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Monday, January 30, 2012

Colors of the Mountain

Colors of the Mountain (#150) is a memoir by Chinese author Da Chen.  It was recommended by one of our members for our Literary Circle discussion, and moved to this month because two of us will be leaving for a visit to China in a few weeks.  I must admit that I stalled on starting this book, convinced that I wouldn't find it interesting.  Was I wrong!

Da Chen was born in 1962 in a remote rural village in southern China.  Because his grandfather had been a landlord before Chairman Mao came to power, Chen's entire family was punished and ostracized by the communist commune.  His older brother and sisters were all forced to leave school and work as farmers.  The local authorities even tried to force Da out of the third grade.  The story of what his life was like, how he struggled to find something - anything - to excel at, the family's ups and downs, and the tales of the friends he makes along the way make for riveting reading.  How he succeeds in finding his way out to a larger world is a personal triumph.

In my sophomore year in college I vividly remember reading a text for my social studies class, Fan Chen, about a farming community during the Cultural Revolution in China.  It made quite an impression to have stuck in my mind for all these (40!) years.  I have the feeling Colors of the Mountain will have a similar impact since this book covers a period of time that I can remember.  It should be noted, though, that the classrooms I attended bore absolutely no resemblance to Da's Yellow Stone elementary school.  And I can't imagine my own  mother, who was a third grade teacher, trying to cope with students sauntering in whenever they please, or jumping in and out of a convenient window, but especially not sitting back and smoking along with her class.  Horrors!

Suffice it to say that I'm going to make sure my husband reads this book before we leave on our trip, but I have to see what happens to Da Chen next, so I'm eagerly looking forward to reading the sequel he wrote to this memoir: Sounds of the River.  Just how did he make it to New York City and a scholarship to Columbia Law School?   I promise you'll find Colors of the Mountain book a terrific ride!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Jane and the Canterbury Tale

The eponymous Jane of the title Jane and the Canterbury Tale (#149) is the incomparable Jane Austen.  In the eleventh outing of Stephanie Barron's mystery series, Jane lends her hand in solving the death of a stranger when a body is found along the old Pilgrims Way to Canterbury bordering her brother Edward's Kentish estate of Godmersham. 

What possible connection can the stranger have to a strange wedding gift sent to the bride at the wedding reception Jane and her family attended at a neighboring estate the previous evening?  Quite a strong one it seems, when the victim is identified as the bride's first husband, long presumed dead.  Eward Austen Knightly will have his work cut out for him as the local magistrate to sort out this mess and he begs Jane's aid.  So much for her hopes of a quiet family visit in Kent to work on her current novel!  A second gruesome death proves to be the unraveling point for the many threads tied into this knot of entangled lives and fortunes. 

What I particularly enjoy about this series is Ms. Barrons' use of Jane Austen's actual correspondence to place Jane in the historically correct locale for each mystery.  The characters in these novels are Jane herself, and her actual family, friends and social connections along with the fictional victims and villains.  Since the stories are told in first person from Jane's perspective, employing the language and spelling of the period, it is sometimes hard to remember that you are not reading the real Jane's words.  Jane and the Canterbury Tale kept me glued to my sofa (or should I say "sopha"?) to see what would happen next.  What better way to lose one's self in a book?  I can't think of a more satisfying one for a Jane Austen fan.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Turn Right at Machu Picchu

When I saw Turn Right at Machu Picchu (#148) by Mark Adams on my library's New Non-Fiction Books On Order list, I knew I had to read it.  I've dreamed of going to Machu Picchu ever since I first read about it as a child in Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels.  (Now that's a book with legs!  First published in 1937, new paperback and hardcover editions came out in 2011.  I can't recommend it highly enough.)  In Mr. Halliburton's highly romanticized version of who lived there and what might have happened to them, the remnants of the Incas have fled to this mountain top city and eventually die out there.  Mr. Halliburton then recounts his own exploration of the site in a way that is guaranteed to make every child wish he or she were an adventurer traveling with him.

