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo rebecca
The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn Richard Mabey letterpress
My Century Aleksandr Wat rebecca
Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence baswood
The Land That Never Was: Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History NielsenGW
The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self Made King Ian Mortimer baswood
The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to the Ornamental Gnome Gordon Campbell NielsenGW
The Biggest Estate on Earth Bill Gammage Polaris Beacon
The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 henkmet
The Songlines TonyH
Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature Fred Kaplan Nielsen GW
The Wars of the Roses: England's First Civil War Trevor Royle steven
Watergate Thomas Mallon arubabw
Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia Erik Reece neilsenGW
Adam, Eve and the Serpent Elaine Pagels DieF
Travels in Alaska John Muir edwinbcn
The Lost Art of Finding Our Way John Edward Huth rebecca
Dersu the Trapper V K Arseniev rebecca

Apr 10, 2013, 11:27am Top

Because I just found this picture when I finished my last thread and I liked it too much to lose it:

From Bourne Fine Art

Apr 10, 2013, 12:00pm Top

Congrats on your new thread, Sassy! I have loved the images on St. Kilda. What is the music on the CD like?

Apr 10, 2013, 12:13pm Top

Back to Mo Yan. Different editions of this book have different numbers of stories, which seem to range from seven to twelve.

19. Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Short stories first published in various places over the years 1980 - 2001
finished reading March 31, 2013

Although this is a book of short stories, one of the most interesting short pieces is Mo Yan's own preface in which he discusses his writing and his themes. He reflects on their development from the early 1970s when he clumsily wrote about class struggle, through the initial slight lifting of content restrictions in the late 1970s, and into the early 1980s when he feels his writing took off. He says that although the short story is less respected than the novel in China, he takes even greater pride in his short stories than in his novels. The stories in this collection were written in the 1980s and 1990s. They shift back and forth in time both in sequence and in subject matter.

"Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh" is the story of Ding Shikou, suddenly laid off from his factory job after forty-three years, with one month to go until retirement. Called Shifu, or master worker, by his work team, Ding is suddenly left to fend for himself in the world of the new capitalism. Without a clue what to do, without an entrepreneurial inkling and without money, Ding sinks quickly. All around him he sees younger healthier laid off workers struggling too. Then, one day, realizing that in the new China even toilets charge a fee, Ding has an idea. If you've seen Zhang Yimou's film Happy Days, this short story is the basis of the film.

"Man and Beast" continues on from Mo Yan's novel Red Sorghum. Captured by the Japanese and taken to Hokkaido as conscript labour, Granddad, Yu Zhan'ao, escaped from the camp, spending five years living in a cave, dreaming of home, dreaming of revenge for his dead. To him, the red sun rising over the ocean each morning turned it into a sea of sorghum. On the very day the People's Republic was proclaimed, an event he knew nothing about, Granddad had his chance. His struggle with this opportunity is a moving tale of the nature of love and revenge.

"Soaring" is another in a long line of Chinese fables about arranged marriages. Hang Xi's beautiful sister will marry a mute so that Hang Xi can marry the mute's sister Yanyan. Yanyan had other ideas. After the ceremony, she ran out of the compound, down a lane and ...into the field, where wheat stalks bent in the wind, their flower tips dipping like waves in a ocean of green. Suddenly she took flight, landing in the treetops. The villagers struggle to get her down.

"Iron Child" goes back to the days of the Great Leap Forward, when every piece of scrap iron available was melted down to build improbable projects. Famine was creeping over Gaomi Township. The small children housed in the communal nursery watched as the adults built the new railway. Their hunger echoes Mo Yan's own tale of eating coal during the Famine. Whether he did or not, the anger at being a starving child comes through.

"The Cure" is a horrifying story of folk medicine, superstition and the lengths to which people will go for their families, set against the background of the Cultural Revolution. In his translator's note, Howard Goldblatt says it is an update of Lu Xun's story "Medicine". "The Cure" also appeared in Goldblatt's collection Chairman Mao Would Not be Amused, which is where I first read it.

"Love Story" is the meeting of two cultures. Twenty-five year old He Liping had been sent down to the country. There she met fifteen year old Junior, who fell in love with this exotic woman. Written with humour, at the same time Mo Yan says it allowed him "to explore the concepts of sadness and beauty", which is what all successful coming of age stories do.

Howard Goldblatt says Shen Garden is a metaphor for meetings of once married couples. That describes the situation in the story of the same name. For me, this was the least successful of the stories, so I'll give Mo Yan's take on it instead. He sees it as the story of
how a middle-aged man turns his back on the love of an earlier time and eventually compromises with reality. In today's society, many Chinese men who have achieved success, even fame, live hypocritical lives. Deep down, their existence is little more than a pile of ruins.

Lastly, "Abandoned Child" is another updated version of the perennial Chinese theme of unwanted children. A villager finds a baby abandoned in a field and takes it home. When he tries to turn over the infant to the authorities, he is met with mountains of red tape. Although many families in the village have more than one child, the villager is left to reflect on the policy of one child and what it is doing to girls in particular and society in general. Mo Yan says he sees population growth as China's most serious problem. This story is a good treatment of it.

All in all, a good collection of stories, full of satire, humour and a real regard for the people who must take the brunt of bureaucratic nightmares.

Apr 10, 2013, 12:17pm Top

> Hi labsf! That depends on whether you like bagpipes or not! In this house it only gets played when I am home alone, as not everyone appreciates it, but it is real folk music and there are times when it just fits. The Tannahill Weavers are a well known traditional group.

Apr 10, 2013, 5:08pm Top

Reading through your descriptions of the short stories and having just read Red Sorghum the overwhelming impression I get is how great the cultural differences are between China and the West.

Apr 10, 2013, 7:28pm Top

So, bagpipes, hmmm. :-p

I'm not much of a short story reader, but I've been wanting to read Mo Yan and maybe this would give me a sense of his themes and styles.

Apr 10, 2013, 9:41pm Top

I do love me some bagpipes!

Apr 11, 2013, 9:37am Top

Have to get back to Mo Yan! I've seen the Shifu collection and your review makes it sound appealing, but I'll read The Garlic Ballads first since I own it.

Apr 11, 2013, 9:40am Top

Ditto to what Rebecca said--Garlic Ballads is next for me, but I'll get to Shifu eventually.

Apr 13, 2013, 2:58pm Top

I think that so far I've liked The Garlic Ballads best. I think that chronologically The Republic of Wine will be next for me.

labsfs, Shifu would be a good place to start with Mo Yan. The other book mentioned, Chairman Mao Would Not be Amused would give you a good variety of the better known (in the English speaking world) Chinese writers.

bas, that's something I've thought long and hard about, but I think there are some major aspects of culture where we are closer that it might appear. I won't bore anyone with a long dissertation!

Apr 13, 2013, 3:18pm Top

April's book club choice It had the benefit of getting me thinking of rereading Thomas Hardy this summer, for his books were frequently referenced.

20. Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
first published 2011
finished reading April 1, 2013

Did you ever have one of those adored aunts who led an exciting single life that the rest of the adults founds somewhat discomfiting? Anne's Aunt Connie was one of those women. Anne was determined to discover all she could about Connie. In the process, she recreated for herself parts of Connie's life.

This is a novel concerned with family stories, family secrets and where we each fit in. It goes beyond that though, looking at how we happen upon those secrets and where we fit them into our own narrative. It is also a tale of small towns, for small town life carries an imperative for secrecy all its own.

Small town leaders often take on an importance far beyond any they would enjoy in larger centres. Adults are willing to protect them, if only to reenforce their own roles in creating these leaders. The school principal is one of the most important figures. Children often see beyond the status to the real person below, but few adults will listen to their protestations.

In 1929, when eighteen year old Connie started teaching in a small town Saskatchewan school, Parley Burns was the principal. Eight years later, as a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, she encountered Parley Burns again, now the principal in another small town, this time in the Ottawa Valley. There were more refugees in the Valley from that small Saskatchewan town. Connie found one of her former pupils, one who would later link Connie and Anne in unexpected ways. Anne narrates their stories, often in tandem, so the narrative shifts back and forth in time, blending the two women.

Award winning writer Elizabeth Hay's style and story struck me as distinctively regional Canadian. It made me wonder if this is part of the reason a lot of Canadian fiction doesn't enjoy a wider audience. Her writing is reminiscent of Alice Munro, but more earnest. She lacks Munro's sly humour. There were times the story line reminded me of Ann Marie MacDonald's The Way the Crow Flies, but Hay was more restrained and the novel lacked MacDonald's complete involvement in her characters and her universality. That said, Hay has written a skillful narrative of Anne's own lessons in life, one I read in an afternoon.

Apr 13, 2013, 3:45pm Top

Sassy, I may venture into Hardy (for the first time, though) this summer, probably with Jude the Obscure since I already own it. It will be interesting to read your thoughts.

Apr 13, 2013, 5:25pm Top

13 - Yes Yes I DO have a wonderful Auntie Mame! She gets a little hypomanic and it is great - her presence constantly reminds me to enjoy life as she goes on forever about how wonderfully special her life is. Grandiosity can be a very excellent thing!

Apr 14, 2013, 2:45am Top

>13 SassyLassy:

You make it sound as if regional is bad in books... if everyone sounded the same, they would be no reason to venture outside of one's country authors after all...

Apr 14, 2013, 3:53am Top

Love the picture of St Kilda. That is the one place in the world I have always wanted to visit. There is a fisherman who I believe sails visitors there now that the Ministry of Defence have allowed it to be opened up.

The history of the islands population and their eventual evacuation in fascinating. In some ways it reminds me of the descendants of the Bounty and their sojourn on Pitcairn island. People on the edge.

Apr 14, 2013, 8:27pm Top

Alone in the Classroom was my introduction to Elizabeth Hay. I think you described the book very well as being like Munro, but absent the humor. I thought the first part of the book far exceeded the rest of the book, but I still enjoyed her writing. Late Nights on Air is a much better book, however.

Apr 15, 2013, 9:18am Top

Catching up. Thoughtful review of Hay - I'm thinking first on the regional apsects of Canadian lit. Also on small towns and leadership. Wishing I were reading books like this.

Also great stuff on Mo Yan.

Apr 15, 2013, 4:47pm Top

zenomax, I really hope you get there. It is one of the islands I most want to get to, but suspect it may be one of the least likely.

rebecca, I'm going to guess mid June reading for my Hardy kick. When were you thinking? It will be interesting to revisit as I suspect it will be one of those books that will tell me how much I have or haven't changed over the years.

mk, enjoy your aunt. I don't think they make them like that anymore.

Annie, I didn't mean to make regional sound like a bad thing. It was more a reflection on whether or not people outside the region are willing to immerse themselves in unknown areas, or are looking for the familiar. I'm with you in usually venturing outside one's country, in fact I probably don't read enough Canlit.
You did get me thinking about this though. There are writers who can take something from their region, a place that other readers may never have heard of, and turn it into something universal that all readers can recognize. Hay's novel didn't quite get there. Someone who has done this beautifully though is Lisa Moore with February, her treatment of the Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster. Even if you know nothing about Newfoundland or oil rigs, her book is a story of loss that anyone anywhere can understand and so transcends its setting.

RG, I haven't read Late Nights on Air yet, but probably will this summer, especially with your recommendation. I read A Student of Weather and thought that was well done.

Hi Dan. Canada is so diverse that there seems to be something for just about anyone in the writing. It's too bad it doesn't make it out of the country that much. Have you read much of it? Now that I think about it, an awful lot of it takes place in small towns. There's a thesis topic!
Mo Yan is more like my usual reading though.

Apr 15, 2013, 6:07pm Top

#20 I've read very little Canadian Lit - despite this group where it comes up all the time. Would like to read my Alice Munro collections...

Apr 17, 2013, 10:40am Top

Last year I read I B Singer's Satan in Goray, (http://www.librarything.com/topic/132448, post 41) written between the two World Wars, while he was still living in Poland. I was interested in seeing if there was any foreshadowing of events to come, but found none. This work of nonfiction seems to have seen the future more clearly.

21. The Wandering Jews by Joseph Roth translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
first published as Juden auf Wanderschaft in 1927
finished reading April 4, 2013

Joseph Roth is remembered today as a novelist, but to his contemporaries he was also a journalist and essayist. Michael Hofmann in his Translator's Note, says Roth was one of the most distinguished and well paid journalists of his time. He worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung from 1923 until 1933 when the Nazis came to power. He left Germany immediately and moved to Paris where he died in 1939.

All this would make him sound like an assimilated western European. However, Roth was born in Galicia, on the far eastern fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His schooling was in L'viv. This is crucial to this book, as Roth's polemic is a plea for understanding for the Eastern European Jews; people he felt were scorned and despised by Jews in western Europe, most notably Germany.

Identity was at the core of his discussion. Roth argues that to live in western Europe was to live in a nation state with defined borders, an army and passports. This gave Jews of these countries a dual identity: that of a Jew and that of a citizen.

Eastern Europe, however, with its ever shifting borders, its large Jewish centres and its general lack of assimilation of the Jewish population, allowed that population to think of itself as solely Jewish. In Roth's time, World War I, the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire started the vast migrations of the Jewish population of eastern Europe to the perceived safety of western Europe and beyond. What they did not realize at the time, was that it was the beginning of the end for their way of life, one that would be obliterated by World War II.

While Roth is by no means arguing for the persistence of the shtetl, at the same time he mourns the loss of distinct Jewish communities. He doesn't see the inevitability of western assimilation as a solution to the loss of identity. At the same time he doesn't see Palestine as an answer either, for to his way of thinking, moving to Palestine would paradoxically make the new immigrants more European, by imposing on them the ideas of nation and state. To leave eastern Europe was to surrender to cultural annihilation.

Roth says
They gave themselves up. They lost themselves.... They made compromises. They changed their garb, their beards, their hair, their mode of worship, their Sabbath, their household--- they themselves might still observe the traditions, but the traditions loosened themselves a little from them. They became ordinary little middle class people. The worries of the middle classes became their worries. They paid their taxes, they received police registration forms, they registered, and they assigned themselves to a "nationality", to a "citizenship," which, after many "chicanes" was finally granted to them. They used the streetcars, the elevators, all the benedictions of modern civilization. They even had a "fatherland".
This was their tragedy.

In a preface to the 1937 edition, Roth showed that he knew all too well that this fatherland would destroy it Jewish population, but blames assimilation for "the fatuous hope: "It won't be as bad as all that!", adding "that hope is nothing but moral corruption."

Roth died in 1939 and never saw the destruction of the great eastern communities: Ydessa, Lodz, Warsaw, Vilnius. In this book though, he had already mourned them, moving in Hofmann's words "between a past that is already over and a future that never eventuates"

Apr 17, 2013, 10:54am Top

VERY interesting review!

Apr 17, 2013, 11:01am Top

What Merrikay said. But did you weep while you were reading it?

Apr 17, 2013, 11:15am Top

Oh, that sounds interesting. My runaway list is intimidating.

Apr 17, 2013, 5:41pm Top

#20, I am such a poor reading planner, Sassy, I would hate to give you an estimate of when I might get to Hardy, but June seems far enough into the future that it might be possible. There are definitely some books I want to read first, but I seem to be spending a lot of time in the 19th century this year.

I'm intrigued by Late Nights on Air too. I picked it up and put it down without buying it many times when it was newly released and on display in bookstores, but obviously it's still calling to me in a way.

I am a big Roth fan, but wasn't familiar with this book; now I'll look for it.

Apr 18, 2013, 12:19pm Top

Excellent review of The Wandering Jews

Apr 19, 2013, 8:24am Top

ETA to 26 In looking for my copy of Jude the Obscure on my shelves, I discovered I also own, but had never entered into LT, Far from the Madding Crowd. So I'll have my choice of Hardys. Somewhere I also have Claire Tomalin's Hardy biography, but reorganizing my bookshelves a year and a half ago has made it harder for me to find some books, because I keep remembering where they used to be!

Apr 19, 2013, 11:03am Top

>24 RidgewayGirl:, RG, this wasn't a weepy kind of book, but rather a spirited defence of a group of cultural outsiders forced to migrate to centres where they should have been better received. It was too political to be maudlin. There are excellent books of photographs documenting the eastern communities which do have a more nostalgic feeling to them, based on the subject matter and the knowledge that that world has disappeared, although the books themselves are not sentimental. I have had two of these books for years and discovered yesterday when I was looking at them again that I hadn't entered them in LT. Try A Vanished World by Roman Vishniac or Image before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864-1939 by Lucjan Dobroszycki.

>26 rebeccanyc:, 28 rebecca I like to tell myself that I will be reading certain books at certain times to maintain the illusion that I am organized. Then when I read something completely different I can tell myself it was just a change of plan.

A difficult choice with the Hardy books!. I should get the Tomalin and read it first, thanks for reminding me of it. Hate those reorganizations. They always seem like such a good idea at the time:)

>27 baswood: thanks bas. It was tricky to write but made me think (along with some of nielsen's reviews and yours) that I should go back to more nonfiction, my first reading love.

