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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Holidays in Hell

I picked up P.J. O'Rourke's Holidays in Hell (#272) from my library's travel books display because I recognized his name from hearing him on NPR.  The cover blurb "In which our intrepid reporter travels to the world's worst places and asks "What's funny about this?"" was enough to convince me.

It wasn't until I began reading it that I realized that this was a reissue of a 1988 collection of articles which originally appeared in other publications between 1986 and 1988.  In his introduction, O'Rourke explains that his object was to visit places where conflict was occurring, not as a serious reporter, but rather as a tourist.  An interesting (if not crazy!) way to see things.  Can you spell adrenaline junkie?  It was amazing to me how many of the political groups and conflicts which P. J. O'Rourke covered in this book used to make up the bulk of the nightly news, and that I remembered the names of the Lebanese and Nicaraguan splinter groups after not hearing them for years.  But it was equally amazing how much has changed in just twenty five years, while remaining exactly the same.  Only the place names and ethnicities are different.

I have to admit that the first group of articles was very amusing, even laughter provoking.  But when I hit Weekend Getaway: Heritage USA (Does anyone even remember what this was now?) the mood of the book shifted from sarcastic, funny and spot on observations to sarcastic and downright nasty.  I certainly wouldn't have classified either this ultra conservative fundamentalist Christian theme park founded by Jim and Tammy Bakker in South Carolina or Disney's Epcot Center in Orlando as locations too dangerous for the average American to travel to, but it's clear that O'Rourke's acid tongue could burn a large hole in your self confidence if you have the nerve to admit that you ever enjoyed either place.  For the remainder of the book, there was a sameness to the articles which verged on extreme tediousness.  I kept reading, hoping that Mr. O'Rourke would recapture some of the witty skewering he began with.  Alas, it was not to be. 

He was also way off  the mark on the predictions he made for what the world scene would look like in 2013, although he did almost get one of his wishes: former New York City mayor Ed Koch did die this year, but that's long after O'Rourke hoped it would happen.

An interesting and quaint bit of nostalgia if you're old enough to remember the political scenes of the mid to late 1980s, but I certainly wouldn't add Holidays in Hell to my "Must Read" list.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Flower Net

It's always a pleasure when you come across something by one of your favorite authors which you haven't read yet.  That's the case with Lisa See's thriller Flower Net (#271), originally published in 1997.   In fact, I thought it was such a good thriller that my husband will finally be reading his first Lisa See novel!

Set in modern day Beijing and Los Angeles, the bodies of two young men are discovered thousands of miles apart.  One is the son of the American Ambassador to China, found frozen in a lake in a Beijing park.  The other is a "Red Prince", the son of a wealthy Chinese business man whose body turns up on a Chinese cargo ship left adrift in American territorial waters with hundreds of illegal immigrants aboard.  As Inspector Liu Hulan of the Ministry of Public Safety in Beijing investigates, her suspicions are aroused.   Meanwhile, U.S. Assistant District Attorney David Stark is busy pursuing the connection between the China Peony, her passengers who all claim not to know anything about the body, and the role of the Chinese triads in the whole affair.  A decision is made at the highest levels in the US and China to work jointly to solve the two cases that seem, by the manner of their deaths, to be related.  Are the triads truly involved, or are Inspector Liu and David Stark hunting for a vicious serial killer?  The action moves back and forth between Beijing and Los Angeles, and things aren't made any easier for Liu and Stark when they find themselves working together.  Again.

I didn't want  to put this book down once I started it, and I have to admit, I read it throughout the Oscar presentations.  I was glad, though, that I didn't read this book until after I had been to Beijing myself.  Although things have changed quite a bit in the fifteen years since Flower Net was first published, if you've ever been there yourself,  you'll recognize much of the background that Lisa See incorporates in her plot, especially if you've been fortunate enough to visit the old style Chinese homes in the hutong.  Even if you haven't, be prepared to set aside everything else while you try to stay one step ahead in this thriller. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Insane City

Very few writers can make me laugh out loud.  Dave Barry is one of them.  I spent the last couple of days reading his latest, Insane City (#270) and thinking that the comedians of America must be so grateful for the material that could only come from Florida, and in this case, Miami in particular.

