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Reading, Listening, Narrating...my reading life

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Edited: Aug 15, 2011, 10:12am Top

This year, for the first time, I began to actually write down the titles of all the books I've read in 2009 - I've hit an even 80 so far. Included in my list are the different ways in which I read books: I either read the print version, listen to the audio version as I commute to and from work, or read the book aloud on the job as a narrator for the Library of Congress' Talking Books Program for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

This year, I've decided to list the books I read each week and to write down brief - or not so brief - impressions of them. It may produce some book talk or it may be just a new way of cataloguing my reading life. Sometimes the books I narrate take a while to complete, depending on the length of the book and the number of hours I work.

This week's selections:
Reading: The Magician's Elephant by Kate Di Camillo
Listening to: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Narrating: The Manhattan Project by Cynthia C. Kelly

December reads: Review:
1. The Magician's Elephant - Message 2
2. The Manhattan Project - Message 3 (narrated)
3. The Picture of Dorian Gray - Message 4
4. When You Reach Me - Message 11
5. A Truth Universally Acknowledged - Message 12

January reads:
6. The Broken Teaglass - Message 14
7. The Last of the High Kings - Message 18 (narrated)
8. Here Lies the Librarian - Message 19
9. Old Filth - Message 21
10. A Season of Gifts - Message 25
11. The Interrogative Mood: A Novel Message 26
12. Still Life Message 27 (narrated)
13. Maniac Magee Message 29

February reads:
14. The Art of Racing in the Rain - Message 30
15. All Souls: A Family Story from Southie - Message 32 (book club)
16. The Man in the Wooden Hat - Message 37
17. A Fatal Grace - Message 40 (narrated)
18. A Town Like Alice - Message 42
19. Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon - Message 45

March reads:
20. The Moving Toyshop - Message 52
21. The Doll People Message 55
22. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - Message 57
23. Hondo - Message 59
24. Gatekeeper to Los Alamos: Dorothy Scarritt McKibbin Message 62
25. The Three Weissmanns of Westport- Message 67
26. Sick Puppy - Message 70

April reads:
27. Vermeer's Hat - Message 71(narrated)
28. Strangers on a Train - Message 73 (book club)
29. Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) - Message 75
30. To Say Nothing of the Dog Message 81
31. Ghosty Men - Message 85
32. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Message 89
33. Stitches: A Memoir - Message 92
34. The Cruelest Month - Message 93 (narrated)
35. Shanghai Girls - Message 97

May reads:
36. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Message 99 (book club)
37. American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot - Message 103
38. Sarah's Promise - Message 106
39. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Message 108
40. The Imperfectionists - Message 110
41. Between, Georgia - Message 116
42. Charlie Bone and the Beast - Message 117 (narrated)
43. The Mapping of Love and Death Message 119
44. Life Among the Savages - Message 120

June reads:
45. Doomsday Book - Message 124
46. Feed - Message 128
47. A Rule Against Murder - Message 137 (narrated)
48. Measle and the Wrathmonk - Message 140
49. The Phantom Tollbooth - Message 141
50. Charlie Bone and the Shadow - Message 144 (narrated)

July reads:
51. The Pied Piper - Message 146
52. Fingersmith - Message 161
53. The Brutal Telling - Message 162 (narrated)
54. One Day - Message 164

August reads:
55. Faith Fox - Message 166
56. Lily Nevada - Message 167
57. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader - Message 169
58. Game Change - Message 170
59. Before I Fall - Message 175
60. Where There's a Will: Thoughts on the Good Life - Message 179
61. Team of Rivals - Message 181
62. Understood Betsy - Message 185

September reads:
63. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman - Message 187
64. Cutting for Stone - Message 189 (book club)
65. Time Was Soft There - Message 190
66. Pictures of Hollis Woods - Message 197
67. The Blessing Way - Message 205
68. Betjeman - Message 209 (narrated)
69. Flora's Dare - Message 215 (narrated)
70. The Double Comfort Safari Club - Message 215

October reads:
71. The Blue Castle - Message 219
72. Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater - Message 227
73. Private Lives and Hay Fever - Message 234

November reads:
74. The Night Bookmobile - Message 237
75. Sarah's Key - Message 239
76. Little Bee - Message 246 (book club)
77. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar - Message 247
78. The Letters of Noel Coward - Message 252 (narrated)

December reads:
79. Ballet Shoes - Message 249
80. Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas Story - Message 250

Edited: Jan 24, 2010, 12:53pm Top

1. The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo. (Read print edition)

I've been looking forward to this one for a while now, partly because I've enjoyed all of DiCamillo's work so far and partly because it took a record 10 weeks for it to go through my library's waiting list and finally to me. A very popular book!

It begins spectacularly, with a performance at the Bliffendorf Opera in the city of Baltese, when a magician, intending to produce a bouquet of lilies to a noblewoman in the audience, instead causes an elephant to come crashing through the roof and into the lady's lap, crippling her. Earlier that day, 10-year old Peter Augustus Duchene had been told by a fortuneteller that in order to find his little sister, who disappeared when she was an infant, he should "follow the elephant".

So here we have: a mystery (where did the elephant come from?), a quest (finding the lost sister), and a wrong to right (poor, crippled noblewoman). Plenty goes on in this book, but none of these conundrums is really satisfactorily resolved. Except for the sister, but there is certainly none of the expected quest.

First of all, where are we? It's dank and cold all the time, most of the population is poor and sad, and the shadowy illustrations by Yoko Tanaka show a world where little hope is expected. Most of the people have vaguely French or Russian names and the clothing seems to reflect circa 1900. The overall gloom lends itself to lots of dreams and imagery, all beautifully crafted, but surely these resonate more with adults than they do with children.

I had high hopes for the elephant. When Peter finally meets her, I expect that she will speak to him and give him wise counsel but, alas, she is too depressed. She is being viewed and poked and prodded by the masses and she misses her homeland, wherever that is. (We don't know her name because, the omniscient narrator tells us, it's in a language we wouldn't understand.) Peter discerns all this by looking into her eye because she is not a talking elephant and so he decides to forget about the sister and find a way to get the elephant home.

The moral of the story is clear: alone we are powerless but together we can do anything. Peter enlists the help of his neighbor, a beggar,a stone mason, the noblewoman and, of course, the magician and together they send the elephant on her way. To where? No idea. Oh, and the sister sees all the hubub from her window in the neighboring orphanage, joins the group, and is immediately recognized because her name is the same as that of Peter's lost sister. They are reunited, proving the fortuneteller correct.

It took me a while to figure out why nothing about this book inspired me. I wanted the elephant to be the hero of the book because poor little Peter was way too noble for me. All DiCamillo's other heros have been an uppity mouse (The Tale of Despereaux), an egotistical rabbit (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane) and spoiled pig (Mercy Watson). Her only other human protagonist was the girl in Because of Winn Dixie and she was an interesting child with a wonderful spirit and curiosity.

Poor Peter, being raised in a garret by a doddering old soldier, is certainly a sympathetic character, but in the end I could only feel pity for him and relief that he was out of that garret. And where in the world did that elephant go?

Edited: Mar 21, 2010, 2:10am Top

2. The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians edited by Cynthia Kelly. (Narrated)

When I began to narrate books, I thought that my job would be perfect if I could choose all the books! Sometimes I still feel that way when I'm given a really badly written romance (it happens). But then there are the times when I get a book that opens new worlds and ideas to me and I realize I might just have the best job in the world.

The Manhattan Project is an ambitious undertaking, taken on by Kelly, the president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation in D.C. Her brief was to present the story of the atomic bomb from the discovery of fission through to today's possibility that terrorist organizations could control this means to destroy the world. The 70 year span includes letters, speeches, eyewitness accounts and oral histories. These last are the most compelling: scientists enmeshed in the overwhelming process of creating a top secret government project describe what it was like to live with the horrifying results of their work.

The chief physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the army's head of the program, Gen. Leslie R. Groves, are the main characters here, two compelling personalities determined to carry out their project in a limited time and bring an end to WWII. The army built three top secret sites in Tennessee, Washington State and Los Alamos, New Mexico where scores of the west's most brilliant scientists and their families lived, assisted by army personnel, most of whom had some scientific background.

The team faced a massive, dangerous task and produced atom and hydrogen bombs in a relatively short time. This "can do" tone changes once the bomb is dropped and much of the second half of the book centers on the aftermath: the morality of dropping the bomb, the horrible effects of destruction and radiation on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the need for arms control as more and more countries develop their own nuclear programs.

President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech at the UN is startling in its eloquence and Oppenheimer's speech to his fellow scientists titled "You Have Done Excellent Work" warns them that their work will be criticized for generations to come.

Questions about whether the bomb should have been dropped on Japan surfaced almost immediately after the event. The creation of the Manhattan Project was due to the Allies' concern that the Nazis were developing a nuclear program; once it was determined in 1944 that no program existed, several MP physicists wanted the project to be abandoned. Some left, appalled that the bomb would be dropped on Japan, a country that never had a nuclear program. Others leaked secrets to the Soviets, fearing a post war world in which one country - the U.S. - could potentially control and threaten all the others.

President Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson rationalized that an invasion of Japan could have cost 1 million American lives, a number that was immediately criticized.

The book presents both sides of the argument. Interestingly, Secretary Stimson wrote in 1948: "History is often not what actually happened but what is recorded as such."

Of all the accounts in this book, the most compelling for me was that of John Martin Taylor, whose father was a Los Alamos scientist. Hearing his friends talk about what their fathers did in the war, the 12 year old asked his dad about his war experience:

"He quietly took John Hersey's 'Hiroshima' from the bookshelf and handed it to me.
'Read this.'
The story has haunted me ever since, and my dad has always refused to talk about the work he did as a young chemist on the Manhattan Project."

Edited: Jan 10, 2010, 3:30pm Top

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. (Listened to audio book)

This is one of these books that I've heard so much about over the years, it felt as though I had read it. But since I never did, it was time.
Unlike Wilde's plays, Dorian Gray is not a comedy but a cautionary tale culminating in tragedy.

Dorian is a young man of 19th century aristocracy, meaning that he and his friends have nothing to do but entertain each other, collect expensive objects and snipe about the state of the world. Dorian's friend Sir Harry is an expert at this last and fills the young man's head with his philosophy about women, life and youth. While Dorian sits for his portrait, Sir Harry convinces him that losing one's youth is a horror and that living for the moment is the only true joy. Dorian makes the wish that he would keep his good looks and that the painting would age instead. His wish comes true, leading to debauchery and crime. In the end, the beautiful face is overwhelmed by the grotesque, true manifestation of his misspent life represented in the portrait that he hides in the attic.

A real surprise in the story is that Wilde manages to insert his characteristic wit through Sir Henry. The man has a lot to say and dominates the dialogue throughout the book. Some of his statements are outrageously hilarious. (Wilde even lifts a line from his play "The Importance of Being Earnest" when Sir Henry comments that a recent widow's hair "has gone quite gold from grief.")

When one of his friends remarks that Sir Henry himself doesn't believe a word he says, Sir Henry replies that that is true, and that he even forgets what he's said ten minutes after he's said it.

The point of the story is that Dorian Gray takes all of his nonsense seriously. Not only do his looks never change, but his decisions are based on things he accepted to be true and the folly of his youth becomes his undoing.

This audio book was excellently narrated by Michael Page who voiced the callow Dorian, the effete Sir Henry and the serious painter Basil to perfection. If all his women tended to sound like Edith Evans in the movie version of "The Importance of Being Earnest"...well, who better to imitate?

Dec 19, 2009, 12:05pm Top

This week's selections:

Reading:A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, by Susannah Carson.
Listening to: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Narrating: The Last of the High Kings by Kate Thompson

Dec 19, 2009, 1:27pm Top

You get paid to read books?

Edited: Dec 19, 2009, 2:37pm Top

Yes, I do. Nice gig, huh?

Dec 19, 2009, 2:37pm Top


Dec 19, 2009, 2:38pm Top

I've always suspected I have the wrong job... :)

Dec 19, 2009, 2:53pm Top

Now I finally know what I want to be when I grow up.

Edited: Mar 30, 2010, 12:30am Top

4.When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. (Listened to audio book)

There's something wonderful about discovering a fantastic children's book. Like the first Harry Potter, just one book has the power to turn a child into a life-long reader. This is one of those.

Miranda is a 12 year old latchkey kid in Manhattan in the late 1970s. Her best friend Sal is ignoring her, she is tentatively making new friends, and she is being sent messages from an unknown source - little pieces of paper asking favors of her and predicting things that will and do happen. The writer assures her with increasing urgency that he or she will save her friend's life, but she doesn't know which friend or who could need saving.

Miranda's favorite book is Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and those who are also fans will get some clue to the mystery, although knowledge of the L'Engle book is by no means necessary. The puzzle steadily unravels in a startling and dramatic way that compels the reader to go back over the previous chapters for clues. Unfortunately, this is not possible when one is listening to a book - so that was a little frustrating.

Cynthia Holloway's narration was terrific, especially in voicing the children in the story. She is less successful with the adults, Miranda's young mother in particular. This character is a frustrated paralegal and a free spirit who is practicing for her upcoming stint on "The $20,000 Pyramid". Holloway chooses to employ a quavering treble to her voice which suggests more feeble old lady with an attitude than former flower child. But Miranda tells this story and Holloway makes her sound every bit like the smart 12-year old she is. Listening to this character become more aware of the world and people around her is enormously effective.

I can just imagine tons of kids enthusiastically telling their friends: "You have GOT to read this book." The puzzle is intriguing and the story is gripping. A great read.

Edited: Jan 12, 2010, 1:52am Top

5. A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen by Susannah Carson. (Read print edition)

Literary criticism has always been a tricky thing for me to read; often it just seems like showing off on the part of the writer. ("You may think Joyce was a genius, but let me describe for you my proof that he was a hack..."). Happily, none of the 33 writers attempt such perfidy with Jane Austen but it is hard going to read through this entire book without getting bored. It's a book to be picked up and put down over time - too many dissections of Lizzie's humor in Pride and Prejudice in a row might actually make you dislike her and that would be a crime.

Despite the title, the writers assembled here are not all "great". Amy Heckerling did a fine job turning Emma into "Clueless" and Rebecca Mead may be a talented staff writer for The New Yorker but neither is a great writer. So picking and choosing chapters is important here and true greats like Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf shine as you would expect.

Interestingly, when choosing which of Austen's novels to concentrate their energies on, most writers chose P&P, Emma or Persuasion with only passing references to the other three. Woolf chose instead to hone in on her unfinished work "The Watsons" which I'm now going to have to somehow unearth if I can. In gorgeous prose that Austen would have appreciated, here is Woolf describing Austen's unerring sense of her own time and place:

"One of those fairies who perch upon cradles must have taken her a flight through the world directly she was born. When she was laid in the cradle again she knew not only what the world looked like, but had already chosen her kingdom."

Although listed in the contents, "contributor biographies" come at the end of the book and I feel they should be placed at the front. It makes it easier to decide which essay to turn to - they are not all gems. One author seems to be trying to sell her own book by making comparisons with Austen's while another bored me to death with Austen's "perfections". I agreed with them, of course, but much better to go back to the source and read the masterpieces themselves.

Jan 1, 2010, 4:07pm Top

2010! Sounds like a year out of "Star Trek"!

Reading: The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault
Listening to: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Narrating: The Last of the High Kings by Kate Thompson (didn't work the last couple of weeks in December so got to rest my voice - sort of - and am looking forward to returning to this sequel to The New Policeman).

Edited: Jan 10, 2010, 3:13pm Top

6. The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault (Read print edition)

I read this first time author on the first day of the year and couldn't put the book down. Quite the omen!

It's the story of a couple of lexicographers working for a venerable company that publishes dictionaries. Billy and Mona are young, bright and stuck in a job with no future but the perfect fit for a couple of classic lit and philosophy majors. Arsenault used to work in such a place and the scenes here ring absolutely true. There is drudgery, humor and pathos in these people and what they do and as someone who also works surrounded by dictionaries (more for their pronunciation value than their etymology) I can relate to the strange, quirky world of low tech.

The lexicographers' work is to find citations ("cits" for short) in current periodicals that could change the meanings of words in future editions. The two young people come across some cryptic messages in the files, listed under an unknown title: "The Broken Teaglass". Eventually the two sleuths piece together fifty of these cits which form a story involving a grizzly murder that occurred fifteen years earlier.

Arsenault reveals the writer and the mystery gradually. The cits aren't discovered in order so the tension builds. Clearly the writer worked at their company; does anyone still working there have any information or something they don't want known?

Mona and Billy have their own secrets which they also are slow to reveal. The whole process is like the peeling of an onion and the pace and surprises of the plot led me to finish the book in a day. Just when I thought it was time to put it aside, something else would turn up and I was re-hooked.

Highly entertaining and a fresh, inventive voice.

Jan 2, 2010, 5:30pm Top

I'm pretty much not interested in mysteries, but I am a lexicographer manqué (I even insinuated my way into the Merriam Webster editorial offices one time for a tour). I have put this on my waiting-for-the-paperback wishlist.

Thank you,


Jan 2, 2010, 7:30pm Top

I'm not a mystery fan either and the lexicography angle was what grabbed me from the New York Times review. I don't think there are many works of fiction that highlight lexicographers which makes it all the more interesting.

Edited: Jan 12, 2010, 1:46am Top

On tap this week:

Reading: Old Filth by Jane Gardam
Listening to: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Narrating: Still Life by Louise Penny

Edited: Jan 19, 2010, 1:54am Top

7. The Last of the High Kings by Kate Thompson (Narrated)

Last year I had the great good fortune of narrating Thompson's The New Policeman which won the UK's Costa Award for best children's book. It was the story of 15 year old JJ Liddy who enters the legendary T'ir na n'Og (the land of the fairies) where time stands still and no one ages. There is a hole in the "time skin" which separates this world from the real one, causing both worlds' time to speed up. It was a charming book with a wonderful hero in JJ and an entertaining rascal, the fairy Aengus Og. The story is suffused with the fiddle music played by JJ, his family and the fairies and you can almost hear it playing as you read the book. It did not require a sequel.

But, as often happens with successful first books, it got one. (See "Twilight": but I know there are legions who will disagree with me there.) This time around, JJ is the father of four and is 25 years older. This is odd since he seemed to be a modern teenager in the previous book, so what year is it exactly? But it turns out that time is not a theme in this book, nor is music, sadly. The theme is a little hard to figure out and the title doesn't give much of a clue until the end of the book.

The problem is that JJ as an adult is as feckless and irresponsible as Aengus Og. Eleven years before this story begins, he and his equally nutty wife have switched their own newborn with Jenny, a changeling from T'ir na n'Og, to allow her to grow so that one day she can return to her own world forever as an adult. (They've given scant attention to what this will mean for the future of their own offspring who remains an infant in the fairy world.) That JJ has turned into an inept adult is sad enough for fans of the first book but to have him take center stage during the first half of this book drags it down considerably.

Fortunately Jenny perks up once she realizes why she has never felt that she belonged in the world she's been living in and proves to be a very able heroine. She and her adopted brother, JJ's nine-year old son Donal, take charge during the last third of the book and they prove compassionate and daring as they strive to return the last of the high kings to his rightful throne.

There are pukas and ghosts in this story, along with the fairies, but it is the children you cheer for and the children who should have been the focus all along. Donal plays a mean fiddle himself and if Thompson should attempt another story, I hope she keeps him young and fires up all the instruments to play us a better tune.

Edited: Jan 30, 2010, 12:31am Top

8. Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck. (Listened to audio book)

I haven't had a lot of luck with audio books this week. After listening to only two CDs of The Hunger Games and only one CD of The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, I got desperate for something lighter. I've never been good with dystopian stories and although The Hunger Games is hugely popular, it bored me to death. The Night Watch was so depressing that I didn't want to get back in the car to hear more of it. So I ditched them both and headed for what I thought would be a sure thing: a kid's story by one of my favorite authors.

This book starts out promisingly enough: in 1914 a tornado hits a small Indiana town, opening graves and causing havoc in Beulah Land, the town cemetery. There lies the crotchety librarian Miss Dietz, whose headstone carries the marvelous epitaph:

"After years of service tried and true,
Heaven stamped her overdue."

Shortly afterward, four sorority sisters from the local university motor into town with freshly minted librarian degrees, determined to put the library, and the town, to rights.

The story is told by Eleanor "Peewee" McGrath, a 14-year old who runs a local garage with her big brother Jake. These two are constantly being sabotaged in business by the Kirby family who have a larger garage closer to town. The future hopes for the parentless McGraths hang on the remote possibility that the impoverished town will pave the road leading to their garage.

It's not unreasonable to assume from the title that this story will be about librarians or reading or perhaps the intellectual enlightenment of the young Eleanor. She is dazzled by one of the lovely, wealthy young librarians, Irene Ridpath, who becomes a mentor of sorts. But this book isn't really about libraries at all. It's about cars, specifically the car that Jake and Eleanor are building out of scraps, to drive in what will ultimately be the first Indianapolis 500. And, to her credit, Eleanor learns more about being true to herself than she does about ladylike manners.

Peck is a wonderful writer and I've greatly enjoyed his other books but this one falls a little flat. His humor is intact but many of the characters are cartoonish or bland. Jake doesn't seem to be worthy of the hero worship his sister has for him. An elderly neighbor, a colonel who believes he's still fighting the Civil War, is more familiar than quirky. Inexplicably, we never find out what happens to the plucky Irene. None of this was helped by the narration which was somewhat monotone-ish. Makes me want to pick up Peck's A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago to revisit those hilariously endearing characters.

Edited: Jan 22, 2010, 5:05pm Top

This week in the news: It took the horrific earthquake in Haiti to wipe the silly "Tonight Show Wars" off the front page. Here are my reading plans. Let's see how far I get:

Reading: Old Filth by Jane Gardam
Listening to: A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck
Narrating: Still Life by Louise Penny

Edited: Jan 30, 2010, 12:31am Top

9. Old Filth by Jane Gardam (Read print edition)

Where has Jane Gardam been all my life? I have spent countless hours over the years trolling the aisles of UK book stores and never once remember coming across her name, yet she has authored two dozen volumes since 1974. When a friend mentioned loving this book and that "Filth" was an acronym for "Failed in London try Hong Kong", it tickled my Anglophile sensibility and I had to try it. What a book!

Filth, aka Sir Edward Feathers, and his wife Betty have retired to Dorset after a lifetime in the East where he has presided as a very distinguished and successful judge. Childless and with loads of money, Filth and Betty know no one in the UK, and it becomes apparent that they don't know each other terribly well either. This seems not to bother Filth, who is comfortable with the surface relationships he has had with people all his life. But upon Betty's death, he is forced to reflect and that leads to an intense and surprising tale.

Gardam manages to expertly achieve what so many writers cannot: she brings us back and forth in time, so that the story, which begins when Filth is eighty, takes us from past to present and back to the past again, over and over, seamlessly. It's like being taken on a toboggan ride through hilly terrain: not once did I ever feel like I would fall off and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

Little Eddie Feathers was a "raj orphan", one of the hundreds of children born to British ex-pats in the East who were sent to England at an early age to be schooled. Eddie's mother has died in childbirth and his father, suffering from malaria and an horrific WWI experience, never even converses with him before sending him abroad. This pattern of being left to fend for himself continues as his aunts ignore him, his best friend abandons him and his mysterious father demands his return to Singapore as WWII is beginning.

There are so many layers to Old Filth's story that it would be impossible to write them here and would never do justice to the actual tale. Gardam's writing is perfect and her characters are beautifully drawn. Eddie's childhood fears and abandonments are presented as poignantly as the fears and abandonments of Filth's old age.

Such a story could be an unbearably sad read but luckily there is plenty of humor - wonderful, funny passages that make the book a perfect whole. Filth takes to the road (in trips not unlike that of the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day), and discovers himself.

I hate for a book like this to end. But it turns out that this one has a sequel, or at least a book with the same characters. The Man in the Wooden Hat is Betty's version of this story and her life with Filth.

I can't wait.

Jan 18, 2010, 7:13pm Top

#21 - Great review

Jan 18, 2010, 7:30pm Top


Jan 24, 2010, 12:44pm Top

On tap this week:

Reading: The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell
Listening to: A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck
Narrating: Still Life by Louise Penny

Edited: Jan 30, 2010, 1:04pm Top

10. A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck (Listened to audio book)

After last week's somewhat disappointing Richard Peck book, I unexpectedly discovered this new story, published in 2009, and featuring the eccentric Mrs. Dowdel from A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago. It's 1958 and twenty years have passed since those books but Grandma Dowdel, in her nineties, is every bit as wily and hilarious.

When a preacher and his family move into an Illinois town, hoping to restore the dilapidated Methodist church and form a congregation, their neighbor proves less than neighborly. Ancient, massive Mrs. Dowdel keeps to herself, shoots her food, grows and sells her vegetables and is busy from dawn to dusk. This fascinates shy 12 year old Bob who steers clear of her but his little sister Ruth Ann has found a hero to worship and begins to imitate their odd neighbor, even pushing invisible specs up her nose and wearing a matching apron as she helps her with her chores.

Soon Mrs. Dowdel, whom no one would ever cross, sets to fixing what's wrong at her neighbor's house: getting people to attend the preacher's new church, giving Bob a chance to build his confidence and even getting 14-year old Elvis-obsessed Phyllis out of the clutches of the local tough guy. The manner in which she performs these minor miracles is very funny and I found myself laughing out loud more than once.

At Christmas, when Bob mentions to his father that Mrs. Dowdel doesn't believe in having presents under the tree, his dad tells him that she gives gifts all year long and that they're not the kind you find in a box with a bow around them.

The narrator for all three of the Grandma Dowdel books is Ron McLarty, one of the best in the business. I read the print edition of the other two books years ago, but I might re-read them in the audio format just for the chance to hear McLarty's priceless rendition of the indomitable main character.

Edited: Feb 26, 2010, 12:43am Top

11. The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? by Padgett Powell (Read print edition)

Is this a book? Yes, it has a bunch of pages and they are bound together and there is a front and back cover with a very eye catching illustration on the front. So it must be a book.

Well, that's one question answered.

As for the thousands of questions posed in this book, they don't all cry out for answers. This is a book that means to make the reader think, even if sometimes it makes him or her think about the author. Several of the questions are actually small stories about the author's experience with question marks at the end.

Some are serendipitous ("What is your favorite fabric?" "Is the blue jay justly maligned?") and they seem to be strung together randomly. But wait: the subject of fabrics returns several pages later as do blue jays and other birds ...... It takes a while, but as you race through these questions, eventually the eye snags on something that resonates and the mind spins away into some memory that leads to creating a story of your own.

I finally had to stop at page 113 (of 164 pages) after reading in short spurts over five days. But while it held my attention, it led me to thinking of the sound and feel of old fashioned roller skates, the maniacal music of ice cream trucks and the grown-up thrill of hailing a cab in NYC when I was ten, all pleasant memories. And bigger things than that, like bravery and friendship and choices.

So it wasn't a waste of time. But would I actually recommend it?

Edited: May 19, 2010, 2:13am Top

12. Still Life by Louise Penny (Narrated)

Fans of Agatha Christie will love Louise Penny's Three Pines, a small town two hours drive south of Montreal and close to the U.S. border. Since Christie's country house parties no longer exist, Three Pines is a fine place to herd a lot of suspects and pick one to be the murderer. There is a lovely B&B for the police to bunk in as they pursue their case, a cozy bistro for the locals to congregate in (with the most delicious-sounding food ever) run by a darling gay couple, and a charming bookshop owned by the only black person in town, who is, handily, a retired psychologist.

An elderly spinster, beloved by all, is found dead in the woods with an arrow through the heart. No one can think who would want to kill her and Chief Inspector Gamache and his crew from the Surete in Montreal install themselves in Three Pines to investigate. Gamache is a meticulous paternal figure who ingratiates himself to the townspeople and ultimately, of course, discovers the killer. He is bound to keep doing so for many volumes to come.

Readers of Jan Karon's books will love Three Pines and its quirky characters, all comfortably middle-aged or older and childless. In fact, the only young people in the book are nasty little buggers. I hope that doesn't continue.

