Total Pageviews

Thursday, February 27, 2014


I was afraid after my recent experience with An Unnecessary Woman that Revolutionary (#374) would turn out to be similarly disappointing, with the critical buzz based more on author Alex Myers' transgendered status than a good story told well.  Be reassured.  It is definitely worth reading for the insight it provides on a largely forgotten episode of American history.

I do think that there is somewhat of a twenty first century century sensibility worked into this story of Deborah Samson,  a real American heroine of the Revolution, but it certainly doesn't detract from the page turning quality of the story telling.  Deborah runs away from an intolerable situation in her small Massachusetts town and enrolls in the ranks of the Continental Army to find a place for herself and serve her country.  The everyday life of a common soldier at the time is depicted in this novel as Deborah learns to adapt to male comradery, camp discipline and the alarums of a war winding down in New York state along the Hudson River while the British still occupy New York City and its environs.  It's a fascinating story.

Deborah Samson served in the American Revolution, dressed as a man.  This novel, written by her descendant Alex Myers, explores her motivation to join the ranks of the soldiers towards the end of the war, and how well she succeeded in that role.  Although she mustered out at the end of the war as Robert Shurtliff, when her true identity was later revealed, she was denied the pension, back pay and benefits she had earned because of her gender.  Is it any wonder that it was a difficult choice for her to make to return to a society as a subservient female with no legal rights, or to continue to live as a man with its attendant freedom?  I'm not sure I would have made the decision to do as Deborah did.  If this is a topic of interest to you, I highly recommend the non-fiction work They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers of the Civil War  (See my post of 12/3/12.) which explores the same theme based on records for the Civil War.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman

I had heard so much positive critical buzz about Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman (#373) that I couldn't wait to get my hands on it.  When I first began reading it, I found it every bit as surprising, interesting and startling as I hoped it would be.  In my head, I was already giving it a rare five star rating.  But about a third of the way into the book, I began to get terribly bogged down.  Things never picked up again from there for me.  In the end, what began so well ultimately dwindled down to a disappointing and dispiriting read.

The narrator of this book is a seventy-two year old woman living by herself with her books in a run-down apartment in present day Beirut.  An arranged marriage which took her out of school and ended in a disgraceful divorce has dampened any hopes of a comfortable life.  Her family wants to force her out of her apartment so her favored brothers can move in.  She doggedly hangs on and supports herself by working in a small bookstore.  Now retired, she is able to devote her time to the annual choice of a book to translate into Arabic from a French and an English translation of the work.  Otherwise she eschews contact with others as much as she possibly can, and lives inside her own head with great contentment.  A major catastrophe for Aaliya is about to change all that.

Beirut is an unusual time and place to pick for the setting of this novel, and Aaliya is a most unlikely (and in many respects, unlikeable) heroine.  That was part of the problem with this book for me.  I found Mr. Alameddine's thoughts and actions unconvincing enough from a feminine perspective to distract from the story he was telling.  Things just didn't ring true for me.  Not that women can't or don't act the way Aaliya does on occasion, but the fact that it bothered me at all was enough to tell me something was off. 

I did feel while reading An Unnecessary Woman exactly like one of Aaliya's neighbors who comes to her aid at the end when she discovers a translation Aaliya has written in Arabic of Anna Karenina "Thank the Lord," she exclaims.  "I've read this.  I was worried because I hadn't even heard of the others.  I felt so small.  In all the other piles not one name I recognized.  I felt inadequate."  I make no pretensions to be one of the literati, but I found it difficult to understand Aaliya's devotion to preserving these books for herself in Arabic as a translation of a translation.  When she seals up the box of pages at the end of the project, they are consigned to their own Sheol.  What is the point?

You will have to be the judge of whether or not An Unnecessary Woman is a great read or something that can remain at the bottom of your book pile, but will undoubtedly impress people simply because of its presence there.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tiger Shrimp Tango

How does Tim Dorsey keep coming up with such wide-ranging, varied and imaginative ways of offing miscreants who so richly deserve their fates?  You can't blame it all on following the Florida media, though admittedly he'll never run out of source material...  He's done it again with his latest Serge A. Storms novel Tiger Shrimp Tango (#372). 

This time Serge is working with his former nemesis Mahoney as an unofficial Private Investigator tracing down the perpetrators of a plethora of scams against Floridians: insurance fraud, bogus charity fund-raising, the DEA agent threatening a humiliating public arrest if the victim doesn't immediately pay up.  You get the picture; Serge's targets are the usual scumbags no one but their profiteer puppet master will miss.

His sidekick Coleman is along for the ride as the pair patrol from the Republican National Convention in Tampa to Worth Avenue in Palm Beach and the glittering resorts lining Miami Beach.  Coleman is psyched that he actually understands and explains the science behind the method to one of their involuntary guests.  He also confounds Serge when he turns out to be a big hit with the Democrats.  Haven't figured out yet whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.  Hmm.

