Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

Translated from the German by Tim Mohr

"I was a fundamentally generous person, and I valued the interchange between generations. Helping support Sulfia in raising my grandchild didn't bother me at all. Neither did drawing Sulfia's attention to her own frequent mistakes. All I ever did was for her to improve herself."

Perhaps this should be called The Battle Hymn of the Tartar Mother....The narrator of this fast-paced novel is a mother more like Mommie Dearest than June Cleaver.  She's actually kind of scary.  Yet her witty observations, completely oblivious of her own sinister attitude, makes the reader both laugh and cringe.

As it begins, Rosalinda is bemoaning her stupid daughter--an ugly thing with no prospects for success and an unplanned pregnancy to boot.  She believes in some sort of immaculate conception because she's sure no man would have her hideous offspring.  Eventually, the child is born and it's up to Rosalinda to try and create a stable and loving environment away from the child's hapless mother.

And yet, Bronsky has given us an unreliable narrator, the classic type that makes you begin to question everything about the story.  Little hints are thrown out, via Rosalinda's stream-of-consciousness thinking, that tell you more about why she is so difficult.  It soon becomes fairly clear that her daughter is not the idiot we're made to envision.

"I had tried to teach her that nobody should be able to see when you were scared. That nobody should be able to tell when you were uncertain.  That you shouldn't show it when you loved someone.  And that you smiled with particular affection at someone you hated."

The story progresses as the three generations of women fight for survival, and Rosalinda's influence is felt everywhere.  She really is the story;  the characterization of her is full of revealing details.  She knows just when to let her hair down (literally) to get her way, and when and what kind of flowers to send for a bribe.  She knows that certain events require heels and the fur coat, while at other times her beauty must be downplayed.  And she thinks nothing of throwing a boot at her daughter's face to get her way.

Aminat and Sulfia aren't as fully developed...but really, how could they, given the magnitude of Rosalinda?  Another character that is intriguing is Kalganow, Rosalinda's husband, who leaves her after a particularly harrowing cross-examination by her.  His presence in the story is at the periphery, but every scene he appears in is priceless. 

In all, the story had me laughing in shock and awe at her atrociousness.  Yet it grew tiring too, by the end, as she never seemed to mellow.  I still enjoyed it, but I thought that underlining her pushy character was already done and I was convinced.  I did like how certain factors that explained her behavior were subtly incorporated without excusing her.  This will likely be in my top five fiction titles for the year....and the cover art is just brilliant.

Special thanks to Europa Editions for the Advance Review Copy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Vernal Equinox by Manolis, poetry

Of the collections of poetry by Manolis that I’ve read and enjoyed, Vernal Equinox is by far the most romantic and, shall we say, the steamiest. Perhaps the Greek mythological god Eros had an influence on this set of verses, although they wouldn’t necessarily be considered erotic. It’s said of Eros that “his quality of love was thought to be spiritual as well as physical, and was generally believed to be the deity who caused the love of beauty, healing, freedom, and many other good things as well as the love between people” (1). The Romans called him Cupid, and he was known for his quiver of arrows that struck often at random.

What is created in Vernal Equinox goes beyond just passion…this is no Harlequin poetry selection. Instead, the focus is on the feelings of both solitude and space that affection fills. The grace of companionship through difficulties, and the familiar grasp of a hand that soothes after a nightmare.

The Church is a frequent character in the poems, sometimes as setting and other times as a foil to the romance it seems to hamper. If anything, Manolis seems to contrast the pomp and drama of “grandiose” Church philosophies with the simplicity of tangible human affection. The addition of love changes the geography of the world in which we live, he seems to suggest.

In “New Dusk”,

In the streets we built
For our future encounter and
Our little talks at twilight

We’ll construct new signposts
And erect small statuettes

Opposite a descending sun
A poet of the insignificant
We’ll anoint our new saint

While you and I bestow benevolence
Onto this city with her grandiose churches
And the grieving priest shedding false tears

Authentic affection isn’t easy to find, as lamented in some of the poems. It often disappears without a trace, or misses its mark. In one poem, “Peeling,” a lonely woman prepares a beautiful feast for her husband, craving just a bit of appreciation and affection. Yet his hockey game on television is where his heart is focused. In “Ambience,” the sense of transitory affection propels the words so descriptively you can sense the couple inevitably being torn apart:

Ambient solace of your
Embrace where I seek refuge

Your fingerprints tangle
My beard into rolled anguish

Stay—stay with this a while don’t
Disturb equanimity of

Reddish dusk or let a lonely cloud
Cover this serenity or allow your

Day’s anxiety to hide behind
Our desired meditation on this

Moment in your arms and don’t
Let it go for even

An infinitesimal fraction of
Time frozen or fiery

The juxtaposition of frozen and fiery in the final line seems to allude to heaven and hell, and cements the idea that this romance is purely earthly, and that neither participant wishes to move beyond any imagined heavenly reward or hellish punishment. Incidentally, I was curious why Manolis wrote “a while”’ and not “awhile” in the third stanza, and if it was significant. It turns out that yes, it does mean something: ‘a while’ is a noun meaning a period of time. This usage underlines the ephemeral nature of the intimacy between these two lovers (2).

