Sunday, January 18, 2009

Biographical matters

I've got three interesting biographies this time, and one that should have been good if the writing hadn't been so wretched.

Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by Valerie Paradis. 2005, Basic Books. 222 pp Non-fiction
Everyone knows Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm wandered around Germany collecting fairy tales so they could be turned into Disney movies. Well, they did collect them, with the help of a group of women, who got very little credit for their efforts. The Tales were collected during the years of the Napoleonic Wars which did impact some of the lesser known stories. This background is about the Grimms, the women collectors, and the tales themselves.

Nothing to do but Stay: My Pioneer Mother by Carrie Young. 1991, Delta. 164 pp Biography
In 1904 Twenty-five year old CArrine Gafkjen moves from Minnesota to homestead in North Dakota. She buys a quarter section of land outright (and a few years later, another quarter section) and begins her life as a wheat farmer. Nine years later she marries a fellow Norwegian homesteader and together they raise six children during the dust bowl and depression years.

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant. 1885/1999, Penguin Books. 674 pp Biography
Written during the last year of Grant's life, this is military memoir at perhaps its best. Although written during an age of often overblown writing styles, Grant writes a clear and lucid story of his days in the army, including the Mexican War, but most of the action is the Civil War. It is a great book even if you don't like war stories, just to enjoy the direct writing style.

The Royal Recluse: Memories of Ludwig II of Bavaria by Werner Bertram, translated by Margaret McDonough. 1936, Martin Herpich & Son. 266 pp Biography
Ludwig II was often referred to as "The Mad" King Ludwig. He certainly had his issues, starting with what sounds like a very unhappy childhood. He is best remembered for his championship of Richard Wagner and for the fairy-tale like castles he built, which bankrupted his state and led to his death. I couldn't decide if this book was poorly written or poorly translated or both.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber. 2007, William Morrow. 466 pp Fiction
Jake Mishkin is an intellectual property lawyer, whose friendship with English professor Mickey Haas involves him in a literary puzzle featuring William Shakespeare, the rare book trade, and a cast of thousands. This thriller is a cross between The Da Vinci Code and a Garrison Keillor monologue. There is absolutely nothing straight-forward in the telling of this story, from the plot to the integrity of the characters.

Brave Men by Ernie Pyle. 1944/2001, University of Nebraska. 513 pp Non-fiction
Ernie Pyle recorded World War II on the day-to-day human level, from the standpoint of the citizen soldier. Brave Men is a collection of his columns for Scripps Howard Newspapers from the fighting in Europe during 1943-44. It gives an immediacy even now to the history of the war.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice. 2006, Dutton. 352 pp Fiction
"I met Charlotte in London one afternoon while waity for a bus. Just look at that sentence! That in itself is the first extraordinary thing, as I took the bus as rarely as once or twice a year, and even then it was only for the novelty value of not traveling in a car or train. It was mid-November 1954, and as cold as I had ever known London." And so Penelope meets Charlotte, and her aunt Clare and cousin Harry, and gets to kiss Johnny Ray, and a host of other events. This is sort of chick lit set in the 1950s, a kinder, gentler, chick lit.

Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them by Peter Kaminsky. 2005, Hyperion. Non-fiction
Kaminsky is off in search of the perfect ham. It takes him from Kentucky, to Burgundy; from North Carolina to Andalusia. He does barbecue and soul food and French cuisine (and shares a few of the recipes. He rails against the pork agri-business in the United States--and extols the wonders of what is often called heritage pork. Just reading this makes one hungry.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. 2008, Alfred A. Knopf. 333 pp Short Stories
This book of eight stories is just terrific. As in her book Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri's characters are often fish out of water, suspended between the familiar and the unknown or the uncomfortable. Even coping well with a new life doesn't always mean everything is well. There are many secrets here. I especially enjoyed the second story "Heaven-Hell".

Friday, January 9, 2009

There are some really good books out there.

Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx. 2004, Scribner. 219 pp Short stories
Annie Proulx's stories are about people whose lives aren't quite under control through no fault of their own. The bittersweet in life, mixed with the all to human foibles of her characters can add up to some painfully amusing stories. Her turn of phrase and her choice of scenes is spot on.

The Eleventh Man by Ivan Doig. 2008, Harcourt. 406 pp Fiction
Take a college football team, undefeated in 1941, and place ten of it's starting lineup into various parts of the action around the world in World War II. The eleventh man is assigned the job of observing and reporting on them, and on their lives and deaths. This is a very readable book, with characters you will care about.

