Monday, May 31, 2010

Line By Line: Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Life of Pi"To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."

"If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams."

"I know what you want. You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality."

"Time is an illusion that only makes us pant."

"Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Table of Contents: The Spellman Files

Author: Lisa Lutz
Publisher/Year: Simon & Schuster, 2008
Synopsis: Isabel Spellman, an uncompromising—okay, obstinate—twenty-eight year-old San Francisco private eye-has her share of problems. And those problems all happen to be named Spellman. Her parents, Albert and Olivia, co-owners of Spellman Investigations, think nothing of placing their daughter under 24-hour surveillance simply to find out if she has a new boyfriend. David, her perfect older brother, who escaped the family business by becoming a lawyer, is hypercritical of just about everything Isabel says, wears, or does. Fourteen-year-old sister Rae lives on sugared snacks, considers recreation surveillance her favorite hobby, and believes that life is one endless opportunity for intra-familial blackmail. And good-natured Uncle Ray, a former cop and health food nut, now embraces gambling and drinking; and when he's not in battle with his niece Rae over the whereabouts of his favorite shirt, must be rescued from "lost weekends."

The Spellman Files: A Novel (Izzy Spellman Mysteries)

What Others Have to Say
USA Today
"She's part Bridget Jones, part Columbo. Lisa Lutz's resilient P.I. Isabel Spellman emerges as a thoroughly unusual heroine in her delightful, droll debut novel."

Publishers Weekly
"Cracking the case can get complicated and outrageously wacky when a family of detectives is involved, but Lutz has a blast doing it in her delicious debut. Isabel "Izzy Spellman . . . could easily pass as Buffy or Veronica Mars's wiser and funnier older sister . . . When Rae [Izzy's younger sister—"a nightmarish Nancy Drew"] disappears, Izzy and her family must learn some serious lessons in order to find her. Can the family that snoops together stay together? Stay tuned as a dynamic new series unfolds."

New York Daily News
"Lutz is one smart-mouthed writer, but the genuine surprise of The Spellman Files is that it's almost as touching as it is funny."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Simply put, this tale of the Spellman family is irresistible, and you hate to see the romp end."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Book Review: Teresa Riordan, Inventing Beauty

Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations that Have Made Us BeautifulPublisher/Year: Broadway Books, 2004

Who has not heard the story of one Mr. Titslinger, the inventor immortalized in the glitzy stage show in the film Beaches? New York Times writer Teresa Riordan is counting on everyone knowing the popular story of how he invented the bra. Or did he? This is just one historical point that Riordan focuses her attention on in her captivatingly educational book Inventing Beauty. The book takes us on a journey from head to toe to tail, bringing forth beauty myths and truths for all the women who have ever, as another reviewer stated, “pushed, pulled, tweezed, squeezed, and spackled themselves into synthetic loveliness.”

Did you know that women’s right to use cosmetics was actually argued on the political stage in the United States? Charlotte Smith, editor of the The Woman Inventory and Madame M. Yale, a cosmetics entrepeneur, went before the House of Representatives Agricultural Committee in 1892 to debate whether women could use cosmetics to improve their appearance. The outcome of the debate is obvious as the cosmetic industry generates billions of dollars annually on women’s desire to look beautiful and put together. But the fact that this topic was posed on such a stage is yet another example of how a woman’s body has never really been her own.

Did you also know that “because of consumer demand, the vibrator (at this stage meant to be externally rather than internally applied) was only the fifth electrical device introduced into the household, arriving just after the electric sewing machine, fan, teakettle, and toaster”? It was devised to assist physicians in the treatment of hysteria (so they would no longer have to manually stimulate their female patients), and was thought to be beneficial for the treatment of wrinkles. This information certainly makes you look at the vibrator in a new way.

Riordan looks at how the bustle started as a modest means for enhancing a woman’s derriere. It turned into a fashion fright though as women soon had to endure contraptions that could hold a whole tea serving set! She also examines the evolution of our fascination with lips--why the first lipsticks were orange to devices that aided women in drawing the perfect cupid lips to the development of the containers we are all familiar with today.