Edited: Feb 13, 2010, 12:38pm Top

On the book menu this week:

Reading: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
Listening to: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Narrating: A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (Also titled Dead Cold in the UK.)

Edited: Mar 21, 2010, 1:56am Top

13. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (Read print edition)

At the beginning of this 1991 Newbery Medal winner, the author makes it clear that the story is a fable and, as with most fables, time has probably exaggerated the story. It's important for adults to remind themselves of this as we read. Maniac Magee is such an extraordinary human being, (possessing a myriad of athletic skills as well as heroism, integrity and self denial) that he defies belief.

But I expect he is just the hero for young boys and this is the audience for which the book is intended.

Jeffrey Magee runs away from his silent aunt and uncle and keeps on running. He runs faster than dogs, he catches every pass the town's star quarterback throws and hits home runs off the town's best pitcher and is dubbed "Maniac" as a result. The town he runs to is made of two parts: East, where the black people live and West where the whites live. When a black family takes him in and he begins to become a part of their family, he's astonished to find out from a doddering neighbor that he is actually an outsider, a white boy living in a black neighborhood. He wonders where the words "black" and "white" have come from. He hasn't ever seen anyone who could be described as either of those colors. The whitest part of him are his eyeballs, but they're no whiter than the eyeballs of his new family members.

Once his family is targeted for taking in a white boy, Maniac runs away. His next "family" is the maintenance man at the local zoo, who teaches him the finer points of baseball and whom he teaches to read.

The further adventures of Maniac include nearly starving, losing a loved one, fostering a couple of ragamuffin little boys and ultimately being saved, but not before this young hero does a lot of suffering...and running.

I didn't enjoy the book but I'm not a 10 year old boy. A larger than life young hero is a good thing, even if you have to suspend disbelief while reading about him.

Edited: Feb 5, 2010, 12:53am Top

14 The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (Listened to audio book)

I thought this book was flat out wonderful. Once I bought into Enzo the dog being the narrator and that Enzo was the most intelligent and noble creature in the book, I was hooked. His master, Denny Swift, came in a close second and the relationship between these two is the crux of the story.

This was perhaps the most emotional book I've read in a while. Denny's wife's death, his attempts at wresting custody of his young daughter from his wealthy, bitter parents-in-law, and his near financial ruin while fighting them and attempting to build his career as a Formula One race car driver are all told in lovely, lyrical writing.

Enzo's philosophy of life, like Denny's, is taken from the primary rules of racing: live in the moment, go where your eyes lead and always be prepared for the next turn in the road. It is hard to imagine enjoying this book as much in the printed format. Christopher Evan Welch's masterful narration brings Enzo to life. We hear his yearning to become a human as he relates the drama. If only he had a tongue to speak with and ... thumbs!

The ending was a bit pat and there is an epilogue that is so saccharine it could have been lifted from another book. But this doesn't take away from the wonderful story or Mr. Welch's terrific performance. Keep the tissues handy.

Edited: Feb 7, 2010, 4:04pm Top

This week's audio book is up for grabs since I've ordered two from the library's inter-library loan service - which I love and live in fear that budget cuts will decimate some day. Oh the sublime luxury of ordering up anything you want and having it arrive within the near, or very near, future!

Reading: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
Listening to: The Doll People by Ann M. Martin or A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
Narrating: A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

Edited: Jun 23, 2011, 8:02pm Top

15. All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald (Read print edition for book club)

This is a story of South Boston, of the forced busing and subsequent riots that took place in the 1970s and of the drugs that decimated the young population there a decade later. MacDonald was one of ten children of a single mother who lived in Old Colony, a government subsidized housing project. She called it "the best place in the world" until she took herself and four of her children off to Colorado two decades later, after losing four of her children to drugs, crime and mental illness.

Busing - the court ordered mandate to force school segregation in two of Boston's poorest neighborhoods (white Southie and black Roxbury) - was a disaster. The author tells the story of being 8 years old and watching the riots and police beatings that ensued. The battle made the close knit, poverty stricken residents even tighter, and nationwide they were labeled as racists for throwing stones at buses rather than let the black kids enter their turf.

Thirty-five years after the fact, it's very interesting to see this issue from an insider's perspective. The author does an excellent job of describing Southie's Irish pride and his family's disintegration. As an adult he became a community acitivist and learned that people from Southie had a lot more in common with the black population they had feared so much, than they had with the liberal white "do-gooders" who forced busing upon them.

Thanks to MacDonald, for the first time I fully understand how the gangster (and still fugitive) Whitey Bulger was able to get away with blanketing his home town with drugs. He was an informant for the FBI as they sought to eradicate the mafia in Boston's North End and in return they turned a blind eye to his dealings in Southie. But Whitey's most effective collaboration was with the people he exploited: there were no snitches in the projects and Bulger capitalized on Southie's code of silence and got away with the murders of its children.

I grew up a mile away from South Boston and 15 years earlier than the author. It was a blue collar neighborhood but one where most of the families were intact and able to earn a decent living and provide hope for their children's future. It might as well have been on the other side of the moon.

Note: Today, June 22, 2011, Whitey Bulger was captured. He had been hiding in plain sight for ten years (so initial reports indicate) in Santa Monica, CA. Apparently, there are still a few people in Southie who refer to him as a "Robin Hood". They should read this book. There's no doubt that Mr. MacDonald is celebrating.

Edited: Feb 9, 2010, 8:16pm Top

A Town Like Alice arrived at the library first, so by default, it wins the race to my car's CD player.

Feb 13, 2010, 12:35pm Top

Too much time spent on the internet this week (that great thief of reading time) so I only got through a chapter of Miss Pettigrew when a couple of library books came in and forced me to shelve her for a bit. This week:

Reading: The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
Listending to: A Town like Alice by Nevil Shute
Narrating: A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

Feb 13, 2010, 4:10pm Top

I enjoyed perusing your thread--great reviews. I've added When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead to my wishlist and Dorian Gray is already on my TBR list for this year. I look forward to seeing what else you read this year.

That's a great job you have but I bet it's harder "work" than many realize. Narrating books is an art and takes talent--nothing can enhance a good book like a great narrator and nothing can destroy a great book like an inept narrator!

Edited: Feb 14, 2010, 7:44pm Top

I'm sure you'll enjoy When You Reach Me. I was delighted when it won this year's Newbery Medal.

I do have a great job. It's opened up genres of books to me that I probably wouldn't have pursued on my own. You're right: it's not as hard as heavy lifting but it is challenging and I'm never bored!

Edited: Feb 19, 2010, 11:45pm Top

16. The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam (Read print edition)

How lucky am I that I read Old Filth, published in 2004, only a few weeks ago (Message #21) and was immediately able to pick up this book, published last year? While the details of the first book were firmly lodged in my cranium, I got to read essentially the same story from the point of view of Betty, Old Filth's very interesting wife.

In ordinary hands, this may have been a bit boring but these novels come from the pen of a master writer. Time after time, Jane Gardam shows how little we can know of others' inner lives. Old Filth and Betty have been married for half a century and each has secrets never revealed to the other. Betty has had an affair with Filth's professional adversary, which she assumes he never has suspected. In fact, the reader has assumed the same thing since Filth is described as an amiable man, immersed in his work and completely trusting of and dependent on his wife. All he has ever asked of her is that she never leave him.

But Old Filth is a lawyer after all and his great skill has been in paying great attention to every detail. He knows how to keep secrets and he is, above all, a gentleman. The revelation of Filth's knowledge and his own secrets is riveting. Equally riveting is Gardam's treatment of the tricks that memory plays on us all.

It feels like hitting the motherlode when I find a "new" author who has already prouduced a body of work that I can dive into. Last year it was Jacqueline Winspear and her Maisie Dobbs series. This year my big treat is the gorgeous prose of Jane Gardam.

Feb 15, 2010, 7:38pm Top

The Jane Gardam books sound really intereting. I wil be checking these out.

I love the Maisie Dobbs books which I discovered a couple of years ago. The next one for me will be An Incomplete Revenge--waiting on my shelf. Then I will have to find the new one--Among the Mad.

Edited: Feb 15, 2010, 11:19pm Top

I'm not a fan of series in general but when I read the entire Maisie Dobbs series last summer it felt like real reading luxury. It was probably because the main character grew and changed with each book.

Jane Gardam has written so many books that it feels like an embarrassment of riches!

Edited: Jun 17, 2010, 8:05pm Top

17. A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (Narrated)

In this second installment of the Three Pines mystery series it is Christmas in the cozy village and Penny does a great job describing the bitter cold of a Canadian winter. She's equally deft at making the mouth water with delicious descriptions of food and drink enjoyed in front of crackling fires. The means by which the murder is committed - by electrocution on a frozen lake during a curling tournament in front of the entire village in the daytime - is nothing short of ludicrous. But Penny doesn't seem to be the stickler that Agatha Christie was about these things and her fans don't seem to mind at all.

Edited: Feb 21, 2010, 11:10pm Top

The Winter Olympics are having a definite effect on my reading, although the narrating and listening bits are about the same. It's hard to pick up a book and ignore all those fine, healthy athletes spinning on ice and careening down hills.

Reading: Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon by Jane Austen
Listening to: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
Narrating: Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook

Edited: Feb 26, 2010, 4:14pm Top

18. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (Listened to audio book)

I remember seeing a PBS production of this story several years ago and enjoying it, so when an LTer recommended the book I thought it would be a good choice to listen to during these cold, wet days commuting to work. The majority of the story takes place in Malaya during WWII and in Australia after the war and so both wet and dry heat are present throughout and it sounded just the antidote to winter.

Not that I envied Jean Paget her wartime experience. She and a group of 30+ women and children, all British ex-patriots, are force-marched back and forth across Malaya by their Japanese captors, who insist that they are being taken to a women's camp that never materializes. They crisscross the country for seven months, during which half their number die. Ultimately they reach a village where the 20-year old Jean, clearly the leader of the group, is able to negotiate that they'll work the paddy fields in exchange for room and board.

Along the way they encounter another prisoner, Joe Harmon, an Australian who manages to provide the starving women with chickens stolen from a Japanese captain. His crime is discovered and the punishment is death, a grisly, shocking event which Jean and her group are forced to witness.

After the war, this tale is told by Jean to Noel Strachan, her lawyer back in London, an elderly widower who has just informed her of her bequest of 53,000 pounds left in trust by an unknown uncle. This windfall opens a whole world to Jean who has returned home to a solitary life as a shorthand typist. Before long, she has come up with a way to do good with the money, and the intelligence and initiative that she showed during the war is put into practice again, with astounding results. This part of the story (including a surprising twist) is told by Noel, who treasures the letters she sends to him detailing her plans, hopes and dreams. At the end, delighted as he is with all she has accomplished, he wistfully admits that this extraordinary girl is "the woman that I met forty years too late".

What a marvelous storyteller Nevil Shute was. The story is full of adventure and romance and rich with detail. Marvelous too was Neil Hunt's narration. For a couple of weeks I have found myself in the jungles of Malaya and the Australian outback and I've had a wonderful trip.

Feb 26, 2010, 2:26am Top

I'm so glad you liked A Town Like Alice--it is a book I loved. I haven't seen the PBS production but I think I can get it on DVD. I'm collecting and planning to read all the Nevil Shute I can get my hands on. Another one I really like is Pied Piper. I recently found several others at a used book store that I plan to read hopefully this year.

Feb 26, 2010, 12:32pm Top

I've never even heard of that one! Apart from On the Beach I don't know what else Nevil Shute has written but I'll fix that. Thanks for the recommendation!

Edited: Mar 22, 2010, 12:48pm Top

19. Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon by Jane Austen (Read the print edition)

It's hard to believe I'm just getting to these, especially after multiple readings of P&P, Emma and Persuasion, but I was reminded of them by Virginia Woolf, of all people, when she referred to The Watsons in her essay about Austen (see Message #12). Lady Susan is the only completed work, written during the same years that P&P and S&S were being worked on, and the other two are unfinished. Still, bits of Austen are better than a lot of finished works of many authors and I'm glad that I own these since I know I'll be re-reading them as well.

Three different Austen stories in one go is pretty heady stuff and, although written at different times of her life, all three seemed to have a greater proportion of disagreeable characters than is found in her other works.

Lady Susan is a monster, an unfit mother to say the least, a seducer and conniver and highly entertaining. The Watsons is the story of a squabbling family with the exception of the heroine, Emma, who has just been reintroduced to her somewhat nasty siblings after being lucky enough to have been sent to an aunt for a genteel upbringing. Sanditon is most interesting for its collection of ridiculous hypochondriacs and the endless talk of cures and sea air. It is particularly poignant that Austen wrote this during the months before her death and that she chose to skewer these characters while she was suffering from her own, very real, illness.

Particularly informative in reading these is the introduction by Margaret Drabble, divided into sections, one for each story. Each one is a helpful supplement and positions the writing of the three novels - or fragments of novels in two cases - in the context of Jane Austen's life. I read each section after reading each story, so they were more of an afterword than an introduction.

It's been a lovely trip back to the land of Austen!

Feb 26, 2010, 1:20pm Top

On next week's menu:

Reading: The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
Listening to: The Doll People by Ann M. Martin
Narrating: Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook

Feb 26, 2010, 1:58pm Top

I hope you enjoy The Moving Toyshop--I read it recently because it was recommended by PD James in her book Talking about Detective Fiction. The setting is Oxford, a place I loved visiting and a setting I also love in books. It is very British, especially the humor which reminded me of Three Men in a Boat which I read a couple of years ago on recommendation of an LT member and is now one of my favorites.

Edited: Feb 26, 2010, 4:18pm Top

I was trying to remember where I got this referral from....it was you!
Very British humor is right up my alley: I'm married to a Brit and I live with that lovely, dry wit. We're heading off to the UK later this year and planning a day in Oxford where I haven't been in years, so this all fits in nicely. I'm sure that I'll be picking up Three Men in a Boat very soon.

Feb 26, 2010, 6:50pm Top

If you enjoy Three Men in a Boat and like Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers (another favorite "Oxford novel" for me) you might enjoy To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. It is in the science fiction genre--but the scifi is only incidental to the story. This was another LT recommendation that became one of my favorite reads--I read this one last year.

Edited: Feb 26, 2010, 9:15pm Top

I loved Gaudy Night - I read all the Peter Wimseys years ago. My daughter was visiting this weekend and brought Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, another probably futile attempt to get me to read sci fi. I've read mixed reviews on that one. She reminded me that I loved Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials on her recommendation but I feel that's more fantasy. Another book set in Oxford, at least Pullman's version of Oxford. I wonder, is To Say Nothing of the Dog more like those?

Edited: Feb 27, 2010, 12:15am Top

Doomsday Book is another of my favorites--also recommended to me by LT member as I had never heard of Connie Willis. This one is much more serious--the main scifi component in both of the novels is that the protagonists go back in time. In this one they go back to the 1600's and are unable to return. I don't want to spoil it if you decide to read it. It reads more like an historical novel and is well researched and true to the times. I was "blown away" by the story. It is told in parallel fashion--what happens in the 1600s while those who are "in the present"--which is actually our future--try to figure out what went wrong with the time travel.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is entirely different--much more humorous. It also involves time travel--but to a more recent pat. I enjoyed almost as much as Doomsday. I will reread both of these I know--To Say Dog will be more of a "comfort" read, Doomsday Book because it is such a powerful story.

Edited: Mar 2, 2010, 7:13pm Top

20. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (Read print edition)

This book was a ton of fun to read. It had lots of energy, tongue-in-cheek humor, and just the right amount of mystery and suspense to keep me turning the pages. It was published in 1946 but the language seemed rooted in the thirties and the manic running of all the characters from clue to clue reminded me of the famed "Carry On" movies of the fifties. British to the core, I could almost hear the voice of Noel Coward every time someone spoke. (Anyone who wants to hear NC speak can go to YouTube and hear him recite dialogue from "Private Lives" with Gertrude Lawrence.)

But I digress. The plot, although paper thin, is entertaining. A bored poet decides to visit his alma mater, Oxford, in hopes of finding some sort of adventure. Arriving in the dead of night, he is walking down a deserted street when he is overcome by an urge to try the door of a toy shop, finds it open, steps inside, finds a woman strangled upstairs, and is hit over the head. He awakens the next morning in the back room of a grocer's, reports the murder to the police (who don't believe him since there is no toyshop at the location) and finds his friend, Professor Gervase Fen, sometime detective, to help him. Then things speed up as the irreverent Fen targets suspects and leads the poet and a slew of mostly inebriated students on a chase for the killer. In the end, none of it makes much sense, but it's so entertaining that I didn't care.

I loved the way Crisp occasionally removed the fourth wall and had his characters comment on the publisher, himself, and Philip Larkin, the famed British poet to whom the book is dedicated. I'll probably pick up another Gervase Fen mystery again when I'm in the mood for a manic chase through the English countryside.

Mar 3, 2010, 3:22pm Top

What a great review! I hope you posted it on the book page because I want to give it a "thumbs up." I'm so glad you enjoyed it. You expressed exactly what I felt.

Mar 3, 2010, 6:33pm Top

Done! Thanks so much for the recommendation. It was a hoot!

Edited: Mar 4, 2010, 7:19pm Top

21. The Doll People by Ann. M. Martin and Laura Godwin (Listened to audio book)

Every once in a while I choose a book because of the joy of listening to its narrator. Lynn Redgrave voiced this one and her renditions of Inkheart and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase were so masterful, that I actually sought this book out just to enjoy her prodigious talent once again. She didn't disappoint.

The story is about a family of dolls who live in the dollhouse of eight year old Kate, whose mother and grandmother owned them before her. Made of china and imported from England one hundred years ago, the Doll Family (Mama, Papa Nanny, Uncle, Bobby, the baby and Annabelle) comes to life at night when the house is asleep. Annabelle is bored and curious about life beyond the dollhouse but the adults warn her of the dangers of leaving: after all, that's what Auntie Sarah did 45 years earlier and she hasn't been seen since then.

Novelty arrives in the form of another doll family, the Funcrafts (shipped from the Funcraft Factory, USA), a birthday present for Kate's little sister. Made of plastic, modern and ready for adventure (they can't break, after all) they encourage the Dolls to explore. Tiffany Funcraft joins with Annabelle to search for Auntie Sarah and avoid Captain, the house cat. This clever story is for children grades 3-6 but younger children who own dollhouses would love to have these stories read to them. It will appeal to the fantasy of every little girl who's wished that her dolls were alive.

Redgrave manages to voice each character - English and American - beautifully. She gives the Funcrafts' voices a hilarious manic quality and captures the hesitancy of the stodgy Doll Family adults as they adjust to new ideas. What a marvelous actress she is. I'm glad I got a chance to hear her again.

(I haven't seen the print edition but the series - there are two sequels - was illustrated by the hugely talented Brian Selznik, the author of the acclaimed graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a wonderful book.)

Mar 4, 2010, 6:22pm Top

Next week's reads are a bit up in the air. We're going on a road trip so I've chosen the audio books to fit more than one taste. We'll see how successful I've been!

Reading: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
Listening to: Hondo by Louis L'Amour and/or Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen
Narrating: Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook

Edited: Mar 29, 2010, 11:48pm Top

22. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (Read print edition)

This is very light reading and an ideal book to read before bed. Easy to pick up and put down again, it took me a little while to finish it because other more compelling books got in the way. It's essentially a Cinderella story about a 40 year old British spinster who is sent by an employment agency to the home of actress Delysia La Fosse, apparently to fill a job as governess. Before she can ascertain that there are no children on the premises, Miss Pettigrew is swept up in the whirlwind of Miss La Fosse's romantic life and through a series of madcap circumstances, finds herself using her years of common sense philosophy to straighten out many of the actress's problems. At the end of 24 hours her life and the lives of Miss La Fosse and her friends are changed forever.

The book was written in 1938 and only recently re-published. While it moves quickly and reflects the kind of life only seen typically in the Astaire/Rogers films of that era, the dialogue is often archaic and confusing. The language is what Noel Coward referred to as "arch" and too many decades have passed for a modern audience to be able to appreciate the humor. An example:

"We're going to be married!" exclaimed Edythe.
"No!" cried Miss LaFosse, embracing her and then Tony. "Why the devil did you wait so long?"
"Well," said Tony seriously, "I thought I'd better wait a bit before showing quite so obviously why I was really marrying her. I mean, it was no use throwing away the ship for a ha'porth of patience."

Still, it's a pleasant story and Miss Pettigrew's plight - she is not a very good governess and faces dire poverty - is touchingly portrayed.

I did see the recent film and although the dialogue was updated, it fell a bit flat. Amy Adams was delightful as Miss La Fosse but Frances McDormand was not a success as the British Miss Pettigrew, who seemed more exhausted than invigorated by her experience. The role cried out for Emma Thompson. But then, I think most movies would be made better by the addition of Emma Thompson.

Mar 17, 2010, 12:12pm Top

Glad you liked this one - I read it recently and it quickly became a favorite. I didn't find the dialog archaic or confusing, but maybe I'm both. :-)

I like your idea of having Emma Thomson play Miss Pettigrew in the movie. You're right, that would have helped a lot. The movie was quite a disappointment compared to the book.

Edited: Mar 17, 2010, 10:42pm Top

23. Hondo by Louis L'Amour (Listened to audio book)

Choosing an audio book for someone else is a little tricky. My husband and I were taking a road trip through Arizona and New Mexico and I needed to find something that would interest both of us. The last time I tried this was on a drive to New York. For some reason, I picked Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, I think because he prefers non-fiction and we've been to the duomo in Milan. He remembers the experience as trying to drive while figuring out how to translate meters into feet. We didn't last through the first CD.

So I went to my trusty library and keyed in "arizona fiction" and up came Hondo, the story of a weary sometime scout for the US Army who loses his horse at the beginning of the story and arrives at the cabin of Angie Lowe to purchase a new one. The cabin is in Apache territory and while Angie and her deceased father have always lived harmoniously with the Indians, Hondo warns her that recent uprisings make her situation more precarious than ever.

Angie explains that her husband will return soon and while Hondo does chores around the farm to pay for his new horse, he teaches her six year old son Johnny how to read the land, recognize tracks, and where to fish. Of course it turns out that the husband is no good and may never return and Angie and Hondo are attracted to each other. When the Apaches arrive, the little boy stands up to them and the chief, Vittoro, names him "little warrior" and promises Angie and her son his protection. There are gunfights and treachery galore. Loads of fun.

Driving through southern Arizona while listening to David Strathairn describe the desert, the colors and beauty of the landscape and the danger of coming upon an enemy at every turn was pretty powerful. Strathairn played Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night and Good Luck" and is one of our best character actors. I didn't hesitate choosing the book for the road trip when I saw he was the narrator. The story is a simple one but very well written with a great climax. Hondo is a great character and although I haven't seen the movie, it's only natural that John Wayne plays him. But for me, Hondo will always be Strathairn, lean and no-nonsense, telling the story with a wonderfully steady cadence. We both thought it was a great accompaniment to a wonderful trip.

Mar 17, 2010, 3:58pm Top

Great review! I hope my library has that one--it would be a good audio book for us on our next car trip. Sometimes it can be difficult to find something both of us will really enjoy. My husband enjoys nonfiction, also. Surprisingly he really enjoyed the P.D. James book we just finished last night--enough to listen to it in the house as well as the car!

Mar 18, 2010, 8:50pm Top

Thanks for the tip! P.D. James is on the list for the next road trip!

Edited: Mar 23, 2010, 12:18am Top

24. Gatekeeper to Los Alamos: Dorothy Scarritt McKibbin by Nancy Cook Steeper (Read the print edition)

During our recent trip in New Mexico, we traveled to Los Alamos, the site of the Manhattan Project, where the atomic bomb was developed during WWII. Since I'd narrated a book all about this period in our history (see Message#3), I was naturally curious to see the place. Driving for a couple of miles up the winding road surrounded by gorgeous hills, I tried to imagine being one of the scientists or their families who were given no idea of their destination and who came upon makeshift housing that the army had cobbled together. It's hard to imagine a better place to keep a Top Secret.

Los Alamos is pretty built up now and the scientific research facility is in full operation. But in the forties, the families at Los Alamos were stranded up there under strict security, with each other for company and the calming presence of Dorothy McKibbin back in Santa Fe. She was the person they first met when arriving in NM; from the train station they were taken to her office where she told them about their housing and answered all their questions. During their stay they would call on Dorothy for information and advice; she was their lifeline to the outside world. Her office was their headquarters in Santa Fe, where they could sit and talk and not have to worry about being overheard. Dorothy became such a friend to many of them that several couples who met during the Project were married at her home.

This story is about this intelligent, lovely woman and how she came to be in Santa Fe during this crucial period. A native of Kansas City, she graduated from Smith College in the twenties and was taken to a sanitarium in Santa Fe when she was stricken with tuberculosis. Many of the people at the sanitarium stayed in Santa Fe once they were cured but Dorothy returned home and married Joe McKibbin, a stockbroker. Within four years of their marriage, they had a son and Joe McKibbin died of cancer. Dorothy packed up her child and headed to New Mexico, the place she couldn't forget. She worked for an import company and then, in 1943, she was introduced to Manhattan Project Director J. Robert Oppenheimer. She had no idea that the meeting was actually a job interview, but she was hooked:

"I thought to be associated with that person,whoever he was, would be simply great! I didn't know what he did. I thought maybe if he were digging trenches to put in a new road, I would love to do that, or if he were soliciting ads for a magazine or something, I would love to do that."

She got the job because Oppenheimer saw someone of unfailing good cheer, good sense and intelligence who had many connections in Santa Fe. She probably was in love with him but she and the married Oppenheimer were good friends until his death. It was a pleasure to read a biography about such a delightful woman. I'm not going to recommend it necessarily: there's no question that my interest was piqued by having read so much about the Manhattan Project and having visited Los Alamos (where I purchased the book).

There was one strange thing though: When walking in downtown Santa Fe I came upon a plaque announcing that this was the site of the former office of the Manhattan Project where all scientists and technicians checked in before heading to Los Alamos. It's now an art gallery so I went in and asked if many people visited because of the plaque. i was told that there was some question about the plaque - that this may not be the correct address! Sure enough, in reading the book I found that the correct address is 109 East Palace, not 109 West Palace where the plaque was placed. At 109 East Palace there is a bedding shop next to a courtyard where those Los Alamos residents came to have coffee with Dorothy. There is no plaque there! Sixty-seven years isn't all that long - we're not talking ancient history! Guess who's firing off a letter to the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce?

Mar 20, 2010, 4:31pm Top

Back to work, back to art history. Having a difficult time deciding what to read on my own. Is it time to put my toe back into science fiction/time traveling? I didn't love The Time Traveler's Wife but I'll try eldest daughter's recommendation. Maybe then she'll try one of mine?

Reading: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Listening to: Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen
Narrating: Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook

Mar 21, 2010, 2:05am Top

Looks like two more books will have to go on the burgeoning TBR list--Manhattan Project and Gatekeeper to Los Alamos.

Doomsday Book was the first book I read last year and one of my most memorable books for the year. I hope you it will be a "good read" for you, too.

I also read To Say Nothing of the Dog by Willis which was more humorous and also enjoyable. If you have read Three Men in a Boat and Gaudy Night it would add to your enjoyment.

Mar 22, 2010, 1:07pm Top

Hmmmm.... I'm about 60 pages into The Doomsday Book and although it's interesting, I'm thinking I'd do better with To Say Nothing of the Dog. The Middle Ages has a limited appeal for me and I could use a little humor with my time traveling. My library has a copy and I'm heading over there today - with any luck they'll have the hardcover version. My daughter lent me her paperback of Doomsday and the small print is a killer!

Edited: Mar 22, 2010, 9:48pm Top

If you aren't enamored with the Middle Ages you will probably like the Victorian story of To Say Nothing of the Dog better--especially if you have read Three Men in a Boat and like Oxford--as I think we've talked about before. These were my first steps into exploring Scifi on LT and so I was pleasantly surprised that they weren't the "space operas" I had been expecting. In fact they were totally unexpected for me!

edited--not sure why the touchstone is not working.