>21 dchaikin: dan, I hope you get to read more Canadian fiction, but where to start could be a paralyzing decision...there are so many strains.

>23 mkboylan: Very cryptic, mkb!
>25 NanaCC:, nana, is it one long list or divided into sections and subsections? I'm always interested in how people organize such things.

Apr 19, 2013, 11:23am Top

Knowing I would be posting this today, it was great to see dchaikin's thread yesterday, with his discussion of Hamlet and the comments by others. Like dan, I won't review the play. This is more about how I read it.

22. Othello by William Shakespeare
first performed likely between 1602 and 1604
first published 1622, after Shakespeare's death
finished April 16, 2013

O Spartan dog,
More fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea,
Look on the tragic loading of this bed:
This is thy work.

After reading a Shakespeare play once a term from the beginning of Grade 8 to the end of first year university, I have to confess to studiously avoiding courses, films and events that included him ever since. Then this winter I was invited to join a group whose sole purpose was studying Shakespeare's plays. I quickly decided it was high time to overcome my irrational antipathy and read the man in a structured way with people who truly enjoy his works. This led me not only to Othello, but also to a whole new group of terrific people.

Each fall, this group selects a work that will be performed at a major theatre the next summer. Each person reads the play individually before the discussion group starts up in January. Most read supplementary material and some watch various film versions. Come January, the group starts meeting for eight two hour sessions. We read the play aloud going around the table without assigned roles and discuss it, led by a superb moderator. The moderator summarizes each session sending out notes and questions on the discussion after each meeting. Email conversations follow until the next meeting two weeks later.

In summer, the members go on their own to see the play performed. Then, in the fall, the group gets back together for a feast and discussion of the performance. Next year's title is decided and the cycle begins again. Reading the play like this has made an enormous difference in my feelings about Shakespeare and I am truly looking forward to seeing the play.

While some people used the Arden edition, the edition I read was from Oxford, edited by Michael Neill. It had incredible supplementary material: a 179 page introduction, notes on the differences between the major texts on each page, footnotes, and five appendices, including excerpts from the Italian tale by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio, on which the play was based. I think I'll have to track that down now.

Edited: Apr 19, 2013, 11:27am Top

#29 I started the Tomalin once, but realized I hadn't read any Hardy since high school (if ever) and that I would rather read some of his novels first. I think that's when I bought Far from the Madding Crowd. Anyway, I found the Tomalin. My reorganization involved organizing my TBR shelves somewhat along the lines of my other shelves, with the books I thought were second-tier TBR either on high shelves or behind other books. It was a good idea, but I've had some books on the TBR for so many years I've forgotten them.

ETA Vishniac's A Vanished World is remarkable

Apr 19, 2013, 12:08pm Top

Ah not meant to be cryptic, meant quite literally. The excerpt you include just brought me up short for some reason, making me think. I love how my reading has expanded from being on this thread!

Apr 19, 2013, 6:55pm Top

Where can I join SassyLassy; that sounds like an amazing group.

I love the 1965 film with Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059555/?ref_=fn_al_tt_3

Apr 19, 2013, 8:35pm Top

Thanks, SL. I've requested a copy of Image Before My Eyes.

Apr 19, 2013, 11:11pm Top

Your Shakespeare group sounds wonderful! After a year's focus I'm sure you know Othello inside and out.

Apr 21, 2013, 6:41pm Top

Thanks Sassy for your brilliant review of The Wandering Jews. It's been on my tbr list a while, and your discussion of it has brought it slap bang back into focus for me.

Apr 25, 2013, 7:30am Top

Wow, you have laid out a very ambitious year of reading in post #1!

>13 SassyLassy: Another book with a Hardy connection is The English Teacher by Lily King, which I read back in '06. The protagonist taught Hardy, of course, and the story often felt like a Hardy, especially akin to Tess. It's a bit of slow read, but worthwhile.

Your Shakespeare group sounds grand. If I was still at the bookstore, I'd steal the idea and start a Shakespeare group... I took an intense Shakespeare university course (9 plays!) and one of the auxiliary books we read was something called Shakespeare Alive!, which was a delightfully entertaining book that helps one understand the world in which Shakespeare wrote.

Apr 25, 2013, 3:49pm Top

mk, I'm not good at getting tone from posts, emails and the like, so thanks. The book definitely made me think too and made for several dinnertime conversations.

rebecca, it's when you start buying books again that are already on your TBR shelves that you know you are in trouble!

Hope you get a lot out of the Vishniac book, RG. "Enjoy" would probably be the wrong word. Also endorsed by rebecca (>31 rebeccanyc:)

re Shakespeare: >35 StevenTX: steven, we all finished the winter thinking we could do another full session on Othello and still not have examined it fully, but I guess that's the lure of Shakespeare. I am definitely looking forward to next year.
>33 baswood: bas, thanks for the link. I was thinking of you every time I went to this group, as not only is it in a wonderful house, the house is surrounded by garden rooms full of woodland plants, flowering shrubs, roses and so on, on either side of an allée of beautiful shade trees, so all the more reason to join us!
>37 avaland: avaland, maybe you could start one in your "spare" time! Nine plays in one year does indeed sound intense. Thanks for the auxiliary recommendation; I'll have to read that before next year. On the last day, someone also lent me Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare which sounds quite intriguing. Thanks also for the Lily King recommendation, which sounds like something I will try.

>36 Polaris-: PB, thanks, that means something. Now I will have to read some of his fiction.

Apr 25, 2013, 4:09pm Top

Thanks to avaland for this one. I suspect the war in question is the war for Namibian independence.

23. A Blade of Grass by Lewis DeSoto
first published 2003
finished reading April 16, 2013

There are events in life for which ordinary people are completely unprepared. Nothing in their upbringing can give them guidance. Some people rise to the situation and come out stronger. Others are completely overwhelmed and sink from sight.

Marit Laurens found herself facing just such life altering events. A completely ordinary middle class girl, she had been 'well brought up' by the standards of 1960s white Johannesburg. Unfortunately, this upbringing anticipated a continuation of the status quo and Marit was now far away from that illusory security. Six months previously, three months after her parents were killed in an accident, she had married Ben and somewhat aimlessly adopted his life.

For his part, Ben had dreams and ambitions for both of them. Leaving the constraints of Manchester, he had come to South Africa to farm; almonds, cattle, maize, you name it, Ben was going to succeed with it. South Africa was encouraging farming in the early 1970s, the land and climate were good, the future seemed assured. Unfortunately for Marit and Ben, they had settled on the northern border, surrounded by Afrikaners engaged in fighting cross border guerilla incursions.

DeSoto, originally from South Africa, describes the land with real feeling, so that it becomes an integral part of the book. Random violence, forces of nature, and unthinking and careless cruelty impinge on this world, shocking in their speed and impact, yet insignificant to the outside.

Marit is forced to act, to make decisions, to take charge. Unprepared and unable to accept help or guidance in her new surroundings, she flounders, relying increasingly on her black housemaid. As the community around them dissolves in the escalating chaos of the unnamed war, their struggles with the outside world and each other determine their own fates and that of the farm.

Long listed for the Booker Prize, A Blade of Grass somehow turns a tale of unsympathetic yet understandable characters into a compelling story, somewhat in the same way a Philip Caputo or Robert Stone novel unfolds. DeSoto is less raw, but there is the same compelling inevitability, drawing the characters and the reader on to the end. This was a first novel. I will certainly look for his second one, due out next month.

Apr 25, 2013, 5:19pm Top

Please go and post this review to the book's page. The only review there now is from someone who hated the book. And I'm adding this to my wish list!

Apr 25, 2013, 6:06pm Top

A Blade of Grass finds its way to the wish list....

Apr 26, 2013, 4:18pm Top

24. The Gate by François Bizot, translated from the French by Euan Cameron
first published as Le Portail in 2000
finished reading April 18, 2103

I have written this book in a bitterness that knows no limit.

So said François Bizot in 2000, almost thirty years after the beginning of his riveting encounter with history.

In 1971 Bizot was a committed academic, an ethnologist researching Buddhist artifacts and practices. Unlike many young French intellectuals of the time, he scorned leftist politics and the motives of those who supported anti-colonial insurgencies. He called such people "Lacoutures", a reference to the editor of Le Monde and biographer of Ho Chi Minh. Bizot was based at the Angkor Conservation Office when along with two Cambodian colleagues, he was captured by Khmer Rouge guerrillas in October 1971. The Khmer accused him of being a CIA agent and imprisoned him in a jungle camp under the control of one of the most extraordinary figures of the war, Douch.*

At that time, Douch was an up and coming cadre, who actually believed Bizot's denials of the charges against him. Bizot describes Douch as "...one of those pure, fervent idealists who yearned above all for the truth." The problem for Douch was to formulate Bizot's innocence in such a way that his own superiors would accept it, without suspecting Douch of any untoward western sympathies and without any apparent loss of face for Douch for having this prisoner in the first place, if he was indeed innocent.

Over a period of almost three months, Bizot was questioned repeatedly and made to write a declaration of innocence. Unfortunately, he had initially lied to his captors, making it more difficult for Douch to argue his innocence. As Douch felt more secure in his relations with Bizot, their conversations became more intellectually challenging and rewarding. Bizot the researcher learned of peasant life in central Cambodia. Challenged by Douch to explain his presence and justify his studies, he kept his mind engaged. Douch, in turn, was able to explain his revolutionary commitment and give an insider's view to a foreigner. When Bizot questioned the Khmer revolution and the resulting deaths, Douch countered
For a Frenchman, I find you very timid. Did you yourselves not have a revolution and execute hundreds and hundreds of people? Would you care to tell me when the memory of these victims prevented you from glorifying in your history books the men who founded a new nation that day?

Bizot was released with documents from the United National Front of Kampuchea to be given to the French chargé d'affaires in Phnom Penh. Back in the capitol, Bizot made the decision to stay in Cambodia with his Cambodian wife and their child, despite all the indications of what was to come.

On April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, Bizot found himself caught up in events once more. The city was in chaos, with more than two million refugees from the countryside. By this time he had sent his child to safety in France. As a fluent speaker of Khmer, he became a go between for the French community, all of whom had taken refuge at the French Embassy along with other Europeans and their Asian staff members on one side, and the Khmer Rouge forces controlling the city on the other side. Food, sanitation, health and security were the major initial concerns for the more than three thousand people on the embassy grounds.

Soon, however, the Khmer demanded that anyone without a European passport be turned over to them. Sirik Matak, leader of the defeated Khmer Republic, and other members of the Cambodian elite, granted an asylum by the French that was overturned by the new regime, were forced to leave and led off to execution. Then the approximately two thousand Asians on the grounds were forced to leave. Bizot was granted leave to scour the city for any Europeans who might wish to seek shelter with the French. Describing these trips, he said
I slipped silently into an immense theater of death. I thought that the prolonged apprehension of so much destruction would soon tip the fragile balance of my sanity. Not a single child, not one living creature. This sudden suspension of life in the heart of what had been the great commercial center of the Mekong Delta -- this city famed for its many and varied activities, it colorful population, its cosmopolitan lifestyle -- struck me as both so incredible and so straightforward that I imagined myself in a dead world, deserted in the wake of some cataclysm, where I, without knowing it, was the only survivor. I shut my eyes and went deep into the entrails of this empty stomach, like someone in a futurist comic strip, and I confess I derived some kind of pleasure from this dark wandering.

On April 30th, the first of two convoys left the embassy for Thailand under the protection of the Khmer Rouge. The numbers at the embassy had been whittled down to 1,046 people, all documented in quadruplicate for the Khmer guards. Six days later the second convoy left. Both arrived safely at the Thai border and the Europeans were able to cross the bridge to safety. Of his own trip across the bridge, Bizot says
I crossed over without looking back. Dusk fell over the land of the Khmer. Where the light had been swallowed away, a thickening darkness filled its space.
Falling upon a world abandoned to dark and terrifying powers, the primitive mob unleashed the horde of dead in the storm we left behind... The thought occurred to me that man is created in the ignoble image of the slaughterman.

In 1988 Bizot returned to Cambodia and went to Tuol Sleng, the processing centre for tens of thousands on the way to their deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. There in the walls of photographs, he found one of Douch, the head torturer. Bizot seems almost anguished at the sight, saying " I could not bring myself to identify the man I had known, who so loved justice, with the head of the torturers of this vile jail, the one responsible for so much infamy. What monstrous metamorphosis had he undergone?"

After Douch was captured in 1999, Bizot went back to Cambodia yet again, this time to visit Douch in jail. He learned from him the background to his own arrest and release so many years before. He visited the site of his prison, now overgrown by jungle.

In his Epilogue written after this 2000 visit, Bizot claims to have purged his ghosts and emptied his memory. This book tells us otherwise.

In 2009, Bizot was the first person to testify at Douch's trial for crimes against humanity. In 2012 he published a book detailing this experience, Facing the Torturer.

* Douch is the spelling Bizot used, so I am using it here. He is also know as Duch or Deuch. His real name is given variously as Kaing Guek Eav, or Kaing Khek Iev.

Apr 26, 2013, 4:30pm Top

Excellent review of a book that's been on my TBR for 10 years or so. It always seemed so dark, even for me, that I have never gotten to it.

Apr 26, 2013, 4:49pm Top

Sassy, regarding your question in #29, my wish list has no rhyme or reason right now. For the books I have added to the wish list based upon the reviews in Club Read, I have tried to tag them with the person who reviewed for future reference. In some cases, I already have the book, and those I have tagged as unread, rather than wish list. I am still trying to figure out how to keep up with all of the wonderful reviews that are adding to my "list", while also making the time to actually read the books so that they can be moved to "read".

Your review of The Gate is very interesting, and adds to the weight of the wish list yet again.....

Apr 26, 2013, 5:09pm Top

I've added The Gate to my wish list as well. I enjoy your reviews tremendously, SL. And now I'd like to spend the evening rewatching The Killing Fields, except that it's really not suitable for the twelve year old I'm spending my evening with.

Apr 27, 2013, 6:38am Top

Fabulous review of The Gate, Sassy. I've just purchased the Kindle version of it, and I'll probably read it in June.

Apr 27, 2013, 9:02am Top

Wonderful review of The Gate, Sassy. I read it a number of years ago and found it very powerful. I'm anxious now to read Facing the Torturer.

Apr 27, 2013, 7:42pm Top

Wow! The Gate seems a reality check. Excellent review.

Apr 27, 2013, 9:04pm Top

Simply reading the review itself was educational for me. Thanks.

Apr 28, 2013, 1:35pm Top

Thanks for your comments on Blade of Grass. I inherited a copy and sometimes wondered why I kept it. Now I'm actually interested in reading it. Did you post your review to the book's page to counter the review from someone who disliked it?

May 1, 2013, 10:18am Top

>40 RidgewayGirl: and >50 Nickelini:, done.

>45 RidgewayGirl:, RG, thanks. The Killing Fields is a very powerful film, but I think it needs the largest screen possible to get the full effect. You have an interesting question there about what age children should be exposed to such horrors.

rebecca, it was dark, but not horrifying in the sense that Cambodia Year Zero was. On one level it is more about Bizot and Douch, who just happen to be in this hell. However, when he does get to what is happening around him, it is indeed dark, perhaps made all the more so by his often dispassionate writing. Possibly this is his way to distance himself psychologically from those events.

>43 rebeccanyc: - >49 mkboylan: As you say bas, a reality check indeed. I have just started reading The Pol Pot Regime, in the third edition, so updated to 2008 and the start of the trials. Cambodia may seem like long ago and far away, but the little I have read so far about the US ignoring what was happening there as it suited their strategy for Vietnam, is horrifying. It makes you wonder about the policy to other conflicts like Rwanda or the more current Syria.
Like you Linda, I will be reading his next book. Did you read Shake Hands with the Devil?

May 1, 2013, 10:45am Top

From a new publisher of "shamelessly literary" books that might not be published elsewhere, sort of like the old Readers International.

26. Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
first published 2010 as Fiesta en la madriguera
finished reading April 29, 2013

I must confess I had never really thought about what life would be like as the child of a drug baron. Then I read Down the Rabbit Hole, told by just such a narrator, ten year old Tochtli (rabbit). Just like that more famous rabbit hole world, nothing is what it appears to be and language doesn't mean what it says. Tochtli is left to navigate this world by himself. No wonder he reads himself to sleep with the dictionary every night.

One of the words Tochtli learns is "precocious". This is how others describe him, but he knows that isn't the case; he is merely unusual. Given his father's occupation, Tochtli is forced to live in a very circumscribed world. Guards are his playmates. Three of the staff are mutes. His father tries to gently teach him the rules and behaviour expected from your gang. Tochtli cannot got to school, so a tutor lives in their "palace" with them. He describes his day:
I get up at eight o'clock. I wash and I have breakfast.
From nine to one I have lessons with Mazatzin.
I play on the Playstation from one to two.
Between two and three we have lunch.
From three to five I do my homework and research my own subjects.
From five to eight I do whatever I can think of.
At eight o'clock we have dinner.
From nine to ten I watch TV with Yolcaut {his father} and then after ten o'clock I go to my room to read the dictionary and go to sleep.