Riordan completed some meticulous research on the beauty industry for this book, all of which is carefully documented in the Notes and Bibliography sections. To support this research, Riordan has also littered advertisments, photographs and sketches throughout the pages to provide an extra layer of value to her prose. You can check out the stars and models who helped sell these products and ideals to the public, and then compare them to the pictures of the poor women who had to endure the neverending cycle of product reinvention in order to attain the current beauty ideal.

Historians will be amazed at the facts and information Riordan was able to unearth, but all readers will be dazzled by the clarity and enthusiasm with which Riordan tackles this touchy topic of female beauty. Roirdan has managed construct a book that neither rails against the beauty industry for promoting unrealistic beauty standards for women nor enthusiastically celebrates its achievements for women. She perfectly captures the comedy and drama of the situation, by combining the horror stories of women enduring carbolic acid peels with the often amusing tales of the inventors and entrepeneurs who (disastrously) came up with these ideas. And Riordan’s wonderfully inviting writing style makes Inventing Beauty an irresistible read for anyone interested in learning a little more about the everyday life of women.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Table of Contents: A Thousand Acres

Author: Jane Smiley
Publisher/Year: Knopf, 1991
Synopsis: A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.

A Thousand Acres: A Novel

What Others Have To Say
Entertainment Weekly
"The story is really about the transformation of Ginny, through painfully earned knowledge, from a compliant, trouble-suppressing, guilt- ridden daughter and wife into an angry — though still ambivalent — independent woman who has to cast off the only kind of life she has known."

The Washington Post Book World
“A family portrait that is also a near-epic investigation into the broad landscape, the thousand dark acres of the human heart. . . . The book has all the stark brutality of a Shakespearean tragedy.”

The New York Times Book Review
“Powerful and poignant.”

Chicago Sun-Times
"A thrilling work of art.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Line By Line: Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

The Sheltering Sky (P.S.)"Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless."

"Softly she laid her cheek on the pillow and stroked his hair. No tears flowed; it was a silent leave-taking."

"And now you know [life]'s not like that. Right? It's more like smoking a cigarette. The first few puffs it tastes wonderful, and you don't even think of its ever being used up. Then you begin taking it for granted. Suddenly you realize it's nearly burned down to the end. And then's when you're conscious of the bitter taste."

"The soul is the weariest part of the body."

"Because neither she nor Port had ever lived a life of any kind of regularity, they had both made the fatal error of coming hazily to regard time as non-existent. One year was like another year. Eventually everything would happen."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Table of Contents: A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian

A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianAuthor: Marina Lewycka
Publisher/Year: Penguin, 2005
Synopsis: Set in Peterborough, 84-year old Ukranian immigrant Nikolai Mayevskyj announces to his daughters that he's in love and will remarry. The object of his affection is Valentina, a 36-year old Ukranian woman with a visa about to expire and a pair of marvelous breasts. She's determined to use Nikolai to achieve the Western lifestyle she's assured she deserves, and he's willing to let her while he works on his book about the history of tractors. Meanwhile, his daughters, although markedly different in outlook and lifetime rivals, band together to thwart Valentina's ambitions. Valentina's turns their family home inside out, digging up old family secrets in the process. It's a battle of wills with all the participants shaped by their own pasts through recent Eastern European history.

What Others Have To Say
The San Francisco Gate
"Lewycka is a natural writer, a humorist with a light touch who draws the reader in to a family feud that is utterly funny but also stricken with plaintive sadness over the effects of war and inequity on human relationships."

The Guardian
"Reading this novel gave me the impression that I had read a school textbook on Ukrainian history with one eye on an episode of Coronation Street."

Houston Chronicle
"Though well-intentioned, the brief passages of tractor history bring the story to a standstill. Lewycka wants us to mull over the idea that the same ingenious minds that could construct peaceful agricultural machines could convert them into tanks for war."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book Review: Lenore Skomal, The Keeper of Lime Rock

Publisher/Year: Running Press, 2002

The Keeper of Lime Rock is the story of Ida Lewis, “America’s most celebrated lighthouse keeper”. The fact that she was also America’s first female lighthouse keeper makes this honor all that more significant. Author Lenore Skomal takes the few details known about Ida and fastens an interesting story about an unassuming woman reluctantly living in the national and international limelight for simply doing her job.

