All Passion Spent - Book Review

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Perhaps best known for her passionate affair with Virginia Woolf and for her creation of the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, Vita Sackville-West's writing is often overlooked. But if All Passion Spent is any indication of her talent as a writer, she deserves to be considered as one of the finest female British authors of the 20th century.

The novel is divided into three parts: first, we're introduced to the children, then the widow of the newly deceased Henry Holland, first Earl of Slane, dead at age 94. Lady Slane's children are debating what should be "done" with their mother who, at age 88, they consider flighty and unable to take care of herself. They're shocked when she reveals that she wants to live alone - with her maid in attendance - in a cottage in Hampstead, one that she'd dreamed of for 30 years.

The second part of the novel takes us to Lady Slane's now simple life in Hampstead, where she realizes she will spend her final days. She has plenty of time to reminisce about her life, her dream of being a painter and her lack of choices as a woman in the 19th century. Though her marriage and exciting life would be the envy of most women of her class, she faces the fact that she gave up her one true passion to do what was expected of her by society and her family. But she isn't angry about her fate; she is resigned to life as it is in her era:
Yet she was no feminist. She was too wise a woman to indulge in such luxuries as an imagined martyrdom. The rift between herself and life was not the rift between man and woman, but the rift between the worker and the dreamer. That she was a woman, and Henry a man, was really a matter of chance. She would go no further than to acknowledge that the fact of her being a woman made the situation a degree more difficult. (Page 164)
In the third part of the novel, a person from Lady Slane's past makes an appearance. Their conversations are frank and startling to her. But she is relieved to have a confidant with whom she can be honest about her feelings of having given up her dreams all those years ago.

This is a beautifully written novel with some finely drawn characters (though her children, portrayed as despicable vultures, are a bit over the top). I enjoyed reading some of the insights this aged woman had and about the surprising relationships she developed with people she encountered late in life. Highly recommended.

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The Sunday Salon: August 22, Playing Catchup, Continued

Some more mini-reviews from the last few months:

1. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. Good, fun mystery, well written. A sequel of sorts to Case Histories. Atkinson is master at weaving a bunch of stories together. (4/5)

2. The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. Excellent book. Love the story, the writing, the characters. (4.5/5)

3. A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson. Charming, funny novel with much irony and an occasional nod to some serious subjects (AIDS, death, politics, boy soldiers). Lovely writing. (4/5)

4. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Astonishing book - the characters, narrative, dialog, story, setting, all practically flawless. And that's saying a lot for 850+ pages. McMurtry is a master storyteller. I never thought I'd be interested in this Western, but Lonesome Dove will make it onto my top 20, if not top 10 books of all time. (5/5)

5. The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini. Interesting novel about Zimbabwe after independence. Beginning in the 1980s, we follow the narrator Lindiwe from adolescence through adulthood. The boy next door is Ian, a white boy, who is charged with murdering his stepmother by setting her on fire. In the first part of the book, Lindiwe is filled with teenage angst as she explores her attraction to Ian, who is released and returns to the neighborhood after just a few years.

The story is full of tensions -- racial, sexual, political, familial -- and secrets. The chaotic inner worlds of Lindiwe and Ian are mirrored by the chaos in the outer world, as Zimbabweans try to find their way after independence, which involves a great deal of fighting and inner turmoil.

I found the first part of the book choppy and difficult to follow -- but the narrator was a 14 year old girl; as Lindiwe matured, so did the story and the narration. There were a number of Shona words and no glossary, so I had to guess at the meaning sometimes.

That said, this was an excellent read and I recommend this debut novel - the 2010 winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers. (4/5)

6. No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym. I love Pym's writing, but this one seemed a little draggy to me. (3.5/5)

7. The Outcast by Sadie Jones. Compelling, difficult subject matter, intense, very well written novel of a young man in 1950s England who is not permitted grieving over a very traumatic event in his life and the effects this has on his coming of age. Recommended. (4/5)

8. The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg. Fabulous book. Orange Prize shortlist for new writers, 2008. (4.5/5). Highly recommend.

9. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Absolutely delightful novel full of humor, compassion, social justice and romance. A love story with a lot of depth. Some of the characters are a bit over the top, but most are spot on and endearing. So glad I read this! (4.5/5)

10. Property by Valerie Martin. Another Orange Prize book (winner, 2003). Another excellent, if difficult, read. (4/5)

That's it for this week. One more Sunday and I'll be caught up! Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.
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The Good Daughters - Book review

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard
This review is based on the uncorrected proof, advanced readers' edition.

