Books

February 11, 2015

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Bunker Hill – A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick takes you on an intricate journey into the minds, strategies, and conundrums of this important time in American history.

I liked the cleverness of his Preface “The Decisive Day” and Epilogue “Character Alone.” These fitting bookends tell of John Quincy Adams; one at age seven as he watches the battle from a hill in Boston with his mother to his reflections as a statesman at age 71, still haunted by the memories of Bunker Hill.

Philbrick, with thorough research to back his writings, takes us through the complicated feelings and trade and taxation problems facing the colonists. We read of the meetings, the emotions, the tarring and featherings as the situation smolders. We learn of the colonial leaders as they emerge such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Joseph Warren, a man I was not all that familiar with, was a mover and shaker, a charismatic leader for the Provincials who lost his life at Bunker Hill.

The author covers the British leaders and military along with the sentiments in London toward the colony and Boston – Generals Gage and Howe, Clinton and Burgoyne to name a few.

I especially liked learning about the intricacies of Lexington and Concord, Chelsea Creek, Bunker Hill, and seizing Dorchester. Maps help a reader trace the movements of the Provincials and British and to understand the strategies … and mistakes … on both parts. Two sections of pictures help identify the men and locations.

Several things struck me. The Committees of Correspondence used for rapid communication were like a modern, horse free internet and email system. The colonial army at first wasn’t a regulated army but a collection of militiamen who were described on page 179 as “spiritual, ornery and clannish; an army barely under anyone’s control.” George Washington had a big job bringing the forces he inherited into a cohesive group.

How the colonists gradually came together and realized they indeed were declaring independence and indeed were becoming their own country is an amazing story. Philbrick tells it like a page-turning suspense thriller. He kept me totally engaged. Click here for more on Philbrick.

Author Nathaniel Philbrick

Author Nathaniel Philbrick

January 2, 2015

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The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar takes you into two worlds. One is the upwardly mobile family of Scott and Maureen Torres and their three children who live very comfortably in an affluent area. The other is the world of Araceli, their live-in Mexican maid.

Currently beset by money problems, Scott has to make cutbacks. The Hispanic gardner and nannie are let go. Araceli has to blend her role as housekeeper with that of minding the children. Scott and Maureen attempt gardening and running their home without the extra help.

A blow-up between Scott and Maureen leaves them exiting the house, Maureen taking their toddler daughter with her. Araceli is left alone with the two boys and has no idea where the parents are, unaware they have each gone their separate ways to nurse their wounds. Araceli attempts to take the boys to their grandfather’s home somewhere in Los Angeles.

What ensues allows the reader to see into Araceli’s world, explore mindsets and points of view, and the layering of life within her community. What also ensues is a panorama/gamut of events that lead to charges of abandonment, child endangerment, political and neighborhood social turmoil for both Araceli and Scott and Maureen. The justice system has the characters in a quagmire of what is just and what isn’t.

Because his writing is so dense, I found Tobar’s style and rhythm something I had to adjust into. Once I did, I was exposed to new ideas and points of view. He explored deep and wide into the intricacies of these characters and their two worlds.

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Novelist Hector Tobar

December 3, 2014

419bYxeAInL._UY250_If you want to go on a wild and fun ride, sit down with a copy of Maria Semple’s latest book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette.  You’ll laugh, but you’ll also ache for Bernadette. Where did she go, physically and psychologically?

The story? Bernadette, a famous and exceptional architect, suffers a serious blow to her work and her psyche. She, her daughter Bee, and husband Elgin (a Microsoft guru) move to Seattle. They buy an old building that was a girls’ school. The idea is that Bernadette will take it on as an architectural project and make it into a unique family home.

Bernadette hates Seattle and proceeds to lose herself, becoming a recluse. She adores her daughter, loves her husband, but life, in her view, is plebeian and awful in Seattle. Not the excitement and fame of Los Angeles.

As she disintegrates, her husband tries an intervention, wanting her to seek psychiatric care voluntarily. Through a strange course of events, her neighbor Audrey, who has been an arch enemy, comes to her rescue. Bernadette disappears from the city and the hunt is on.

I liked the way the tale is told from multiple viewpoints and through emails, faxes, letters. The story flow is continuous and bigger than life. The way the pieces ultimately fit together reminds me of a segment of the Jerry Seinfeld show where bizarre occurrences involving people wrapped up in themselves all come together to complete a story.

Through the mayhem, daughter Bee remains steadfast in her love for her mother as does Bernadette for her daughter.

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Novelist Maria Semple

November 15, 2014

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If you’re wanting a funny read, a dark read, and an exciting read, you’ll enjoy Tod Goldberg’s latest novel Gangsterland. 

Bad guy Sal Cupertine, a usually cool and methodical hit man, goes a bit overboard in a hotel room in Chicago and ends up with four dead bodies on his hands. Important dead bodies. The mob, who still has use for Sal even after that debacle, smuggles him out of the windy city and resettles him in Las Vegas as Rabbi David Cohen.

After plastic surgery, a little mixing of The Talmud and Bruce Springsteen, and a little direction from Rabbi Kales, Rabbi Cohen is doing well at the synagogue …  as well as doing work for Las Vegas mobster Bennie Savone. Quite a juxtaposition of positions. Some interesting situations arise.

Add to this FBI agent Jeff Hopper, who is supposed to be dead.

Colorful characters like Fat Monte, Slim Joe, and Gray Beard make memorable appearances. Scenes of the good rabbi counseling local synagogue members coupled with the rabbi’s inner thoughts are fun. Without being a spoiler, you’ll probably never pass a meat delivery truck again without laughing.

The exploration of the Rabbi’s deeper inner thoughts, his wants and desires, elevate this book from a usual whodunnit to the story of a man you kind of like, even root for, though never forgetting what he is.

I recently heard Tod Goldberg speak at a book signing/fundraiser for the Friends of the College of the Desert Library. He is colorful and fun with a serious and deep regard for writing. If you haven’t read this award winning writer, now’s the time. Tod Goldberg directs the Low Residency MFA program in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside.

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Tod Goldberg signing my book.

September 29, 2014

Sycamore_Row_-_cover_art_of_hardcover_book_by_John_GrishamI became a fan of John Grisham’s with A Time to Kill. I devoured his next five books, but turned into a disenchanted reader with The Runaway Jury. It seemed like a sentence outline. I cooled for a number of years. The Street Lawyer lured me back.

I liked Sycamore Row because we’re again with lawyer Jake Brigance and his family in Ford County. The action takes place three years after A Time to Kill. There’s the familiarity of location along with some colorful characters we’ve met before.

The story: A wealthy man commits suicide and leaves his estate to his housekeeper. His will designates Jake as the lawyer to handle his affairs and excludes the man’s children and grandchildren from any inheritance. The challenges to the will begin as the mysteries unfold behind the surprise bequest.

This book is for the reader who likes the courtroom scene and the intrigues occurring beyond the courtroom walls.

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Novelist John Grisham

August 31, 2014

UnknownI usually like my reading edgier, but I’m currently enjoying Rosamunde Pilcher’s short story collection called Flowers in the Rain & Other Stories. When the world news is disturbing or the national political scene annoying or the murders and riots upsetting as has been the case lately, I’ll take a break with this small paperback, read a story, feel the breath of fresh air, and then get back in the fight.

The stories are pleasant, well-written, even predictable, but they take me to the English countryside in a gentler time. Pilcher describes the gardens, the architecture, the weather, the language, the dress. She weaves her stories among the wealthy and the working class. She is a master of the romance genre.

In the short story with the same title as the collection, a nurse by the name of Lavinia revisits a childhood setting in the town of Lachlan. As the death of a dear elderly lady and friend, Mrs. Farquhar, nears, Lavinia happens on an old love, the woman’s grandson Rory. Under the metaphorical rain of Mrs. Farquhar’s death, the flower of their friendship re-blooms.

Novelist Rosamunde Pilcher

Novelist Rosamunde Pilcher

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June 7, 2014

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White Dog Fell from the Sky, a novel by Eleanor Morse, took me into an environment I knew about from reading and news coverage; however, the characters made me feel the events emotionally and personally.

The story takes place in Botswana in 1976 and is painted against the backdrop of apartheid. It involves three people whose lives intersect amidst the cultural clash around them.