Lastly, in “Search,” the contrast of harsh light with comforting shadow reinforces the nature of seductive affection and how we even see differently when we are in love.

That you always search in dark corners
Believing you know what you seek

That you always yearn for a shadow
To help you pass unnoticed by moonlight

Beyond arm’s reach of your lustful appetite
And try to conceal your eyes behind sunglasses though

You can’t fail to be stunned by sunshine still

Only harsh light without him by your side

The title Vernal Equinox is most appropriate for such an assemblage of poems. It’s said that conception increases dramatically on the date of the vernal equinox (3). Perhaps it’s just a myth, but the concepts of rejuvenation and rebirth are linked to that date that begins Spring. Day and night are equal on the date of the equinox, which happens only twice a year.  The adorable sheep shown in the photo was born this year on the first day of spring, and I assume it's understood why I chose his picture.

thanks to Ekstasis Editions of British Columbia for the Review Copy.



Monday, July 25, 2011

Deep Country by Neil Ansell (memoir)

Peace and quiet.  Time to hear yourself think.  No need for a clock.  All things that sound pretty wonderful to me, and that are found in this lovely book.  Neil Ansell spent five years in PenlanCottage in Wales, an extremely isolated location where you won't hear your neighbors argue or their car alarm going off.  Instead, bird song and silence....bliss.

Let me say immediately that this book is not for everyone.  There's no car chases, not really any suspense (unless you count the search for where mother Mandarin duck laid her eggs), and no wild characters (except for the hares that speed through occasionally).  But, for those of us who crave a little calm, this book is relaxing and appealing. 

Ansell is a journalist, and he craves isolation as well.  He's also precise in describing, for the most part, the types of birds that frequent the area and their breeding habits, even conducting a survey of species and totals.
A few of the birds I didn't recognize by their UK names, so I had to Google them for pictures.  All of his descriptions of their stealth and means of throwing off predators is fascinating.  Lots of facts are sprinkled in, such as how bats can live thirty years and return to their roosts the entire time. 

Yet the book isn't just about what he sees outside the decrepit cottage, but what he sees inside himself.  After a health scare, he observes:

"What remains if you peel away all those things that help you think you know who you are?  If one by one you strip away your cultural choices, the validation you get from the company of your peer group, the tools you use for communication?  Then what is left behind?  If you had asked me that three or four years earlier, when I was just arriving at Penlan, I imagine that I would have guessed:  your true self.  But I soon found that in fact I rapidly became less and less self-aware;  my attention was elsewhere, on the outside.  And now that circumstances had forced me to look inward once again, it was to discover that there was perhaps no fixed self to find.  So what was there instead?  Now, more than ever, I had the sense that my life was no so very different from that of the birds fluttering on my bird-feeder, as though a boundary between us had been broken" (188).

I think this would be an amazing audiobook (Martin Shaw or Alan Rickman on the voice, please!) because the subject matter is soothing.  When I went through a recent health scare, often it was suggested I use visualization to relax, especially during a few procedures that were without anesthetic.  The nurses all said, "picture a long, sandy beach at sunset....".  Nope, in the future I'll picture a rainy cottage with a wild-eyed rabbit perched on the back step and through the fog, a tree covered with yellow birds.

Very special thanks to Hamish Hamilton Books, an imprint of Penguin UK for the Review Copy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summer time...BBC crime and audiobooks

In between recent reads, my husband and I have gotten hooked on British crime shows.  I've always liked them, but now he's obsessed too.  The great thing about these series is that we don't know who is a famous guest star or not, so there's no hint to 'whodunit', as sometimes happens when you see the guest stars listed for Law & Order.  We've discovered these streaming on Netflix...