Lewis came to be a lighthouse keeper after her father fell ill and was incapable of undertaking his tasks. Along with her younger brother, Lewis maintained the lighthouse at Lime Rock and provided the necessary rescue assistance when required. She did these things with very little recognition until one fateful night in March 1869. It was then that she rescued two shipwrecked soldiers from nearby Fort Adams, and thereby cemented her place in American history.
As she continued to serve the lighthouse, news of her acts of heroism were celebrated all over the world (her adventure that March night was not her first or last successful rescue effort). Numerous feature stories and articles were printed over her career detailing her valor and courage. Rich and poor people alike flocked to meet this famous woman, and more than a few men sent her marriage proposals. There were even music compositions written in her honor, and Wordsworth penned a poem.

She received medals from Congress for her rescue of endangered soldiers and citizens. Numerous other awards poured in, either in monetary, medal or gift fashion. But Ida kept these closed away, intent to accept the accolades for peace of mind and as a boost for her self-confidence rather than view them as a means to mark her place in history. Lewis was a very modest person, who would have rather lived her life in obscurity than be the centre of so much attention. For her, tending the lighthouse flames hourly was more important than any of her rescue efforts, and certainly more important than any attention those efforts brought to her door.

Keeper Of Lime Rock PbFor some time, Lewis was a novelty, a sideshow of sorts for a society struggling to shirk the confining principles ideal feminine passivity. The men she rescued didn’t believe she could possibly save them, until she did. Her physical and psychological strength was admired and praised by both men and women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony even visited Lewis, a meeting that interestingly left Lewis quite unimpressed by the feminist leaders of the time.

Because Lewis was so modest, The Keeper of Lime Rock is not the most engrossing read. It is a rather dull compilation that sometimes runs a little too freely with the platitudes about courage and heroism. Granted, Skomal did not have much to work with in that no journal or diaries exist from Lewis’ own hand. What material she did have is surrounded with truth speculation and third-hand tellings. Without firsthand accounts there cannot be any full understanding of Lewis; there is no way of knowing what she was truly thinking or feeling during her life outside other individual’s perceptions and insinuations. As a result, Lewis does not emerge as a three-dimensional person and this is mildly disconnecting for the reader.

The Keeper of Lime Rock is a short read, which is good as the writing lacks the vitality to make you want to read more. Information and events are repeated, making a strong case that Lewis’ story would make a better article than a full book. This is in no means meant to discredit or minimize Lewis and her contributions to women’s place in the workplace and society; she is most definitely someone worthy of admiring and studying. The problem lies in the written words themselves, for they never fully encapsulate the story-telling potential dwelling in Ida Lewis’ life story. The Keeper of Lime Rock merely reports the facts--what there are to report--and this is unfortunately just not enough to comprise a whole book.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Mark: The Kibble and Dibble Literary Awards

These awards came to our attention via Award Tragic:

The Kibble Literary Award recognises the work of an established Australian female writer.

Kristina Olsson for The China Garden
Shirley Walker for The Ghost at the Wedding
Josephine Emery for The Real Possibility of Joy

The Dobbie LIterary Award recognises the work of an Australian female writer published for the first time.

Karen Hitchcock for Little White Slips
Deborah Forster for The Book of Emmett
Robyn Mundy for The Nature of Ice

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Table of Contents: The History of Love

The History of Love: A NovelAuthor: Nicole Krauss
Publisher/Year: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005
Synopsis: Leo Gursky, an elderly Jewish man who survived World War II in Poland before coming to New York City. He's a terribly lonely man who missed out on the life he wanted to live and the woman he wanted to love, and he does something every day to try to get someone, anyone, to notice him. While in Poland, he wrote books where he named the female character after the woman he loved. Alma Singer is a 15-year old girl named after a character in her parents' favorite novel, The History of Love. Her father has died and her mother has been hired to translate The History of Love from its original Spanish. Alma and her brother, Bird, struggle to understand their world after their father's death, and Alma sets out to understand the story of this novel and the woman for whom she was named.

What Others Have To Say
Houston Chronicle
"The plot involves a book-within-a-book, with characters from one story invading the other one in Paul Auster-like fashion, and depends on some largely undigested globs of magical realism to move things along."

The Washington Post
"...involves several narrators and moves back and forth through the 20th century and around the world. But that's just for starters: It contains a lost, stolen, destroyed, found, translated and retranslated book called "The History of Love," characters named for other characters, cases of plagiarism and mistaken identity, and several crucial coincidences and chance meetings that are all maddeningly scrambled in an elliptical novel that shouldn't work but does."

