Monday, November 29, 2010

Croatian Windows

copyright-Croatian Culture

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Bird Catcher by Laura Jacobs

Bird watching is a very subtle hobby.  Birders focus on the small things that are around us all the time, ignored by the masses of people who may be nearby.  Birders have patience and a quiet, inquisitive mind that enables them to pursue a specimen in any kind of weather, and go where ever the search may take them.  In Central Park, it's especially imaginative to think of these bird lovers spending their free moments searching, admiring, and carrying nothing away but their memory.

This is the backstory to The Bird Catcher.  The lead character Margaret falls in love with a fellow birder, a man named Charles who is actually one of her professors.  They spend their early courtship exploring birds in Manhatten.  In her real life, she's a window dresser for Saks, and she assists her friend Emily in acquiring unique pieces for an art gallery.  These three form the backbone of the book, and each of them are well-developed characters.  The story doesn't fall into any expected formula, and the characters are actually very interesting.  Jacobs manages to display each characters unique personality by showing what they say and do. While the main characters are female, I wouldn't dream of calling this "chick lit";  it has more depth and more complexity by far.

Conceptually, this is a great book.   However, I had numerous issues with the story itself.  First, we learn early that Charles has passed away, but we aren't told how or when, which builds a curiousity as you read.  Margaret seems to be explaining her relationship with him in flashbacks, but it's never entirely clear what is past and what is present.  Even through the end, when you discover what happened to Charles, the explanation feels too brief to understand her resulting grief.  Their relationship appears perfect, and the cynic in me can't imagine everything that wonderful.  In addition, for a talented woman, she spends a terribly large amount of time worrying over her parents approval (she didn't finish college).  She also seems strangely reserved around other people, which is odd because she describes herself as an extrovert.

A few other things struck me as off:  while the descriptions of the art of window dressing for sales is fascinating, her description of her gay coworkers plays to stereotypes and is insulting in its own way.  All of them appear flighty, silly, babyish, and primadonna queens. She seems to want to describe this professional career but ends up mocking the workers who put it together with such art.  Additionally, she and her friend Emily are very fluent in the high-brow culture scene in New York:  art, opera, and fashion.  I consider myself having a good basic knowledge of popular art, but I understood maybe a tenth of the references to current artists.  All of this almost feels like she's telling the reader "if you don't understand, you're an imbecile", since so much of the story is dependent on understanding the art references or the works of a particular obscure designer.  It's never a good idea to make your reader feel stupid!  Sure, I could have looked them up, but there were so many, I really didn't feel like doing the homework.  It felt a tiny bit pretentious.

On a positive note, her explanations of the actual window dressing is interesting, and her friend's art gallery holds interest as she explains how the provenance of different objects can be manipulated for profit.  The biggest bit of unexpected knowledge is Margaret's interest and decision to learn taxidermy, and the details of this further hobby are more interesting that I'd expected.  This isn't a bad novel, and the quick pace makes it very times I did get overwhelmed by names and brands, but I finished it with a sense of contemplation.

Special thanks to Picador for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Wave by Susan Casey (nonfiction)

In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

“If I scare myself once every day, I’m a better person….It helps to have that little jolt of perspective that life’s fragile.” Laird Hamilton in The Wave, by Susan Casey

copyright Tom Servais
How much fun is this! This nonfiction title lives up to the buzz that came out when it was released. It has just about everything that would make a fiction novel exciting, except that this is real. Susan Casey explores just about everything to do with the ocean. Some of it leaves you kind of breathless, like waves that so huge they can take out a cargo ship with nothing left to show it existed just minutes before.

Casey spends some of the time discussing surfing, especially tow-surfing where the waves are so big surfers are put in place and hauled out via Jet-Skis. Invented by surfer Laird Hamilton, the surfing world has been rattled by the ability to ride bigger waves than ever. She follows him into the water, and explores the sort of mentality that makes someone want to ride a wave that could easily pummel them. Then she examines the science behind the big waves in Hawaii, California, Mexico, and beyond. Spending time in Alaska, she looks at how the region was affected by a tsunami in the 1930s and shows just how much unimaginable damage was done.