Edited: Apr 5, 2010, 12:41am Top

25. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine (Read print edition)

My indecision about what to read this week was nicely solved by my library which miraculously came up with a copy of this book; I read a rave review of it in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago and immediately requested it. Usually, a new book with a rave review doesn't get into my hot little hands for a couple of months but somehow it arrived and I dropped everything.

Betty's husband of 48 years, Joseph, has dumped her for Felicity, a VP from his firm, and Joseph is most concerned that Betty be well cared for since he is, as he constantly reminds everyone, a generous man. Betty will get the Central Park West apartment. Felicity thinks not.

"I suppose the upkeep is very high these days."
Joe nodded.
"It's really a burden, that big old place," Felicity said. "Poor Betty. I don't envy her. At her age."

Avid readers of Jane Austen will recognize in this exchange and for pages thereafter the plot of Sense and Sensibility with Felicity playing the part of Fanny Dashwood, avaricious sister-in-law of the sisters Dashwood, as she plots to have her husband give up as little as possible to his family. The Weissmanns, mother and two middle-aged daughters, are forced to accept the charity of their genial Cousin Lou and take up residence in a rickety beachside cottage in Westport, CT. Sensible Annie and drama queen Miranda are there to support Betty, and the collapse of Miranda's publishing business makes her as financially vulnerable as her mother. The two women seem to willfully ignore their plight while practical librarian Annie worries.

For Austen lovers much of the fun of the book is in identifying the characters: Frederick, the solemn writer and brother of the nasty Felicity stands in for Edward Ferrars; Roberts, the quiet ever-present lawyer, is Colonel Brandon; Kit, the much younger man with whom Miranda is smitten, is the rascal Willoughby. Hilariously, the Steele sisters are named after mineral deposits: Amber and Crystal. (Another insider giggle comes when Felicity ruminates on Amber's devotion to her: "She was so attentive, and yet one felt the steel behind her acquiescence.")

Schine is masterful as she weaves this familiar plot through the modern-day Weissmanns' lives. It's all very clever and just when the cleverness is in danger of becoming old hat - after all, why continue reading when we know how it will all end? - she changes it all up and makes it her own. It's a delightful story, full of humor, surprise romances and finely drawn characters, both major and minor. I loved it.

My favorite character was Betty. This may be because Mrs. Dashwood is such a peripheral character in S&S and here we are allowed into Betty's inner life. She takes to watching daytime TV and buys Oxyclean and a fleece blanket with arms. She refers to her husband as "Joseph, may he rest in peace" and waves her daughters out the door with "Find nice, rich husbands!" just for their reactions. But Schine makes her so much more than a quirky, somewhat flighty woman. She is profoundly hurt by her husband's abandonment and keeps most of this to herself. To their credit, her daughters recognize this and while she has always had their love, she earns their respect.

In the original, Dashwood pere dies, leaving the family desititute. Here, despite Betty's pronouncements, Joseph is very much alive and seemingly clueless. It's a little mystifying that this previously devoted husband and father could completely separate himself from his role in prolonging the divorce settlement, the cause of his wife's impoverishment. Instead:

"He wanted Miranda and Annie to join him in a toast. A toast to life. His life."


Mar 28, 2010, 6:19pm Top

Next week's menu includes:

Reading: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Listening to: Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen and Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Narrating: Vermeer's Hat: the Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook

Mar 28, 2010, 11:44pm Top

The Three Weissmanns sounds like fun--I'll have to see if my library has it.

Hope you enjoy the Willis book! Do Three Men first if you've never read it. It's very "British"--I liked it better than some of the Wodehouse I've read.

Edited: Mar 30, 2010, 12:32am Top

26. Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen (Listened to audio book)

Every couple of years I listen to a Hiaasen book for the wild characters and wild ride through Florida they provide. This one had all the familiar ingredients: slightly unhinged ecoterrorist who stops at nothing to save the planet, unlikely sexy partner-in-crime picked up along the way, and bad guys with twisted habits that defy credulity. I once read that Hiaasen doesn't make these people up, that he clips out crazy people stories from the local Florida press and uses them in his writing. If I thought that was really true, I'd never set foot in the state again.

Twilly Spree becomes unhinged while witnessing a driver throw fast food trash out his car window. This is Palmer Stoat, a lobbyist (in Hiaasen's world all lobbyists are crooked), up to his neck in a deal to build a bridge to Toad Island which is about to be developed by the smarmy Robert Clapley - whose principal fetish is turning his two Eastern European girlfriends into matching Barbies via plastic surgery. One of Palmer's oddities is "hunting" geriatric wild game in local safari parks and mounting the heads on his wall. But Twilly doesn't know this yet; he dumps trash into Stoat's car and steals his dog because the guy is a litterbug. Twilly has been jailed for his "anger management" problem in the past but with an inheritance that ensures he'll never have to make a living, he has plenty of time to stalk Stoat. Once he finds out about the development deal and threat to the island's wildlife, he's really off and running.

Along the way, Stoat's disillusioned wife, the beautiful Desi, takes up with Twilly and her dog and joins the cause, providing a slim romance amid the mayhem. The rest of the huge cast of characters are mostly miscreants with odd proclivities. A small sample: a hit man who enjoys listening to gruesome recorded 911 calls; a hermit who wears a shower cap, a braided beard with hawks' beaks hanging from each braid, one glass bloodshot eye and sports a kilt made from a racing flag; and a prostitute who insists on seeing her clients' Republican Party membership cards (are there such things?) before servicing them. At some point the glut of baddies drags down the story and by disc 8 (of 12) I was starting to skip ahead.

The dog was great - an innocent and a troublemaker and a breath of fresh air. Nick Sullivan kept up with it all so well, voicing each weirdo and giving the dog a personality. But the whole thing was way over the top. My favorite Hiaasen book so far was Skinny Dip which had about half the villains this one had and had me chortling. I think from now on I'll stick to his children's books. I loved Hoot, Flush and Scat where the plots about saving the planet don't get sacrificed for too many sicko bad guys.

Edited: May 20, 2010, 12:23am Top

27. Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook (Narrated)

It took me quite a while to finish this one, partially because I went on vacation in the middle of narrating it and partially because it's a pretty dense book. The title and a look at the painting on the cover could lead one to believe it's an art history book. It is, but it's a lot more history than art and the subtitle is more indicative of what the meat of the book was about: the advent of international trade during the 17th century.

The author is a professor of Chinese studies and he takes several of Vermeer's and others' works and chooses items depicted in them - such as the beaver hat present in Vermeer's "Officer and Laughing Girl" - and traces how it was possible for these things to be present in a sitting room in Delft in the 1660s. He refers to these items found in the selected artworks as doors that open to the past. The hat leads to the history of the French explorer Champlain in Canada and other items (silver, maps, porcelain) introduce the massive innovations that resulted from Dutch shipping trade with the far east. Brook describes both the import and export business between Europe and China and the often bloody clashes involved; subjects such as the introduction of tobacco to China and the burgeoning slave trade are discussed. It's all pretty fascinating and his style is very accessible.

Narration was a bit tricky because of the Chinese, Dutch, French, Italian, German, Portuguese and Spanish involved. Thank goodness for pronunciation guides! I have three relatively short children's books up next (which I won't review here) so they'll make for a nice change.

Edited: Apr 3, 2010, 4:12pm Top

I almost forgot that book club is this week so Connie Willis will have to wait a bit. And it's obviously kiddie lit week at work:

Reading: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Listening to: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Narrating: Pearl and Wagner: One Funny Day by Kate McMullan/ Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig by Kate DiCamillo/ Gooney Bird is So Absurd by Lois Lowry.

Edited: Apr 13, 2010, 12:26am Top

28. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (Read print edition for book club)

This was Highsmith's first published novel, adapted a year later for an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It's a psychological thriller about two men, one a psychopath and one a fatalist, who meet casually on a train. Bruno, the psychopath introduces the subject of murder and it's clear that his hatred for his father is the cause for this fixation. He coaxes Guy to relate his story: his wife is stalling in giving him the divorce he wants so that he can marry the lovely Anne. When Bruno suggests that they commit murder for each other - the perfect crimes since no one can link them together - Guy is appalled. He's more than that when, two weeks later, his wife is strangled and Bruno admits to him that he did the deed. Now, it's Guy's turn.

The film follows the story to this point, then Hitchcock turns Guy into the helpless victim of Bruno's twisted mind and, ultimately, the movie's hero, all palatable enough stuff for a 1951 thriller. In the novel, Bruno's homosexual obsession with Guy, his odd relationship with his mother and his alcohol-laced insanity is spelled out. And Guy's inability to come to terms with what has happened, his descent into moral bankruptcy and his surrender to his own fate is the real story.

It's pretty grim reading. I wonder if Highsmith's more acclaimed Ripley novels have more plot and less exploration of the main characters' psyches which got awfully repetitive. I think I won't bother reading them. I'll just rent "The Talented Mr. Ripley".

Apr 5, 2010, 1:16pm Top

Vermeer's Hat.... sounds fascinating and a real challenge to narrate. I never would have considered it without your description; it's on the WL!

Edited: Apr 18, 2010, 8:49pm Top

29. Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome (Listened to audio book)

Three friends decide to travel the Thames in a boat. We know from the beginning that this venture will be problematic: all three, Harris, George and "J" (the author) are hapless fellows, each more intent on watching the other two do the work than anything else. J tells the story, and his ramblings about the sparkle of the water and the glories of nature generally end in disaster, since he is often in charge of rowing or steering while waxing poetic. He often digresses into stories of human nature and loves pointing out the foibles of the other two. They are no less generous about his failings. It's all pretty hilarious.

The dog of the subtitle is Montmorency. About him, J tells us: "fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are."

The book was written in 1889 and wears very well, despite its heroes being from a vanished aristocracy: J and Harris live on inherited money it would seem, while George works, sort of. ("George goes to sleep at a bank from ten to four each day, except Saturdays, when they wake him up and put him outside at two.") While the escapades about outlandish fish stories, getting lost in the maze at Hampton Court and insulting a German professor are very Wodehouse-ian, there are elements of the travelogue amid the anecdotes, which remind me of Mark Twain's "A Tramp Abroad", written at about the same time. Both have that tongue-in-cheek attitude while actually giving real information about the places visited.

For a book to be in print for 120 years is amazing; for three versions of the audio book to be available is astounding. I had the choice of listening to Ian Carmichael (Lord Peter Wimsey), Hugh Laurie (Bertie Wooster) or Martin Jarvis. I chose the latter because he is a narrator extraordinaire and I didn't want to be reminded of the characters that I link to the other two actors. But I don't think you could miss with any of them. This book is a must for all lovers of British wit.

Apr 7, 2010, 12:50am Top

I''m so glad you enjoyed it! I read it last year; now I think I'd like to find an audio version so I can share it with my husband. He would enjoy it that way but it isn't the kind of book he would read.

Apr 10, 2010, 4:03pm Top

Ah Spring, and its annual rituals! "Watching" The Masters with a book in my lap.

Reading: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Listening to: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Narrating: The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

Edited: Apr 10, 2010, 11:07pm Top

MusicMom41: I'd be interested to know which narrator you choose. I'm absolutely loving To Say Nothing of the Dog. Just as you said, reading Three Men in a Boat first was the best way to go. I'm very surprised to find out that Connie Willis is not British but an American!

Apr 11, 2010, 1:52am Top

I thought Say Nothing Dog would be one you'd like--I'm glad I was right.

We have been using the Three Pines series as "car books" when we travel. The next one up for us will be The Cruelest Month. Do you know when your version will be out for sale? It would be fun to get yours. Have you read the first two? We are enjoying the series and love the characters in Three Pines.

Edited: Jun 17, 2010, 12:00am Top

I have narrated the other two and will be narrating as many as she writes because NLS likes to keep the same narrator for each series. I've reviewed them (see messages #27 & #40).

Edited: Apr 12, 2010, 11:39pm Top

30. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (Read print edition)

The story begins with Ned Henry, a time traveler from 2057, being transported to Victorian England in order to get some much deserved rest after being overworked by the gargoyle-like Lady Schrapnell who is intent on recreating Coventry Cathedral. He lands in Oxford in 1888 and meets poetry spouting Terence St. Trewes who is in dire need of a boat to take down the Thames. Off they go on a journey similar to that of the characters of Three Men in a Boat. Terence is in pursuit of silly, frilly Tossie Mering, a girl who met him the day before and whose missing cat he hopes to find to win Tossie's heart. Any similarities to any PG Wodehouse novel are purely intentional. During their journey, they actually pass the famous three men, which excites Ned but which he can't reveal to his companion - since the book hasn't been written yet.

Willis manages to capture the zaniness of the Jeeves novels, the romance of Dorothy Sayres and the famous country house setting of Agatha Christie into a luscious whole. It's a quick read and Ned and his lovely time traveling cohort Verity Kindle are wonderful, if occasionally inept, sleuths.

Their mission in 1888 is to trace the "bishop's bird stump", an ugly piece of Victoriana which disappeared from Coventry Cathedral during the bombing in 1940. This entails all sorts of traveling backwards and forwards through time, talk of "slippage" and incongruities that can change the course of history and which therefore must be found and corrected. I never quite got it all straight, proving that sci fi is not really my cup of tea, so I was happiest when stuck in Victorian fetes replete with jumble sales and seances in rooms smothered in bric a brac and peopled with the requisite dowager matron, grumbling colonel and foppish swain. Throw in a pampered cat and a bulldog full of personality and you have yourself a very good read. A frenetic pace ensues when misunderstandings abound and Ned's narrative voice is delightfully spot on. What a fantastic writer Willis is that she could recreate that humorous world and not hit a false note.

One caveat: While referencing many books, Willis also includes the resolution of The Moonstone: yes, she actually reveals who dunnit! Since that book was on my tbr list, I was disappointed. I'm hoping she doesn't do anything like that in her other books because I intend to read them all.

Edited: Apr 12, 2010, 6:06pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Apr 12, 2010, 6:14pm Top

I had forgotten that about The Moonstone! I thought that was rather odd that she would do that, but since I had already read it I wasn't upset. However I remember now thinking that I wuld have been furious if I hadn't read it allready.

I love your review of Nothing Dog. I agree with you that the scifi parts of the story are the least important aspect--only necessary so that "modern" characters can react to historicall events.

Apr 12, 2010, 6:23pm Top

She also references The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but I was grateful that she didn't reveal the murderer of that one ... even though I've already read the book.

Edited: May 14, 2010, 3:12pm Top

31. Ghosty Men: the Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers and my Uncle Arthur, New York's Greatest Hoarders by Franz Lidz (Read print edition)

When I was a girl and shared a room with my sister, my mother would occasionally get fed up with our clothes and toys littering the place and say, "What a mess. You're as bad as the Collyer brothers." So I knew the story of the infamous brothers who had died before I was born. My mother said that they never threw away a newspaper and inside their house was a maze of newspapers. They both died when the papers fell in on them.

Turns out, Mom cleaned up the story a little bit. By 1947 when the two brothers were found dead inside, (one from starvation and the other the victim of his own booby trap) they had filled their Harlem brownstone with over 150 tons of junk and garbage. The stench was horrible and the place was riddled with vermin. When I began to read the fictionalized account of the story, E.L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley, I found I lost interest pretty quickly. I wanted to know about the real brothers, not someone's imagining, no matter how well written.

So I found this account by the author of the memoir Unstrung Heroes. Franz Lidz is uniquely qualified to write about the Collyers since his Uncle Arthur is "as bad as the Collyer brothers", hampered only by being able to store his "collections" in an apartment instead of a three story house. Lidz is unfailingly sympathetic to his uncle's plight and by extension, the Collyers'. While we have no more insight as to why this phenomenon occurs, the startling parallels between Uncle Arthur and Homer and Langley humanize the brothers.

Homer and Langley Collyer were the well educated sons of a noted doctor and his wife. The family moved to Harlem in 1909 and the boys were Columbia educated, Langley as an engineer and Homer as a lawyer. Langley never held a job but Homer practiced law until going blind in the thirties. Both parents died a few years before Homer's blindness ended his career and these dual calamities seemed to have frozen the brothers in time. Langley was the "collector" leaving his home nightly and hauling a cardboard box tied with rope through the streets of the city in order to bring home his finds.

They became neighborhood curiosities but one night in 1938 an enterprising reporter, Helen Worden, waited outside their building in a taxi and approached Langley when he came out.

"Good evening Langley Collyer," she said. "Your neighbor tells me that you keep a rowboat in the attic and a Ford in the basement. Is that true?"
"Yes and no," said Langley.

Although he looked like a bum, she found herself conversing with a well spoken, courteous gentleman who answered all her questions. He declined her request to go inside to hear him play the piano.

"Impossible!" he said. "I'd have to dust the house."

Worden wrote of her encounter and the Collyer brothers, much to Langley's dismay, became infamous. Homer was a recluse, cared for by his brother. It's a strange and sad story.

Every other chapter is another strange story: that of Lidz's four uncles, all afflicted with different forms of mental illness. He clearly loves his Uncle Arthur best and helps him move from the Bronx to Flatbush in 1974, encountering booby traps similar to the Collyers':

"It's like I'm protecting it," said Uncle Arthur. "The valuable stuff is in a closet way down at the end, under lots of junk. If I can't get it, how can the burglers?"

When the Collyers' were found, the crowds outside formed a media circus. In the early days of television, cameras crowded the sidewalk and newspaper reporters came up with increasingly bizarre headlines. Lidz sorts through all this mayhem while at the same time giving us a wonderful history of Harlem's transformations throughout the 20th century. And the similarities between his family and the Collyers can be eerie: the Lidzes were born and grew up three blocks from the Collyer home, both sets of brothers lived with their mother until her death (Lidz rejects the obvious Freudian theory) and both Langley and Uncle Arthur are inveterate walkers and penny pinchers.

We now know that hoarding is a behavior that afflicts many people. I hope some smart psychologist figures out the source of it.

A side note: Unstrung Heroes was made into a movie and Lidz brought Uncle Arthur out to the set in Los Angeles during filming. (I saw it years ago and it's a good little movie.) The uncle meets the movie's director, Diane Keaton, and their verbatim conversation is hilarious, with Keaton in full Annie Hall mode.

Apr 17, 2010, 2:12pm Top

Looking forward to my reading this week: "Pettigrew" arrived at the library earlier than expected and it's a first novel and much acclaimed. Also, British.

Reading: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Listending to: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Narrating: The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

Apr 17, 2010, 10:32pm Top

Ghosty Men sounds like it would be a fascinating read. I agree--I would prefer to read about the real people rather than a ficctionalized account and it sounds as if this author manages a sympathetic approach. Great review! You reallly sold me on the book.

Edited: Apr 19, 2010, 1:23am Top

Carolyn: I should add that despite the length of the review, it's a very short book which is a good thing considering the tbr pile!

Edited: Jun 16, 2010, 12:24am Top

32. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (Read print edition)

Major Pettigrew is a literary stereotype from a generation ago: the stalwart military man who keeps his upper lip stiff at all times, insists on being addressed by his title, and practices the courtliness that he fears is disappearing among the younger generation. There are other "types": the village spinster, the outspoken whippet-thin American decorator, the sulky single mother. In this stunning novel the reader learns to abandon prejudices and watch as the characters blossom. I couldn't put it down.

The book is essentially a love story between the Major and Mrs. Ali who runs the local convenience store. Both have been widowed for several years and when the Major is reeling from a phone call telling him his only brother has died of a sudden heart attack, Mrs. Ali happens to be on his doorstep on an errand and leads him to a chair. He realizes that he is wearing his wife's flowered housecoat over his clothes; in his shock he abandons decorum and explains that he wears it to do housework since it gives him comfort. She understands completely - she often wears her husband's tweed jacket and occasionally puts his pipe in her mouth to taste the tobacco. These confidences lead to shared interests in Kipling and reading in general, walks along the sea front and endless cups of tea.

In the background to this lovely courtship are the many inhabitants of Edgecombe St. Mary who have definite opinions about the mixing of the races; the Major's son, an ambitious and avaricious Londoner and his American fiancee; Mrs. Ali's extended family who threaten to take over her business and her life; and the Major himself, who has a lot of prickly edges that need to be attended to. I loved watching this happen, as when the tentative Major calls for Mrs. Ali as they are about to go to the Golf Club dinner dance:

"He opened his mouth to say that she looked extremely beautiful and deserved armfuls of roses, but the words were lost in committee somewhere, shuffled aside by the parts of his head that worked full-time to avoid ridicule."

It is at the dance that the British and Pakistani cultures collide and the couple find themselves at the mercy of the outside world. As each character emerges, they say and do surprising things: one minute I was giggling and the next my throat was constricting with emotion. There were times when the writing absolutely took my breath away.

In the end, the truth of the story is summed up by the Major himself, who has come a long way in his evolution from a man whose place in the world was secure to one who realizes his own humanity:

"We are all small-minded people, creeping about the earth, grubbing for our own advantage and making the very mistakes for which we want to humiliate our neighbors. I think we wake up every day with high intentions and by dusk we have routinely fallen short. Sometimes I think God created the darkness just so he didn't have to look at us all the time."

I got this book from the library but I'm buying it tomorrow. I have to own it, re-read it, make notes in it. I'm buying copies for my girls. I don't know what Helen Simonson is writing now, but I'll be first in line at the bookstore the day it arrives.

Apr 19, 2010, 11:19pm Top

I think recording the books you are reading by month is most interesting---however, I was wondering....how do decide which books you're going to read---and how do you recall what you've learned from what you've read...say a year later??

Edited: Apr 21, 2010, 12:31pm Top

I actually don't have much say about what I record. We usually get a couple of dozen books at a time and the studio director decides who reads which books. I do put my two cents in and state my preferences and he tries to honor that - sometimes through negotiation. I get to read a biography that I might find interesting if I read a romance that might not be my favorite (they seldom are). Right now I have a lot of books on the shelf that are the newer volumes of series that I've already recorded.
I don't understand the second part of your question: what do I learn from what I've read a year later? If you mean the voices I might use for a character, I just listen to the tapes from the previous books to refresh my memory.

Edited: Jun 16, 2010, 12:29am Top

33. Stitches: A Memoir by David Small (Read print edition)

This is the second graphic novel I've read. The first was The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, a delightful and exciting story of a young boy who, after the death of his parents, discovers secrets and has adventures while secretly living in his uncle's small apartment in a French railway station.

Stitches, which is an autobiography, begins with the same idea: a young boy is left alone and his imagination mixes with reality. Sadly for young David, his parents are very much alive. It's a household of bitter silences and David grows up amid his father's absences and his mother's boiling resentments, retreating into his own world with the help of his ability to draw. Several frames show him immersing himself into a drawing and down a hole where his imagined creatures wait and cheer him. Much of the story is interspersed with dreams that combine elements of his own experience with the fantasy of his favorite book, "Alice Through the Looking Glass".

Despite the comic book form of a graphic novel, not all are meant for children. Stitches is the story of an unloved boy whose radiologist father treats his respiratory problems with massive doses of radiation. It's hard to believe that this was common practice at the time, as David father tells him, and not an attempt to save money by avoiding what should have been a simple operation. By the time he has surgery, the radiation has produced cancer in the boy's throat and he wakes up minus a vocal chord. In this silent household he has never been told of the cancer and his accidental discovery leads to his moving out of the family home at sixteen. Finally, his parents send him to a psychiatrist who tells him the truth ("Your mother never loved you") and helps set him on the right path.

The good news is that David went on to become a Caldecott Award winning illustrator and this book, with its spare line drawings of dour faces and angry expressions, is a departure from his children's drawings. His depiction of dreams is wonderfully graphic and when we see his psychiatrist, he is delightfully represented by Alice's rabbit, complete with vest and pocket watch. It's a harrowing story and a testament to the human spirit that this talented man was able to tell it in his own way and so well.

Edited: May 19, 2010, 2:12am Top

34. The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny (Narrated)

Of the three I've read I think this is the best of the Three Pines Mysteries. It's more in the Agatha Christie mode: a group of people gather for a seance in an old, supposedly evil house, someone dies and one of the collected assembly is the murderer. Who, how and why were satisfactorily resolved.

Edited: Apr 22, 2010, 7:47pm Top

Could I be reading a little too much? Fictional characters are beginning to dance in my head. This week they're from China, Sweden and the USA:

Reading: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Listening to: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Narrating: Sarah's Promise by Leisha Kelly

Apr 26, 2010, 9:57pm Top

>7 NarratorLady: Ohhh...how I envy you...
How do you get that profession? Where? What do you have to do?

Ohh....I totally envy you...

PS. That shall be by profession (when I grow up). I have now been given a clear path to my destiny.


Apr 26, 2010, 10:01pm Top

If you read/listened to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and like it, then read Catching Fire by the same author, and then Mockingjay after Aug 24, 2010 (when its released).

Also read Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore. They are similar to The Hunger Games series.

Edited: May 5, 2010, 1:33pm Top

35. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (Listened to audio book)

I chose this book because I so enjoyed See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan a couple of years ago and because friends had recommended it. Her writing is wonderful and her research is impeccable. Since Snow Flower took place in 19th century rural China and this story begins in 1937 Shanghai and then fairly quickly moves on to Los Angeles through the forties and fifties, I hadn't expected there to be a lot of similarities between the two stories. There are many and they're surprising.

Both books center on two women with similar lives but different points of view. Pearl and May are sisters who have a fine lifestyle as models or "Beautiful Girls" for advertising products in Shangai, "the Paris of the East". Their gambler father suddenly loses his money and sells them to an old man as brides for his sons. They must accept these arranged marriages and move to Los Angeles with their new family or their father will be killed. They go through the ceremony but have no intention of leaving Shanghai until their city is bombed by the Japanese and they are forced to get on a boat to join their husbands in the US. Only Pearl has reluctantly consummated her marriage; May's husband is a teenager with mental disabilities but she is pregnant by another man and the two conspire to pass off the child as Pearl's by delaying their stay on Angel Island, a way station for Chinese immigrants in California, where the baby is born.

Pearl becomes the mother, wife and caretaker of the family she has married into. She and her husband run a restaurant and she cares for May's ill husband and her in-laws as they age. May works as an extra in the movies and eventually runs a casting business. She is the devoted "auntie" to Pearl's "daughter" Joy, the light of all their lives. They encounter prejudice and threats from American immigration authorities when they are suspected of being communists during the Red Scare. Pearl finds that her husband is a "paper son", not the real son of the man he calls his father. This was a scam used by many Chinese to import cheap labor for their businesses and the INS suspects this and threatens deportation. The story ends abruptly and somewhat melodramatically with Joy running off to join Mao but I understand that Lisa See is planning a sequel to the story which should be interesting.

I was very surprised that See used the same technique in telling the story as she did in "Snow Flower", effective though it may be. Pearl is the narrator and so the reader sees things from her point of view until the very end, when we realize that May's experience is different and just as valid. While Pearl is self-sacrificing and resents it, May seems to be obsessed with her appearance and a bit ruthless; but perhaps Pearl has been crippled by fear and May is the braver and smarter sister. It's an interesting twist for the reader to ponder as it was in the other book.

The narrator for both books is Janet Song whose lovely, gentle cadence is perfect for these books. Both books have searing scenes: the foot binding descriptions in "Snow Flower" and a gang rape in this book, and Song manages them somberly while conveying the real horror of the situations.

This is a dense story with interesting characters and insights into immigrant life and prejudice that were particularly poignant in light of the new immigration laws that were announced in Arizona this week.

Apr 29, 2010, 9:48pm Top

Reading: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Listening to: American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson
Narrating: Sarah's Promise by Leisha Kelly

Edited: Jul 12, 2010, 2:26pm Top

36. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Read print edition for book group)

The touchstone for this title doesn't work and I can only think that it must be due to overuse. The lemon/lime green cover of this book is everywhere this year: buses, beaches, bookstore windows. This is one of those books that you know about even if you have no intention of reading it. Such was the case when a member of our book group suggested it and we all decided, why not? Sometimes you just have to bend to the inevitable and when I finished the 590-pager I felt much as I had when the group decided to read it: at least I'll know what all the fuss is about.