Tochtli loves lists. He lists the hats in his hat collection, the animals in their private zoo, the people he knows, his favourite words, all in an effort to make sense of his world. How much sense can he make of it though, when one of his favourite games with this father is a sort of guess the outcome game, where the only answers are "alive", "corpse", or "too early to tell"?
'One bullet in the heart.'
'Thirty bullets in the little toenail of the left foot.'
'Three bullets in the pancreas.'
'Too early to tell.'

Things heat up in the outside world. Tochtli is no longer allowed to watch television, as there are too many brutal drug murders in the news. Carrying false passports, he and his father and tutor leave for a trip to Liberia to get a long wished for pygmy hippopotamus for his zoo. Liberia makes no sense to him.

This is a first novel, actually a novella. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. It was quirky, imaginative and funny, but like Tochtli, I really don't know what to make of it.

May 1, 2013, 10:51am Top

Wow that sounds pretty intriguing! Thanks for the excellent review.

May 1, 2013, 11:07am Top

That does indeed sound quite intriguing!

May 1, 2013, 1:56pm Top

I like the sound of it as well Sassy, nice one!

May 1, 2013, 4:14pm Top

That does sound both unusual and intriguing.

Who is the publisher?

May 1, 2013, 7:09pm Top

It sounds original

May 2, 2013, 6:51am Top

>51 SassyLassy: I am not familiar with Shake Hands With the Devil, Sassy, but it looks interesting and I have added it to the list. Thanks for mentioning it.

May 2, 2013, 7:46am Top

>38 SassyLassy: That was 9 plays in one semester!

>52 SassyLassy: That was more or less also what I came away with from that book.

Edited: May 2, 2013, 9:38am Top

Nice review of Down the Rabbit Hole, Sassy. I read it in 2011, and I liked it overall, although I was glad that it was only 70 or so pages in length.

Rebecca, it was published by And Other Stories, an independent UK publisher that has recently established a presence in the US. I was going to mention that the publisher has a group page on LT, but I see that you're also a member of the group.

BTW, And Other Stories also published Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, which was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize. It has also published Black Vodka, a collection of short stories by Levy, and in September it will put out Quesadillas by Villalobos.

Edited: May 2, 2013, 9:46am Top

Darryl, that didn't ring a bell, but now I remember that someone invited me to join that group! I don't think I've ever checked it out, though -- will do so now!

ETA Amazon has an edition published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2012 -- seems to be the same translator as the And Other Stories edition.

Edited: May 2, 2013, 9:57am Top

Both Down the Rabbit Hole and Swimming Home are currently available in the US, according to Amazon, but they were published by FSG and Bloomsbury USA, respectively. I bought these two books in London; I probably have Swimming Home here, somewhere, but I gave my copy of Down the Rabbit Hole to either Fliss (flissp) or Rachael (FlossieT) before I left the UK (and I may have given Fliss my copy of Swimming Home as well).

ETA: According to the And Other Stories web site, its books will be distributed in the US by Consortium Book Sales & Distribution beginning in the fall:

And Other Stories establishes US presence with New York desk

May 2, 2013, 2:41pm Top

As kidzdoc says, the publisher of the edition of Down the Rabbit Hole that I read is And Other Stories, a subscription publisher. anisoara created the LT group for it and I first heard about them through her. She also has an amazing library. Down the Rabbit Hole was the first in the series and they are publishing another book by the same author this year. Unfortunately I just missed Black Vodka.

unusual, intriguing and original seem to be what they are aiming for and their catalogue reflects this.

avaland, that's roughly a play every week and a half by my calculations. How long did it take to recover from that?

Linda, Dallaire's experience in Rwanda marked him for life. Reading the book, you can really understand how the constant road blocks he met affected him so much. I found it difficult to read in big chunks and often put it down for extended periods. The idea of 800,000 being murdered in just 100 days was beyond belief. Here is an interview with him from this week:


May 2, 2013, 5:15pm Top

>59 avaland: - 63 I read it in book form, bought it off the shelf (imagine that, browsing a shelf in a bookstore. How old-fashioned!)

May 16, 2013, 12:40am Top

Catching up from way back. So...from Post #22, loved reading this review. The Wandering Jews has been on my wishlist for awhile, but I haven't read anything by Joseph Roth yet. I own The Radetzky March (after reading a review by Rebecca a long time ago)...30 wish I had read this post on Othello and your Shakespeare group sooner, what a wonderful group....39 A Blade of Grass sounds fascinating...but maybe not as fascinating as...42 The Gate. Very tempting...52 and I'm intrigued by your review of Down the Rabbit Hole. What a great selection of books you have been reading.

May 18, 2013, 1:05pm Top

avaland, definitely one of the best ways to find books you would never have dreamed existed.

dan, thanks for the comments, they prompted me to pick up this thread again. I too have to read some of Roth's fiction.

May 18, 2013, 1:43pm Top

One of those finds from browsing a shelf in a second hand bookstore:

27. The Czar's Madman by Jaan Kross translated from the Estonian by Anselm Hollo
first published as Keisri hull in 1978
finished reading May 15, 2013

Colonel Timotheus von Bock had unusual ideas. A member of the Baltic aristocracy, he chose to use his position to implement social change, never a good idea when you are the Czar's aide-de-camp, let alone when you have sworn an oath as the czar's friend to always tell him the truth, even when your ideas have not been solicited.

Bock's story is told by his brother-in-law, Jakob, through journal entries alternating past and present events. This was the era of Napoleon. The Baltic states were under Russian control. Nationalist aspirations were quickly squashed. Peasants were serfs, property of the estate owner. Von Bock had set his own serfs free on inheriting his estate. The Baron had purchased Jakob and his sister Eeva from a neighbouring estate, arranged for their certificates of emancipation, arranged for them to have five years of education, and then married Eeva. This was the Baron's first great offence; to marry not just outside his class, but to reach all the way down to the peasant class.

His second great offence was treason, at least treason in the eyes of Czar Alexander. Alexander had had his own father, "Mad Paul" overthrown. In the process, Paul was murdered, whether deliberately or not was a matter of interpretation. Alexander had been aided in the planning for this enterprise by Paul's most trusted councillor, Count von Pahlen. Neither man was present at the overthrow and murder. Alexander exiled von Pahlen to his Estonian estates. There von Bock visited him to confess he no longer had faith in Alexander's commitment to reform, and so felt he must leave Russia. Such a declaration constituted treason.

Bock was arrested for treason on the basis of this visit and letters he had sent to Alexander pleading for reform. These letters allowed the Czar to deem him mad, so that instead of hideous torture and death, he was incarcerated in an island fortress. Nine years later, yet another Czar had him released because he was mad. Exiled to his estates, he and his family now faced the dilemma succinctly framed by his physician:
... if the government were to notice that Mr Bock is not insane, the consequence -- not an inevitable but a possible one-- might be that he would be locked up at Schusselburg again.

How should Timotheus act in his exile, mad or sane?

The details of life on the estate and Bock's life of internal exile give a picture of a time and place not often visited in English translations. Time moves slowly on these estates, but Jakob's journal entries are well paced to keep the reader's interest. Kross himself had been exiled to Stalin's labour camps and knew the conundrums facing political prisoners. Kross knew there was never a resolution and the story of the czar's madman confirms that.

Paul I on the left and Alexander during the last year of Paul's reign

May 18, 2013, 4:50pm Top

Well, that one goes on the wishlist! And I too find most of my books by browsing in bookstores!

May 18, 2013, 6:30pm Top

Oh that sounds interesting, enjoyed your review of The Czar's Madman

May 18, 2013, 10:53pm Top

So much history I'm missing, never heard of "Mad Paul", much less his overthrow and possible murder by his son. I'm very flattered if I actually did prompt that post.

May 19, 2013, 6:34am Top

That sounds very interesting. I love historical fiction, and have read so little about Russia.

May 19, 2013, 9:40am Top

Great review of The Czar's Madman, Sassy. I will need to look for this one. I only wish that there were any bookstores nearby and convenient for browsing!

May 22, 2013, 11:07am Top

When I was a kid, there was a complete leather bound collection of the Muhlbach novels in the house where I lived. Luisa Muhlbach (1814-1873) wrote them as a series of historical romances and I devoured them, learning all kinds of odd things about people such as Catherine the Great, Mad Paul, Marie Antoinette, on and on. Rereading these books today would probably be a major cringe inducing activity, but they did instil in me a fascination with Russian imperial history, which has never really diminished, although my reading may have deviated away from it.

As for bookstores to browse in, they are all at least a two hour drive each way, which probably makes them that much more of a treat when I actually get there, as it is a rare activity. Hope that helps Linda!

May 22, 2013, 11:22am Top

For a real review of this book, please see nickelini's review post 113.

28. The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
first published 2012
finished reading May 16, 2013

My twelve year old self would have loved this book. My mother would like it. I liked it too as a vacation book on an out of town trip, as recommended by nickelini.

As she said, it is a modern update on Jane Eyre. Even Hawick figured in the story. The writing was good, the settings really well done. So what was bothering me? I certainly kept reading to see what adventure Gemma would land in next.

Finally it dawned on me; this book was written for a female readership. Gender targeted books are something I generally don't read, not as a deliberate strategy, it just works out that way. This conclusion left me of two minds about the book. I did enjoy it and it raised interesting questions, such as how do children learn whom to trust. On the other hand, the idea of being part of this kind of market group was unreasonably distressing to me. This is probably an over the top reaction, as I would read another book by Margot Livesey, so I'm not even being consistent. Why then can't I just enjoy a simple straightforward story without feeling guilty?

Time for some straightforward non fiction while I work this one out.

May 22, 2013, 12:11pm Top

74 - May I please steal that line, "For a real review of this book, see....." Still laughing.

May 24, 2013, 11:33am Top

By all means, mk. The real review was a good one, so hope you saw that too.

May 24, 2013, 11:47am Top

. . . and thanks for the plug! And I'm glad it worked out for you on that vacation-book level.

May 24, 2013, 12:33pm Top

At the end of Elizabeth Lev's The Tigress of Forli, Caterina's son Giovanni di Giovanni de' Medici dies of wounds he sustained while fighting Charles V's German mercenaries heading for Rome, the same mercenaries who would implement the sack of Rome. This book takes up Renaissance politics where that one left off.

28. The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher
first published in 2012 as Our Man in Rome
finished reading May 21, 2103

If you learned your English history from standard English language textbooks, Henry VIII's quest to dissolve his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn may often seem to be the only concern from 1527 when he started secret hearings into the matter until 1534 when Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy and the Act Respecting the Oath to the Succession.

Catherine Fletcher has taken a different perspective in her new book The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story. Fletcher follows Gregorio Casali, Henry's envoy at the Vatican, and through him we get not only a much more comprehensive look at the European world at that time, but also an insight into the view the Europeans had of Henry.

What is often missed today in the king's "great matter" is that Henry was not seeking a divorce. What he wanted was a ruling that his marriage to Catherine was invalid. Although not common, this was not an unusual request at the time. Initially Henry was prepared to go through the proper papal processes. However, what was a matter of great importance for Henry and for his succession, was the somewhat mundane problem of a mid level northern monarch when seen from the perspective of Rome.

Clement VII was the pope at the time Henry started his campaign. Clement was a Medici, a member of the first family of Florence. He was also under siege in Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor, the Hapsburg Charles V, in an engagement that would become known as the sack of Rome. His life was only spared on the payment of a four hundred thousand ducat ransom, and even at that he still had to endure six months of captivity. That same year Florence declared itself a republic yet again and expelled the ruling Medici. Clement needed to get the city back for his family.* Suleiman the Magnificent was threatening Buda and Vienna, so wasn't that far from Venice. The French king was an ally but a weak one who couldn't be counted on as his sons were Hapsburg hostages. Henry's problems must have seemed pale in comparison --- why couldn't he just keep Anne as a mistress?

The fact that Henry's ambassador to the Pope was not English, but Roman, was seen as an advantage by the head of his diplomatic service, Cardinal Wolsey. It gave the English a series of connections in Italy and a knowledge of real politik in the Renaissance courts that no Englishman could provide. Casali was close enough to Clement to have been with him during the Sack and to have been one of four men chosen to negotiate for the Pope. He was also wealthy enough to have raised a significant amount of money for Clement.

This was the milieu in which the papal response to Henry's request would play itself out. Over the next six years, Casali would work for Henry's interest. The trust Henry placed in him was enormous. As an educated pragmatist, Casali would also work for his own interests and those of his brothers, strategically placed in various European courts. Henry's cause was not necessarily one that would make friends in Rome, especially as Catherine of Aragon was the aunt of Charles V, a fact that was never far from the minds of Casali and Clement. Clement would make peace with Charles over this time and win back Florence for the Medici, so upsetting Charles was not something to be done lightly. If Henry's cause were to flounder, Casali would need another patron, so even beyond his diplomatic role, it was not in his interest to antagonize anyone. He kept his position throughout the turbulence of Henry's reign, surviving the fall of Wolsey, even when Casali himself was named in one of the charges against Wolsey. In Shakespeare's words about the charge
Item, you sent a large commission
To Gregory de Cassado, to conclude,
Without the king's will or the state's allowance
A league between his highness and Ferrara.

Casali also survived the rise of nationalism in England, led by the Duke of Norfolk, who felt Englishmen would better represent English interests abroad. He was wise enough to court Cromwell when he came to power. That Casali could maintain his position with Henry, albeit with lessened responsibility, shows his remarkable skills and abilities.

Shifting allegiances, skilful delaying tactics on both sides, the vagaries of long distance communication and the reliance that they placed on ambassadorial skill and knowledge, are all captured here. Fletcher has a background in political science and in history, which gives her not just the understanding of the history behind this book, but also the more crucial insight into the hows and whys of the times. This was a fascinating look at one episode in Renaissance history and its completely unintended consequences.

* Also noted in The Tigress of Forli, where Lev says Clement's entire pontificate was directed toward obtaining the sovereignty of Florence and its territories in order to create the Duchy of Tuscany (p 269)

May 24, 2013, 12:37pm Top


May 24, 2013, 2:15pm Top

Excellent review of The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story, Sassy. Reviews such as yours make me realize that my knowledge of this period comes mainly from historical fiction. I feel I should rectify that, but honestly don't know where best to begin.

May 24, 2013, 2:33pm Top

Very interesting. My knowledge of his divorce from Catherine mostly comes from Wolf Hall and it was clear to me from that book that Henry was initially trying to get the pope to dissolve the marriage and that Catherine's Spanish roots were important. However, I certainly didn't know about what else the pope was dealing with at the time. I probably won't read the book, but I learned a lot from your review.

May 24, 2013, 5:22pm Top

The Divorce of Henry VIII goes straight onto my wish list. Thanks Sassy for an excellent review. It is going to be a year for history reading as I have also just read seven's review of The Wars of the Roses. I enjoyed the Tigress of Forli because of the insights into the period of history that it provided, mainly through an analysis of the events and the characters reactions to those events. This book on Henry VIII seems in the same vein.

May 24, 2013, 5:55pm Top

I would like to know more about the Tudors and in particular about the horror that was King Henry VIII in context. I don't know that I will read The Divorce of Henry VIII, but it is now on my Waiting-for-the-paperback wishlist.

Thank you,


May 27, 2013, 4:20am Top

Great review of The Divorce of Henry VIII, Sassy; I'll add it to my wish list.

May 27, 2013, 7:34am Top

The Divorce of Henry VIII is another for my wish list. Thank you.

May 30, 2013, 11:47am Top

Nickelini, doc and nana, I hope you get around to it. How could you not like a book with chapters such as "How to Bribe a Cardinal" or "The Daily Frauds of the Brothers Casali"?

Linda and Mr D, I sort of came at Tudor history peripherally, by reading Scottish and French history, which both seemed to link to Tudors, so I started in on them. I don't think it was till I read about the Plantagenets that Tudors made sense though, so I will be reading The Wars of the Roses, reviewed by steven for an updated take. Love that Waiting-for-the-paperback wishlist. I have one too.
Linda, if you want a fun summer read about Henry, I would recommend The Autobiography of Henry VIII, with Notes by his Fool, Will Somers. I like historical fiction as a way to get interested in a new period.

rebecca, you're right about the portrayal in Wolf Hall and I think Mantel made the distinction well between a divorce and any other form of marriage dissolution. Fletcher though uses the term divorce interchangeably, saying that ...his contemporaries used the word and I see no reason to avoid it. However, I think it helps clarify the progression of events to use the different terms, as Mantel did.

bas, as I was reading this book I was thinking you would probably enjoy it. After reading steven's review, I'll be interested to hear what you think about The Wars of the Roses once you've read it.

