22 April 2015

Hugo & Rose

Hugo & RoseHugo & Rose by Bridget  Foley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

High-concept books require readers to buy into the premise - in this case, that a woman, Rose, has been dreaming about a fantastic island and playmate, Hugo, since she was recovering from an accident at age six. Every.Single.Night. The island is a whimsical affair, with sparkling pink sands, weird foes to be vanquished, and landmarks such as Castle City and the Green Lagoon. Hugo leads their adventures aboard the Plank Orb, and flying above Spider Chasm.

Rose marries Josh, a surgeon, and has three little children. Although she continues to have the dreams, she ages, as we all do, and is vaguely dissatisfied with what she calls her "sweatpants years." On the island, in her dreams, she is still beautiful and fit, as is Hugo, even though both have aged in the dreams. "Of what consequences are the dreams of housewives?" she wonders, retreating into sleep and feeling alienated from the other mothers.

Her husband and children have participated vicariously in the dream-world via the stories they have adopted as a shared mythology. They look forward to their bedtime play with the Tickle Monster, and they build a LEGO replica of the island.

Of course, the impossible becomes possible one day when she drives a carload of hungry, grumpy children to a less-travelled fast food restaurant, Orange Tastee. The cashier, against all real-world logic, is Hugo: older and less beautiful, like Rose, but unmistakable.

She is shaken - who wouldn't be? - and she begins to stalk him when her children are in school. When she decides to show herself, he recognizes her but panics. Soon, the dreams they share begin to change...

The concept is intricate, and beautifully limned. The lines between good guys and threatening entities, waking and dreaming, shared history and unique childhood traumas, are honored, even when circumstances begin to deteriorate. Many of the recurrent themes - imperiled children, the perceived shallowness of caregivers - resonate deeply. Who hasn't wished for an imaginary world and an agreeable companion?

My rating is really 3.5 stars, shading toward a generous 4. One star is subtracted because the writing sometimes slips into cumbersome, tell-don't-show pronouncements ("it played into their innate desires for self-reliance") that are annoying and spell-breaking, especially after a well-written passage of show-don't-tell. Another half-star would be subtracted because Rose's husband is just too, too patient. But it's a good and diverting read, and a fine first novel.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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16 April 2015

The Robot Scientist's Daughter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many of the poems in this book are iterations of the poet's own life. Jeannine Hall Gailey spent her childhood in Tennessee, in the shadow of her father's workplace, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, incubator and nursery to nuclear experiments that included the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  The neighborhood where she grew up has since been razed and paved over, but the poet recalls the way the old perils affected the child and the woman.

Like other children, she was taught not to eat poisonous plants - lily of the valley, hemlock - 

But she didn't learn that the swallow's nest,
the frog, the mud-dauber wasp nest, the milk from cows,
the white-tailed deer, the catfish were full of hot particles.
Her father brought out the Geiger counter to measure
her snowmen and teach her the snow, too, wasn't
safe enough to taste.

As a child, 

She knows the click of the Geiger counter
better than her own heart, which moans
and swings unlike any machine.

Her father's Geiger counter click-clicked
its swaying tongue at me.

Her mother worries that she is becoming morbid:

... the girl hides underground, pretending
to be a troll or a witch, She puts leaves in her hair
and collects fossils, lining them up to spell words,
the swirling trilobite, the imprints of the mysterious dead.

As an adult, she tells of the aftermath of nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima, where "Sunflowers planted in hope, in the name of the dead / fail to purify the earth... Still, they are tended." Ordinary landscapes become shifted and exotic with "blue glass butterflies born eyeless," and where "metal faces of new radiation detection signs / appear next to the crumpled worn idols of stone."

These stone idols may turn our thoughts to Shelley's "Ozymandias."  "Tickling the Dragon" evokes W. H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts."  "About suffering they were never wrong," says Auden, showing us Breughel's painting of Icarus falling into the sea: a cosmic catastrophe that is virtually ignored by the townspeople.  