I'm not an aficionado of the crime thriller and I can only think that part of the allure of the book has to do with the tragic fate of its author: Larsson died of a massive heart attack at 50, before the publication of the first of his intended 10 novel opus, and never realized the success of being the second most read author (after Khaled Hosseini) in the world in 2008. Another book can, and most likely will, be written about the rights to his multi-million kroner estate: his common law wife of 30 years found his will, written in 1977, which left all his worldly goods to his father and brother, whom he had barely spoken to in recent years. She got nothing.

NOTE: Here's a link to the percolating story behind Larsson's estate: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/magazine/23Larsson-t.html?hp

But I digress. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is an undisputed page turner and I sailed through it. The protagonists, Mikael Blomkvist, intrepid financial reporter recently found guilty in a libel case, and Lisbeth Salander, asocial punk child-woman forever marked by her childhood as an abuse victim, team up to find the solution to the disappearance of a teenage girl forty years ago. The girl's aged uncle, a tycoon who agrees to financially back Blomkvist's struggling magazine, is fixated by the mystery and has employed him in one last effort to find the truth. His wildly dysfunctional family supplies enough neuroses for Blomkvist not to have to look far from the small town of Hedestad in northern Sweden where most of the family resides, for the solution.

We're introduced to both protagonists separately and find out about Lisbeth's computer skills, ruthlessness and photographic memory as we're told of Blomkvist's life and loves. The two come together about half way through the book and the story starts to get a little flat until they finally meet and begin their joint investigation. Then things heat up and it turns into an intriguing and well told tale.

Readers should be aware that some scenes of depravity are a bit raw. While we know our two heros will survive - after all, two sequels are already in print - it's pretty raunchy stuff. But most of the story has to do with the unravelling of the mystery and the resolution makes sense and is satisfying. Once the main mystery is solved, the secondary problem - bringing down the crooked financier who caused Blomkvist's misery at the beginning - feels tacked on. I pretty much lost interest in the financial shenanigans, partly because they were confusing and partly because the bad guy is never a character in the novel: we only know him from the description of his evil doings.

There is one other thing: Blomkvist is devastatingly attractive to all members of the opposite sex. No matter their age or whether single, widowed or married, they all want to bed him. Only a man could invent such a character but this isn't why I'm not reading the sequels. Now that I know what all the fuss is about - and much of it is deserved - it's time to move on to other books.

May 2, 2010, 5:05pm Top

As always when reading your posts, I've added more to the wishlist. Your reviews are so accessible and interesting, they seem to provide me with just the right balance of summary and impressions. Thanks.

May 2, 2010, 5:59pm Top

Thank you so much for the lovely boost!

May 2, 2010, 7:16pm Top

Good review! I've had Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my shelf for a couple of years--this might be the time to pull it off since it will be a week of "mysteries and rereads" for me until after my students' recital next weekend. I hope I like it well enough to read the first sequel--since I also have that one! :-)

Edited: May 13, 2010, 7:01pm Top

37. American on Purpose by Craig Ferguson (Listened to audio book)

This is the first celebrity biography that I haven't been paid to read. Normally I'd stay far away from a celebrity autobiography: surely these people are sufficiently compensated (fawned over, outrageously paid, treated like mini-gods) for doing their jobs. Do we really need to hear in their own words their early struggles that lead to their fabulous successes? Well, in this case, the answer is possibly yes. This guy knows how to write and a well written book is always a pleasure.

I don't watch Craig Ferguson's show much but it's only due to the late time slot (12:35 AM!). When and if Letterman retires and this hugely funny and inventive Scot takes over, even the 11:35 PM start time will be a stretch. But I have taped the show when he has an interesting guest and he's always entertaining. Plus I love his accent even if it has been watered down by living on this side of the Atlantic for 15+ years.

But here's why I chose to read his book: during one of the shows I taped, he began his "monologue" by mentioning Britney Spears. This was when she was shaving her head and breaking windows with baseball bats. Just the mention of her name sent the audience tittering, but Ferguson held up his hand and told them not to laugh. He explained that when he watched the endless videos of her antics, he saw a young woman in pain. He said that he didn't know what her issues were but he had experienced his own life spiraling out of control - and without the media scrutiny. He delivered a heartfelt and eloquent lecture stating that this person needed our sympathy, the people who love her needed some support to help her get on the right track, and the dogged pursuit of her needed to stop. I thought: this guy is more than a crazy-haired Scot with a weird laugh.

Growing up in Glasgow, Ferguson came from a loving family but a horrendous school system where corporal punishment was the rule. He left at 16 and apprenticed as an electrician but the lure of show business - and of America - was always there. Eventually he joined several punk rock bands as a drummer and immersed himself in the lifestyle of drugs and alcohol. He segued into stand up comedy, inventing the alter ego "Bing Hitler" and became a hit at the Edinburgh Festival. His engagingly quick wit got him gigs in television and he connected with Britain's up and coming actors. But just as things should have been improving, they began to deteriorate. His dependence on alcohol caught up with him and after an aborted suicide attempt - he was on the way to jump off London's Tower Bridge when a friend asked him to come have a sherry, distracting him from doing the deed - he got a newly sober friend to take him to rehab.

It's a common story and Ferguson's telling of it is forthright. He gives much credit to his many friends who believed in him and employed him when he dried out. He blames himself still for the bad behavior that marked his first 30 years. Somehow he manages to inject lots of rueful humor into this sad tale: self deprecation is his stock in trade.

There are two keys to his success: his love of reading - he is completely self-taught - and a tenacious work ethic. The reading led to the writing of several movie scripts which he did while appearing as a regular on "The Drew Carey Show". These led to trying out for "The Late Late Show" and beating out three other, better known contestants for the job.

His initial reviews were awful but after taking the advice of veteran producer Peter Lassally ("It's after midnight and they don't want you yelling at them. You have a creepy laugh: knock it off.") he hit his stride and loves his job. He also loves being an American and his riff on the inanity of patriotism being hijacked by one group - as if the other group isn't patriotic because they don't believe the same things - is wonderful.

I was hugely entertained by this book. I'd highly recommend that anyone interested listen to it rather than read it. Ferguson's humor, charm and talent come through and you don't have to stay up till all hours to enjoy it.

Caveat: I'm not a fan of the "F" word and he uses it way too much for someone with such a marvelous grasp of language. But it didn't spoil the book for me at all.

May 5, 2010, 3:31pm Top

I have meant to keep an eye open for American on Purpose in paperback, and you encouraged me to go put it on my waiting-for-the-paperback wishlist. It turns out it's coming out in paper next week. I just placed an order for books coming out in paper next week and cursed myself for missing this. Then I realized that Barny Noble no longer charges shipping to its members; I've ordered it.

I was surprised to see that he, or someone else named Craig Ferguson, has written other books. When I have a minute I'll have to go back and scan their blurbs.


May 5, 2010, 5:14pm Top

It's called Between the Bridge and the River and it is the same Ferguson. He mentions writing it in his autobiography. It's on my list too.

Edited: May 14, 2010, 2:29am Top

38. Sarah's Promise by Leisha Kelly (Narrated)

This is the sixth book in a series that I've been narrating over the past three years. It's often tough to narrate series: most of them begin well, the first book is a hit and the publisher orders more. You would think that if the quality is consistent then the series would continue, and if the writing deteriorates it would come to an end. In a perfect world that would be true. But way too often when the writer goes on auto-pilot, the fans do too: they keep buying and books keep on coming. It can be narration hell.

So when a series comes along that's true to its promising roots, the arrival of each new book is a pleasure. I have to say that I didn't begin this with high hopes. Kelly's books are in the Christian Literature genre and there's always the danger of scripture taking over plot development. She begins her series in the midst of the Depression when the Wortham family finds themselves homeless and destitute in rural Illinois when a job offer falls through. With no money to return to Chicago they take shelter in an abandoned farmhouse. Julia, Samuel and their two young children eventually find that the house is owned by Emma Graham, an elderly widow who can no longer work the farm and must live with a friend in town. They make a deal: the Worthams will try to make a go of the place and Emma will move back to the house with them.

Just trying to encapsulate all that goes on in these books reminds me of how meticulously Kelly develops her characters, their time and place. The Worthams are neighbors of the Hammond family whose ten children run wild and whose father is a sometime drunkard. The joining of these two families and their struggles through deprivation, catastrophic events and compromises is inspiring. Religion is a thread that runs through all the stories, of course, and the huge cast of characters all face challenges as the stories unfold. It's an inspirational story but a very human one too. Some characters may be a little too good to be true but they're balanced by the many more flawed and all too human ones. Each story is told from the point of view of two or three characters which keeps things interesting.

The series spans 16 years and Sarah's Promise unfolds a year after the end of World War II. To give away any of the plot would be a disservice to the series which should be read in full. Here's the list of books in order. They're not for everyone but there's good storytelling here and I really did enjoy them. The titles are a little simplistic but there's plenty of creativity within the pages:

Julia's Hope, Emma's Gift, Katie's Dream, Rorey's Secret, Rachel's Prayer.

Edited: May 6, 2010, 8:06pm Top

I expect my reading time will be reduced to nothing and replaced by hours of chatter. My two darling daughters are home this weekend for Mother's Day. Yay!

Reading: Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
Listening to: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Narrating: Charlie Bone and the Beast by Jenny Nimmo

Edited: May 14, 2010, 3:13pm Top

39. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (Listened to audio book)

This book annoyed me on so many levels. I had expected a poignant romance, a historical look at life for the Japanese and Chinese in America during World War II, and a story about the shameful internment of Japanese Americans during the war. What I got was a treacly tale about (very) young love with some facts buried in a story so contrived that I barely noticed anything that might have been historically relevant.

I also began to suspect the author's research skills when, at the very beginning of the book, one of the characters refers to an online grief counseling group he has joined - in 1986!!!! There was no "online" anything at that time and that made me question the historical accuracy of the rest of the book.

Here's the story: It's 1942 and Henry, a twelve year old Chinese American, has been sent to a Caucasian school where he is bullied constantly and has no friends. He's a scholarship student so he dishes out lunch to his fellow students and cleans the classrooms at the end of the day. One day Keiko, a lovely Japanese girl, becomes the second non-white to attend the school and they share the lunch and clean-up duties. They bond, become fascinated with the jazz music of Henry's friend Sheldon, and fall in love. Keiko's family is sent to an internment camp. Henry's father, who hates all Japanese, circumvents her letters to him (by some illegal and implausible means because Henry goes to the post office to pick up his mail). They become estranged and Henry marries a Chinese girl (who works at the post office, but no, she has nothing to do with the missing letters ... really?).

The story swerves between the war years and 1986, when the newly widowed Henry learns that items belonging to the exiled Japanese families have been found in the basement of Seattle's Panama Hotel. He finds the jazz record he once gave Keiko. His son - presumably using the internet skills that weren't in existence yet - looks for her.

Here's the problem: I couldn't abide Henry. What a wimpy guy. What were his interests apart from Keiko and jazz music? By his mid fifties he was as friendless as he'd been in childhood and there was no discernible difference between the boy and the man, except that as a boy he took great chances in trying to visit Keiko in the camps; he makes no effort after the war to find her to explain about never receiving her letters. He doesn't even search for her after his wife's death. It's awfully hard to root for such a passive character.

The third person narrator tells the story from Henry's point of view only; there are lots of fragmented sentences, which I assume were supposed to provide drama. There really isn't much of a story here which may be why the author repeats things we already know over and over: the long, painful death of Henry's wife, the silences imposed by Henry's father, the never fully explained disconnection between Henry and his son. I lost track of the number of times that Henry encountered the bullies outside school. They seemed to be everywhere! The best stories are the ones that unfold through characterization but here the narrator's voice overwhelmed the relatively sparse dialogue, leaving me feeling distanced from whatever action there was.

This book did one thing for me: it made me want to re-read Snow Falling on Cedars, a far superior book about the forced abandonment of Japanese-Americans of their homes and the people left behind. The description of Keiko's family in the camp in Idaho sounded ridiculously like Ozzie and Harriet with barbed wire. A far better researched book is the powerful When the Emperor Was Divine which deals with the same subject, but brilliantly.

This is the most poorly written book I've read so far this year. What a disappointment.

Edited: May 17, 2010, 12:07am Top

Not much has changed since last week:

Reading: Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson & The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
Listening to: Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson
Narrating: Charlie Bone and the Beast by Jenny Nimmo

Edited: Jul 12, 2010, 12:52am Top

40. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (Read print edition)

This is the story of the workers at an international English language newspaper based in Rome that is in its death throes, which makes this an extemely timely piece of literature since it looks like newsprint is about to become extinct. Here is the epitaph, beautifully expressed as is this entire wonderful, riveting book:

"Instant updates on the Internet bred contempt for day-old headlines in ink. Even the habit of exchanging money for information dwindled - online, payment was merely an option. But, doggedly, the pay-per-view papers kept at it. They made their daily judgments, produced their digests of the world, laid them out across pages, printed tonight and delivered tomorrow, to be flapped open before bleary breakfast eyes. Fewer eyes, each day."

Now, an entire novel about the death of a newspaper would be pretty tough (and sad) to read. Instead this is a series of character studies of the people who produce the daily paper: reporters, writers, the CFO and editors - plus one avid subscriber who insists on slowly reading every word and is thirteen years behind in her reading. Rachman's writing is perfectly concise in revealing each character's personal and professional lives, foibles, flaws and history. Characters are present in each others' stories, often only peripherally; looming in the backround, the anxiety of losing a job is ever present.

Rachman cleverly uses headlines for each chapter to give hints about what's coming. "Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls" is the story of a foreign correspondent whose glory days are behind him and who resorts to exploiting his estranged son for a story. "Europeans are Lazy, Study Says" relates how an otherwise savvy business writer loses all objectivity when it comes to her slacker lover. The chance meeting on a plane back to the States between the CFO and the man she is responsible for firing ("Markets Crash over Fears of China Slowdown") provides a startling surprise.

Interspersed throughout, in italics, is the history of the paper, founded by Cyrus Ott in 1953. No one ever really knows why Ott, a captain of industry, decided to essentially abandon his wife and son in Atlanta to start a paper and live in Rome. In 1960, wracked by disease, he chooses to die there alone and his family loyally continues funding the paper long after his death until its final, sputtering days. Rachman is wise enough to let the reader ultimately discover the simplicity of the mystery of Ott's labor of love.

Rachman also provides, in the final chapter, a summing up of the character's lives after the paper's demise. This is a very kind thing to do. His people are so real, so full of contradictions and flaws, I was hungry for just a little more about them and their futures provided satisfaction and, often, hilarity.

Consider Winston Cheung who, not seeing how his study of primates in college can lead him down any professional path, makes tentative attempts to get a job with the paper as a stringer in Cairo ("The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists"). This results in abject humiliation. He returns home defeated but ends up working at an exotic animal refuge, a job he loves. And here Rachman does a poignant summing up of not only Winston's future, but the future of newspapers too:

"He disliked lining the monkey cages with newspaper - even the sight of headlines made him panicky these days. However, this was not to bother him for long: the local paper folded, and he switched to sawdust. Soon, even the monkeys forgot the comforts of newspaper."

Tom Rachman is thirty years old. This debut is so gorgeously written, I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

May 21, 2010, 8:02pm Top

Busy, busy weekend but I have a long train ride coming up: four hours of uninterrupted reading!

Reading: Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson & The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear
Listening to: Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson
Narrating: Charlie Bone and the Beast by Jenny Nimmo

May 22, 2010, 3:24am Top

Thumbs up for a great review! I am adding that book to my TBR!

I love the Maisie Dobbs series--but I have two of her books on my shelves still waiting to be read and now I find out there is another one--which I will be looking for! Thanks for reminding me I must get back to this series. It will make great summer reading.

Looking forward to the reviews of your current reads. I envy you that nice long train ride for uninterrupted reading! This weekend we are having our hardwood floors refinished so I'm experiencing loud noises and noxious fumes--not conducive to leisurely reading!

May 22, 2010, 8:14am Top

I heard Jacqueline Winspear speak in Cambridge, MA a couple of weeks ago and she told how the germ of the idea for this new Masie Dobbs came to her. Fascinating stuff. I don't think I've ever been to an author's reading when I haven't come away impressed.

Refinishing hardwood floors! I hope you're able to be outside (with a book) while they're being done. Mine probably need it but the moving of the furniture etc. is overwhelming. After this weekend you'll enjoy them for years.

May 23, 2010, 1:03pm Top

#14 as always, my profound gratitude to all ye who read for NLS so that i, too may read.

having said that, i would implore you to start reading the broken teaglass immediately. sounds wonderful. it's available from audible.com but the narrators are not to be borne. aaaarrrrrggggghhh.

just march right in there to the studio and tell them that you must read this book. tell them you have had an epiphany or visited an oracle or had a vision or something. ;)

but seriously, as i have before, i thank you, and all NLS readers, from the bottom of my book-lover's heart.

also, i'm enjoying this thread tremendously. thanks for that as well.

May 25, 2010, 11:03pm Top

Thanks so much for your message!

I love my job but it would be truly the perfect job if I could choose all the books! When a box of books arrives it's like Christmas but unfortunately we can't make a Christmas list ahead of time. Believe me, if "The Broken Teaglass" appears I'll grab it!

Edited: May 27, 2010, 10:31pm Top

41. Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson (Listened to audio book)

Nonny Frett is a thirty-year old mess. She can't seem to get rid of her cheating husband who she still has the hots for, causing her to miss the court date that would end their marriage. She feels torn that she's living in Athens, GA when her family, a half hour away in tiny Between, GA needs her to keep the peace between them and the Crabtree family. This is a group of alcoholic misfits who have it in for the Fretts and whose dobermans have inflicted bodily harm on her already nervous wreck aunt Genny. Nonny is the only person who can intervene successfully since her existence is the root cause of the squabbles. Adopted by Stacia Frett but the natural daughter of Hazel Crabtree, she truly is "between".

The book begins with Nonny's outlandish birth when we are introduced to the Frett sisters: Bernese, the overbearing nurse who brings her into the world on her living room floor; the timid Genny; and her twin Stacia, who suffers from Ushers Syndrome, is deaf and going blind, and who signs to Genny as she watches Nonny enter the world: "This is MY baby." And so she becomes, as the teen aged Hazel heads for the door and out of their lives. Several years later, as Hazel departs Between forever, she tells her crazy mother Ona about the baby and the feud between the Crabtrees and the Fretts is joined.

Nonny's career as an ASL interpreter makes her the spokesperson, in more ways than one, of the story. Jackson does a fantastic job narrating her book and voicing Stacia as she signs to her sister and daughter. Stacia's strength as she tries to convince Nonny to make her own decisions and not just wait for things to happen to her is powerful.

Apart from Nonny's birth, the entire tale takes place over a few days making it a pretty wild ride. There is Nonny's devotion to five year old Fisher, Bernese's granddaughter, and her attraction to Henry, the town bookseller. There's the impending divorce and the surprise appearance of her husband's fiance. When the Alabama Crabtrees come to town - the outlaw branch of the family - all hell breaks loose. If I have one criticism it is this: couldn't all this have taken place over a longer period? Part of me wouldn't have blamed Nonny if her Crabtree side took over during all the mayhem and drama and she took a potshot at someone.

Still, it's fun with lots of interesting characters. And the narration is terrific. NLS has recognized this too apparently, and this commercial book is available through them.

Edited: May 26, 2010, 11:21pm Top

42. Charlie Bone and the Beast by Jenny Nimmo (Narrated)

This is the sixth in a series that I began a couple of years ago, a Harry Potter-type tale about a boy who attends Bloor's Academy, an eerie establishment run by an evil family who are descendants of "The Red King". In fact most, but not all, of the students including Charlie are descendants of this king and they each have a specific "endowment" such as being able to turn into a bird, control the weather, understand and talk to animals and (this one is Charlie's endowment) pop in and out of photographs or paintings.

Geared to younger readers for whom Potter would be a struggle, I understand from a fifth grade teacher friend of mine that Charlie is pretty popular. This is probably why the originally planned trilogy has expanded to seven and counting. The cast has bloated as a result and the extremely complicated four-page family tree at the front of this volume would be daunting for any ten-year old. I wonder if it's there for the author's use, since it is hard to keep everyone straight.

This book concerns Asa Pike, whose endowment is turning into a beast at nightfall, and who has been imprisoned by the horrible Bloors. Charlie enlists all his friends with the handiest endowments to free him and some of the scenes having to do with stone trolls and sudden floods and a magic sword are entertaining and dramatic enough to induce Charlie's fans to keep on reading. And isn't that the point?

May 27, 2010, 5:26pm Top

It's taking an awfully long time to finish Life Among the Savages which isn't that long a book but which I put aside often in favor of other books. I fear it might be too dated to hold my interest for long. The sci-fi audio book is a departure but it came very highly recommended by my sci-fi loving daughter.

Reading: Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson & The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear
Listening to: Feed by M.T. Andersson
Narrating: A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

Edited: Jun 11, 2010, 5:30pm Top

43. The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear (Read print version)

This is the seventh in the Maisie Dobbs series which I began last summer. I found the first book (titled somewhat unimaginatively Maisie Dobbs) so interesting, that I dove into the other five, delighted that I had discovered Ms. Winspear so late. Normally I'm not a fan of series since I narrate so many of them and I like to have more freedom in my choices for personal reading. But Maisie has a lot going for her: an inquisitive child of a laborer, she finds herself as a young teenager forced to go into service in a grand house in Edwardian London. Her thirst for learning inspires her employers, the aristocratic Lord and Lady Compton, and especially their friend, Maurice Blanche, to sponsor her education. Maisie finds herself straddling two worlds at a time when Britain's class deliniations are firmly set. While a student at Girton, Oxford's college for women, World War I is declared and she interrupts her studies to serve as a nurse in France. There she falls in love with a doctor who is seriously wounded and winds up a vegetable.

This is the background story. The actual tales begin in the early 1930s when Maisie has finished her education and under the tutelage of Maurice Blanche, has become a top notch investigator and opens her own business. There is nothing flashy about Maisie. Her struggles with class, with memories of the war and her desire to do right by those who employ her make her a cut above most sleuths. Winspear's meticulous research assures that we immerse ourselves in Britain between the wars and that we understand the toll that war takes on those who survive it even years later. Best of all, Maisie herself develops as the books progress and this is the best reason to read them in order.

If I had any fault to find, it would be that Maisie's cases are too easily resolved and sometimes with very little drama. Winspear is sometimes distracted by the minutiae of the characters she invents and this can sometimes sacrifice the plot.

The Mapping of Love and Death concerns a cartographer whose body is unearthed in the fields of France years after the end of the war. In her afterword, Winspear tells us that this is happening still, almost a hundred years later. It's this dedication to real facts that makes me enjoy the books so much. And Maisie herself makes me eager for the next chapter in her story.

Edited: May 31, 2010, 1:16pm Top

44. Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (Read the print edition)

This is a supposedly non-fiction account of Shirley Jackson (she of the more famous "The Lottery" and "The Haunting of Hill House")and her husband, raising their chidren in Vermont. They begin with two children and end with four: in between we have the eviction from their New York apartment, the renting of the Vermont house, the purchase of their first car and Shirley's driving lessons and reams and reams of pages of the children's dialogue. Anyone with young children can identify with the way they can take over conversation - and life. I remember thinking I should have a notebook and pen around my neck to write down the funny things they said. But that was to tell my husband about them later - not to put them in a book.

Jackson is a wonderful writer, no question, and plenty of people have enjoyed this book which has been in print since 1948. She lets the children take over, much as they do in life, and little Sally's query "What's your name?" to every family member, over and over, may have been charming in real life but not so much on the page.

It's pretty interesting from a historical standpoint: until mother learns to drive and they buy a car, they are all transported everywhere by taxi. The laundry is "sent out" - even though mother laboriously darns overalls and passes them down, cross stitching the name on them while crossing out the previous wearer's name. Shirley always seems to be reading a mystery which may be a euphemism for taking time out to write a mystery, since we are talking about a working mother. I don't suppose the mothers of the 1940s were interested in reading about that.

The whole thing made me nostalgiac for a woman who wrote on the same subject but with great humanity, hilarity and self deprecation. My own mother used to cut out her columns and send them to me at college, with items underlined that she herself often said, like "Put a sweater on, I'm cold."

Oh how I loved Erma Bombeck.

May 31, 2010, 3:30pm Top

ah, i'm a great fan of Jackson in general and Life Among the Savages in particular. it's one of those books that has many times left me on the floor, literally, gasping and whooping for breath, laughing till i hurt. great fan of Bombeck, too, but my heart belongs to Shirley. fascinating to read your reaction to things, like sally's repetitions, that i love so much. 'celebrate diversity,' i say.

i like the history, too. like your mom sending you bits of Bombeck. reminds me of my own mom. i'm of an age when mom used to sit me on the sink board, feet in the sink, while she mixed the coloring into the margarine. she introduced me to Nero Wolfe and would read bits aloud in the car.

keep the stories coming. :)

Jun 1, 2010, 12:03am Top

Enjoying your reviews, as always. I'm a fan of the Maisie Dobbs series, not because they are mysteries but because of the view of England in the Post WWI period. Perhaps that is why I don't mind the minutia about the characters. I'm also a fan of mysteries and hers are not the "best" in that category, but they are satisfying enough to keep me interested. However, I'm only up to An Incomplete Revenge--I have that and Among the Mad on my shelf waiting for me this summer, but now I find out there is also a new one just out. Will I ever catch up?! :-)

I've read Jackson's fiction but didn't know about the memoir. I will have to look for that.

Edited: Jun 7, 2010, 9:47pm Top

This week's books:

Reading:Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Listening to:Feed by M.T. Anderson
Narrating: A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

Edited: Jun 7, 2010, 11:47pm Top

45. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (Read the print version)

This is my second time travel tale by Willis and it doesn't disappoint. As in To Say Nothing of the Dog, the Oxford historians of 2055 are busy with their fixes, coordinates and nets and this time young Kivrin is determined to visit the Middle Ages. Her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, advises against this: he feels that not enough research has been done and suspects that Oxford's "head of Medieval" is rushing the project to further his career. Turns out Mr. Dunworthy is correct in advising caution but not for the reasons he suspects.

A strange influenza, impervious to all modern vaccines, spreads throughout Oxford, beginning with the tech who facilitated Kivrin's drop. As the quarantine creates a race against time, Dunworthy searches for another tech and permission to re-open the lab in time for Kivrin's return. He has no way of knowing that she brought the influenza back in time with her, was tended by the family who found her and is now desperately trying to get someone to show her the place where she was found which will be the spot where the "net" should appear to take her home. But even that dilemma takes a back seat when she discovers that (through an error made by the ailing tech) she is actually in 1348 - the year that the plague decimated England.

It's a wild ride. Kivrin heroically tends to the family she's come to know as the pandemic spreads mercilessly. There's a lot of lancing of bulboes, spewing of blood, filthy rags, rats running amuck. Willis is magnificent in creating this world of horror and hopelessness.

In both worlds, as the deaths mount and the reader wonders how it will all end, communication is the biggest problem. Kivrin is desperate to interview the man who found her but she's impeded by the strictures of a maiden addressing any man and his constantly being sent away on missions. Dunworthy is desperately searching for another tech willing to enter the quarantined area and for the missing Oxford president - who seems to have gone fishing in Scotland and has no idea of the epidemic.

And here is where science fiction has its problems: writing this book in 1992, Willis would have had no notion that cell phones would be rampant a decade later and that the idea of people not being able to contact each other immediately in 2055 would be absurd. So we have Dunworthy asking people to stay in his flat to await a call while he takes off on another emergency. A young teenager is pressed into service as a messenger and appears with bits of paper that he delivers across the campus. Today's reader can be forgiven for imagining an Oxford circa 1950 (before answering machines!) instead of the future.

But true sci fi lovers can and do look past that. While I don't include myself in that group, I thought the storytelling was marvelous and highly recommend it: the incredibly moving ending alone is worth the read.