I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass. 2008, Pantheon . 287 pp Fiction

The story of two sisters, twisted apart by men and temperament, twisted together by birth and family. Louisa and Clement are nothing alike, and yet they share so many of the same things. Add to that a back story of a great-great-aunt and her sisters and you will find more ssisterly living than you know what to do with. If you have a sister you love, read this book. If you have a sister you hate, read this book. Another excellent book by the author of The Three Junes.

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich. 2008, HarperCollins. 311 pp Fiction
Told in multiple voices, the old mystery of a North Dakota murder in a community with both whites and Ojibwe members. This book teases and pries at truths and injustices, leaving both in various states of exposure.
The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty. 1942/1998 Library of America 87 pp Fiction
Take the Grimm's fairy tale, cross it with American folk lore, add more than a dash of Southern Comfort and you have a wonderful time. There is the twist of the alligator's tail to this story and a charming cadence to the language. A Hoot and a Holler for this oldie.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Love is in the Air

Most of these paperback romances are not going to get much of a long review, but are just being entered as a reminder that I read them.

The Dangerous Duke by Christine Wells. 2008, Berkeley Sensation 308 pp Historical

The widow Lady Kate Fairchild keeps a steamy diary of fantasy affairs. Maxwell Brooke, Duke of Lyle kidnaps her and reads her diary. Real steam ensues.

The Edge of Desire by Stephanie Laurens. 2008, Avon. 450 pp Historical
Christian has loved Letitia for ages even though she is a married woman. Now she sends him an SOS to help rescue her brother and he responds quickly. Sexy romp of a Bastion Club novel.

The Horsemaster's Daughter by Susan Wiggs. 1999, Mira. 426 pp Historical

Widower Hunter Calhoun concentrates on his horses to the detriment of his children. Eliza Fylte is a horse whisperer who also "whispers" his children and loves the man back to life.

Never Romance a Rake by Liz Carlyle. 2008, Pocket Books. 436 pp Historical

Baron Rotherwell has a tormented past, so he thinks nothing of wagering on a hand of cards for the possession of the daughter of Comte de Valigny. But Camille has plans of her own, especially after she gets to know the Baron.

Rescued by the Magic of Christmas by Melissa McClone. 2008, Harlequin. 184 pp Romance
Carly Bishop's fiance is killed while performing a mountain rescue. What is she thinking six years later when she falls for another climber?

The Return of the Prodigal by Kasey Michaels. 2007, HQN. 378 pp Historical

Rian Becket loses his left arm and his heart in France. He returns home to his family to help save the family honor. Part of the Beckets of Romney Marsh series.

Summer by the Sea by Susan Wiggs. 2004, Mira. 411 pp Romance
Rosa has turned an old pizza parlor at the beach into an upscale restuartant while dealing with various family problems. Summer visitor Alexander comes back years after breaking her heart.

The Summer I Dared by Barbara Delinsky. 2004, Pocket Books. 491 pp Romance
Rescued from a sinking ferry by Noah, New Yorker Julia settles onto the Maine island to regroup and rethink her life. Noah is a divorced lobsterman who lost his father in the ferry crash, but he gains Julia, his son, and his life.

When He Was Wicked by Julia Quinn. 2004, Avon. 368 pp Historical

He has already inherited his cousin's homes and titles. NowMichael Stirling undergoes agonies --and malaria--while he wrestles with his feelings for his cousin's widow Francesca. Part of the Bridgerton series.

When the Duke Returns by Eloisa James. 2008, Avon. 375 pp Historical

Lady Isidore was married by proxy when a young girl while her husband is trotting around the world. Years later he returns to demand an annulment, since she is not the doormat he thinks he wants. Seduction follows. Part of James' Duchesses series.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A mixed bag of Oldies

Sometime you have to go back and do some catching up on books you missed when they first came out. I read some older books this weekend that I enjoyed. Most of them have been on various lists of good books for years, but I'd always managed to miss them. It's a new book if you've never read it, no matter when it was published!

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. 1984, Vintage. 110 pp Fiction
Esperanza Cordero tells us about her home, her family, and her neighborhood in Chicago's Latino section. She can be funny, wise, and achingly hopeful. This is a deceptively simple book--short book, short chapters, short sentences. But there is a lot packed in here about growing up. The book has been on a number of high school reading lists for years, but I'm just now getting around to reading it.