If you like interesting and arcane Florida fun facts mixed in with the mayhem that Serge and Coleman invariably invoke you'll eat up Tiger Shrimp Tango. It might make you think twice about frequenting the sidewalk cafes along Worth Avenue, though!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


I've had Jo Baker's Longbourn (#371) reserved as a special reading treat for myself for a couple of months now.  I took my time reading this flip side of the Pride and Prejudice story, the invisible ceaseless activity and intrigue of the servants of Longbourn.  It's not a very pretty picture.  But it's one probably most of us can relate to better than the upstairs world of the well-to-do and the aristocrats that we wish we were.

With all the demands of a houseful of Bennetts upstairs, the grind of work downstairs is harsh and unrelenting for the meager staff of servants struggling to keep up.  There's the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill and her elderly husband.  There's also Sarah, the main character of this tale, orphaned at six and lucky to have been brought into the household, and the feckless Polly, still a child herself, but deemed old enough to earn her keep.  The sudden addition of James Smith as footman to the establishment throws the cat among the pigeons in the downstairs sphere.  The story of this bustling world is every bit as fraught with emotions, hopes dashed, secrets kept and the tedium of every day life as the intersecting world of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett and their five daughters.

You could easily read this book as a stand alone novel, but the more familiar you are with the storyline of Jane Austen's classic work you are, the more you'll appreciate how carefully Jo Baker has created her alternate universe, weaving the two fictional worlds together so seamlessly right down to the apt quotations from Pride and Prejudice which introduce each chapter of Longbourn.  It will be interesting to see if the film adaptation can do its part in illuminating the life of the servants as portrayed so brutally here. 

This dose of reality is not to be missed if you read Jane Austen or any of the myriad of Fan Fiction devoted to her characters.  You owe it to the memories of all those unsung souls who made the glamor of the period possible.

Friday, February 14, 2014

You Can Date Boys When You're Forty

My advice?  Don't read a Dave Barry book while drinking liquids; the results could be quite unattractive when you laugh.  And you will.  Frequently.  His writing always has that effect on me.  His latest outing is a book of new essays entitled You Can Date Boys When You're Forty;  Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About (#370).  But don't worry, only one of the essays is specifically about parenting, and when you blend that with attendance at a Justin Bieber concert, you can tell that this book has a little something for everyone.  Besides, Dave Barry tells you so in his Introduction.

Yes, the humor can be a little sophomoric, but after all, Dave Barry IS a guy, so what else would you expect?  He's also spot on with a number of his observations.  We also happen to live in South Florida, and what he tells the reader in his essay on Death about the number of solicitation letters he receives from crematorium operators is one hundred percent accurate.  His riff on the trip to Israel he takes with his wife and daughter's Temple is delightful.  The day before I started reading You Can Date Boys When You're Forty was the first time I had had a chance to speak with one of my friends who had just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  It's remarkable how some of her experiences dovetailed with Dave's, but I can guarantee you that she did not rappel backwards off a cliff!  (I am not making this up; there is photographic proof that Dave Barry participated in this activity.)  But I think that maybe my favorite essay was How To Become A Professional Writer.  There will be universal wailing and gnashing of teeth from anyone who reads this who has the faintest grasp of the rules of English grammar and spelling.  Again, Dave Barry hits the nail on the head.  Oy!

I was lucky enough to get a pre-publication copy of You Can Date Boys When You're Forty from a GoodReads giveaway, but if I were you, I'd be pre-ordering a copy of this book now!  You only go around once, so you might as well enjoy the ride...

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening

Someone at one of my book groups asked if Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening (#369) contained actual gardening tips.  Well, it might (I'm definitely the wrong person to ask about anything plant-related!) but that's not the reason for reading this moving memoir by Carol Wall. It's subtitled How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart.  The "Open Heart" really is the key to this book about an unlikely but profound friendship which grows between a white middle class teacher in a Virginia town and the Kenyan gardener she hires after seeing his work at her friend's house.  Her aim in doing this is to prevent her family's yard from being the disgrace of the neighborhood.  She doesn't have the slightest interest in gardening herself, but Carol Wall can see the difference Giles Owita has already made working in Nancy's yard.  In the end, Giles Owita will teach her more about  nurturing the Tree of Life than she could ever have imagined.

Carol and Giles have more in common than they realize as their relationship gradually unfolds.  Both are keeping secrets about their health which are almost too much to bear, yet their friendship sustains and lifts them in a way no one could have predicted.  Both share an elemental bond in their Catholic faith as well.  Although this aspect is not usually commented on in reviews, the spiritual vein that runs through both Carol and Giles' lives is deep, unwavering and a source of strength as they struggle with their own issues.