Andrew Ingram/The Cape Times
From there she investigates rogue waves that have tossed big ships around like toys, and explores some of the possible reasons behind these freaks of nature, as well as the historical evidence of shipwrecks that point to these being far more common than once thought. For example, she explains the problem that even modern cargo ships face: bulk cargo hatches. These huge openings allow goods to be lifted in and out of the holds, but are dangerously built so that a boat hit by a rogue wave may have its hatches caved in from the impact, and fill the ship within minutes. This caused two ships to sink on the same day in 1973 in nearly the same place due to high waves. In 1995, the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2 “was buffaloed by a pair of ninety-five-foot waves that jumped out of sixty-foot Atlantic seas churned up by Hurricane Luis.”  These sort of waves are not simply predicted as a weather course, they can appear nearly anywhere at anytime.

Besides the fascinating material covered, the book features photographs and maps to illustrate the dynamic forces of the sea. I really love this book! Yes, I’m too excited about it. I should be more subtle. Thing is, it’s that good. It has become my new “go to” book for a gift...just as Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City was several years ago, because I really can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be fascinated. It would be especially interesting to pair the reading of this book with watching the documentary Riding Giants, that shows Hamilton and other professional surfers tackling these big waves.

Special thanks to Judy Jacoby of Doubleday for the Review Copy.

Monday, November 22, 2010

More talk about The Canal...

Thanks to Melville House's blog tour for the shout-out regarding my review of Lee Rourke's The Canal

Their post here,, is a collection of some reviews for Rourke's book, but also helped me find some new blogs to explore as well.  You know, that whole "great minds think alike" thing.  They also touch on the Guardian's Not-the-Booker contest...

Coming soon is a review for Melville House's Hans Fallada title, Every Man Dies Alone

Stone in a Landslide, Maria Barbal, translated fiction

Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

“I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here still, for days and days…”

Maria Barbal’s novella, Stone in a Landslide, is unique because it covers so much history in just a few pages. The fictional memoir begins in the Catalan region of Spain, when a young woman, just thirteen, is forced to leave her home because there are too many mouths to feed. The poverty in this time left many with few choices, and so her family sends her to live with a barren aunt and her husband. This quiet little girl, Conxa, leaves quietly, and without much fuss. A personality trait that becomes a description of her life, her quiet acceptance of what befalls her is what makes her story so intriguing.

In first-person, she recounts her adjustment to a new home, where she has to learn to navigate around her controlling aunt and the new chores put upon her. She works extremely hard both in their home as well as in the maintenance of their fields and animals. But this is no Cinderella story, her relatives are not cruel. They come to love her as a daughter, and the skills she learns help her as she becomes a woman with a family of her own. The novel covers the milestones of marriage and motherhood and loss, all against the backdrop of the famine and the violence of the Spanish Civil War.

Despite all she could say, she is actually quiet brief. It’s clear that being forced to leave her home as a child took something from her, possibly her sense of security or belonging. Because throughout the story, though she never directly states it, it’s clear that she felt like a burden, and that she should never speak up or contradict others. She raises her own children with loving attention but a sense of distance, always looking at them through the eyes of possibly losing them. “Perhaps deep down I was afraid of losing what I’d learnt to own.” Her insecurity combined with fear leave her mute in the face of problems, such as the menacing priest that threatens her family’s safety. It’s only when her worst fears are realized that she becomes more aware and invested in her own life.

In the case of the Catalan villagers, their very lives were impacted by decisions and actions far away in Barcelona-so far that even their oppressors didn’t quite know who they were. It would be easy to say these were simple people, but that implies that they were ignorant. These people were intelligent and wise, but their commitment to the land for basic sustenance gave them little time to dwell on the political happenings far from them. When the rebellion came close to home, she realizes that the rural villagers throughout most of Spain were like her, simple people as insignificant as stones found on the Catalonian mountainsides.

“There were those who wanted us not only to suffer but to feel guilty as well. Why do hundreds of stones always fall at once?”

This is a quiet book, filled with thoughts to contemplate. The slow pace of the village life and the tremendous hard work is unimaginable. After I finished the book, I found myself returning to it for the simple prose and the way she can say so much in so few words.

Special thanks to Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press, London UK for the Review Copy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Time to come in from the beach and read!

Special thanks to Kimberly at February Partners for the opportunity to offer the 10 ARC's of THREE SECONDS to blog readers.  This book will release in the US on January 4, 2011.  Look for it at retailers. 