What could be a more perfect place to have your destination wedding than in sunny Florida?  And since Seth Weinstein is marrying the perfect woman, and this is what Tina wants, he assumes everything will go along just swimmingly since her parents have more money than God.  He couldn't be more wrong.  His Groom Posse doesn't even wait until they get to Florida to pull their first prank on Seth.  From there it's downhill as he manages to lose his luggage (with the custom-made wedding ring) and the Groom Posse, run afoul of an angry stripper and her gigantic manager (and he had specifically told Marty "No strippers!!!), alienate even further his soon-to-be in-laws, become involved with some desperate Haitian refugees and royally piss off his bride-to-be,  Oh, and did I mention the albino python and the two hundred fifty pound orangutan with a yen for the ladies?  And could Seth really be responsible for interfering with his father-in-law's strategic social move to join the ultra secretive and powerful Gang of Six?  Can true love possibly triumph?

Insane City is a novel packed with an assortment of zany characters, a suspenseful story line, and twists and turns that you may see coming, but you won't care, because the ride is so much fun.  And reading about it is much safer than being there!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Neither Here Nor There

I found Neither Here Nor There (#269), an early travel book by Bill Bryson, at my local library.  The subject of this one is a 1990 trip Bryson took after he'd moved to England to live, trying to recreate his first trip to Europe in 1972 with his friend Steve Katz.  Things are never the same when you try to recapture those youthful memories...

Bryson begins his solo trip in Hammerfest, Norway, the northernmost town in Europe, in order to see the Northern Lights.  Naturally, the best time to see them is in the winter.  Suffice it to say, it's not a place on the top of my list to visit.   After that initial outing, Bryson returns home to England to wait for spring and pleasanter weather to continue his wandering across the rest of the continent - France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and assorted Balkan countries, ending in Istanbul at the edge of Asia.

On reading this, I began by laughing out loud at a number of his situations and observations.  If you've traveled for business or for pleasure it's easy to sympathize with many of his plights.  But as Bryson continues on his journey, especially through Austria and Eastern Europe, I found his wanderings becoming quite melancholic.  Why was he spending so much aimless time in such joyless places?  And why on earth had he and Katz chosen to go there in the first place back in 1972?  It was sobering, looking back at his visit to Sarajevo, that it took place just before the outbreak of vicious Serbo-Croat hostilities when much of the city he saw was destroyed, or that he visited Bulgaria just weeks before its revolution. 

Both my husband and I wondered what Bryson would find if he took roughly the same trip today in the era of the smart phone.  I think he would find the changes even more profound.  You couldn't use this book today as blueprint for things to see and do in Europe the way we used his  In A Sunburned Country before we went to Australia (See my post of 9/5/11.).  Still, it's a bit of nostalgia to look back at his travels, and remember when you were there in the early 70s and again in the 90s.  In many ways, I'm glad you can't go back there again.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Fifth Assassin

Caution!  Don't read Brad Meltzer's latest thriller The Fifth Assassin (#268) unless you've already read the first book in this series The Inner Circle (See my post of 4/13/11.).  Otherwise, you'll only be frustrated by the constant references to things, people and events in that book, and you'll miss half of what is going on here.

This time, someone is imitating the assassinations of the four Presidents of the United States killed in office.  The difference is that each of the first four victims are pastors,  but it's apparent that his or her ultimate target will be the sitting president,  Orson Wallace unless they can figure out when and where the assassin will strike next.  Beecher White, Archivist of the United States, is once again drawn into the plot with his mentor, Tot.  Given his past history with President Wallace, is this accidental, or is it deliberate?  The players involved make Beecher think that the plot's roots might be buried somewhere in his own past.  Will the Culper Ring, sworn to protect the presidency, have enough manpower and  resources to prevail against an unknown enemy whose motives are unclear?

If you have read The Inner Circle, you'll find The Fifth Assassin just as exciting.  I burned the midnight oil finishing this one because I couldn't bear to wait until morning to find out what would happen and who was responsible.  I did NOT see it coming!  But be forewarned.  Just like The Inner Circle, Mr. Meltzer intentionally leaves some threads dangling tantalizingly at the end.  There will be more...(Or should I say, there'd better be more!)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Painted Girls

I grew up admiring Edgar Degas' stauette Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.  My father frequently took me to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where a bronze casting of this work was located in the Impressionist galleries, one of my favorite parts of the museum.  The subject was a girl like me, and the ribbon tying her hair was real.  It was enough to make me wonder what her life was like.

Cathy Marie Buchanan was similarly struck by theframed Degas pieces in the ballet studio where she took lessons growing up, but she has turned her admiration into the novel The Painted Girls (#267).  Her book is based loosely on the lives of Marie van Goethem, the model for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and those of her sisters Antoinette and Charlotte, all of whom danced at one time or another in the Paris Opera Ballet.