Isaac Muthethe, a student at a medical school for Blacks in South Africa, fears for his life. He crosses the border illegally into apartheid-free Botswana and, as he lies dazed in the road, White Dog appears beside him and stays. To support himself, Isaac lives with a friend and finds work as a gardener.

Alice Mendelssohn, a young woman from America, works in a government  agency in Gaborone, Botswana. She is in an unfulfilling marriage and living an unfulfilling life. She hires Isaac.

Ian Henry, a Brit, studies and tries to protect the indigenous peoples and wildlife of Botswana in his own way, and meets Alice as she takes part in a government work-related trip.

Laws are broken, lives put in jeopardy. The African National Congress (the South African Resistance Movement) and the South African Defense Force clash. Love is found and lost. Human dignity  and cultural values are held to the light as events twist and turn and spiral  through the lives of the  characters and the countries around them.

Under Morse’s exceptional hand, the beauty and harshness of the land come to life. The people are vivid. The history of the times is shown in unforgiving terms. The beliefs and desires of Isaac, Alice, and Ian are heartfelt. Their reality real. And White Dog perseveres, solid and loyal.

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May 10, 2014

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Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan is about the relationship between Fanny Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson. Horan was able to get into the heads of each of these people through access to letters, journals, diaries, research, and skill as a storyteller.

We follow the couple as they meet and become lovers. Their backstory is revealed which helps us understand them going forward. I could “see” them physically and “hear” them. I could understand the motivations behind their actions.

We experience Stevenson’s poor health, the many moves to keep him alive, Fanny’s strength. We experience each distinct setting, so integral to Stevenson’s hold on life. We can understand Fanny’s frustrations and her own creative desires. The relationship was never easy, with challenges at every corner. What we truly realize is Fanny’s search and struggle for identity.

Stevenson wrote this to his wife (Page 339 – hardcover):

Trusty, dusky, vivd, true
With eyes of gold and bramble-dew
Steel-true and blade-straight,
The great artificer
Made my mate.

Honour, anger, valor, fire;
A love that life could never tire,
Death quench or evil stir,
The mighty master
Gave to her.

Teacher, tender, comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life;
Heart-whole and soul-free
The august father
Gave to me.

The first line of “Requiem” is the source of the novel’s title. (Page 159 – hard cover.)

“Requiem”
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Novelist Nancy Horan

Novelist Nancy Horan

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April 3, 2014

TheBoysintheBoatWow! In the capable hands of Daniel James Brown, the story of the 1936 United States Olympic rowing team comes to life. Once you begin reading The Boys in the Boatyou won’t want any interruptions.

Brown traces the journey of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew by focusing on Joe Rantz, one of the boys in the boat. The saga of his young life borders on inhumane, but the young man keeps overcoming major obstacles. His individual struggle is painted against the larger backdrop of the team dealing with its collective problems. You are caught up in tensions and suspense, even though history tells you the answer.

When the team arrives in Berlin, the boys’ growing world encompasses that of the Third Reich and Adolph Hitler. We experience the skill and care the Nazis use to “stage” the Olympics … a history lesson on its own.

I became attached to the boys, cheering and crying, as they learned to trust and care for each other, as they learned that each mattered, and they learned to be a team. At the end of the book, in a very few pages Brown wraps the story up by telling us what became of each boy. I found this very satisfying.

Recently, I heard Daniel James Brown speak about learning of Joe Rantz’s story through the man’s daughter Judy and his interviews with Rantz. He then read from the book an account of one of the races the team experienced. The room was quiet, the audience filled with suspense. That’s the sign of a good storyteller.

Author Daniel James Brown

Author Daniel James Brown

An aside. I’m from Buffalo, New York. Buffalo’s West Side Rowing Club was mentioned as being in contention. (They did have a winning rowing team in a different event in the 1936 Olympics.)

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March 27, 2014

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Virgins of Paradise by Barbara Wood is a fascinating journey through recent Egyptian history beginning in 1952 when the monarchy under King Farouk ends. We then experience Egypt under Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and  Hosni Mubarak.

Against this backdrop we read about the aristocratic Rasheed family as they navigate emerging Egypt through the economic and social changes, revolutions, generational differences, and traditions.

Amira, the matriarch, is of the days of King Farouk and finds safety in the traditional ways. Her son Ibrahim, once Farouk’s physician, must survive his association with the monarchy and go into private practice, always seeking his father’s approval, even though his father is dead. Ibrahim wishes for a son. His daughters Yasmina and Camelia are caught in the swirl of young womanhood seeking new opportunities, or trying to, in a country both clinging to the past and wallowing with change.

The entire extended family, comprised of more characters than I have mentioned,  all live together in the house on Virgins of Paradise Street. Personalities, ideas, and life styles unfold. Secrets abound. When a secret is discovered or revealed, its impact is profound.

As I read, I felt the family’s love of country. I experienced the foods, the dress, the gardens. I felt the social and personal drives that motivated the characters. The Rasheeds press on, making mistakes, taking risks, but always emerging as a family of love, strength, and character.

Author Barbara Wood

Author Barbara Wood

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March 11, 2014

16085517TransAtlantic by Colum McCann has an interesting structure and a unique blend of real characters interwoven with fictional characters.

First, the structure takes us back and forth in time. It starts in 1919 when Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown make history by flying from Newfoundland to Ireland. Then it takes us to 1840’s Dublin and a visit there by Frederick Douglass. Then it’s into 1998 when Senator George Mitchell is sent to Ireland to broker a peace. Real people, real events. You’ll want to pay attention to the dates and places.

McCann then deftly weaves in the fictional characters against this real life tapestry. There’s Lily Duggan who in 1845 is a maid where Douglass stays. She is inspired by his ideas of freedom. Her daughter Emily becomes a journalist and covers the flight of Alcock and Brown. We read of Lottie, her daughter, and Hannah, Lottie’s daughter. Each are distinct and build on the idea of how we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. How we become part of the on-going human story.

In Hannah’s possession is a letter which adds mystery as to its contents.

McCann brings us close to the characters. His writing provides many unique, stunning phrases and sentences that reveal the characters’ thoughts and actions and are a delight to read.

If you like history, you’ll enjoy this book.

Author Colum McCann

Author Colum McCann

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January 29, 2014

blink_malcom_gladwellThe fun of reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell is how it wakes up your thinking about intuition, instinct, and quick decision making. It makes you wonder how some people reach brilliant conclusions in a literal blink. These people often do this by knowing to honor how their body feels, listening to their gut, and trusting their instincts. Their decision often ignores conventional wisdom and well-documented facts.

Does the person do this instinctively or by learning through practice or having a large knowledge base? These questions make you turn the page.

Gladwell gives excellent examples to help document his case for “the power of thinking without thinking.” He cites art experts who could tell in a moment a piece of art was a fake, despite the documented work of lawyers and other art experts attesting to its genuineness. He cites military men, who, when coming against opponents with more intel and capability, won the battle by paying attention to the field  and the trench and their gut. Sort of “conscious deliberation meets instinctive judgment.”

He gives the example of the Munich symphony conducting auditions behind a screen so only the musicians’ music is heard. This just happened to open up opportunities for female instrumentalists to break into the symphonic/maestro/man dominated world. He talks about the importance of “white space” when some high stress, fast moving situations are developing such as in police work where split decisions are required.

His big lessons seem to be since we know more about how the mind works, it behooves society to make use of that data to improve our world. We need to stop confusing information with understanding.

Author Malcolm Gladwell

Author Malcolm Gladwell

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January 1, 2014

The-Orchard-of-Lost-SoulsReading The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed was at times difficult, at times beautiful, and always compelling.

The story is set in Somalia in the late 1980’s as the country sinks deeper into civil war. The plot follows three female characters through the cruelties, kindnesses, and horrors of war. There’s nine year-old Deqo who lives in a refugee camp; an elderly widow Kawsar who is of the old traditions and culture of Somalia; and Filsan, a young woman who is a member of the dictator’s military.

Their lives intertwine when Deqo performs poorly as a member of a dance troop at a government rally. Kawsar comes to her defense as the child is being berated. As a result, the military appears and Filsan beats Kawsar.  The widow becomes permanently bedridden from the beating.

