19 November 2014

Vanessa and her sister

Vanessa and Her Sister: A NovelVanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Bloomsbury gang loved gossip. So do we aficionados of the gang and its satellites: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, Ottoline Morrell, Lytton Strachey, etc.  We read all the novels, biographies, letters, and journals; we delight in their scrapbooks and photo albums. These free-thinking Bohemian friends and lovers were juicy.

This novel casts itself as an olio of Vanessa Bell's writings - journal, letters - plus communications to, from, and amongst the group. The immediate problem is that Vanessa tells us that she's not a writer (and she was not), but the writing she attributes to herself is as adroit and adept as any word-slinger's. Her observations, especially of Virginia, are barbed; their aim is true. The result is great fun to read, if you don't mind a strange version of the unreliable narrator: the words do not fit the character.

That aside, the chronology is accurate, and some characters, especially Lytton Strachey in his bitchy brilliance, are quite memorable. Vanessa's art and Virginia's greed for her sister's attention anchor the novel, which takes place before Woolf or Strachey have published. Vanessa is deeply wounded by her sister and husband, whose never-consummated affair erodes her trust and sours her love for Virginia.

An afterword is included, with notes on what the characters were to achieve. I wish the author had mentioned the sexual abuse that Virginia experienced. Her portrayal as a beautiful, lethal monster, propelled by alternating bouts of mania and jealousy, is incomplete and strange without those facts.

Three stars: fun, with reservations.

I received this book from NetGalley as an ARC. This is an honest review.



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18 November 2014

Ten on Tuesday


Today's Ten On Tuesday Question: 

Ten Musicians I would bring back from the dead. 

Only ten? oh dear.

Richard Farina
Mimi Farina
Phil Ochs
John Lennon
George Harrison
Glenn Gould
Yehudi Menuhin
Lily Pons
Franz Liszt
Freddie Mercury

Chamber Music



Chamber MusicChamber Music by Doris Grumbach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This rich novel is cast as the memoir of 90-year-old Caroline Maclaren, being written in the late 1970s at the request of her late husband's charitable foundation. Robert Maclaren was a a composer who was dubbed "America's Orpheus" for his use of American themes in his classical music. The marriage was rich in the world's admiration for his genius, but bereft of emotional depth between husband and wife. As his demands for the silent, solitary conditions he needed for composing became more extreme, Caroline's life became almost unbearably isolated and barren. Even her desire to accompany a singer on piano was thwarted by the increasingly-irascible Robert.

Early in the relationship, Caroline sensed that Robert had secrets that she could not define. There were hints of incest in his mother's behavior, and letters from a young man whose anguish and passion disturbed her. As time passed, his health and abilities deteriorated in a manner that others understood, even as she remained ignorant. She only learned the name of the illness after Anna, the nurse hired to help with his care, told her: syphilis.

Caroline spares nothing in her description of Robert's horrific decline, but says she only realized what it meant in the light of those old, passionate letters when Anna explained how the disease is transmitted.  She found that she did not feel grief, as other widows do:  " I felt none of that, for wife I was only in a sense, and woman I had not yet learned to be."

After Robert died, people from nearby Saratoga Springs helped to create the Maclaren Foundation, building six cabins on the wooded property to house a summer community for young composers. Anna remained and continued to plant flowers and vegetables according to science and ancient gardening lore.

It was Anna's comment about planting turnips and barley while naked that opened Caroline's lifelong repression of her need for love, physical and spiritual. She wooed Anna slowly, hardly understanding how two women can love.

Then, she writes, "I think of the first, soft spring rain; she was moisture to my dried roots... the way a certain configuration of notes played on the flute alone... can bring tears to one's eyes." They held hands and untangled the delicate roots of a wisteria vine. They were happy.

And yet, they never talked about their love: "a fitting vocabulary for such discussions did not exist." She knows now, as she writes, that women can walk together in daylight, but in her own time, "the world would not have sanctioned it, nor, for that matter, believed it of me." In fact, she writes, she is not entirely certain that such freedom is "...entirely salutary, whether the old must of chests, of closets, bell jars, and horsehair sofas is not a better climate for the storage of the private life."

Ah, but Doris Grumbach has no such hesitation. This delicate yet unflinching novel begins with the privileges of a talented man, and ends with the last thoughts of a woman who transcended the confines of her time. Books like this, and Ms. Grumbach's  The Ladies , remind the modern readers that walks in the sunlight are the product of struggles and courage. Caroline Maclaren writes that the Foundation may delete parts of her story, but she will continue to write her extraordinary truth.

