Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places, Bill Streever

As I read this nonfiction title, I kept wondering why science in high school (or college) couldn't have been this fascinating.  Maybe it's because school texts are so dry and politically correct.  I have no idea, only that this book made me wish I had paid more attention.

Simply put, this is fascinating.  Streever is a scientist/environmentalist/researcher who explores the science of weather, as well as the history of man's fascination with it.  This book compiles a year of research.  He begins outside of Alaska, studying a caterpillar that is so frequently frozen that it takes ten years to go from pupa to moth.  Ten years!  He has numerous anecdotal stories with some heavy science sprinkled in, such as how water molecules change amid temperature changes.  The pace is fast and snappy and makes all the details easily absorbed, without feeling like it's dumbed down or too deep.

One especially fascinating aspect of Cold is the stories of men and their search for the North Pole.  I'm not sure why, exactly, men throughout history have been so interested in traversing miles of brutal cold to get there.  He goes through notes and journals of many of these explorers, most of whom are spectacularly unprepared and most of whom die on the way.  So few actually did make it.  What's amazing is the descriptions of their journeys.  Death was always present and it seemed the life of their companions was pretty cheap, as they would just keep going as members died off.  See, I don't get it.  I'd be at the nearest plush hotel, with some hot cocoa and maybe brandy, in front of a roaring fire.  Why the cold? 

Streever weaves the unassailable facts of global warming into the book, never too preachy but not backing off with the clear evidence of disappearing ice and changing weather patterns.  He clearly cares about the issue and knows what he is talking about, as his facts are not biased or partisan in any way.  
One caveat:  this book is best read when you are warm, as the descriptions will have you chilled to the bone quickly. 

Special thanks to Kelly Leonard of Hatchette Group for the Advanced Reader's Copy.

Old Window in Norway

This was on Flickr, entitled "Everything Expires One Day" by Peymedia.  It's stunning and fits my old window theme, and it's a reminder to sign up for the Scandinavian Reading Challenge below!

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Humane Award

Thanks to Stacy from for the Humane Award for the blog.  I am honored and will use this as an excuse to purchase an exquisite dress and write an acceptance speech. 
I'm so excited!  Thanks!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

WOW, A Handbook for Living, Zen Ohashi and Zono Kurazono

A Handbook for Living....

Normally I don't use this blog to review self-help books, but I found this book especially unique and useful.  Not your typical "how to live better" guide.

The format is the first unique element.  It's not written out in lengthy or wordy chapters, filled with anecdotal stories.  Instead, the pages have alot of white space, with quotes, simple suggestions, and questions to reflect upon. Rather than telling you, the reader, what to do, it creates a process in which you find your own solutions.  Meditation is key, and each section gives you points to ponder and apply.

For example, when trying to solve a problem, one question is "What state of conditions do you want to create?"  This way the suggestions and solutions are applicable to just about any circumstance.  Interesting graphics, all in black and white, accent the ideas.  Again, to use this book you will not be sitting down to read chapter after chapter.  Ideally, you would use one section, consider the questions, then put it down and meditate on what course applies to you.  Then it suggests you write down ideas to cement them in your mind. 

A few caveats: some of the suggestions and questions seem oversimplified at first, but really aren't to be dismissed.  Many pages have sections to add your own notes and comments.  Another thing I noticed was that many of the suggestions required the assistance of a friend or confidante in achieving.  That may work for someone with a good support system, but I couldn't help but think there are some things that we may not want to divulge.  After all, many of our stressors are deeply personal.

I think this would be helpful to anyone, from a parent to a businessperson, as the thoughts are open ended and the solutions are not keyed towards any one answer.  An especially good idea in it was to be a better listener, and listen to what others say, but even more to listen to what they don't say.  Their silence can be revealing.  It's unlikely that the ideas in this book will ever be out of date, because the simplicity of the text and ideas is universal.