Some trivia: Wikipedia tells me that canon law required priests to be clean shaven, which I did not know. Clement grew a beard while he was imprisoned during the Sack of Rome as a sign of mourning for the city and kept it until his death, starting a fashion among later popes. Here he is:

May 31, 2013, 7:30pm Top

Well perhaps you want to check that out here: Canon Law - or NOT!

May 31, 2013, 11:20pm Top

Belatedly adding my praise to your review of The Divorce of Henry VIII.

One thing my reading has shown is that neither Henry nor Clement were all that secure in their positions. Not too many years earlier there had been three popes at the same time, and the Tudors were just a minor family of Welsh gentry. For many of the players it wasn't just a test of wills, but a battle for survival.

Jun 3, 2013, 12:26pm Top

Are you still thinking of reading some Hardy this month? I'm thinking of starting either Far from the Madding Crowd or Jude the Obscure in the relatively near future. Would you recommend one or the other to start with? I own both.

Jun 3, 2013, 8:27pm Top

That's funny mk...in Latin no less.

Thanks steven. What further reading would you recommend? I have your Plantagenets book on my list and other books bas has read, but I'm always interested in more suggestions about the general European picture say approximately 1450-1650.

rebecca, yes I am. Both those books are definitely bleak, but knowing your tolerance, I think to get what I consider the full Hardy, I would go with Jude the Obscure. Anything after that would be almost cheerful.

I haven't been getting much reading in lately due to a project for which I am starting out for Vermont tomorrow. Quite exciting, but lots of preparation. I was in the city last weekend and found a new to me wonderful second hand book store and indulged myself to the limit I could manage on the subway. Vermont has great used book stores and I will have my car, so looking forward to lots of new finds. I may even get some reading done while I am away, without a computer or phone. I know it will be several days worth of reading catching up on everyone's threads once I'm back next week.

Jun 4, 2013, 7:26am Top

Well, you inspired me to look for my copy of Jude the Obscure and I looked and looked an couldn't find it anywhere! I reorganized my books, but especially my TBR piles about a year and a half ago, and it's driving me crazy! I know it must be somewhere, but it isn't in any of the logical places. If I go out and buy another copy, I know the first one will turn up!

Have fun in Vermont, and enjoy the time without a computer or phone!

Jun 4, 2013, 12:30pm Top

Jude the Obscure is wonderful, but if you're going to buy a book anyway, I suggest Tess of the d'Urbervilles for you first Hardy. Just because I think there's a bit more story to it. But they're both really good. I'm going to read Hardy this summer--not sure which one yet.

Jun 4, 2013, 12:59pm Top

*Delurking to wave hello at SassyLassy*

>92 Nickelini: I just (barely) started Tess of the d'Urbervilles Sunday. It'll be my first Hardy and probably some much needed literature after a string of unsubstantial reads.

By the way, Sassy, thanks again for the link you left on my thread to the Martinez interview! :)

Jun 5, 2013, 3:05am Top

I'm not on the Tudor bandwagon yet, but a very tempting review of The Divorce of Henry VIII!

Hope you have fun in Vermont and get some reading time while you're over there.

Jun 8, 2013, 9:34am Top

I broke down and bought another copy of Jude the Obscure because they had one for $10 in a bookstore I just happened to be in. So I've started it . . .

Jun 12, 2013, 11:43am Top

Back here at my computer yesterday and well over 700 posts on the threads I usually follow, so lots of catching up. Vermont was beautiful and great as usual, but unfortunately I didn't make it to my favourite book stores as I was staying in a rural location and working from 05:00 to 22:00. I did pick up a few books along the way though, including a new to me Wilkie Collins, who is one of my favourite authors.

rebecca and nickelini, perhaps I will reread both Hardy books this summer, just to get the full impact. I'll need the Wilkie Collins for relief.

DieF, it's mostly steven's fault for the Tudors and bas for the era that got me to that book. Their reviews are terrific.

avidmom, I hope you check out some of her other interviews. She speaks with some of the most amazing authors and somehow gets them all to sound wonderful. It's terrible for the wishlist.

First thing I heard on my way home was the sad but not unexpected news of the death of Iain Banks/Iain M Banks:

Now to try catching up.

Jun 12, 2013, 12:25pm Top

A great account of a doomed expedition and a story that should be read in every project management course.

29. Cooper's Creek by Alan Moorehead
first published 1963
finished reading May 23, 2013

Having lived in northern latitudes all my life, thoughts of lost explorers always involved frostbite, snow blindness, blizzards and freezing to death while starving, like the lost Franklin expedition, or Scott in the Antarctic. It was quite a surprise to shift gears and contemplate the horrors of exploring Australia. Cooper's Creek is the story of the Burke and Wills expedition, one which had all the ingredients for a disaster. Naturally one ensued.

By 1860, Europeans had settled around the perimeter of Australia along the coast. Some forays had been made into the near interior, but nothing was known of the real centre, covering twelve degrees of latitude and twenty-five of longitude, in other words, an area larger than half of Europe. Australia was developing rapidly. Some commercial interests wanted new grazing lands, others wanted to prospect for new mines in a mineral rich country. Telegraph and trains going across the continent rather than around it would help increase overall prosperity. What was needed was a clear sense of what made up the "ghastly blank" of the interior.

The east coast of Australia has mountains separating it from the interior. Rivers arising in these mountains flow westward, causing some of those early settlers to think there was a great inland sea. Others envisioned a Sahara like desert, based on explorers' reports. In an effort to clarify things, the Philosophical Institute in the state of Victoria proposed an expedition to cross the continent from south to north, and advertised for members. The leader selected was Robert Burke, a man with no background in science or exploration. William Wills was chosen as his surveyor. The committee in charge directed the expedition to Cooper's Creek, mapped earlier by Charles Sturt. They then basically left it up to Burke which direction to follow next.

Long before the expedition reached Cooper's Creek though, things began to go wrong. Burke was being pressured by the Committee to reduce expenses and at the same time to hurry up, as a competing party had set out from the neighbouring state of South Australia. Differences of class, language and interest had appeared among members of the expedition. In his hurry to press on, Burke had auctioned off supplies along the way, let expedition members go, and left a man called Wright at the settlement of Menindie with instructions to bring the remaining supplies along to Cooper's Creek in a few days, as soon as transport was organized.

On reaching Cooper's Creek, Burke set up a depot. He then divided his party into two groups of four and struck out for the northern coast without waiting to ensure that Wright arrived with the supplies. He left ambiguous verbal instructions with Brahe, the man he left in charge, that he would be back in three months, but if he was not, Brahe was to remain there as long as the provisions lasted and then return the way they had come.

Burke's party of four set out without maps, without lines of communication and in the blazing heat of mid summer Australia. Amazingly, they made it to the tidal waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria on the northern coast, fifty-seven days after leaving Brahe. They then turned back right away, as they had only one month's provisions left. They would have to return on reduced rations.

Eight weeks into the return journey, one of the party died, seventy miles from the Cooper's Creek depot. Meanwhile, back at the depot, Brahe had sensibly concluded that Burke would not be returning. He and the other three men were ill. Wright had never appeared with the supplies, so the rations were running low. Burke made the difficult decision to leave. However, since he still held out faint hope for Burke, he left him a cache of one month's worth of buried rations and a letter in a bottle, telling him he was going back. In a terrible twist of fate, close to death from starvation and exhaustion, Burke and his party arrived at the depot the very evening of the day Brahe left.

Burke now made yet another poor decision. Rather than striking out next day and following the route Brahe had indicated he was taking, Burke decided to go in a different direction and cut across unknown country in what he thought would be a shortcut.

Meanwhile back in Melbourne, people had started to wonder whatever had happened to the expedition. A party was sent out ten months after the expedition initially set out. They met Brahe's struggling group and returned with them to organize a proper search for Burke and Wills. The results of the search and the transcripts of the subsequent commission of inquiry provide a truly cautionary tale about the completely avoidable consequences of neither thinking nor planning.

Jun 12, 2013, 12:44pm Top

Cooper's Creek sounds quite interesting. I've read several fiction about the early settlement of Australia, but never non-fiction. I will check my local library for this one.

Jun 12, 2013, 1:55pm Top

Thanks for that great review of Cooper's Creek. I'm really wanting to learn more about the history of Australia.

Jun 12, 2013, 6:50pm Top

Sounds very interesting. It's possible we have it in my family's house in the mountains, because my mother was a big Alan Moorhead fan. The daunting task of cataloging all the books there is one that scares even me -- they're all pre-ISBN.

Jun 12, 2013, 8:01pm Top

Excellent review of Cooper's Creek which immediately reminded me of the Patrick White novel Voss which I read last year. White's novel was not however based on the Burke - Willis expedition but on another attempt to cross the Australian interior.

Jun 14, 2013, 11:01am Top

Thanks Nana and mk. I too need to learn more about Australia, a place that is woefully neglected by schools in this part of the world.

rebecca, that is scary indeed and results in some interesting group suggestions from LT. Every time I enter more than a few pre ISBN books at a time from used book stores or my parents' place, LT assumes I am old enough to have bought the books new, even if they date from 1910 or some such time. Strange algorithms. It will be well worth it to get those books entered though; will you do it as their library or part of your own? I used to read old Moorehead books in university and was happy to see they did not seem dated.

bas, thanks for the reminder that I need to read White. I missed out on the big read last year. Where would be the best place to start?

Jun 14, 2013, 11:29am Top

Recently I joined the not so local library, looking for audio books for my road trip. This real book was in the Recent Acquisitions display, so thinking ahead to a probable fiftieth anniversary deluge of books, and remembering petermc's review from last year, I borrowed it too, but finished it before my trip.

30. Mrs Kennedy and Me by Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin
first published 2012
finished reading June 2, 2013

You don't have to actually remember November 22, 1963 to know the photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy scrambling over the back of a limousine reaching for a secret service agent. That agent was Clint Hill and this book is his memoir of the Kennedy years.

Previously assigned to President Eisenhauer, Hill was assigned to Mrs Kennedy right after the 1960 election. Among his peers, protecting the First Lady was seen as somehow being less than a real agent. Hill dreaded the prospect, envisioning four years of White House teas and white gloved ladies.

What he got instead was the dynamic, independent young Jacqueline, who had no intention of living in that world. Despite her work at restoring and refurbishing the White House, and her famous entertaining, she actually spent a minimal amount of time there. Life as a Kennedy followed a yearly rhythm of houses: Palm Beach for Christmas, New Year and Easter holidays, Hyannis Port for Thanksgiving and the President's birthday. Labour Day was spent at her family's home in Rhode Island and then there was the apartment at the Carlyle in New York City. When not at one of these places, or travelling abroad, she usually spent Friday to Tuesday at a rented estate in Middleburg Virginia, seeking privacy and peace.

Hill's introduction and reaction to this world of privilege is one of the most interesting parts of this book. Although as a member of the Secret Service he had seen power in action, it does not appear that as a young man from Washburn North Dakota he had ever contemplated the kind of lives he now saw everyday. Hill is a model of discretion, but even fifty years later a certain awe and feeling of "Am I really here?" permeate his writing.

He also gives us a glimpse into the live of a Secret Service agent. Hopefully working conditions have improved, but Hill spent weeks at a time away from his own young family, often without relief. He glosses over this, seeming to think it was all part of the job, a shared experience with other agents. His immersion into the life of a family he would never be part of left scant time for his own family. While he guarded Mrs Kennedy through two births and several moves, he missed his own son's birth and his family's move. As a loyal agent, the class aspects of the world in which he was living and his relation to it, never seem to have crossed his mind.

Hill was completely bowled over by Jacqueline Kennedy. While always very correct -- it was always Mrs Kennedy and Mr Hill in their address to each other -- a young man's infatuation with a beautiful and unattainable woman permeates his memoir. She will always be on a pedestal for him. His greatest burden is his profound belief that even though he was assigned to Mrs Kennedy, he somehow failed to protect the President in Dallas. Spread eagled over the dying President and devastated First Lady in the back of the limousine, his world came to an end. Despite twelve more years with the White House Detail and the Secret Service, Hill never recovered. His book is a very personal testament to that loss.

Jun 14, 2013, 11:47am Top

#102, Sassy, I've put the books I took from my parents' apartment in NYC into my own library in my Ex-P (i.e., ex-parents) collection. IF I ever catalog the books in my family's house in the mountains, I would probably create a separate account for them. I've been gradually going through the shelves fairly mercilessly and culling them (taking the books to the local library for their sale), partly to make room for six boxes of books I took from the NYC apartment and brought up there, since I thought they were worth keeping but didn't need/have room for them in my own library. To complicate matters, some of the books up there are books from my grandparents' apartment that my mother moved there after they died; mostly they are just very old, but I would like to make sure they're not financially valuable (very slim chance of that!). For most of the books, I would probably end up doing manual entry, book by book, although some date from the 60s-90s and should be findable through Add Books. It's not likely I'll do this any time soon, although I might enter some subset of books, like field guides, or books about the Catskills.

What do you mean by LT assuming you're old enough to have bought the books new? I haven't encountered LT being interested in my age, so I think I'm not understanding what you mean.

Jun 14, 2013, 11:51am Top

I was in high school when the assassination of President Kennedy happened. We saw that devestating image of Jacqueline Kennedy over and over again on television. I think I might like to read this memoir, as it doesn't seem to be a "telling all the dirty secrets" type of book. I have an image of Mrs. Kennedy that I would like to keep.

Jun 14, 2013, 12:34pm Top

Mrs. Kennedy and Me is another one for the wishlist! Thanks for the review.

Jun 14, 2013, 2:33pm Top

>104 rebeccanyc: What a wonderful way to keep the memory of a loved library going. I hope you find the time to do this eventually.

LT is not so unmannerly as to ask a member's age, but they seem to try to determine it in different ways, one of which appears to be the date of the edition you own of a given work. Adding many old Pelicans from the 1960s, a favourite series of mine, I found a group suggestion of Readers over 60 on my home page. The same thing happened with the old orange spined Penguin classics. Similarly, adding a number of books from other particular genres would give you a suggestion of Readers under 30. Suggestions seem to fluctuate according to what your most recent additions were. My current group suggestions include Military History and Feminist Theory. I can't say I've ever contemplated military history but have spent considerable time and effort on feminist theory, so I would love an explanation of how these really work, as mine is probably completely off track.

Edited: Jun 14, 2013, 3:33pm Top

Oh, I almost never look at my home page, and I saw I disabled Suggested Groups anyway. I turned it on and it's suggesting Historical Mysteries (????), Chicagoans (??????), Agatha Christie (no thanks, I read her books when I was about 12), Reading through Time (maybe, but I belong to too many groups), and Virago Modern Classics (ditto). It's probably based on all the books in my library, since I do have a lot of mysteries in it, although I haven't read much in that genre (Camilleri excepted) for a good 15 or 20 years.

ETA I was in 5th grade when JFK was shot; it is the first historic event I remember vividly.

Jun 14, 2013, 5:55pm Top

SassyLassy, if you want to start somewhere with Patrick White then Voss would be an excellent place to start, in many ways it is typical of his work and after reading the Alan Moorhead book it would be perfect for you. I enjoyed your excellent review of Mrs Kennedy and me

I don't remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, but I certainly remember where I was when John Lennon was assassinated.

Jun 14, 2013, 5:59pm Top

I certainly remember where I was when John Lennon was assassinated.

Me too.

Jun 15, 2013, 9:09am Top

Barry - I feel that I should try Patrick White again and I have a copy of Voss; maybe I will pick it up soon.

Rebecca - I recently attended a presentation about antenna design (don't ask); and was delighted to see that one of the inventions described was an antenna which could scan the text on book spines and therefore tell you where on your shelves a particular volume was. That would save me a lot of time! - although I don't know how long it would be before that came to market.

Jun 17, 2013, 12:04pm Top

Great review of Mrs. Kennedy and Me, Sassy. My first memory, albeit vague, is my mother crying after JFK's assassination; I would have been 2-1/2 years old then. I don't think I learned about John Lennon's assassination until the following day, although I remember where I was when Ronald Reagan was shot, when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and when Princess Diana was killed.

Is there anyone, in the US at least, who doesn't remember where they were and what they were doing on 9/11?

Jun 20, 2013, 7:24pm Top

Glad to see the suggestions are somewhat wonky for you too, rebecca.

Thanks for the recommendation, bas. I will look for this Patrick White. I am promising myself more books once I get through some of my more recent binges, so that will likely be in the next one.

w_s, good to see that science is paying attention to books, even if it will probably only wind up as some kind of warehouse device, if it ever goes anywhere.

It's odd how we remember major external events. Perhaps it is a way to link ourselves to history, or else to lessen the impact of the event itself. A frightening memory though, doc, to see your mother crying and not be able to understand why.