MI-5 is called Spooks in the UK
 Wire in the Blood is one that  features a sort of Monk-like character who is a blundering but genius psychologist. The characters are interesting but the stories are downright gruesome and just too gory for watching when you want to relax.  Ick.   Luther features an extremely tall detective (seriously, extremely tall!!!) who is trying to solve a murder while being stalked by the main suspect, and who most definitely lets criminals know how he feels.  The storyline carries over all the episodes in the series.  Very tense and fast-paced.   Sherlock is a series of three episodes that resurrects the Sherlock Holmes character (Watson is a Gulf War vet), and modernizes the stories to feature new technology. It's a shame that Sherlock is so incredibly annoying.  But all the props are there: the Baker Street address, Moriarty, etc.  MI-5 is by far the corniest, silly at times because it takes itself so seriously, yet it's still better than reruns of CSI  or L&O.


A few of the best: A Touch of Frost follows a cranky senior detective as he solves crimes around Denton, England.  It has an ensemble cast, and none of that annoying music video style production that CSI seems to have developed.  Another is Lewis, meaning Inspector Lewis, with two sort of bland actors as detective partners who actually kick ass in a rather polite and respectful way. Very mellow, very clean, sort of a vanilla crime show that is relaxing.  Collision is a five-part series dealing with the before and after of a major car wreck, with two detectives backtracking the activities of all the drivers involved.  Really, really good.

My favorite is Inspector George Gently, with two partners made of an aging detective (who remains dignified and sober even when he's furious) and his annoying young sidekick (who should be shot purely for his irritating habits, but they're just so darned polite they keep him on).  This is a fairly new series but it's set in Durham County in the early 1960's, and they have done something with the lighting that it almost looks black and white with James Bond-style music and retro clothing and cars.  Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby are the stars and the writing is crisp and the detectives are flawed but compelling. 

Another recent development is I've become hooked on audiobooks again.  A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is a wonderful book, and having it read dramatically while I clean house or work on beading jewelry is kind of cool.  I'm also listening to Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urberville's (read by George Gently star Martin Shaw) at night to relax before bed.  The Tiger's Wife by Tea Orbecht and Hardy's Return of the Native (read by Alan Rickman) are next in line.  There's something very peaceful about hearing a quiet voice reading aloud.  Years ago I had a lengthy project where I listened to John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener as I worked.  Today when I drive by and see the finished project I start remembering the story...they are cemented together. 

If you're up for trying an audio book, Audible and E-Music both offer free trials.  You can also download an audio book right off Amazon to your MP3 player or PC.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Field Report by Dennis Barone (lyric essays)

See this sheep?  Doesn't it appear a bit confused?  Befuddled?  This is a bit how I feel after reading Dennis Barone's book Field Report.  It's a collection of essays (lyric possibly?) and short observations about all matters of life.  I actually liked it a great deal, but some of it left me feeling like the perplexed sheep above.

First off, Barone has a great voice--light, energetic, and with a subtle wisdom that doesn't come off as pretentious or self-important.  Some of the stories are humorous, such as "My Big Fish Story".  Another one is deeply emotional, "Communion Rites", wherein Barone shows how an ordinary event can suddenly be remembered as significant.  My favorite of all involves a trip he makes to Italy to try and locate the home of his ancestors.  Eagerly he journeys all over, follows paths to nowhere, getting lost, and ultimately, not locating the source of his search.  Yet, as he states,

"And what does the undiscovered house offer--an invitation to return, of course.  And I will gladly do so....I have no complaint.  I enjoyed my morning.  I liked the town.  My only problem will be my very breathlessness until the moment that I do return."

In another, "Immunity Radio", he makes some observations on media and what is the focus of society's gaze:

"Connections between the intense fear of age and the usurpation of fulfillment have created a euphemism for survival...By using the most horrifying story to organize a mounting demand for law and order, one merely dramatizes results.  Live surrounded by mirrors, seek to escape an imaginative state and neither art nor religion has so overwhelming an idee fixe....  Public experimentation corrupts an entertainment...."

The confusion I felt came from a few essays that I had not a clue what the meaning was about.  They felt like puzzles that I needed to solve, and couldn't.  I think I'll return to these later to try and grasp his metaphors and allusions.  In one, "Now and At the Hour", it felt like part war veteran hallucination mixed with an underlying theme of the work of a writer.  One phrase is repeated:  "...that ripping sound, one colon torn from a soldier's spine, a hand...."  At first I was thinking of physical violence as part of the veteran's memory, but the words ripping, colon, spine, and hand can all refer to parts of book-text as well as the physical book.  As I read, I couldn't make the two make sense in my head. 

In all, it's an entertaining book that has the advantage of not leaving you 'finished'.  Rereading is certain to reveal more details and meaning. 