Gailey replaces the Auden's "Old Masters" with "old comics," showing us a comic, line-drawing of a very real and catastrophic accident involving a scientist whose hubris caused him to use a screwdriver in an experiment with deadly beryllium and plutonium. His gruesome death by radiation, like the bravado of Icarus, is now an everyday accommodation to reality: man can not, unaided, touch the sky, or the atom: "After this, they began to use robots; / they wanted to find a way to keep a man's hands / from touching the demon core of this dragon."  Either way, however, the small and invisible can be humanity's undoing.

These poems are funny and matter-of -fact, filled with imagery and plain, down-to-earth and science-fictional. They are both haunting and interesting. I am very glad to have been given the opportunity to discover them.

Thank you to Serena Agusto-Cox of Poetic Book Tours and Savvy Verse and Wit for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for The Robot Scientist's Daughter. You can read more about the poet and the poetry at Jeannine Hall Gailey's site.

never again

21 March 2015

At the water's edge

At the Water's EdgeAt the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The proprietor of a Scottish loch-side inn, the men and women who work there, the townspeople who keep the faith during the dark times of WWII: these are well-drawn, real characters whose survival matters deeply to the reader. Their folklore (including the Loch Ness Monster), their remedies for everything from seasickness to the devastation of domestic violence, their soups and teas - these illuminate personalities of a terrified, but far from fractured community.

Unfortunately, these are secondary characters, used as backdrop for three Americans whose heedlessness, selfishness, casual cruelty, snobbishness, and backbiting are only a hair's breath from cartoonish. A young, married couple is disinherited by insular, callous parents. They and an equally callow friend go to the Loch to film (by any means necessary) the Monster, which the beastly father had filmed - falsely - years before. The two men mistreat everyone they come across - except, possibly, each other - and the woman, left behind at the inn for days at a time, grows a soul.

There are love stories mixed in here, some of which engage the reader. There is so much backstory in the first third of the book that the reader may despair of finding the thread of a worthy plot.  There are glimpses of what the real war has done to real people, both military and civilian, and there is hope - because the reader knows the outcome of the war.

Disappointing, but worth two stars for the heart and soul of the small town that takes in three hapless Americans.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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01 March 2015

Doll God

In the realm of the Doll God by Luanne Castle, intention is not limited to the usual actors. Nesting dolls may choose to share Snow White's casket. The old, life-sized toddler doll, denied a little girl's ability to say "No," may force the beholder to read her history in chill, stony eyes ("See how it was for me, my history"). In "A Bone Elegy," a poem that refers to surgery on a "ravenous tumor" on the foot of the poet, a mother's voice is "a clothesline/heavy with soggy laundry" as the poet remembers a visit to the shore, where "the wind stirring up/ the waves/ goosebumped my arms." Dolls and their homes, and the objects in those homes, challenge the reader to examine the transcendent issues of love, loss, beauty, presence, absence ("because absence has its variations").

"God's toolbox begets stained glass," she says, hinting at both beauty and danger. You will "see the sky's floor crack open in one poem; in another, the sky is "so blue it hisses." Even the peace of a mother knitting in golden lamplight while listening to Nancy Wilson is transient, as a girl, "whose blood is "buzzing through/ its gridded network," well knows: "Anything could unbalance it./ An extra star in tomorrow's sky, rain/ or no rain/ could re-set it all."