This book had so much potential. I know the story that this novel was loosely based on - such a fascinating human interest story that deserves a better telling than this. (I won't reveal too much since the whole book leads up to the reveal - which is a little too easy to spot early on.)

First, the good news. Some of the pieces were handled so tenderly and poignantly. I loved the story of Dana and Clarice. It was so refreshing to see a lesbian relationship treated so normally; the love between the two women was evident and portrayed beautifully. Some of the stories on the farm were beautifully written: Edwin's love of the land and the struggles of a family farm were told well.

The bad news: since this is an uncorrected proof, I do hope that some of the many inconsistencies will be corrected. I found myself thumbing back through a number of times, feeling confused about a character's name that changed or a scenario that changed. There was also a tremendous amount of repetition early on that felt messy. If it was done for effect, it failed.

The piece that bothered me the most was that there were two first person narrators, Ruth and Dana, yet they were virtually indistinguishable in their manner of telling their stories. I would get confused - again! - as to which was whom sometimes because their voices were so much alike. I appreciate novels with multiple narrators, but please make them individuals, not carbon copies!

This book was seriously flawed and fell flat for this reader.

FTC Disclosure: This book was provided to me by the publisher for review on LibraryThing. Read More!

The Sunday Salon: August 15, Playing Catchup

Oh blogs o' mine, you stand so neglected. I should know better than to promise to post a review of every book I read or to take a photo a day for a year and post to my photo blog.

So here on this ultra hot Sunday (100ish degrees), I'm sitting in front of a fan and looking at the long list of books I've read in the last several months. I post mini-reviews of most of them on LibraryThing, so I will begin my list here and re-post those comments, just so you know what I think about what I've read.

1. The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi. Must gather my thoughts after reading this short and powerful novel. Disturbing and poetic. 4/5. (Apparently my thoughts remained ungathered.)

2 .Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Wow. 5/5 Review coming (hopefully) soon. (And we keep hoping.) This was one of my favorite books so far this year, so well written and such a wonderful story.

3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Wow. Just wow. Amazing book. Will review soon. (4.5/5) (Do you see a pattern here?)

4. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. This is a re-read for me. I first read this book ~15 years ago and was struck by the lyricism. I didn't remember much about the story. On this re-read, I'm still struck by the lyricism - I feel as though I've read an extended poem. The story is almost incidental to the language. But the story, largely character driven, is wonderful, too. (4.5/5)

5. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Excellent historical fiction about a little known fossil hunter, Mary Anning, in early 19th century England. (4/5)

6. The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir by Elna Baker. Quite a remarkable book - very funny with not a little twenty-something spiritual and romantic angst.(4/5)

7. Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. A wild departure from Erdrich's usual novels. Compelling, disturbing, readable; almost a psychological thriller. Will have to mull this one over awhile. (3.5/5) (Still mulling.)

8. Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens. Engaging story, but overly long for what it is. Also, a few too many convenient events and coincidences. Lansens wrote the fabulous novel The Girls after this debut novel. The Girls was stunning, so it was good to see she got better after this one! (3.5/5)

9. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I love this book. Probably my fourth read and it still gives me pause. I was especially moved by it in light of the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico. A little bit fantasy, a lot philosophy and a cultural message we should have taken in decades ago. (4.5/5)

10. Potiki by Patricia Grace. Excellent. Really stunning writing and good to read a story of exploitation through the eyes of the exploited Maoris.(4/5)

I'll stop there for now. There are another 15 or so, and I will try to get them posted by next week's Sunday Salon. I'm not sure why it's been so challenging for me to write reviews - I think I just want to get on to the next book! I have quite a list of good ones on the horizon, including All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, and Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Happy reading! Read More!

The Love Ceiling - TLC Blog Tour and Book Review

The Love Ceiling
by Jean Davies Okimoto

Endicott and Hugh Books

The Love Ceiling is a story of people in transition. Annie Duppstadt is about to turn 64; her mother has just died and her father, a famous painter and a narcissistic tyrant, carries on as though nothing much has changed; Annie's husband, Jack, is about to be forced to retire; and her daughter Cass is in an unfulfilling relationship with a man who can't commit to marriage.