Jun 20, 2013, 7:40pm Top

31. Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by David Bellos
first published as L'homme à l'envers in 1999
finished reading June 11, 2013

Based on LT and other places, Fred Vargas appears to be a popular writer. I am going to suggest that she was very badly served by her translator for this book. Luckily, the person who gave it to me also gave me one by the same author in the original French, so I will see how that goes.

Jun 20, 2013, 8:16pm Top

This is apparently the first volume in a trilogy. I will be looking for the other two. I hope they have the same translator.

32. Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov, translated from the Russian by Ian Appleby
first published as Kazennaya skazka in 1994
finished reading June 15, 2013

The title of this first novel suggested to me a dashing cavalry officer, mounted on a beautiful horse, galloping across the endless steppes. Perhaps it was a good image to keep in mind, to highlight just how far Pavlov's Captain Khabarov and his peers departed from that romantic notion.

Khabarov is coming to the end of his career. In what will almost certainly be his last posting, he is the officer in charge of a remote prison camp in Karabas, part of the huge Karlag prison system in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. Having made it this far in a life of alternating tedium and turmoil, a prudent man would just let things drift until retirement.

Khabarov, however, had been seized with an idea. The camp had suffered year after year of wretched deliveries of food and goods; items rejected by destinations further up the line and never sufficient to the camp's needs. Every year half of the meagre potato delivery was rotten and had to be buried. Why not grow their own potatoes?
From one potato, so they say, you can get a whole bucketful. We'll barter potatoes for meat from the Kazakhs , and then, when the company has got rich on potatoes, we'll get our own livestock... He would supply the regiment with meat and potatoes. ...He would plant all the potatoes they were allotted. Meanwhile they would live on grains and boiled down beef suet until the plants grew. They'd get by.

That spring, the captain led his uncomprehending soldiers out onto the steppe and had them plant the good potatoes. Next morning, the smell of fried potatoes filled the barracks. Overnight, the soldiers had dug them up for breakfast. Khabarov had the remaining potatoes replanted and set out guard dogs. Next morning, the smell of fried potatoes was accompanied by the smell of fried meat. Over the summer, Khabarov did manage to see some of his crop through to harvest though.

Now began one of those hideous bureaucratic nightmares -- how to account for the extra potatoes?
Mind you, Khabarov would have like to conceal everything. The potatoes had been grown from regimental supplies and so still needed to be accounted for; they were property of the state. It had been easy to hide them in the ground, but now it did not seem right.

Reporting to the headquarters at Karaganda, Khabarov confessed to his planting venture, in the frightened belief he was speaking with a general. The voice told him that he had done well. Khabarov felt vindicated. That was enough to set off a whole web of jealousies, orders, counter orders and political wrangling that is both a wonderful satire on the state of things in the dying days of the USSR and a telling comment on organizations just about anywhere.

Pavlov himself had worked as a prison guard in Kazakhstan during his military service. His descriptions of the system collapsing into quiet anarchy have the ring of truth, despite their satiric presentation. His portrait of Khabarov is a sympathetic one. The captain's despair and desire to make things better despite the odds, bring a sympathetic human face to a group of people who don't normally appear in fiction. Khabarov and his soldiers are just as much prisoners as the zeks they are supposed to guard. The steppe and the system are their jailers too.

Jun 21, 2013, 8:40am Top

I enjoyed your review of Captain of the Steppe, Sassy. I am adding it to my wishlist, although it looks like the other books in the trilogy may not be easy to find. Do you know if they have been translated?

Jun 21, 2013, 10:47am Top

Captain of the Steppe sounds like a real find.

No one has dug up my potatoes this year although I think they might be waterlogged.

Jun 21, 2013, 5:05pm Top

Wow, that sounds like a fascinating book!

Jun 21, 2013, 9:11pm Top

Linda, I see one in French and Glagoslav Publications has Asystole, which looks unrelated, coming out in December 2013. Maybe if this one is successful (just published in English this year), the others two will also be translated and published.

bas, you immediately made me think of The Great Hunger and then all kinds of unpleasant potato diseases from my days taking plant pathology courses. Then I discovered I hadn't added my copy to LT, so that is taken care of and I will skim through it again. Have you read it? It was written some fifty years ago, but still reads very well. Would a bit of surface sand help the waterlogging?

rebecca, I think you, bas and linda would like Pavlov's book. I see that Book Depository has it for about $13.00. It can certainly stand independently, without the other two. It sounds like the trilogy label derives from the fact that all three books in it are based on Pavlov's army experiences.

Jun 22, 2013, 10:11am Top

Thanks, Sassy. I actually found it on Book Depository yesterday, but it was $15 -- I ordered it anyway. Do you think they show different prices to different people?????

Jun 22, 2013, 12:11pm Top

Do you think they show different prices to different people

yes, when those people live in different countries. I see Book Depository prices in Canadian dollars, even though I buy the books from England.

Jun 22, 2013, 3:06pm Top

Really enjoyed catching up here Sassy. Brilliant reviews of Cooper's Creek and Mrs Kennedy and Me. The former appeals to my fascination with journeys from hell and questions of leadership - I like your comment about required reading at management courses - and I've also been trying to learn more about that huge country's history. The latter sounds like a very unusual and unique perspective. Your reviews made me want to read both.

Captain of the Steppe sounds like a book I could relate to. Adding that one as well.

I wasn't alive when President Kennedy was assassinated, but I certainly remember Lennon's murder. The one moment though when I was totally shaken and chilled to my bones, was when the government spokesman announced, live on radio for us in the barracks with no TV, that Itzhak Rabin had died from his gunshot wounds. The hairs on my neck and arms stood up like I'd been electrocuted. I'd kind of had this weird premonition/thought/idea that he'd be shot a few hours before it happened.

Jun 22, 2013, 3:09pm Top

...and Barry thanks for mentioning Voss that looks like a great book.

Edited: Jun 22, 2013, 3:11pm Top

#121 Yes, but if Sassy's seeing $13 in Canadian dollars, it should be less in US dollars, not more!

Jun 22, 2013, 6:21pm Top

It's one of those moments when I am happy to have a Kindle - only $9.99 and instant gratification.

Jun 22, 2013, 9:06pm Top

rebecca and linda, here's my cynical theory about Book Depository which I think I've mentioned elsewhere: it seems as if they have a count of how many times a particular title is searched for in a period of several days. Lots of hits, up goes the price.
I first noticed this when I was selecting books for gifts and was comparing prices on various sites over several days. The prices kept going up and then mysteriously after a week of not looking, they had dropped down again. I later started recording this just out of curiosity. However, I was somewhat surprised to see that the price quoted for rebecca was higher than the one I saw; as she says, it should be higher in Canadian than American dollars (but just slightly). Today the price in Canadian dollars is just over $17.
linda, I think a Kindle would be exactly the wrong thing for me. Instant gratification is too dangerous.

Polaris, that's eerie about Rabin. What a place to be when the news came out.
Glad to be adding to your reading list! Apropos of journeys from hell and bad planning, I have Scott's journals on my TBR. I can't decide whether to read them in summer as relief, or in winter in sympathy.

Edited: Jun 23, 2013, 8:36am Top

Your review of Cooper's Creek immediately put me in mind of Captain Scott in terms of the series of calamitous decisions made, and more than a fair share of bad luck. I know that there are several very fine books on the subject of Scott's doomed expedition, as well as the non-fiction accounts there is the very moving and beautifully written piece of fiction The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge. But if I were to recommend just one relating to the subject it would be The Worst Journey in The World - not a hyerbolic title - by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. AC-G was one of Scott's party, and very nearly chosen for the final assault on the pole. He was in the party that found the bodies of Scott, Dr Wilson, and 'Birdie' Bowers. Read it in the winter and you'll NEVER feel cold again!

ETA - The 'Worst Journey' of the title was actually a midwinter trek from hell - through the polar darkness and worst weather the planet can offer - a scientific endeavour to find a penguin colony. But Scott's mission to the Pole is covered in considerable depth, as well as the tragic aftermath.

Jun 23, 2013, 9:26am Top

That may be cynical, Sassy, but it certainly sounds right. I'll have to restrain myself and wait a few days to see if prices go down! By the way, to further everyone's cynicism, I've noticed that there are often differences in the US $ prices between the British (.co.uk) and the US (.com) sites, even though all books are shipped from the UK.

I've been meaning to read The Worst Journey in the World since reading Susan Solomon's The Coldest March which combined excerpts from journals and books (including Cherry-Garrard's, as well as those of people who didn't survive) with modern scientific understanding of the conditions they encountered.

Jun 24, 2013, 4:11am Top

Captain of the Steppe sounds great - and one that I had never heard of before your review. I do like to read books about "hideous bureaucratic nightmares". Seems like that might be one that would be hard to fine at a bookstore which is where I usually do my shopping.

Jun 24, 2013, 7:14am Top

It is published by a British publisher, so it might be hard to find it in a US bookstore. (Amazon only had copies from other sellers; that's why I turned to BD.)

Jun 24, 2013, 10:17am Top

Thanks Dief. rebecca is right about the publisher, which is And Other Stories. The good news is that they established a desk in NYC in April and will start distributing in the US from their Autumn/Winter 2013/2014 catalogue. Book Depository carries it, as rebecca says. Actually, they carry just about anything, but keep buying from your bookstore when you can. There aren't enough of them left.

Edited: Jun 25, 2013, 3:34pm Top

Philip Caputo is a writer I've been reading since someone first lent me Delcorso's Gallery. Last month when I discovered the new to me used book store, this was one of my finds.

33. Indian Country by Philip Caputo
first published 1987
finished reading June 18, 2013

The epigraph at the beginning of Indian Country defines the term for the reader:
n. {U.S. military slang} 1. term used by American soldiers during Vietnam conflict (1961-1975) to designate territory under enemy control or any terrain considered hostile and dangerous 2.{fig.} a place , condition or circumstance that is alien and dangerous

This describes Christian Starkmann's view of his work, his neighbours, his wife --- in short, his world, thirteen years after his tour in Viet Nam has ended. When an excellent opportunity for further education comes up at work, he believes is is just a ruse to get rid of him. When his wife is late, he believes she is seeing someone. He insists his family live in the country, far from their school and work in the already remote Upper Peninsula of Michigan, just to be safe.

He wasn't always like this. He had had a middle class upbringing in Oak Park, Illinois, did well in school and was all set to go to divinity college when he made the decision to enlist instead. He acted partly out of a sudden conviction that it was wrong that those with his background could avoid service, while others had to choose among war, jail or exile; partly out of rage against his father, a well known opponent of the war, but a man with no time for his own family.

Starkmann enlisted with his friend Bonny George, an Ojibwa with whom he had spent his childhood summers. Bonny George had been raised by his grandfather, a fishing guide known as Louis to the white people of the Upper Peninsula, but known to his Ojibwa kin as a wise man, a Man-Who-Knows-Everything. For Louis, the Upper Peninsula was Indian country in the most literal sense.

Interspersed with Starkmann's descent into full blown psychosis, and separate from it, is Louis' search for his lost spirituality and sense of meaning, as he faces old age and death. The balance between the paranoia and underlying threat of violence on Starkmann's side and the considered examination of life on Louis' side, paces the novel, alleviating some of the flat out dash of some of Caputo's later work. Written at a time when PTSD was first receiving widespread public attention, it is a sympathetic portrayal of a damaged soldier. Through Starkmann's wife June, a social worker, Caputo also gives us a picture of the Upper Peninsula as northern states descended into Rust Belt status. Caputo's other writing career as a travel and outdoors writer comes through in his descriptions of the land, the wilderness and the brooding Lake Superior, a place that can turn against you at any time.

This book first appeared toward the end of Caputo's earlier novel writing period. You can definitely see the real Caputo in it, the characters will stay with me, but it won't be my favourite Caputo novel; the ending was a bit too pat. Others with a more optimistic outlook may find it one of his better works.

edited to correct touchstone

Jun 24, 2013, 6:54pm Top

I am sure I read some Caputo decades ago, but according to LT I don't own any of his works! By the way, your touchstone goes to a different Indian Country, the one by Peter Matthiessen.

Jun 24, 2013, 6:58pm Top

Wow, thanks Sassy for another great review. I'm kicking myself for not buying this when I had the chance a few months ago! I had not long previously read A Rumor of War. For some reason I dithered - and then bought a nice tidy copy of Paco's Story by Larry Heinemann instead!

Indian Country goes on the wishlist.

Jun 25, 2013, 7:04am Top

Indian Country sounds good. I will need to check my husband's book shelf to see if he has it. As a Vietnam vet, he tends to buy anything written about it.

Jun 25, 2013, 8:02am Top

Colleen, I've read a number of good books about Vietnam, but I imagine your husband already knows about them, specifically, recently, Matterhorn, The Sorrow of War (from the North Vietnamese perspective), and Tree of Smoke.

Jun 25, 2013, 8:16am Top

Excellent review of Indian Country, Sassy. Ghosts of Tsavo is the only of Caputo's books I have read and on that basis, I tended to think of him as a travel writer. I had not realized, before your review, how many of his books are in some manner related to Vietnam.

Jun 25, 2013, 4:18pm Top

Thank you, Rebecca. I am in cape cod this week, but will check to see if he has any of those when I get home.

Jun 25, 2013, 6:31pm Top

Hope you are having a wonderful vacation.

Jun 26, 2013, 7:33am Top

Thanks rebecca, I have corrected it.

Nana, I haven't read Matterhorn yet, but I certainly agree with rebecca about the other two books, especially The Sorrow of War. I really liked Tree of Smoke too, but based on this review I found this morning, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/12/a-bright-shining-lie/306434, not everyone did.

Two novels contemporary with Indian Country would be Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country and Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, giving very different perspectives about returning vets.

LT tells me I have over fifty books about the conflict, but most of them are non fiction. One book I don't have that I read from the library years ago and would like to have is The Tunnels of Cu Chi. One of the best novels to me, is still Graham Greene's The Quiet American. The film with Michael Caine was also really well done. I even have a book on films about Vietnam!

Thanks linda, I do like his travel writing as well. I think you might find some of his other writing of interest too.

Jun 26, 2013, 10:57am Top

It's a long time since I read In Country but I'm pretty sure I liked it because I liked Bobbie Ann Mason back when I read a lot of her (the 80s?). And I second Sassy on Dog Soldiers.

Jun 26, 2013, 8:22pm Top

Thank you for the great suggestions. Years ago, I read Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. I found that one quite good. My hubby was in Cu Chi, and I am pretty sure we have the book you mention.

Edited: Jul 3, 2013, 9:50am Top

Book Depository is currently featuring prison writing. There seems to be something for everyone from The Count of Monte Cristo through Foucault to Anne Applebaum's Gulag. Actually, now that I think about it, I don't remember seeing Arthur Koestler, but maybe there is nothing by him currently published. I would certainly look for him too if prison writing interests you though.

Jul 3, 2013, 10:35am Top

Last fall I read steven's excellent review of a John Banville book, Doctor Copernicus, and thought I must read him some day. When I found this book as yet another find in the new to me used bookstore from the spring, I remembered that I should read him. I will also be reading more of his work.

34. Shroud by John Banville
first published 2002
finished reading June 28, 2013

How do you comment on a beautifully written book with an absolutely despicable protagonist? Shroud is just such a novel.

Axel Vander, recently widowed with help from himself, would sit moping and drinking in his California home, visited by hallucinations of his dead wife. Out of the blue, a letter arrived from Antwerp, threatening to unmask him and reveal the truth about his carefully shrouded past.

The question for Vander, is just how much does this person know, for there are layers and layers of overlapping deceits in his past. He made the decision to accept an invitation to be an honoured speaker at an academic conference in Turin, just so that he could meet the author of the letter there. It is in Turin, home of that other mysterious shroud, that the story of Vander's life is revealed, layer by layer. How reliable can the story be with Vander as narrator? The reader must judge.

Language and imagery are crucial to this book. Axel drives on, always in motion, rolling over everything and everyone in his way. Yet he is incomplete, part of his identity is missing: Vander what? Catherine Cleave, called Cass, is the voice of doom threatening him. Axel is deteriorating physically, Cass mentally. They cleave together in their respective descents.

This makes the references seem heavy handed, but this is not the case at all. The portrayal of Axel is a strong one, working back in time from a wasted alcoholic facing death from excess to the young boy escaping death in occupied Belgium. Time isn't linear though, whether past or present. It is only when he is recalling his escape from Europe and his time in London that things seem straightforward for Axel, perhaps because life seemed clearcut then.
At Southampton a military official of indeterminate rank sitting behind a table had glared crossly for a long moment at my passport, lovingly made for me by an octogenarian forger in Liège, then with a snort of unamused laughter had snapped it shut, and dealt it to me across the table, my winning card.
Axel's future seemed bright indeed. Then the awful circumstances surrounding his disfigurement are revealed and once more the veil descends. His narrative becomes evasive and episodic again. The details of how he got from boy toy to renowned scholar are cloaked in mystery.