Thanks to Rebecca at The Cadence Group for providing this ARC edition.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Giveaway! The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell 2010

In honor of the Scandinavian Reading Challenge below, I'm doing a giveaway of a fantastic new crime thriller by a Scandinavian author, Henning Mankell.  The title of the hardcover is THE MAN FROM BEIJING and it's a wild ride.  To read the review, you can click on the link on the left column under "previously reviewed books".  This giveaway is to encourage visitors to join the Scandinavian Readers Challenge (scroll down for details).

The rules:
To enter, you must be a follower, and leave a comment to this post that you are interested in the giveaway.  Please add your email or a way to contact you if you win.  One entry per comment. To up your chances of winning, consider the following options:
  • If you join the Scandinavian Reading Challenge, you get an extra entry (total 2).
  • If you link to the Scandinavian Reading Challenge on your blog and promote it somehow by mentioning it, you get an extra 3 entries. (just send me a link)
  • If you copy my entire post regarding the Challenge with all the details and refer it back to my blog, you get an extra 4 entries.  (just send me a link)
  • If you leave a comment in the comment box with your favorite Scandinavian author or title, you get an extra 2 entries.
I anticipate alot of interest as this title is hot right now.  Email me if you have any questions.  Ones who have already signed up for the Challenge are already entered in the giveaway.

On April 7, 2010, a random generator will select a winner.  Additionally, another Scandinavian title will be offered as a giveaway next week, so stay tuned!

I hope this isn't too complicated!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Scandinavian Reading Challenge, updated

The Black Sheep Dances is challenging you to its first
Scandinavian Reading Challenge 2010!

Updated to answer questions from participants.

Explore new locations and new cultural traditions, from the land that brought us LEGOS, Ikea and Carlsberg beer, among other essential treasures:

This challenge starts now and runs through December 31, 2010.

Don't know where to start?  Scandinavian authors are hot right now (even if the temperatures might be chilly).  Stieg Larsson, Per Petterson, Dag Solstad, Hakan Nasser, Henning Mankell, Linda Olsson, Arnaldur Indridason and Knut Hamsun all have great books to get you started.   Email me for titles if you get stumped.  Once a month I'll throw out some titles and some interesting trivia.

Reading goal: 
"Skal"  6 books before year end

Leave a comment to sign up with your email address and goal.  Sign up as a follower as well.  I'll contact you and provide a badge for your blog if you wish (just ask).  Additionally, I'll have a sidebar widget listing participants by their name or blog name. 

There will be prizes to all who complete the 6 book challenge.  Prizes not selected yet, but most likely a new book by a Scandinavian author.  Maybe a jar of herring.  Suggestions accepted!

EDITED TO ADD:  You can count books that you were already reading as of March 1, 2010 and any books started since then that fit the criteria of Scandinavian fiction   Please make sure your name is on leftside bar of particpants.

Some titles to get you started:
  • Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
  • Astrid & Veronika, Linda Olsson
  • Shyness & Dignity, Dag Solstad
  • Suggest via email your own favorite titles
      Email me with your titles as you complete them.  I'll keep a file of participants and titles read and if anyone wants to have a discussion or share thoughts on a title, let me know. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Time for Everything, Karl O. Knausgaard-Norwegian translation

"Can the nature of the divine undergo change, and can the immortal perish?"

The inside cover of this book, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson, asks this very thought provoking question.   It's with that in mind that I started reading this epic novel.  By epic, I don't just mean huge.  Rather, it is a story that overlaps generations in an almost Biblical retelling of key events in history and in legend.  The premise is that a young man has an encounter with two angelic beings and thereafter makes a study of them and their interactions with mankind over time.

While I can say that Knausgaard writes beautifully, and his descriptions are layered and complicated, I can't say I enjoyed the book.  I have to confess I didn't get very far into it:  the retelling of certain events and the imagined interaction of Biblical characters struck me as creepy and slightly disturbing.  For example, while the Bible goes into very little detail about Cain, this novel expands greatly on him and attempts to change his persona greatly.  Some may find this fascinating, and given the current cultural focus on angels, perhaps they would enjoy this imagined telling.  It just wasn't my style.