Annie has always wanted to paint, but she was traumatized by her father at an early age (what I call Art Abuse) and grew up believing that she'd never make it as an artist. As her mother nears death, she extracts a promise from Annie that she will paint.

"When you see this do you...want to paint it?"

"Always." It was a whisper as much to myself as my mother.

" I thought so." Mom grabbed both my hands, turning her head to look at me. "You must do it."

"Maybe someday. You know how it is, Mom."

"You must do it." Direct, unequivocal, this time almost a command, while she tried pathetically to squeeze my hands. "Promise me, Annie."

"I promise," I whispered. (page 34)

Thus begins Annie's journey to her Self - a struggle to carve out time and create places where she can explore her artistry. Most women with families have obligations that pull them in many directions. When they give their passions a priority and give themselves permission, they can claim their power and explore possibilities. Okimoto did a wonderful job of portraying this struggle in The Love Ceiling. We recognize that Annie's mother was unable to do this herself, thus was so adamant about Annie pursuing her talent.

The story is told from alternating first and third person narratives - Annie in the first person and Cass in the third (though I suspect Okimoto originally had both characters in first person, as there's at least one instance of "I" in the narrative when it should have been "she" - editors, please!). It feels slightly awkward to have the two POVs. I enjoyed Annie's first person narrative - I felt as though I was inside her head and could understand her motives and actions.

I found there were places where there was way too much mundane detail - for example, I'm not sure why it was necessary to list all the bathing suit coverage options available in the Land's End catalog (again, editors!).

I enjoyed reading about Seattle and Puget Sound, since I hail from that area. I could visualize the Vashon Island ferry ride, the Olympic Mountains at sunrise, the seagull suspended against the wind. Okimoto brought those scenes to life for me. There is some lovely prose in this book, for example, as Annie is painting:
I felt almost disconnected from myself physically, detached from hunger or even thirst, lost in the mystery of the color, the emotions it evoked, and the luminous impasto taking shape before me. (page 151)
Okimoto's publicists refer to The Love Ceiling as a "coming of age novel for women over 50...60...70...80...90...!" I would add 30...40 to that too, as 32 year old Cass is also struggling with the questions, "what comes next? how do I do this?" and has some important insights along the way. Overall, this is an enjoyable read, and I recommend it to readers who like stories about families going through big transitions as well as stories about art and artists.

There's a wonderful interview with Jean Davies Okimoto you can hear on this podcast, and another interview transcript here. And be sure to check out her website.

Thanks to TLC tours for asking me to be part of this tour, and to Endicott and Hugh Books for sending me a complimentary copy for review. Read More!

Watermark: TLC Blog Tour and Book Review

Watermark by Vanitha Sankaran
Avon Publishing
The following review is from the uncorrected proof.

Love, betrayal, fear and suspicion are some of the themes that populate this historical novel, a superb debut for Vanitha Sankaran. Set in early 14th century France, Watermark begins with the birth of Auda, the novel’s protagonist. Her mother, Elena, sacrifices herself so that her infant may live. But it’s obvious from the beginning that Auda will face many challenges:

Onors, the healer’s apprentice, dropped her muddy clump of roots and leaves and rushed to Elena’s side. Seeing a child kick beside its mother’s eviscerated body, she crossed herself…She looked more closely at the infant and gasped. This thing was no child at all but a sickly creature, ivory-colored in skin and hair, white as bone. Even its eyes were so light, the translucent pink of a worm.

It had come too soon, undercooked, with no color yet baked into its skin and hair, so silent that she wondered for a moment if it still lived. But then it blinked.

“Demon,” she said in a whisper and crossed herself again. (page 6)

In a time and place when anyone out of the ordinary is suspected of being a heretic or of the devil, a mute albino girl - sometimes called the White Witch – might be blamed for the weather, for crop failures or livestock deaths. Auda has the protection of her father, Martin, a paper maker, but he is not invincible. Her older sister Poncia is a pious, fearful woman and thinks Auda would be safe if she were married to the old miller, so she makes the arrangements. However, Auda wants no part of it and prefers to stay with her father to help him with the paper making business. She has dreams of becoming a scribe – unheard of for a woman – and even more extraordinary, contemplates writing her own books.

Sakaran does an admirable job of keeping the story moving. Several times I thought I knew what was going to happen and was pleasantly surprised at the turns the story took. I was fascinated to learn about the paper making process: fermenting old rags into a pulp and pressing the pulp into paper. The title of the book, Watermark, refers to the technique invented in the 13th century to identify paper by pressing a unique symbol into the paper as it’s made. In this story, the watermark was also used to indicate a secret religious sect.