Thoughts of death torment Axel as he rages against the inevitable. Blackouts torment him.
Perhaps it was more than the bourbon I thought; perhaps my mind was going. How would one detect the encroachment of senility, when what is being attacked is the very faculty of detection itself? Would there be intervals of respite, flashes of frightful clarity in the midst of maunderings, moments of shivery recognition before the looking glass...? Probably not; probably I shall shuffle into senility all unaware. The onset of extreme old age as I am experiencing it is a gradual process of accumulation, a slow settling as of soft grey stuff, like the dust in an untended house, under which the once-sharp edges of myself are blurring.

He is an expert on Nietzsche, yet his ravaged body is more Harlequin than Superman. He comforts himself with the thought that "Harlequin is always forgiven, always survives". As the advent of Cass forces him to reflect back on his life though, the brutality he inflicted on those around him to enable him to survive, makes their forgiveness impossible. His only hope for redemption can come from forgiving himself.

Jul 3, 2013, 3:00pm Top

>144 SassyLassy: That sounds like an incredibly haunting read.
I especially enjoyed recently widowed with help from himself.
Enjoyed reading your review.

Jul 3, 2013, 6:29pm Top

I have several books by Banville unread, after disappointment reading The Sea and Athena. You review is an encouragement to pick up Shroud.

Edited: Jul 3, 2013, 7:23pm Top

Excellent review of Shroud and it reminds me that I also want to read Doctor Copernicus.

Jul 4, 2013, 7:55am Top

How do you comment on a beautifully written book with an absolutely despicable protagonist?

With your grim reading, sounds like a problem you must often encounter!

Great review. I've never read any Banville. Would you recommend starting with this one or something elses?

Jul 4, 2013, 8:55am Top

Excellent review of Shroud, Sassy. I own a few of Banville's works and see several others I would like to read, including this one.

Jul 4, 2013, 11:23pm Top

I'm glad you enjoyed Shroud. I haven't gotten to it yet. Banville's works seem to be quite varied. I'll have to disagree with edwinbc on The Sea: it is one of my favorite novels of all time.

Jul 6, 2013, 9:30am Top

Fabulous review of Shroud, Sassy! I'll be on the lookout for it next week.

Steven, I'm glad to hear that you have such a high opinion of The Sea. I haven't read it yet, but hopefully I'll do so toward the end of the year.

Jul 6, 2013, 4:53pm Top

>145 avidmom: Thanks avid, It was the best way I could think of phrasing it.

>146 edwinbcn: and 150 oh dear, I usually tend to fall in with your reading, so taking note of edwin's disappointment with The Sea and trying to put it in line with Steven's favourable comments, I would just say that these are well considered opinions and I will have to read it for myself! What do you have unread, edwin?

>147 baswood:, 148, 149, 151 rebecca, I do indeed encounter this problem fairly frequently, but usually there are mitigating factors I can use to rationalize characters' behaviour. In this case, although "bad things" did happen in his youth, he just seemed like a downright nasty person, certainly more than was warranted by other events.
This is the only Banville I have read, but following earlier reviews by Steven, I am going to read The Revolutions Trilogy (Doctor Copernicus, Kepler, and The Newton Letter). These are earlier books, which is where I like to start reading an author, so spurred on by another of Steven's reviews, I am going to start there. I think with rebecca and doc's respective interests in science, and bas's interest in the era, this might be somewhere for us all to start. Maybe one of them is on your TBR pile, Linda?

Jul 6, 2013, 8:00pm Top

So I guess I might start with Doctor Copernicus . . . off to add it to my Amazon wishlist, which I keep mostly so I can check it when I'm in bookstores. And my LT anniversary is coming up at the end of next week, which I understand means I can buy as many books as my years on LT!

Jul 6, 2013, 8:58pm Top

I bought The Sea as it won the Booker Prize, and just never found my way into it. I read it in January 2006, before I systematically started writing reviews, and I recall absolutely nothing of the book, which shows how little it touched me.

A year and a half later, I read Athena, which again was a disappointment. I made the following note as a review on LT:

I never got into the book. It was very difficult to read. Some say the story crystallizes and becomes clear in the final chapters, but it never did for me, or it was too late.

Since I already have them unread on my shelves, I guess I will still read Shroud, Eclipse and Birchwood.

Jul 8, 2013, 10:53am Top

Rebecca's great review led me to this book. I read her review again after writing this and realized we had both selected the same passage, which speaks to how powerful Seghers writing is.

35. Transit by Anna Seghers translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo
first published 1944
finished reading July 1, 2013

In 1940, the civilians of Allied Europe were being pushed to the coasts in desperate attempts to flee from Hitler's armies. France was an occupied country, except for the far south. Spain had just come through a brutal civil war and its fascist government was not interested in allowing those who did not support it to cross through Spain on the way to Portugal and the port of Lisbon with its ships of hope. That left Marseille as the only available port of exit for the tens of thousands who had fled there and were now trapped.

Transit is a fictional account of a handful of these refugees. Its author, Anna Seghers, experienced this journey first hand, fleeing from Germany to Marseille and then setting sail for Mexico. Her novel describes the nightmarish array of difficulties involved in leaving. At times the situation is reminiscent of Alice dealing with the Red Queen, at times Kafka, and at times it calls to mind Charon at the River Styx.

Its nameless German narrator takes on not just one, but two identities. He starts as Seidler and then takes on the simultaneous identity of a dead man, Weidel. It is as Weidel that he navigates the labyrinth of bureaucratic offices, where mysteriously, he seems to be known. He must obtain an exit visa, a berth on a ship, proof of purchase, a certificate of release from prison camp, a refugee certificate, transit visas for each country he might have to pass through en route to his final destination, and any other papers the authorities may arbitrarily demand. There is an order in which these documents must be obtained. The hapless refugee can only find this out incidentally, while other documents expire in the meantime.

Seghers portrays the tedium and sense of futility the refugees experience as they trudge from office to office, queue to queue. The dead time passed in cafés while waiting for release is filled with gossip, the only lifeline available. The narrator realizes that in Marseille it was always so:
It was the age-old harbour gossip, as ancient as the Old Port itself and even older. Wonderful, ancient harbour twaddle that's existed as long as there's been a Mediterranean Sea, Phoenician chit-chat, Cretan and Greek gossip, and that of the Romans. There was never a shortage of gossips who were anxious about their berths aboard a ship and about their money, or who were fleeing from all the real and imagined horrors of the world. Mothers who had lost their children, children who had lost their mothers. The remnants of crushed armies, escaped slaves, human hordes who had been chased from all the countries of the earth, and having at last reached the sea, boarded ships in order to discover new lands from which they would again be driven; forever running from one death toward another.
Ships must always have been anchored here, at this very place, because this is where Europe ends and the sea begins.

Marseille is central to the novel. Cold, rainy, shrouded in mist, it saps the spirits of the refugees who crowd the city.
Everyone was fleeing and everything was temporary. We had no idea whether this situation would last till tomorrow, another couple of weeks, years, or our entire lives.

Everyday the streets are sluiced down toward the harbour, washing away the detritus of so many lives. Sometimes the lives themselves are cleared away, as people die waiting for escape, or simply give up and kill themselves.

Transit is moving between one state and another. In the narrator's mind, the horizon where sea and sky meet was the demarcation point, the start of everything new. The refugees must reach this point to make their transition from old lives to new, old identities to new, old worlds to new to complete their transformations. There couldn't be a better narrator for this journey than the unnamed protagonist.

Jul 8, 2013, 3:17pm Top

If I didn't already have this on my wish list, your review would have put it there.

Jul 8, 2013, 5:17pm Top

Glad you liked it so much, Sassy, and fascinating that we both picked the same passage to quote! I ordered another book by Seghers after reading this, The Seventh Cross; it's longer, but I hope to get to it soon.

Jul 8, 2013, 6:01pm Top

Excellent review of Transit, Anna Seghers and a great excerpt about killing time in Marseille.

Jul 8, 2013, 10:15pm Top

Yes the excerpts are beautifully written as is your review.

Jul 9, 2013, 5:53am Top

Great review of Transit, Sassy! It was already on my wish list after Rebecca's review but I'll move it to the top now.

Jul 10, 2013, 12:48am Top

Another good review of Transit! Ditto 156 & 160.

Jul 10, 2013, 9:12am Top

Thanks all and happy to get the book moving up those lists. Rebecca, I will be reading more by Seghers and would also like to look for a biography of her. I also see there is quite a lot of critical writing about her, so may investigate that further.

This next is completely different, which was probably needed after the last three books.

Jul 10, 2013, 9:44am Top

July first is Canada Day. While many Canadians hope that summer will start on the May Victoria Day weekend, July 1 is the true beginning. This was the perfect book with which to start the summer season.

36. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal
first published as Sommarboken in 1972
read July 1, 2013

If I'm ever an eighty-five year old grandmother, the grandmother in Tove Jansson's The Summer Book is the one I want to be. Grandmother is looking after her six year old granddaughter Sophia for the summer on an island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia's father gets various mentions, but rarely features in the story. The only reference we have to her mother is brief:
One time in April there was a full moon, and the sea was covered with ice. Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.

Summer and the island belong to Grandmother and Sophia in a world they have created for themselves. This is no idealized existence though. Grandmother gets tired and cranky from time to time and sends Sophia off to amuse herself. They quarrel periodically. Like any six year old, Sophia in turn gets bored and cranky too from time to time. She also ponders those questions six year olds are full of.
"When are you going to die?", the child asked.
And Grandmother answered "Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours."
"Why?" her grandchild asked.
She didn't answer. She walked out on the rock and toward the ravine....
..."Will they dig a hole?" the child asked amiably.
"Yes", she said. "A big hole." And she added, insidiously, "Big enough for all of us."

Told episodically over the course of one or more summers, this is the story of two well defined individuals who explore both physical and spiritual realms. Sophia learns the lore of the islands; the fragility of rock, moss and water, while still holding on to her idea of the island as a magical place. Horrified, she learns that religion isn't a given, that Grandmother doesn't believe in Hell. There is a suggestion of just what her granny thinks Hell might be though, when the two clandestinely explore a newly built house on a neighbouring island, that introduces unwarranted urban sensibilities to the area.

Jansson's portrayal of the grandmother is a wonderful mix of practicality, wisdom and humour. There is a strong streak of independence in her, which she senses she is losing as age closes in. Undaunted, she has a fierce determination to impart that independence to Sophia while she still can.

Just as time closes in on Grandmother, it closes in on the island. Preparations must be made to see it safely through winter to rebirth in spring.
Now was the time for traces of habitation to disappear, and, as far as possible, for the island to return to its original condition. The exhausted flowerbeds were covered with banks of seaweed. The long rains did their levelling and rinsing... In the woods were a few enormous white roses that blossomed and lived for one day in breathless splendor...
It's shaking us off she thought. It will soon be uninhabited. Almost.

This is a masterful book. There's no hint of maudlin, no saccharine feel good, no pretence of perfection. There is just a young girl and her grandmother suspended in a season that will stay with the girl forever.

Jul 10, 2013, 9:59am Top

The Summer Book sounds lovely.

Jul 10, 2013, 9:59am Top

Traditional cottages in the Gulf of Finland:

Jul 10, 2013, 10:44am Top

For some reason, I've always avoided Tove Jansson and The Summer Book, but your review is making me think differently.

Jul 10, 2013, 2:33pm Top

Lovely review of The Summer book

Jul 10, 2013, 5:12pm Top

putting on the WL for sure.Thanks for great.pics.

Jul 11, 2013, 4:13pm Top

It does sound lovely. Great pictures as well - looks so refreshing!

Jul 12, 2013, 9:52am Top

rebecca, when I first joined LT, The Summer Book was often mentioned in threads were I was lurking; I think Reading Globally might have been doing Scandinavian authors. Many people praised it, but I never got around to it, like you, having some reservations that although really well written, it wasn't my kind of book. Then in 2012 I received a copy through LT's SantaThing and have to thank tallpaul for the nudge. It really worked and I will be reading more of her. I suspect people may read this and just think it is a "sweet" tale without looking at the grandmother's underlying motivations and the more sombre side of the book.

It did surprise me, because generally I take care to avoid books with child protagonists, unless they're written by Robert Louis Stevenson

Nana and mk, I think you would enjoy it.

The pictures actually look very like the large bay where I live currently. It too is dotted with small islands of rock and the same varieties of trees. The book itself made me think more of Scotland. There is a great series of children's books by Mairi Hedderwick with the wonderful Granny Island in the Hebrides and her foil Granny Mainland, pushing Katie Morag in opposite directions. Tove Jansson's book is not a children's book.

Jul 12, 2013, 10:13am Top

Thanks for the explanation, Sassy. I'm reading about medieval Scandinavians in Greenland now (The Greenlanders) and have ambitions to read Kristin Lavransdatter this summer too, so maybe I will work my way up by several centuries after that and read The Summer Book/

Jul 12, 2013, 10:47am Top

I heard about this book through my LT friend anisoara, who translated it. Nikitin is Ukrainian, but since the book was written in Russian, I would think he is from that minority group. This is his first work translated into English.

37. Istemi by Alexei Nikitin translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson
first published 2011 as Istemi
finished reading July 4, 2013

Years ago in the days before online gaming groups, we played a SimSoc or simulated society game in a political science class. It was complex enough to be played over several full days, as the nations grouped and regrouped, fought over money and resources, and tried to control entire ideological blocs. Harmless enough in Canada, but imagine being a university student in Ukraine in 1984 and devising such a game.

That's just what six friends did in Alexei Nikitin's novel Istemi. The six looked on their game as a lark, a diversion from studying. They wrote out a manifesto starting
Recent history has shown that there exists within Slovenorussia a revolutionary movement determined to detach from the Holy Roman Empire a number of its territories.

Students of science and utterly naive politically, it did not occur to them that the authorities, specifically the KGB, might think differently about their new pastime, once it was inevitably discovered. The students were arrested and held for questioning.

The novel actually opens twenty years later in 2004. Ukraine is now independent. Davidov, the narrator, is working for a branch of an American soft drink company in Kiev, as he puts it
helping a bunch of guys they've never even met to sell as many plastic bottles of sickly-sweet brown swill as possible -- water with a bit of concentrate and masses of preservatives , flavourings and dyes... The pay mind you is not to be sneezed at.

One day, the long lost manifesto and ultimatum to Slovenorussia appear in his email, addressed to his gaming code name, Istemi, the last ruler in the game and copied to the other students.

Where did the long lost document come from and who sent it? Davidov sets out to search for the answers. His story alternates between the events of 1984 and his current 2004 search, gradually filling in the details of the students' lives in the intervening years. Paranoia is rampant on all sides in 1984. In 2004, Davidov/Istemi's fear erupts once more, and the all too familiar paranoia and mistrust return.

Through him, the reader discovers not only Soviet era Kiev, but also the Kiev of today. Capitalism is the new religion, but it has brought its own problems. The atmosphere is still grim. People are so anxious, they feel the need to drive around in the middle of the night just to vent all alone:
At this hour the roads were peaceful, travelled only by taxi drivers and other drivers like myself, petrol heads crazed with loneliness and the senselessness of existence. While waiting for the light to change I would study their greyish faces, their brows drawn in torment. Some moved their lips, talking to themselves, filling the emptiness with the sound of their own voices -- they had nothing else to fill it with. Frequently I saw women at the wheel. Office managers. Plasticine business women absorbed in business, not their own but someone else's -- and absorbed far more deeply than it warranted. Some had spent the day in negotiations and meetings. The bird language of negotiations was long the only language they could use or understand without an interpreter. This nocturnal journey was a crack in the unified unshakeable picture of their world... Even at night they concentrated on the road as if it would lead them to a target; they were always aiming for targets. They gripped the steering wheel tight. Nothing distracted that, and they didn't look around.

As Istemi tracks down the people from his 1984 world, he discovers the strange turns life has taken for them too. Nikitin skilfully blends humour and satire into this tale of unintended consequences. Part mystery, part political statement, part morality tale, always entertaining, it is a great take on a society in full throttle transition.

Jul 12, 2013, 10:53am Top

Rebecca, I loved The Greenlanders and the whole Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. Mentioned elsewhere though, use the Tiina Nunnally translations. I've read them and the older translations and the Nunnally ones are far superior. That's a great summer of reading.

Jul 12, 2013, 11:01am Top

oh my Lord that excerpt! Wow! (172)

and I think you are right that I would enjoy reading about the sometimes cranky grandmother!

Both wonderful reviews.

Jul 12, 2013, 11:58am Top

I am loving The Greenlanders too, Sassy; it was a mention on LT that inspired me to read it because I've owned it for nearly 25 years. The copy I'm reading cost a mere $5.99 back then. And I bought KL because of a review here and just double checked; I do have the Nunnally translation. It is a tome, though, so I have to read it at home and am waiting until I finish my other read-at-home read (which will probably take another week or two).