In a way, that's just what happens in Turn Right at Machu Picchu; Mark Adams is inspired by his job at an adventure travel magazine to get out of the office and do some traveling of his own.  Peru seemed an obvious choice because his wife is Peruvian, plus he had read about the controversy between Yale University and Peru over the ownership rights to the artifacts that Yale Professor Hiram Bingham, famous as the discoverer of Machu Picchu, had brought back from his highly publized journeys there.  The centennial date of Bingham's find was approaching in 2011 and Peru was sueing in the US Supreme Court for the return of their national treasures. 

Hiram Bingham may not have actually discovered Machu Picchu, but he sure did make it famous when his article about the site was published in the 1913 edition of National Geographic, and in his three subsequent books on the subject .  What would make a better adventure than to try to retrace Bingham's steps, especially when Bingham's source material at Yale was so conveniently close to New York City?

Mark Adams' often humorous account of his trips to Peru to pursue this goal is almost like being there yourself - only without the sweat-soaked clothes, lack of sanitary facilities and the physical conditioning needed to undertake this kind of trip.  Along the way I painlessly learned a lot about Inca history and Inca technological skills.  It also made me all the more determined to see Machu Picchu for myself.  Yes, I hope to be one of the hordes of tourists that Mark Adams and his intrepid Australian guide John Leivers did their best to avoid.  I know I could never do the kind of rugged trekking up and down mountains the pair of them didl  (Granted they did do it with their muleteers, porters, cook and driver. but still!  These are the Andes!!!)

My husband also enjoyed this book very much, but he did make me nervous when he declared "We can't go to Machu Picchu and become those senior citizen American tourists in their matching tee shirts!"  Not to worry, though.  If we are lucky enough to make it to Peru with Outdoor Adventure Travel in the next few years, we never dress alike!

If you're an armchair traveler or a fan of Bill Bryson, Turn Right at Machu Picchu should be on your "to read" list of travel books.  It'll make you breathless in more ways than one.  Maybe I'll see you at Machu Picchu some day in the future...

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mary Boleyn; The Mistress of Kings

Have you read or seen the film adaptation of Phillippa Gregory's popular Tudor novel The Other Boleyn Girl?  It is a good read, but it is fiction.  Sometimes I want to cut through the stories and find out what's real and what's not.  Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings (#147) by Alison Weir is just the ticket.  It's a serious biography of that other Boleyn girl.

From the way Mary has been portrayed in novels, on the screen and even in various historical references, I expected Mary's story to reflect the rather flamboyant title of this biography, but what Ms. Weir has tracked down in contemporary references reveals quite a different picture.  She seems to have been a reluctant player in the royal games, yet her role was significant in her sister's story.

She was also the only one of her surviving siblings to ultimately marry for love and die in her own bed.  After reading about the way Mary was treated, especially by her own family, it does create a vindication for her choices. 

Also, Ms. Weir speculates, based on a number of sources, that Mary might also have produced the only branch of the Tudor family to exist in the present generation.  Ultimately, only the participants in this story knew the truth, but it certainly is interesting to think about.

A recommended read to balance the Tudor fantasies out there.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Flash and Bones

And now for something completely different: from the Third Reich to Kathy Reichs.  The latest in her Dr. Temperance Brennan series is Flash and Bones (#146).  The background for this one is the world of NASCAR - a natural, since Tempe's home is in Charlotte, a major racing hub.

Tempe is called in when a body is unearthed from a landfill located on the Charlotte Raceway grounds during Race Week.  A man connected with one of the racing crews there for the Nationwide series contacts her after the news gets out.  Wayne Gamble wonders if the body could belong to his big sister, missing since 1998.  She and her boyfriend vanished at that time and have never been heard from since.  The police at the time insisted that the couple ran away together, but her brother is sure that's not the case.  And there's been another disappearance during Race Week that has the FBI concerned: someone from the CDC with access to potential biological weapons is missing.  Can there be a connection between the body in the landfill and the missing CDC employee?

This was a really fast read for me.  I think Kathy Reichs' writing has gotten better as she goes along.  Tempe Brennan seems more human in her later stories, with the emphasis on character instead of procedural forensic details.  If you're a diehard CSI fan you may object to this trend, but I, for one, enjoy it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

The subtitle of Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts (#145) says it all: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.  The family in this case is that of William E. Dodd, appointed Ambassador to Berlin by Roosevelt in 1933, where he served until the end of 1937.  His wife Mattie and their two grown children, Bill Jr., and Martha, accompanied him, but the focus of the book is on Dodd himself and daughter Martha.

