Friday, September 30, 2011

Viva Vegan! 200 Authentic and Fabulous Recipes for Latin Food Lovers by Terry Hope Romero

Paperback, 285 pgs, Pub Apr 27th 2010 by Da Capo Lifelong Books (first published 2010), ISBN13: 9780738212739

Terry Hope Romero is a wonder and a wizard. This really fabulous cookbook makes it possible for everyone to eat really spectacular Latin food with gusto. It is inconceivable that anyone would miss eating animals when served food like this.

I have too many favorites from her offerings, but I came across a freezer full of hominy once and worked my way through the posoles, seitans, sofritos, pot pies...all incredibly flavorful and unusual. This book contains many regional variations on your favorite bean dishes: Venezuela-style Black Beans, Red Beans with Dominican-style Sazón, Brazilian Black Bean Stew with Portobello goes on.

Terry has given us Enchiladas, Empanadas, Sopes, Tamales, Pupusas, Tostadas, Flan. There are no burrito recipes in this book! Well, she does tell us what usually goes in a burrito but we kind of knew that. You'll know to be creative when you combine parts of other recipes to create a truly extra special burrito-wrap. But she even is otherworldly when she is creating Tacos. I mean, this is creation on it's forward-most edge. I MUST buy a tortilla maker. Somehow food like this demands attention to details like fresh tortillas.

You will be happy, and full, and wondered how you managed without it, I promise you.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Europa Challenge Blog Giveaway

The Europa Challenge Blog: Giveaway! Everything Happens Today, by Jesse Brown...: Europa Editions is offering a finished copy of Everything Happens Today , by Jesse Browner, coming out in October. The giveaway will be open until September 28, 2011 and is open to readers in the United States and Canada. Click on the hyperlink above to enter.

Author Jesse Browner's website has a short description of the book, along with blurbs from reviewers. Europa Editions has also posted a listing of Browner's book with a description. At Europa Editions' website you may access all their title listings, and add to your TBR list.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fire Season by Philip Connors

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

It doesn’t take much in the way of body and mind to be a lookout…it’s mostly soul. --Norman Maclean

Perhaps it is not so strange in this day and age to want to have time alone to think about the world and one’s place in it. It may be necessary to first take that step away to appreciate the benefits of solitude. Some of us imagine we would revel in it, but surely one must also have a sense of loss—a sense of disconnectedness and of strangeness with the world. Perhaps this sense of being apart is the treasured thing.

Philip Connors has written a curious memoir about his years (must be close to ten at the time of this writing) 10,000 ft above sea level in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest from spring until fall, watching for fire. He claims successful fire spotters have “an indolent and melancholy nature,” and he should know. He spends long days gazing over the ridges, spotting smoke which heralds a cleansing clearing of dead brush, or a devastating hurricane of wind, smoke, and fire that eats all things manmade and natural in its path.

There are only a handful of fire spotters left in our western states, paid $13/hour for the dry summer months, and Connors is one of them. He relishes his ten days on, four days off schedule from April to August, catching up on reading, thinking, writing, while he casts an eye out from a 55-foot tower above Apache Peak. He admits to a "perverse and loathsome envy" for those lookouts whose peaks are higher and more remote, and whose stories are better than his.

He tells of famous forest fires and naturalists that changed U.S. Forest Service policy, first one way, and then another. He reminds us of Norman Maclean’s classic Young Men and Fire detailing the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana in which twelve smokejumpers were killed or fatally burned as the result of a poorly-understood “blowup.” He researches the jottings and writings of Jack Kerouac, fellow lookout from years before, and muses on his own solitary path and the love of a woman willing to grant him the freedom to be on his own.

As long as the job exists, someone has to do it. But I couldn’t help feeling there is a degree of self-indulgence for a man (or woman) in middle life to take the time to watch for fire. Isn’t it even more so for a young man, so full of energy and promise, to do the same? I believe in contemplation, learning one’s limits, taking time to think through one’s path and one’s purpose. But isn’t it even more sacred to give oneself time to do that and then use that knowledge to engage the world?