The New York Times
"there's less of the earnest A-student striving that often mars Krauss's efforts to live up to her idols, especially when she's trying to be funny."

The Guardian
"Krauss is undoubtedly an entertaining, humane and intelligent writer, but this novel is just too neat and too sweet for her talent to fly freely."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Line By Line: Lionel Shriver, The Post-Birthday World

The Post-Birthday World: A Novel (P.S.)"Giving anyone anything takes courage, since so many presents backfire. A gift conspicuously at odds with your tastes serves only to betray that the benefactor has no earthly clue who you are."

"Yet Irina had once tucked away, she wasn't sure when or why, that happiness is almost definitionally a condition of which you are not aware at the time. To inhabit your own contentment is to be wholly present, with no orbiting satellite to take clinical readings of the state of the planet. Conventionally, you grow conscious of happiness at the very point that it begins to elude you. When not misused to talk yourself into something - when not a lie - the h-word is a classification applied in retrospect. It is a bracketing assessment, a label only decisively pasted onto an era once it is over."

"Giving anyone anything takes courage, since so many presents backfire. A gift conspicuously at odds with your tastes serves only to betray that the benefactor has no earthly clue who you are."

"Now, bitterly, with one sweep of the front door, the compassion was spent. To the degree that Lawrence's face was familiar, it was killingly so - as if she had been gradually getting to know him for over nine years and then, bang, he was known. She'd been handed her diploma. There were no more surprises - or only this last surprise, that there were no more surprises. To torture herself, Irina kept looking, and looking, at Lawrence's face, like turning the key in an ignition several times before resigning herself that the battery was dead."

"Lovers communicate not inside sentences, but between them. Passion lurks within interstice. It is grouting rather than bricks."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Table of Contents: The Inheritance of Loss

The Inheritance of LossAuthor: Kiran Desai
Publisher/Year: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006
Synopsis: In India near the Nepal border lives Jemubhai Popatlal, a retired Cambridge-educated judge. Living with him is his granddaughter Sai and his cook. Sai is 16 and has fallen in love with her 20-year old tutor, Gyan. Gyan, however, joins Nepalese independence insurgents and the group breaks into Jemubhai's home looking for weapons, terrorizing them all. Meanwhile, Biju, the son of Jemubhai's cook has illegally immigrated to New York City where his life is miserable. He tries to eke out an existence without being caught and being in an alien culture which isn't too kindly to him. It's his return home that sparks the confrontation in all their lives.

What Others Have To Say
The New York Times
"Desai's novel seems to argue that such multiculturalism, confined to the Western metropolis and academe, doesn't begin to address the causes of extremism and violence in the modern world. Nor, it suggests, can economic globalization become a route to prosperity for the downtrodden."

The Independent
" perhaps overlong, and on occasion digressive; its vividly painted backdrops and multiple motifs sometimes overshadow its characters."

Sydney Morning Herald
"Desai has clearly learnt the value of the pause; she allows her story to breathe. The prose is quieter, sparer and almost always beautiful."

Boston Globe
"...offers all of the pleasures of traditional narrative in a form and a voice that are utterly fresh."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Book Review: Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A NovelPublisher/Year: Anchor, 2002

Small books should produce short reviews. This seems simplistically logical. Unless said small book is brimming with historical, cultural, and political perculations. Then all bets can be presumably off. This is where I currently stand with Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a captivating novel by Dai Sijie. Well, actually, it is not so much a novel as a fable, a semi-autobiographical fable at that. But we’ll get to that later.

I need to cycle back to the slim factor. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress runs to around 184 pages, not the standard minimum 200 pages to which one becomes accustomed with contemporary fiction. The length is deceptive, intriguing. The first question I had was whether the book was more short story than novel. Could it carry the narrative construct full-circle, filling in the appropriate shading at key spots to gift it literary heft? It seems foolish now, and a tad embarrassing, to realize that these questions rested on a judgement of its mere physical presence. Especially so when I start to consider how physical presence is delicately and ideologically contrasted with that of the emotional, psychological, and cultural presence within the book’s pages. Short story long: small book, big impact.