Jul 12, 2013, 6:25pm Top

Excellent review of Istemi

Jul 15, 2013, 3:42am Top

Superb review of Istemi, Sassy. I'll look for it when I go book shopping this week.

Your review of The Summer Book reminded me how much I enjoyed it, and it made me want to have at it again.

Jul 15, 2013, 8:56am Top

Great review of Istemi! It's now on my wishlist.

Jul 17, 2013, 9:20am Top

mk, bas, doc and Steven, Istemi was one of those books that reminded me that there's so much current literature from other parts of the world that never really pops up on the radar, so I should be more active in seeking it out. Hope you can find it and thanks.

Do have at it, doc.

Rebecca, long ago subway reading and big tomes reminds me of The Mists of Avalon. My sister tells me that back then on the Tube, some people actually tried to disguise the cover.

Jul 17, 2013, 10:00am Top

I'm catching up after vacation and as always, enjoying your reviews, Sassy. I have Banville's The Sea, Athena and The Untouchable among my TBRs and should make a point of getting to one soon. I have been meaning for a long time to read something by Tove Jansson and your excellent review of The Summer Book is a great reminder. I also recently bought The Greenlanders, after reading some great reviews and loving Undset's trilogy. And Istemi does look intriguing. If only I had nothing else to do but sit here and read!

Jul 17, 2013, 10:13am Top

Classic summer reading from a story telling master:

38. The Women's War by Alexandre Dumas, translated from the French by Robin Buss
first published as La Guerre des femmes in 1844
finished reading July 10, 2013

The Women's War actually happened. As is often the case in history, this particular civil war was precipitated by the death of a king, in this case Louis XIII. His widow was Anne of Austria. Confusingly, her father was Philip of Spain, who unfortunately for Anne, was at war with France. Louis did have an heir, but he was only five years old and many thought the child's real father was the Duke of Buckingham, not Louis. Anne and another foreigner, Cardinal Mazarin, were members of a regency council, set up to govern France until the future Louis XIV was old enough to rule.

Opposing this council was a group of nobles, led by Gaston d'Orléans, the dead king's brother. This group was known as the Fronde. It became powerful enough that Mazarin suddenly arrested three of its members, the princes Condé, Conti and Longueville and kept them imprisoned. Condé's wife, the Princess de Condé, became the leader of the Frondeurs. She too had a powerful advisor, the Duke de La Rochefoucauld, and a young son, the Duke d'Enghien.

This kind of symmetry cried out for a novel and who better to elaborate, embellish and embroider the bare facts than Alexandre Dumas? He added two imaginary women: Claire, the Viscountess de Cambes as a lady-in-waiting to the Princess, and Nanon de Lartigues, mistress of the royalist governor of the province where most of the action takes place. These two women are in love with the Baron de Canolles, a minor historical figure whom Dumas skilfully brings to life as one of the heroes of this book. Canolles is well meaning and well bred, a good and brave soldier, but he has that unfortunate young man's habit of loving the one he's with, making it impossible for him to make up his mind between the two women, as he visits back and forth.

Canolles's counterpart is Nanon's brother Cauvignac, a soldier of fortune, master of disguise and first class schemer. Not tied to any faction, it is Cauvignac who sees things most clearly, summing up his personal philosophy and the confusion of the times early in the novel for his sister's lover:
Out of these two opposite forms of government came a state of affairs that is very much like a general war in which everyone takes sides. At the moment, Monsieur de Mazarin is fighting for the queen, you are fighting for the king, the coadjutor is fighting for Monsieur de Beaufort, Monsieur de Beaufort is fighting for Madame de Montbazon, Monsieur de La Rochefoucauld is fighting for Madame de Longueville, the Duke d'Orléans is fighting for Mademoiselle Soyon, the Parliament is fighting for the people...and finally they have imprisoned Monsieur de Condé, who was fighting for France. Now since I have little to gain from fighting for the queen, the king, the coadjutor, Monsieur de Beaufort, Madame de Montbazon, Madame de Longueville, Mademoiselle Soyon, for the people or for France, I had an idea, which was not to take any side but to follow whichever one attracted me at any given moment. So for me it is all a question of opportunity.

Given all this, it takes Dumas a while to set up his story. I had actually put the book aside a couple of months ago, but then picked it up again for distraction after some of my more sombre recent reading. It seems I had set it aside just as it was about to get going, for immediately I found myself caught up in the story with that delicious sense of dread and anticipation that writers like Scott, Dumas, Hugo and Dickens can inspire, if only you allow yourself to leave the world of the present. No more of the plot here though, as revealing just about anything would involve spoilers.

This edition is a 2006 translation by Robin Buss. In his excellent introduction, Buss says that the last English translation before his was in the nineteenth century, last reprinted in the 1920s. It had also been out of print in France for many years before being republished in 2003. Subsequently, another little known novel was also republished. As Buss puts it, "gradually the Dumas continent is being opened up." What a great thing to look forward to.

Jul 17, 2013, 10:32am Top

I hadn't heard of The Women's War before, but it sounds really good. It's great that some of Dumas's lesser-known novels are getting modern translations. I read his Queen Margot a few years ago, another complex and violent situation of court intrigue with women in important roles, and enjoyed it very much.

Jul 17, 2013, 11:21am Top

Well, I'm going to have to add that one to the ever-growing list. Still haven't read any Dumas.

Jul 17, 2013, 12:06pm Top

The Women's War sounds like my cup of tea. I loved The Count of Monte Cristo, and have been meaning to read another Dumas. Onto my wishlist it goes.

Jul 19, 2013, 6:43am Top

Like Rebecca I have not got to Dumas yet. Excellent review of The Women's war

Jul 19, 2013, 6:50am Top

Great review of The Women's War, Sassy!

Jul 20, 2013, 3:58pm Top

Thanksl for that great review! I seem to be getting closer and closer to Dumas.

Jul 29, 2013, 4:03pm Top

Thanks all

mk, bas and rebecca, I do hope you get to Dumas soon. I would suggest The Count of Monte Cristo to start. Lots of action, some intriguing characters, even some real ones, and a great story, plus NanaCC loved it.

steven, after I finished this, I went downstairs to dig Queen Margot out of my TBR Dumas pile, but was surprised to find it wasn't there. I thought I had it, but will look again.

Jul 29, 2013, 4:33pm Top

Summertime and the reading is easy. That means I'm up on my reading and behind on my posting.

39. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
first published 2012
finished reading July 14, 2013

Ian McEwan is a brilliant stylist, a masterful story teller and a devastating analyst of character. This is not to say I am completely swept away by him however, for lately I have been finding his choice of protagonists less and less compelling, although they inhabit such good books. I'm thinking here of Henry Perowne in Saturday and Michael Beard in Solar. Given all this, it was with mixed feelings that I approached Sweet Tooth; the anticipation of reading a new McEwan and the fear of yet another distasteful character.

There was no need to worry. By the end of the first page I knew two things. I liked the main character Serena Frome, and McEwan was allowing his sense of humour more rein while painting his usual spot on settings:
I'm the daughter of an Anglican bishop and grew up with a sister in the cathedral precinct of a charming small city in the east of England. My home was genial, polished, orderly, book-filled. My parents liked each other well enough and loved me, and I them.... Our father's belief in God was muted and reasonable, did not intrude much on our lives and was just sufficient to raise him smoothly through the Church hierarchy and install us in a comfortable Queen Anne house.

Serena finished high school in 1969 and like any other unthinking teenager of her time and class was all set to take the easy way out and do an English degree at one of the new red brick universities. Much to her surprise, her mother spoke out and in a completely out of character move, insisted on math at Newnham College, Cambridge. Well behaved child that Serena was, she followed the path her mother had chose for her, only to discover
It was obvious to my tutors and my fellow students that I could not succeed precisely because I was a good looking girl in a mini-skirt, with blonde hair curling past her shoulder blades. The truth was that I couldn't succeed because I was like nearly all the rest of humanity -- not much good at maths, not at this level. I did my best to transfer out to English or French or even anthropology, but no one wanted me. In those days the rules were tightly observed. To shorten a long, unhappy story, I stuck it out and by the end managed a third.

Serena finished university almost as naive as she had been when she started. When a married history professor started an affair with her, she had no idea why he might be helping her find a job, other than the notion that anyone in that position would naturally do the same thing for her.

Serena wound up in a lowly clerical position at MI5, progressing to an actual assignment to recruit a writer MI5 might be happy to anonymously support through a dummy foundation to counter similar actions by the CIA. Her time at MI5 is the background to a portrait of the incredibly turbulent 1970s in the UK. Deteriorating Anglo-American relations, Arthur Scargill, the IRA offensives, Heath vs Wilson, feminism, class movement and the demise of greatness for Britain: it's all here, seen through the eyes of the young Serena, considering these matters for the first time, and trying to work them through. This is a novel about MI5 too though, and so the question of veracity and truth itself becomes foremost. Who can be trusted, which version can be trusted, and who is the current Serena looking back forty years? Classic McEwan

Jul 29, 2013, 6:06pm Top

Sweet Tooth sounds very good. I have yet to read McEwan.

Jul 29, 2013, 8:57pm Top

It sounds like we react similarly to McEwan: I hated his too-perfect Henry Perowne in Saturday, but I've enjoyed the three other novels by him that I've read. I'll have to read Sweet Tooth too, especially since it appears that its protagonist and I are the same age.

Jul 30, 2013, 11:37am Top

Excellent review of Sweet Tooth. It is the sort of book that may well be available at our yearly book swop that takes place next Sunday, If it is I might be prepared fight for it.

Jul 30, 2013, 11:47am Top

I confess I was so disappointed by Atonement, and so turned off by the excerpts from On Chesil Beach that I read in The New Yorker, that I have avoided McEwen ever since. You tempt me a little . . .

Jul 31, 2013, 9:54am Top

Nana, I would encourage you to read McEwan and Sweet Tooth might be the place to start.

Steven and bas, I think you would both enjoy the writing. bas, I found myself thinking about you as I read the descriptions of London and England in general during the '70s. There's probably much to which you can relate.

rebecca, interesting about Atonement, which I did like. I read On Chesil Beach and once again, while I found the writing excellent, I found the characters left me wanting more and I think the New Yorker version would have been enough. I like your You tempt me a little . . .!

I've now read eight of McEwan's books, so something must keep bringing me back. At times his writing is so clinically dispassionate that even though I admire it immensely, I wonder if he ever actually likes any of his characters. I got the impression that Serena in Sweet Tooth might be one he actually thought of as human and perhaps that's why I liked it more than some of his other work.

Get those elbows out for Sunday, bas. How is the swap organized? I remember you mentioning it last year and thought then it was a great idea.

Aug 2, 2013, 9:43am Top

Back in the winter, I mentioned being in a large book store and seeing a notice posted to the effect that Robert Stone had died. Thankfully that turned out not to be the case, but it did have the desired result of getting me to buy the one title in their hastily assembled display that I didn't have.

40. Fun with Problems by Robert Stone
first published 2010
finished reading July 21, 2013

Fun with Problems is a return to the short story format by a master of the art. The title story and the collection itself take their cue from a quote from a rehab video, used as the book's epigraph:
Overcoming difficulties can present spiritual opportunities.
It is actually possible to have fun with problems.

That certainly tells the reader what to expect and diehard Stone fans will not be disappointed. Here is a collection of damaged characters with terminal problems. Each is intelligent enough to recognize his or her own demons. Some can confront them, none can vanquish them completely.

Stone's settings are always crucial to his stories, be they prison waiting rooms, Mahler concerts or small towns on the Gulf of Mexico. His sense of the world around his characters and of how changes in it affect them, is such that it becomes impossible to see his people without considering their settings. These are short stories though, where much must be told in few words. Stone excels in brief portraits that tell us just what we need to know:
...Taylor never hit her. He had, however, served twenty-three months in an Oregon state prison for an act of violence. During the period when she and Taylor had been eco-activists in the Northwest, he had responded to a taunt from a local logger. The response caused him to become one of the few individuals in that state ever charged, under an old frontier law, with the crime of mayhem, which the movement lawyers were able to plead down from felonious assault. Taylor's removable dental bridge had caused disfiguring damage to the logger's nose. Taylor was passionate and in certain situations he could lose control... He had never replaced the bridge.

In this collection, as in all of Stone's work, the characters are doomed. An older man commits suicide on his honeymoon with a younger second wife, another is killed by a force of nature in his beautiful high tech steel and glass house. Even those who survive have wounds that will catch up with them down the road. All know at the outset that bad things will happen, but not one is able to take steps to avoid their fate. Stone's genius is that although we know this, we still care.

Aug 2, 2013, 12:41pm Top

Great review, Sassy, and another book I'll have to take off the TBR sooner rather than later.

Aug 2, 2013, 2:52pm Top

Excellent review Sassy. Robert Stone is a new name on me, I'm afraid to say (although I'm wondering now if I might've picked up Damascus Gate before once...?) - but this is one of the wonders of LibraryThing!! I'm wishlisting this one because it sounds just my cup of tea and as you know - I love a good collection of short fiction. I've also added Damascus Gate, and Dog Soldiers.

Aug 2, 2013, 3:49pm Top

Dog Soldiers is the Robert Stone novel that's stuck in my mind ever since I read it years ago. What a great portrait of flawed people and a time and a place (well, places). On the other hand, his memoir, Prime Green, was not much more than self-indulgent nostalgia. I have some other novels of his I haven't read too.

Aug 2, 2013, 4:35pm Top

Dog Soldiers - was made into an excellent film called "Who'll Stop the Rain" (1978) directed by Karel Reisz.

Robert Stone's short stories sound excellent

Edited: Aug 2, 2013, 5:34pm Top

I knew the song "Who'll Stop the Rain" but not the movie. Off to Netflix . . .

ETA Netflix says its availability is "unknown," so it's added to the long list of "Saved" movies that aren't part of my real queue.

Aug 2, 2013, 6:14pm Top

Maybe if we all list it Netflix will move it up.

Edited: Aug 2, 2013, 9:44pm Top

Catching up from over a hundred posts back...it took a few days. I'm happy to be caught up and read about Robert Stone, but bummed it took me so long. You have left me itching to read John Banville, interested again in reading Philip Caputo, fascinated by Istemi... And maybe also by Captain to the Steppe. And your review of Clint Hill's Mrs. Kennedy and Me stuck with me. And The Summer Book...at least the McEwan doesn't interest me...at least not at this time. I could have happily lived without reading Saturday.

Aug 3, 2013, 8:47am Top

I haven't read anything by Robert Stone in many years, but I remember enjoying him back then. I am adding Fun With Problems to my list to look for at the library.

Aug 3, 2013, 8:49am Top

201 You're an optimist, Merrikay! My experience has been that Netflix has never actually acquired a DVD of anything they list as "availability unknown." But at least that's better than the movies they've never heard of!

Aug 3, 2013, 9:12am Top

You are so right Rebecca. I just looked at my list. In fact, I think any movement has been in the other direction, from available to NOT!

Aug 4, 2013, 4:25pm Top

Agreeing about Dog Soldiers and it's discouraging to hear that Netflix, which I don't have, doesn't have Who'll Stop the Rain which was a great movie. It must still be out there somewhere as it has Nick Nolte in it.

I think if I had to choose, my favourite Stone novel would be Outerbridge Reach, but then any one of them is excellent as far as I'm concerned, although I think Damascus Gate could have been edited down somewhat. Don't let that stop you though Polaris, you are far more familiar with that part of the world than I am and it probably adds much to the reading. I did like the scenes in Jerusalem. There is another scene in it that still haunts me from my reading about eight years ago.

I now have only one Stone novel left to read, and then there will be a new one this fall. I haven't read Prime Green, so interesting but believable, Rebecca, that his nonfiction would be so self indulgent.

dan, happy to add to your wishlist. You seem to be in good company about Saturday and as you say, that's makes Sweet Tooth one book less to worry about. I'd say there's something for just about any mood in your list. Do read Caputo though; I find he and Stone have much in common.

Has anyone been following the Foreign Films thread on Reading Globally?
It looks like it trigger yet another wish list!

Aug 4, 2013, 5:16pm Top

Another song from the soundtrack of Who'll Stop the Rain:

and a different CCR song in the plus ça change... vein:

Aug 4, 2013, 6:30pm Top

There sure was some great music back then! It's what I grew up on.

Aug 4, 2013, 6:47pm Top

I love both of those songs! XD

Aug 5, 2013, 12:18pm Top

Love those boys. Always one of my favorites. Even still Deja Vu All Over Again.

Aug 5, 2013, 7:46pm Top

> 206
Sassy thanks for the link to the RG films thread - hadn't seen it before... And also the recommendation for Outerbridge Reach - it looks great. I really have to get some Robert Stone.

Aug 5, 2013, 7:55pm Top

Great music clips

Aug 7, 2013, 8:23pm Top

Great review of Sweet Tooth, Sassy. I had been put off by the lukewarm reviews of it, but I'm encouraged to read it now.