I thought this as I listened to Sean Runnette read the Blackstone Audio edition of this book. But I came to challenge my own position at the end. In the fire off-season, the author is a copywriter for The Wall Street Journal. A jarring note is struck at the end of the book, when the author tells us of his experience on 9/11, at the time of the Twin Towers’ fall. Here a man, who watches for fires in the natural world, finds himself in an inferno most unnatural. It is a weird, dislocating juxtaposition, just as a plane striking the World Trade Center in New York was for people around the world. It leaves us unsettled again, just as we were at the time, for it brings home the arbitrariness of one’s location in the big scheme of things, and makes us think that watching for fires is not so indulgent after all.

This book was published in 2011, right about the time the devastating fires began which eventually engulfed Connors' section of the Gila National Forest, and burned nearly one million acres in Arizona and New Mexico.

Final note: Fire spotters work in Canada as well, and Alberta is rebuilding fifty lookout shacks: article in the Vancouver Sun dated August 2011.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi

The Tattoo Murder Case

Imagine for a moment Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had decided to set his Sherlock Holmes mysteries in Japan. Now imagine the time is not the late 19th century, but the middle of the 20th century, right after the devastation of World War II. Takagi Akimitsu (1920-1995) published this, his first novel, to great acclaim in 1948 Tokyo. Translated into English for the first time in 1999 by Deborah Boehm and published by Soho Crime, this translation bridges the half century since the novel was first published and gives us a fresh locked room mystery in a country where full body tattoos reach the status of art.

When parts of a dismembered body are found in a room locked from the inside, Kenzo Matsushita, 29-year-old former military medic, contacts his older brother, Detective Chief Inspector Daiyu Matsushita to investigate the case. Kyosuke Kamizu, nicknamed “boy genius” and schoolmate of Kenzo from Toyko University Medical School, is enlisted to help solve the case. Kenzo is Doc Watson to Kyosuke’s Sherlock Holmes.

Most entrancing in this mystery, perhaps, is the culture that surrounds art tattoos. The locked room is of course a mind-bender. Additionally, one cannot help but be drawn to the enigmatic, self-contained, and suave Kyosuke. Sherlock is the absolute yardstick and measure Takagi means us to use. All this is overlaid with a gauzy screen of Japanese culture and habits. It is fascinating: oriental, yet the best Sherlock impersonation I have met.

Takagi won the Japan Mystery Writers Award in 1950 for his second mystery called The Noh Mask Murder Case. However, to my knowledge, only The Informer (1965), a mystery based on a true stock market scam, and Honeymoon to Nowhere (1965) have been translated into English, all by Soho Crime.

A note for the publisher: the digital file for this downloaded book had extensive errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Small mistakes like those found in advance galleys can be accommodated, but the mistakes in this efile actually made it difficult for me to understand what was going on. Since I paid full price for the book, it stands to reason I would like a product that is not defective. Digital files produced by different vendors have different outcomes, and this one definitely needed massaging. Hope you have better luck with efile oversight in the future.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi

"He stood for some minutes before the gate with all the patience of a lover waiting for the appearance of his beloved. But he was waiting for no one. He was no lover in the worldly sense; the only love he knew was that of divine understanding, of taking a whole life into his arms, stripping it of flesh and bone, and feeling into its depths as if they were his own. From this, the greatest pain, the greatest happiness is born; the hope that we too will one day be understood, strangers will accept our words, our lives, as if they were their own..."
Set in Hungary at the turn of the twentieth century, Skylark is the story of a family: father, mother, and daughter. They live together in the family home on a ramshackle street in a provincial town. The father feels old, and plans for his death, often fussing over the placement of his will and papers so that they are easy for his wife and daughter to find. The mother leaves household management to her daughter, dismissing the maid because she could not do as well as the daughter. She had loved playing the piano once but locked it away and out of their lives when her daughter did not take to it.