One tiny and possibly petty other thing must be mentioned....the press release for this book was so over the top that I actually giggled at it.  It came off a bit Nicole Krauss-style...remember this gem?  As I read it, a part of me wondered if I could indeed ever read another book and not end up disappointed after the magnitude of this title.  Fortunately, the press release writer and the author are not at all alike, and Barone's book is very good, with none of that mega-hype being necessary.

Special thanks to Quale Press for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This Way-Covering and Uncovering Tadeusz Borowski's "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen"

This art book takes on the Holocaust in an unexpected way:  by reviewing numerous submissions for cover art for the book This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski.  The range of styles and images is widely varied, all touching upon different nerves.  An editor would be hard-pressed to choose which one best represents what the book is all about.

As background, the collection of cover art also contains essays by six well-known scholars in studies of the time period.  Especially noteworthy are the essays by Berel Lang and John Bertram.  What is unique about their approach is instead of looking at the Holocaust from a more traditional approach, they examine how words and art were used as tools to influence attitudes and reinforce assumptions (as is typical even today).

"Hitler was a megalomaniacal artist intent on remaking the world, not only through murder on an unprecedented scale, but by destroying the ethical relationship between words and truth and images and reality."..........Liebe Geft, Director, Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, 2011

In reading this, I learned stories of Holocaust bravery and resilience that I never knew, as well as the vicious effect on survivor's ability to restore normal emotions.  One essay by Alicia Nitecki, "The Man Behind Tadeusz Borowski's Prose:  Anatol Girs," details the biography of a Polish graphic artist who ended up in Dachau.  He ended up designing a book cover for one compilation in this way:

"Girs published the book in an edition of 10,000 copies and dressed most copies just as Auschwitz had dressed them:  blue and gray prison stripes, a thin white strip of cloth with the letter "P" inside a red triangle and next to it a number.  No title on the cover.  No author's names.  No publisher's mark.

He covered an unspecified number of the volumes, he notes in his colophon, "in 'stripes' cut from original prison uniforms."  He also covered a few copies in the leather from SS uniforms, and binding his own copy in barbed wire."  (This Way, 42)

Leaving aside the historical significance (if at all possible), the art in this book is compelling and fascinating.  I have it on a side table and everyone ends up browsing through it. 

More info on the project that inspired the book is found at  The book can be purchased at that site or at

Many thanks to Debra, a friend, for the gift of this book.  I will treasure it!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Poet in Crete...

photo copyright Jeffrey Alfier
A photo from Crete, taken by my friend Jeffrey Alfier.  Love the rustic windows, the shadows, and the muted colors...the way they are so saturated and deep.  Also, the contrast between the children and the age of the buildings....stunning.  The stories this street could tell!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Saving Sea Turtles by James R. Spotila

Extraordinary Stories from the Battle Against Extinction

James Spotila conducts a worldwide study into what is causing the decrease in sea turtles throughout the world.  Going beyond just what is causing it, though, he carefully explicates why the decline is so important to all living things.

The biggest curiosity seems to be "what loggerheads are doing...during their oceanic stage."  Scientists can study what happens at each end of their journey, but not everyone agrees about what is happening en route.  They know that turtles in the western Pacific are declining, but due to what?  This mystery heightens the risk the turtles already face on land.

For example, dogs, raccoons, birds, coatis, crabs, and crocodiles all are known predators near shore and in nesting areas. Humans have a surprisingly huge impact as well, in two ways.  One is that real estate near the nesting areas is deemed more worthy than the marine habitat, so new homes and new pets, as well as pollution and traffic, all get closer to the areas essential to turtles for laying eggs. 

"My man does not need turtle eggs.
Because he knows they don’t make him more potent,”
says the caption.

Beyond that, turtle eggs are sought by many for consumption.  Turtle eggs placed in beer allegedly increases sexual stamina, a sort of Viagra for men in South and Latin America.  Cantinas can charge a great deal for the perk, so looting is common in the endangered habitats where sea turtles lay their eggs.  One conservation group launched a publicity campaign with an Argentinian model to discourage the practice, only to be shut down by women's groups offended by the scantily-clad model.

Turtle eggs are also used in baking, and a quick Google search yields many recipes.  Apparently, turtle eggs make a fluffier cake.  In Malaysia, 90% of turtle eggs are harvested by people for these reasons.

Global warming is suspected as another reason for the decline.  One reason is that the sex of the turtle is determined by how hot the egg gets during incubation.  Hotter beaches mean an increase in egg temperature that produces more females than males.  Less males mean that even if the turtles are healthy, they can't always reproduce.  Global warming also effects the food supply that the turtles depend on.

The book is a fascinating read, with many anecdotal examples.  The big shocker in it, though, has to be where the author promotes nuclear power as a way to avoid CO2 emissions, especially in India and China.  Given what has happened in Japan after this book went to press, that solution may not go over well.