I particularly loved the poem, "Prospective Ghost's Response to the First Duino Elegy," in which Castle tells the Master, "I am still looking for angels," and tells of possible encounters with ghosts who appear to her as sensations.
Ghost animals skirt my ankles.
I could be in love with them or their shadows.
Now, I sit on the ledge watching
terror as it creeps and insinuates
into everything that is life or the world...
Rilke himself might have told her that "...the wind/ full of outer space/ gnaws at our lifted faces.." or that "...many stars lined up/ hoping you'd notice."  He might have told her to show the angel "how even the wail of sorrow/ can settle purely/ into its own form..." -

- but Castle knows that, as she has created art from artifacts of childhood, and from the ancient teaching-tales of humanity. As proof, one more quote, from Snow Remembers an Old Tale:
From that other screen
once upon that time
a girl crawled out at night to dance
in aisles of cornfields
from Mayday to Halloween.
In a guest post on Peeking Between the Pages, Luanne Castle recently wrote
Because I grew up with the imaginary world of dolls, I can't see a doll that doesn't inspire me for a poem Often my imagination will transform the doll into a magical portal through which to see more of the human heart.

Need I say that I loved this book? It has everything poetry can offer, from stunning imagery and metaphors to a storyline that encompasses the search for meaning and identity. 

Thank you to Serena Agusto-Cox of Poetic Book Tours and Savvy Verse and Wit for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for Doll God.You can read more about the book on Ms. Castle's site, here, and read more reviews on Goodreads, here.

17 February 2015

in memoriam

In memoriam - John Savage, former director of the North Babylon Public Library, who died in late December. He taught us all by example witih his strong sense of ethics, his intellectual curiosity, his desire to make changes that would benefit the public good as well as the individual iconoclast, and his old-fashioned caring. Thank you, Mr. Savage.

His obituary is here.

10 February 2015

random thoughts on books and reading and pens and paper and all that good stuff

I realized a couple of days ago that nearly everything I've been reading since last fall is either about Paris, set in Paris, or might as well be set in Paris. Also, about art, or artists, or museums, or artistry, or paint - use of paint, creation of paint, colors in paint. Since I've never (alas) been to Paris (alas), and can barely write legibly, let alone paint, I wonder how much my subconscious is telling me about what I ought to be looking at.
Do I want to go to Paris? Yes, yes, yes.
Can I speak French? No, no, no (despite two French courses in college, which left me with only enough vocabulary to order foods I don't eat). 
Since the last painterly book I read (and have not yet reviewed) is about Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald, I'm tempted to buy one of those Art Nouveau coloring books and break out the colored pencils. Do any of you enjoy coloring? Do tell -- 
(This would be a good time to point out my friend Penny's personal challenge - "conquering perfectionism through doodling."  Some of her photos are here, and I love them!)

February is for A Month of Letters, sponsored by Mary Robinette Kowal. The challenge is simple: send 23 pieces of mail during the month of February. My month is going pretty well - I know I'll get to 23 before the 28th - and even if I don't (or, if you don't, if you decide to join late), it's still fun to meet new people, and to find something to say about whatever you like and mail it to someone. Postcard? Fine. Missive? Fine. Just - write!
Alas, I missed the online social hosted by the Letter Writers Alliance - yes, there is such an Alliance, and yes, go visit them now!

The C.S. Literary Jewelry Reading Club is reading Jane Eyre. I love Jane Eyre. I first got a copy at the old Barnes & Noble bookstore on 18th St. and 5th Ave. when I was in elementary school. My parents took me there; while they were looking at art books, I wandered to the used books, and found a lovely hardbound copy, old even then, in a maroon cloth binding. Reader, I read it the next day, and have read it innumerable times since. For this book club, though, I will have to change my method of reading because -- I can no longer see well enough to read the dense, wee font. Yes, I am heartbroken. Has this ever happened to you? Can you make the transition to reading an old literary love on your e-reader? I'm scouting for a paper copy with a readable font... but in the meantime, it's the Nook for me. 

(By the way, Kerry's jewelry -  at C.S. Literary Jewelry on Etsy -  is wonderful!)

What's new in your literary/bookish/papery part of the world?

01 February 2015

Increase, Decrease

Today's title is a treat for knitters. You'll have to wait until May - but the wait will be worth it!