I’m always interested in stories involving witch hunts and the Inquisition. Medieval Europe is not a place I’d like to visit in reality, but I enjoy reading good historical fiction based on the time period. While reading Watermark, I was aware of the similarities to some of today's extreme religious fanatacism, resulting in polarities within our own culture, and I was reminded how dangerous intolerance can become.

Sankaran has written a compelling novel with interesting characters and has done some good research of the era. She even includes a glossary, a bibliography and a chronology of papermaking and other pertinent events of the time. I'm looking forward to reading her next book about printmaking in Italy.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving met the opportunity to read and review this book.

Vanitha Sankaran holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. In addition, her short stories have been published in numerous journals, such as Mindprints, Futures, Prose Ax, and The Midnight Mind. She is at work on her second novel, which is about printmaking in Italy during the High Renaissance.

Visit Vanitha's website here.

FTC Disclosure: This book was provided to me by the publisher for review on my blog. Read More!

Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 04-27-10: Watermark

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week's teaser is from Watermark by Vanitha Sankaran, page 16*:

Auda quelled a shiver of excitement and tried not to dream, as she often did, that the first original book Martin made would be written by her. Surely that was his dream, too--why else would he go through such effort to bring books home to share with her? She could picture it, a leather-bound volume containing pages and pages of her writing, maybe even decorated with bright illuminations. If Poncia knew of her ambitions, she would scoff at them both, asking what kind of woman wanted to write books? Few could even read.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

I'm in 14th century France in the small village of Narbonne. I'm a young albino woman who helps her father in his paper making business.

I'll be touring this book on Thursday for TLC Book Tours. Be sure to check back then for my review and other information about Watermark.

*This is an Advanced Reader Edition; page numbers may differ. Read More!

French Milk - Book review

French Milk by Lucy Knisley - graphic memoir

I've fallen in love with graphic novels and memoirs the last two years and looked forward to this one that came highly recommended by...someone, I don't remember who. Unfortunately, I found this one to be boring, repetitive and sloppy.

Lucy travels to Paris with her mother to celebrate their birthdays - Lucy's 22nd and her mother's 50th (though she failed to mention anything about her mother's birthday in the story). They rent an apartment for a month and see the sights and eat. And eat. And eat. And every meal is drawn and written about in detail on just about every other page. It was like reading someone's food journal combined with the angst of a narcissistic young adult, which sometimes can be interesting and insightful, but not here.

In addition to the illustrations, which are fairly good, there are some not so good photos every few pages. I don't think they added anything to the book - most of them are of Lucy posing in front of a building or in a cemetary [sic] or of - that's right - food.

Fortunately, this only took a couple of hours to read. And I just can't recommend it.

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Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 04-06-10: Moral Disorder

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week's teaser is from a collection of short stories, Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood, page 170:
It couldn't be toilet trained, however. It peed whenever it felt the urge, and left piles of shiny brown raisin-sized pellets on the linoleum. Nell made it a diaper out of a green plastic garbage bag, cutting holes for the back legs and the tail, but that was worse than useless.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

I'm in cities, suburbs, farms and forests of Ontario. Read More!

The Sunday Salon- 04-04-10: 1st Quarter Wrapup

Good morning Sunday Saloners and other readers! How can you tell if it's spring in Portland? The weather changes every 5 minutes. It's been cold, blustery, rainy, sunny, warm, cloudy - even a little hail mixed in. Good reading and blogging weather. And you can tell it's April by all the first quarter wrapup posts that pop up in the book blog world, including this one.

Here are the 20 books I've read in 2010:


The Bone People by Keri Hulme
The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer


The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym
Possession by A.S. Byatt
The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Friday's Child by Georgette Heyer
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

And now, the awards.

Favorite book: by far - Cutting for Stone
Least favorite book: The Girl with No Shadow
Biggest surprise: The Lotus Eaters (because I didn't expect to like a book about Vietnam so much)
Biggest disappointment: Possession
Most astonishing: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Favorite re-read: (OK, the only re-read) Housekeeping

My average rating for these 20 books: 3.95 of 5. Not bad.