Special thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

John Banville and Benjamin Black, via New Yorker

Yesterday's issue of New Yorker has a fascinating article on the use of pseudonyms, and takes on the writing of John Banville as himself and as Benjamin Black.

"Pseudonymously Yours"

Joanna Kavenna writes beautifully about both, with an eye for minute detail that makes me sure she's a huge fan.  She notices how artistically Banville writes in his books, while Black's are more detective noir.  She makes a case for the disparity, but just when you settle in and agree, she does a 180 and shows how similar the works actually are.  References to phrases and signature motifs are key, and as she interviews Banville at the same time, giving a wide-scope picture of what might have seemed a narrow topic.

For fans of either, it's a great exploration of writer's craft and intention.

Voices by Arnaldur Indridason

As a treat, I bought several books in the Reykjavik series by Indridason, and this week I'm goofing off with Icelandic crime.  This is an older title...Hypothermia is the most recent (I think), and one I reviewed last year. 

In Voices, the ensemble cast of three detectives is great--they all seem fully developed and competent, complementing each other's styles.  As far as the story goes, this was intriguing and fast-paced, but not particularly unusual in terms of plot.  In fact, I can't even say much about the outline without giving anything away.  Maybe I'm jaded, but I kind of knew where this was headed much earlier than any of the detectives did.  I was sort of surprised at the naivete they had that prevented them from solving the puzzle sooner.  That said, it was still an entertaining read.

Two complaints:  Eva Lind is the troubled daughter of the main detective, who is troubled in his own way after losing his brother decades before.  The interaction between the father and daughter is frustrating.  She seems incredibly whiny and childish, and he's far too patient to be for real.  While he seems to dwell on his loss for much of the book, it doesn't feel invasive.  While her self-pity is just obnoxious and less sympathetic.  I'd have loved to have seen less of her. 

The other thing is that for some reason, Iceland's unique location doesn't appear in much of the settings;  instead, Icelandic motif sweaters get a lot of mentions but not the actual geography/geology/history of the region.  Sure, almost all of the scenes take place in a hotel, where artifice reigns, yet still, I wished for more of the scenery...the George Gudni landscape that is both awe-inspiring and frightening at the same time.  Sadly, Gudni passed away recently in June, which actually inspired my seeking out this series of novels. 

Two sublime Gudni photos...

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Kindle Review-pros and cons after a month of use

So, I've had my Kindle 3G for about a month now, and I'd love to say that Amazon provided it for review.  No such luck, I bought this myself as a treat.  It's different than I expected, and hopefully I can share some observations that may help if you're looking for an e-reader.

Get an Ipad.  Seriously!  The only objections or things I don't like about the Kindle could be avoided with an Ipad, not another e-reader.  As an e-reader, having used two, this Kindle is pretty great, but I wish it could do more.

The surprises:  the instant Whispernet download thing is pretty cool.  It says under a minute but I find myself timing things and often it's seven seconds or less and it's on the Kindle, with no cables, conversions, or link to a computer.  Very cool.  I downloaded several of the Open Letter Press titles that were on sale from Amazon, and was pleased.  I also got several free classic texts available in the Kindle store (PD Wodehouse, Tolstoy, etc).  There's no problem with not having something to read. 

A big perk is that reading PDF files is a breeze.  That matters because it was the primary reason I bought the Kindle-I wanted to be able to read ARC's rec'd in PDF form without my laptop (which drives me nuts).  These are different in terms of downloading-you simply send the documents to yourself at the free email Kindle address that you are provided with when you get the Kindle.  It is sent via Whispernet and is ready for viewing immediately.  That's the only time you need a computer with it.

not my Kindle, but shows how M-edge cover fits,
and it folds back to allow single-hand page-turns

I was most impressed with reading newspapers and magazines on it, more so than even books.  I still love the feel of a print book, especially that if I drop one in the tub or spill coffee on it, it's not a huge financial loss.  And I thought the wide-format of a newspaper would make reading it on the Kindle a bore.  Actually, it's so much more convenient. The articles are sorted by title, making it easy to scroll through sections and read what you want.  Also, the access to worldwide newspapers in multiple languages is sort of fun when the Ambien has yet to kick in.

As far as reading an actual book on it, it's okay.  I am a fast reader so that page turn button, which is supposedly improved on this latest generation, still seems too slow.  The print itself is adjustable, which is nice, and the way you hold the Kindle (oriented to right or left hands) makes it possible to hold it in one hand and change the pages with that same hand (leaving the other free for snacking!).  It's comfortable to hold and is very light.  Also, you can view it in portrait or landscape mode to maximize screen area.