His daughter, Skylark, is no longer young, and not at all pretty. She had gotten her name years ago, "many, many years ago, when she still sang." The three of them love each other, and live quietly with only themselves for company. When Skylark goes away for a week to visit country cousins, the parents are unmoored, at first. But soon they experience a giddy sense of freedom from constraint.

Kosztolányi gives us the poignant inside story of a family outwardly content. The strain on all three of the daughter’s spinsterhood is something invisible to the wider community, and even to themselves, most of the time. We may think we have nothing in common with these desperate people,
"For yes, at first sight [the other townspeople] seemed worthless, twisted and distored, their souls curling inwards. They had no tragedy, for how could a tragedy begin to grow in such a wasteland? Yet how profound, how human they all were. How much like him. Once this became clear it could never be forgtten. So he did have something in common with them, after all."
The deep home-truths revealed in this novel involve all of us, especially those of us who have ever felt a sense of freedom and release simultaneously with fear and distress when a loved one leaves us home alone.

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Block Party: The Modern Quilting Bee by Alissa Haight Carlton & Kristen Lejnieks

Block Party--The Modern Quilting Bee: The Journey of 12 Women, 1 Blog, & 12 Improvisational Projects

Several of the quilts featured in this book stopped me in my tracks. The book also helped me remember that I have a bevy of sewing sisters who never feel they have the time to take on a big quilting project, but like the idea of having a quilt of their own. Sending around a pattern, plan, and scraps of fabric to a group of people and asking them to make two or three blocks takes the pain out of making a quilt top.

Many of the quilts featured in this book have large patches of solid fabric, which showcase the great choices of patterned fabric. I always knew simpler designs calm me and don't grow tiresome, but usually it is fabric, rather than design, that gets my creative juices flowing. Not in this case. You will also be able to use fabric scraps from your stash in many of the designs.

So, give this book a whirl--it will definitely spark some desire to be involved in a virtual quilting bee. Choose a design and specify a finished size for the blocks. Then the coordinator for a quilt sends fabric pieces out to the group, and your group sends back the blocks. The coordinator puts it all together creatively, quilts it up and voilà! You have a quilt with far less effort and with the individual creative sparks your group adds. Of course, then you help everyone else with their everyone learns as they go, without stress.

Many of the women participating in collating this book have websites which are sure to make your life interesting. Check out a few: Philistine Made; Film in the Fridge; Unraveled; Looking In. Who wants to start a quilting circle?

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

Cooking with Fernet Branca (Gerald Samper, #1)

Whatever else we can say about James Hamilton-Paterson, he is a very funny man. If you ever found yourself in the Italian countryside gazing at the villa next door and wondering who lives there and who, for gosh sakes, is coptering in and out, after reading this novel, you may very well decide you don’t really want to know. It may be entangling, and may, after all, be the end of all you hold dear.

Gerald Samper, British biographer to the rich and famous, buys an old villa in need of repair in Tuscany’s Apuan Alps region. He is told, as is his nearby neighbor, that the owner of the nearby villa is rarely in residence so his quest for privacy and solitude is guaranteed. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the resident of the villa he can see from his own is none other than a well-to-do refugee from a Soviet republic, with all her entangling connections.

Samper likes cooking, and we are treated to recipes inspired by the abundant local produce, but dreamt up entirely within the convoluted confines of Samper’s own twisted mind: Mussels in Chocolate, say, or Baked Pears in Gorgonzola with Cinnamon Cream, Lampreys in Sherry, Alien Pie, which features smoked cat mixed with baby beets, nasturtium leaves, pureed prunes, and green bacon...or my personal favorite, Tuna Stuffed with Prunes in Marmite Butter. But Samper deprecates (with good reason) the specialties his neighbor offers him, delicacies delivered direct from the former Soviet republic of Voynovia. As described by Samper:
”…brightly colored voynovian objects that were delicate to the same extent that traffic cones are. There were awesome pellets like miniature doughnuts wrapped in candied angelica leaf and injected with chili sauce. Others looked like testicles set in dough. I gathered these were pigeon’s eggs and couldn’t catch her name for them although the phrase that came to me immediately was Christ on a Tricycle. Spearmint eggs?
But this book is not about cooking, despite the title. It is about living the good life in Tuscany among other artists—writers, musicians, filmmakers, realtors--magicians of all stripes. And what of Fernet Branca? It is a digestif concocted in Italy that, given as a gift to the new arrivals of Le Roccie, is purchased a second time to return the courtesy, and becomes a central feature of the misunderstandings among the residents and visitors there. It is described in Wikipedia as having the flavor of “black-licorice-flavored Listerine."