And ask me how I'm doing on those reviews. "Terri, how are you doing on those reviews?" Yes, I'm behind a bit, I have four yet to write. They're on my list. Next week I'll catch you up on my challenges.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend and the coming week. Happy reading!
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Housekeeping: Book Review

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

This is a re-read for me. I first read this book ~15 years ago and was struck by the lyricism. I didn't remember much about the story. On this re-read, I'm still struck by the lyricism - I feel as though I've read an extended poem. The story is almost incidental to the language. But the story, largely character driven, is wonderful, too.

Ruthie and Lucille are sisters raised by their grandmother after their mother leaves them with her and drives into the lake. When one morning their grandmother "eschewed awakening," Lily and Nona, two spinster great aunts, attempt to step in but are not up to the task of raising two adolescents. Finally, their aunt Sylvie appears after having been missing for years. She is a drifter, and returning to Fingerbone, Idaho, to her old family home proves to be hugely challenging for her. She is eccentric and a little bit crazy, but her heart is in the right place.

Lucille rebels against Sylvie's nonconformity, but Ruth, the narrator of the book, becomes more and more like her as time goes on. Eventually Sylvie must prove her competence as a guardian to the sheriff and townspeople, who become alarmed at Sylvie's behavior and perceived neglect of the girls.

I found myself reading passages multiple times just for the beauty of the language. For instance:

For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it?


The sky above Fingerbone was a floral yellow. A few spindled clouds smoldered and glowed a most unfiery pink. And then the sun flung a long shaft over the mountain, and another, like a long-legged insect bracing itself out of its chrysalis, and then it showed above the black crest, bristly and red and improbable. In an hour it would be the ordinary sun, spreading modest and impersonal light on an ordinary world, and that thought relieved me.
There are passages like this on almost every page. It's a book to sink down into and float effortlessly, letting the prose wash over you like soothing waves. Highly recommended.

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Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 03-30-10: Housekeeping

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week's teaser is from Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, page 29:

When, after almost five years, my grandmother one winter morning eschewed awakening, Lily and Nona were fetched from Spokane and took up housekeeping in Fingerbone, just as my grandmother had wished. Their alarm was evident from the first, in the nervous flutter with which they searched their bags and pockets for the little present they had brought (it was a large box of cough drops - a confection they considered both tasty and salubrious).

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

I'm in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho, in the old family home. The challenge is to find someone to raise my sister and me. Read More!

The Lotus Eaters Book Tour and Review

When I discovered this book was about the Vietnam War I was hesitant to read it; it would obviously take me deep into the realities of the fighting and the atrocities through the perspective of a combat photographer. I’m not big on war stories. But The Lotus Eaters is such a well written novel, I was immediately drawn into the story of Helen Adams, an amateur photographer who goes to Vietnam on a lark in 1963 and becomes the first woman photographer to “embed” with troops as they go out on patrols. She eventually becomes a legend for her photographs and her ability to get into the thick of things for “the one shot.”

But what I want to explore a bit in this post is the exhilaration of war, the addictive qualities for some people of being in a situation that is so risky and chaotic and so outside the norm, that to return to a life of order and calm is nearly impossible.

Reading this novel, I was constantly reminded of a talk I heard in 2003 by Chris Hedges, author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Hedges, who was a war correspondent for many years, argues that “war seduces entire societies, creating fictions that the public believes and relies on to continue to support conflicts.” "The Hurt Locker," a recent award winning film about Iraq, opens with a quote from Hedges’ book: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” It also reminded me a bit of "The Deer Hunter."

We are used to hearing and seeing stories of men becoming enamored of war, about the effects of them seeing so much violence, about PTSD and the difficulty in returning home. To have this book be about a woman experiencing these things was brilliant. We watch Helen go from being a naïve, compassionate young woman who wants to save injured chickens, to being hardened by her experiences to the point of being unable to return to her former life in Southern California:

At first the house and the small beach town that she had longed for while in Vietnam had seemed calcified, dead, as white and clean as bone. But slowly it came to life, or she came to life within it. But it wasn’t the life she wanted.