It's not backlit, which many people complain about.  I don't see the fuss-a book light at night is just fine.  Backlighting just hurts my eyes anyway.  Better yet, there's no glare, so reading outside is clear while working on my laptop outside is next to impossible.  It's not in color, but none of my books are either (except photos)...not even an issue for me. BUT, if I wanted my kid to read a book on it, color would be nice (see Ipad statement above).

this is the cover I bought, comes with a fabric
envelope as well for travel
The battery life is great, even though I leave the wi-fi 3g on all the time.  With it on, it delivers my subscriptions automatically and they are ready for viewing immediately.  By the way, subscriptions to magazines and papers is cheap...I am paying $2.99 a month for New Yorker-much less than the print issue and hopefully saving a few trees.

So, the cons.....strangely enough, turning it off is really hard.  It's easy to set it to sleep (where you have a bunch of screensavers rotate), but not all the way off.  I wish it were simpler to do that and I would like to select one of the screensavers instead of the rotation.  It would be nice to be able to customize it a bit as well (other than buying after market accessories)-but since it's not in color, it's not a big deal. The font on the pages seems boring and the list style of much of the options is dull-thumbnails would be better.  A touch screen would even surpass that.

The web browser is experimental, and it's crap.  Nearly impossible to view a webpage well, but I remind myself that I didn't buy it to surf the Internet.  I think email would be nice, but again, it's an e-reader. 

One of the biggest annoyances is if you need to type in a name or term-the QWERTY keypad is tiny and awkward, and there's no number line (that involves extra buttons), which is totally unacceptable in terms of convenience.  Also, the main menu button, a 4-way switch with center select is, at times, hard to accurately press.

There's the ability to select certain passages to save as clippings-but why not be able to highlight them in a pale grey background or something?  Going to the clippings file is a pain-it would be nice to scroll backward and see some sort of change in grey scale or font to signify your selected areas.  It's difficult to sort the clippings as well, at least with PDF files, because the first few lines refer back, not to the selected text, but to the document name.  Hard to explain but basically a pain.

Another negative is the price of accessories.  I bought a cheapie cover first but it was sort of insulting to the Kindle.  I ended up getting a New Yorker cover by M-Edge, which is very well designed and looks great (although a pocket would be nice).  The assumption that cover designers seem to make is that you'll never need to take notes with an e-reader, so few have pockets.  The price for the cover was pretty outrageous, as are 'skins' and booklights for it.  I'm pleased with the cover itself but it was just under 25% of the price of the Kindle which seems a bit much.  Some covers (Kate Spade and Cole Haan) run about $100 each...yikes.

So, why the Ipad?  I think it would be cool to streamline my calendar, contacts, and email with the e-reader, and be able to have games for the kid to play when we're stuck at the doctor.  The Ipad is the only real option for that, as would be another laptop, which just seems silly.  For convenience for reading on the go, this is great...but it could be so much more.  The idea of carrying a PDA and a Kindle and a digital camera and a paper notebook seems excessive, yet putting them all together usually lessens the qualities of one of the components.

One last remark on the proprietary use of Kindle books as opposed to others---yep, you have to purchase Kindle titles only (so no Googlebooks or Nook books).  Some people get really upset about this, but one guy online pointed out that his razor and cartridges have the same issue-those aren't interchangeable either.  I don't fault Amazon on this end.  Xboxes don't play Playstation games. Some things can be converted (EPUB to Calibre, for example) for use on the Kindle.  I don't see it as a big issue or artistic limitation.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Memoirs of a Gulag Actress by Tamara Petkevich (nonfiction)

Translated from the Russian by Yasha Klots and Ross Ufberg

Astonishing.  Painful.  And incredibly difficult to put down...

I am not sure what I was expecting when I started this book.  The idea that any form of entertainment was possible in the Gulag prison camps seemed bizarre.  Yet her part in a theatre troupe is not the most amazing part of the book-the book as a whole is a fascinating exploration into personal character in the face of paralyzing evil.

First off, we learn that Tamara was regularly beaten by her somewhat mysterious father-she faced extreme punishment in the home for the slightest perceived error.  However, her father was captured and imprisoned, taken away from the family, and leaving her mother and three sisters without assistance.  The mystery of her father's 'crime' became meaningless as just finding sustenance for one day became a challenge.  She feels deeply concerned about providing for her family, given her mother's emotional instability and the changing political climate.  Eventually, she decides to marry a man who has been exiled to a distant city because he was a doctor, part of the intelligentsia that the Soviet's so despised.  Her move to him there, in the hopes that she could send money home to her family in Leningrad, was possibly the worst mistake she could make. 