Thanks to NetGalley for the book. This is an honest review.



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07 November 2014

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Flavia de Luce, #7)As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Delectable. Like all of the books that star Flavia de Luce, this installment is a confection. The setting has changed because Flavia has been banished (three syllables, please!) from her beloved home in England. We meet her on the ship carrying her to Toronto and her new home - Miss Bodycote's Female Academy. She is heartbroken. Her mood lightens, however, when a body falls out of the chimney in her new room. Wouldn't anyone's?

The investigation reveals that girls have gone missing, her mother's membership in a secret society may be connected to the odd tasks she is given, and her new chemistry teacher is a soulmate who was once tried for murder. Some of the students seem to hint at her anticipated initiation into the society; others are brutes. Add to the mix the possibility of poisons (her favorite subject) and the changes she is going through as she turns twelve and begins to have unusual mood swings. Pour a cup of tea (and check the brew before you sip) and enjoy!

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley. This is an honest review.



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04 November 2014

voting as a curmudgeon; or, a little respect for the process, please

Have you seen this photobomb on Facebook? It shows Mitch McConnell in a voting carrel, and, behind him, some guy making a face and giving a thumbs-down. Everyone seems to think it's hilarious.

I don't. Not that I'm a fan of Mitch McConnell - I am not. I am, however, a fan of the process. I think this photo is mean-spirited, it violates McConnell's privacy --- and would be denounced as electioneering, if the "side" that's posting the photo liked McConnell. 

Also -

I just voted. Since NY decided to get rid of the old lever machines, I have been annoyed by the new process: you use a Flair pen to color in circles, then walk across the room to feed your ballot into a machine. Each little carrel is supposed to have a "privacy sleeve" in which to insert the ballot. Each year, I have to request it from an annoyed poll worker. And each time I try to feed in the ballot, I have problems. 

"More trouble than it's worth," said the poll worker today.  "So privacy is now optional?" I said. She shrugged, which was, actually, the right response. She didn't create the system.

Note: NY does not have early voting, mail-in voting, or online voting.

Yes, I am grumpy. Bleah.






23 September 2014

ten on Tuesday



Today's topic: ten cars I have had. I've only had 8, and I've owned cars for 48 years. Unusual, yes? Here we go -------------->


1. 1963 Saab - it had a 3-cycle, 2-stroke engine that required a can of oil poured into the gas tank for each tank of gas. Gas station attendants said "you're crazy, lady!" and refused to pour oil into the tank, so I had to do it myself. I failed my first road test in this car because it had a bizarre feature called "freewheeling" that the inspector didn't understand: you didn't have to use the clutch to downshift. "You're crazy, lady!" said the inspector, thinking the transmission was going to fly out of the car.  

2. 1963 grey VW Beetle, which I called "the elephant" because it was grey and had a trunk up front. The wheel wells rusted out, so after a rain, I had a sloshing puddle in the back. Also had a huge ant colony under the battery. By the time I had to let it go, there was little left but parts of doors and a steering wheel.  

3. 1966 (I think) VW Fastback. Oy vey. One of the first cars to have a **com-pu-ter** in the engine. It should not have had  a **com-pu-ter** in the engine because it never, ever worked right. This car was puzzling to some repair guys because it had two trunks: you had to disassemble the back trunk to find the engine. By the end of my ownership, the car got about 150 miles per gallon because the blasted thing was towed everywhere

4. 1980 Toyota Tercel. Engine cracked at 72,000 miles. 

5. 1980-something Pontiac Sunbird, which I purchased by going to a used-car dealer and saying, "what can I have for $179 a month?" I drove it the length of 2 parking spaces, and said "ok." I loved this car madly, and I was very, very sad when I skidded into a tree and destroyed it.

6. 1980-something Nissan Sentra, baby-blue, used, a disaster. Total, total disaster.

7. 1993 Subaru Loyale, 4-door sedan. I will never love another car this much. It fit me perfectly, behaved admirably, and I'd still be driving it if I could have gotten the a/c fixed.

8. 2005 Toyota Corolla, 4-door, cactus green. It's a good, sturdy car, it gives me almost no trouble, and it basically does what a car should do: it gets me where I need to go. Really, that's all I ask.


Pretty dull history, eh?