A random generator selected the following ten commenters to win:

Karen Russell, PoCoKat, Melanie, Jacque, Dakota, Aurora, Julianne, Kim, Johnny, and Eileen. 

I'm sending an email to each of these and they have 48 hours to respond or I'll select a replacement winner.  Thanks for playing!  Another contest coming soon!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Velocity by Alan Jacobson (crime)

A Karen Vail novel

Velocity is the latest in a series that revolves around Karen Vail, an FBI profiler, and in this case she’s in Napa Valley trying to catch a serial killer. Jacobson captures wine country perfectly, with the descriptions of winery operations, the rural countryside, and the personalities of the nouveau riche jumping into the wine industry. He clearly knows the region.  Vail is not a ‘chick’ cop, and fortunately, there are no descriptions of her designer purse or what fashions she may be wearing. She’s a clever detective and works well as a consultant with the jurisdictional police; she doesn’t pull rank or play mind games.

As the story begins, several key events have already taken place. Vail’s boyfriend is missing, a suspect has been shot and is critically injured, and the police are trying to solve a string of murders and abductions. Vail is called away just as things start to look promising. But the search continues and leads across the country and creates a compelling mystery to be solved.

I hated it.  No.  "Hate" is too strong a word.  In fact, I didn't really dislike it either.  I was annoyed by it.  I might have actually liked it a lot if it weren't for some distractions in the narrative.  These made the story very hard to become fully involved in, despite the clever plot twists.

“Got a laptop,” Vail said. “It’s unplugged.” As Dixon joined her, she lifted the lid. The screen remained black. “Looks like it’s off.”  Brilliant deduction! 

This happens more than once. “She plucked the disc from the plastic spindle, then placed the DVD in the laptop tray and watched as Windows Media Player loaded.” Seriously, I am too wordy, I know it. But I’m also not a published author! Why does the reader have to plod through all that detail? A page later we read that “Windows Media Player closed.” Hardly exciting, and it detracted from the pace. Additionally, maybe because my mind was already distracted, there seemed to be a lot of product placement-the brand name of just about everything was noted. Instead of making it more true-to-life, it felt like filler.  It occurred to me that fifty years from now-when a reader wouldn't care about a Blackberry-that the book would either feel dated or campy.

The most annoying thing of all, however, was the inclusion of two rather boring characters: “the SIG” and “the Glock”. Vail and her partner Dixon carry guns, no surprise. But every time they enter a building, chase a suspect, or sit in their car, we are told the status of their gun. In virtually any scene Dixon appears in, we are told “her SIG drawn” or “SIG in hand”. Vail's Glock is similarly noted.  Having read other detective stories and seen countless episodes of Law & Order, I don’t think I need to be told that as they chase a suspected killer that they’ll have their guns out. It’s a given. And in this novel, it becomes a huge distraction. Maybe if I had read the previous books in the series I would know the characters better and not be inclined to notice these things.  I do think if someone was familiar with the character of Karen Vail, they’d be pleased with this newest novel. 

Thanks to Julie Harabedian and FSB Associates for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Blindness of the Heart, Julia Franck

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Winner of the German Book Prize

Most novels that explore the events of the Holocaust focus on the ‘Before’ and ‘After’-showing the events chronologically and the resulting impact. However, The Blindness of the Heart takes a reverse approach and begins by revealing a disturbing ‘After’: a young woman abandons her young son at a train station and disappears. We see how they’ve lived in horror for months, but his abandonment is still shocking. Then the author, Julia Franck, takes us back in time to the early years of this young woman, and the events that lead up to a lost little boy, confused, hungry and alone.

The mother is Helene, and her family is dysfunctional and damaged long before the Holocaust begins. Her identity as a person is in question before her identity as a Jew becomes relevant. As a nurse she helps care for her ailing father while trying to deal with her mentally ill mother. She thinks she finds a future, but nearly everything she is close to is taken away. She finds a way out of the impending doom by marrying a German who helps her with false papers that identify her as Anna, a German citizen, but their marriage yields nothing but the child. She raises him alone while working long hours in the hospital, assisting German doctors in the maternity ward, as well as in the forced sterilization of some female patients. Her son, Peter, is often left alone while she works, and while they remain together it’s clear she’s drifted away long before she leaves him literally.