Thanks to Jill at Archipelago Books for this Reader's Copy.  It can be purchased at or through

Monday, March 22, 2010

Words Without Borders, translated literature collection

The World Through the Eyes of Writers

This anthology is an unusual collection of writing that contains poetry as well as excerpts of literary fiction. What makes it different from other anthologies is that each section is introduced by another author/writer who explains why they selected it for inclusion and how they were affected by it. All 28 of the sections have never before been published in English, and the contributors are diverse and eclectic. Produced by Words Without Borders, it continues their mission of shining light on translated works of literature.

For example, Ariel Dorfman introduces a section by Argentina's noted author Juan Forn, “Swimming at Night”. It’s a subtle expression of regret and knowledge combining to make a moving portrait of a man learning to embrace fatherhood. Of the appearance of his dead father in the living room, he asks “If you knew how many things I did these past years for your benefit, thinking that you were watching.”

Another is a short story by Johan Harstad of Norway, entitled “Vietnam. Thursday.” It is introduced by Heidi Julavits, who describes the impact as “an achingly lonely story [that] artfully deepens a flatscreen modern world into a 3-D portrait of the empathy one stranger experiences on behalf of another stranger, which becomes, in true transitive fashion, empathy flung back upon oneself.” The ironic image of the psychologist going home to ask questions of an anonymous online psychology robot is not one easily forgotten.

A poem by Etel Adnan is introduced by Diana Abu Jaber, and within it this stanza “those who cannot travel discover the geography of the body, there are also airports and harbors at the surface of our souls”.

This is a fascinating collection and one that may take some time to get used to, as the cultural differences and allusions are left in place for you to contemplate. It is available at and other bookstores. See also the website for more literary translations, an online magazine and a reading blog with updates.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Non-Verbal Communication

Roughly 60% of communication is non-verbal?  How can that be?  Katey from Argentina at one of my favorite blogs posted this interesting link:

Her original post is at

The great discovery on this blog is a website where you can find a collection of gestures used around the world, created by the author of Speechless: A Dictionary of Argentine Gestures, Guido Indij.
The site is located at  There's a button in the upper right corner to select a language if you can't figure it out.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tech Support

I had to call in Tech Support for a network issue.  The technician looked so young!

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Man from Beijing, Henning Mankell

Can hate be hereditary? Does our DNA include code for revenge? Reading The Man from Beijing is likely to make you ponder these very questions. Mankell’s novel is a first rate thriller that goes beyond mystery into incredible historical narratives. It spans three continents (Europe, Asia and North America) and several generations, travelling from remote villages in China to the U.S. and the building of the rail lines of the West.

The novel starts with the grisly discovery of 19 dead bodies in a remote village in Sweden. The eerie crime introduces us to a three unique female characters: a detective working the case, a federal judge from Skane and a Communist Party member from Beijing. All three are linked in the complicated puzzle of the crime, one that originates more than 100 years before the murders.

The pace is brisk, the writing lean and the plot complex. At times I needed to pause and mentally regroup, just to get my bearings. This isn’t a quick or easy read because the author digs far deeper into historical details than most novels. Much of the story relates to experiences of men who have a little authority and who use it to demean and debase others. Additionally, there is no place for CSI style details in this, as the details of police work lie in the background behind the incredible story.

I really appreciated Mankell’s writing style because it didn’t get tied up in unnecessary details. He focuses on the narrative but also on the complex relationships between marriage mates and the inevitable changes that occur in friendships over time. The three prominent women are all powerful characters and do not show the typical neediness or passive aggressive tendencies that are sometimes portrayed alongside a strong will.

The only hesitation I felt in reading this was from a baffling string of terribly unlikely events that led to finding evidence and to solving elements of the crime. A few of these stretched any sense of realism away and left me disoriented, especially considering how well thought out the plot is. All in all, it’s a worthy read but requires a commitment and time to absorb the details of the various time periods presented.