The author takes us into the minds of her characters with intensity as they try to survive. We learn of their fears, hopes, desires, and struggle for existence. Some passages are difficult to read because you are so “close” to the character but you’re compelled to keep going.

At the end, the women’s struggles bring them together in a bizarre but hopeful way under the grimmest of circumstances.

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Novelist Nadifa Mohamed

Nadifa Mohamed was born in Somalia in 1981 in the city of Hargeisa. She lives and writes in London. She received a GRANTA award for Best Young British Novelist 2013.

I won this book on the blog Confessions of a Book Addict. I’m so glad I did.

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December 13, 2013

11447921Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is a story of love and honor as it unfolds over the course of 50 years. The love story begins in Italy in 1962 between Pasquales, an innkeeper, and Dee Moray, an actress. But what happens during the passage of years makes for a bizarre and unique series of events.

Jess Walter has created and developed an array of characters, each pursuing independent and self-serving goals as their lives intertwine.

There’s Pasquales, an innkeeper; Dee Moray, an actress; Michael Deane, a movie mogul; Alvis Bender, a writer; Richard Burton, the actor; Shane, the scriptwriter; Claire, a script reader; Pat, a struggling performer.

The reader wonders about each. Will Pasquales be true to his sense of honor? Will Dee Moray ever be happy? Will Michael Deane ever be anything but self-serving? Will Alvis Bender write his novel? Will Richard Burton man-up? Will Shane’s script become a movie? Will Claire leave her boyfriend? Will Pat straighten himself out?

The author moves the story back and forth in time. It begins in 1962 in Italy. Then goes to recent Hollywood. Then returns to 1962 Italy. Then to 1945 Italy. Then back to recent Hollywood. You get the idea. These time leaps continue through the book as the characters deal with choice and chance over the course of 50 years. This structure intensifies the reader’s awareness of the passage of the characters’ lives as they struggle and scheme and search for meaning within their own existence. Note the year and location at the beginning of each chapter.

A series of devices are interspersed to reveal character, backstory, and events. There’s a segment of Alvis Bender’s novel. A pitch done by Shane Wheeler to sell his script Donner!!. A portion of Michael Deane’s memoir. The script of a play called Front Man. The final chapter, “Requiem,” contains a satisfying wrap-up.

The creative inventiveness used to reveal this love story – the heartache, the sacrifice, the humor, and the struggle – is what sold me on Beautiful Ruins.
Is everything, indeed, a love story?

Novelist Jess Walter

Novelist Jess Walter

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November 2013

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The previous book post was about a collection of short stories by 20 different authors assembled by editor Elizabeth Strout. In contrast, Alone with You is a collection of eight short stories all written by the same author, Marisa Silver.

They are about current, contemporary society. I was concerned that there would be a sameness of voice. However, this was not the case. And the reason for me was threefold.

First, character development overshadowed any of my doubts. I had feelings and empathy for each central character as they dealt with life. I was able to “listen to” a character; to see and feel their dilemmas.

Second, Silver is a master at showing. The characters’ actions and thoughts and words let me learn about them on my own. Seldom was I told.

Third, her unique use of structuring and blending of the segments of each story kept them from developing a sameness.

The title speaks to what the characters feel, even though others are part of their story. (On the cover is Edward Hopper’s Sunlight in a Cafeteria.) Silver captures a universal feeling I know I’ve experienced. We’re the ones in our lives who finally have to decide to take the chances, make the decisions, and realize we possibly will never really ever “know” or have the “answers” to our quandaries. We may be alone with you.

Recently, I heard Silver speak at the University of California, Riverside. She read an excerpt from “Night Train to Frankfurt,” one of the stories in the collection. She’s a witty and charming interview. For more … http://marisasilver.com

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Marisa Silver

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November 15, 2013

49668639_2If you enjoy reading short stories as much as I do, The Best American Short Stories 2013 may be one you’ll enjoy. I chose it for two reasons.

First, the stories are recent and mostly about our culture today. Second, the book is edited by Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009.  (Scroll to my book post for July 15, 2012.) Her book, comprised of 13 connected short stories, has a common character, Olive Kitteridge. Sometimes Olive is the star attraction of a story and sometimes a walk-on. Strout’s knowledge of the short story is credible.

Strout chose the stories in this collection based on voice, its sound and its authority. She illustrates what she means about voice in the introduction by sharing a conversation she overheard between two women in a coffee shop in Maine. The two women were discussing a woman who murdered her husband.

On the subject of voice, I enjoyed the authorial voice in the story The World to Come by Jim Shepherd. It sounded authentic, true. The 1800’s people and setting are in sharp contrast to the other stories.

The stories deal with societal roles, aspirations, mental health, coming of age, economic downturn, our disposable society, boyfriend problems, child abuse, stay-at-home-dads, returning veterans, people trying to connect, victims of circumstance, drugs, illegal immigration, loneliness, and more ….

The voices are varied, the styles unique, the universalities of people told in rich and surprising ways.

Several had an emotional punch for me with endings that hit in the pit of the stomach. One was Magic Man by Sheila Kohler, another was The Third Dumpster by Gish Jen, another Nemecia by Kirstin Valdez Quade. I’d rank The Semplica Girl Diaries by George Saunders as most bizarre but very timely.

Your reactions, I’m sure, will differ from mine. But I think you’ll enjoy the ride.

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August 1, 2013

Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George has a unique twist. Inspector Lynley goes undercover to look into a death in a wealthy family. In the process, that case is solved with relative ease, but here’s the twist. Multiple subplots emerge as a result of the investigation which eventually upstage the original “crime.”

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George has created multi-dimensioned characters. Her stock characters of Inspector Lynley, Simon and Deborah St. James, and Barbara Havers continue to evolve as do the individuals unique to this book. In addition, she paints a backdrop dealing with issues such as surrogacy and sex identity.

I always enjoy the layers of George’s work. The story begins with the death of Ian Cresswell. As his death is investigated, she reveals the plight of Cresswell’s children Gracie and Tim and their mother Niambh; the peccadilloes of Lord Fairclough and his wife Valerie; the intrigues of Lord Fairclough’s children Manette, Mignon, Nicolas and his gorgeous wife Alatea; a bungling reporter named Zed Benjamin; and two men Kaveh Mehran and George Crowley who have a conflicting interest in a piece of property.

George skillfully weaves all these threads together. In addition, she has placed the story in the coastal area of Cumbria in northern England. And as usual, the reader feels the tastes, sights, sounds, and smells of the locale; its fog, rain, and quicksand.

It’s a book having depth and excellent skill with language. There’s quite a cast of characters and I found I cared and wanted to learn how they resolved their problems. And they do, whether they believed the lie or not.

Author Elizabeth George

Author Elizabeth George

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June 15, 2013

booksAudition by Barbara Walters came out in 2008. Several months ago, while watching The View, her women’s  talk show, I was struck by her timelessness. No kid, she’s been a part of TV journalism from its beginning and she’s still going strong. I was well aware of her public life. I knew very little of the woman herself and decided to read her autobiography.

The title puzzled me. I associated an audition with theatre, film, and TV parts, not journalistic reporting. Walters reveals that the idea of an audition has been a part of her life from the beginning. She felt she always had to “audition” each time her show business father moved the family, to honor the drive to fit in, to do her best, and achieve.

Walters readily shares her private life. About her loves, her marriages, her mentally challenged sister, her parents, adopting her daughter, her dog Cha-Cha. Her professional life embodies the trail-blazer, the pioneer, and her successes and failures along the way. Pushing the glass ceiling of a then emerging profession dominated by men is a story of perseverance, guts, and luck.

Barbara Walters has been on the scene of world-shaping events. I felt like I was reading a modern day history as she described meeting and interviewing major world leaders or reporting major national or international events. I found myself thinking: I remember that event, so that’s what happened behind the scenes, or what was I doing while she was doing that?

Her story is fascinating.

Journalist and Author Barbara Walters

Journalist and Author Barbara Walters

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June 1, 2013

girl-who-fell-cover-pb-smNovelist Heidi W. Durrow drew on a tragic newspaper story and her own background to create the prize winning debut novel The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. The young protagonist Rachel is biracial as is the author. Rachel’s father is a black serviceman and her mother is Danish. Her parents met and lived in Europe. Their firstborn died there.

Rachel survives both her emotionally torn family and a catastrophic event which leaves her in the care of her African American grandmother in Portland.