The book is incredibly painful. A few times I put it down just to get away from the grief. The author makes a tremendous gamble by having her lead character do something that appears unforgiveable right off the bat. She is counting on the reader to ponder the back story and conditions of the woman’s life and see if her decision made sense. She shows how emotionally abandoned Helene had been, and the ugliness that fills her life. The problem is, despite Helene’s previous suffering, it’s very difficult to get over the impact of the first few pages of the book. The result is a tension that carries through the book and makes the narrative so compelling.

One factor I found fascinating was the details of the nurses and their struggles in Germany. The endless shifts, multiple duties, and repellent activities in their wards were well detailed, and a part of Nazi history that I wasn’t aware of. The fact that Helene works with new mothers is a link emotionally with her own insane mother and her own flawed nurturing. What motherhood means is an underlying theme, and the title makes you consider what kind of love is blind.

Additionally, Franck creates an unforgettably tense scene in which the hungry mother and son go mushroom hunting, and find themselves in flight to escape hunters that are not after animal prey. As she runs frantically, she appears to be hallucinating as she considers her escape route, Peter’s whereabouts, and the various ingredients for different recipes to cook, all spinning through her head at once. Her actions in the forest foreshadow what is to come.

In a few places I found Helene/Anna’s character to be incredibly cold. I understand that under her circumstances, self-preservation required her to withdraw emotionally. And very few aspects of her life were really under her control. Yet there was an element of simple kindness she seemed to lack, or perhaps, it was all used up.  In any case, the glimpse we get of Peter's future shows how the cycle of pain is completed.

Special thanks to Martin Wilson of Grove/Atlantic for the Review Copy.

The Kitchen Shrink by Dora Calott Wang, MD (nonfiction)

At first I thought that The Kitchen Shrink was going to be some sort of self-help book on how to find happiness at home, possibly meditating while doing dishes.  I even put off starting it, because I feared it would be full of psychobabble and platitudes like "bloom where you're planted".  I was wrong.  Yet again.

Wang describes herself as "a doctor working in the medical profession as it became the health care industry."  Trained as a psychiatrist, her training involved talk therapy, face to face communication, and a personal connection with patients that were seen over a period of time in order to determine what help would be best for their particular problems.  However, as she admits "all my jobs since my training in 1994 have been to prescribe medication only."  Wang uses this book to explore the processes of what used to be medicine and now could be considered nearly only a pharmaceutical business.  While in the past, doctors would look for alternatives to prescribing medication, now the only question is what kind of medication to supply.  It's basically a matter of time:  talk is expensive, sending a patient off with a prescription is cheap.

She demonstrates, effectively, how the changes in the treatment of patients, due primarily to the influence of insurance companies that act like bullies, has harmed the most fragile of patients:  those with mental problems and who need personal attention and interaction.  According to Wang, "Insurance companies started to call the shots" in medicine, not only suggesting doses but also withholding approval of treatments that might aid the sufferers.  In fact, at times their logic was so flawed that they'd refuse to cover a preventative procedure, which would save the money in the long term. 

Wang describes the changes and problems with many anecdotal details that make it a fascinating read, and you can't help but see that medicine in other specialties is also likely to be turned into assembly line health-care, controlled by health insurance companies that not only lack medical degrees but also simple compassion and reasonableness.

One big player in the game that is as insidious as the insurance companies are the pharmaceutical companies.  Wang notes with irony that her fridge is covered with Zoloft magnets, and that she writes on a Paxil notepad.  While recent laws have cracked down on the practice of pharmaceutical companies providing free "goodies" for doctors, such as pens, clocks, scales, and vacations, the influence still remains strong.  Incentives to prescribe their medications, rather than what the patient most needs, is a problem that doctors have to face.  Additionally, with their face time with patients dramatically decreased, and the paperwork authorizing visits and procedures increasing, some doctors are leaving their practices out of frustration.

This book is eye-opening and at times, it makes you mad.  Some cases of poor medical supervision has cost lives for no other reason than greed.  Besides revealing this mess, though, Wang offers concepts to ponder in what your own medical care may be, and helps you see ways to benefit yourself by asking the right questions.  This book would be a great supplement to How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, Mariner Books, 2008.