20 September 2014

Accidental Alchemist

The Accidental AlchemistThe Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How many authors could bring a stone gargoyle to life and make the reader care for him as much as they would care for a human? Gigi Pandian has done this in the first of a series of mysteries that will feature Dorian Robert-Houdin as a French gargoyle who needs the help of herbalist Zoe Faust to survive. A murder at her newly-acquired wreck of a house and the theft of Dorian's book of alchemy cast Zoe back into long-forgotten alchemical mysteries (as well as into the path of a detective whose knowledge of teas and such are both intriguing and puzzling), along with a teenaged who seems determinded to learn alchemy - and gourmet cooking from the talented Dorian.

A few instances of too-much-information that distract rather than enlighten took a star away from my rating, but I do recommend this book as a promising romp.

Recipes and ideas for teas dot the narrative.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley. This is an honest review.



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That summer

That SummerThat Summer by Lauren Willig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's rare when a novelist can present two timelines that are both fully-realized. Lauren Willig accomplishes this - and more - in her stories about a Pre-Raphaelite painter and his love, and an antiques dealer and his love. I was so enthralled by the Pre-Raphaelite painter's story that I wished Gavin were as real as Rosetti.

Gavin's Imogen, an unhappily-married woman, was in a situation much like that of Dorothea in Middlemarch: married to an intellectual whose work she had longed to share. In the present, both Julia and Nicholas have issues to work through while investigating obscure Pre-Raphaelite paintings found in the house she has inherited.

The stories mesh and veer, as stories do, in a novel that is totally satisfying and engrossing, despite the centuries or geography that divide the reader from them.  Highly, highly recommended!



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16 August 2014

"you don't know what I want" - anecdotal evidence

The other day, heading into Panera's for a semi-quiet respite after a noisy mall-walk, a young woman who was carrying a zippered black-leather portfolio was striding ahead of me.

I sat at a small table by the window with a steaming cup of English Breakfast tea. The young-woman-with-portfolio approached a shabby man who was sitting, alone, at the table in front of mine. She handed him a small bag. He said thank you. Then she said, "'I'll get you some coffee," and quickly turned away.

The shabby man said, "Wait a minute." She stopped. "You don't know me," he said. "You don't know what I want or how I like my coffee. I know you mean well, but please!"

The young woman put the empty cup on his table, backed up a few steps, and strode away.

I've seen this man before. He often stands near the door and makes loud, random comments. My storytelling mind says that the portfolio-carrying-woman meant to perform a random act of kindness by buying food and coffee for him, but it had unexpected consequences. How could it not? She didn't know what he wanted. Maybe she didn't ask. Maybe his answer was as random as his usual utterances.

And maybe he prefers tea.

12 August 2014

Robin Williams

The death of Robin Williams makes me think of all of my friends whose lives have been scarred by a suicide, and all of my friends and family who - like me - struggle with the devastation of bipolar disorder and depression. We always wonder what we could have done for each other, when one falls - whether we could have changed the trajectory, somehow.
All we can do is all we can do. Listen, when people are in pain, and take them seriously. Really listen. It's the most important thing.



11 August 2014

Under a Wide and Starry Sky

Under the Wide and Starry SkyUnder the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fanny Osborne and her three children have left husband and father in America, leaving him to his infidelities and infelicitous business adventures so that Fanny and daughter Bella can study art in Europe. Driven to France after sexist rejection and personal tragedy in Antwerp, Fanny finds rest and community at an artist's colony in France. There she meets the well-travelled, brilliant Robert Louis Stevenson and his long-time friends.

Stevenson is smitten. Fanny needs convincing. He has many stories to tell - the battles he staged with toy soldiers on his childhood counterpane during long bouts of illness, the exploits of his lighthouse-building family, his friendships with literary luminaries including Leslie Stephen and Henry James, and his habit of listening to people who speak with elegant diction despite deplorable teeth. He was been published, and hopes for a wider audience for his travel writing and fiction.

Fanny, by now a writer herself, is torn between loyalty to her marriage and deep devotion to the enchanting, yet fragile writer; ultimately she marries him, and is present for the creation of his masterpieces, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island.

This is a not an easy marriage. He is forced to spend long periods in rest homes for his diseased lungs. She convinced that her own literary aspirations have been sabotaged by his fame. When it becomes apparent that he only is truly well while at sea, where she is chronically seasick, she accompanies him to the South Pacific. There they create a paradisaical yet practical home, with vegetable gardens (supplemented by seeds from Gertrude Jekyll) and beautiful flowers.