The Soviet paranoia couldn't understand why someone would willfully choose exile, so she was under suspicion immediately.  Not only was she unable to help her family (her mother and a sister died during the Siege of Leningrad), but her so-called friends and acquaintances turned her in and made up charges against her (likely to receive basic necessities for themselves or some sort of leeway in their own troubles).  Imprisoned and sentenced, she ends up in the Gulag, serving hard labor by harvesting and processing hemp.

There's so much about this book that is covered--personal life, Russian politics, family interactions (her mother-in-law is a piece of work!), and unimaginable horror, that it's hard to review and not tell it all.  There's so much beyond just the facts but how she processed them as they occurred.  It left me with many questions.

Namely, given that she doesn't appear to have many close friends that have remained loyal, no family to count on, no spiritual connection to draw on, and very few examples of courage, how did she remain sane and decent?  What gave her the strength to go through it all, essentially alone in every aspect?  A cheating husband, a sister who can't forgive her for leaving (and failing to protect her), a son ripped from her arms who ends up never wanting to be part of her life?  The physical pain of hard labor, starvation, and beatings?

As a personal history, it's astounding.  Her voice throughout it is never self-pitying, and in fact, at a few points I imagined she was being a little too positive about the situations.  Was it just in her nature to look for the best in it all?  Suicide was an option of many-for her it was unimaginable. 

It's very fast-paced and dramatic, and while a knowledge of some Russian history is helpful, I wouldn't think it's essential.  A few moments of confusion occurred for me as many of the names were not only difficult but she didn't use each name consistently, sometimes she would use a nickname or a surname or the Russian patronymics (patronyms?) interchangeably.  I felt like I needed a sheet to keep track of names.  Also, it gave me a bit of pause to consider that she doesn't really reveal anything negative about herself:  no flaws or weaknesses.  Genuine history generally shows both sides, the good and the bad, to merit accuracy.  Yet, it's her biography so I'm sure it was her right to share only what she wished.  I just kept hoping she'd be a little more human and lose her temper with her conniving and hideous mother-in-law or give her cad husband a little more grief.

However, I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Russia.  It's a clean read too, nothing explicit or unsavory, so even young teens could read this and learn just how ugly history can be.  I can't help but think anyone who reads this is better off in their own life by seeing just how, by contrast, our society is pampered and simple.

Special thanks to Northern Illinois University Press for the Review Copy.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black

Good old Quirke.  The coroner/sleuth/ladies man is back to solve another puzzle.  I've read the other Dr. Quirke books by Benjamin Black, and there's just something so appealing about the Dublin city life and Dr. Quirke in it:  his mournful boozing, the earnest but misguided attempts at parenting his adult daughter, and the stream of women that never ends, despite no apparent effort on his part to attract them.  In fact, I picture him much as the detective George Gently played by Martin Shaw on the British television series Gently

In any case, this story involves the suspected suicide of the high-profile society member and horseman Richard Jewell.  Quirke ends up at the country estate almost immediately and assists in interviewing the widow, a striking French woman who is calm and collected despite the horror she just discovered.  As in many television shows, the medical examiner here seems more of a detective than a doctor...he pretty much leads the investigation for all purposes.  Yes, it's a bit of a stretch but Quirke is just that kind of character, one that Black (a pseudonym of author John Banville) writes well. 

Because it takes place in Ireland, there are gorgeous descriptions of country estates, drawing rooms, and endless cups of tea. As in all Black novels, many descriptions of the facets of light and dark, the penumbras of shadow play.  I noticed a new motif in this particular novel-trees are often described extensively and with a sense of purpose to the story.  It's a nice touch that makes the story feel more of a journey than a procedural.

Brit actor Martin Shaw, how I imagine Quirke
 So with all that going for it, it should be better than it is.  Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy the series and the character of Quirke is up there with Wallander for me in terms of crime fiction.  But this one disappointed me in two ways.  First, it introduces a story line about Sinclair, Quirke's assistant, and his possible relationship with Phoebe, Quirke's troubled but plucky daughter.  It's compelling, but it doesn't seem to develop-it drops off completely.  Then, there are the other characters that make up the suspects, and I felt like they were all sort of caricatures-from beginning to end, they never changed in their behavior.  Instead of developing some complexity or depth, they simply remained the same as when the story introduces them. This made predicting and solving the crime fairly easy for the reader.  Usually in a detective story, the underlying rule is 'nothing is as it seems';  yet in this one, yep, it pretty much is exactly how it seems.