Special thanks to Julie Harabedian of FSB Associates and Riverhead Books for the Review Copy.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Chambered Nautilus, Oliver Wendell Holmes, poem

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,--
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year's dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more

-an excerpt from the poem from Oliver Wendall Holmes
This post was inspired by a photo similar to the one above.  I had somehow imagined that the chambered nautilus was a shell that simply lay on the ocean floor.  Seeing one actually swimming was inspiring!  The amazing design of the nautilus, with its closed off portions as time passes, is unique and a fascinating research topic!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu

How to Read the Air is the latest book from Dinaw Mengestu, and it's one that manages to explore the subtle differences between what we believe and what may be true.

Briefly, it is the story of a man named Jonas, who attempts to reconstruct his parents first years in the US when they emigrated from Ethiopia. Their marriage was fractured and strange, and in the wake of his own disastrous marriage, he hopes to find answers to his personal identity by going back to his parent’s lives. He believes that by better understanding them, he can make sense of his own awkwardness. He describes his youth:

“I had always suspected that at some early point in my life, while still living with my parents and their daily battles, I had gone numb as a tactical strategy, perhaps at exactly that moment when we’re supposed to be waking up to the world and stepping into our own.”

However, rather than being a straightforward story of nostalgia, Mengestu deepens the narrative by showing, immediately, that Jonas is not exactly truthful. He works for an agency that helps new immigrants acquire legal citizenship in the US, and he’s known for his smudging the lines of truth to create more sympathetic experiences for his clients. In other words, he lies, boldly yet with the awareness of remaining credible. Thus, we learn our narrator is unreliable. How much truth will be revealed as he relates the story of his parents and his own marriage? This creates suspense and makes understanding the characters that much more complicated. A reader is forced to examine each statement and weigh it for accuracy, and consider what Jonas may be trying to hide.

First, we learn of his parents. They emigrated separately, his father first with his mother coming a year later. They are two incredibly different personality types: his father is perceptive and quiet, with a gift for noticing his surroundings and an almost sixth-sense for staying out of trouble. His focus on intangible concepts makes him reserved and wise. His mother, on the other hand, is obsessed with the tangible: possessions made her feel safe and contented in Ethiopia, where her status was high. Now in the US, her position in the world has changed, and as a minority with less wealth than she’s used to, she is insecure and angry.

Jonas himself married Angela, another lost soul who finds security in squirreling money away, while occasionally succumbing to a pair of Jimmy Choos for their therapeutic benefit. Angela is the most fascinating character to me, and in one of her conversations, she also reveals what she thinks of ‘telling the truth’:

“There’s no such thing as kind of true. If I told you the whole story, you could say it’s true, but you don’t know the story. […] Everyone thinks they know the whole story because they saw something like it on television or read about it in a magazine. To them it’s all just one story told over and over. Change the dates and the names but it’s the same. Well, that’s not true. It’s not the same story.”

Angela is beyond needy, and her outlet for her insecurities is to control others as much as possible. She pushes Jonas to change every chance she gets. Despite her success as an attorney, her deep unhappiness is revealed in snarky remarks and a mistrust of everyone. Jonas and Angela are doomed by their inability to know truth.  Significantly, Angela is portrayed much like his mother-focused on concrete items she can see and own, while Jonas is more cerebral and aloof.  Does he realize how he has replicated his parent's dynamics?

Plot aside, the prevarication that Jonas is prone to makes reading this that much more interesting. It’s difficult to know what facts to accept or disregard, and he gives himself away at times. For example, at one point he describes his mother playing mind games with his father by making him wait endlessly in the car as they leave for their honeymoon. At one point she pretends to forget something and runs back into the house-she’s having a meltdown. Yet, her meltdown is counted in seconds (her little trick for calming herself), and so she allows herself a little more than 200 seconds to calm herself. Then she returns to the car. A stressed out woman with a meltdown that lasts less than four minutes? Seriously, how is that possibly a bad thing? Or is it that Jonas is letting us know that she isn’t actually as moody as he’s portrayed her?  Could he be admitting that she's just as fearful as Angela, the woman he left?   That would mean his version of both of these women, as controlling and difficult, may not be accurate.  Is Jonas up for the challenge of truly understanding his own story?