Set in the early 1970’s, two teenage boys (the narrator and his friend Luo) from disgraced middle class families are sent to a remote village in the Phoenix of the Sky mountain to be re-educated as part of China’s Cultural Revolution. The narrator brings with him a violin that is mistaken by the villagers as a ‘bourgeois toy’. Told that the violin must be destroyed, the boys manage to con the village headman into giving back the violin by stating that it is officially sanctioned by the government. And to prove it so, the narrator performs a Mozart sonata now artfully referred to as “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.”

As reward for their quick intelligence, the boys are introduced to their barely-modest living conditions and backbreaking labor in the local coal mine. But fortune comes their way in fellow laborer and old friend Four Eyes, who just happens to be the son of a well-known poet and the keeper of a secret suitcase filled with Western novels. The novels are forbidden fruit for the narrator and Luo, not just because of the defiance the books represent to their mandated re-education pursuit but because they had never before had access to any such works. The duality of this significance makes the novels even more covetous, and after much bartering and bullying, Balzac’s “Ursule Mirouet” makes its way into their eager hands and hearts.

''Picture,'' Dai says, ''a boy of 19, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.''

Prior to this discovery, the boys had been recipients of travels to a nearby village to watch new films. The village headman would then request a report back, resulting in the boys spinning their own vivid Technicolor stories for a captive audience. These experiences soon demonstrated to the boys that story-telling would be the key to their survival. Their stumbling upon the secret suitcase provides an additional means to exploit this advantage, and provides the catalyst for an unanticipated and somewhat unrecognized education in hope, love, and freedom.

How the novels within that secret suitcase transform the lives and loves of the narrator and Luo as well as those immediately around them is the centerpiece of the story. It is not so much that the books exist but how the boys bring their experiences of the novels alive for their fellow villagers that feeds their craving for knowledge beyond their mountain. This knowledge provides them with hope for the future, a way through the agony burdened on their physicality by the tenets of the Cultural Revolution.

"Without [Jean-Christophe, the eponymous hero of Romain Rolland's four-volume masterpiece] I would never have understood the splendor of taking free and independent action as an individual. Up until this stolen encounter with Romain Rolland's hero, my poor educated and re-educated brains had been incapable of grasping the notion of one man standing up against the whole world."

Around the same time as the suitcase discovery, the story-telling capabilities of the boys brings them into contact with the local tailor and his beautiful seamstress daughter. It is through the courtship of Lou and the Little Seamstress that the pure potency of the novels is activated. The transformative power contained within the imaginations of these boys to intellectually struggle against the controls aimed at them is triggered through the reading of the novels. Luo’s determination to mirror this transformation in the Little Seamstress gives her a path to her own freedom, to her own power as a woman and as a sexual being. Her final act seems inevitable yet shocks the boys, and provides the coda to the fable’s concepts of intellectual pursuit and intellectual liberation.

There is a bitterness that comes from lessons learned, like we somehow failed ourselves for not knowing already what needed to be learnt. Such a lesson comes at the expense of loss for the boys, not only of the Little Seamstress but in their prior intellectual victories. As the narrator asks, “had we ourselves failed to grasp the essence of the novels we had read to her?''

It is not so much a failure as a maturing, a recognition that the opening of the mind to truth and the opening of the soul to hope is a rage against the machine that can cut both ways. These are actions that can outlast and outstrip any processes or methodologies or systems that seek to close both entities to the pursuit of self-discovery, but not without a cost. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, as it sets forth a path that, even if not taken, still always exists. The real question then is whether the boys are better off having experienced the novels, having been seduced by them.

Such is the overarching mode of Sidjie’s fable. More Orwellian that Orwell could have imagined, the Cultural Revolution operated for a decade to stamp out the educated, intellectual class and re-educate the youth in ways of the virtuous peasantry. But for all its might, the Revolution could not eradicate the power of the intellect, the creativity it forges and promotes. Sijie was one of those youth, spending the years between 1971 and 1974 in the mountains of Sichaun Province. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is his streamlined yet riveting semi-autobiographical fable of those years, an expression of creativity that vibrates with wickedly vivid depictions of a time that could perhaps be most simplistically described as ‘strange’ to those of us on the outside looking in.