Special thanks to Lauren Helman of Knopf for this Advanced Readers Copy.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

This is the third book I've read for the 2010 Aussie Author Challenge, and I had hesitated to start it because I had heard virtually nothing about it or the author.  Now I wish I'd read it sooner.  I still adore my Tim Winton, but I think I have a new almost favorite Australian author! 

First off, the word "subtle" kept coming to mind as I read this.  It's a simple story really, but beautifully told with a sort of sweetness to it, as well incidents of sharp wit that made me laugh out loud several times.   This is not a character driven novel, as the main characters seem sort of vague in hindsight.  The real focus is the plot, which is unusual without being pretentious or overwrought.  The story involves a widowed man who moves with his daughter to a ranch near a small town in Australia, bordered by a river.  He restores the property and begins planting hundreds of Eucalyptus, with almost no two alike.  His daughter grows up a beauty, and he decides that the only man who could be proved worthy of her would know the proper Latin name for each variety of tree on his land.  Thus the novel moves at an easy, river-like pace as suitors come and go.  We learn more about the daughter through her reactions than any actual description of her personally.  A few things happen seem a bit 'off' as read, but these are subtle foreshadowings of future events.

The descriptions of the location is beautiful.  All the more poignant to me as the part of California that I live in has a huge amount of non-native Eucalyptus that I've always despised.  I'm kind of liking them more now!   The simple lifestyle of growth and cultivation, and everyday hard work is appealing.  The writer's style is so subtle that much of the meaning is not said but implied.  He shows he's a great writer by exactly what he doesn't write! 

It's a great book that I highly recommended...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Word about Magazines....Leading to Books

For some reason I find myself subscribed to more than thirty magazines, and I'm not sure how that happened.  I'm certainly not able to keep up.  But I did want to mention which ones I find especially interesting in terms of discovering new books, in order of importance.

The New Yorker:  this is a great magazine that appears weekly, with in depth articles, short fiction, and reviews of a number of books (not the mass market kind).  I've found selections from various authors such as Sherman Alexie and David Sedaris, which led me to look for their books.  They also feature great poetry excerpts.  A favorite...

Smithsonian:  The science journal isn't nearly as dry and dull as Discover.  The articles are not dumbed down, and they are long enough to get a real feel for what the topic is, from Hadrian's Wall to Forensic Astronomy (fascinating stuff).  The scope of articles is large and again, many great titles can be found in this monthly journal.

Kiwi:  This is for moms, with earth friendly tips and links to realistic parenting (yes, you have permission to build a fort rather than do dishes.  Sometimes.).  A great selection of unusual toys, multicultural crafts, and best of all, reviews of children's books that are not the typical selections.

Oprah:  She's a love/hate person for most people, but I've found some great titles in this magazine in her Reading Room section.  Without this feature, I would have never discovered Cloudstreet, Revolutionary Road (before the movie buzz!), House of Meetings, etc.  Not all her titles are mass market, and although I don't follow her book club titles (too depressing!), I do enjoy hearing comments on many of the other books.

Time:  I read this mostly for Joel Stein's column, but it's a great classic general news source.  The articles are a bit too short to be deep, but it makes for great general variety.  The Economist is even better.

Then there's the "don't bother" category:  New York Review of Books seems like overkill and leaves you slightly dizzy.  The Strand focuses on mystery titles exclusively, and seems formulaic.

Giveaway! Forest Gate by Peter Akinti

Forest Gate by Peter Akinti is a brand new novel from Free Press/Simon and Schuster.  It is described as:
"A shattering, poetic and raw first novel set among young Somalian refugees in the slums of London - beginning with a double suicide and ending with a rebirth."

Akinti is described as "a modern day Richard Wright."  This is a brand new Feb 2010 paperback release.  A great multicultural read to explore Somali culture as well as the concept of acclimatizing to a new culture.