Jun 8, 2010, 6:47pm Top

Great review of a book that I loved. "...the incredibly moving ending alone is worth the read." Exactly! I'm not a huge fan of scifi--it's an area I'm exploring--but I wonder if true aficionados might be more disturbed than casual readers that Willis didn't envision better communication systems in 2055. With Willis I think the scifi aspects exist to make it possible for her to put her stories where she wants them--more using it as a tool rather than actually being concerned with what 2055 might really be like. (did that make sense?) Anyway--I'm really glad you like the book in spite of the middle ages no being a favorite time frame for you. :-)

Jun 8, 2010, 6:52pm Top

My sci fi loving daughter assures me that the discrepancy with the 2055 communication system was easily excused. Her mantra is that sci fi works when it makes sense and given the time the book was written, the story did make sense. I'll be eager to read Willis' newest novels - can't remember the names just now but the story is divided in two with the second part due to come out this fall.

Jun 8, 2010, 7:14pm Top

Your daughter is right--I like reading early scifi, including H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. If the story is well done and makes sense to anomalies don't bother me.

The new Connie Willis books are Blackout which I already have and All Clear which I plan to order as soon as I get back from our trip up north. I want to have them both on hand when I start reading them this fall. I don't like to wait!

Edited: Jun 13, 2010, 11:38am Top

46. Feed by M.T. Anderson (Listened to audio book)

On the face of it, Feed has all the elements of sci fi that keep me willfully away from the genre: its characters travel through tubes in "up cars", they live in pods where they are able to regulate daytime and nighttime hours, and they are created in "conceptariums" where their parents get to choose physical traits for them. My instinct is to shove such books aside, preferring my fiction in the "real" world which is endlessly fascinating. My daughter argues that the best sci fi is rooted in reality and offers cautionary tales about the future. Feed does that. It's a fantastic book in every sense of the word.

Titus and his friends are privileged teens who take a weekend trip to the moon - which is now the US's 51st state. He meets and is attracted to Violet, who isn't like the other girls: they go to the ladies room every few minutes to change their looks depending on the new styles that suddenly pop up, literally, in their heads. This is the Feed, a barrage of ads and information that most of the population receives via an implant at birth. Violet's family doesn't have a lot of money and she received her implant when she was seven, making her a misfit. She knows how to read and write, which other teens have no need for, and she questions what is happening to the world and where it's going. When an old "hacker" attacks the kids at a bar, their Feeds are damaged and they end up at the hospital where, without the Feed to guide them, they are incapable of much conversation. Violet engages Titus and while he is undeniably attracted to her, he is uncomfortably drawn into the world outside his own head.

Kids who are aware that the websites they frequently visit have pop-up ads that conform to their interests will recognize what the Feed is all about. Instead of reading these messages, this future promises they'll be ever present via the pictures and voices in their heads, geared to their whims and fantasies. These teens are encouraged to tune into the popular inane teen show "Oh? Wow! Thing!" and sales at their favorite store - hilariously named "Wetherbee and Crotch" - are constantly offered. They order the stuff through what's left of their minds, which isn't much since their speech is restricted to identifiable slang: "like", "he goes", "he's all" are the words most frequently used. When telling a story, Titus often trails into: "So, I was all, like, ta-da-ta-da-ta-da..." when he can't express an emotion. The power of this story is that this is all so plausible: it doesn't seem such a huge step from ever-present earbuds and addictions to twitter and iphones to the blasting of messages directly into the brain.

Anderson is brilliant in creating his own slang: "unit" replaces "dude"; "brag" stands in for "cool"; "mal" (for malfunction) is "wasted", achieved by hacking into restricted sites that mess with the brain. The adults are as vapid as the kids and no wonder: government has surrendered the schools to the corporations that control the Feed, creating "School, Inc." where the kids learn how to better use the Feed.

When Violet's Feed cannot be repaired she becomes more of a rebel. Amid the messages, the Feed also lets in occasional snippets of news about the world, which is polluted and in upheaval against the US. The general populace ignores these and Titus is uncomfortable about his girlfriend's failing health and her insistence that he pay attention to the insidiousness of the Feed, the world's crisis and her own. His reactions to these serious events are those of a typical teenager: he strenuously immerses himself in the comforts of his own world. But it may be too late: his immature mind has been awakened and for the first time he may be required to actually think.

This audio book is a truly outstanding production. David Aaron Baker is remarkable: his narration of the inarticulate Titus and his friends is completely believable - this is valley speak taken to the nth degree and not an easy thing to do - and each character has a unique voice. Four other actors provide the insistently manic, cheery voices of the Feed which comes in a higher volume, much like TV commercials do. They come at the end of each chapter, giving the reader an idea of the rapid-fire sound bytes of propaganda the characters are constantly being fed. When the kids "chat" to each other - sending messages with their minds that no one else can hear - Baker's voices are digitally altered to reflect this.

The irony that I listened to Feed rather than read the print edition does not escape me. The book is great either way but this is one book that truly benefits from audio and I was delighted to have had the experience.

Jun 10, 2010, 9:02pm Top

My scifi loving son gave me Feed last year and it is on my "short shelf" to read hopefully this year so I only read the first paragraph of your review. It has encouraged me to push it up on the TBR list since you enjoyed it so much. I'll come back and read your entire review when I have read the book.

Jun 11, 2010, 5:03pm Top

I'm glad you didn't read more of the review. It has more exposition than normal, probably because sci fi is so foreign to me, I feel I have to explain and do it too much. Isn't it interesting that both of us, who swear we're not sci fi readers, have read so much lately? I have to say that both of our sci fi loving kids chose a winner when they recommended Feed.

Jun 11, 2010, 5:26pm Top

Sci fi has been put aside for British based books - more my cup of tea!

Reading: Small Island by Andrea Levy
Listening to: Eye in the Door by Pat Barker - waiting for it from the library
Narrating:A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penney - this is taking a while since I took a week off work

Jun 12, 2010, 2:31pm Top

Just found this marvelous thread and must say as an avid audio book fan, I truly enjoy your picks (even those you don't pick yourself), reviews, and delightful comments. I only managed to add 8 to the TBR pile, but certainly intend to return frequently to see more. I'd love it if sometime, you'd give a bit of comment on what's actually involved in the process of recording for Talking Books. I would love to understand it to be able to explain to our patrons who use the service, and for my own understanding. I suspect my blog readers, ( I do reviews as Tutu's Two Cents would really be interested in the process too.

Jun 15, 2010, 9:05pm Top

Oh dear, I'm giving up on Small Island. My rule is that if I've reached page 60 and the book hasn't succeeded in pulling me in on any level, it's time to move on. Life is too short, etc., etc.
So it's on to Nevil Shute's The Pied Piper. And so far, haven't received Eye in the Door from the library yet so no audio book for the car. It's a somewhat quiet commute this week since I can't bear to hear any more news about the failure to stem the oil in the Gulf.

Jun 16, 2010, 2:21am Top

Oh, I hope you like Pied Piper! I am a big Nevil Shute fan and loved that book. Have you read A Town Like Alice? That one is my favorite so far.

Jun 16, 2010, 2:22pm Top

I've reviewed A Town Like Alice (message 42) and you recommended Pied Piper!. I'm looking forward to reading another Shute novel.

Jun 17, 2010, 1:18pm Top

Have I told you about my poor memory! :-D I'll be looking for your review of Pied Piper--I won't forget that.

Edited: Jun 17, 2010, 7:59pm Top

47. A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny (Narrated)

I get why this series is so popular. Cozy mysteries are just that: the sights and smells described make the reader feel all warm and fuzzy and wishing they could be part of that world. Penny's normal setting of the village of Three Pines is replaced in this fourth volume by a very grand secluded lodge, not far from the idyllic village. Anyone hoping to revisit the stock characters will be a bit disappointed since only two are present at the lodge along with the venerable Chief Inspector Gamache and his lovely wife, Reine-Marie. But not to worry, the setting is gorgeous and the food is every bit as tantalizingly described as the food at Olivier's Bistro.

The murder? Well, I suppose if fans are really satisfied with the locale and the comforting presence of the kind and stalwart Gamache, then the fact that the motive, means and perpetrator of the murder are ridiculous to the point of inanity really doesn't matter. Some will enjoy it .... others will be tearing their hair out.

Edited: Jun 18, 2010, 10:23pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Jun 18, 2010, 10:22pm Top

There's a theme this week: fantasy adventure stories with young, male protagonists. I'm narrating my seventh installment of the Charlie Bone series and needed to get myself in the mood.

Reading: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
Listening to: Measle and the Wrathmonk by Ian Ogilvy
Narrating: Charlie Bone and the Shadow by Jenny Nimmo

Edited: Jun 23, 2010, 7:54pm Top

48. Measle and the Wrathmonk by Ian Ogilvy (Listened to audio book)

Measle Stubbs is an unlucky orphan whose guardian, Basil Tramplebone, ignores him and who lives in a house where the water runs brown and green. Measle never washes and seldom eats. In the annals of evil guardians, Basil has to be one of the vilest. The only thing he allows young Measle is a visit to the top of his miserable house to view his model trains. Measle mustn't touch them nor is he allowed to share in Basil's donuts and pink lemonade that he traditionally enjoys when playing with his magnificent toy village. When Measle devises a way to be alone with the trains, Basil discovers him, and casts a spell reducing him to the size of the plastic people.

There Measle discovers that Basil's food has turned other victims (miniaturized by similar spells over time) into plastic. By feeding them bits of carrot from his pocket, he manages to free them from their plastic state and soon he, Frank the electrician, Kip the carpenter, Prudence the researcher, Kitty the girl scout, William the encyclopedia salesman and snobby Lady Grant are on the run. They dig tunnels, avoid a nasty bat and run from the huge cockroach that Basil eventually becomes - all on the big tabletop that houses the miniature village. One adventure leads to the next and I was pretty sick of it all by the end.

Ogilvy writes in a very visual way - there were detailed directions every time the group took flight or dug a tunnel. If the print edition has maps of the model village it would be a big help; no such luck with the audio book of course. So, unless you have the kind of mind that can visualize a map, this can be tough going. (Also, this being an English writer, meters and centimeters abound.) Since I'm convinced that I'm the person for whom the GPS was invented, this was not the book for me.

Despite not enjoying the story, I couldn't help but admire the artistry of narrator Nickolas Grace. His Basil is deliciously evil and all his other characters are cleverly voiced. If it hadn't been for my confusion with all the maps and tunnels, his performance would have been enough to delight me.

Edited: Jul 2, 2010, 11:45am Top

49. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (Read the print edition)

On the one hand, I can't imagine why I never knew about this book when I was a young reader. (When it was published I was deep in my Nancy Drew phase; also I went to Catholic schools and Lives of the Saints were often foisted upon me.) On the other hand, I'm glad that I read it as an adult because I'm sure that much of it would have gone over my head despite my love of language.

This is the whimsical tale of Milo, a boy who has everything and is interested in nothing. A toy tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room and he gets in his electric car, pays his toll, and embarks on a trip to Dictionopolis. There he meets all kinds of characters who introduce him to letters, sounds, words and sayings that are taken literally to great comic effect. My favorite is when Milo innocently states "It couldn't be a nicer day" and is immediately transported to an ugly island called "Conclusions". When he asks how he got there, he's told by a local: "You jumped, of course. Every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions."

All is not well in this land because the kings have banished their sisters, Rhyme and Reason, resulting in chaos and unhappiness. Milo and his friends go in search of the two sisters.

I think that this book is best read to children in small doses. Each concept is fairly adult and the whimsy might escape younger readers but grown-ups and sophisticated kids will chuckle over the clever wordplay. After his fantastical trip, Milo longs for more but when the tollbooth disappears, he learns to appreciate the world around him. A lovely lesson for us all.

Note: I was reading this book at the beach when a couple of young mothers and their children put down their towels beside me. One mom was telling the other a long story and she seemed to have no notion that the word "said" had ever been invented. Example: "So I was like 'Are you kidding?'. And she goes, 'No, it really happened!'" The words "like" and "go" were repeated over and over in this way. I felt like dropping this book on her lap on the way back to my car. But I'm not a crotchety old crone. Yet.

Jun 25, 2010, 11:12pm Top

I think I overdosed on kiddie lit last week so it's back to the adults. I've never read Tony Hillerman before but since I'm listening to George Guidall tell the story, I don't see how I can miss.

Reading: Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
Listening to: Sinister Pig by Tony HIllerman
Narrating: Charlie Bone and the Shadow by Jenny Nimmo

Jun 26, 2010, 6:49pm Top

Nice review of Phantom Tollbooth. I read it last year and agree with you--it is a wonderful book and a lovely lesson for all.

Sinister Pig is in line to be our next "car book"--when we go north again in July. I'll be anxious to hear how you like it. I tend to like the Leaphorn mysteries better than the Chee ones, but as long as Guidall is reading I enjoy them all.

Edited: Jul 2, 2010, 11:47am Top

50. Charlie Bone and the Shadow by Jenny Nimmo (Narrated)

Charlie and I have a long-standing relationship: I've narrated seven of his books over the past three years and the end of this one promises that our journey will continue. A friend of Charlie's is in peril in another land (and time), his parents are on an ill-fated second honeymoon (on a boat that is bound to run into trouble) and his crabby grandmother and nefarious aunts are still hale and hearty at the end of this one. While characters come and go (and there are tons of them) no one ever really dies so there is enough fodder to continue this forever.

Of course, that can only happen if enough children are entranced by Charlie, his friends, and the villains and that seems to be the case. Charlie himself is an ordinary boy with an extraordinary power: he can step into photos and paintings which take him back in time and allow him to solve the problems in the present. Unlike some of his classmates, he uses his power for good as do his friends. In this installment, one of the good kids appears to be killed by one of the bad ones...but never fear, Nimmo makes sure everyone is alive - if not completely safe - at the end.

Adults would have trouble with the obvious filching of characters from the Harry Potter books - Rowling's house elf "Dobby" has a doppellganger in this volume which made me wonder "lawsuit"? - but since Scholastic publishes both series in the US, I guess everyone is okay with it. More importantly, kids love these books and if Charlie can get them to read, then he possesses a very great power indeed.

Jul 2, 2010, 11:43am Top

Hmmm....with all my different ways of reading books, I've hit an even 50 in the first six months. That should put me on track for 100 for the year but who knows? Sometimes life gets in the way!

Reading: Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
Listening to: Sinister Pig by Tony Hillerman
Narrating: The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Edited: Jul 7, 2010, 10:16pm Top

51. The Pied Piper by Nevil Shute (Read the print edition)

Here's Shute at his storytelling best: one evening John Sidney Howard is sitting out the Blitz in his club with a stranger and during some idle chit chat, mentions that he'd been in France that Spring. The stranger is confused: this was the Spring of 1940 when the Germans invaded France through Holland and Belgium, and Parisians were abandoning the city in droves. Did he have any difficulty? Not too much, says the seventy-year old Howard with great understatement, and then proceeds to tell his tale.

While vacationing in Switzerland Howard is willfully ignorant of the encroaching danger. Despite many attempts to find war work, he's been told he's too old. Then his son, an aviator, dies and he leaves England and the war behind. After weeks of fishing and ignoring the news, he's approached by an English couple who ask if he'll take their two children back to England with him; they will remain in Geneva where the husband works for the League of Nations. He agrees to this since he knows the children from the weeks they've spent in the same hotel and suddenly wakes up to the fact that the war has taken a bad turn.

A delay occurs on the first leg of the journey when the little girl develops a fever. A chamber maid at their hotel asks if he'll take her niece with them and deliver her to her father in London. He can't refuse, nor can he abandon a child on the road whose parents have been killed by a bomb, or a Dutch child being stoned by panicked villagers for being a "traitor". By now, pushing a pram with their belongings in it, the party has joined the refugees heading west. (This journey was also described in Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise.) He manages to distract the children, find shelter in barns and to feed them; Shute states many times that the infinite patience of old age made this possible although not all old people are patient. But it's believable because Howard is such a gentle soul, sees his mission as his duty, and is ready to die if necessary to bring these children to freedom.

In Chartres, he finds a family he and his son once met on holiday and the daughter, Nicole, helps them by accompanying them to the Channel and arranging for a fisherman to take them across. This part of the trip is the most harrowing with a meeting with a German officer (you can just see Otto Preminger in the role), a revelation from Nicole, and a strange and novel twist to the story.

I loved the book but the ending was incredibly abrupt. I expected there to be some conversation between Howard and the unnamed person at the club - who is, indeed, telling us this story in the third person. Instead, they just say good-bye! There's also the problem of Howard's telling the story in the first place: the German has warned him that if any of this gets out, his French friends will be killed. And a warning to people with no knowledge of French: there's a lot of it here and it isn't always translated so could lead to confusion.

Anyway, here's my two cents about the reason for the abrupt ending of such a carefully constructed book: it was written in 1941 and published in January 1942. It's a timely tale and I'm sure the publisher was pushing for an early deadline. In July 1942 the movie (starring Monty Wooly) premiered. The screenwriter, Nunally Johnson, must have taken the pages from Shute as quickly as he wrote them to get the screenplay done that quickly! In any event, the book and the movie were a tremendous success. It was propaganda at its best: an enthralling story with a noble hero overcoming incredible odds.

Edited: Jul 7, 2010, 5:05pm Top

I'm glad you liked the book--I read it years ago so I enjoyed your review a lot as it brought back many of the details of the book to my mind. I hope you posted it--I want to give it a thumbs up!

Oops! wrong touchstone--try Pied Piper

Jul 7, 2010, 5:10pm Top

I realized that and tried to change it but when I click on to The Pied Piper, I come up with the Ridly Scott "Pied Piper" page. I've done this before so I don't understand why it isn't working. I guess I'll just give it a rest. It must be the heat!

Edited: Jul 7, 2010, 6:03pm Top

When you put the brackets in look at the box and check to see which book is listed as the one you bracketed. It will give the title and the author and there should be "others" beside that. If the author is wrong click "others" and scroll down to find the correct book and click on it. That will change the touchstone to the correct one. Pied Piper is easy because the Shute book is the second one on the list (Ridley Scott is first). Sometimes it can be a real hunt to find the correct one--especially if it is an older book or a little known one.

After I posted this I went back to check on your review again--I'm the second one to give it a thumbs up. I hope you make the hot review list!

Jul 7, 2010, 7:47pm Top

Hip! Hip! Hooray! You are on "Hot Review" today! Congratulations!

Jul 9, 2010, 5:16pm Top

Well, my first attempt at a Tony Hillerman book didn't work out too well and so I abandoned it. I think I'll take the wise advice I've been given and start at the beginning of the series. Instead I've chosen what must be a re-read since I finished the entire Agatha Christie oevre long ago:

Reading: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Listening to: Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
Narrating: The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Jul 9, 2010, 11:57pm Top

just fyi, Tony Hillerman developed cancer in the 1990s, probably some time around the publication of Sacred Clowns in 1993. in 1995, he returned with Finding Moon, a book that was about the Vietnam War era and not part of the Leaphorn/Chee series. i started it but didn't finish it. to my mind, Hillerman's writing never returned to top form after his health declined. it's no wonder given all the health problems he had.

I've read the later books but never found myself completely engaged as i was with the earlier ones. i read them because i love the characters and revered Hillerman. had i started with those, I'd probably never have come to know the characters, and the author, i love so much.

i do hope you'll try again. i believe you'll find a visit to the early books well worth your while. i guess i feel a bit protective of Tony Hillerman and the characters he created. odd how that happens.

for some reason i thought you'd finished Brutal Telling. hmmmm.

Jul 10, 2010, 11:50am Top

Thanks for the information. Now I can't wait to start at the beginning, particularly as it seems that George Guidall recorded most of them.

I started Brutal Telling on 6/29 so I should be finished by the end of next week. I understand that a new Louise Penny is being published in the fall. It'll be interesting to see how long that takes to come in. We received all five of her books in two back-to-back shipments which is rather unusual. Apparently it took the NLS book choosers a while to realize how popular these are.

Edited: Jul 10, 2010, 1:10pm Top

Re: Pied Piper: I was over at Amazon spending a gift certificate when I happened upon the info that this wonderful Nevil Shute book is being republished by Vintage International and will be available in August. I got my copy from the library (a hard copy published in 1942 with a plain glossy stain-resistant cover as were most books of the era - once the dust jackets were removed) but it makes me happy to see that a publisher would recognize that such a wonderful book deserves a re-issue.

Edited: Jul 10, 2010, 5:15pm Top

My mom read The Phantom Tollbooth to me and my younger siblings, more than once. It was well loved and I have since obtained a copy signed by the author. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Have you come across Norton Juster's little book, The Dot and the Line? I hope you'll look it up; talk about whimsy and humor. It's about a five minute "read" and wonderful!

Jul 10, 2010, 6:38pm Top

I googled Norton Juster when I read his book and found out about The Dot and the Line then. I'll definitely be picking up a copy. I understand a movie was made from it as well...have you seen it?

Edited: Jul 12, 2010, 3:03pm Top

I don't remember seeing a movie. I'll have to look for it. It must be a short, maybe one that can be downloaded? Fun.

Later, from Wikipedia;

In 1965, famed animator Chuck Jones and the MGM Animation/Visual Arts studio adapted The Dot and the Line into a 10-minute animated short film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, narrated by Robert Morley. The Dot and the Line won the 1965 Academy Award for Animated Short Film. It was entered into the Short Film Palme d'Or competition at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival. 1

The cartoon was released as a special feature on the The Glass Bottom Boat DVD in 2005. The cartoon is also featured on the 2008 release of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Academy Awards Animation Collection

And it's here on YouTube:


I don't know how to make this a link. Oh, wow, it did it all by itself. :^D

Jul 15, 2010, 6:02pm Top

KAzevedo: Thank you so much for guiding me to this wonderful little movie. I love the tag line: "To the vector belong the spoils."

I just passed a very pleasant ten minutes thanks to you!

Jul 15, 2010, 7:27pm Top

You're so welcome, but remember, it was you who mentioned there was a movie. I somehow had missed it all these years and was so delighted to find it. Many lols as I watched.

Jul 16, 2010, 10:15am Top

Seem to be reading at a glacial pace these days. Could it be the humidity? Even narrating has slowed down a bit due to making corrections on two previous books. Once the proofers are done, the engineer and narrator clean up errors before sending the book to Washington. I actually really enjoy this part of the process: a last chance to get it right.

Reading: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Listening to: Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
Narrating: The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Edited: Jul 25, 2010, 12:26am Top

52. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (Read print edition)

If you've read all of Dickens' novels and wish he could come back to life and write a new one, then pick up this dense, thrilling book. Just in case the reader doesn't make the connection right away, Ms. Waters introduces one of the main characters, Susan Trinder, as she is attending a performance of "Oliver Twist". She is terrified of Bill Sykes and the murder of Nancy and it haunts her young dreams. But Sue has been brought up in a house in Victorian London that has its own Fagins in Mrs. Sucksby who "farms" infants and quietens them with gin and Mr. Ibbs, the locksmith, who fences goods or "poke" and they have their own team of pickpockets and thieves. They hope to protect Sue from this harsh life, but fortunately for her, that's impossible:

"It seemed to me I was sharp enough. You could not have grown up in such a house, that had such businesses in it, without having a pretty good idea ... of what could go into what and what could come out."

Her life changes when their friend, the Gentleman, a con man with good manners and an upper class accent, comes to the house with a proposition: he has ingratiated himself to an old man in the country whose niece, Maud Lilly, stands to inherit a huge sum upon marriage. She is an innocent whom he thinks he can seduce and his plan is to take her away to marry, then put her in an asylum and so be the sole beneficiary of her inheritance. He needs someone on the inside to be Maud's maid so that she can help influence her to run away and marry him. He thinks Sue will be just the one for the job and offers three thousand pounds.

What happens next.....would be a crying shame to reveal. The plot is intricate, intriguing, surprising. I actually yelled out loud a couple of times when unexpected twists became apparent. It's been a long time since I've read a book that I absolutely hated to put down - but eventually I had to go to sleep!

Waters' descriptive writing is as dense as her plots: every room she describes is so detailed that the reader can smell and taste the air. Often when a writer spends so much time creating a mood it can stop the story cold, but this never happens in Fingersmith. The title is taken from the name for London pickpockets but Waters enlarges on it: the sense of touch, the presence of gloves, a brass plaque with a pointing finger embedded in a floor are all vividly present. These things sometimes point to the truth but just as often take the reader, and the characters, in the other direction.

Is it heresy to say that this book is every bit as good as Dickens? If so, then I'm a heretic and Sarah Waters is a genius.

Note: I read that Fingersmith was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002 and after reading it, wondered which book could have beaten it. Turns out it was The Life of Pi, a book that completely underwhelmed me. How could they be seduced by a tiger and a boat when this luscious book was in the running?

Edited: Jul 26, 2010, 9:32pm Top

53. The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny (Narrated)

This is the fifth installment of the Armand Gamache series or Three Pines series (depending on which jacket of which book you are reading) and may not be a favorite with fans. Not that it will dissuade Penny's loyal following from reading her next volume which comes out in the fall, but making a loved character a suspect in this latest murder is a questionable move. I suspect that the next book might address this so the end of The Brutal Telling isn't necessarily the end of this particular tale.

Penny infuses her mystery with art, philosophy, poetry and diverse Canadian cultures: Gamache travels to British Columbia for a visit to the Haida people in his search for the murderer of a hermit who has been living in a cabin. In the woods. Near Three Pines. Unknown for years to anyone except the stock character who is suspected of his murder. Forgive the sentence fragments but the author uses these. Often. To intensify the drama.

Jul 23, 2010, 11:59am Top

I tried Murder in Mesopotamia, thinking I'd never remember the murderer since it had been years since I first read it. Wrong. So I had to ditch it and it's time for some non-fiction anyhow.

Reading: One Day by David Nicholls
Listening to: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Narrating: Lily Nevada by Cecelia Holland

Edited: Jul 26, 2010, 11:46pm Top

54 One Day by David Nicholls (Read print edition)

I read rave reviews of this book in the NY Times and elsewhere. It's the story of the relationship of Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew which begins the night of their university graduation in Edinburgh in 1988 and each chapter advances the story by one year on the same day, July 15th, St. Swithin's Day. What has started as a one night stand (when she says "I suppose the important thing is to make a difference" and he replies, "I'd like to stay exactly as I am right now"), will end 19 years later ....

Nicholls has written for British TV and in the early stages of this book I was laughing out loud and really impressed by the crackling dialogue. It felt like he was writing the way people talk, but before I reached the middle, I'd come around to the idea that he writes the way people would like to think they talk. It's actually more like the way the people on "Friends" talk. And once that idea popped into my head, I began to make other connections to other fictional characters that reminded me so much of Dex and Em, I couldn't get them out of my noggin.

Emma has a heart of gold with Bridget Jones' self deprecation, lack of confidence and the unfortunate habit of always choosing the wrong man. Dexter is a gorgeous, callow TV "presenter" with Don Draper's devastating charm and instinct for self-destruction. Dexter's other profession is drinking and the many descriptions of his descent into alcoholism got rather tedious. Emma ends a long affair with a mensch only to end up having sex on the office floor of the married principal of the school where she teaches. It takes many years of meeting and quarreling as friends before Em and Dex finally come together and then.... well, I should have known from page 358 that angst was in store when Dex thinks: "Everything will be fine, as long as nothing changes."

In the end, this book turned out to be a pretty hard slog. It's been compared to the film "Harry Met Sally" but that can only be because of the structure: the meetings of a couple over a period of years. A huge problem is that Dexter is a vile character who shows up drunk for a visit to his dying mother and goes downhill from there. Emma struggles hard to realize her dreams and just as she does .... Dexter's available and needs her and she gets the opportunity she's been waiting for to save him when she should have kicked him to the curb long before. For me, clever writing and sassy dialogue doesn't make up for the predictability of this boy-meets-girl-then-treats-her-like-crap-until-she-rescues-him plot. The movie, being filmed in London right this minute with Anne Hathaway, is bound to pack them in.

On a personal note, I did get a kick out of the following quote as Emma ponders her future after failed attempts at acting, playwriting, and working in a greasy restaurant: "She had a fanciful notion that she might read novels aloud to blind people, but was this an actual job, or just something that she'd seen in a film?"

Jul 30, 2010, 10:37pm Top

Trying to decide between fiction and non-fiction this week.