It is also, and more winningly so, an expression of cultural education wrapped up in a double-bind literary motivation that could only be so artfully crafted by the hands of someone who lived through the strangeness and came out at the end believing that they were indeed better off for having experienced it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Mark: James Beard Award Winners Announced

And they are for 2010:

American Cooking: Real Cajun by Donald Link with Paula Disbrowe
Baking and Dessert: Baking by James Peterson
Beverage: Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology by Randall Grahm
Cooking from a Professional Point of View: The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry Arts by The French Culinary Institute with Judith Choate
General Cooking: Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller
Healthy Focus: Love Soup: 160 All-New Vegetarian Recipes by Anna Thomas
International: The Country Cooking of Ireland by Colman Andrews
Photography: Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way by Francis Mallmann and Peter Kaminsky
Reference and Scholarship: Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini de Vita
Single Subject: Pasta Sfoglia by by Ron and Colleen Suhanosky with Susan Simon
Writing and Literature: Save the Deli by David Sax

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Table of Contents: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge: FictionAuthor: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher/Year: Random House, 2008
Synopsis: Olive Kitteridge is "a novel of stories," that all revolve around Olive Kitteridge, a retired seventh-grade math teacher in Crosby, Maine. She's married to Henry, a kind pharmacist and they have one son. Olive, though, is a larger-than-life force to be reckoned with. She's large, stubborn, opinionated, and more than willing to speak her mind. The thirteen stories concern her relationship with her husband, her son, her neighbors, and her ex-students. Olive is more complex and feeling than she seems, and she struggles with the changes in her life.

What Others Have To Say
The New York Times
"...there are moments in which slipping into a character's viewpoint seems to involve the revelation of an emotion more powerful and interesting than simple fellow feeling - a complex, sometimes dark, sometimes life-sustaining dependency on others."

The Washington Post
"There are glimmers of warmth, of human connection, in even the darkest of these stories."

San Francisco Chronicle
"Funny, wicked and remorseful, Mrs. Kitteridge is a compelling life force, a red-blooded original. When she's not onstage, we look forward to her return. The book is a page-turner because of her."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Line By Line: John Updike, Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run"If you have the guts to be yourself, other people'll pay your price."

"You do things and do things and nobody really has a clue." 

"...hate suits him better than forgiveness. Immersed in hate, he doesn't have to do anything; he can be paralyzed, and the rigidty of hatred makes a kind of shelter for him."

"Her hold is like that of a vine to a wall; one good pull will destroy it, but otherwise it will survive all weathers." 

"Everybody who tells you how to act has whisky on their breath." 

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Table of Contents: The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoAuthor: Junot Diaz
Publisher/Year: Riverhead, 2007
Synopsis: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of Oscar "Wao" De Leon, an overweight, nerdy Dominican-American virgin living in New Jersey. He falls for many of the women he meets, although they all barely acknowledge his presence. Oscar longs to be the Dominican Tolkien, and his love life remains nonexistent when he attends Rutgers. His sister, Lola, and his roommate, Yunior, try to get him to leave his room and be more social, but Oscar resists. Yunior believes Oscar is suffering from a curse on the family, a fuku, which extends back to Oscar's family's past in the Dominican Republic. His mother, Belicia, was an erotic beauty whose family ran afoul of the dictator, Rafael Trujillo, leading to the death of the rest of the family.

What Others Have To Say
The New York Times
"An extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose, it’s confidently steered through several decades of history by a madcap, magpie voice that’s equally at home talking about Tolkien and Trujillo, anime movies and ancient Dominican curses, sexual shenanigans at Rutgers University and secret police raids in Santo Domingo."

"Díaz wrings considerable humor out of Yunior's confessions to shades of uncoolness, but Oscar's true obsession and raison d'être are far more earthbound than his sci-fi fantasies: finding transcendent love."

Boston Globe
"The past and the present remain equally in focus, equally immediate, and Díaz's acrobatic prose toggles artfully between realities, keeping us enthralled with all."

Entertainment Weekly
"Oscar's story is indeed brief, but, like this novel, it is also quite wondrous."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Book Review: Janice Dickinson, No Lifeguard On Duty

Publisher/Year: Regan Books, 2002

No one can accuse Janice Dickinson of being shy and reserved. She is as brash and sassy as they come, traits that have served her well during the many life trials she has endured through the years. Dickinson claims to be the world’s first supermodel, a statement that has propelled numerous investigations to disprove her arrogance. But the bestowing of this title is only one minor story composing Dickinson’s tell-all biography, aptly titled No Lifeguard on Duty: The Accidental Life of the World’s First Supermodel.