Dodd became an ambassador by accident because none of the wealthy elite who comprised the US diplomatic corps wanted the job.  He had been head of the History Department at the University of Chicago and was contemplating stepping down so that he could finally finish writing his life's work: Old South.  He would have like nothing better than to retire to his farm in Virginia to do so.  Instead, his name was mentioned by a friend of his with Washington connections as a possible candidate for a diplomatic post and he was summoned to an interview with Roosevelt.  Dodd accepted the post provided that it was understood that he would live on his diplomatic salary.  Before long, Dodd and his family were in Berlin where Hitler had recently been appointed Vice Chancellor and the Nazi party was on the rise. 

Dodd was uneasy in Berlin from the beginning.  It was not the Germany he remembered from his student days in Leipzig.  He watched the new laws being enacted by Hitler with a growing sense of dismay and did his best to counteract harassment of American citizens.  All this without the support of the State Department at home or the Berlin Embassy, or for that matter, the rest of the diplomatic community.

Dodd's contact with the high-ranking government officials was part and parcel of his job, but Martha's involvement with the power elite was of an entirely different and personal nature.  She mingled with the international correspondents, the writers, the young men of the diplomatic legations, but most importantly, with the rising stars of the Nazis.  She was infatuated with the "New Germany".  Her affairs did not go unnoticed or unremarked by the other American Embassy officials, most of whom grew to actively dislike her.   Her letters and journals do provide a glimpse into a social whirl entirely separate from the one her father experienced.

How William and Martha Dodd's attitudes towards the German government and people were shaped and changed by their first hand observations and experiences as events around them unfolded is a fascinating read.  By the end of the book, I found much to admire about Dodd's prescience and doomed attempts to sound the alarm.  Martha, on the other hand, was quite a piece of work!  This book can be painful to read on many levels, but the window it opens on this period of history is illuminating. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New Tricks

Meet Waggy, a pivotal character in New Tricks (#144), David Rosenfelt's "Lawyer to the Dogs" Andy Carpenter  mystery series.  Andy's nemesis, Judge Henry "Hatchet" Henderson, has called him in for a pro bono assignment to sort out just who will get custody of Waggy, a hyperactive Bernese mountain dog puppy.  His former owner Walter Timmerman has been murdered.  Timmerman also happened to be an extremely wealthy entrepeneur and scientist whose trophy wife and son are disputing Waggy's ownership and fate as show dog or pet.  It seems like a fairly straightforward legal matter for Andy to handle - until he's almost killed in a bomb blast at the Timmerman mansion where he's gone to pick up Waggy.

Suddenly Andy finds himself taking care of a puppy that never stops, a new human client to defend against a double murder charge, and a case where the clues just don't add up.  When his long-time girlfriend Laurie is shot while playing with Waggy and his golden retriever Tara in his own yard, and Andy is facing the very real possibility that he might lose her, things become very, very personal in his pursuit of this case.

Rosenfelt includes his trademark plot twists and witty dialogue in this outing.  He also does a better job of wrapping up the loose plot ends more satisfactorily than in Play Dead (See my post of 12/26/11.)  Laurie's brush with death provides a key turning point in her relationship with Andy.  Look for strong, silent Marcus (Laurie's scary investigator friend!) to play a key role in this book.  And Waggy?  It looks like his owner will be spending a fortune in doggy chews for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Spy Who Came for Christmas

The Spy Who Came for Christmas (#143) by David Morrell is my final Christmas book for this season.  My husband actually read it first and was intrigued by a legend Mr. Morrell includes about the Three Wisemen.  Since I was reading this on January 6th, Epiphany, which honors the Magi's visit to Bethlehem, I felt this was book was an entirely appropriate choice.

The plot involves a spy working undercover with the Russian mob.  His group's assignment on Christmas Eve in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is to kidnap a baby and deliver him to their clients.  Paul has done many distasteful jobs to prove himself to the Russians, but this one is the final straw for him.  He grabs the baby himself and is on the run in Santa Fe on one of the busiest streets in the country as tourists mingle to see the lights and decorations. Paul was wounded as he escaped from the rest of the gang and is forced to hole up in a house with a young woman and her disabled son.  Will any of them make it through the night alive?