Living with her grandmother in a black neighborhood, Rachel finds life confusing. She’s never thought of herself as black or white, but others do. A new culture, new idioms, and the gradual uncovering of her family’s story lead the reader through Rachel’s emotional journey and search for identity.

The story is told through five points-of-view. Rachel, the protagonist; Jamie (Brick), a boy in her apartment building; Laronne, a friend of Rachel’s mother; Roger, Rachel’s father; Nella, her mother.

The author weaves the story in both first person and third person as well as using present and past tense, depending on the character.

The past is slowly revealed as Rachel grows into a young woman. Her story is about falling from one life into another and searching for her own. She is The Girl Who Fell from the Sky.

I had the pleasure of meeting the author at a reception sponsored by Friends of the Library of College of the Desert. For more about Heidi Durrow:
http://heidiwdurrow.com/bio/

Novelist Heidi Durrow

Novelist Heidi Durrow

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May 15, 2013

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles puts the reader into the New York City of 1938 and specifically into the microcosm of a young woman by the name of Katey Kontent.

10054335We accompany Katey through her rise from working in a secretarial pool to her breaking into the editing and publishing world of Conde Nast.

We also travel with her as she rises from partying in low rent clubs into the carefree world of the wealthy young.

Towles captures the New York City of the times. The social structure, the music, the food, the style, the entertainment, the neighborhoods, and the attitudes.

In a way, the book is a tale of what people do and claim for their “happiness.” It also makes you realize the influence friends have on a person as they make choices through their young adulthood.

It’s a Cinderella story for Katey, except she has a backbone, a brain, a sense of humor, and drive. With her, we meet some wonderfully drawn and complex characters. Eve Ross, her best friend. Wealthy banker Tinker Grey, with whom she has more in common than she first realizes. Henry Grey, his artist brother. Mason Tate, colorful and eccentric. Anne Grandyn, a grand woman who isn’t what she seems and is rather ahead of her times.

There’s a definite code of behavior and protocol in Katey’s new world of the wealthy young. In the book’s Appendix is a copy of The Young George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. This book is important to one of the characters.

There are 110 rules. Samples: Number One – “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are present.” My favorite is Number 110 – “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.” (Punctuation and spelling per the era.) However, it seems “Rules of Civility” ultimately cannot hide who you really are.

As I read, I felt like a voyeur, looking into a slice of Katey Kontent’s life. The book begins in 1969 when she sees a photograph of a man she knew in her younger days. It is then 1938 comes alive.

Novelist Amor Towles

Novelist Amor Towles

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May 1, 2013

LANDAY_DefendingJacob-FINALThe New York Times Bestseller Defending Jacob by William Landay was a hard book to put down. I heard Landay speak recently at an author’s luncheon. A former District Attorney in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, he was engaging and a good storyteller. He shared some colorful anecdotes from his career.  No doubt, he has a myriad of experiences to draw from.

As to the story, Protagonist Andy Barber is an Assistant DA in Newton, Massachusetts. A case comes across his desk of the murder of a young teenage boy. The murder is in his town in a local park. Although he could give the case to someone else, he decides to take it.

The murdered boy attends the same school as Barber’s son Jacob. Jacob knows the victim. Conflict of interest problems emerge and Barber is removed from the case. As evidence is uncovered, Jacob is arrested. Andy Barber has a life mission: prove his son Jacob innocent.

The novel is a case study of what happens as a family goes through the trauma of the arrest of one of its own. Of the belief in innocence, of the doubt, of the anger, of the sadness. We experience how the family changes as well as the attitudes of others in the community as Barber fights for the innocence of his son. Riveting.

As to style, Landay does some interesting things. He includes sections of court transcripts which make the story more “real” and push the storyline forward. He includes email and text messages of the young people involved.

The Prosecuting DA, after Andy Barber is removed from the case, has the last name of Logiudice. Although I read the phonetic pronunciation in the text, I stumbled with the name. I wondered why Landay chose it. Perhaps to make us stumble like Andy Barber did with the concept of his son being accused of murder.

Is Jacob a murderer?

Novelist William Landay

Novelist William Landay

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April 15, 2013

Recipe for an exciting read: a prince exiled for murder, a prince destined for honor and glory, a vengeful goddess mother, a woman dubbed the world’s most beautiful, an abduction, an angry husband, a ten year war bathed in cruelty, bloodshed, and hardship.

Add the human drives of pride, jealousy, deception, and guile. Add loyalty. Add love. Add the power of the gods.

51ZibdBRLeL._SL300Madeline  Miller has brought The Iliad of Homer into a modern telling. She has chosen the character Patroclus, companion and lover of Achilles, to tell the story. She gently weaves their growing relationship as young companions into lovers.

Together they go to war. It’s here Achilles begins to fulfill his destiny as a leader and warrior. It’s here his flaw of pride manifests itself. It’s here a prophecy is realized. Patroclus, powerless, stands by his side and sacrifices himself.

Miller paints wonderful characters. The goddess Thetis emerges with her mixture of anger, love, and watchfulness over her son Achilles. There’s strapping King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek armies, proud and unbending. Angry gods and their prophecies. Achilles, protected by his mother, loved by Patroclus, full of promise but with an unchangeable destiny. And gentle Patroclus.

Miller’s artistry with language and storytelling is powerful. In her hands, an old tale becomes new again.

Novelist Madeline Miller

Novelist Madeline Miller

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April 1, 2013

I close my Kindle. My journey with The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is over.

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Except the words and the emotions linger. The words of an unlikely narrator. The emotions for the loss and suffering of those who lived and died during a tragic time.

Also lingering is the poetic artistry of Markus Zusak. He found the humanness of the people … the helplessness and the strength of those caught in the machinery of war. He wove words of beauty into the unfolding scenes of dismay.

The story is set in Germany in a small town outside of Munich during World War II. Zusak gives us a view of life for everyday Germans. Poor. Jewish. Rich. Party members. Non-party members. Neighbors bickering. Kids trying to be kids in a time of war.

The author created a likable and caring narrator. Death. I can’t believe I’m saying this. But as Death accompanied me through Liesel Meminger’s life, and shared his view of the world and the humans in it, that’s what happened. I liked him.

We learn of Liesel and her young life beset with human losses. Of Rudy, her best friend. Her growing love for her foster parents Rosa and Hans. The sheltering of Max Vandenburg. The bombing of Himmel Street.

Most striking is Liesel as the book thief, whose love of books begins with the “stealing” of a book from a graveyard. She learns to read, to love the wonder of words, and realize the power of words. She is encouraged to write by an unlikely source.

Liesel’s love of books and reading and words holds life together for her … and others.

The writing style and structure are non-traditional … and fresh. The war setting is heavy, but I never felt like I wanted to stop reading. Because the people are so human and honest and real. And for the humor found in unlikely ways.

Novelist Markus Zusak

Novelist Markus Zusak

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February 1, 2013

Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem “One Today” made me a fan. I like the imagery, the repetition, the action of the verbs. In case you haven’t had the chance to read the poem in its entirety, here it is …

“One Today”

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches 
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

I just ordered a book of his poems … he has a few, among them Looking for the Gulf Motel, Directions to The Beach of the Dead, City of a Hundred Fires. I chose Looking for the Gulf Motel.  

Poet Richard Blanco

Poet Richard Blanco

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January 15, 2013

I grew up in Buffalo, New York. My schooling was heavily steeped in the regional history of the Middle Atlantic States and those of New England. When I came West, I had to take additional classes that focused on California history.

More recently, I added to my knowledge of California history and the Donner Party Migration when I read the novel Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston.

snow-mountain-passage-james-d-houston-hardcover-cover-art

The Donner Party crossing of the Sierra Nevada was legendary to me but also vague. I didn’t know about the organizer James Reed or the Palace Car or the Hastings Cutoff or the rescue parties. Or the bad decisions.

Houston paints a picture of the ill-fated Donner party. Through the experiences of James Reed, we learn part of the story of the migration. And we learn what life was like in California as it transitioned from Mexican rule to that of the United States. Through the eyes of his daughter Patty Reed and her “Trail Notes,” we learn what happened to the party after her father was forced to leave. The details are gripping.