As a reader, I enjoyed this overall but a few things bothered me. For one, while delving deep into some explanations, he skims over other details that would have bearing: he never explains why, aside from a shared race, that he and Angela married. And, when he takes a job teaching, why the sudden epiphany about his suddenly fitting into the world? What changed? He had worked before in the public sector-what was it about this new job that flipped his identity over? Lastly, a few sentences were structurally ambiguous, and I had to catch myself and reread them a few times to figure out who he was talking about. A minor thing, but it was enough to trip the pace a bit.

Special thanks to Lydia Hirt of Riverhead Books for the Advanced Review Copy.

Dinaw Mengestu was recently honored in the New Yorker's collection of "40 under 40".

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nothing Left To Burn, Jay Varner, reconsidered....

Ethics in memoir-writing:  exactly what are you entitled to reveal?

A few months ago I reviewed a popular new memoir by Jay Varner, called Nothing Left To Burn (the link is above).  It was his story of moving back to his hometown of McVeytown, Pennsylvania and becoming a journalist for the small town paper, covering the police and fire beat.  His new position is significant because he was also writing the life story of his father, an extremely devoted firefighter, and his grandfather, who he depicts as the town crazy and a prolific arsonist.  He also places himself in the story as he recounts numerous memories and anecdotal stories of the lives of the Varner family. 

When I read it, I was fascinated by the dichotomy between having an arsonist and a firefighter within the same family, and I read with interest the small town details.  I was a little bit annoyed by his constant complaints of his father placing his career over fatherhood, and I mentioned in my review that it seemed to lack balance because he admits most of his details are from his mother and her family.  That might not seem to be a big deal, but he rips his father's family apart.  They are portrayed as depraved and hostile, and he accuses them flat out of criminal activity.

I really didn't give that a ton of thought, although he does mention that he knows he is certain to alienate people.  But I got quite a bit of response over the review from residents of the small town, and published two of the comments (the most civil, shall we say?).  After reading their viewpoint, I see things from another perspective.  Yes, it does bother me that he spoke of the family that way, and I think he should have in some way allowed them to comment or explain things.  But that doesn't bother me as much as some smaller details that he allowed into the text.  These don't pertain to his family's story, but invade the privacy of some of McVeytown's citizens.

For example, at one point I was horrified when he described an accidental shooting that killed a small child.  He was very graphic in his details, far beyond what would be appropriate for a newspaper.  In fact, none of those details would even be allowed into a newspaper-there is a limit to what is newsworthy and what is just gore.  It never occurred to me at the time, but how would a family member of that small child feel reading those awful details?  Certainly, they wouldn't have been privy to every graphic detail before, nor would any policeman or morgue worker subject them to it.  As a journalist, Varner would know better to include it in a news story.  So, why did it find its way into the memoir?  At the time I didn't consider what it really was:  a completely unnecessary invasion of the child's privacy as well as his grieving parents.  Those who pointed this out to me via comments made a very valid point-how dare he put that into his own book when it had nothing to do with him?

Additionally, on his police beat duties, he covered other deaths and frequent suicides.  Similarly, he included details that exceed what is necessary for covering a story.  Was it for the shock value?  To fill pages?  He admits he was excited to cover this portion of the news, but at what point is he a thrill seeker and no longer a journalist?  I looked online for what is considered the ethical standard for journalists, and found the website for the Society of Professional Journalists (  Below are some selected portions:

— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing. At no point in the memoir does he give the family members an opportunity to confirm or deny his allegations. 

— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.  By taking information he gathered when acting as a journalist and using it in his personal memoir, for profit, he crossed a line.  There was no point to the inclusion of the graphic descriptions of death and dismemberment in his memoir.  It was not public knowledge.

I guess what bugs me the most is that I have no problem with him telling his story.  But he goes further-he fills his pages with other people's stories, and not in a sweet Charles Kuralt sort of way, but rather exposing their most private pain for no discernible reason.  In Mary Karr's memoir Lit, released earlier this year, she revealed many details about her struggle with alcohol, some tragic and shameful, but they were hers to tell.  She didn't reveal any other person's struggles, and in cases where there may have been a connection, she altered names. 

Given that I've read several memoirs lately, this subject really has me confused.  How much can a person rightfully tell?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Three Seconds-Roslund and Hellstrum GIVEAWAY

Ready for some new Swedish crime to warm your winter?  THREE SECONDS is the latest title from Roslund and Hellstrom, due to release on January 4, 2011. Perfect for the 2010 Scandinavian Reading Challenge, this combines all the elements of action, procedurals, and suspense in one award-winning title.