This book counts towards the 2011 Europa Challenge. The Europa Challenge Blog: Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Trackers by Deon Meyers


Long before I started recording the books I’d read and writing reviews, I read my first Deon Meyer novel called Heart of the Hunter. It was a tremendous introduction to South African fiction—rich with characters strong and brave, written with such specific local color, one could be nowhere else on earth. I now grab Meyer’s new books whenever a bookstore is wise enough to stock them, and recommend them to anyone who likes international mystery fiction.

In this latest offering, Meyers takes on a plot thick with international terrorism, diamond and animal smuggling, and gang warfare. He reprises or invokes old faces: private investigator Mat Joubert; “retired” bad boy and private security bodyguard Lemmer; Lukas Becker, archeologist and bruiser with a heart of gold; Benny Griessel, policeman extraordinaire. We are introduced to a new character that we hope to see again: Cornelia Johanna van Jaarsveld, better known as the animal tracker, “Flea.” It is a lot to assimilate, but Meyer manages. The final third of the book is riveting, and exhibits Meyer’s great skill: writing a fast-paced story unique with characters that matter to us.

This big book is almost an embarrassment of riches: many threads, stories within stories, lots of characters. It could have been three separate novels, though they all tied together at the end. In my ebook version, the first one hundred pages “set the scene” for an international terrorism plot, but do not display Meyer’s great skills at characterization. The reader must not lose hope, because the rest of the book is hallmark Meyer. I perhaps would have encouraged greater editing on the background terror plot, while I understand the reason for it. It was, perhaps, more detailed than necessary and certainly less interesting. It would have taken some effort to shorten the plot explication while highlighting Milla, the character who later plays a pivotal role. In any case, far be it from me to withhold praise from Deon Meyer, who can be masterful in sharing South Africa with us.

As an added bonus, Meyer’s website has photographs posted by the author that show the locales he describes in the book, titled Spoor in the Afrikaans edition. In case you’ve never been to South Africa, this is a good opportunity to visualize the landscape Meyer describes in his novels.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Sunday, August 28, 2011

French Leave by Anna Gavalda

It is no surprise that this novel became a bestseller in France, as it captures a moment like a bird in flight—that sunny moment of refusing to acknowledge the weight of cares and celebrating the silly, the mad, and the wild. We are led in this madcap adventure by the irrepressibly sassy Garance, who travels from Paris by car with her brother and his wife to a relative’s wedding. Travelling wearing her thong because her skirt was too tight or slathering depilatory cream on her legs in the car (“Where else can I do it?”), Garance narrates, giving us a view of her family and their lives.

‘French leave’ is a phrase meaning to take one’s leave suddenly, with no warning and without permission. And that is what a family trio does almost immediately after arriving at the wedding in Podunk-on-Indre. Suddenly deciding what they really wanted to do was to visit their brother in Tours, the siblings jump back in their car and race away to spend the day with each other, taking time to remember, laugh, love, and celebrate their bonds. Left behind were boring family obligations, spouses, painful responsibilities and what they enjoyed was joyous, rare, and life-sustaining.

Something really must be said about novels that actually celebrate the ties between siblings. How rare it is. This paean to family life caused me to wonder about the parents: what had they done (or not done) to make the children so loving to one another? Sure, the kids are different from one another. Older sister Lola is careful and cautious, while younger sister Garance is completely at ease with seeing how much she can get away with. But the two somehow feel as though they are enriched—nay--can’t live without each other’s influence. Simon and Vincent are likewise different as chalk and cheese, but the freedoms of one nutures the other. There is admiration, support, generosity, and a depth of sincerity displayed that is usually reserved for best friends.