It is no secret these days that the life of a model is not all glitz and glamour. On the surface, it seems like an endless party of fame and attention and free stuff; underneath it all though, there are numerous destructive and seductive strings attached to each. Dickinson certainly got tangled up in these strings throughout the majority of her modeling career. Sex. Drugs. Rock ‘n Roll. It was all there, to varying degrees, consuming and abusing her at every turn.

No Lifeguard on Duty: The Accidental Life of the World's First SupermodelAnd yet, Dickinson rarely positions herself as a victim. She is always, always the victor. This approach in itself makes the biography a riveting read. But it is the attitude and swagger Dickinson infuses in her prose that separates her story from most sympathetic tales of a young girl searching for meaning and acceptance by haphazardly running from her demons.

At the start of the book, we are introduced to Dickinson’s father, an unsympathetic and cruel individual who returns time and time again as the principal demon from whom she is running. Dickinson witnesses her father sexually abusing her older sister, a discovery that propels her to vehemently resist his attempts to pursue the same course of action with her. Her refusal to ‘service’ him leads to years of physical and emotional abuse at home, and even more years of lingering psychological abuse.

Dickinson goes into detail about how she came to focus on becoming a supermodel (encouraged tremendously by her mother), and the external and internal struggles she endured in achieving the level of notoriety and contentment she enjoys today. Like most models then (and still today), Dickinson traveled to New York and began plying her wares. There were numerous false starts but she was desperately determined. She eventually made her way to Paris where her ‘look’ (considered too ethnic in New York, largely in part to her huge lips) was eagerly embraced. It was when she returned to the U.S. as a much in demand model that she infamously coined the term ‘supermodel” to justify her diva antics.

Along the way there were the oblligatory sexual encounters (Nicholson, Neeson, Jagger, to name but a few), drug abuse, marriage (three in all), abortion, and a whole lot of emotional baggage. Pulling her through it all were her strong feelings of family, within the modeling world and within her blood family. It is abundantly clear throughout the book just how much she loves her sisters, even when they were estranged. But this devotion to family is most especially evident in her discussions of her two adored children, Nathan and Savannah.

Reading No Lifeguard on Duty is just the tiniest of guilty pleasures. We all want to learn about the escapades of celebrities; our voyeuristic impulses are too difficult to contain when it comes to famous people. And with Dickinson, who most people likely know from her stint as a judge on America’s Next Top Model or her frequent escapades covered in the tabloids, this impulse is on high alert. But after reading her story, you come away with much more than a collection of entertaining snippets about famous people and parties; you get a very real sense of her strength and confidence.

Dickinson is definitely a role model--a strong, confident and deliberate female who takes no shit and no prisoners. And working in a world built on exploiting idealized femininity and female sexuality, she most certainly must have scared people silly (and quite frankly, probably still does to this day) with her abrupt, sometimes brutal attitude and business tactics. There is definitely much to learn from Dickinson about being a strong female presence in the world.

What makes No Lifeguard On Duty a rewarding reading experience overall is that Dickinson has everything to hide and does not. Sure, there are moments when she is talking about taking pictures at Studio 54 that you wish she would just publish them already to satiate your intense curiosity. But for the most part she is as revealing as she is cocky (which is a most apt description for anyone who knows anything about Dickinson), a lethal combination that makes you love her and hate her and admire her all in the same moment.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Book Mark: The Edgar Award Winners Announced

On April 29, the winners of the 2010 Edgar Awards (Edgars) were announced by The Mystery Writers of America:

Novel: The Last Child by John Hart
First American Novel: In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff
Paperback Original: Body Blows by Marc Strange
Critical/Biographical: The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives, edited by Otto Penzler
Fact Crime: Columbine by Dave Cullen
Short Story: "Amapola" by Luis Alberto Urrea, collected in Phoenix Noir
Young Adult: Reality Check by Peter Abrahams
Juvenile: Closed for the Season by Mary Downing Hahn
Mary Higgins Clark Award: Awakening by S.J. Bolton
Grand Master: Dorothy Gilman

Full Nominee List