If you're expecting a prettified and romantic version of what life was like for these "petit rats" in the Opera Ballet school, prepare to be disappointed.  If you want to know what life was really like for these girls and women in late nineteenth century Paris, you'll get a faint glimmering from a contemporary review of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen quoted in Ms. Buchanan's novel: "The vicious muzzle of the young, scarcely adolescent girl, this little flower of the gutter, imprints her face with the detestable promise of every vice."   With the paltry wages paid to those lucky enough to make the corps de ballet, the endless struggle to pay the rent, find enough food and keep themselves in practice clothes for the hours and hours of rehearsal required, often meant these "petit rats" had no choice but to seek out one of the wealthy patrons who frequented the theater.  Such a protector could mean an adequate diet and advancement up the ranks of the ballet through their favor. 

Just how Marie, Antoinette and the youngest, Charlotte, try to maintain themselves as a family while supporting a mother addicted to absinthe is tragic, heroic and heartbreaking.  While sticking to the facts known about the van Goethem girls' lives, Ms. Buchanan manages to weave in the story of a notorious pair of murderers which drive the story along to what you think will be the inevitable conclusion...

A gripping read, and one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in a long time.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Albert of Adelaide

I initially read about Albert of Adelaide (#266) by Howard L. Anderson on the GoodReads site, and I knew I wanted to read it; a platypus goes walkabout in search of the way Australia used to be.  And that's pretty much it.

Except that Albert has only one memory of his life before he wound up in the Adelaide Zoo and it's a traumatic one.  He remembers his mother being killed by a dog just before he himself is netted and captured as a zoo exhibit.  He has no companions there at the zoo, but he does hear rumors of a place where life is the way it used to be in Old Australia, and he's determined to find it one day.  Albert seizes his opportunity when someone neglects to check the latch on his enclosure.  Sometime later, the  train, which divides the Australia continent roughly in half  from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, dumps Albert off in the desert north of Alice Springs with only an old soda bottle in his possession.  And so his adventures begin...

It's a simple story on one level, but as Albert searches for the place he is sure he is meant to be, he encounters kindness and cruelty, friends and enemies and lessons he never expected to learn along the way.  His memory of life in captivity in Adelaide is one he is glad to firmly shut the door on, but is life really any better out amongst the other creatures he encounters?  And how could he not have minded spending his life up until now naked?!

Life in Old Australia isn't so very different from that of the old American Wild West, but imagine it peopled (!) with wombats, bandicoots, wallabies and kangaroos, snakes and dingoes, and of course, a mysterious Tasmanian devil.  Not your usual cast of characters, especially when they come armed to the teeth with guns, clubs and rockets and notions of frontier justice.  Have I whetted your curiosity yet?

On a personal note, one of the reasons that drew me to this book was the Australian setting.  When my husband and I were hiking in Cradle Mountain National Park on Tasmania in the fall of 2011, we encountered wombat trails.  They were easy to tell because wombats are very territorial, and they mark their boundaries with feces.  Somewhere along the way, young wombats learn to poop in cubes.  So much handier to pile them up like blocks when marking their trails, and they won't roll off sloping rocks or logs.  And yes, we do have pictures.  How could you not be fascinated by a place with such diversity?

Anyway, it won't take very long to read Mr. Anderson's novel Albert of Adelaide, but you'll be entertained by the adventures, and have much to ponder after you the close the covers.  What could be more satisfactory?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Riptide Ultra-Glide

Tim Dorsey's latest The Riptide Ultra-Glide (#265) should be a salutary lesson on taking prudent precautions when booking hotels on the internet.  I'm sure Wisconsin couple Pat and Barbara McDougall wish they hadn't relied solely on the picture when they choose their Fort Lauderdale hotel for a much needed vacation.

Bad goes to worse when they find themselves in the middle of a turf war between competing drug dealers over the control of pain clinic prescriptions and Oxycontin.  They're nowhere near the beach, the activity around their motel room is disturbing, to say the least, and their luggage has been taking a cross-country tour courtesy of the airline.  When it finally does arrive, they manage to grab the wrong bag off the baggage carousel, and I do mean the wrong bag!  The crowning touch of their stay comes when serial killer with a conscience Serge A. Storms (with the help of his sidekick Coleman) decides to feature the McDougalls in his own Florida-based reality series.  If they want to cooperate, great, Serge will expose them to Florida history that most tourists and snow birds never see.  If they don't, well - Serge has already taken care of a few problem people littering the landscape on this go round - what's two more?  Funny how we always sympathize with Serge Storm when he chooses his victims...  Meanwhile, Coleman is enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame, and the adulation of the crowds who recognize him where ever they go.  Who knew he would ever take his role as a mentor so seriously?