This slim novel is just a weekend slice of life—but what a slice it is! This novel should be required reading for twenty-somethings on the cusp of discovering the "latter years" and those others who need the fizz put back in their drinks. Wonderful light summer fare.

This book counts towards the 2011 Europa Challenge. The Europa Challenge Blog: French Leave by Anna Gavalda

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Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility: A Novel

“Old times,” as my father used to say, ”if you’re not careful, they’ll gut you like a fish.”

Debut novelist Amor Towles has captured a moment in the life of a woman when she was up for grabs—emotionally, spiritually, physically.

1938. New York. Two twenty-something women from very different backgrounds meet in Mrs. Martingale’s boarding house located on the lower East Side of Manhattan. They party by their wits and their beauty for they have no money. Together on New Year’s Eve 1938, they run into Tinker Grey, a wealthy enigma who becomes part of their lives.

Lush, literate language channels the period: jazz saxophonists have a “semblance of rhythm and surfeit of sincerity;” Midwestern beauties are “starlight with limbs”; Indiana-born Eve Ross could be a “corn-fed fortune hunter or a millionairess on a tear.” Towles seems to really enjoy choosing words that express locales, movement, inflection. The language glitters, though the larger job—meaning—seemed to lack depth.

Spring turns to summer and when autumn comes, our narrator Kate has compressed the usual time it takes to develop a grown-up sensibility, and has evolved into someone cautious, calculating, focussed. There were moments in this novel when I discovered I didn’t admire nor even like these people very much. I had a sense of distance from events, and meeting our narrator years later didn't reassure me that she'd developed whatever character or grace her younger self had lacked.

This Books on Tape audiobook was performed by Rebecca Lowman with considerable skill. She may have made our narrator slightly colder than strictly necessary, but it was ably done.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner

Vaclav and Lena: A Novel

Author Haley Tanner nails young love and the immigrant experience in this debut novel about ten-year-old neighbors in Brooklyn, both from Russia, who come from very different family backgrounds. Vaclav and Lena form a strong friendship, and struggle to make their way in the new world in which they find themselves. Vaclav wants more than anything to be a magician, and he’d like Lena to be his assistant. The scene in which they discuss which clothes they will wear for their magic show is most poignant—he chooses shoes covered in tin foil (voilà: silver shoes) and she dreams of a gold-colored fringed bikini.

This debut novel could (should?) really be classified as a teen title because it has all the ingredients, pace, and timing for a successful teen title, and is entirely appropriate for that audience. I believe it would receive attention and acclaim in that category. At first we see Vaclav and Lena at age ten, and their emotions and reactions are described in painstaking detail as they navigate an adult world in a new and confusing country. The adults are merely background to their blossoming confidence and coming of age. We see them again at age seventeen, and once again their feelings and reactions to the world are recorded faithfully.

This book would be a useful and pleasing required read for high school students for a number of reasons. It is current. The language and descriptions are relatively simple and clear, and can show students (and teachers) interested in the writing process how descriptive passages, conversation, and storyline all work together to move the story forward and create a coherent whole. It is a coming of age story without harrowing detail, but with implicit sexual awakening. It tells of an immigrant experience that is both important and interesting to examine in a group. It is from the point of view of teenagers, both of whom become perfectly realistic and admirable human beings, despite the difficulties of their upbringing.

I listened to the audio file of this book, read by Kirby Heyborne and Rebecca Lowman. I am so pleased to have heard it because the accented English did much to enhance the experience for me, as well as informed me that the name Vaclav is pronounced with a soft “c,” so that it sounds like "Vaslav" and Lena is not pronounced with with a long “e” sound, but with a schwa, as in “Ləna.”

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Revival: A Folk Music Novel by Scott Alarik

Scott Alarik knows what every good novelist knows: readers want something real. And he delivers. The Boston folk music scene has never been so intimate. Alarik, former folk music critic for the Boston Globe, is a singer/songwriter in his own right, and with this debut, a novelist. We get the inside story on what it feels like to write music critiques for a major newspaper in this new century, but we also get a good sense of what it feels like to be a musician, writing songs, jamming late into the night. And Boston comes across so strongly, we can smell the streets and feel the weather.