The sight of people going about their days, shopping in markets, eating in restaurants, playing with children in parks, laughing and drinking and talking, created a deep resentment inside her. Perfectly happy living their lives, Helen thought, which is all anyone should want, and yet how blind, how oblivious to the biggest story in the world. (page 276)
Helen also develops a deep love for Vietnam, the country.
“…Vietnamese legend told that every shade of green in the world originated in this mountain range. The emerald backbone of the dragon from which the people of Vietnam sprang. Until then she had been blind, but when she saw those mountains, she slipped beneath the surface of the war and found the country.” (17)
One of the many things I appreciated about The Lotus Eaters is Soli’s refusal to sugarcoat the events. No one comes off as the good guy here, which is true to the reality of the conflict. The portrait she paints of the war, of the country and the people, of the conflicted feelings of the Vietnamese people and of the Americans both at home and taking part in the war, felt so authentic it was hard for me to believe that she hadn’t lived this story. The scenes of violence were real, but I didn’t feel hit over the head with them. There were times of high tension when I think I held my breath for minutes! And the writing is exquisite in places.

I also learned a great deal about this time period. Even though I lived through it and was personally affected by some events of the Vietnam War, I’ve remained pretty ignorant about some pieces of history, particularly the French occupation of Vietnam, and the fall of Saigon. I spent quite a bit of time looking up bits of history and geography as I read.

So The Lotus Eaters accomplishes a great deal from my perspective – it is entertaining, well written, educational, emotionally involving and authentic. A stellar accomplishment for a debut novel. Highly recommended.

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The Sunday Salon: Required Reading

I think I need to stop saying yes to book blog tours and advanced reading copies that I’m obligated to review. Not that I haven’t received and read some wonderful books for these obligatory events – but I find myself scheduled to read several books for this or that event, for my face-to-face book group or a Library Thing group read, and before I know it I have no time to read books that I choose in my own time frame. And if I’m not liking a book I’ve signed up to “tour,” I don’t feel I can abandon it part way through if I’m not liking it. And then, I HAVE to write a review. I have two books this week to read and review, a book for my book group in two weeks that I’m not looking forward to, two books for blog tours in April … OK, this is feeling too much like school.

Now don't get me wrong, I think the tours and group reads are just wonderful events - I'm not knocking them at all. I'm just dissing my own inability to say NO and to achieve some balance in my reading enjoyment.

The reading challenges I signed onto this year are mostly made up of books on my shelves that I’ve been wanting to read anyway, and there’s no time requirements, other than by the end of 2010 (and, really, it’s not a requirement, just a goal). So I don't feel bogged down by those at all - in fact, I really want to get back to them!

Here's what I'm looking forward to reading in my leisure in the next few months:

  • Home by Marilynne Robinson
  • The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich (short stories)
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  • Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (a re-read)
What about you? What's on your reading list for the spring (autumn to those of you down under)? Do you get bogged down with books you have to read?

Oh, and Happy Spring to those of you in the northern hemisphere! I hope you're enjoying some beautiful spring weather and flowers. The apple tree is beginning to blossom here.

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Classics Circuit: Georgette Heyer's Friday's Child

I’d been hearing much ado about Georgette Heyer’s books for the last year or so. She was on my list of authors to read when I found out about the Classics Circuit Tour and thought it the perfect time to find out more about this prolific author. I was planning to read one of her historical novels, but a month or so ago, a friend sent me Friday’s Child, one of Heyer’s regency romances, so I figured why argue with fate.

The novel begins with a marriage proposal, of sorts. Lord Sheringham (known as Sherry) is proposing to Isabella Milborne (known as The Incomparable, for her beauty and desirability). My fear was that the novel would revolve around Isabella, a haughty upper class bitch who toys with men’s emotions. Fortunately, she becomes a secondary character. Sherry, upset at her rejection, vows to marry the first woman he sees on a trip to London. When he happens upon Hero Wantage, a young woman who lives nearby with her cousin, she reminds him of his vow. She is mad about him; and to him, she is a bit of a lark. Hero is a kind soul, but very naïve. Making Sherry happy becomes her mission in life.

What ensues is a comedy of manners, a comedy of errors and much miscommunication. Sherry’s friends, Gil and George (who has threatened to shoot himself in the head if Ms. Milborne doesn’t marry him) and his cousin Ferdy act as a combination between a Greek chorus and the Three Stooges. There is much plotting and manipulation, an evil interloper – Sir Montagu – and the foil who recognizes Hero’s beauty and worthiness before Sherry does.

All’s well that ends well, though I thought the end would never come. In some ways this was a very fun read, but it did go on and on. Heyer managed to keep a tone of suspense through most of the novel, but it wasn’t hard to guess how things would turn out. If the book were half its 423 pages, I would have rated it much higher. As it was, the silliness and manipulations wore thin with this reader.