Increase, Decrease: 99 Step-by-Step Methods; Find the Perfect Technique for Shaping Every Knitting ProjectIncrease, Decrease: 99 Step-by-Step Methods; Find the Perfect Technique for Shaping Every Knitting Project by Judith Durant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every knitter will want this book. Clear photographs for dozens of increases and decreases, showing which are best paired, how they look stacked or separated, and such good instructions that I finally, finally understand how to do p2togtbl!  Excellent, excellent.

Thank you, Net Galley! I can not wait to purchase this book when it's published in May!

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silent poetry reading in honor of St. Brigid and Imbolc

In an artist's studio - Christina Rossetti

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel -- every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

29 January 2015

The Witch of Painted Sorrows

The Witch of Painted SorrowsThe Witch of Painted Sorrows by M.J. Rose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
M.J.Rose writes lush, evocative, sensual, smooth prose that brings the reader through a labrynthine multiple-timeline, filled with art, history, satin, velvet, and the pervasive scent of violets. The Witch is La Lune, a 16th-century courtesan whose passion for art and life illuminated her own live, and has captivated the lives of all of the women in Maison de la Lune house for centuries.

Sandrine is an American woman who has fled her abusive husband at the end of the 19th century. She goes to her grandmother's house, the Maison. Grandmother is a courtesan, one of a line that has charmed generations of generous men with wit and intellect. She is also a pragmatist, and she discourages Sandrine's growing passions for painting and her own architect, Julien, whose Art Nouveau style has begun to challenge Parisian standards of beauty in the Belle Epoque.

At first, Sandrine reads The Portrait of Dorian Gray while her grandmother holds her salons. Soon, though, she begins to explore the ornate mansion, and devises an audacious plan to force the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to accept her as its first female student.

Many worlds collide in this novel: Cabala and alchemy v. pragmatism and reason, duty v. passion (beautifully rendered in erotic interludes and transgressive art), fictional characters v. cameo appearances by Gustav Moreau, Debussy, Satie, and others. Can a long-dead enchantress overpower and inhabit a modern woman? Where does imagination end and possession begin?

I read this heady novel slowly, savoring and admiring the author's immersion in the details of houses, paintings, philosophers, folklore, and the customs of the courtesans. That I sensed the depth or research instead of becoming immersed as a reader is one of the flaws of this novel. The other is that the ending, after all of the struggles, seemed abrupt.

Still, 4 stars.

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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23 January 2015

First Frost

First Frost (Waverley Family #2)First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book in one day because I just had to know -- everything -- it was a delight to revisit the Waverley women and children, to know that Evanelle is still giving things to people because they *will* need them, to witness the good men Sydney and Claire have married, and to get more of a glimpse into the Waverley heritage. Sydney's daughter Bay has become a wise and charming teenager who makes mistakes, just like her mother and aunt, but who has the benefit of a loving, enchanted family to help her when she stumbles.

If you haven't read Garden Spells yet, do -- you will enjoy this installment so much more if you know how the sisters reconnected and how their magic manifests.

I must say - seeing that this is called "Waverley Family #2" has me utterly chuffed: there will be more Waverley books. Yes!

One-half star off because of one storyline that just didn't make it for me - it didn't detract much, but it also didn't add, and I thought it was telegraphed with a heavier hand than Allen's usual delicacy.

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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21 January 2015


I'm not a doctor. If a doctor tells me to change my ways, I will get a second opinion. If the opinions agree, I'll probably change my ways.

In the case of climate change, we have *tens of thousands* of second opinions. Isn't that enough to convince you to consider the possibility that climate change is real and we have to change our ways?

Or, yes, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." But if every meteorologist told you we're about to have a hurricane, wouldn't you get the hell out of its way? I sure would. 