Reading: Faith Fox by Jane Gardam or The Bolter by Frances Osborne
Listening to: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Narrating: Lily Nevada by Cecelia Holland

Edited: Aug 8, 2010, 6:31am Top

55. Faith Fox by Jane Gardam (Read print edition)

I think I've been reading too much fiction. I feel like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey about whom it was said that reading too many novels was bad for her. I picked this one up by a favorite author whose Old Filth and Man in the Wooden Hat delighted me earlier this year. She is a master novelist who has brought a score of characters to life in Faith Fox except for the title character herself, who is an infant throughout the three month span of the story. I love her writing but the plot of this one fell flat for me. It might not be Gardam's fault: I might just have overdosed on fiction.

Faith Fox is born as her mother, Holly, dies of a blood clot. Although dead, Holly is more present in the book than Faith. Those who mourn the loss of this exhuberant, larger-than-life young woman include her mother, Thomasina, her husband, Andrew, his parents, Toots and Dolly, his brother and sister-in-law Jack and Jocasta, and Jocasta's son Philip. Unable to cope, Andrew brings his baby daughter to his brother in Northern England. Much is made of the rivalry between northerners and southerners, with those from the South looking down on those from the North and the attendant ill feelings this naturally brings. Jack is a priest who runs a crumbling commune/farm which houses assorted ex-convicts and a group of Tibetans. He is a vague, ethereal sort of person who everyone is drawn to but his concept of responsibility is equally vague and when Faith is brought to him, she is conveniently passed on to an old Tibetan woman for care and feeding. There she stays for most of the book, ignored by everyone who should care about her, as they sort out their own lives.

It's easy to get annoyed with most of these characters, as well drawn as they may be, but all are individual and interesting. Thomasina takes up with a dapper retired general after her daughter's death and refuses to talk about the situation, heading off to Egypt with him and scandalizing her many Surrey friends. Andrew and Jocasta were lovers once and may be again, unknown to the oblivious Jack. My favorites were the bickering, elderly Toots and Dolly, who long to meet their new granddaughter; as caught up as everyone is with their own dramas, no one brings her to them and they are housebound and unable to drive. They are delightful grandparents to whom many turn to for conversation and consolation. Toots' rants about their interfering but often helpful neighbor are hilarious.

Another favorite was Philip, the 11-year old son of Jocasta, who has a vague idea that Faith is a sort of sister. Philip is dyslexic but a genius at math and a problem. Here is the introduction to him as he is brought before the headmaster - again:

"Philip, I've had enough. The school has had enough. You lie like an Arab. Look, we're going to have to expel you."
Philip brightened.
"I should be a happy man, a fulfilled man, if I only could expel you and see the back of you for the last time marching out of that door. Unfortunately, I can't. I tried. I can't."
"You mean when you got the assessors in? When you wanted me to go to the Dyslexic Centre?"
"I do. And when you spelled "here" H I Y, I thought we'd got rid of you. But you overdid it. Overacted. As you do."
"Well, I got interested in the Maths."
"And they made a mistake."
"So you told them."
"They did. I wasn't exactly mad about telling them but - "
"That will do Philip. The point today is where has all the art paper gone? Four large rolls of it."
"Why should it have been me?"
"Was it you?"
"Well, yes. I wanted it for the Tibetans' mantras. We'd run out. I'll get it back. I'm sorry," he said, a smile of delirious enchantment breaking across his face. "I'd better go. You've been very undertanding, sir. Actually ... 'lie like an Arab' .... isn't it a bit racist?"
The headmaster roared.

So I laughed a lot while reading this and fell in love with some of the characters and hated others. But in the end, there were too many of them and not enough of them to care about. Through it all I kept wondering - what about the baby? But it gets resolved in the end by some people I suspected would be helpful and others who surprised me.

So it's on to non-ficiton for a while. I was offered a fiction and non-fiction for my next book at work and of course opted for the non-fiction. It's a biography of a British poet about whom I know nothing but at least he's real. Although he may have as many quirks as the legion of characters in this book, I don't think he's left a baby anywhere to be raised by anyone who comes along.

Edited: Aug 5, 2010, 6:44pm Top

56. Lily Nevada by Cecelia Holland (Narrated)

This is the sequel to Holland's Railroad Schemes which I narrated a decade ago. It says something that I had no memory of the first book ... but it didn't matter. While Lily Viner, heroine of the first book, is one of only two characters present in the second (she has renamed and remade herself into Lily Nevada), there is little other reason to call this book a sequel.

The scene is San Francisco, where Lily is the star of a small acting troupe that has just arrived to put on a production of "Hamlet". It's 1877 and the railroad barons rule the country; the unrest caused by their decision to cut workers' pay by ten percent leads to strikes and violence that ultimately spread west to San Francisco. Holland positions Lily so that she is a witness to the fires and mobs that threaten to ruin the city. She roams the streets dressed as a young boy in order to give her the freedom to search for her mother. There is no reason given for her to believe her mother to be in that city and the only clue she has is that she thinks her mother's name was Dorothea. Pretty flimsy stuff to use as a plot point, but it gives Lily the opportunity to traverse the city streets and describe the sights: you can almost see the old photos and drawings that Holland must have used as research. She trudges down Kearny Street to Portsmouth Square, walks up Russian Hill, visits Chinatown, turns up Morton Street and comes to Union Square, many times. If you know San Francisco well, all this might be interesting. For the rest of us, not so much.

Lily and her troupe are invited to perform at one of the barons' houses and this gives way to countless detailed descriptions of facades and rooms of elaborate Victorian manses. Here's Lily awaking from a gunshot wound in one of these rooms: "She woke up in a strange room with high ceilings, the walls papered in pale green silk, the scrolled and layered woodwork darker green rubbed on over deep yellow." This the third time in the book that this painting technique is described.

Railroad strikes and lost mothers (and the obligatory men who love her) aside, this story is basically a cross between HGTV and MapQuest. Lily is strong-willed, clueless, impulsive and totally in control. In other words, she's anything the author wants her to be at any given time. The story is clearly written with another sequel in mind, but since this was published in 1999 and the author has gone on to write in other genres, it's unlikely we'll get one. And that's fine.

Aug 6, 2010, 1:38pm Top

On this week's menu:

Reading: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
Narrating: Betjeman by A.N. Wilson
Listening to: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Edited: Aug 25, 2010, 7:46am Top

57. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman (Read print edition)

What a book about books! I loved this series of essays by bibliophile Anne Fadiman who regales with tales of her beginnings (when she played blocks with her father's pocket-sized twenty-two volume set of Trollope) to her family's weekly stand-off with the students on TV's GE College Bowl (Fadiman U. as they called themselves was beaten only by Brandeis and Colorado College). Anne's parents were both writers with extensive libraries (7,000 volumes!) and their child has been a collector from an early age. When Anne's husband presents her with a trip to a used book store where she purchases 19 pounds of used books, they haul them away to their New York loft to live with the several thousand pounds already in residence.

Growing up in the Fadiman household (Anne has a brother, Kim) must have been fabulous. Dad quoted liberally from tomes in several languages and Mom had been a foreign correspondent before retiring to raise the children. Their collective mania for the printed word results in proofreading restaurant menus and challenging each other by unearthing new "sesquipedalians" (long words). She clearly considers it a magical childhood and her love for her parents permeates the book like a romance.

Anne describes book owners as either "courtly lovers" who remove their bookmarks once a book is finished and return it to its proper place and "carnal lovers" who are likely to leave momentos and marginalia inside. Clearly the Fadimans belong in this camp and she admires a friend who, during a trip to the Yucatan, slammed the book shut whenever an interesting bug fell on a page, "amassing a bulging insectarium" amid the pages of "The Collected Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe".

"Nothing New Under the Sun" is an essay about plagiarism and the impossibility of being completely original; she fills the essay with footnotes, giving credit to everyone from Shakespeare to her husband for every line. My favorite: "Reference suggested by George on 11/14/96 as he was doing his back exercises on our living room floor."

Obviously this book is a favorite among LTers but although Anne and I share much (including our first name, correctly spelled) I am not a book collector. I have access to a fantastic public library and am still astonished that I can go online and order a book and they'll send me an email to tell me when it's arrived. Last summer, when I got hooked on the Maisie Dobbs series, I took out three of the sequels and marveled anew that I was allowed to remove $75 worth of books ... on faith! It still fills me with optimism about our collective psyche that libraries still thrive, after all these years, on the honor system.

Still, I do have a wall and a half of book shelves but I purchase them sparingly. Some paperbacks that I've purchased because of a too-long library wait have either remained on the shelves or been sent along to the library's used book sale. Bel Canto, Water for Elephants and The Thirteenth Tale made the cut; Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency didn't. I enjoyed all these titles but the first group touched my heart. Other books I love so much that I purchased the hard cover versions after reading them: Remains of the Day, The Help, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and many children's titles for future grandchildren. Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare and Steinbeck are all there but I could never touch the breadth of classics that Fadiman has read. In any case, the thought of owning every book I've ever read makes me think: clutter. I know that's the last thing that Fadiman and other "carnal lovers" of books would think but I'm afraid my thoughts go to: "What if there's a fire? What then?"

So it's only my special books that stay on my shelves. Which is why I'm buying "Ex Libris" which had me laughing and nodding throughout despite my not having everything in common with this other Anne. (I might even - gasp! - write in the margins.) We do both love our fathers though and they've influenced us mightily. Hers was a brilliant intellectual. Mine? Not much of a reader but a great guy ... and a firefighter.


Edited: Aug 11, 2010, 10:06am Top

58. Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (Read print edition)

This was a pretty interesting read: even though we all know the outcome and many of the events that happened on the way to the election, it's still a compelling story. But how honest is it? The authors explain in their "Note" that "All of our interviews were conducted on a 'deep background' basis, which means we agreed not to identify the subjects as sources in any way." So no footnotes and no corroborations are necessary or supplied. The authors insist that this was essential in obtaining true candor from their sources. It's also an opportunity for those sources to say whatever they want without necessarily telling the truth and also a way of airing their grievances against a former colleague or employer.

Fortunately the "Authors' Note" is in the front of the book, so the reader understands the rules. Few of the quotes are attributed and many are not even in quotation marks, leaving the reader to wonder who said what. It's best to delve into this one as if it were a novel and that makes it quite an interesting and compelling read. Are the authors themselves prejudiced for or against any candidate? Probably. But their gentle treatment of Obama could just be a result of the same treatment given to him by the entire press corps during the campaign.

Surprisingly, I found myself understanding Sarah Palin a little better. The McCain camp's hasty vetting of her ("five days ... less investigation than a potential assistant secretary of agriculture would receive") made it impossible for them to understand how woefully under-equipped she was for the task. Since she herself accepted without doubt ("It's God's plan") they took it as fact that as a governor she had a grasp of history and economics when she had neither. Very quickly she became depressed, weighed under by tutoring and badgering and the press's constant belittling of her performances. Here's one thing I learned from reading this book: Palin will never again run for anything nor will she put herself in a position of being interviewed by the mainstream press. I'm sure that she now believes it was God's plan that she go through this hell on earth so that she could emerge as cheerleader of the far right, a job she seems to be doing well and with great enthusiasm.

Oh, and John Edwards, the former aw shucks darling in the 2004 race who had morphed into an egomaniac by the 2008 race, was so deluded that he actually thought he could hide his mistress and new baby and work out a deal to become Obama's Attorney General long after he was out of the race. I don't think he could run for dog catcher now and get elected.

So, I enjoyed it. But it has to be read with a grain of salt because of the lack of attributable quotes. One of my favorites, supposedly uttered by Obama in the thick of the fight: "This s*** would be really interesting if we weren't in the middle of it."

Aug 11, 2010, 12:29pm Top

Great reviews! The Anne Fadiman one in particular has got me interested in a book I otherwise would not have read.

I'm more akin to her clan when it comes to book collecting, as we constantly search for new places in the house to install shelves, but like you, there are "books I love so much that I purchased the hard cover versions after reading them" and that includes Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

Edited: Aug 11, 2010, 2:17pm Top

#168 Betjeman? oh wow! i'm currently practicing reading poetry aloud and yesterday was switching between Betjeman's Death in Leamington which I've almost memorized, and Nikki Giovanni's Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why), which i'd like to memorize.

for an exquisite rendering of the Betjeman poem, see Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams read it to and for Sir John.

unfortunately, listening to Maggie read 'and tea she said in a tiny voice/wake up it's nearly five' causes her rendering to ring in my head every time i try to do, er, that is, 'come into relationship with,' the poem myself. upstaged by Maggie, even in the sanctity of my own mind.

anyway, all this is in aid of my great rejoicing over the thought of having access to his biography, which seems to have been well received. hope you enjoy it.

Aug 12, 2010, 10:18am Top

I have seen Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams beautiful rendition of "Death in Leamington" and told my studio director about it the other day. I have to watch it again. Betjeman was very touched by it, I remember.

Everyone is upstaged by Maggie, but there's a story in Alan Bennett's first autobiography (can't remember the name of it just now) where they are attending a very crowded funeral and she insists that for both of their funerals, it will be much easier to get in as no one will bother to come. I have a feeling that if she ever decides to write an autobiography, it will be a hoot.

Edited: Aug 12, 2010, 1:23pm Top

I think that most LTers are book collectors and I'm not surprised that this book is so widely read here. Although I get a kick out of reading other people's marginalia, I haven't done it myself, but I think I'll make an exception when I get my own copy of Ex Libris.
My daughter is with us on vacation (a voracious sci fi/fantasy reader who almost never takes me up on book recommendations) and she just finished my copy of Pettigrew. She loved it (!) and we've had long discussions about it, bringing back that lovely story all over again.

Edited: Aug 12, 2010, 11:36am Top

59. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (Read electronic edition)

I enjoy a good YA novel once in a while and this one by a first-time novelist came with an intriguing recommendation: it was described as a cross between the movies "Mean Girls" and "Groundhog Day". While that's accurate, those are comedies and Before I Fall is not. It's the story of Samantha Kingston, one of a group of popular girls at a high school nicknamed Suicide High. Most of the students come from wealthy homes and teenage drinking and smoking weed are epic in this community. Sam is a senior and she and her cruel friends, led by the evil Lindsay, rule the place; the first chapter describes a day when they skip class, belittle their favorite victim, flirt with a teacher, attend a booze-soaked party and end up in a car crash - where Sam dies. Lindsay is the catalyst for most of this: the one who has anointed the others with her friendship, she holds all the power and they do all they can to make her happy.

The rest of the book is Sam's chance at redemption: she doesn't know why, but she is re-living that day, over and over. Seven times she awakens to her little sister's teasing her to get up and seven times she tries to make that last day a better one. The best parts of the book come when she realizes her own horrible behavior and its repercussions and when she looks with kindness on her family for the first time in years. (Shades of "Our Town" - a play that never gets old.) The writing is excellent and the depiction of the mean girls and their motivations are spot on. I have to think that Ms. Oliver is outing her teenage self to be so knowing of how these girls operate.

But the solution to Sam's dilemma is facile. She is nobly trying to redeem herself and improve the life of the group's most vulnerable target, a waif named Juliette. Her solution surely will make Juliette's life more miserable at the hands of the evil Lindsay. Why not have Sam try to make this little she-devil understand how damaging her actions are? So I enjoyed the writing but the ending made it all feel like a waste of time.

On the upside, this was my introduction to the Kindle, borrowed from my daughter. I understand its benefits and it's great for traveling but I have no desire to purchase one. Cuddling up with a good Kindle just isn't the same thing.

Aug 12, 2010, 12:17pm Top

Don't know whether you've read Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, NarratorLady, but it sounds like you might find it a better YA novel involving the issues of cruelty and immaturity in high school.

Curling up with a good Kindle definitely isn't the same thing. But I'm afraid we may be not too far away from a time when "book collectors" become a very small minority purchasing a scarce commodity. The convenience, improving quality, and lower costs of the Kindle/Ipad/etc. model seem to be an unstoppable force.

You inspired me - my daughter is an avid reader, but our lives have been so crazy recently that I've neglected to recommend Major Pettigrew's Last Stand to her. I remedied that today, and I think she'll enjoy it as much as your daughter did.

Aug 13, 2010, 3:12pm Top

jnwelch: Thanks for the recommendation. Every once in a while a YA book seems just the thing and I'm always on the lookout for a suggestion. I hope you and your daughter enjoy discussing the Major, Mrs. Ali and all those other delightful characters.

Aug 14, 2010, 10:34am Top

A week of reading on Cape Cod hasn't advanced my listening and narrating choices of course, but otherwise it's been great to just sit and read!

Reading:Where There's a Will by John Mortimer
Listening to:Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Narrating: Betjeman by A.N. Wilson

Edited: Aug 15, 2010, 1:07am Top

60. Where There's a Will: Thoughts on the Good Life by John Mortimer (Read print edition)

I picked this one up serendipitously: it was on the library shelf next to Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris and it fit the bill for a summer read. A series of essays - mostly lighthearted despite the liberal quoting of Yeats, Byron, Shakespeare and Shelley - this is Mortimer's supposed "will" to the next generation. He starts off with a quote from his father: "All advice is perfectly useless" so we know not to look for huge life lessons here.

Mortimer is best known for his "Rumpole" series of books and TV shows. He was a barrister specializing in divorce law, as was his father, and an only child who benefitted from a privileged education (Harrow, Oxford) and a hugely successful writing career which included some 50 books and plays. He died in 2009, well into his eighties, surrounded by a loving family. A good life indeed.

The essays allow him to ramble on all sorts of subjects, including his antipathy for Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Tony Blair and the Iraq War. A proud liberal, he found his government's attempts to outlaw begging, having sex in any place that could possibly described as "public", and fox hunting ridiculous: "It does no harm to other persons - unless you wish to count the fox as a person, which leads you into anthropomorphic arguments or the world according to Disney." Here are some other favorite bits:

On Sir Edward Marshall Hall who always entered the courtroom with a clerk bearing a pile of clean handkerchiefs, a carafe of water and an air cushion: "If the prosecution evidence got nasty, he would blow his nose, a sad and terrible trumpet, on each of the handkerchiefs. If it got worse, he would knock over the carafe of water. If it became really dangerous, he would slowly and deliberately blow up the air cushion until the jury could pay attention to nothing else."

On the days when one needed grounds in order to file for divorce: "One of my first clients was finding it extremely difficult to discover anyone prepared to commit adultery with his wife. He was reduced to the horrifying expedient of disguising himself in a false beard, a false moustache and a pair of dark glasses and creeping in to his own bungalow, in full view of the neighbours, pretending to be his own co-respondent. He was discovered and sent to prison for 'perverting the cause of justice'."

On modern technology: "Did we ever need the mobile phone? Watch the crowds go by, one hand pressed to the side of their heads as though they are all suffering from a powerful ear-ache, muttering incessantly to other marchers in other crowds clasping their hands to the side of their faces."

There are worse ways to spend a summer afternoon than chuckling over the ruminations of a very clever, funny man.

Aug 16, 2010, 9:27pm Top

Surfacing for a quick glance at LT before the next round of summer entertaining at our house in the Bay Area. Starting back to work next week may give me more chance to read than I've had this summer!

Ex Libris is one of my all time favorite books--great to have on hand if you ever have a "reading funk". She'll jerk you out of it immediately!

I read Team of Rivals this year and really enjoyed it. I like the way she captures the personalities of the many men who had so much to do with that period of history. One of the bet Civil War books I've read.

I have Major Pettigrew's Last Stand on my nook--I had planned to read it during the week we were at family camp this summer but didn't have time. I think it was you who recommended it to me. It is on the list to read before the end of the year. I might read that one during my prep week before teaching. It will be a nice way to wind down at the end of the day.

Hope you've had a great summer. "See you in September!"

Edited: Sep 20, 2010, 7:53pm Top

61. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Listened to audio book)

The number of reviews for this wonderful book led me to finally get to it and everything written about it is true. The genius of Abraham Lincoln was in understanding his fellow men, having a unique ability to put himself in another's place and proceed with caution and integrity in all his personal dealings. In beautiful novel-like prose, Goodwin makes him come alive as a great human being and president.

After his election, when Lincoln manages to convince his rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination - William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates - to join his cabinet, it is a master stroke. The popular Seward had been considered a shoe-in for the nomination and his loss to Lincoln must have been a bitter one. The president convinced this proud politician that he wanted no other man for Secretary of State. (After reading "Game Change", it was impossible not to make connections to this turn of events and the one that took place almost 150 years later with Obama and Clinton.)

Two of the most startling characters in the book were George McClellan, first commander of the Army of the Potomac as the Civil War began and Salmon Chase, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury. McClellan built a strong and loyal army of men, received all the supplies asked for but time and again hesitated in making the move to battle. As a result, Gen. Robert E. Lee had plenty of time to recruit, regroup and plan the Confederate attack. The Union lost many battles as a result but still Lincoln kept McClellan since he had the loyalty of the men on his side. As a result, McClellan, (whose letters to his wife reveal a Napoleon complex), felt he was the greater leader and blamed his failures as a warrior on anyone but himself. Finally running out of patience, Lincoln replaced him but always thought the war could have been won much earlier if McClellan had advanced and not vacillated.

Salmon Chase's loss of the 1860 nomination spurred him to try to undermine Lincoln and his cabinet for the four years leading to the next election when he hoped to wrest the nomination from the incumbent. Chase tendered three letters of resignation, one each time his pride was hurt, knowing the president wouldn't accept them. Clearly Lincoln believed in the adage that it was best to keep his enemies close; when Chase was revealed to be attempting to fill a treasury post with an unsuitable candidate as a favor, Lincoln turned him down, then accepted the bumptious man's inevitable fourth letter of resignation, astonishing the Secretary who never thought the president's patience with him would run out.

All these characters come alive on the page and there was plenty here I knew nothing about before reading this remarkable book. By the time the Lincolns are heading to Ford's Theater, I actually had to wait a day before girding myself to listen. Then I found that at the moment the president was shot, another conspirator barged into the home of the Secretary of State, wounded four men including Seward's son, and lunged at Seward who was in bed recovering from a carriage accident. The facial scars remained all his life and the other men recovered. No one wanted to tell Seward of the president's death until he was well enough, but several weeks later he was staring out the window at a flag at half mast, turned to his secretary and said, "The President is dead."
"Why do you say that?" asked the secretary.
"Because he would have been the first to come see me and there has been no message. He must be dead."

The two rivals had become the best of friends. This is why it can sometimes to dangerous to listen to audio books in the car. You never know when the lump in your throat is going to cause the vision to blur.

So it was a great book, highly recommended by me and everyone else. Richard Thomas' narration was fantastic. But imagine my shock, at the end, when a voice thanked me for listening "to this abridged version of 'Team of Rivals'". Abridged!?! I didn't even know they made abridged audio books any more.

A quick look at my library web site informed me that the other audio version by Suzanne Toren (lauded by many LTers) is 32 discs long!!! Mine was 8 discs long so I have only actually read one quarter of the book.

So now I feel that I have read the outline of "Team of Rivals". Next summer's project: get the print edition and start over. By then I should be ready to read about the assassination again.

Aug 21, 2010, 9:28pm Top

On vacation through Labor Day so no narration or audio reading for a bit. But plenty of books to enjoy, including:

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Tinkers by Paul Harding

Aug 22, 2010, 11:45am Top

Is listening to audio books a kind of "busman's holiday" for you, or are you checking out the competition?

Aug 22, 2010, 12:51pm Top

I'm not so much checking out the competition as trying to learn from other narrators - there are a lot of good ones out there. If I don't like the sound of one, I stop immediately and go on to another book and I'm surprised by how rarely that happens. I assume that NLS readers do exactly the same thing.

I've learned that the best readers make you unaware of their narration techniques and allow you to bury yourself in the story just as you would when reading traditionally. Often, when someone mentions a book I've read, I have to think a minute before remembering exactly how I read it. It's a great way to spend a 70 minute round-trip commute.

Edited: Oct 8, 2010, 10:10am Top

62. Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (Re-read the print edition)

A friend introduced me to this wonderful book a couple of years ago. Somehow I had missed this moving classic of a sheltered little girl who is sent to relatives in the country and discovers her true self. When I picked up a copy last week I couldn't resist a re-read.

Nine-year-old Elizabeth Ann is an orphan whose Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances have raised her to become as timid and fretful as they are. Continually assured that she is a very nervous, delicate girl, she lives up to her loving Aunt Frances' declarations, adopting her aunt's fear of large dogs, thunderstorms and chills. When Aunt Harriet's contagious illness forces them to send Elizabeth Ann away temporarily, she is sent to the Putney cousins in rural Vermont. They had wanted Elizabeth Ann when she was a baby and her aunts have told her about her narrow escape. "The children there had chores to do ... as though they had been hired men!" the aunts exclaim. Elizabeth Ann doesn't know what "chores" are but the family her aunts have chosen don't want her, so she has no choice but to go to the Putneys.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher introduced the Montessori Method to the US: the learn by doing approach. In lovely storytelling, using vocabulary that doesn't talk down to children, the world opens up to Betsy, the name the Putneys call her and which suits her surroundings and her new life. As soon as she arrives, she is handed the reins and expected to guide a horse team with Uncle Henry, makes butter with Aunt Abigail and discovers her own common sense, with her able Cousin Ann as an example. The adults show by example but never lecture and Betsy's new-found abilities give her the confidence she's always lacked.

The story is old fashioned (written in 1916) but the writing is gentle and wise. Betsy has as much to learn as any child about kindness and growing up. Inevitably, Aunt Frances comes to get her: will she go back to being Elizabeth Ann in her small town or will she remain country-loving Betsy?

It's a wonderful story to read to a young girl. Adding to its charm are the author's occasional breaks from the narrative to speak directly to the reader, as in this scene when Betsy is reunited with Aunt Frances:

"They both stopped talking and peered at each other through the thicket of words that held them apart. I told you this was a very momentous conversation."

Edited: Sep 2, 2010, 3:34pm Top

Last week of vacation and for some unfathomable reason, reading has been slow. I'm having a hard time getting into Cutting for Stone but I'm hoping it will get better. Also on the table, possibly luring me away from this book that I must read for book club, are:

Tinkers by Paul Harding
Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson
Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer

Edited: Sep 4, 2010, 12:04pm Top

63. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson (Read print edition)

This is an odd little book, light as a feather (in actual weight due to the quality of the paper, as well as its content) and so ideal for a summer read. I picked it up because of positive reviews. Like almost everyone (except, it seems, Emma Thompson who recently said she couldn't act), I loved Audrey Hepburn. By the end, I found that everyone who knew her loved her so no startling revelations here. Indeed, the author didn't set out to insult anyone: according to the subtitle, his intent is to position Audrey and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" as precursors to the "modern woman", although it's not clear who that woman is.

Audrey herself professed to put children and family far before her career and testimony from her son Sean and Robert Wolders, her longtime spousal equivalent until the end of her life, supports this. Apart from the flashy career she fell into and ultimately abandoned, Audrey was a firm traditionalist. Perhaps it was her character, Holly Golightly, the author had in mind?

The idea for the book surely came from Wasson's other book, A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards, the director of "Breakfast". He is the most fleshed out character in this book, partly because of Wasson's access to him and his friends. He managed a happy, sometimes whacky set that presaged the zaniness of his Inspector Clouseau movies.

Most of the others involved in "Breakfast" have died: the two lead actors, the writer, one of the producers and the composer of the haunting title song, "Moon River" - Henry Mancini. The notes at the back cite lengthy input from Richard Shepherd, a producer, supporting actress Patricia Neal, and Hepburn's family. The remaining sources are magazine interviews with the principals and biographies of Truman Capote, Edith Head and others. So far so good until Wasson attempts to put words in his protagonists' heads as he does with Hepburn. Here she - supposedly - is as she waits in a car to begin the first scene in front of Tiffany's at 5 A.M.:

"What she had to do now was to forget that she wasn't anyone's first choice, and that Capote was dissatisfied (some said), and that no one seemed to know how much Holly was, well, whatever she was ... She had to forget about her fights with Mel (Ferrer, her husband) whom she missed as much as she was glad to be without. It wasn't something Audrey had put words to. Was it really true love? Or was it grown-up love, the kind they don't make movies about?"

This seems to me a monumental presumption. One of the magazine sources Wasson uses elsewhere in the book is "Photoplay", a popular movie rag of the 1950s and 60s and this pulpy item certainly reads the same way.