The stock comment about Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening would be that it is a life-affirming read.  It certainly is that, but it is beautifully, almost poetically written, too.  Ms. Wall has made it easy for the reader to visualize the beauty of the living green world that Mr. Owita leads Carol to open her eyes and appreciate.  The cover art complements the contents of this lovely memoir which balances the joys of life with the losses.  Highly recommended.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The New Countess

With The New Countess (#368), Fay Weldon's saga of the Hedleigh family comes to an end with a conclusion as startling as the opening scenes for the Earl of Dilberne's household in the first volume, Habits of the House (See my post of 3/14/13).  Scandals galore, marriages made and broken, enemies set out to do their worst, although in the end, it's a friend who delivers the coup de grace.  And yes, by the end of the book, there really is a new countess!

The main action in this novel centers around a casual invitation Robert, the Earl, makes to Edward VII to come to Dilberne for a shoot.  Since it's made in the presence of witnesses, and accepted by "Bertie" on the spot as a perfect time to decompress with his current mistress, Alice Keppel, before the Christmas holidays Isobel must put a good face on things.  It's all well and good for Robert whose rising political star keeps him mainly in London, but Isobel is thrown into a frenzy of renovation and redecoration at the ancient Dilberne Court.  She is driving both the staff and the rest of her family out of their minds with the fuss and expense.  Arthur, the son and heir retreats to his automobile factory, and Minnie, his American wife is in a constant battle with her mother-in-law and the ancient Nanny to raise her two little sons her own way.  Meanwhile, there is an unexpected family reunion that doesn't seem to please almost anyone.  And that's only the tip of the iceberg in this noble household!

Since Fay Weldon was one of the original writers of Upstairs, Downstairs, you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect if you're a fan of that series or Downton Abbey.  It's a delicious read if you enjoy this kind of thing, which I certainly do.  My advice, though, is if at all possible, gather the three novels before you sit down to read the series, and read the books one right after the other.  (See also my post of 8/2/13 on the second book: Long Live the King.)  You do need to read these in order, and it won't take too much effort to keep going with the series before you forget who did what to whom, as there is really no background on who the characters are when they reappear.

What fun, but I'm sorry I don't have any more books in the series to look forward to.  Thank goodness Downton Abbey is back on!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

Flavia de Luce is back!  The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#367) is the sixth in this series by Alan Bradley which I absolutely love.  I can't be the only one either, since I saw in Sunday's paper that it's Number Six on the New York Times Best Seller List.  I read the first two books in this series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag before I began writing this blog, (And that's how I would recommend you read this series.) but you can read my posts on A Red Herring Without Mustard from 3/13/11, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows from 11/26/11 and Speaking from Among the Bones from 2/10/13.  I don't normally list out all the books in a series like this, but eleven year old Flavia de Luce just tickles me with her dreadful precociousness with all things chemical, her on-going warfare with her two older sisters, her insatiable curiosity and tendency to meddle and her oddly vulnerable yet prickly personality.

In her previous outings, Flavia has investigated murders in and around her home on the crumbling English estate of Buckshaw shortly after World War II.  Money is scarce since the fortune which ran the estate belonged to Harriet de Luce.  Flavia's mother went missing in Tibet on a climbing expedition when Flavia was still an infant.  In financial limbo, Flavia's father has finally been forced to place Buckshaw up for sale.  No sooner than the "For Sale" signs are hammered into the ground outside the gates when word comes that Harriet has been found.

Amidst a turmoil of emotions Harriet at long last arrives at Buckshaw's private rail station with a government escort.  One of them approaches Flavia with a mysterious warning for her father.  Only moments later, the tall stranger is crushed beneath the train.  Did he slip, or was he pushed?  Why was Winston Churchill there?  And has Flavia met her match in her previously unknown younger cousin Undine?  Family secrets aplenty here in this book that reads more like a thriller than your average British cozy mystery.  Flavia is up to her usual schemes, but she's beginning to mature - she has to, in light of the events of this story.

I didn't put it down until I finished every last word, and was elated to know that there will be more adventures to come!  Too bad I have to wait another year for it!!!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Every Last One

The February book club selection was even worse than I expected if you remember my previous post.  Anna Quindlen's Every Last One (#366) attempted to hit every low emotional note possible.  It was, as I feared, dreary, depressing, angst-ridden and guilt-laden.  To that, as far as I'm concerned, you can add emotionally manipulative.  I so wish I'd spent that precious time reading one of the other numerous books clamoring for attention on my bookshelves.  Oh, well...

One thing I cannot fault about this book is the writing.  Anna Quindlen is a mistress of her craft, as proved by the Pulitzer Prize on her desk.  But that was for one of her newspaper columns.  I probably would have appreciated that.

All I'll tell you about Every Last One should you ever choose to read it on your own is that this is the story of an upper-middle class American family, where everything appears fine on the surface.  But halfway through the book, something truly terrible happens.  The second half of the book is the characters trying to cope with that event.

I think you're supposed to read this novel with a box of Kleenex by your side, but I'll have to admit that all I felt was that the author was wasting her time trying to make me feel the appropriate emotions.  I didn't.  In fact, that's just why I felt manipulated reading this book.  It's for emotional masochists only.  Enough said.