Giveaway is open to followers only.  Leave your email address in the comment section (or if you'd prefer to keep your email private, leave a comment then get back to me via email).  I need an email address to contact you.  On March 21, I will use a random generator to select a winner.  Once contacted, you'll need to respond within 48 hours with a mailing address and I'll send it right out.  A review published to your own website would be appreciated but is not required.  Contact me via email if you have any questions.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Nonfiction: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean (release date 7/2010 from Little Brown)

I have to confess I didn't pay much attention to chemistry.  Once the instructor talked about electrons, protons, atoms and the nucleus I usually turned on my Walkman (the cassette kind, now antique!).  It never seemed interesting because it wasn't something that related at all to real life.  If I had a teacher like Sam Kean, however, that could have been different.

Fast forward too many years, and now I'm engrossed in this nonfiction 'memoir' of the Periodic Table of Elements.  Like any good biography, this has scandal, lies, fraud, madness, explosions (!!!) and lots of name-dropping.  Kean explains just what the periodic table is, but in a format that reads more like a novel, with anecdotal details to liven it up.  Mercury pills were used by Lewis and Clark for their health?  Yep, and you can trace their path (um, at least their bathroom trips on their journey) by where scientists have found unusually high amounts of mercury in the soil.  The poet Robert Lowell?  Did lithium ruin his work by making him sane?    Who knew the lies and fraud and mind games played by scientists intent on getting a Nobel Prize! 

There's no getting around it, this is a book that makes you think.  It's not simple and it assumes you have a basic knowledge of science.  Some areas were over my head, but not for long.  Kean is a wonderful teacher with a sassy wise guy voice that livens up any of the deeper areas.

Special thanks to Kelly Leonard of Little, Brown (Hatchette) Books for this ARC.

The Waitress was New, Dominique Fabre

"I'm only a barman, and when I forget that, the world around me seems like a bunch of different movies running at the same time.  There are romance movies and sad movies, and if you pay attention most of their stories start to get all mixed together, till there's no way you can go on telling them to yourself.  It's like they're all chasing after each other..."

This excerpt shows the complications inherent in the life of the "simple" bartender.  Rather than being the nameless face behind the bar, important only in his quick delivery of a cocktail or beer, this novella by Dominique Fabre goes much deeper into the life of a very complex man.  The story takes place over only a few days, yet we see, in detail, the conflicts within him and within his profession in the upscale cafe Le Cercle, where he's worked some eight years.

There's an abundance of unique characters, from the black-dressed young man who covers his poetry books with paper to hide the contents, to the articulate, kindly man who argues with the Moon and on to the beautiful but betrayed owner's wife.  One of the underlying themes appears to be the pathological desire for order that Pierre, our fifty-six year old barman seeks.  From his keeping the restaurant functioning to the way he does his laundry, Pierre is the picture of routine efficiency mixed with constant self-analysis.  Yet his memories, that flood him often, reveal a past far from the orderly and efficient one he is living now.

This version is translated from the French by Jordan Stump and published by Archipelago Books. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka

Despite the title, there's much more to this novel than tractors.  It's really more of a fable about a family coming to a realization that the past, namely their history as immigrants from the Ukraine, never really goes away.  It begins with the death of the mother, a thrifty and conscientious woman with two bickering daughters.  Their previously eccentric father, an inventor of sorts, becomes increasingly unbalanced and ends up marrying a blonde bombshell from Ukraine, fifty years his junior. 

The storyline goes as you would expect it, and there are no real surprises.  The underlying theme of identity is emphasized with tragic and comic stories from their childhood.  At points it becomes a slapstick comedy of the strangest proportions with the lovesick old man and his embarrassed daughters.  Things seem to resolve a little easier than would be predicted, but with a fable they usually do.

This is a fast paced and witty read.  I didn't find myself particularly drawn to any of the characters, and much was left simmering at the surface without real depth.  To really enjoy this, I'd suggest having a map of Europe at hand, because much is made of locations and journeys.