This story is told in the voice of a musician whose name is stored in the memory of folk aficionados, but who has not written a song nor toured widely for many years. He is handling open mike night and jam sessions at a neighborhood bar near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is remembered for his own songs, but also for his adaptations of old favorites going back through the centuries. He is also remembered, he fears, for the alcohol-induced slackness of the years after his chance to be a big name passed him by. He keeps his life limping along until a shy, young songwriter/musician comes into the bar one season and changes everything.

Alarik doesn’t hold back: he shows us the thrill, the passion, the fear, the dark despair that is every performer’s lot. We hear a musician talking to himself about which music he likes--how and why. We watch a songwriter create songs: we see moments of creation and remember flow. We feel the pain of what it means to be a success—the tour. We learn what kind of person it takes to get to the top, and own the bittersweet regret of looking back on one’s life and wondering “what if.”

A message that comes across strongly in this novel is the solitariness of creation. There is a necessary introspection to the creation of new (or modification of old) art and Alarik’s main character, Nathan, has it in spades. But community is necessary also, and that’s where we come in. We find here a map for creating community, a guide to the people you will meet, and an understanding of the various meanings of success. Alarik’s website gives his tour dates. You’ll want to listen to him after reading this book, I promise you that.

The publisher sent me a copy of this book for review, and is offering one as a giveaway to readers of The Bowed Bookshelf! Leave a comment below with your email address by September 10, 2011 and I will use to choose a winner. You do not have to be a follower of this blog, but if you win, you will be contacted by email to get your mailing contact info. You will find Revival: A Folk Music Novel a fascinating meditation on music, art, and the meaning of mature love.

Giveaway completed 9.10.11

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson

Hell Is Empty (Walt Longmire, #7)

A couple of years ago I wrote that it takes a brave man to create a novel that parallels and paraphrases the greats like Shakespeare and Dante. But Johnson takes it on handily: everybody in this new addition to his Sheriff Longmire series reads Dante—a paperback copy makes its way through backpacks and winter whiteouts to mountain peaks and cabin hideouts. It makes me want to go back and wrassle with The Inferno some more. FBI agents, Indians, cops, murderers and gang-bangers--everyone finds something in Dante to quote and apply to their own situation. It helps, I suppose, to have created a long-running character called Virgil, but Johnson also gave us a Beatrice. Perhaps Johnson is letting us in on his grand scheme when he created such memorable characters in the first place.

There is a Homer, too. Homer doesn’t have a starring role, but comes back in with a refrain now and again—a friendly voice with words of warning for Sheriff Longmire who was tasked with turning over a group of misanthropes to a team of FBI taking them to jail sentences far from Wyoming. The turnover goes wrong, a winter storm closes the mountain pass, the convicts escape, and hostages are taken. Hell, it turns out, is not hot, but cold, just as Dante tells us.

Johnson has created characters in this series that make one so glad that we have a west so very different from our eastern shores. Lawmen, Indians, horses, wild animals—Johnson makes trekking big mountains palpable, and we wish, really wish, that we could actually meet people with such depths of compassion and friendly openness as we meet in his books. In this way, he reminds me of Maeve Binchy, who is one of the greats for translating everyday life into conversation. Both Binchy and Johnson write fiction that hints at romance, simply because we know it cannot be true, or real, but we wish it were so. Would it sound silly if I said he makes me proud to be American? Proud, not in the political sense, but in the sense that he has created people and a place and a history that I am glad I can claim is at least partly mine, if only because I am American, too. And I can go to Wyoming whenever I want.

I listened to this audiobook with great pleasure. Narrated by George Guidall, it seems a perfect vehicle for his voice. The reading is a perfect pairing of great writing and great reading.