I was struck by the breadth of friendships that RLS enjoyed: Henry Adams, John Singer Sargent, Fanny Sitwell, poet William Ernest Henley (author of "Invictus"). The world of creative and intellectual people seemed small despite the distances, and yet, unreliably slow mail delivery made it impossible for the Stevensons to respond quickly when friends betrayed them. Praise and loyalty from stalwart friends and supporters, Henry James foremost among them, was always sweet.

Robert's physical breakdowns and Fanny's mental breakdowns are set against the splendor of the tropics and the clear beauty of the California coast. Horan's writing is clean and precise, letting the subjects shine.

Highly recommended.



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24 July 2014

Lisette's List

Lisette's List: A NovelLisette's List: A Novel by Susan Vreeland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A spectrum of colors created from ocher, mined and mixed to create a palette for Cezanne. Lavender growing wild and scenting the Provencal village of Roussillon. Fresh goat cheese and eggs in a creamy omelette. Gritty marzipan on your tongue. An old man's voice, telling stories that stitch together two centuries of art.  All of the senses are engaged in Lisette's List, a novel about the power of art to engage the human instincts to survive, learn, and grow.

Lisette and André Roux love Paris, where they have been building a life amongst the galleries and cafes filled with art and artists. Reluctantly, they move to Roussillon to care for Andre's grandfather, Pascal, who has written to them, exaggerating his illness. Pascal is eager to pass on the paintings he purchased by working as an ocher miner and frame-maker for artists, including Cezanne and Pissaro. More, though, he is desperate to pass on his memories of these men, and his own wisdom about art, from appreciation of techniques and color to his near-mystical belief in the power of art to expand one's life.

While André looks for work, Lisette tends the house and listens to Pascal, whose tales are sculpted from detailed, annotated lists he has written. Lisette begins a list of her own, "Lisette's List of Hungers and Vows," beginning with "Love Pascal as a father." Her list grows throughout the book as she experiences heartbreak, learns to live and love in the small village, and searches for Pascal's paintings, which André concealed before he went to war.

Vreeland provides glimpses into the German occupation in Provence, how some in the resistance had to compromise, and the Nazi destruction of art deemed "decadent." She displays the spectrum of ocher - from deep cadmium yellow and gold through maroon and cream, in a fictional, composite still-life by Cezanne, where the colors delineate the artist's choice of shapes, and support his artistic play with gravity and perspective. Gravity is also a plaything for Marc and Bella Chagall, hiding in a nearby house, painting joyous portraits or people who play violin on the roof and communicate with God.

("Try not to be envious," writes Lisette. "Learn how to be self-sufficient.")

Twice, Vreeland evokes a particular, peaceful, silent scene -- once, when Lisette and André's friend Maxime observe a magpie who alights on a snowy fence rail, and once, when they see Monet's painting of that scene. Moments like these, with Vreeland's knowing commentary, bring the reader along as Lisette and a shell-shocked veteran come to terms with the war that split apart their lives, and travel along the path to healing through art and forgiveness.

Note: the paintings and photographs of the village are posted at Susan Vreeland's website, along with quotes from the book. Do look at them as you read.

Thanks to NetGalley for an ARC of this book. This is an honest review.



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01 July 2014

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You can read this Jazz Age take on "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" without first reading the Grimm story, if you like, but you will miss some of its sparkling pleasures. Genevieve Valentine has recast the timeless tale of a king whose twelve daughters spirit themselves out of the castle every night to dance until their soles wear away. In this novel, the girls are captives of their father, a heartless business mogul whose wife died after failing to produce an heir.

The eldest daughter, Jo, falls in love with dance when she sees a waltz during a rare birthday outing to the opera. A few years later, having amassed dance steps during furtive forays to movies (and lessons from young housemaids), she begins to organize nightly visits to dance halls, including the Kingfisher. Men call the girls Princesses for their unusual finery (cobbled from catalogs) and their resolute anonymity.

Sister Lou loves the waltz, Ella the foxtrot; Doris lives for the Charleston and Shakespeare. Each sister has her own story, her own dreams. Jo, as "the General," holds herself aloof to protect, organize, scheme, and rue her one dip into love.

In one unforgettable scene, the girls are arrayed on a staircase like debutantes in a Hollywood tableau, hungry to dance, in feathers and beads and gowns of mauve, spangled silver, and orchid. The music begins, and the girls give themselves, body and soul, to the glittering, whirling world of the speakeasy.

The evil mogul's plans for these free spirits are far more fearsome than a police raid. Will the girls escape a life of genteel imprisonment? Will there be princes? You will want to know.