This certainly isn't a "sweetness and light" Christmas tale; the body count is fairly high.  Paul's pursuers are motivated not only by the money they will earn and fear of the pahkan, or head of their mafia group, but by revenge - one of their own has turned on them.  They can't afford to let him or any other witnesses live.  Meanwhile, Meredith and her son Cole have had their own personal trauma to deal with that evening.  They've been so damaged by what happened to them that it's unclear if they'll be able to, or even want to help Paul and the baby.  What did tie this book together was the recurring Three Kings motif, and the important role it played in influencing the events in the story. 

If you're looking for something next Christmas season to read without fear of raising your blood sugar levels, this may be the story for you.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Submission

The Submission (#142) by Amy Waldman sparked a great conversation at my Literary Circle.  This book has been promoted as "perhaps the defining novel about 9/11".  If you remember that day (and who does not in America?) there will be many things that will resonate in the attitudes and actions of the characters, as well as an equal number of things that make you ask yourself "Could I ever have thought this way?" 

The plot of the novel concerns a design competition for a 9/11 memorial to be built at the site of the World Trade Towers two years later.  The jury of artists and one token family member representative has narrowed the choice down to two anymous entries.  Claire, the family representative, comes down strongly in favor of a garden design.  After this memorial proposal is chosen, the name of the architect is revealed: Mohammed Khan.  How the jury, the architect himself, the public, the press and politicians deal with this choice is the nucleus of the story. 

It's all too easy to put yourself in the place of many of the characters as they struggle to come to terms with their own prejudices, fears, and sense of loss.  All of the characters are flawed, though some are more sympathetic than others.  How do you peel through the moral and ethical layers when ambition and personal gain rear their ugly heads?  There is no happy ending in this book, but the author still manages to resolve things in a way that in the end is more positive than negative.

Several of us found ourselves reading faster and faster the further we got into the book.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, one of our book group members refused to finish the book because she thought it was so negative.  (We did convince her by the end of the evening that she had drawn the wrong conclusion by just reading the last few pages of the book, and that she needed to go back and read the whole thing.)  I was glad that the group's choice of this book forced me to read about this sensitive subject.  It's a book that will stay with me for a long time.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Trading Christmas

Trading Christmas (#141) by Debbie Macomber is the first Christmas present I've read this year.  My husband took one look at this book when I retrieved it from the reserved section of the library a few weeks ago and made me return it.  No surprise about what was under the Christmas tree for me! (He does object to all the Debbie Macomber recommendations Amazon sends him.  Go figure.)  Trading Christmas was originally published under the title When Christmas Comes, but since Ms. Macomber notes that she had a screenplay in mind when she wrote it, it should be no surprise that Hallmark wanted to tweak the title for this year's Christmas lineup.  Some of my friends have enjoyed the movie version, but if I've read a book I rarely want to see the movie.  Since I've peopled my imagination with the  background, the characters, and the sounds of their voices, I'm usually disappointed with someone else's vision of the same fictional world. 

This book actually contains two Christmas novellas: Trading Christmas and The Forgetful Bride.  The featured story was quite amusing.  Christmas surprises backfire on a mother who wants to surprise her daughter studying at Harvard, and a Harvard professor who will do anything to avoid the sights and sounds of Christmas while he holes up to finish a history textbook.  After they exchange their Boston condo and Leavenworth, Washington home for the holidays, nothing turns out to be what they bargained for.  Throw in Santa and his elves (played by a full size human and six dwarves, professional actors all), a rebellious daughter and a live lobster that just won't let go, and you have the makings of a screwball romantic comedy.  If you missed it on Hallmark this year, I'm sure you'll be able to see it next season.

The Forgetful Bride combines a super efficient Seattle stock broker in love with her boss, and a reunion with her brother's best friend from years ago, now a successful contractor.  Joe won't let her forget that Cait made him marry her before she'd let him kiss her.  The problem is he tells everyone else around them they're still married.  She was only eight at the time, for pete's sake!  How is she ever going to get her boss to notice her when her time and attention is increasingly occupied by Joe?  And why is her friend Lindy acting so strangely?  Things come to a head over the Christmas holiday.

Perfect fare for reading after the presents have all been opened, and the guests have finally gone home.  Remember, it's still Christmas season until January 6th!