And, no spoilers here, but in terms of imagination, the plot of this book has been on every other episode of Law & Order SVU.  Mental illness, homeless children, anti-Semitic hate crimes, and business corruption fill in the blanks, but the basic premise is pretty bland and predictable.  It's still an enjoyable read, as there's something strangely peaceful about the old-school sleuthing that Quirke does. 

Special thanks to Jason Leibman of Henry Holt for the Advance Review Copy. 
This title releases today, 7/5/11.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Cloud of Witnesses, Jason Stumpf --prose poetry

Reading Jason Stumpf's collection of prose poems from Quale Press requires you to set aside any preconceptions about what you are about to read.  Because this is a really weird book.  Weird in a good way...A delightful way!

First off, the thing that hits you as you begin is the random words thrown (skillfully) together in a strange mix that creates intense visual images.  In one, "An Evening's Entertainment", the picture is outlined with first a "brute pianist" who doesn't play the piano but bangs "his digits on the tusks".  Dead flowers, distracted twins, and a old portrait fill the scene.  The choice of words (tusks instead of keys, for example) instills a sense of violence in what others might portray as a simple image of a guy and a piano.  It's almost like solving a puzzle, as you notice what words Stumpf chose in view of what might have been more typical.

"Dinner-Time" is a word play that is both comic at first but ending with an ominous tension...only the last word reveals that a 'secret' is threaded within the previous paragraph.  So it snaps you back into wondering, what was the secret? 

The most critical part of the book is the End-Matter...surely they could have been moved to be the First-Notes, however.  Because reading those helps get a sense of the depth of each piece...I wish I had seen them earlier instead of later.  Stumpf calls on Scripture, Rothko paintings, classic poets such as Shelley, Neruda, and Keats, and novelists such as Joyce, Hardy and Beckett for inspiration. 

The End-Matter helped me better understand "Re-Tailing a Lion" because it explains that each word is found in Keats "Ode to a Grecian Urn", although this new telling has a different perspective than Keats' memorial vision. 

My favorite of the collection is "Fronts", about a man not healthy enough to go to war in 1944, yet well enough to suddenly become a popular choice for a companion for the town's women since the men are gone.  "Transmissions from a sinking ship, he once remarked, sound something like a waltz."  And then the Morse code follows the paragraph (SOS, I think!)...underscoring the element of a silver lining for this frail man.  The bitter loss of others ironically heightens his status.

Lastly, "MCMXLIII" explains the swaying confusion of a man reading the Bible over the course of a year, with an appropriate theme of a water voyage.  "From Adam to the epistles, male to mail, he read, and in dreams that year saw a flotilla of begats sailing near.  He took comfort in how, like reeds, even kings sometimes lied down, broken in the sea." 

The collection is in no way typical and requires more than a casual reading to enjoy it best.  I read it rather slowly, just one a day, to try and visualize the images he makes instead of rushing through them.  Focusing on word choices and their impact (instead of a tamer or more typical synonym) gives the reader a visceral response that sometimes is surprising.

Special thanks to Gian Lombardo of Quale Press for the Advance Review Copy.

Friday, July 1, 2011

My Cat, Coon Cat by Sandy Ferguson Fuller & Jeannie Brett

I've never hid the fact that I adore Islandport Press for their heirloom quality children's books (and also regional books about Maine).  So if I gush, forgive me.  For this new children's book is very worthy of lots of gushing! 

My Cat, Coon Cat is a picture book that follows a stray who turns up at a gorgeous Cape Cod-style home, and over the course of a day explores the area and gets friendly with the owners.  Maine coon cats are known for being enormous, and the friendly cat that scores the best possible new home is no slouch.  A little girl, about ten or eleven-years-old, encourages the cat to stay.

The art work is expressive yet simple.  Highly detailed from the little girl's eyelashes to the patterns on the cat fur make it gorgeous to look at.  The artwork also has subtle clues as to what the household is like, and my four-year-old likes discovering things in the pictures.  One bunch of roses on one page has launched a heated debate as to whether they are berries or roses.  They're roses.  I'm positive, but he is just as sure that they are clumps of red berries.

The story is simple, sweet, with a gentle rhyme.  Appropriate for all children and cat lovers alike, the reading level would probably be considered K-1 grade.  As with their other books, Islandport uses heavy-weight paper stock, matte inks, and a printing and binding process that means this book will last and be enjoyed by (hopefully) my grandchildren some day. 

It joins Islandport's Dahlov Ipcar titles on the 'favorites' shelf at our house.

Special thanks to Melissa Kim of Islandport Press for the Review Copy.