As I read, rapt, I pondered the sub-genre of fairy tales, retold. Although its roots are deep in Grimm, I thought, its spirit is as modern as The Great Gatsby. Was I reminded of Gatsby by the shared Jazz Age setting? Partly, but also because the Kingfisher Club echoed Fitzgerald's use of another archetypal tale, "The Fisher King."

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a vivid, immediate, sometimes-startling novel of magical realism - without the actual magic of fairy tales. These princesses are thoroughly modern women who have enough spirit to rescue themselves.  Highly recommended.

I received this novel from NetGalley. This is an honest review.


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The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You can read this Jazz Age take on "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" without first reading the Grimm story, if you like, but you will miss some of its sparkling pleasures. Genevieve Valentine has recast the timeless tale of a king whose twelve daughters spirit themselves out of the castle every night to dance until their soles wear away. In this novel, the girls are captives of their father, a heartless business mogul whose wife died after failing to produce an heir.

The eldest daughter, Jo, falls in love with dance when she sees a waltz during a rare birthday outing to the opera. A few years later, having amassed dance steps during furtive forays to movies (and lessons from young housemaids), she begins to organize nightly visits to dance halls, including the Kingfisher. Men call the girls Princesses for their unusual finery (cobbled from catalogs) and their resolute anonymity.

Sister Lou loves the waltz, Ella the foxtrot; Doris lives for the Charleston and Shakespeare. Each sister has her own story, her own dreams. Jo, as "the General," holds herself aloof to protect, organize, scheme, and rue her one dip into love.

In one unforgettable scene, the girls are arrayed on a staircase like debutantes in a Hollywood tableau, hungry to dance, in feathers and beads and gowns of mauve, spangled silver, and orchid. The music begins, and the girls give themselves, body and soul, to the glittering, whirling world of the speakeasy.

The evil mogul's plans for these free spirits are far more fearsome than a police raid. Will the girls escape a life of genteel imprisonment? Will there be princes? You will want to know.

As I read, rapt, I pondered the sub-genre of fairy tales, retold. Although its roots are deep in Grimm, I thought, its spirit is as modern as The Great Gatsby. Was I reminded of Gatsby by the shared Jazz Age setting? Partly, but also because the Kingfisher Club echoed Fitzgerald's use of another archetypal tale, "The Fisher King."

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a vivid, immediate, sometimes-startling novel of magical realism - without the actual magic of fairy tales. These princesses are thoroughly modern women who have enough spirit to rescue themselves.  Highly recommended.

I received this novel from NetGalley. This is an honest review.



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12 June 2014

Goddess of Small Victories

The Goddess of Small VictoriesThe Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A novel with two parallel storylines ought to be in a state of dynamic equilibrium, with forces from both narratives balancing and advancing each other. The Goddess of Small Victories does not achieve that balance. Adele Gödel, the goddess, relates the small victories,the daily balancing acts she performed to keep her frail, unstable husband from collapsing under the weight of his genius, eccentricities, and paranoia. Her husband, Kurt Gödel, was the mathematician whose Incompleteness Theorums revolutionized higher mathematics by proving that axioms within a closed system cannot be proven from within that system. She found that to be true in her life, as well, since she was excluded from the processes and debates that Gödel and his circle debated endlessly, without much reference to the mundane world without.

She relates these stories in flashbacks, as she lies dying in a nursing home, to Ann Roth, an archivist at the Institute for Advanced Study, whose director tasks her with acquiring Godel's papers. Anna is not a stranger to the IAS, having been raised nearby in an atmosphere that rewarded the type of excellence it represented, and left her feeling unnecessary when she did not reach its level.

In alternating chapters, the women share stories from their lives - Adele's price for considering Anna's request. Adele talks about being a dancer in Vienna who marries the almost-unknowable Kurt. His lifestyle demands are specific and constricting; they are the matrix he requires to survive. Their lives are turned to chaos by the beginnings of World War II. Before they can escape Austria, they endure a terrifying encounter with Hitler's street thugs, who bully Kurt and equate mathematicians with Jewishness. A grueling trip across Siberia and the Pacific lands them in the United States, and, eventually, at Princeton. This is a fit destination for Gödel. Not so, initially, for Adele, whose English is weak and whose life is ruled by Kurt's demands.