Tim Dorsey's description of how the pain mill clinics work with the connivance of venal doctors, sometimes in conjunction with faked car accident insurance claims for pain and suffering sound too fantastic to be true.  Trust me, it's like reading the daily paper here in south Florida.  Since he's a journalist, Dorsey doesn't have to go very far to get this material. He does give a nod in The Riptide Ultra-Glide to one of our favorite cable TV series, The Glades.  Worth watching for the quirky Florida atmosphere, and a nice adjunct to Mr. Dorsey's books.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Speaking From Among the Bones

I love Flavia de Luce.  If you haven't heard of Alan Bradley's frighteningly chemically knowledgeable young heroine with a penchant for stumbling across bodies in post WWII rural England (well, not actually stumbling - she does go out of her way to find the odd dead thing for her experiments, and if they happen to be human, she'll be the one to find our who did it, thank you very much!) you owe it to yourself to meet her.  Did I mention that Flavia is only eleven?  Speaking From Among the Bones (#264) is the fifth book in this endearing series, and it's Alan Bradley at the top of his game.

The five hundredth anniversary of the death of St. Tancred, buried in the local church at Bishop's Lacey, will be marked by the exhumation and examination of the saint's bones from the crypt, and Flavia is determined to be there.  When the crypt is opened, however, and Flavia is the only one small enough to crawl through the opening to scout the lay out, she finds that the tomb is occupied by a rather more recent body - that of the missing parish organist.  How did it wind up in the sealed tomb, and who would want to kill him anyway?  Of course, this isn't the only mystery revealed in Speaking From the Bones as family secrets are just tantalizingly out of Flavia's reach.  Finances are going from bad to worse at Buckshaw, her family's ancestral home, and it may mean the end of an era if the de Luces are forced to sell.  Flavia can't understand some of the emotional changes she's going through herself as she faces this reality.  She also accidentally uncovers secrets about her mother Harriet who disappeared while hiking in Tibet when Flavia was just an infant, as well as those of two other families connected with hers in the course of her investigation. Some things are just never spoken about in an English village. And just when Flavia thinks things might be looking up for her family, there's a shocking development that could change everything...

I stopped everything else I was doing to sit and read this book, and the hook at the end guarantees that I'll be waiting with bated breath for the next volume in this series to come out.  Curses on you, Alan Bradley! 

However, if you're new to Flavia de Luce, do yourself a favor and start back with the first book in this series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie or you'll miss a lot of the back story, and how far Flavia's come already. (See also my posts of 3/13/11 & 11/26/11.)  It might also make you think differently about just how far sibling rivalry can go even in the best of families.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Slaves' Gamble; Choosing Sides in the War of 1812

Just in time for Black History month comes this interesting volume by Gene Allen Smith: The Slaves' Gamble; Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 (#262).  I probably would never have picked up this book to read if the author hadn't been one of the speakers at our library system's annual author event BookMania!, but I actually had a chance to chat with the author between panel discussions.

As I read the cover flap for this book, I realized that the novel Someone Knows My Name (See my post of 11/30/12.) which I read not long ago, dealt with some of the very issues that Dr. Smith presents, so I was familiar with, and intrigued by the information he presented.  Essentially, he explores some of the issues and history behind the reasoning of American slaves when deciding to stay enslaved and fight with, or at their masters' bidding, or whether to take a chance and flee in hopes of gaining their freedom.  Since these were the days before the Underground Railroad was established, they could hope to make it to the British lines and freedom, or make for Florida, where the Spanish welcomed them as a buffer against the Americans who wanted to expand their slave-holding territory.  Neither choice was ideal, nor was the outcome guaranteed as territory changed hands.  It was also the first I had ever heard of the Patriot War, fought in Florida during the War of 1812.  I was anxious to know more about that now that I live here.

The Slaves' Gamble is not a very large book, but it is organized and presented in a way which makes it very accessible to the casual reader.  If you want to know more about a largely unexplored topic which had a profound influence on the United States during the critical War of 1812, this is the perfect book.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You

How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You (#263) by The Oatmeal (aka Matthew Inman) is a first for me: a graphic novel.  I put a hold on it at my library simply because of the title.  If you've ever owned a cat yourself, you'll understand.