Descriptions of nature, the bountiful and untainted animal and plant life, are woven into the narrative. The herds of elk, the explosions of flowers. We also feel the cold, the wind, the rain, the snow. We feel human nature … the heartache, the fears, the clash of personalities.

Only 48 of the 87 emigrants survived, James Frazier Reed’s family among them. I found this well-researched historical novel a compelling read.

Author James D. Houston

Author James D. Houston

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January 1, 2013

While at a local library fundraising event, I picked up The Hammer of Eden by Ken Follett.

us_hammer_of_edenThe story begins in a small commune in the Silver River Valley in California. The cult leader is a man by the name of Priest, who loves the valley and its beauty and the lifestyle he has embraced for over 25 years. The cult supports itself with grape production from its own vineyards.

Calamity comes to the commune when they learn that the valley is going to be flooded to make way for a power plant. The government owns the land which is leased to the commune. With the flooding, the commune will lose everything. The land, the beauty, the peace, the place to live life as they wish, their livelihood.

Priest and a few of his following discuss ways to save their valley and make the governor take notice. They decide to demand a halt to all power projects.  Or else. One of the members is a student of seismology and can get crucial information on where and how to create an earthquake. Does this seem impossible to them? No, not the more they think about it.

Priest, with his charismatic powers, spearheads the project. He steals a large piece of equipment called a seismic vibrator. It’s a rig used by oil companies to assist with locating oil beneath the earth’s surface. The group becomes a force to be reckoned with.  The Hammer of Eden.

Seismic Vibrator

Seismic Vibrator

Enter FBI Agent Judy Maddox who is assigned to the case. She enlists the aid of a seismologist by the name of Michael Quercus. Follett takes us into her head. We learn she is as determined to catch the man responsible for The Hammer of Eden as Priest is to stop the flooding of the valley.

Follett also takes us into Priest’s head. We see a man who loves his valley, his lifestyle, his women, and his children. He’s a man fighting for something he believes in. We also see a man capable of murder and mass mayhem. He’s a manipulator and completely illiterate. I found him a unique character.

If you’re in the mood for a thriller, try The Hammer of Eden. While I didn’t like this book as much as some of his others, the thrills are definitely there.

Novelist Ken Follett

Novelist Ken Follett

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December 15, 2012

Dreams-of-Joy-HiResJacket2Lisa See’s novel Dreams of Joy takes place in Red China in the late 1950’s during Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign. It also continues the stories of Pearl and May, the women we first met in See’s previous novel, Shanghai Girls.

Pearl’s daughter Joy, after learning a family secret and trying to deal with the resulting inner turmoil,  runs away to mainland China to find her real father. Idealistic, brash, and stubborn, she manages to get into China and  Shanghai. She finds her father Z.G. Li, who is a famous artist, and decides to stay.

See builds the danger involved in this decision. Joy is ardent as she embraces the beliefs and lifestyle of the Communist regime. She goes into the countryside with Z.G. and in the village of Green Dragon falls in love with a peasant boy named Tao, whom she marries. This is the beginning of personal disaster, coupled with the disastrous Great Leap Forward.

See parallels the increasingly unhappy marriage and peasant life Joy leads with the growing conditions of famine and starvation in the countryside. When her daughter Samantha is almost a victim of the famine, Joy finally seeks her mother’s help.

Meanwhile, Pearl has gone to China to bring Joy home. She decides to stay in Shanghai to be near her because Joy won’t leave the countryside village and then can’t leave. For over three years Pearl remains and rediscovers her own roots while working a menial job. When she finally learns what’s happening to her daughter, she tries to find a way to save her.

The author alternates the point of view between Pearl and Joy, describing what each goes through in the ultimate effort to save their relationship. Tension and danger are high as Pearl and Joy and their new Chinese family – which includes baby Samantha, Pearl’s husband Dun whom she has just married, and an adopted little boy – make the final effort to flee China.

Traditions, superstitions, and dialects of the people become important elements for survival. The reader also learns what living in China was like for the Chinese people during the Great Leap Forward.

Dreams of Joy is about a disjointed family ultimately standing together. A fascinating read.

Novelist Lisa See

Novelist Lisa See

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December 1, 2012

294084The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama is a story of family, loss, grief, survival, and hope. It’s set in Japan against the global backdrop of World War II,  amid culture specific groups of sumo wrestlers and Noh theater mask makers, and in a family forever adapting, enduring, and surviving.

The story stretches over 30 years and is primarily the story of Hiroshi and Kenjii who as children lose their parents and  are raised by their grandparents. The two boys have very different temperaments and dreams. Hiroshi wants to be a sumo wrestler and Kenjii, a maker of Noh masks.

But these dreams are snatched away by the firebombs that rain down on Tokyo. After the war, as Japan begins to recover and the social structure begins to westernize, Hiroshi and Kenjii stay with their dreams seated so deeply in tradition.

The story is broadened to include Hiroshi’s sumo coach and his coach’s daughters, and Kenjii’s mentor, a renowned creator of Noh masks. Especially endearing are the boys’ grandparents.

I became enmeshed in the lives and minds of the characters, who were so different yet woven so deeply together. The book gave me a history lesson on what it was like to be Japanese in Japan during World War II. I learned about sumo wrestling and Noh theater masks. I learned about how people dealt, in their own unique ways, with twists of fate and events not of their making.

The title seems a metaphor for life … that as we each walk our own path, we meet obstacles and loss, but life continues to blossom. At another level of meaning, it’s the picture of a country during a dramatic time in history.

This many-layered story is a must read. Each character works into your heart and makes you care. The irony is how the gentleness of Tsukiyama’s writing delivers such a powerful impact.

Novelist Gail Tsukiyama

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November 15, 2012

I’ve liked reading Hemingway’s work from the first time I read the novel The Old Man and the Sea. Two ideas remain with me. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” And the idea of showing “grace under pressure.”

In his memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tells of his life in Paris during the 1920’s, of his life with Hadley. He describes going to the races and to the boxing matches. He tells about his relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein. He describes walking the streets of Paris, his favorite cafes, visiting a bookstore owned by Sylvia Beach.

One of the most wrenching segments tells of Hemingway’s growing feelings toward Pauline Pfeiffer and his conflicted emotions when he realizes he loves both his wife Hadley and Pauline. But this ultimate betrayal leaves Hadley with no choice but to end the marriage.

A humorous anecdote describes a moment when F. Scott Fitzgerald feels he is under endowed in the manhood department. Hemingway finally convinces Fitzgerald, after a visit to a museum to look at the sculptures of male figures, that he is fine.

Writers will find Hemingway’s reflections on his craft and on himself as a writer woven throughout the book. His “iceberg theory” maintains that much of the meaning is beneath the surface. He describes throwing out half of his writing on a story or novel so that the nuggets remain.

After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love …

But when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again.

He was concerned with writing one true sentence, the truest sentence he could.

This memoir is a good companion book to The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I highlighted in the previous post on this page.

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November 1, 2012

The Paris Wife

Novelist Paula McLain takes us into the lives of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley Richardson. As readers, we experience their meeting when Hemingway was 20 and Hadley 28, the years in Paris as a newly-wed “golden couple,” the rise of the young writer, and the disintegration of their marriage. 

McLain captures their relationship as seen through Hadley’s eyes. She also captures Hemingway’s drive as a writer. As a reader, I became caught up in their lives, hardships, triumphs, and the ultimate betrayal.

Hadley Richardson met Hemingway in Chicago at the home of her friend Katie Smith. Hemingway pursued her back to her home in St. Louis.

After their marriage, they moved to the Paris of the 1920’s where they became a part of the other expats and the so-called “Lost Generation” of writers. Over time Hadley had to “keep up” with the group, Hemingway’s hours of writing, the drinking. I see Hadley as a young, midwestern woman who entered a life far from her comfort zone.

Two moments stand out to me. At one point Hemingway was covering a peace conference in Switzerland and ran into journalist and editor Lincoln Steffens. They had met before in Genoa. It was pre-arranged for Hadley to join her husband. She decided to take all of her husband’s notebooks and manuscripts with her so Steffens could see Hemingway’s entire work. She put everything in a briefcase and boarded the train. When I read what happened next, my gut seized.