Monday, March 1, 2010

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld

Frank has returned to his childhood playground, a beach cottage near Queensland, to sort out his life after a devastating breakup, a relationship that inevitably ended when he became physically violent with his girlfriend. He loathes what he did, and runs to hide in a place that he thinks will comfort him. Once there, memories begin to eat at him, becoming so real that he turns his head and alerts to their arrival.

He can’t relate to his new violent streak, and tries to analyze what has happened since his mother’s death that turned him. Violence would have been more appropriate, more expected, from his father or even his grandfather, both veterans of brutal warfare in Asia. As the novel continues, the narration explores the experiences of both of those men in war and at home.

It’s oversimplified to say that war changed them, and Wyld doesn’t take us down that well-worn path. Rather, what makes this story complex is how it changed everyone else. Wives and girlfriends alternate between comforters and enemies, their every action subject to the random and unpredictable moods of their men.

“ Some fellas, they make the women lonely. Maybe it doesn’t apply to you, mate, but maybe that’s why you’re here”

Frank sorts through his memories while being befriended by a small girl and her pet carrot. A missing teenager and a grieving couple complicate his life while his coworkers rail against the Aboriginal natives that reside in the community. All the while his memories and fears creep up on him though he tries to ignore them. At one point, he makes a conscious decision to rid himself of tangible items to remove the memories that go with them:

“Makes things easier having less stuff. See, if I keep them I’ve got to find a place to put them in – probably in a box or something so they don’t get broken…And when you start to get older that sort of thing gets to be more of a problem.”

This novel focuses on the intimate details of these men and their lives in a setting of urbanization and change. Wyld describes subtle gestures and inner thoughts flawlessly, and invents these entirely new flawed characters like none I’ve read before. Her writing style reminds me of Tim Winton (my favorite author), with its focus on the Australian bush and seaside with their colors and plants and weather. An unexpected sweetness is found mixed in with the brutality of war. A really enjoyable story that makes me eager for her next book.

This novel was recently nominated for Best First Book in the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Special thanks to K. Freeman at Knopf/Random House for the Advanced Review Copy.

Day Out of Days, Sam Shepard...a short story collection

Day Out of Days
I felt a sense of guilt as I started reading this collection of short stories by Sam Shepard. It seemed as if I was reading someone’s journal, their diary, with all their personal ramblings being exposed to me, a stranger. I got over that, and went on to really enjoy this collection that contains very short stories, snippets of conversations, memories, poems, observations, and random musings. Shepard writes in the voice of a distant loner, hardened by truth and reality but still seeking, looking for a kind of lost artifact or talisman.

Some of the poems have titles, but most are simple and unadorned. Without the title (and sometimes without punctuation) you are left to figure out the point, and each reader could likely come away with a different impression.

Horses racing men
Mummies on the mend
What’s all this gauze bandaging
Unraveled down the stairs
Has come apart
In here
Something without end (p. 126)

In “Rosebud, South Dakota (Highway 83 North)” he describes a deceptively simple scene:

Lakota church, “Open to Anyone”, it says, but no one’s here. Not a single sorry soul. And it’s the Sabbath too. Imagine that. Sunday abandoned. Just constant wind ripping across the tattered yards and buried fences. Constant endless prairie breath. Like it’s always been. Now and evermore. Unrelenting. Raw. And could care less about the state of the Union.

Shepard’s subjects are dry, tired, lost, searching, guilty, sarcastic, sardonic, and grim. They inhabit truck stops, rest stops, desert paths and windy valleys. Remarkably, reading these doesn’t feel depressing or dispiriting. Instead, it’s almost like putting a story behind that stranger you noticed outside the diner’s plate glass window, or hitchhiking outside of town, or passing you on the open rural road in that old dirty Ford pickup.

Special thanks to Lauren Helman at Knopf for this Advanced Reading Copy.