The King's Brat by Constance Gluyas. 1972, Prentice-Hall. 363 pp Historical fiction
Set in England at the start of the reign of Charles II, we start in the slums of London with Angel Dawson, friend of Nellie Gwynne, being pick up and thrown in Newgate prison fore theft. While there she meets a young woman there with amnesia who recovers just before dying and asks Angel to tell her brother Nicholas what happened to her. Nicholas just happens to be Earl of Benbrook, the new King's best friend. He decides to clean the beautiful Angel up, educate her, and turn her into a lady. Can you say Pygmalion? He's been scarred by a promiscuous mother, so true love does not run smooth. Oh, and did I mention the Plague? And the amorous King? We miss the Great Fire in this one, but that's about all.

The Last English King by Julian Rathbone. 1999, St. Martin's Press. 381 pp Historical fiction
The events leading up to the Battle of Hastings is told in flashback by Walt, King Harold's only surviving bodyguard, who is suffering from remorse at being alive. The characters of Edward the Confessor (who really needed to), the Godwinson family, William, the Conqueror to be, and a cast of thousands make the few years leading up to 1066 really come alive. I can truthfully say that I have never read a book about these people that was quite so lively. Those Anglo Saxons were a rowdy bunch.

The Past Is Another Country by Lois Battle. 1990, Viking. 392 pp. Fiction
After the end of their schooling life is different for classmates Megan Hanlon and Greta Papandreou, but their lives still intertwine in unexpected ways. Megan works in film, Greta marries a surgeon. The third woman is one of the nuns who taught them. All three have issues with relationships that crisscross past and present, that probe who they were and who they are. A better book than I expected.

Your Blue Ain't Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell. 1992, Ballantine. 332 pp. Fiction
The ache of cultural change and chance encounters. The pain of growing up and being black. The agony of parenting in a world you can't control. The rawness of life where ever you go and learning to live in the skin you've been given. This book aches with the need to be read to the background of a low bluesy saxophones and a gravel-voiced singer.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A little fantasy, a little science fiction

Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams. 1992, Tor. 448 pp
In a future world the Aristoi are the ones who, through genetic manipulation, control the worlds configured in reality and in simulation (think Second Life with tactile and odor added). The Aristoi are encouraged to call up their inner daemons (the more the merrier) and do whatever pleases them. This can and does lead to abuses. It can also lead to boredom and confusion on the part of the reader.

Dragonheart by Todd McCaffrey. 2008, Del Rey/Ballantine. 538 pp
Once again plague threatens Pern, this time its draconic denizens. But Weyerwoman Fiona (whom we first met as the very young daughter of Lord Bemin during the human plague in Dragon Harper) has a young queen dragon and is ready to try anything to save the wings. For the people who grew to love the Dragonriders of Pern, the passing of the author's torch from Anne McCaffrey to her son Todd was an anxious moment. It hasn't been a seamless match, but the torch is now a lot steadier. Todd has chosen to write his series in a time period unused by his mother. The characters are all his now, and if many of the plot elements are familiar, it is after all the same world.

Inside Straight edited by George R. R. Martin. 2008, Tor. 384 pp
I'm a little late coming to the Wild Cards books edited by Martin. If you like your superheroes drawn up by committee and outside the world of graphic novels, this may be the series for you. In this particular book the younger generation of super heroes compete on reality tv show American Hero, with the losers disappearing to help fight in the war against the rampant excesses of anti-American feelings in the middle East--more specifically, Egypt and some of its ancient gods. It's a graphic novel sort of book in straight literary form--no POW or WHAM inserted here, just good depictions of arms being ripped off and blood dripping. Not my cup of tea, but I know there is an audience out there.

The Iron Bridge by David Morse. 1998, Harcourt, Brace. 436 pp
Maggie travels back in time from her troubled world in 2043 to 1773 England oat the start of the beginning of the Industrial Age. She is attempting to influence the use of technology by sabotaging the building of the first iron bridge (over the Severn River at Coalbrookdale) in the hope of containing some of the worst problems in the future. I love her excuse that she gives for not knowing so many of the simple things necessary for life without "modern" conveniences, "I'm an American." This book draws heavily on the Quaker heritage of the mill owners and their struggles with conscience--to build cannons, to use and/or trade slaves, etc.--although it is not a preachy book. Although shelved in the library's Science Fiction section, it is more of a historical novel that starts with a bit of time travel.

The Well-Favored Man by Elizabeth Willey. 1993, Tor. 447 pp
The ruling family of Argylle is widely scattered, going about their own business. Father Gaston has been gone without an explanation and now his sorcerer brother in law Dewar is missing, too.
Prince Gwydion is ruling the country with some day to day help from his brother Walter and his outdoorsy sister Belphoebe, but the twins are off doing their own thing. But when a very large, intelligent blue dragon enters the kingdom, it's time for the family to pull together. This first novel is rather reminiscent of Zelanzy's Amber series.