The other “moment” was the development of their friendship with the Pfeiffer sisters. Pauline Pfeiffer would eventually insinuate herself between Hadley and Hemingway in a truly bizarre fashion … by pursuing Hemingway and at the same time trying to remain friends with Hadley.

A Paris Wife puts you into the Paris of the 1920’s and a union between two young people who loved each other.

McLain ably takes us into Hadley’s head and her relationship with Hemingway. It makes you ache for what might have been. It also makes you realize the unraveling of their marriage was probably inevitable.

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October 15, 2012

I was at a college book sale rummaging through rows of books and came upon Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham. It was a book I wasn’t aware of by the author who gave us Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge. But I was intrigued.

Meet Julia Lambert, star of the English theatre, and her husband who is also an actor and theatre manager. It’s hard to distinguish Julia’s real life from her life on stage, so seamlessly has she been able to blend her “realities.” Where does acting end and reality begin? For Julia, it doesn’t.

The story is from Julia’s point-of-view. Being in her head is a colorful place, full of schemes, ideas, and observations. Julia is always “on,” as demonstrated when she first meets the young accountant Tom:

The young man forced himself to make a remark.

“What a stunning room this is.”

Julia gave him the quick, delightful smile, with a lift of her fine eyebrows, which he must often have seen her give on the stage.

“I’m so glad you like it.” Her voice was rather low and ever so slightly hoarse. You would have thought his observation had taken a weight off her mind.

I can see her posing, using her theatrical voice, facial expressions, movements.

Julia’s love life unfolds. First with a husband she initially adores, but who, with the passage of time, begins to bore her. They have a son she loves but isn’t overly involved with. Enter a lowly, young accountant with whom she has an affair. He in turn has an affair with a young actress Julia handily upstages.  Also in the mix is a lesbian backer attracted to Julia and a man who’s been fawning over Julia for years. An interesting exploration into sexuality, relationships, and what’s real.

Julia’s son Roger pleads for reality as opposed to the theatre world in which he has been raised. Julia says, “It’s we, the actors, who are the reality … men and women are our raw material. We are the meaning of their lives.”

See what you think.

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October 1, 2012

I like chocolate, especially turtles, truffles, and peanut butter cups. Because of this addiction, the book The Chocolate Pirate Plot by JoAnna Carl just popped into my hands as I was shelving books at our local library. I discovered the book is part of a mystery series. Other titles include The Chocolate Moose Motive, Chocolate to Die For, and The Chocolate Puppy Puzzle.

The story is set in the fictional resort town of Warner Pier located on Lake Michigan. Lee Woodyard, a former Texas beauty queen, manages her Aunt Nettie’s business, TenHuis Chocolate. She’s married to Joe Woodyard, a lawyer and restorer of antique wooden power boats.

The fun gets underway when “pirates” board Lee and Joe’s boat, a 1948 Shepherd Sedan, as the couple is taking a sunset cruise to celebrate the summer solstice. It seems the pirates mean no harm, everyone has a little fun, and then the pirates leave via their motor raft. A few days later, however, a young man disappears and another is found drowned. They are strangers in the town. The drowning victim has a Jolly Roger tattoo.

In the town is a little theater called The Showboat whose actors are preparing a production of The Pirates of Penzance. There’s also a rumor floating around that the movie star Marco Spear who has recently starred in the film Young Blackbeard may pay a visit to Warner Pier. Lee and her husband gradually unwind the pirate connections.

JoAnna Carl takes the reader on a merry romp with plenty of turns. What’s fun is, as the story unfolds, various characters drop into Lee Woodyard’s office at TenHuis Chocolate to chat. Their nerves are soothed by Frangelico or Amaretto or Jamaican rum truffles. The author also adds little asides about chocolate which she calls Chocolate Chat, sharing interesting tidbits about chocolate.

If you’re looking for something to read that’s light and fun, The Chocolate Pirate Plot might just be the answer.

Blackbeard

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September 15, 2012

The nonfiction book Covert Affair by Jennet Conant gives a finite glimpse into an aspect of World War II  history while revealing the story of Julia Child. Conant is a journalist and author. Other books by Conant include The Irregulars and Tuxedo Park.

Author Jennet Conant

Covert Affair tells the story of Julia McWilliams who became Julia Child. We usually think of this woman as a rather eccentric gourmet cook with a speciality in French food. However, she was also a member of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during WWII. She served in the Asian Theater, running the Office of Registry, where she and her staff filed and cross-filed all intelligence information and kept track of the agents in the area.

During her time in the OSS, Julia met fellow agent Paul Child, ten years her senior. While stationed together in various posts and finally in China, she knew this was “her man.” Paul, a 44 year old bachelor, took a little time to be brought around. An interesting courtship.

Conant deftly weaves the reports, personal views, and activities of the different agents into a compelling narrative. This becomes the bigger story. She explains the ideas offered by the agents about the French in Indo-China, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the British, each of these countries favoring the colonialism of before the war; about the Japanese fanning the flames of nationalism in the locations they occupied; about the United States and its role. She reveals information about the Chinese leadership of WWII. Finally, Conant describes what happened to many of the agents after the war during the reign of McCarthyism.

If you read In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, you read a bit about Martha Dodd, the daughter of our then ambassador to Germany. She makes a brief appearance in this book.

The story of Julia Child painted against the larger picture of World War II makes a fascinating read. Conant probes into the various relationships and camaraderie which develop under wartime circumstances.

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September 1, 2012

Dakota Blues, the newly released debut novel by Lynne Morgan Spreen, is the story of a journey. It’s both a literal journey and an inner one for protagonist Karen Grace. She often finds herself challenged or discouraged or inspired by circumstances not of her making … or are they? It’s a journey  women in the second half of life may face and to which women of all ages can relate.

When Karen receives word of her mother’s death, she returns to North Dakota for the funeral. This involves arranging for a few days away from her high pressure corporate job, but she keeps her cell phone and computer in tow. This technology is the lifeline to “her life.” She’ll just be gone a few days.

As Karen experiences the return to her roots and the values of the people of the small community of Dickinson, life as she knows it begins to unravel. There’s betrayal, divorce, an unusual offer from a 90 year old, romance, and a life threatening situation born in a remote Wyoming campground. Through all this, Karen has the opportunity to experience new beginnings, if she chooses.

The story is set in North Dakota on lands rich with Karen’s family history, lands which both test and build a person’s character. The landscape’s harshness is contrasted with the rich beauty of the plains: its flowers, wildlife, birds, scents. It seems a metaphor for finding beauty and light in the harshest of situations, if you look.

Karen Grace has to face life. Mostly, she has to face herself.

After I closed the book, I had to admit I didn’t see Karen’s final decision coming. I was delightfully surprised.

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August 15, 2012

If you’re looking for a story of revenge with suspense and tension of Shakespearean proportions, look no further. What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George has it all. It diverges from George’s popular Detective Inspector Lynley crime series, but links to New Scotland Yard at the novel’s conclusion.

Elizabeth George, an American, sets her novels in England. The authenticity of the characters and setting reflects the research, skilled observation, and imagination with which she writes. In this book, a la Dickens, George, in an omniscient author’s voice, deals with current social issues of the London disadvantaged. She juggles many characters and introduces us to the dialect of the mixed race family central to her story.

Vanessa (Ness), Joel, and Toby Campbell are abandoned by their grandmother Glory into the hands of their aunt, Kendra Osborne. The children, who are fifteen, twelve, and seven, have already experienced the hardship of a mentally ill mother and a murdered father by the time they are deposited at their aunt’s house in Edenham Estate. They are damaged.

George skillfully takes us into the minds and motivations of her characters. Ness is an angry, hurt teenager, not without provocation for these feelings. Joel views one of his main roles in life to be the protector of his little brother Toby who is mentally challenged.  Aunt Kendra tries to deal with the family for whom she is now responsible but also pursue her own goals and desires.

Social workers, school personnel, and several friends of Kendra’s enter the picture, well-intended, but also disadvantaged by their own ethnicity or world-view or flawed knowledge of “the streets.”

It is Joel’s passion for protecting Toby from a local bully that leads him to a truly diabolical character by the name of Blade. Joel and his family lurch into a startling abyss.

I found the plot seamed together with great intricacy. The thread of each character is woven and entwined with the others as they try to live in a world  bringing together forces too large for them to imagine. I was reminded of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry set in India. In both books, the characters, no matter how hard they try, are battling outside forces and fate.