Truman Capote's Holly Golightly was based on his mother and some of his "swans", the New York socialites he palled around with. She was a dreamy-eyed girl who partied hard and supported herself by sleeping with men for money. In hiring Hepburn, the producers hoped to win over the production code people, and by blurring the reality of how Holly makes a living, the movie manages to leave unsaid that she is, essentially, a hooker. The casting of everyone's favorite good girl helped sell that idea.

If Wasson's theory is that Holly (not Hepburn) signaled the "dawn of the modern woman", he also conveniently ignores the whole prostitute thing and apparently bases this on the fact that Holly lived alone and made her own way in the world. That girl is the one that Helen Gurley Brown celebrated in 1962 with "Sex and the Single Girl" and sassy as she was, Helen wasn't recommending prostitution for her career-minded readers.

In the end, it's enjoyable for the light-as-a-feather gossipy story it really is: part fact, part made up stuff posing as fact. The author's attempts to make it some sort of comment on the dawn of something serious was off-putting and a little insulting to the reader's intelligence. Ignore the ridiculous subtitle: this is a story of how an entertaining movie was made, and some of the drama that went into hoodwinking the public as to what it was really about.

Sep 4, 2010, 12:16pm Top

Back to (sort of) normal this week:

Reading: Time was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co. by Jeremy Mercer
Listening to: The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith
Narrating: Betjeman by A.N. Wilson

Edited: Sep 15, 2010, 1:45am Top

64. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Read the print edition for book group)

I was very much looking forward to this dense book, having heard so many good things about it; perhaps my expectations were unreasonably high. While the unique subject matter and excellent storytelling kept my attention, the beginning made me impatient and the end left me cold. Was I glad I read it? Yes. The wonderful middle, which makes up the bulk of the book, was riveting.

It's the story of Shiva and Marion Stone, twin boys born to Sister Mary Joseph Praise and Dr. Thomas Stone in a mission hospital in Ethiopia. Sister, the doctor's able medical assistant, has hidden her pregnancy from everyone including Stone and when she is discovered in labor, it is too late to save her life and her boys are born conjoined at the tops of their heads. They are soon separated and their father flees to parts unknown.

The technical aspects of this dramatic birth should warn the reader that medical terms and Latin names abound throughout the novel as the boys become doctors as well. A lot of this is unintelligible to those readers who haven't attended medical school but Verghese (a doctor himself) is an adroit novelist and keeps the story interesting for people like me whose experience with medical jargon begins and ends with "stethoscope".

This dramatic opening is interrupted by the simultaneous stories of doctors Hema and Ghosh who are absent from the hospital at the time of the birth. This results in a fairly clumsy back and forth type of story as we swerve from bleeding nun on an operating table, to Hema's near-disastrous plane trip back from visiting India, to Ghosh's binge as he pines for Hema. While giving us vivid characterizations for two people who are vital to the story, the whole time I was thinking: "what's going on at the hospital?".

Once everyone is back at Missing (a mispronunciation of "Mission" that everyone calls the hospital) and Stone is gone, Hema and Ghosh take over and the story takes off. The politics of Ethiopia in the sixties and seventies provides a fascinating background to the twins' growing up years; the dedication of doctors Hema and Ghosh as they deal with an unending stream of Ethiopia's poor and ill is awe-inspiring.

Marion is the narrator and we follow him to America where he does his internship and residency in a charity hospital in the Bronx. The explanation that these hospitals seek out foreigners because American medical students only staff the richer teaching hospitals was surprising to me and sobering. Shockingly, the crumbling Bronx hospital has a helicopter landing pad on its roof: this is where the staff of teaching hospitals land to harvest the organs of those who have died at the charity hospitals, a one-way activity since the helicopters don't bring organs to the charity hospital. I had never heard of this practice but have no doubt that it is true. When these two medical worlds collide, Marion finally meets his father with interesting results.

I won't go into the ending. I found it unnecessarily melodramatic but others may not be affected that way. I would certainly recommend the book since its depiction of the medical communities both in the developing world and in America is excellent: both instructive and revealing. Verghese's huge number of characters are all fascinating. Whether noble or flawed or both, as in life and in the best literature, they make for compelling reading.

Edited: Sep 11, 2010, 12:09pm Top

65. Time Was Soft There:A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer (Read print edition)

This was a charming way to end the summer, reading about an English bookstore cum hostel on Paris' left bank, home for over half a century to down-on-their-luck writers looking for a place to crash and write. Mercer, who lived there for six months, gives a history of the store and entertaining character studies of his fellow residents but it is the store's owner who gets the most attention and deservedly so.

George Whitman, at eighty-six, has spent his life pursuing the ideals of communism. Born in Salem, Mass., he graduated from Boston University and proceeded to travel the world using his wits. He worked on the Panama Canal and wrote of the exploitation of the local population, keeping statistics on the death rate among the workers. After serving in Greenland in World War II he landed in Paris - a much safer place in the early fifties for an avowed Communist than the US would be - and opened the book store.

Money means little to him and he secrets it throughout the store when he gets it; his parsimony is legendary as he purchases clothes at rummage sales and walks miles to save money on food. All this, to make sure his bookstore remains a beacon to those less fortunate. Mercer comes to understand his strange landlord's ways:

"George had discovered money to be the greatest slave master, and by reducing your independence on it, he believed, you could loosen the grip of a suffocating world."

It's a wonderful story about a great character who continues to operate Shakespeare & Co. as he approaches his hundredth birthday.

Sep 7, 2010, 9:00am Top

Sounds like a good one, NarratorLady. We went to Shakespeare & Co. the summer before this one and heard some of the story, but wondered about the owner, among other things. I'll look for this.

Sep 7, 2010, 3:55pm Top

Among other things? Tell me, was the place a bit of a dump? With all those people living among the books I wondered if the below-grade hygiene was obvious.

Sep 7, 2010, 4:38pm Top

I'd say more like a rabbit warren inside: http://www.flickr.com/photos/elsa11/3244961782/


The outside is fine: http://media.photobucket.com/image/shakespeare%20books%20paris/jborkowsky/Paris%...

I don't know how they work it with the people living among the books - I'll have to read Time Was Soft There! There was no sign of the inhabitants while we were there, although there sure were a lot of folks shopping for books. We dropped a bundle, and got the "Shakespeare and Company" stamp inside the books we bought. The one I can remember getting was Murakami's Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack, which is his excellent non-fiction report on the cult poison gas attack on Tokyo's train passengers.

I'd go back again in a blink - great book selection, as long as you can handle being in cramped spaces and working around others.

Sep 7, 2010, 4:55pm Top

Thanks for the photos Joe. It looks absolutely wonderful. I've been to Paris many times and have seen this from the outside but somehow never went in! What was I thinking?

George Whitman is closing in on 100 years and his young daughter Sylvia has taken over the running of it. I wonder if she has the same trustful nature as George, who let anyone stay there.

Sep 7, 2010, 5:27pm Top

My pleasure - it is indeed wonderful, and well worth a visit.

Sep 11, 2010, 11:07am Top

I had intended to listen to The Double Comfort Safari Club this week but when I put it into the CD player, there was no sound! Turns out I'd come up against another mystery (to me) of high tech: seems that this CD was only compatible with an MP3 player! So, back to the library it went and I've ordered the plain, old-fashioned CD. But for this week:

Reading: Tinkers by Paul Harding
Listening to: The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman
Narrating: Betjeman by A.N. Wilson

Edited: Sep 19, 2010, 11:19am Top

66. Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff (Listened to audio book)

I chose this book in a round about way: mirrordrum had mentioned that the marvelous Hope Davis had narrated a book that I'd already read and I went in search for her on my library web site. I came up with this Newbery Honor Book from 2002, the story of a 12-year old girl, enmeshed for years in the foster care system, desperately searching for some kind of family.

Hollis Woods is abandoned as an infant, without a blanket but with a note asking that she be named for the place where she was found. She is a burgeoning artist, and as the story opens we learn that she did find a loving family, the Regans, but that something has happened to cause her to run away from them, as she has from her many previous foster homes. The story of her past wistfully unfolds as she describes the details of drawings she has made in the course of her time with the Regans.

When she is found by the social worker - a woman Hollis refers to as "The Mustard Lady" because of her penchant for spilling food on herself which sticks to her clothing - her next stop is the home of the elderly Josie, a former art teacher. Hollis loves Josie but soon becomes aware that the old woman's memory is failing. Determined to protect her from The Mustard Lady, who will place Hollis in another home and seek to remove Josie from the home she loves, they run away, driving upstate to the place where Hollis has been happiest: the Regans' summer house. It's the middle of winter, no one is there, but Hollis keeps hearing in her head the voice of Stephen Regan, the "brother" who had been so kind to her, as she hides out with Josie and works hard to give her a happy Christmas.

It's a lovely story about love and trust; Giff is a prolific writer whose characters have that combination of grit and vulnerability so loved by young readers. And Hope Davis adds the perfect touch: the lovely, tremulous quality of her voice is perfect for the plucky Hollis and aging Josie. Hollis is a determined, courageous little girl who constantly questions herself as she makes her decisions and Davis brings this to life in every line.

Sep 11, 2010, 5:03pm Top

I just got the audio of The Blessing Way by tony Hillerman. I've never read any of his and was hoping that an audio would give me a good intro and get me hooked. Alas, I found the first 45 minutes very boring. I'm waiting to see if you think it's worth pursuing, and I'll give it another try.

Edited: Sep 15, 2010, 6:29pm Top

wow, tutu. different strokes. i was instantly mesmerized by Guidall's narration of Hillerman--you are listening to Guidall, yes?

if you're bored you may just stay bored. i find the early Hillerman books almost hypnotic. the characters draw me in and the pace is perfect for me as i love the rhythm.

these aren't action-packed thrillers. they're as much about the land and the people who live there as about the crimes Hillerman uses to share his love of people and place. his writing suits the pace of the desert and The People.

i hope you can come to enjoy the blessing way, but if not, ain't it grand that there are so many books for our oh-so-diverse tastes?

oh, and if you're listening to a narrator other than George Guidall, well, all i can say is, you're in the wrong book. ;)

//etc spelling of Guidall's name. it's pronounced guidell and spelled Guidall.

Sep 14, 2010, 6:14pm Top

Tutu & Mirrordrum: I've finished the first five chapters of The Blessing Way narrated by George Guidall and I'm definitely not bored. But I am a little confused ... lots of characters, beautiful descriptions of the land and loads of spells and folklore packed into a short period. I find I have to concentrate a little more than usual to get them straight but I soldier on. The narration is peerless and now that we have a murder, I'm looking forward to finding out who - or what - dunnit.

Sep 14, 2010, 8:28pm Top

Well....with those votes in, I'm going to try again. I love George Guidall as a narrator, and I think I was trying to listen during a time when too many other things were on my plate. I'm going to slide it in during a slow, dark, chilly night....thanks for the input.

Sep 15, 2010, 9:39am Top

I'm another fan of The Blessing Way and his other early ones. What mirrordrum said. I also found Joe Leaphorn a character worth following.

Sep 18, 2010, 10:54am Top

Slowing down on the (personal) reading because I'm increasing my days at work. That of course means that with increased commuting time, I'm also listening more. It's all good.

Reading: Tinkers by Paul Harding
Listening to: Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith
Narrating: Flora's Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce

Sep 18, 2010, 11:21am Top

I've read and liked the first two. I'll be particularly interested to hear what you think of Tinkers.

Edited: Sep 19, 2010, 11:15am Top

67. The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman (Listened to audio book)

Well, I wanted to like this one as I'd heard so much about Tony Hillerman and his creation, Joe Leaphorn. This book turned out to have two protagonists: Officer Leaphorn and university professor Bergen McKee. Unfortunately, the depressed McKee takes center stage through most of the book, performing amazing acts of courage and ingenuity when he is captured by bad guys, along with a lovely young woman who, I believe, is present to fill the somewhat trite role of "damsel in distress".

When a young petty criminal is found dead, smothered by sand and taken far away from where he died, Joe Leaphorn has a dilemma. Who would bother to transfer the body and what could the motive be? Leaphorn also must deal with a "witch" who wears the skin of a wolf and kills sheep and bedevils several Navajo clans. The best part of the book is when these clans come together in a ritual to expunge the "witch" and the folklore and signs are explained through the eyes of young Joe and the old "singer" conducting the ceremony. The old man must tell the others where to stand and the proper way to conduct the ceremony and remembers a time when such instructions weren't necessary: everyone participating would know what to do.

The descriptions of the Arizona and New Mexico landscapes are wonderful, especially since I've been there in the last year and could re-imagine them. The descriptions that I found difficult were the countless precise details of McKee trying, somewhat implausibly, to escape the bad guys. I'd need a diagram to figure out the excruciatingly complicated exit strategy through fissures, up cracks in the rocks, around bushes, etc. It completely turned me off as did the improbable luck the good guys had in being able to conquer the bad guys. The reasons for the mystery were murky and implausible. And when Leaphorn finally did show up it was almost as an afterthought.

So I'm afraid I'm not a fan. Perhaps later installments feature Leaphorn more as he is an interesting character. But I think it might be a little while before I try another Hillerman novel.

Edited: Sep 19, 2010, 1:12am Top

with a few exceptions like Dennis Lehane, i pretty much throw disbelief out the window with mysteries else i couldn't enjoy most of the mysteries i delight in, especially those LPW, Anna Pigeon and Nero Wolfe and Archie, so the improbability factor is absolutely no problem for me. i believed every word of it while it lasted and was on tenterhooks to know how they'd escape. how fascinating people are. of course, i also loved the TV shows Xena: warrior princess and x-files and loathe all reality shows, so there you are.

i am glad you tried it and have to agree with the points in your review even though they don't change my response to Hillerman. am fascinated by how much implausibility i cheerfully swallow in mysteries as long as i find them tolerably well written and the characters amuse or resonate with me in some way.

Leaphorn does develop more as a character in later books. however, if implausibility isn't your cup of tea and the cultural aspects aren't sufficient to give you pleasure, then i doubt you'll enjoy them any more than you did this one.

another good review, though. the fact that i think and feel differently about the book doesn't affect my appreciation for your percipience one whit. well, maybe half a whit, but it's an emotional whit not an intellectual one.

Edited: Sep 19, 2010, 10:22am Top

Ellie: You're right about me and mysteries. My faves have been Christie and Sayers. I swallow all their red herrings whole. But I don't seem to be able to suspend disbelief in the face of derring do: I remember years ago reading an Alastair McLean where the hero fought incredible odds and displayed countless feats of ingenuity and all I could think was "but he hasn't eaten or slept in three days!" So, no, these are not the books for me.

What is it about Dennis Lehane that you can't swallow? He's a local writer and many of my friends are fans though I haven't read him yet. He once wrote a book about a teenager who disappeared from my old high school which is no more. (Shut down by the Archdiocese of Boston to pay the fees for some scandal .... you know the story.) So I've been meaning to read that one just to go back and visit the old neighborhood in my head.

Now I'm off to look up "percipience"....

Edited: Sep 19, 2010, 11:43pm Top

mmmm. poor sentence construction? i meant that i don't need to suspend disbelief as much with Lehane and that's because his devices aren't (as) contrived except insofar as all fiction depends on contrivance.

Lehane's The given day, which i believe he wrote after several books in the Kenzie and Gennaro PI series, is a fine historical novel that takes place in Bahston in the 20s, a lot of it in Southie. i've also read 3 of his K & G novels and plan to read everything he wrote as NLS seems to be putting them all in db format. :)

i love derring do and as a teenager, couldn't get enough Alistair MacLean. read feverishly everything i could get my hands on.

ya know, i never worry so much about the eating and sleeping. it's the attending to bodily functions that gets me. do these people never have to drop trou for basic biological purposes? bothers me in movies, too.

two of my favorite historical novelists, Patrick O'Brian and Mary Renault, both go to some lengths to convince readers that their characters' actions or described events are not mere contrivances but have a basis in fact, or at least in historical report.

O'Brian talks about his resources for naval actions at some length. he drew heavily on Admiralty papers, dispatches, reports of naval actions published in the London gazette, personal correspondence and the like. he assures the reader that he could scarcely have invented actions more remarkable than those that actually occurred.

Renault also drew on multiple sources, although hers were fewer and all were written centuries after the events she describes. at the end of Fire from heaven, for example, Renault discusses briefly where she got the ideas for certain events, such as Alexander's taming of Boukephalos (Boucephalus), what caused her to infer various occurrences, why she presented them as she did and which were pure invention.

oh dear, i've gone on one of my rambles again. *sigh*

//edited to make it more sensal. . .i hope

Edited: Sep 22, 2010, 2:20pm Top

68. Betjeman by A.N. Wilson (Narrated)

John Betjeman was Britain's poet laureate (1972-84) and a beloved television personality who railed against the demolition of Victorian architecture in favor of postwar modernism. These two accomplishments don't naturally intertwine but much of Betjeman's life was a dichotomy. He was a devout churchgoer who never was able to decide between his mistress and his wife. He carefully nurtured hundreds of friendships well into old age but referred to his estranged son as "It". His poetry was fine but many thought that he sacrificed his art to his demanding TV work and fame. It's difficult to believe that anyone in TV could keep anything secret today; back then, his fans were completely unaware of Betj's highly complicated life.

In other words, he's a great character on whom to base a biography. I haven't read one yet where the subject was a dear old soul who was faithful to his family and whom everyone admired. Although Betjeman was pretty much loved by one and all, including his wife Penelope who raised the children, saw to the upkeep of their home and offered a divorce which neither pursued; and his mistress, Elizabeth Cavendish, sister of the Duke of Devonshire, who waited in vain for him to divorce, nursed him at the end and who sacrificed children for the sake of being with him. Her sister-in-law, the Duchess, spoke years after his death of "the charm, the blinding charm" of the man. And about his love life: "People kept expecting him to do the right thing, but maybe he did do the right thing - and maybe the right thing was not to make a decision."

An only child, born in 1906 to a purveyor of fine bric-a-brac (condiment-sets, onyx ashtrays, dressing tables, etc.), his was a world of stringent class structure. Due to the huge loss of men in the first World War, he was among the first group of middle class men attending Oxford permitted to visit the grand houses of their aristocratic classmates. His great wit and clownish behavior made him everyone's favorite and he never missed an opportunity to ingratiate himself to his "betters". There was no chance that he would move into the family business, causing a permanent rift with his father, and he was determined to pursue a life of letters. His connections provided shelter and a post as a writer at the "Architectural Review" and his devotion to the churches and Victorian architecture of England was born. It was a cause he segued into television documentaries in the early 1950s, taking the viewer on tours of their own country and pointing out the beauties to be found. His manner was folksy and appealing and he was beloved by millions, as was his poetry.

This is very accessible poetry, mostly written in short meter or trimeter. Wilson quotes snippets of it here, just a taste that makes the reader want to get a collection of them or - even better - listen to them read on YouTube. The best: "Death in Leamington" and "The Death of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel", both heartbreaking and tender story-poems; "Myfanwy" and "Joan Hunter Dunne" about sporty, capable English girls he admired from afar; and "The Mistress" (not his own, but about another woman he's caught a glimpse of):

"But why do I call her 'The Mistress'
Who know not her way of life?
Because she has more of a cared-for air
Than many a legal wife."

About his uncared-for wife: also an aristocrat, the hard working Penelope was brought up in India and for some unexplained reason returned to England with a Cockney accent. Many of her letters are written in a strange, phonetical way (also unexplained):
"Oi know oi was ysterical on Tuesday morning. Oi oped and oi thought oi would be mooch calmer about everythin after moi reception into the arms of the scarlet Woman boot oi serpose it cannot appen all at oonce."


John Osborne's play "Inadmissable Evidence" is about Betj's tangled personal life, a work that Betj professed to be delighted with. Although plagued with guilt by his love life, his confessions to his priest and his weekly attendance at church never waned. Elizabeth Cavendish has decreed that her letters to Betj will not be made public until fifty years after his death, so she is the silent one in the trio. She always refused to meet Penelope who wanted to meet her. I imagine that were someone to write it, hers would be the saddest biography of all.

Sep 20, 2010, 5:11pm Top

Woo, what a good review! Thanks, Narratorlady. Elizabeth's lot does sound sad, although Penelope's doesn't sound too swell either. What strong feelings he obviously generated.

I'm going to find time tomorrow to take a look at those poems.

Edited: Sep 21, 2010, 12:04am Top

Joe: Penelope - after raising the children and selling the big house - took many trips to India and wrote several good books about it. She died there, suddenly, while leading a tour group. She appeared to be a plucky sort and her personality fills the pages of the book because of all her emotion-driven correspondence. Elizabeth's silence (although self-imposed) leaves the reader with the impression of sadness.

Betjeman's son Paul, a music teacher who emigrated to the US in the early sixties, got well out of his father's shadow and terrible treatment of him. Happily, he found his own way and is married with a family in NY. No explanation in the book for why the affable Betj was so harsh on his only son, while maintaining a good relationship with his daughter.

On YouTube, Maggie Smith's reading of "Death in Leamington" (circa 1972) while the author listens, is a gem.

Edited: Sep 21, 2010, 1:32pm Top

what a marvelous review. i can't wait for the audio, which i'm sure will be a db as it'll be new.

i'm intrigued that aristocratic Penelope came, or came back, to England with a cockney accent. i'd not have thought of a cockney accent as consistent with either British aristocracy in general or the Raj in particular.

and on accents, how does a good narrator, or one who aspires to be a good narrator, handle a dialect or other accent challenge? it's one thing if you take on a role in a film or play where you have one accent--well, i mean, i couldn't do it but obviously good actors can and do. for narrators, though, it's not nearly so simple. what do you do? do you rehearse?

whatever it is you do, i'm sure they don't pay you enough!

//eta: it's now listed on NLS as being IN PROCESS in both db and tape formats. that's how they list in process books: all caps. antici. . .payshun is such fun. :)

Edited: Sep 24, 2010, 5:59pm Top

Wilson never explains how Penelope got this accent. A cockney nanny perhaps? I could have just turned her "i"s into "oi"s but the introduction of her peculiar writing style meant that I had to do it all phonetically.
Accents are tricky: there's a fine line between doing them well and sounding like a "Saturday Night Live" skit. I can handle Irish accents because I grew up with them all around me, (always being careful no to overdo it and sound like the Lucky Charms leprechaun) but my British husband is no help because I can't hear his accent any more! I speak French but HATE to speak English with a French accent ... the cartoon character PeePee La Peuw (sp?) comes to mind. Everyone quoted in "Betjeman" was British and I wouldn't even attempt to give them all accents as it would sound ridiculous. There are differences in US and British inflections, when asking questions or stating fact, that I try to put in there but they are pretty subtle and probably not noticed by many people.

In other words, I'm not your girl if you're looking for expert linguistics. I do the best I can, usually choosing the vowel sounds and certain consonants in each language and trying to employ them to "suggest" an accent. German, for example, has distinctive "s" and "f" sounds. As for rehearsal? Not really ... no time! But I try it out, play it back, ask the engineer if it sounds weird, change it and proceed. We do the best we can. YouTube is often very helpful as a reference.

The excellent Barbara Caruso is fabulous. It wasn't until after I listened to The Road from Coorain where she employed an impeccable Australian accent that I realized she was American!

Sep 24, 2010, 5:57pm Top

Have made great headway both listening and narrating but both books continue into next week. Haven't read a bit of Tinkers yet, but I'll get there:

Reading: Tinkers by Paul Harding
Listening to: Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith
Narrating: Flora's Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce

Edited: Oct 1, 2010, 12:01am Top

69. Flora's Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce (Narrated)

This is a sequel to Flora Segunda, a book that I did not have the pleasure of narrating. Normally NLS sticks to the same narrator but, fortunately for me, the first book's narrator has retired and so this series falls to me. It's a fantasy adventure for pre-teens and a rollicking good one. There has recently been a glut of the genre (thanks to H. Potter) and there is certainly drek to be had. But Flora is a wonderful character, full of courage and piss and vinegar. She has a disfunctional family, a best friend who has turned on her, and a burning desire to be a ranger and fight the demons that bedevil Califa, her native land.

The fact that Flora's mother is the country's chief minister and that their entire family has pursued army careers doesn't faze Flora. A giant (pregnant) squid, hiding below ground, is about to give birth which will cause an earthquake so mighty that the City will be destroyed. Flora's infatuation with Lord Axacaya, whom her parents have forbidden her to see as he is their sworn enemy, leads her to taking on the challenge of confronting the squid and calming her. But there are many pitfalls and near death experiences to be had first as Flora travels back in time, thwarts the evil Springheel Jack (who inhabits her best friend Udo's body), is chased by a ghoul and must sacrifice her life - temporarily - to solve a mystery and save the City.

It's all great fun with fantastically colorful language and non-stop action. Flora learns from her mistakes, of which there are plenty, and comes to realize that listening to her parents isn't really such a bad thing. Sometimes. At the same time, she has to make grown up decisions and face the consequences of them. Wilce is planning a follow-up next year. By that time I will have caught my breath and be ready and willing to enter Flora's world again.

Caveat: There is some sexually suggestive language and one threatening scene where the villain is intimating rape - but of course she conquers the villain with determination and ingenuity. But (sigh) I guess it's no worse than what kids of this age see on television. At least Flora is no timid weakling dependent on a boyfriend to save her - see Bella Swan of "Twilight" - but I do wish Wilce had left that scene in the wastebasket.

Edited: Sep 30, 2010, 11:43pm Top

70. The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith (Listened to audio book)

I cannot think of another series that I have followed to its eleventh incarnation. I thoroughly enjoyed Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, but I pooped out around book #9. In truth, these stories of Mma Ramotswe and her friends would have been over for me long ago, were it not for the absolutely superb narration of Lisette Lecat. Ms. Lecat, a native of South Africa, voices these Botswanans to perfection. (I know this because my daughter works for a global health organization and recently hosted some Botswanans. I asked her if they sounded like Mma Ramotswe - giving a pretty good imitation of Lecat because she was in my head - and she said they sounded exactly like that, the same lovely, lyrical inflection.)

This book, like all the others, is not so much a mystery as a rumination on life with a couple of problems for Mma Ramotswe and her prickly assistant, Mma Makoutsi, to solve. The drama of the story occurs when Mma Makoutsi's fiance is injured and in hospital. An overbearing aunt takes over his care and attempts to force Mma Makoutsi out, stating that she is not his wife yet and will never be. The cases to be solved include the search for a safari guide who stands to receive an inheritance, the recovery of a house whose owner has been swindled by resident bad girl Valerie Sopeto, and a case where both a husband and wife suspect each other of having affairs. Mma Ramotswe solves all these with calm aplomb, all the while marveling at the vagaries of humankind and the wonders of Botswana.

But it's all about the narration with this one. I'll listen to these as long as Mr. McCall Smith writes them....but only if Ms. Lecat continues to narrate them.

Sep 30, 2010, 9:18pm Top

I thoroughly agree with you about the narrating job done by Lisette Lecat. I really didn't care for the 1st Ladies Detective Agency until I heard that wonderful cadence. Then the music of the writing came alive. I love this series and am off to find this latest one.

Edited: Oct 5, 2010, 10:18pm Top

I've got to get to Tinkers sometime since it's a book club selection!

Reading: Tinkers by Paul Harding
Listening to: Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater by Frank Bruni
Narrating: The Letters of Noel Coward edited by Barry Day

Edited: Oct 5, 2010, 10:21pm Top

71. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (Read print edition)

This was an impulse read, a book I'd heard about on LT and read in a day. I loved Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, and this one was very enjoyable and charming.

Written in 1926, it's a bit hard to tell when the story takes place; descriptions of clothing and the fact that cars are somewhat rare would indicate that it's well before that year. Valancy Stirling awakens on her 29th birthday to her spare, nasty little room in her spare, nasty little house. She lives with her autocratic widowed mother who rules with demands and punishes with silence. To a modern reader, the mother's control over the daughter seems ludicrous considering Valancy's age, but Valancy doesn't work and it seems that although they are poor, their extended family is high enough on the social scale of their small Canadian town, to make the thought of a young woman working a scandalous thing. (This is not stated; I assume that a reader in the twenties would take this as fact.) Her unmarried state means that she still has the status of a child.