It's already been released in Europe, and received the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award (Svenska Deckarakademins pris) 2009 for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year.  It is now translated into English and ready to hit the US.

The Black Sheep Dances has been authorized to giveaway 10 free Advanced Review Copies to winners of this contest.  Odds are, if you enter, you will win!  Please leave a comment with your email and I will select the ten winners randomly on November 19, 2010.  I will then give her the mailing addresses and your copies will be sent via publisher to you.  US and Canada only.  Followers only please!

You can visit the website for the authors and see their other titles at  The film rights have already been purchased by 20th Century Fox.  I haven't read it yet, but am eager to see a new title for English readers.  Will it be dark and gloomy?  Probably.  Do these guys look cynical?  Possibly.  Enter and see!
Elizabeth from Silversolara won the Breaking Night Giveaway...I've emailed her and she has 48 hours to respond or another winner will be selected!  Congratulations!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Rest is Jungle by Mario Benedetti

Translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales

Mario Benedetti is from Uruguay and the short stories within this collection are mostly set in the cities and villages of the South American nation.  It would be incredibly cliche to say that these short stories feel tall, but they do.  Some are only a few pages long, but the lingering effect is one of sighing acknowledgement that yes, this is how it is.

For, while diverse in characters and settings, Benedetti captures all the nuances of families and friendships, and the mind games that play on even after one participant is dead.  Not all are depressing, some actually made me laugh outright.  But it's an incredibly complicated study of human nature (a psychologist would probably love to evaluate this book and name all the symptoms) that never gets dull and is never predictable.  Pay attention to the clues, just when you think someone may laugh they instead deliver a fatal blow.  Benedetti doesn't do much foreshadowing (there's hardly time in a short story) so surprises occur.  His writing is so subtle too, that after a particularly traumatic event takes place, he simply continues with the story and lets you reel from the implications instead of spelling them all out.  He credits the reader with the intelligence and savvy to foresee what may happen, and doesn't prescribe it.  This lingering sense of wonder will have you returning to the plot later, in your head, as you continue to grasp what went unsaid.

"The Sweethearts" is one of the most perplexing of the stories.  A young girl is orphaned when her embezzling father commits suicide.  An outcast in the city, one family opens its doors to her, and she becomes friends with the family's son.  Almost thirty years pass in their friendship, and what you may expect to happen never occurs.  Instead, you see how a common bond of dysfunction creates a strange world that neither escape from, nor appear to want to.  Benedetti is especially observant when he notes how the community treats the innocent child:  "that duality was that the good families were always ready to smile..." at her, but at the end of the day "this fulfilled their quota of Christian pity, while at the same time allowing them to conserve their energy for that hour when they closed all the doors of all their houses, separating her from all...and making her feel that she was somewhat tainted."

"The Rage Has Ended" was poignant and subtle, told from the voice of a loyal dog who is the only witness to its owners adultery.  What the dog senses, and what it does, makes a tangible character in the play of secrets and lies.  And while the dog knows loyalty, he doesn't understand revenge. 

"Completely Absent-Minded" is one of the more amusing stories, of a man who flees his country for political reasons.  He travels the world, not caring much about where he is going, completely lost in the thrill of the journey.  "He liked people, but he didn't bond...."  and "He got along well with children and dogs".  Benedetti takes pains to describe the details that matter to the traveller, and more importantly, the ones that don't.  The man mixes up nations and rivers and continents, shiftlessly journeying on. Along with him the reader also becomes disoriented as to his place in the world, and the strangely appropriate ending is still somewhat devastating.

Especially nuanced are the stories told of fathers and sons.  Both wishing to appear to be more than they are, to impress the other.  The dynamics are the same no matter how wealthy or poor, good or wicked, or even how tragically bored some of them may be. 

The collection contains about 35 stories and some of them are expressed in an enjambment that is nearly poetic.  On one page a quote from Benedetti sums up the book beautifully: "We are a small nook of America which has neither oil, nor Indians, nor minerals, nor volcanoes, nor even an army dedicated to coups.  We are a small country of short stories."

Special thanks to Host Publications for the Review Copy.