An aside. Dialects are often tricky for authors to use. But George inserts just enough expressions for the reader to sense the rhythm, level of education, background, and place in society of her characters.

If you are new to Elizabeth George’s books, you might want to begin with one of her Detective Inspector Lynley mysteries, written prior to What Came Before He Shot Her. Wherever you begin, you’ll be treated to well-written mysteries with distinct, carefully drawn characters.

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August 1, 2012

Some books are fun to read as a package. Such is the case of Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, The Women by T. C. Boyle, and a coffee table book Frank Lloyd Wright Design by Maria Constantino.

My interest in Frank Lloyd Wright began when I first saw several of his buildings in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. These included the Larkin Soap Company Administration Building (demolished and called a case of cultural vandalism) and several homes, such as the Darwin Martin house. Martin, a Larkin executive and client/patron of Wright, helped the architect get Taliesen, located in Wisconsin, back from creditors.

I heard author T. C. Boyle speak at UC Riverside Palm Desert Campus, and there I bought The Women which went onto my reading pile.  Loving Frank came into my hands during a used book sale at a local college. I’d purchased the coffee table book in the early 1990’s and, recently, I’d toured Taliesen West in Scottsdale, AZ. Needless to say, I was ready to find out more.

T.C. Boyle’s novel is a successful fleshing out of the women of Wright’s life. The research involved is meticulous.  As I read, I felt I was reading the work of an extraordinary author and learning a bit of history.

The women – Catherine “Kitty” Tobin, Maude Miriam Noel, Olgivanna Lazovich Milanoff, and mistress Mamah Borthwick Cheney – emerge as distinct and human.  We learn of each woman’s relationship with charismatic Wright,  the chaotic existence upon which his genius thrived, and their lives in “the limelight.”

Wright Family

Maude Miriam Noel

Olgivanna Lazovich Milanoff

Boyle begins The Women with third wife Olga and ably takes the reader back in time through the lives of the four women, as well as aspects of Wright’s career. The book ends with his relationship with mistress Mamah Cheney and the startling event at Taliesen. Wright’s love life received the attention of a modern Hollywood celebrity. An interesting aside – Boyle lives in a Frank Lloyd Wright house near Santa Barbara, CA.

Mamah Cheney

In Loving Frank, author Nancy Horan focuses on Mamah Cheney and Wright – how they met and the development of their relationship. We learn of her daring break with husband Edwin Cheney and of Wright’s with wife Catherine . We also learn of the development of Mamah’s life philosophy, fueled by a women’s movement and female personalities of the time. This philosophy links to the final event at Taliesen. I’ve purposefully been vague about that tragedy.

Maria Costantino’s Frank Lloyd Wright Design brought to life places referred to in The Women and Loving Frank.

I found these books an interesting exploration into the four women caught in the dramatic whirl of Frank Lloyd Wright.

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July 15, 2012

Getting to Know Olive Kitteridge …

Author Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout has written thirteen short stories all connected by a character named Olive Kitteridge. The book bears Olive’s name and she may be the main character of one story and appear only briefly in the next. Olive is a retired math teacher who taught at the junior high in Crosby, Maine. She’s crossed the paths of students, colleagues, and community members.

In “Pharmacy” we meet Olive and her pharmacist husband Henry, a friendly, thoughtful man. Olive’s personality is abrupt and Henry’s love is long-suffering. We also meet Denise, an employee, in whom Henry has an interest.

“Incoming Tide” is about Kevin Coulson, who has moved away from Crosby and returned. Olive was his 7th grade teacher. At the marina, the two hope to save Patty Howe.

“The Piano Player” is a vignette about Angela O’Meara, a piano player at the Warehouse Bar and Grill where the Kitteridges sometimes go for dinner. Angela’s men give her trouble.

In “A Little Burst,” Olive’s son Christopher, who is 38, has married a woman Olive doesn’t like. Among other things, Olive takes a single shoe and a bra from her daughter-in-law’s closet.

“Starving” reveals the relationship between Harmon, who owns the local hardware store, and a woman by the name of Daisy Foster. Olive comes to Daisy’s place, collecting for the Red Cross.

In “A Different Road,” Christopher and his new wife move to California. Olive recalls the day of the wedding and a terrifying incident at the hospital emergency room. It changes how Henry and Olive view themselves and each other.

“Winter Concert” takes place in a local church, an event attended by Bob Houlton and his wife Jane. The Kitteridges also attend. Jane learns of her husband’s indiscretion during idle conversation with friends.

In “Tulips,” Henry Kitterdige has a stroke. Louise Larkin,  a recluse and former school counselor at Olive’s school, sends a card. Olive stops by to thank her.

“Basket of Trips” draws on grocer Ed Romney’s activity of looking through a basket of travel brochures as he is dying. At his funeral, attended by Olive, Ed’s wife Marlene learns about her cousin Kerry and Ed.

“Ship in a Bottle” has Anita Harwood going after her daughter Julie’s fiance with a shot gun. He jilted Julie the day of their wedding. Olive was Julie’s teacher.

“Security” finds Olive, now a widow, in New York City where her divorced son Christopher lives with his new wife,  two step-children, and a baby on the way.

“Criminal” portrays Rebecca Brown’s life and the men who surround her. And her revenge.

In “River” Olive meets a Harvard widower, an unlikely candidate for a relationship.

Throughout the stories, Olive’s character and view of life are revealed. There’s humor, sadness, and discovery as ordinary people endure, hang on, and cope. Each story title seems to reveal the story’s deeper meaning. The book is both thought-provoking and poignant and will cause readers to reflect on the people around them … and themselves.

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July 1, 2012

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

If you ever have the opportunity to attend a presentation by author Helen Simonson, run to the event. You’ll be treated to wit, intelligence, and subtle, sly humor such as permeates her debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Born in England, she’s lived in the states for 20 years. Thank goodness she’s retained that English take on life.

Major Ernest Pettigrew is retired military, a 68 year old widower living in the quiet village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside. He believes in tradition, honor, loyalty, stability, and all things “salt-of-the-earth.” Because of these beliefs, his character is constantly upended and challenged by life’s events. There’s the death of his brother and the disposition of a set of prize hunting guns; his neighbor’s desire to embrace the plans of a corporate developer; another neighbor’s pro-active desire to save the countryside. There’s his only son’s tendency to disregard the old and embrace the faster life of the up and coming young professional; country club women trying to be matchmakers; an angry young Pakistani man … the collision of cultures and the layered prejudices within each. Change is the Major’s constant rival.

Most important is the Major’s love for Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper from the nearby village. I was charmed by both of them. Each is cultured, proper, and drawn to one other. Sadly, beliefs and events get in the way. The Major must make a decision. And make a stand.

A significant scene occurs at the Major’s country club. The occasion is the annual costume soiree, an event he views with raised eyebrow. The interactions and dynamics of the main characters, which have been escalating, merge. The humor and pathos will tug at you during this society debacle. The major’s point-of-view on his desire to maintain the status quo emerges as he approaches the club:

The golf club had abandoned its usual discreet demeanor and now, like a blowsy dowager on cheap holiday in Tenerife, it blazed and sparkled on its small hill …

The Major must face obstacles in his world and in his golden years. Are all loose ends neatly tied up at the end of the novel? Pretty much. But isn’t that refreshing, for a change? After Hunger Games and The Girl with the Dragon TattooI was ready. Click on the book image for more information.

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June 15, 2012

Final Book of the Art Series

In the last four posts, I highlighted fiction and nonfiction books related to the art world. The series included Rogue’s Gallery by Michael Gross, a nonfiction work about the history of The Metropolitan Museum of Art ; the novel An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin, about the current New York City art scene; a nonfiction book Provenance by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, about the biggest art scam of the 20th century; and three novels by Susan Vreeland – The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Passion of Artemisia, and Luncheon of the Boating Party. The final book in the series is Priceless by Robert K. Wittman, with John Shiffman.

Robert Wittman is a former FBI agent and founder of the FBI Art Crime Team. The book describes his work in finding stolen art treasures. These include Rodin’s Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose, an ancient Peruvian king’s golden body armor, several Norman Rockwell paintings, and a Rembrandt self-portrait. Then there’s Wittman’s work on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist in Boston. The details of this investigation are intriguing.