Some of Adele's small victories are the bits of respect from her husband's genius friends, including Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. They become regulars at the Gödel house, where they discuss mathematics, physics, politics, and metaphysics while praising her cooking. Decades later, Adele has learned enough to repeat and discuss some of the concepts with Anna, as if to prove her own worth after many years of having been nearly invisible in her husband's world.

Anna's story? Almost irrelevant. She, too, is a handmaiden to the geniuses of the Institute. The details are not particularly compelling until she begins to take some chances, goaded by the still-vibrant Adele.

The weakness of Anna's story is compounded by the portions of Adele's that read like extended Cliff's notes for concepts that range from Gaussian curves, quantum mechanics versus Newtonian physics, set theory, variable infinities, and amicable numbers. The metaphysics delve into whether the existence of God can be proven through mathematics. Even a slightly-knowledgeable admirer of these subjects will lose the narrative thread while reading fictional discussions that alternate between the paradoxes inherent in time travel, and the excellence of Adele's cooking.

The book includes copious footnotes, afternotes, and a thorough dissection of what (and who) is fictional in the book. Students of these subjects may find them useful. I found it disturbing that the author takes the position that came to believe in God, since one of his last lettters disproves it. The book was, overall, disappointing. Two stars for interesting me enough to read up on amicable numbers.

I received an ARC from NetGalley. This is a fair review.



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10 June 2014

ten on Tuesday







Today's question: what is your favorite summer beverage?

I could just list "tea" ten times. Really, I could. I force myself to drink plain water-with-lemon (or without) a few times a day, winter or summer, because I know it's a useful habit. Hydration, you know. But - my main fluid intake consists of tea. Perhaps I can say it in a more nuanced manner.

PG Tips tea, hot.

Yorkshire Gold tea, hot.

Joy tea from Tazo, hot. This blend is only available in December, so I buy a lot and hoard it.As of today, I have three bags left from a tin that was a gift. 

Shaken iced tea lemonade from Starbucks or Barnes&Noble - green, please, unsweetened.

Decaffeinated hot tea from The Republic of Tea:
     apricot black
     mango Ceylon, black
     ginger peace, black
  
Green tea with pear from the Republic of Tea.

Black decaf tea from Adagio, with apricot or strawberry.

plain water






(No, this isn't my teapot, but I do have and adore the Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman Evening With cd.)





Why so much decaf? Can you see me shaking my fist at my cardiologist? 

03 June 2014

ten on Tuesday

10 Bands (and Performers) I Have Seen

It's been awhile since I actually, you know, Blogged, hasn't it? Here's an easy one - musicians I have seen, from "Ten on Tuesday."

Donovan - several times, beginning at Madison Square Garden, where thousands of people sang "Atlantis" in a gentle, rolling whisper; last time at a LI venue, where he told stories about India and Gypsy Dave.

Loudon Wainwright III - !!! Smart, deep, funny, introspective. Tells stories, acts, sings, involves. He's now doing a set of songs about his father, a writer. Two years ago, his surprise guest was Suzzy Roche.

The Roches - smart, deep, funny, magical harmonies. Did I mention "funny"? We were sad when Terre skipped the last concert, but charmed when Maggie whipped out a kazoo for "Yaketty Yak." 

Rufus Wainwright - we have seen him several times. The most magical was at a small LI venue, when it was just him, his piano, and That Voice. Imagine being in the first row, 6 feet away, as he plays and sings "Hallelujah." It just does not get any better.

Ray Davies - smart, deep, funny. (do you sense a trend?) Tells stories, sings from his deep, deep catalogue, and makes you wonder why his songs aren't embedded in Great Songbooks. "See My Friends" - here. Enjoy.



Christopher Parkening - the essence of classical guitar, with the pure and impeccable technique to make Bach appear in the overtones.

Melanie - of course. And yes, "lost in the overtones," as she sings in "Hold Tight." "Leap off the edge to see if you fall or fly." 

Vladimir Ashkenazy - a gentleman, shorter than I expected, and more nuanced than his early recordings would have suggested.

Ravi Shankar - many times, from large to small venues, with Oregon, Yehudi Menuhin (incarnated spirit), and (nearly) alone. He once told us he was going to do a traditional raga that would be at least 2 hours long. Those in the audience who were not true aficionados groaned. The rest of us experienced true immersion that may have taken hours, but felt like no time at all - true timelessness.

Aimee Mann - back to smart, deep, funny. A wonderful voice, exceptional lyrics, and the creator of one of my theme songs, "Humpty Dumpty."