I was curious about the crude grammar used by some of the upper class people – mostly the men. Since I know little about the Regency era (I confess I’ve only read one Jane Austen novel so far!), I did a bit of research on the “tongue” of the day. I found this interesting essay, "On Vulgarity and Affectation" by William Hazlitt, written in the era:
Nothing real, nothing original, can be vulgar; but I should think an imitator of Cobbett a vulgar man. Emery's Yorkshireman is vulgar, because he is a Yorkshireman. It is the cant and gibberish, the cunning and low life of a particular district; it has 'a stamp exclusive and provincial.' He might 'gabble most brutishly' and yet not fall under the letter of the definition; but 'his speech bewrayeth [sic] him,' his dialect (like the jargon of a Bond Street lounger) is the damning circumstance. If he were a mere blockhead, it would not signify; but he thinks himself a knowing hand, according to the notions and practices of those with whom he was brought up, and which he thinks the go everywhere. In a word, this character is not the offspring of untutored nature but of bad habits; it is made up of ignorance and conceit. It has a mixture of slang in it. All slang phrases are for the same reason vulgar; but there is nothing vulgar in the common English idiom. Simplicity is not vulgarity; but the looking to affectation of any sort for distinction is. ….

The upper are not wiser than the lower orders because they resolve to differ from them. The fashionable have the advantage of the unfashionable in nothing but the fashion. The true vulgar are the servum pecus imitatorum -- the herd of pretenders to what they do not feel and to what is not natural to them, whether in high or low life. To belong to any class, to move in any rank or sphere of life, is not a very exclusive distinction or test of refinement. Refinement will in all classes be the exception, not the rule; and the exception may fall out in one class as well as another….
If you choose to read this book (and, I suspect, other Heyer books of the era) I suggest having at hand a reference guide to some of the terms used. For instance, do you know what an abigail is? What about “a bit of muslin?” Good ton/bad ton? There’s a handy lexicon guide online at this site.

I’m sure that Heyer was true to the culture, customs and language of the times. I’m not sure I would devote so much reading time to another of her romances. I would be interested to read her historical fiction, however.

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The End of Publishing

Don't give up half way through, watch the whole thing!

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The Sunday Salon- 03-14-10: DST and Blogiversary!

Hello Sunday readers! Did you in the US remember to set your clocks ahead? I have never understood what daylight savings time accomplishes. And that our Congress, in all their "wisdom" a few years ago, thought that extending DST was enough of an energy savings to call it enough for the energy bill. I always wondered how much that little scheme cost.

But the good news: since I never got around to changing my car clock last fall, at least it will be set to the right time now. Simple pleasures.

At some point this week I realized that I've been doing this bloggy thing for two years now! March 5, 2008 was my very first blog post. So, happy blogiversary, me! Today marks my 425th post on this blog (650 on my photo blog). I think I need to do something to celebrate, so check back next week when I'll announce a giveaway and belated party.

Contrary to what you've seen (or rather haven't seen) on my blog the last two weeks, I have been reading! I'm just a bit behind on my reviews and hope to remedy that this week. On Friday, March 19th, look for a Classics Circuit tour stop here with my review of Georgette Heyer's Friday's Child, which I'm reading now and enjoying. And look for my reviews of The Patience Stone, The Ghost Map and Cutting for Stone sometime in the next few days. Enjoy your week!

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Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 03-02-10: The Patience Stone

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week's teaser is from The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, page 46:
She takes a few fearful steps toward the man. Stops. Observes the movement of his chest. He is breathing. She walks closer, bends down so she can see his eyes more clearly. They are open, and covered in black dust. She wipes them with the end of her sleeve, takes out the bottle and administers drops to each eye. One, two. One, two.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

According to the author, I am "somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere." Read More!

The Sunday Salon - February Wrapped Up

The Sunday

Sunday Salutations! It's turning into actual Spring here in Portland - trees are blooming pink and white already, daffodils and crocuses and all manner of spring flowers are popping up everywhere. There have been some rainy days too - good for curling up with a good book.

February is almost over! Hard to believe another month has gone by already. I read five books this month, bringing my YTD total to 13 (unless I finish my current book by tonight). With my fantastic spreadsheet (thank you, Laura!), I can tell you I read 1,863 pages in February (plus 100 give or take in my current book), and 4,480 YTD. Here's what I read this month:
  • The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett - review
  • Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips - review
  • Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym - review
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt - review
  • The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris - review
It was a mixed bag this month, a couple of fantastic books, one disappointing and one real clunker (The Girl with No Shadow). The latter two brought my average rating down a bit, to 3.92 (out of 5).