15 January 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop

The Little Paris Bookshop: A NovelThe Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jean Perdu's great love, Manon, left him two decades ago. Since then, he has maintained a floating bookshop-barge, a Literary Apothecary, on the banks of the Seine. His own heart and life have been hardened; the room in his apartment where he knew great love has been barricaded and left idle.  By day, he dispenses books, suiting the title to the customer with uncanny accuracy, One customer might receive The Elegance of the Hedgehog, while another might be given a poem by Hesse or Tom's Midnight Garden. Only his cats, Lindgren and Kafka, are permitted to touch him; he can not prescribe a book for himself.

Catherine, his new neighbor, has escaped an abusive relationship. When M. Perdu's landlady urges him to donate something to help furnish her new apartment, he breaks into the long-deserted room to fetch a table. He is stunned when Catherine gives him a letter she found in a drawer - a letter from Manon. Unopened.

Tearing open the letter tears him apart when he learns why Manon chose to leave - not for lack of love at all. Suddenly, disappointment and anger become something very different. The young woman he first met on a train from Provence, for whom he prescribed books for homesickness, had another reason to leave him - and he failed her.

Also in the apartment complex is a young writer, Max Jordan, who wears earplugs and wooly mufti to escape the fans who clamor for more, more. He, too, has been abandoned - by his muse.

For much of the book, M. Perdu and Max navigate the the barge through the waterways of France, from Paris to Provence, as Perdu tries to retrace Manon's steps and learn her fate. They are not quite Huck and Jim, but some of their adventures are bittersweet, each meeting people and learning truths about themselves as they float through the countryside.

The book is a love song to love itself, Paris, the tango, food, books, and freedom. Some of the characters and episodes would be at home in "Amelie." Other situations are more like a gastronomic panorama. We learn that Paris is scented "like lime blossoms and expectation," that the air, one day, "was as warm as a brimming teacup." Catherine wanted to be a pirate and a librarian; she serves as M. Perdu's lodestar, and represents the possibility of mature, honest love. We learn of Manon from a diary in which she describes Perdu as a white raven.

If you are hungry when you finish the book, recipes are included for some of the dishes - (a Provencal soup called Pistou, lavender ice cream). Also included: "Jean Perdu's emergency literary pharmacy,"   from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (to be read "in easily digestible doses... with warm feet and/or with a cat on your lap"), Romain Gary's Promise at Dawn ("...protection against nostalgia for one's childhood"), Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities ("a book for me who've forgotten what they wanted from life"), and Enchanted April by elizabeth von Arnim, "for indecision and for trusting one's friends."

If I had a literary apothecary, I would prescribe this book to all of my friends.

Thank you, Net Galley, for allowing me to read and review this wonderful book.

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08 January 2015

Team Civilization

Today's blog title is taken from Jon Stewart's response to yesterday's atrocity in Paris.

It always has seemed odd to me when religious fanatics have killed, tortured, and kidnapped in the name of their deity.

I have wondered -

  • Does your deity care more about what comes out of a pen than the life of the writer or artist?
  • Or what women wear on their heads? 
  • Or how adults express love?
  • Did he who made the lamb make thee?

He who made the universe condemns me for drawing a cartoon, and deputizes you to punish me?

It would be laughable, but not today.

Salman  Rushdie's response
Muslims around the world condemn the attack
The cartoons in question

30 December 2014

The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kristin Hannah begins her tale in 1995, as an ailing, elderly woman tells her son that she will not be parted from a steamer trunk that has stood, unopened, for half a century. He believes it contains mundane mementos that can be repacked into a more compact container. He is wrong. Her son loves her, thinks the old woman, but the dependable, ordinary woman he knows has  many secrets.

In 1939, two sisters in France live very different lives. Vianne Mauriac's husband Antoine has just been mobilized. She and their daughter, Sophie, remain in quiet Carriveau. Meanwhile, Vianne's younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol, has been expelled from yet another school in Paris. She briefly works for her father's bookstore, but is forced to flee Paris when the Maginot Line breaks. Along with masses of frightened Parisiennes, Isabelle gets the first hint of the suffering France will endure under the Nazi occupation.