I could go on and on - Randy Newman, Isaac Stern, John Hartford, Lisa Loeb, countless orchestras and soloists, Dan Bern, Glenn Tillbrook, They Might Be Giants, Richard Thompson, Roger McGuinn. A life without live music is just unthinkable.

02 June 2014

the Romanov sisters

The Romanov SistersThe Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All biographies are written in the context of history. The question facing a biographer -  how to balance the lives of individual flesh-and-blood people with the events - is made even more difficult when the events were, to a degree, controlled by the people she is writing about.

What Helen Rappaport has achieved in The Romanov Sisters is a portrait of a family that could be any family, save for the exigencies of dynastic marriage, unimaginable wealth, and the paradigm-shattering events of the early twentieth century. These four sisters - Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia - were real babies, real flesh-and-blood children, awkward teenagers, and accomplished young women, and they were murdered as political prisoners.

The reader learns about each girl as she passes through each stage of a young life. One girl is quiet, one is rambunctious; one cares about clothing and hair, one has a weight issue. Each life is detailed with precision and objectivity, without judgement. And, each sister is shown to have been loving, caring, and tender towards her parents, and her grievously-ill brother, Alexei.

One stunning part of the book deals with the royal family's response to the European War. Alexandra, Olga and Tatiana became fully-trained, full-fledged nurses who worked countless hours in the most dramatic areas of the hospitals by day, dressing horrific wounds, participating in amputations and treatment of hideous gangrene, while returning to the hospitals by night to sew linens, roll bandages, and knit garments for soldiers. Both sisters had reached an age where most would be developing crushes on young, handsome men. Both did.

The younger sisters also worked amongst the suffering wounded, as well as doing the expected visits and reviews. Even Alexei served by accompanying his father to battle areas, despite the danger to his fragile health.

This was a family that understood duty beyond noblesse oblige, and set aside its own comfort to serve the victims of politics. As a family of father, mother, and children, it was quite normal. Alexandra was disdained because she breast-fed her children instead of hiring a wet-nurse. The children were simultaneously considered ill-mannered (by sniffy outsiders) and refreshingly typical (by other outsiders). Royalty, privilege, and wealth could not cure Alexei or ease his suffering. Rasputin, both rake and staretz, provided some relief. Rappaport reports, but does not judge.

This biography is written in a detailed, yet clear and flowing voice that leads the reader through the tangles of dynastic interrelationships as easily as it describes the daily life of a doomed family.  It leaves judgments and comparisons up to the reader.

Highly recommended.

I received an ARC from NetLibrary. This is an honest review.



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24 May 2014

Murder Past Due; and, Classified as Murder

Murder Past Due (Cat in the Stacks Mystery, #1)Murder Past Due by Miranda James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Very nicely-done mystery set in a library, with well-limned characters, including an enormous, empathetic Maine Coon cat with more empathy than many humans. I'm looking forward to reading the whole series.


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Classified as Murder (Cat in the Stacks Mystery, #2)Classified as Murder by Miranda James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another solid, funny, engaging mystery from Miranda James about a Charlie, a retired cataloger, and his enormous Maine Coon cat, Diesel. Not quite cozy, not quite non-cozy - beautifully-plotted, with an expanding cast of characters and the kind of continuity that only an author who allows her characters to evolve can provide.

In this outing, the body in the library is an old rare-book collector.  The suspects are family members whose lack of affection for each other is topped only by the old man's disdain for them, displayed in a spot-on, poison-pen will that few people would be gutsy enough to write. My only complaint about this book (and its predecessor) is that Charlie's friend Helen continues to supply him with chocolate cake that sounds so delicious that I want a piece...

Highly recommended!



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16 May 2014

The End of Innocence

The End of InnocenceThe End of Innocence by Allegra Jordan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Startling and powerful, this novel examines opposing forces during and after the first World War, with conflicts that are deeply personal as well as political. Harvard sets the stage for Helen, the Americn daughter of a conservative scholar and an activist mother, to meet Wils and Riley,  German poets and cousins, whose German and British ancestries land them on opposing sides in the European trenches. Campus politics echo the intense jingoism and violence of the time as the war intensifies overseas, with students acting on these deep prejudices and going to fight even before the United States is officially in the war.

Helen and Wils are soulmates in poetry and temperament, but poetry can not keep the war from ripping their lives apart.  Each character, major or minor, fights a war against modernism, or prejudice, or the status of women. Each conflict has consequences that are defined and defied during the war, and after.