Although many of the situations in these pages ring true and provoke a smile, I personally found it rather crude.  The illustrations are so rudimentary I felt even I, the non-artistic type, could have done just as well, if not better.   Frat boys and adolescents will undoubtedly find this book hilarious.  It didn't take me very long to read it, and I'm glad I don't have to find room for it in one of my piles of books at home.

My advice?  If you happen to see it at a bookstore, flip through it.  If you're male, you might add it to your basket.  If not, you'll have seen enough.

Monday, February 4, 2013

That Woman

I was so looking forward to reading That Woman (#261), Anne Sebba's recent biography of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the late Duchess of Windsor , based on a cover blurb which claims it "rescues her from the vilification she endured in her own lifetime."  I am neither an admirer nor a detractor of Wallis Simpson, but I do find her story intriguing.  I was hoping for some new insight into what made her tick, but for me, this is not the book. 

When I first pick up a biography with illustrations, I usually look at the pictures first thing to help put a mental picture in my mind of the people discussed in the book, or the places they have lived, or with which they were familiar.  My first clue that this might not be a reliable biography came as I was browsing through the picture captions, and as a casual American reader, noting the incorrect attributions.  What else might be wrong in this volume?  The second thing that put me off That Woman was the author's introduction to the book by recounting her weekend spent at an Austrian schloss where she was invited by a minor Austrian "princeling" as a twenty one year old Reuters correspondent.  Although it meant turning down a lifetime spent in such a rarefied atmosphere of wealth and influence, she says she never saw her "Prince Charming" again.  The implication was that she was nobler than Wallis Simpson for turning down these worldly temptations.  Of course, the reader is left to question whether, in fact, the choice was hers.  But from this anecdote, it became clear that Ms. Sebba looks down on her subject, because Wallis succumbed to the lure of money. 

Portraying Wallis as from a poor and obscure American background while simultaneously trying to prove that she was from American "aristocracy" only heightens that basic element of snobbery throughout the biography.  I doubt too many Americans would consider someone "poor and obscure" if she attended the most expensive and exclusive girls' boarding school in Maryland, or was presented at a debutant ball with one of Baltimore's most important society weddings of the year to follow. 

Yes, Wallis Simpson did what she could to improve her own lot after a financially insecure childhood, but an abusive alcoholic husband could hardly be considered a matrimonial prize.  It seems from reading That Woman that her second marriage to Ernest Simpson was probably her happiest.  In modern terms, I believe Edward VIII would have been considered a stalker.  His own contemporaries thought he might have been mentally ill and called him "little man".  Even his own father thought that he would never rule after him, that he would abdicate.  Which does beg the question, why didn't George V do more to prepare his younger son Bertie to take over the reins in case that happened?  Wouldn't it have been better for England if he had done so?  And one has to wonder at the hypocrisy of a government and church hellbent on keeping Edward VIII in power and separating him from Mrs. Simpson when they were so afraid of where his political leanings might lead the Empire.  Frankly, I think they should have awarded Wallis Simpson a medal and a generous income for taking him off the world stage at a critical point instead of denying her the title "Her Royal Highness".  That just seemed like spite on the part of the British.

That's not to say that she didn't have her own mean and vindictive side, but it seems apparent that both the King and the government put Wallis into such an untenable position that she was forced to go through with the divorce from Ernest Simpson and marry the King instead. (Shades of Henry VIII!)  In the end, I think she did what she had to do and lived with the consequences when the life she loved basically evaporated because of their circumstances. 

Although  Ms. Sebba spent much time on Wallis' early years, and details the objections to the marriage of the Windsors, once World War II ends, she gives very short shrift to the rest of the Windsor's lives.  She basically portrays them as rich and aimless, but when the Duke was denied any meaningful duties by his family and the British government, I hardly find this surprising.  But I would have liked to know a little more about them than the very meager information about the few dinners they gave (but didn't eat!) and the time they spent in the decades before they both died.  Oh, well.

I do think the author did quite a bit of her own vilifying of Wallis Simpson by making her dislike of Americans in general so obvious, and particularly by poking fun of her accent.  Notes from Society members' private papers and memoirs made that part easy.  All she had to do was quote them.  But it did go far to explaining a cultural bias when I discovered that all the glowing cover blurbs were written solely by British authors.  I did find the author's cover flap portrait ironic in terms of her emphasis on Wallis' obsession with her image.  Hmm.  Not a whole lot new, but if you decide to read That Woman don't expect an even handed treatment of Wallis' story here.