The clashes between the sisters began in their childhood, when their mother died and their father withdrew into alcohol. Even the war does not soften the antagonism between them. Vianne's first concern is the safety of her daughter. She refuses to go along with Isabelle's call to rebel. Vianne believes that the Vichy government will keep them safe, but her hopes shatter one by one.

When the German officer who billets at her home, Beck, informs her that Antoine has been captured, Vianne begins to realize that there are levels of collaboration. Is it wrong for her to cook Beck's meals in exchange for antibiotics, or news from Antoine? Isabelle leaves the village to become a freedom fighter, risking her life to ensure the safety and victory of the Allies.

And what of the old woman? She accepts an invitation to go to paris and attend a ceremony. She is dying, but her son will learn the truth about his family.

Every character, every scene, every flash of history in this novel is a clear look at realities: war, love, courage, and compromise. Vianne and Isabelle embody the experiences and choices that everyday people have to face in wartime. Kristin Hannah has given us a look at the courageous women whose actions may be less-known than those of the heroic men, but who were no less courageous and important.

I received this book from GoodReads in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

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25 December 2014

you who now shall bless the poor --

... shall yourselves find blessing.

Good King Wenceslaus, sung by Mandy Patinkin, Michael Stipe, and Stephen Colbert.  

  1. Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
    When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
    Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
    When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.
  2. “Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
    Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
    “Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
    Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
  3. “Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
    You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
    Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
    Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
  4. “Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
    Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
    “Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
    You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”
  5. In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
    Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
    Therefore, Christian men, be sure, while God’s gifts possessing,
    You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

19 December 2014

The world before her

The World Before UsThe World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The frequent comparisons between this book and A.S. Byatt's Possession are, I believe, misguided. Although both involve dual timelines and long-hidden secrets, Hunter's book focuses on memory, and eschews satire and verbal pyrotechnics.  Instead, she takes us inside the ghosts? shades? spirits? of the long-dead actors in a story connected to a long-shuttered Victorian asylum and a Victorian botanist. She shades struggle to remember who they were, and how their stories intertwined. So does archivist Jane Standen, whose dissertation included the asylum, and whose job is ending at the museum where she works is closing.

She has long been haunted by the disappearance of a girl from the asylum, known only as N, when she and two men walked to the botanist's house. The men returned; the girl did not. When Jane learns who is to speak at the gala for the museum's closing, she flees: The speaker, Jane's first crush, was the father of a little girl, Lily, who disappeared during a walk in the woods - when Jane was babysitting her. Jane goes to the village where both disappearances happened, searching for clues to the disappearance of N, and for clues to the tragedy that has defined her for many years.

An archivist preserves and sorts artifacts that keep the stories of a place and its residents alive. Some stories are more personal than others. N's disappearance might not have caught Jane's attention had Lily not disappeared. Others are less so, at least on the surface. The new owners of the botanist's house are recreating his gardens to be as they were in his lifetime.

As Jane reads the letters, journals, and logbooks, looking for clues into N's life and disappearance, the shades begin to recover their essences. As Jane begins a relationship with one of the gardeners, they also begin to remember how it felt to be alive, how their senses defined them.

The reader gets to absorb complexity in both timelines, and sees how Jane becomes more solid and complex as she assembles clues and allows the present - with risks and uncertainty - to to affect her as much as the past.

I was particularly taken by side-stories about the village and villagers, past and present, which deepened the theme of memory. One example: local miners who gather to remember their experiences as others, trapped, their stories told by the media, are in the long process of being rescued. The subterranean story illuminates the hope for salvation when the men can be brought to the surface to tell their own stories.

So, yes, this book is not Possession. Instead, it is a subtle tale of duality and memory, discovery and connection, which shines in its own, elegant, ultimately beautiful terms.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley, and this is an unbiased review.

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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?