These aunts and uncles are insufferable and hugely entertaining. Her mother never defends her and she is criticized from all sides - mostly for the fact that she is clearly doomed to old maidenhood. In fact, Valancy is such a mouse of a girl that it's difficult for the reader to do more than pity her. Naturally fate intervenes. She is told by a doctor after a clandestine visit for a heart ailment, (a visit she manages without her ever-intrusive family's awareness), that she has a year to live. Finally, in the face of certain death and with no more dread of a lifetime of loneliness ahead of her, she finds her voice.

The scene of the first family dinner, when Valancy says what's been on her mind for years, is delightfully hilarious. It's always pleasurable to see pins stuck in blowhards. Her decisions throughout the rest of the story are interesting and unpredictable. She is, in fact, a brand new person and the opinions of her family, none of whom she believes has ever loved her, have no bearing on what she will do next.

Of course there's romance since a spinster unshackled from her bonds must find that. Her introduction to the glories of the natural world around her is part of her love affair. Young girls will, of course, identify with Valancy. But for me, the joy of seeing the comeuppance of her relatives was great fun.

"Dear," said Cousin Georgiana mournfully, "some day you will discover that blood is thicker than water."
"Of course it is. But who wants water to be thick?" parried Valancy. "We want water to be thin - sparkling - crystal-clear."
"Dippy, clean dippy," muttered Uncle Benjamin.

There's a happy ending, of course.

Edited: Oct 6, 2010, 12:53am Top

most interesting. one of those books my mom recommended that i never read and about which i'd completely forgotten. it rang so resoundingly, however, that i googled it and it has quite a history and back story. the wikipedia article even has a link to an article with photograph of Evelyn Nesbit, who was Montgomery's model for Anne's face.

NLS has the book, of course, and they also have in process a relatively new work (2008) by Irene Gammel entitled Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L. M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic.

there's an enjoyable review in the New York Times that inspires me to at least try it out when it's finished. i believe i'll start with Anne since it makes sense to do so, it's a db and my mom recommended it. she was seldom wrong in the matter of books. ;)

thanks, NL.

Oct 6, 2010, 12:35pm Top

Another great review, NarratorLady. I've added this to my TBR list.

I greatly enjoyed the PBS Anne of Green Gables tv series, but have never read the books, so those are on my list, too!

Oct 7, 2010, 7:18pm Top

Much thanks Ellie and Joe. I too loved the TV series with the fabulous Coleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth. I have a special place in my heart for Anne because once I was able to spell, I always told people that my name was "Anne with an 'e'". Imagine how thrilled I was to find a character in a book who said the same thing, but in a very feisty way. I remember my mother recommending the book and then re-reading it as soon as I was finished. I think that was the first time we had a book discussion!

The second time was "Little Women" which I see that Joe is taking up. Enjoy the March sisters! The Alcott house is about 10 minutes away from me and I very often drive past the house and into Concord, invariably thinking, "This is the road the girls walked to buy thread for Marmee!"

Oct 8, 2010, 4:08pm Top

You're a lucky woman, Anne with an e! I feel like I could walk right into the world of Little Women, but it would be fun to actually do it. We visit western Mass., where my wife grew up, pretty frequently, and my son's at Tufts in Medford, so we may have to figure out a side trip. :-)

I was inspired at lunchtime and found Anne of Green Gables at the bookstore, so that may be my next one after Little Women. I am indeed enjoying the March sisters, and I'm continually surprised so far that I'm enjoying a book that has so much moral instruction in it!

Oct 9, 2010, 12:21pm Top

A book with moral instruction is a rare thing these days. Maybe you're enjoying the novelty!

Oct 9, 2010, 12:23pm Top

I swear I'll start Tinkers this weekend. Can't think why I'm hesitating.

Reading: Tinkers by Paul Harding
Listening to: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
Narrating: The Letters of Noel Coward edited by Barry Day

Oct 9, 2010, 2:46pm Top

ah. looking forward to yr review of the given day.

Oct 9, 2010, 2:54pm Top

It's going to take many days of commuting to finish it. Twenty plus CDs!!! But I'm looking forward to it so thanks for the recommendation. I've never listened to Michael Boatman but I remember him from TV and I know that he's a favorite of yours.

Edited: Oct 14, 2010, 6:18pm Top

72. Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater by Frank Bruni (Listened to audio book)

This autobiography, from The New York Times now-retired food critic, is an entertaining read about Bruni's life-long love/hate relationship with food. His Italian grandma and his mother (who was not Italian but took on her mother-in-law's mantle of feeder and entertainer extraordinaire) equated food with love. Cursed with a bottomless stomach, Frank scarfed down meals like a vacuum cleaner and as he matured, he battled his weight with bouts of bulimia and endless crash and crank diets.

Finally, in his mid-thirties, he managed to control his eating and pursue a regimented program of exercise while working for the Times as their White House correspondent and then their reporter in Rome. When the call came from his paper, asking him if he would like the dream assignment as restaurant reviewer, he took a deep breath, signed up for a series of trainers, and made the plunge.

The best parts of the book deal with Frank's youth, as a member of a growing, bustling family. It seems he remembers food in every delicious detail, from favorite candy bars to the treats the ice cream truck brought every summer evening. He's a marvelous writer and the luscious prose that he uses in describing the lavish meals that his family dished out may make it hard for the reader not to head for the refrigerator.

These and his hilarious descriptions of an elaborate disguise he adopted to stop an angry restaurant owner from identifying him were the best parts of the book. Less interesting are the pages of descriptions of the workouts that allowed him to keep his figure - (yawn). Of course it's much more fun to gain weight than to lose it and the same can be said about reading about it.

Edited: Oct 9, 2010, 4:42pm Top

Message 227: NarratorLady

imo, it's a book worth taking time on. some books i want to move right along but TGD often left me with things on which to reflect and i would enjoy the breaks i took. Lehane's writing is both intense and dense and i usually need time to absorb his work, even his detective novels. of course, that may actually be more of a comment on my faculties than on his writing. he may be utterly transparent to others. ;)

you may not turn out to be a Lehane fan but i think, especially as you're a narrator, you'll appreciate and enjoy Michael.

Oct 17, 2010, 6:32pm Top

Just stopped by to try and catch up with your thread. I've been "out of circulation" for about 2 months so I'm way behind.

Do read Team of Rivals in it's entirety. I read it last year and really enjoyed it. Goodwin did a great job of bringing to life those historical persons with all their foibles as well as graces. I came away with a much deeper understanding of Lincoln and a conviction that without him the Union probably have perished and that if he hadn't been assassinated the aftermath would have been much different and possibly we could have avoided many of the problem between North and South that till plague us today.

I love L.M. Montgomery but have never read The Blue Castle--I'll have to look for it. I also have never read Understood Betsy which sounds like a great read--I used to read Fisher when I was young. It sounds like I need to revisit her, also.

I enjoy the Joe Leaphorn novels when read by Guidall--although they tend to be uneven, some much better than others. I like reading about that area of the country and Hillerman does a good job of describing it. I think my favorite Hillerman novel is A Thief of Time.

Love your reviews!

Edited: Oct 23, 2010, 11:35pm Top

I'm definitely in a reading funk: nothing seems to be grabbing my attention these days. Maybe I'll have more luck with:

Reading: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Listening to: 13 Bankers The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown by Simon Johnson
Narrating: The Letters of Noel Coward edited by Barry Day

Oct 24, 2010, 12:06am Top

I finished 13 Bankers back in June and had this to say about it:
I finished 13 Bankers last night, and there is no hope. Although the authors would disagree, I think they have presented sufficient evidence here. Their's is a measured recitation of the facts with prudent recommendations, but the United States of America is sunk.
I hope you have as much fun with it as I did.


Edited: Oct 24, 2010, 12:17am Top

Well Robert, I'm not sure if I want to read it or not! I could do the ostrich act...after all, if we're sunk then how can reading this book help me in any way except by raising my anxiety? On the other hand, I heard about the book after listening to an interview with the author so I pretty much knew what it was about. Perhaps I'll read enough to absorb as much as I can stand and then drop it. I've lately been in the habit of discarding books...

Edited: Oct 29, 2010, 8:06am Top

73. Private Lives and Hay Fever by Noel Coward (Listened to audio plays)

For weeks I've been knee-deep in all things Noel Coward. While recording 700+ pages of his letters, I've been intrigued by everything Coward and have managed to see several of his plays on video. These BBC radio plays were delightful to listen to with all-star casts deftly executing the rapid-fire repartee for which Coward was known.

Private Lives is the story of Amanda and Elyot who have divorced each other and are embarking on second marriages. They arrive at the same Deauville hotel for their respective honeymoons only to find that they occupy adjoining suites. They meet on their balconies and are appalled at the coincidence: both try to leave the hotel but their spouses refuse. Neither Amanda nor Elyot is honest about meeting the other. In fact, they are rarely honest about anything, including their feelings for one another. Old passions are re-ignited and they sneak away to Paris, shocked and delighted by their own bad behavior. Once ensconced in Amanda's apartment, all the old recriminations resurface and in a comic series of flares of temper - interspersed with wild declarations of love - a huge row ensues, complete with the throwing of crockery and dire threats. When their spouses arrive on the scene, they are included in the general insanity. Stephen Fry and Imogen Stubbs are Elyot and Amanda and they voice their characters perfectly. Their sparring, sophistication and vitriol are vividly rendered in every beautifully pronounced syllable.

New to me was one of Coward's first plays, Hay Fever. The dotty Bliss family - mother, father and adult son and daughter - have each invited a guest to their country house for the weekend, neglecting to tell the others. Judith Bliss is a stage actress, recently retired, but intending a comeback. It seems that her children have inherited her sense of drama and her disdain for convention. The whole family are very poor hosts, not bothering to introduce bewildered guests to each other, but instead treating them as audience and uncomfortable participants in their impromptu melodramas. The situation comes to a manic head when the family insists on playing a convoluted game and then berates the guests for not playing their parts correctly. Coward apparently got the idea for the play in 1921 on his first visit to America, when he was invited for several evenings to the home of Laurette Taylor, a grande dame of the theater. He was amazed at the family's outrageous behavior and more amazed that no one else had thought to write a play about them. The wonderful Judi Dench stars as Judith with a terrific supporting cast. It's madcap and hilarious: the epitome of 1920s English drawing room comedy.

Oct 29, 2010, 7:56am Top

Haven't actually had the time to sit and read a book in a few weeks, so this week I'll try for a graphic novel of short duration and see if I can get through it.

Reading: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger
Listening to: 13 Bankers by Simon Johnson
Narrating: The Letters of Noel Coward edited by Barry Day

Oct 29, 2010, 3:54pm Top

where did you find the particular noel coward recordings of which you write? the ones i can find don't have either Stubbs or Dench. i thought Stubbs did a fine job in both sense and sensibility and twelfth night and i'd like to hear her. dame judi's a no-brainer. audible.com has both titles and the samples for both are enjoyable but if Dench is available, well, there's no more to be said.

Edited: Nov 1, 2010, 3:57pm Top

74. The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger (Read print edition)

I picked this up because I've been enchanted by the two graphic novels I've read and this one was by the author of The Time Traveller's Wife and I was interested in her take on the genre. Of course, I forgot that I found Time Traveller odd and unsettling. Odd and unsettling books can be fine if they lead one to think, but I'm afraid that for me the whole book was gimmicky and I haven't even been tempted to read her next book which I understand is about a family of ghosts at Highgate cemetery.

This is another ghost-y theme about a woman who is walking the streets of Chicago after a fight with her boyfriend and happens upon a Winnebago blasting music. She approaches and finds a man sitting reading who invites her in. He is the librarian and the vehicle is full of all the books she has every read in her life, including her own diary. Enchanted, she goes back the next night but of course he's not there, and in fact she doesn't come upon him for another nine years.

The germ of this idea seems to come from an HG Wells short story but, honestly, the whole thing seems to me pointless. She isolates herself from everyone, immerses herself in books, studies to be a librarian and finally does harm to herself and seems to end up in heaven - which looks a lot like the reading room of the Library of Congress. I think this is supposed to be a series. A depressing series.

Nov 1, 2010, 4:35pm Top

Ouch! That doesn't sound very good. I liked The Time Traveler's Wife much more than you seem to have, but I've haven't known what to make of what I've read about this one (and I like graphic novels). I'm sure not going to hurry to pick it up. Too bad.

Edited: Nov 22, 2010, 12:35am Top

75. Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (Read print edition)

I've had this novel on the shelf for months and on impulse, decided to take it with me on a plane this weekend. It turned out to be a good choice: the plot is built around a true event, the June 16, 1942 round-up in Paris of thousands of Jewish men, women and children by the French police. They were taken by buses to an indoor sports arena, the Velodrome d'Hiver, or "Vel d'Hiv", kept there for six days with almost no food and not enough toilets - think the New Orleans stadium during Hurricane Katrina. We all saw and heard about the inhuman conditions and the hopelessness of the people who were stuck there. The adults in Vel d'Hiv had no reason to hope for relief or salvation. While their fellow citizens turned a blind eye and their own police force behaved with the depravity and carelessness of their German invaders, the Jews were moved to a camp outside Orleans. The children were unaware of the horrible reality until the fateful day that they were torn from their mothers who were put on trains and sent to perish in Auschwitz. The children would remain in France, uncared for, until ultimately those who survived were sent to Auschwitz.

The novel begins with the terrifying arrival of the police at the Starzynski apartment. Four year-old Michel is afraid and wants to hide behind a secret panel. His ten year-old sister Sarah locks him in and pockets the key, knowing she'll be back later in the day to free him. In alternating chapters, we are introduced to American ex-pat journalist Julia Jarmond, taking on the assignment of writing about this event on its 60th anniversary. She is disturbed that she has never heard of it and begins to research and interview elderly residents in the neighborhood of the now leveled Vel d'Hiv.

Both stories are told in ever increasing staccatto-like chapters as the drama increases. Sarah's plight and her desperation to free her brother is juxtaposed with Julia's realization that her husband's family - and the family's apartment which they are renovating - are intimately connected to a Jewish family who were victims of Vel D'Hiv. The first one hundred and sixty pages of this novel is beautifully crafted; it's as difficult to read as it is to put down.


Part of Julia's story is her marriage to the dreadful Bertrand who is the epitome of every French stereotypical male, complete with haughty manner, full-time mistress, and dread of getting old. This charmer wants his 45-year old wife, who has gone through multiple miscarriages in recent years, to abort her pregnancy because it will make him feel old to have another child. Julia's strongest support is her daughter Zoe, who, at eleven, is unbelievably comforting and wise. Neither character rings true and they slow the book down considerably.

Julia's determination to find out about what ultimately happened to Sarah Starzynski, the most fully realized character, is what kept me reading. When Sarah's voice is absent from the narrative it all seems somewhat facile and contrived. Julia does some silly things for a woman with a sketchy pregnancy track record and much of the resolution is silly too. But I admire de Rosnay for bringing the horrific scandal of Vel d'Hiver to light in such an imaginative, searing way. Apparently President Jacques Chirac announced the scandal publicly and honored its victims in 1995 but this best-selling novel has finally shed a bright light on a shameful episode. In spite of its flaws, I'm very glad I've read it.

Nov 12, 2010, 6:03pm Top

I'm a tad behind on reviews but my Noel Coward siege is finally over, having viewed two of his movies, six of his plays, two interviews with him, and listened to two radio plays in the last month.

Narrating: 28 Artists and 2 Saints by Joan Acocella
Listening to: 1776 by David McCullough
Reading: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Nov 12, 2010, 9:19pm Top

But other than that, what have you done with all your free time????


Nov 13, 2010, 2:54pm Top

I've spent a lot of time with my eyebrows arched, smoking cigarettes and calling everyone "dahling" and everything "lovely" (with an English accent)!

Nov 13, 2010, 8:54pm Top


Nov 14, 2010, 4:01pm Top

This review made me laugh, with no disrespect, since I am "a fan" and have read all Hillerman's books. I wanted the flag at half-mast when he left this world. The joy of entering the world of Joe Leaphorn, and, later, Jim Chee, I could not trade for anything. What is better than to enter such a rarified and unusual culture as the Navajo Way with attendant other cultures, and slow down with those ways to rethink a look at the planet through other eyes? The landscape, the language, the customs, the characters are as dear to me as any I've ever come upon. When I read Seldom Disappointed, a memoir I'm eternally grateful that Hillerman penned, it was fascinating to learn about the man from whence all this splendor sprung forth. I came to love the person I met in Seldom Disappointed as much as the work and world he created.

Nov 14, 2010, 4:18pm Top

brrami: I have been recommending Hillerman's books for years, but I was never able to articulate just what I found so fascinating and so soul-satisfying about his writing. Thank you for putting into words my joy.

Edited: Dec 19, 2010, 11:40am Top

76. Little Bee by Chris Cleave (Read print edition for book club)

After a lovely summer of books I seem to have hit a snag. My fall selections have been less than delightful although I didn't actually choose this one. I was a little chagrined at the selection because I had heard that it was a very sad book and I was in the mood to be uplifted a bit. (The change to daylight savings time usually brings on a desire to read something light.)

Spoiler alert!!!! (I find I can't review the book without revealing some plot points; I'm not recommending the book, so if you would like to read it yourself, please skip this review.)

The book is, indeed, sad. It opens with Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria, who is about to be released after two years in an immigration center in southern England. (She stowed on board a ship to get there.) The problem is that her release has been arranged by a fellow inmate and they have no papers, so will be deported if found out. Little Bee heads alone to the Surrey home of Andrew and Sarah, two English people she had encountered on a Nigerian beach two years before and where Andrew's driver's license has been picked up by Bee, therefore providing their address. Little Bee had been running from henchmen for an oil company who had laid waste to her village and killed all the people; they were in pursuit of Bee and her sister who had witnessed the killings.

The drama of what happened on that beach is the centerpiece of the story and informs the actions of all the book's characters. Andrew commits suicide around the time of Little Bee's arrival in Surrey; Sarah is determined to help Little Bee and continues her long-time affair with her lover, the ineffectual Lawrence right after the funeral; Sarah's four-year old son Charlie insists on wearing his Batman costume at all times and grows attached to Bee as he deals with the confusion of his father's death. Little Bee, convinced that the men will somehow come and get her, imagines ways of killing herself in every circumstance in which she finds herself, before the men can kill her.

Here's the problem: none of the characters behave in ways that the reader has been led to believe they would. Charlie is temporarily lost, but despite her manic caution, Little Bee waits as the police come and when they ask her who she is, she hesitates, therefore making them suspicious. Lawrence, who's been repeatedly described as a powerless government bureaucrat and who wants Little Bee out of Sarah's life, somehow has the wherewithal to find which flight she's being put on and tells Sarah so she can get on the flight too. More mystifying still, Sarah gets on the flight to Nigeria - the place where she experienced horrors before, horrors that ultimately led to the death of her husband - WITH HER LITTLE BOY! She blithely takes him into a dangerous place and thinks that by bribing a couple of policemen, nothing can happen to them, thereby displaying the same naivete that led to such anguish in the first place.

So here we have a book with a dramatic, heart-wrenching theme and characters whose behavior shows that they've learned nothing at all. (More accurately, they are characters whose behavior is so unlikely that they never come off as real people.) And to top it off, as we are scratching our heads at all this (or tearing out our hair), Cleave supplies us with a highly ambiguous ending. It's pretty clear what Little Bee's fate will be, but what happens to Sarah, or more importantly, to Charlie? He has finally shed his costume but his fate is precarious. I resent authors who take you for a ride and then leave you by the side of the road; this story failed for me on many levels.

Nov 18, 2010, 11:32pm Top

I have a copy of Little Bee that went home with my 40 something daughter. I have seen so many less than complimentary reviews that I'm not inclined to urge her to return it. Thanks for taking the time to point out some of its deficiencies. There are too many good (and uplifting) books to read to waste time on mediocre ones.

Nov 19, 2010, 9:15am Top

My thanks, too. I thought this one wouldn't be my cup of tea, and you've confirmed it.

Dec 19, 2010, 11:34am Top

79. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (Read print edition)

I've been meaning to read this mini-classic for some time: it's an old fashioned story of three girls, adopted by a very absent-minded fossil collector called GUM (for Great Uncle Matthew), who then deposits the three infants with his niece and her nanny, as he goes off to see the world. Eventually, with no word from GUM, money begins to run out. The solution to their problem lies in educating the girls in the arts, (singing, acting and ballet) with the possibility of their earning money by the age of twelve. When their guardian "Garnie" is forced to take in boarders, they prove to be helpful adults who take an avid interest in the girls' future.

Pauline is the actress, Posy the ballet dancer, and Petrova the misfit who would rather fix engines and fly planes than do anything theatrical. But all three prove plucky and learn life lessons as they strive to do their best. Streatfeild excellently portrays the plight of London's genteel poor between the wars and England's strict laws that allowed children to work in the theater. Although very properly brought up by the indomitable Nanny, the girls face grown-up problems; as they grow and learn they come up with their own solutions.

The language is veddy English and more proper than today's speech, but nine year olds who enjoy E. Nesbitt's The Railway Children and stories about old fashioned girls will love this one. The stories that I loved as a child were those in which the author didn't talk down to me: I wish I had known about Streatfeild then as she had a knack for this and she was a very prolific writer. Happily, all her books have recently been reprinted for the American market.

Edited: Dec 29, 2010, 11:59pm Top

80. Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas Story by Wally Lamb (Listened to audio book)

I had no idea of the existence of this book until it was mentioned on LT and the combination of the Christmas season and the idea that Wally Lamb (who has never written anything that wasn't worth reading) had written a book for and about children, was more than enough to draw me to it.

Strangely, this tale has elements of many other stories for kids: 1960s nostalgia, the school nativity play that goes haywire, the nuns who rule with iron, the hard-working parents who don't seem to understand the problems that the young protagonist, ten-year old Felix Funicello, must suffer through: overbearing siblings, tough-guy peers and the moral dilemmas that face every fifth grader.

So what makes this different? Unlike many stories with child narrators, the adults are fleshed out as Felix observes their behavior. His mother's big moment on TV as a finalist in the 1964 Pillsbury Bake-Off is embarrassing but he assures her that no one noticed (this he learns from his father's example). He witnesses his teacher being coerced into changing casting for the play to favor the class's poisonous star pupil, so he lets her critics know he thinks she's a great teacher. Lamb reminds us that a bright ten-year old is like a sponge who may often find life confusing, but is capable of figuring a lot out for himself.

Best of all, Wally Lamb narrated Wishing' and Hopin'. He voiced Felix so well that I have to think that this is his natural voice. (This means that he probably shouldn't be the narrator of his adult novels, but he brought Felix to life which is not an easy thing to pull off.) The book was funny, touching and uplifting: everything you could hope for in a Christmas tale. And even though the school Christmas pageant has been done to death on screen and in books, this one is truly hilarious.

Dec 31, 2010, 10:17pm Top

Hi Anne--just checking in to let you now I haven't been abducted by aliens! Good reviews--I'm anxious to see what you thing of 1776--I read it a couple of years ago when I wanted to read something short about George Washington and I had this on hand because I'm a big McCullough fan.

Hope you had a nice Christmas and are having a Happy New Year.

Edited: Jan 9, 2011, 7:21pm Top

78. The Letters of Noel Coward by Noel Coward; edited by Barry Day (Narrated)

I have a crush on Noel Coward. It's hard to encapsulate why and it's also hard to review a tome that runs 750 pages and contains letters from 1913 to 1971. Editor Day argues that the letters reveal more about the man, simply because they were not written, (as his diaries and two published autobiographies were), with an eye to posterity. The art and practice of letter writing has disappeared, which means that this opportunity of getting a glimpse of the true quirks and personality of a famous person is also lost. What a shame.

Coward was a child actor with a pushy mother to whom he was devoted and who was his weekly correspondent until her death in 1953. By his early twenties he was England's most celebrated actor, playwright and composer. He befriended actors, writers, politicians, the aristocracy and royalty. Many confided in him and their letters are also included in this book which is an amazing history of life in the fast lane in the 20th century. While others drowned in the headiness of their own success, Coward was made of different stuff. He collected a staff whom he called his family and who remained with him all his life. They called him "Master", a title he accepted in a tongue-in-cheek way, but it obviously tickled his understandably large ego. (He was, after all, a completely self-made star.) Until the mid-forties, every song and play he wrote was a hit. After World War II, when he found that his particular brand of sophisticated humor and song was suddenly out of date, he re-made himself as a cabaret performer, continued to write, and ultimately directed revivals of his earlier works. Unlike his childhood friend and frequent muse, Gertrude Lawrence, he refused to bend to despair.

There are surprises here that reveal as much about his correspondents as they do about Coward. His dear friend Marlene Dietrich wrote reams about her disastrous love affair with Yul Brynner, sounding like a love-sick school girl ("As long as I don't know what he feels I will have no rest.") to which he responded with great patience and sympathy. Mary Martin's complaints while rehearsing an ill-fated play ("I have never been permitted to say so little or express myself so little"), resulted in a caustic reprimand to the young woman, reminding her that while it was her fifth professional production, it was his 47th: "It seems to me, dear Mary, that you are placing too much emphasis on the word 'star' and too little on the famous theatrical word 'trouper' ".

If Coward's work was derided and considered hopelessly old fashioned after the war, it has earned a permanent place in British and American theater since. The witty dialogue goes perfectly with the costumes and art nouveau settings of "Private Lives", "Hay Fever", and "Present Laughter", which are endlessly produced by professional companies. "Design for Living" closed in London's West End a couple of months ago and a production of "Blithe Spirit" opens there in March. His film "Brief Encounter" has been re-imagined in an innovative stage version that moved recently from London to Broadway and garnered rave reviews. More than thirty-five years after his death, the Master still has the Touch.

His accomplishments have been chronicled elsewhere, most often by Noel himself who was an ardent self promoter. His letters show something more important and personal: how highly he valued friendship. After the Mary Martin debacle, he made sure their friendship survived, and appeared with her a decade later in an American TV special. He was fond of sending rhymes to friends to cheer them up and he was quick to commiserate. His humanity and his wit are summed up in this ditty he sent to his friend, writer Clement Dane (real name: Winifred Ashton) when he heard that the old lady had fallen in the street. I have to copy it here because it is so delightful and perfectly captures the famous charm of its author:

Why did you fall, Winnie?
Why did you fall?
Were you just drunk, dear,
Or not drunk at all?
Were you preoccupied?
Were you in doubt?
Or were you merely
Just bashing about?
Were you too early,
Or were you too late?
Were you in full
Conversational Spate?
Where was dear Olwen (Davies, her secretary),
And what was she at?
Letting you hiccup
And stumble like that!
What were you thinking of,
Was it a plot?
Was it a painting,
A sculpture, or what?
Was that which caused you
To fall in the street
Something unpleasant
Or charming or sweet?
What was the cause of this fall down the drain?
Was it some quirk
In your functional brain?
Was it your strange
Intellectual strength
Leading you sadly
To measure your length?
Once and for all, darling,
Once and for all
Why did you fall, Winnie?
Why did you fall?

(My guess is that Winnie had a pretty big crush on him too.)

Edited: Jan 9, 2011, 9:39pm Top

Absolutely great review--I'm going to be hunting for a copy of the book. Sounds like it would make great bedtime reading for quite a long time. :-)

New thread yet?

Edited to add: The Noel Coward letters is available for the Nook and I'm trying to download it now. It's a big one so will take a while.

Jan 11, 2011, 5:50pm Top

Hi Carolyn,

I'll start up the thread soon and post it. I found that I totally immersed myself in Coward while reading the book. Several of his plays have been videotaped and the movie, "That Happy Breed" was on TCM a couple of months ago. Most of the plays are mannered and of course veddy English (which suits my Anglophile tastes) but the movie was a surprise. It's about a middle class British family between the two wars - nothing like his other works - and was very moving.

I hope you enjoy dear Noel as much as I did!

Jan 11, 2011, 7:02pm Top

If you are thinking about starting a new thread, please give some thought to starting it over at Club Read.


Mar 9, 2011, 4:34pm Top

Finally started making a stab at reviewing my 2011 books here:


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