Aug 12, 2013, 9:48am Top

I seem to have wandered off again, maybe dancing to some of that music. Glad you all enjoyed it.

I know I did get to Othello at the Stratford Festival (the Canadian one, not the English or American one), which was superb. It was a couple of days before the official opening and only the third performance, but it had all the lead players, no understudies. After about two tentative minutes it took off. The theatre was packed and it was an excellent performance with amazing staging. This was my first trip to the Festival although I go to Stratford several times a year. I know now I'll be going back to the festival too.

Iago was not physically as I had imagined him, but once I got over that, his performance was engrossing.

The image with Othello and Iago that I wanted to show was not available for downloading, so I have to go with this cheesecake promotional one. Othello was fully clothed throughout the performance

Aug 12, 2013, 10:31am Top

Sounds like a great performance. Stratford is a wonderful venue.

Aug 12, 2013, 10:57am Top

Last fall I discovered Eudora Welty and Losing Battles. This summer I read my second of her books. I can't imagine reading them in winter. There's something about her imagery and connection to the world of Mississippi that precludes ice and snow. Now I have to find another one for next summer.

41. Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty
first published 1946
finished reading July 21,2013

Delta Wedding reads deceptively easily. On the surface, it is the story of the large Fairchild family, preparing for the wedding of seventeen year old Dabney. Any outsider looking in would think the extended family was homogeneous and united. Welty however, gives us a meditation on just who and what make a family by showing us the lead up to the wedding through the eyes of different family members. The various branches of the Fairchild family have been centred on their plantation for several generations. The members are restrained and well mannered; the complexities of their family have to be teased out and examined like markings on a trail.

We see the Fairchilds first from the perspective of Laura McRaven, a nine year old motherless cousin, sent to the plantation for the summer from Jackson. Although as kin she is not really an outsider, she feels like one as her mourner status excludes her from the wedding party.
Laura wanted so badly to be taken to their hearts (never wondering if she had not been, at any time before her own wish) that she almost knew what the Fairchilds were like, what to expect; but her wish was steadier than her vision and that itself kept her from knowing. Ellen saw it.

Ellen is the wife of the current plantation head and mother of its current generation of children. She is the family fulcrum, but Ellen too has a different view of it. Her family is from Virginia, which gives her a certain difference in outlook both in her mind and that of the "real" Fairchilds. To them, "Ellen had come far, yielded to much, for a Virginian, but still now a crowd, a roomful of people, was not her natural habitat, a plantation was not her true home." Any deviation in her behaviour from Fairchild ways is attributed to the strange ways of Virginians. Ellen has learned to keep her thoughts to herself.

Robbie Reid has recently married the star of the Fairchilds, George, who is adored by one and all. Even more recently, Robbie has run away, convinced that the family, including George, cares only for Fairchilds. While Ellen could marry in because of her respectable family background, Robbie didn't have that advantage. She will have to fight even harder for acceptance the second time round, for she has now decided she wants back in.

Like Robbie, the groom Troy Flavin is a social inferior. He is the overseer on the plantation, a man of few words and rough ways. The only thing that can get him talking is reference to his mother, a hill woman "up near the Tennessee line". Her refuge is quilting and Troy sees the world in quilting metaphors and images. It is clear that he will remain an outsider, but what will happen to Dabney, his bride? The family believes that it is possible for a marriage to work out if a man marries down, but something will be lost when a woman does the same thing.

The Fairchilds themselves do not have to question their lives, they just accept their position and status. Each one has a place and a role, governed by family lore which moulds and shapes them into their niche. None are introspective, so they behave as if life offers nothing outside their boundaries, all that is except George. George was a younger brother. The family's light shone on his older brother Denis.
...it was Denis and always would be Denis that they gave the family honor to...It was Denis who had read everything in the world and had the prodigious memory -- not a word ever left him. Denis knew law and could have told you the way Mississippi could be the fairest place on earth to live, all of it like the Delta. It was Denis that was ahead of his time and Denis that was out the pages of a book too. Denis could have planted the world, and made it grow. Denis knew what to do about high water, could have told you everything about the Mississippi River from one end to the other. Denis could have been anything and done everything, but he was cut off before his time.

Denis had been killed in World War I. Now the impossible role of family scion had fallen to George, who knew, just as his family knew, that he could never measure up. He had left the plantation for a legal career, "fooling with practicing law in Memphis", as another sibling said. Never alone, always surrounded by adoring relatives despite his flaw of not being Denis, George struggles to keep apart. Lacking an introspective background, he doesn't consciously recognize what he is doing. His internal struggle over who and what he is, is one that will shape the fortunes of the family for decades to come; deciding who will live in which house, what crops he would grow if he returned, which home would be the centre of the family's life. It is his dawning awareness of this as the Fairchilds celebrate Dabney's less than desirable wedding, that reveals the family's internal map.

Aug 12, 2013, 11:36am Top

Great review!

Aug 12, 2013, 1:16pm Top

Delta Wedding is my favorite Welty -- I think I may need to read it again -- next summer -- definitely the best kind of summer reading.

Aug 12, 2013, 5:29pm Top

Enjoyed your review of Delta Wedding

Aug 13, 2013, 7:35am Top

Just popping in. I see you continue to read some really interesting stuff! I had not heard of The Women's War, but I'm intrigued. The Count of Monte Cristo once held the title of "my most re-read book," (now long surpassed by Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, and The Handmaid's Tale), and I read Three Musketeers and Queen Margot.

I also enjoyed your review of the Welty. I've read a few of her shorter works and "deceptively easy" works for those also. I also read her memoir One Writer's Beginnings, which was excellent. I may have to keep the Welty and Dumas in mind....

Aug 14, 2013, 10:29pm Top

Wonderful, excellent view of Delta Wedding!

Aug 15, 2013, 8:26am Top

rebecca, bas and mk, thanks again.

Jane, interesting that we were both reading Welty at the same time. What would you suggest for my next title?

ava, I just got an email from amazon telling me I might like to read The Women's War, so perhaps the publisher is just starting to promote it, or else amazon got it right for once. The last time they suggested a book, it was something like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I did order Queen Margot yesterday. I'm tempted by the Welty memoir, as her territory really appeals to me, although it is about as alien as the moon. The introduction to my edition suggested a sort of symbiotic relationship between her skill at photography and her writing, which made sense. Is this touched on in the memoir?

Aug 15, 2013, 8:52am Top

The latest from another favourite author:

42. Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd
first published 2012
finished reading July 25, 2013

Back in January I read William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms and was churlish enough to suggest that it didn't measure up to his usual writing. Well I've just read his latest novel and thankfully he's back in form. Waiting for Sunrise is often called a spy novel. True, there are spies, but that's like saying Dr Zhivago is a novel about medicine.

As usual in a Boyd novel, the hero and reader are thrown into the action right away. Lysander Reif is a young English actor enjoying all that the Vienna of 1913 has to offer. Almost all, because he has come to Vienna to see a noted psychoanalyst about a problem he feels precludes him from marrying his fiancée. In Dr Bensimon's office he meets two people who will shape his future: Hettie Bull and Alwyn Munro. Hettie introduces herself as a patient and Munro says he is a friend of the good doctor.

Hettie and Lysander soon become lovers, but then Lysander suddenly finds himself in jail, much to his astonishment. Munro materializes to help him and the intrigue begins. Lysander follows Munro's suggestions and makes his way back to England where he is forced to confront the nature of truth. It isn't consistent; what's true for one person doesn't hold for another. Truths are not permanent, as a Hemingway epigraph for the book warns us: A thing is true at first light and a lie by noon. Most of all, truth comes at a price. Lysander must judge what price he is willing to pay and how much truth he wants.

Waiting for Sunrise is classic Boyd: the quirky main characters, the role of randomness and coincidence in people's lives, the chain of events just improbable enough to be probable, the humour, the detailed attention to place and persons, and the fun with names.
'Mr L U Rief' Bensimon said.
'What do the initials stand for?'
'Lysander Ulrich Rief'
'Marvellous name'
Manchester, Lysander thought --that flat 'A'.
'Rief -- is that Scottish?'
'Old English. It means "thorough", some say. And I've also been told it's Anglo-Saxon dialect for 'wolf'. All very confusing'.
'A thorough wolf. Wolfishly thorough....'

As I was wondering how to approach this review, I suddenly had the idea that all this makes his writing very similar to that of Dickens. I can hear howls of outrage now. Boyd may not have the name recognition or following of Dickens, but he certainly keeps the legacy going.

Aug 15, 2013, 9:00am Top

Great review of Waiting for Sunrise, Sassy. I own but haven't read Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms, and am now wondering where the best place is to start with Boyd.

Aug 15, 2013, 10:14am Top

This thread is packed full of great stuff - one of those that makes me feel like I'm reading all the wrong books.

>216 SassyLassy: - I like Welty's short stories but have never gotten past 30 pages in one of her novels, including Delta Wedding. Your review makes me feel like I should try again but the only way I can be certain of finishing is if I can convince the bookgroup to do.

>223 SassyLassy: - William Boyd is coming to Edinburgh as part of the launch of the next James Bond but it actually costs more to see him talk about the book than it does to buy the hardback. It's a pity because he is writer I have enjoyed. We did Any Human Heart at the bookgroup and one of the members was telling at the last meeting that they have subsequently read through his whole back catalogue.

Aug 15, 2013, 8:22pm Top

William Boyd and Dickens, that is some connection Sassy.

Aug 15, 2013, 9:50pm Top

Linda, I started with Brazzaville Beach and still think that is his best.

Jargoneer, I often think the same about your thread. I would love to see William Boyd after listening to him on the radio, but it's tough when they set up the pricing like that. Do they ever record these sessions? CBC often does that.
Any Human Heart is one of my favourite Boyds... Logan Mountstuart was such a great character and a brilliant name.

bas, what can I say? I also see some of Graham Greene's "entertainments" in Boyd. Shouldn't get carried away though, I still have another Boyd book on my TBR and who knows where that will go.

Aug 16, 2013, 8:04am Top

Sounds like a book that might make me try Boyd again.

Aug 21, 2013, 6:42pm Top

Trying to get my last July book in here before I start a new thread... a seriously overdue Early Reviewer book.

43. Martin's Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr: A Memoir by Clayborne Carson

The summer following Clayborne Carson's first year of university, he travelled to Washington and saw Martin Luther King Jr deliver his famous "Dream" speech. Just a few days earlier, he had met Stokely Carmichael, at that time part of SNCC, at a National Students' Association meeting in Indianapolis. Among other things, the meeting had discussed whether or not to support the March on Washington. Some felt such support would prompt southern white colleges to withdraw from the NSA, causing its demise. Carmichael and others called for outright support of the march, including financial aid. Eventually it was decided to support the goals of the March, but not the March itself.

Looking back at these events today, you would think that participating in them would seem like being part of history. As Carson rightly points out though, it wasn't history then. He had other things on his mind. He was supposed to be on his way back home to Los Alamos with the University of New Mexico delegation to the NSA meeting. Instead, he had hopped on an NAACP chartered bus to Washington to participate in the March. King's speech was the last on the programme and he now had to find his way back to the bus. His parents had no idea where he was and he intended to keep it that way until he arrived home. His biggest concern at that moment was finding that bus.

The Carsons were the first black family in Los Alamos. Clayborne's father was from Alabama, his mother from Mississippi. Both were all too aware of what could happen to him hitchhiking back through the south. Clayborne was the first in his family to attend university and his parents felt that should be his focus.

Clayborne, however, was now inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. He moved to California and finished university at UCLA, becoming involved in student activism. Once the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, many activists moved on to the anti Vietnam war movement. Writing articles for the Free Press, Carson covered all facets of activism, but felt black militancy was moving toward what he terms "racial separation". Carson was inclined "to build a black-white political coalition" instead. His years in New Mexico had been spent in an almost all white environment, free from the prejudice many of the militants knew all too well, making him look less than committed from their point of view.

Carson graduated in 1967 and received his draft notice. He married his white girlfriend and together they left for Europe, returning a week before King's assassination. Carmichael felt this event removed the one person all black people could agree to listen to. Carson admired King's ...commitment to nonviolent principles and ideals of social justice... during a time of increasing factionalism, but seemed more inclined to side with those looking for more overt actiion.

The couple moved back to LA, where Carson worked at UCLA and audited the new classes about race in the US, then became a graduate student in history. This was his lucky break and he attributes his admission solely to affirmative action. He continued to follow black politics and his discussions of SNCC, Bob Moses, the Black Panthers, Maulana Karenga, Angela Davis and others are written well, showing interactions among them that weren't clear at the time. His luck held and after a year and a half of graduate school, he was offered an acting assistant professorship for African American history, replacing a more qualified Japanese American professor who would not be offered tenure. Carson completed his doctorate with a dissertation on SNCC and moved on to Stanford.

Carson was clearly able to discuss black political movements in the US and while I would not have minded reading such a book, by this time I was past the one third mark in this book. Given the title, I was wondering about King and his legacy as suggested by the subtitle. Maybe Carson's editor was wondering the same thing, for the narration suddenly skips to 1985.

In 1985, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr's widow, approached Carson directly about becoming senior editor of the new King Papers Project. This project envisioned multiple volumes over a number of years devoted to King's political and religious written and oral documentation. Although he had not done any academic work on King to date, Carson accepted, negotiating to also maintain his position at Stanford for fear of losing tenure.

Almost immediately Carson was caught up in the struggle to obtain and document King's huge body of work, before any actual editing could begin. What follows is a record of some twenty-five years worth of negotiations with the King family, academic squabbles and perceived slights over Obama's first inauguration and the plans for the King National Memorial in Washington. Phrases such as "I got over my hurt feelings" and "I found it odd that I had not been invited to participate..." began to predominate. While there are quotes from King, there is no real analysis of his work or discussion of the philosophy behind the editorial decisions made for the project.

One week from today will be the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, certainly an apt time to look at Dr King's legacy. It's unfortunate that an author with so much access to King's work in a book entitled Martin's Dream was not able to discuss it better.

Aug 21, 2013, 6:51pm Top

The Christmas before he died, Martin Luther King Jr preached with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. This was his spiritual home and he gave a strong sermon on the problems facing the US, in particular the war in Vietnam.


Aug 21, 2013, 10:27pm Top

Too bad about Carson's book, but I did get to read a nice review of yours and not feel there was another book I needed to read.

Not true about your wonderful reviews of Delta Wedding and Waiting for Sunrise, which i'm just catching. These you have left me wanting to read. Love how you mixed in the quotes into the Delta Wedding review.

Aug 22, 2013, 5:01am Top

Great review of Martin's Dream, Sassy. I would have been tempted to read this, but I think I would have enjoyed the book less than your comments about it.

I'll listen to MLK's sermon later today. I see the old Ebenezer Baptist Church at least every two weeks, as the barbershop I go to is just across the street from it, and the new church that has replaced it.

Aug 22, 2013, 7:20am Top

Great review, Sassy, and while the book doesn't deliver on explaining MLK's legacy, it does sound like at least the first part provides an interesting perspective on an historic (now) event.

Aug 22, 2013, 5:23pm Top

Excellent review of Martin's dream: My journey and the legacy of Martin Luther King jr: A Memoir I wonder if any volumes have appeared in Carson's projected King Papers project. perhaps he has become so frustrated with the project he decided to write a book about himself.

Aug 23, 2013, 6:52pm Top

Great review Sassy.

Aug 23, 2013, 8:21pm Top

Dan, I always like it when people quote a bit from a book as there's nothing like it for giving you a real flavour of how the author writes, so when I find quotes that I think might work, I like to include them. Glad they worked for you.

Thanks doc and polaris. doc, I hope you do get to hear the sermon, I found it very powerful.

rebecca, the first part was interesting and I would suspect I would read something by him on this topic. He did publish one in 1981, but other than for factual material, it is probably somewhat out of date: In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s.

bas, four volumes did get publish, apparently with diminishing sales each volume. Carson also published The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr, but it sounds as if it was not well received.

After I posted this review, I read the others and got a chuckle out of one which suggested the book shouldn't have been called Martin's Dream, but rather Carson's Career

Probably disappearing now until after Labour Day as there will be a house full of guests. Enjoy the tail end of summer.

Aug 24, 2013, 7:28am Top

Enjoy your guests!

Aug 24, 2013, 5:07pm Top

House full of Guests? nightmare scenario.

Sep 1, 2013, 11:33am Top

Ah so many great reviews. The Boyd sounds interesting and maybe a skim of the first part of Martin's Dream /Carson's Career ;)

Sep 5, 2013, 3:58pm Top

See if I can add a message after I've moved on. It seems I didn't save the last one.

The guests (4) for nine days went well, but I just found out more are coming tomorrow.

mk, I think you'd like Boyd.

I'm so far behind I'm just going to move on to the next thread.

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