Tension and suspense fill the pages and the book opens like a Michael Connelly crime novel, except it’s true. From the opening page:

The platinum Rolls-Royce with bulletproof windows glided east onto the Palmetto Expressway toward Miami Beach, six stolen paintings in its armor-plated trunk. 

Great works by Degas, Dali, Klimt, O’Keefe, Soutine, and Chagall were piled rudely in the rear, wrapped individually in thin brown paper and clear packing tape …. 

What I found especially interesting was Wittman’s training at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, where he learned “to see” art and become expert in his evaluations as to whether a work was genuine or not, whether a painting was good or bad. He knew the difference between a Renoir and a Manet or a Cezanne and a Gaugin. Often posing in an undercover capacity, he had to be both knowledgeable and credible.

The book is a fascinating read about high stakes art crime.

(An interesting side note: The Barnes has since moved to Philadelphia. The documentary The Art of the Steal follows the struggle for control of this 25 billion dollar art collection. It’s available on Netflix.) 

My purpose in running this “series” was to highlight aspects of the art world by approaching it from the points of view and subject matter of six different authors. It’s not my intent on the Books page to give critical analyses or formal book reviews. My criteria for selecting a book to highlight is straight-forward. Did I learn something? Did the book inspire me? Did the book move me? Did I enjoy it?

And as a writer,  I often read forensically, like a member of a CSI team, ever curious about how other writers have created their work: structure, characters, setting, plot, tension, suspense ….

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June 1, 2012

More Art and Books

Author Susan Vreeland has written her novels about the world of art. Girl in Hyacinth Blue came on the scene in 1999. In it Vreeland traces a Vermeer painting from its inception to the present. We learn how it transfers from owner to owner. The structure is interesting. With each chapter, she takes us a step back in time until we are with Vermeer’s daughter as she poses for the painting. This painting is entirely Vreeland’s creation, not Vermeer’s. The reader gathers both the historical perspective and  the experience of what owning a masterpiece might be like.

The Passion of Artemisia is a book about a real post-Renaissance female artist of the 1600’s, Artemisia Gentileschi. It arrived in bookstores in 2002-2003. It is historically researched, but fictionally woven. Artemisia, despite being raped by her painting teacher and being publicly humiliated, despite escaping from an arranged marriage of convenience, became a famous artist of her day. It’s a history lesson and a walk in the shoes of a woman artist when the world belonged to men.

In Luncheon of the Boating Party, published in 2007, Vreeland explores the lives of the models in Renoir’s famous painting of the same name. We find ourselves immersed in the history and setting of this vibrant time in the art world. We learn of Paris. We learn of life at La Maison Fournaise on the Seine. The story is 515-dN97DML._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_narrated by Renoir and seven of the models. In the opening of the book, the various locations are highlighted by a map of both Paris and the River Seine where the story takes place.

All three novels immerse you in the art and life of the times. If you missed them when they first were published, take a moment and check them out by clicking on the pictures.

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May 15, 2012

More Books About the Art World

What do you get when you mix an artist and a con artist? A nearly perfect “Dream Team” for a nearly perfect art scam.  This team is the subject of the book Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo.

John Myatt was a painter rather down on his luck. He finally thought of a way to make money to feed his family. He placed an ad in London’s biweekly publication Private Eye. For a standard fee he would render a painting in the style of a master. The client and he both would know the work was a “genuine fake” and done strictly for the pleasure of the client. Business began to trickle in.

One day John Drewe called. He commissioned Myatt for a fab fake. Then another and another, supposedly for his own collection. Except the genuine fakes were being sold. Obviously, he had other ideas on his mind.

Drewe, by using his finesse and guises, wielded his charm with museum archivists, wealthy buyers, influential art dealers, and Myatt, who began to enjoy the money. Drewe  created flawless, official looking provenances for the paintings. These provenances provided the green light for the paintings to be vetted and acquired by museums, sold at exclusive art auction houses, and hung in elite galleries. He recruited a sales force. Business was good. Then Myatt painted a Giacometti Standing Nude. Oops. Enter Scotland Yard.

This is a fascinating read about the weaving of the art scam of the 20th century and its unraveling.

To learn more, click on the book image.

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May 1, 2012

More Art and Books

Last post I recommended the nonfiction book Rogue’s Gallery by Michael Gross, which recounted the founding and development of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The next book also takes us to New York City and to the art world. Except we’ll jump into modern day, from the 1990’s through 2010. It’s a novel by comedian, author, musician and playwright Steve Martin entitled An Object of Beauty. As I read, I felt like I was right in the city, in the present day art scene, wheeling and dealing. Martin leads us into this world with knowledge and wit. And intrigue.

The book follows the career of an ambitious and eager young woman by the name of Lacey Yeager, from her training at Sotheby’s to her climb up the art world ladder. We experience her journey into the art business, its pitfalls, triumphs, and machinations. We learn Lacey’s story through the eyes of Daniel Franks, a struggling art journalist who reviews art and art shows for magazines such as ARTnews and Artforum.

Lacey’s star rises and she learns her business. In 2001, after years of struggle, she’s about to open her own gallery. But then the World Trade Center is destroyed. The national catastrophe causes not only stocks to plummet but also the art market. Through the next several years she continues to struggle and by 2003 she manages to build a successful gallery. Then … an art transaction that occurred in her path to success rears its ugly head, with far-reaching repercussions. Lacey’s star may be permanently tarnished.

Click on book image for more.

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April 15, 2012

The Art World and Books …

Over the next few months I’m going to highlight books related to the art world. The books were both intriguing and revealing. As I read, I found that, in some circles, art was more and more about the buying and selling of a commodity than the joy of owning an aesthetic creation.

I also found that names, periods of time, paintings, artists, and events fell into place more and more easily as I read about them from different authors’ points of view.

The first book is non-fiction and entitled Rogue’s Gallery – The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum by Michael Gross. The book covers the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from its initial planners and benefactors, to its directors,  curators, artists, trustees and donors. Add to the mix various others. Among them, assorted forgers, phony types and looters. Also, add names such as John Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and others you will get to know well as you read, such as Luigi Palma di Cesnola and Phillippe de Montebello.

If you’ve visited the Met or plan to or love history, this may be your next read. Click on the book image to learn more.

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April 1, 2012

Good Reads …

I’ve just finished reading two non-fiction books which I really liked. One is Erik Larsen’s In the Garden of Beasts. It’s set in Berlin and told from the perspective of the then American Ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd and his daughter Martha.

Dodd tried to deal with emerging Nazi Germany, but lacked support for a variety of reasons which I found fascinating. If you think you might be interested in the book, simply click on it for more information.

The other is Cleopatra, A Life by Stacy Schiff. The author had to research many ancient accounts by historians of the day to assemble this modern day picture. Cleopatra juggled political, military and personal aspirations. She was no stranger to intrigue. After she and Mark Antony joined forces, Rome and Octavian could no longer ignore them.

Two items I found interesting. In Alexandria, Egypt, Cleopatra’s home, women had many rights. Not so in Rome. As much as Cleopatra was despised by the people of Rome, she opened up women’s rights for them. Quite a twist. The other item was Cleopatra’s interest in testing poisons. Perhaps she knew she’d need one some day. Being a queen and a god could be dangerous. Funny, I didn’t hear much about all this in junior high school Latin class.

Although I write fiction, I like to read good nonfiction and add to the knowledge base, if you will. I never know when an incident or quote or event might inspire a story. Or enrich a character or dialogue or enhance meaning with an allusion.

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4 Responses to Books

  1. Susan Beers (Manne) says:

    So far I have read 3 of your suggested books and enjoyed them very much! In the Garden Of Beasts, Provenance and, An Object of Beauty. Thank you again. Long time ago, I studied art history, I attended a lecture given by one of the two (at that time) art conservation schools in the US, this one from Missouri. It was enjoyable to read about the art fraud and wheeling and dealing in the art world!

  2. cmwriter says:

    Hi Susan – Glad you have enjoyed several of the suggestions. The book I’ll post about on June 15 will be the last in the “Art Series.”

  3. Bob says:

    “In the Garden of Beasts” is a fascinating read. I became acquainted with Erik Larson’s writing in “The Devil in the White City.” His historical research and telling is riveting.

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