I'm making good progress on most of my challenges:
  • 1010 Challenge (5 books in 10 categories for 2010): 9/50
  • What's in a Name: 4/6
  • Complete Booker: 2/6
  • Orange Prize Project: 3/12
Currently reading: my first nonfiction book of the year is The Ghost Map, about a cholera epidemic in London in the mid-19th century and how a couple of people were able to identify how the disease was transmitted. The discovery revolutionized public health. It was chosen by our county library as this year's Everybody Reads book, and since I'm fascinated by medical history, I thought I'd read along with the county! It's also a reminder that, if I ever have the opportunity to time travel, I won't pick Victorian London as a destination! It sounds ghastly.

Coming up: I'll be picking up Georgette Heyer's Friday's Child soon to read in time for the Classics Circuit, which comes to this blog on March 19th. More about that in another Sunday or two.

I hope your week is wonderful and you're reading great books!
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Friday Fill-ins 02-26-10

Janet is our fantastic host for this weekly event.

My responses are in italics.

1. A cup of tea has nothing on a cup of fresh brewed coffee.

2. Laughter makes a place feel like home.

3. Everything has its beauty; sometimes you have to look deeply to find it.

4. Do we have to wait until June for the taste of strawberries?

5. Art makes me a little intimidated – I don’t always “get it.”

6. LOL I just noticed I forgot to eat.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to hanging out with Laurie and Liza, tomorrow my plans include a potluck in the afternoon and a play in the evening and Sunday, I want to read and blog.
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The Girl with No Shadow - Review

The Girl with No Shadow (aka Lollipop Shoes) is a sequel to the wonderful novel, Chocolat and proves the point that when you have a great thing, don’t try to add to it. Where Chocolat is a rich, dark seductive treat, TGWNS is a waxy, flavorless Tootsie Roll.

Our heroine from Chocolat, Vianne Rocher, has set up a chocolate shop in Montmartre, a village on the outskirts of Paris, with her daughter, Anouk, now 11, and a new addition to the family, Rosette, age 4. There are hints that they left Lansquenet because of some magic gone awry, performed by one of the children, both of whom have obviously acquired their mother’s talents. Vianne has changed her name to Yanne Charbonneau and, in addition to giving up her identity, has lost her passion and flair. She’s settled for a quiet, decidedly un-magical life and deals daily with the stress of keeping in check her daughters’ witchy tendencies.

The antagonist is a self-proclaimed identity thief and witch, who blows into town on an ill wind and worms her way into Yanne’s life. Trouble ensues, good vs. evil, yada yada yada.

It’s impossible not to compare this novel with Chocolat; but it’s almost as though they were written by different authors. Where the magic in Chocolat was subtle, just a hint of it sprinkled here and there, Harris hits us over the head with it in TGWNS, with glamours, charms, cantrips, spells, incantations and herbal potions on every page. It becomes quite tedious. The characters are flattened out. The plot has a couple of nice twists and surprises, but by the time they came around, I really didn’t care about them.

Harris has written some wonderful books in addition to Chocolat Coastliners and Three Quarters of the Orange were favorites of mine. This one fell short. Way short. Now I’m off to have some good dark chocolate to cleanse my palate. (2/5)
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Featured on Scene of the Blog

Hello wonderful readers! This week I have the honor of being featured on Cathy's Scene of the Blog. Cathy contacted me last year and asked if I'd send her some photos about where I work the bloggy magic. I was just in the midst of reinventing my space, so I had lots of photos to send her and was happy to show off my space. I'm really fortunate to have a dedicated studio where I can hang out and read, blog, nap (!), play music, or write. Pop on over to Cathy's blog, Kittling, and read all about it!

If you're visiting here for the first time from Cathy's blog - welcome! This blog is mostly about books, but occasionally I slip in some politics or a photo of our sweet puppy Liza. (My main photo blog is here.) I've resolved this year to review every book I read, so books will take front stage here more than they have in the past. I read mostly contemporary literature - lots of women's fiction (I especially love Orange prize winners and nominees), fiction from a variety of countries, and some classics (I'm trying to fill in some gaps from my not-so-stellar lit education).

I hope you find something interesting here - be sure to leave me a comment so I can come visit you. Thanks, Cathy, for featuring my blog and my special spot!
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