I was shocked by an afterword: the author was inspired to write the book by a very real plaque in Harvard's Memorial Church, one that exemplifies the incoherence of society's response to war heroes, alive or dead.

Highly, highly recommended.

I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley. This is a fair review.



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21 March 2014

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A. J. FikryThe Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When this novel begins, the odds are against A.J. Fikrey's chances of happiness. He is widowed, having lost his wife in an accident when she drove an author home after an appearance at A.J.'s bookstore on Alice Island. He should have been driving, he thinks, but he can't drive; he has absence seizures. One plate of hurled vindaloo changes everything: when he wakes up after a binge, it has been cleaned up, but his prized copy of Tamerlane has been purloined.

Absence is a key trope in this story. The philandering husband of Ismay, A.J.'s sister-in-law, is often absent. His longtime friend, a publisher's representative, has died. He has decided to drink until he and his store are gone, too.

But - one almost-Christmas day, there is a sudden presence: an abandoned toddler girl, Maya, with a note pinned to her Elmo doll saying that her mother hopes the child will grow up to be a reader. "Funny world, right?" muses Lambiase, the police officer. "Someone steals a book from you; someone else leaves you a baby."

A.J. does not believe in fate, but he does believe in responsibility. He shocks everyone by deciding to adopt Maya. The social worker shocks herself by agreeing to the adoption, reasoning that she always loved orphan stories like Anne of Green Gables. Ismay, Lambiase, Amelia (the new publisher's rep), and the townspeople soon coalesce around the widower and the preternatually-verbal little girl, who tells A.J. she loves him after he sings "99 Luftballons" during her baths.  "I warned her about giving love that hasn't yet been earned," he says, "but honestly, I think it's the influence of that insidious Elmo."

Maya thrives in the bookstore, which also thrives as her new father adds children's books, books for the women's discussion group (Bel Canto, after he runs out of books with the word "wife" in the title), and a new group for Lambiase and his police friends. A bottle of Purell sits on the counter ("please disinfect before handling the infanta"), and Maya sits on the floor, learning to read and write. Love has appeared where it was least expected.

Each chapter is introduced by A.J., who loves short stories and has written an appreciation of some of the most elegant of the genre. (If only there were an anthology of these stories, to deepen the reader's appreciation for the elegance of this book!) The theme or circumstance of each story, including selections such as "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (Salinger) and "What Feels Like the World" by Richard Bausch) is mirrored in the storyline. ("A Diamond As Big As the Ritz" is a favorite, but not The Great Gatsby, which A.J. thinks was "overgroomed... like a garden topiary.")

What began as absence leads to happiness. A.J. expresses his gratitude when he "closes his eyes and thanks whomever, the higher power, with all his porcupine heart." So will the reader, who should remember that nothing in well-plotted fiction is accidental. Pay attention. It will be worth it.

I received a galley of this book from NetGalley. This is a fair review.


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17 March 2014

Guidebook to Murder

Guidebook to MurderGuidebook to Murder by Lynn Cahoon


Quaint, pretty South Cove, California, is home to Jill Gardner, a former lawyer who has found her bliss in running a bookstore-café, Coffee, Books, and More. When she was a newcomer in town, octogenarian Miss Emily was her first friend, offering iced tea and a sympathetic ear. Now the town is threatening to knock down Miss Emily's ramshackle house to build sleek condos. Jill goes to see her friend and to mow her lawn, only to find the old woman dead in her bed, with a teacup and a Regency romance on the nightstand. Only faint marks on her neck hint that she didn't die of natural causes.

As the plot unfolds, many characters present themselves as possible suspects, including disgruntled distant relatives and a would-be land developer whose trophy wife's dog bites Jill in her own café. Miss Emily and her property prove to have had secrets that could have inspired homicide. Add the sudden disappearance of Jill's friend Amy, whose presence on the job at Town Hall could have obstructed some of the less savory plans for the old house, and you have a storyline that keeps you reading, wondering, and hoping.

Often, the first of a proposed cozy series is stuffed with backstory and explication. I found myself wishing for more early detail about Miss Emily than her protective outburst against a teen who mowed down her fairy ring, and some details about the town itself from the book that one of the suspects purchases from Jill. Perhaps the author will be more generous about the town and its residents as the series progresses.

Three stars: I guessed the perp too soon, I disliked the thankfully-brief appearance of a faux gypsy, and lack of backstory. Kudos, however, for the Oxford comma in the name of Jill's café!

I received a free galley of this book from NetGalley. This is a fair reivew.



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