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Japanese Quilt Blocks to Mix and Match by Susan Briscoe

Japanese Quilt Blocks to Mix and Match

I bought this book years ago because I couldn't resist it. It has gorgeous ideas for making detailed and highly structured quilt blocks--something I don't usually do. There is something calming about structure. Somehow, underneath all the flow that is my usual style, I must be a highly formal, structured individual. Scratch that. Clearly delineated lines give me something to work within. It works with gardens. It works with food creation. It works with quilts. And already, looking over this book again with an eye to the new indigo-like shashiko-looking fabric I found while at a world quilt show last week, I have already begun to see how I would modify the structures to retain the sense, but not the look of the originals. This stuff is really gorgeous, don't get me wrong. But it is not me. That's probably a good thing.

Now, this book: It has detailed instructions on completing some real stumpers: inset seams, triangle squares, and special piecing techniques are all explained. Color pictures, and enlargeable diagrams are included. I don't think there is anything she missed. It is a spur to creativity, and an aid to completing one's vision. If it isn't exactly what I need, that is probably because she's written another book that probably covers what I think I need: Japanese Taupe Quilt Blocks: The Calm, Neutral Collection. I'll have to get it and find out. Briscoe did a brilliant job on this series. If you haven't created something wonderful from these books, you probably haven't tried yet.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam

The Queen of the Tambourine

How can a book be hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time? In Jane Gardam’s hands, this epistolary novel never takes a pot-shot at anyone (without good cause), but becomes increasingly specific, focusing especially on how women of a certain age manage their falling-apart lives. All kinds of lives are looked at: those who left; those who stayed; those who worked; those who did not. There is a distressing yet comforting sense of being a victim at a disaster, being looked after by those very same women of a certain age, all of whom have seen your life and others far worse—their own, perhaps—and who are willing to wrap their experience and compassion about one like a newly-sewn quilt, beautiful and awesome, and sometimes painful to behold.

Why painful? Because of all the work, mistakes, choices, energy that goes into making a quilt. Sometimes it’s a success, sometimes it isn’t. But sometimes we won’t know this until it is done. This book is also like a quilt, in that set pieces are created, and we laugh with jollity at the cleverness of the creation. When, finally, the time comes to stitch the pieces together, the whole suddenly becomes something else altogether and we stand mute at the meaning and magnificence of what Gardam has managed to do.

Our narrator, Eliza Peabody, begins to write letters to Joan, the woman living down the street. Eliza does not know Joan very well, but has come to have opinions about her, and feels it quite within her area of expertise to offer advice on her marriage, on her state of wellness, on her husband. She begins broadly, with two paragraphs one February, signing it Eliza (Peabody) and progresses, with increasing familiarity, through “Your sincere friend,” and “Your affectionate friend,” to “E,” and finally, dropping the signature altogether. The letters become much longer and more intimate. Joan, meanwhile, leaves the country and never responds to Eliza over the years of the correspondence.

What we learn about Eliza, then, is all there is. She is generous, thankfully, for it is her perceptions that guide us through the lives of her neighbors, her husband’s infidelities, her own housekeeping failures. She makes us laugh, cry, and beg for mercy. She makes me realize that Jane Gardam should be a household name and celebrated widely throughout the world. She is a national treasure.

This book counts towards the 2011 Europa Challenge. The Europa Challenge: The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, August 8, 2011

Europa Madness

The Woman with the BouquetThe Most Beautiful Book in the World: Eight NovellasCeciliaA Novel Bookstore

Nowadays I stop at every Borders Bookstore I pass, just to see if there is something there I need. I never come away empty-handed. I went in to a smallish store today on the off-chance they'd have something I was specifically looking for but no...what they did have was a selection of Europa Editions that were not on my to-read list, but which, when I perused them, look like "my kind of book." I really have no extra cash at the moment, but thought, in the spirit of looking for enlightenment, I really should take them home. And so...I did. Watch this space for reviews forthwith.

These books, when read, will count towards the 2011 Europa Challenge. Check out the Europa reading list and challenge blog and join us! The Europa Challenge Blog: Europa Madness

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Death from the Woods by Brigitte Aubert

Death from the Woods This was a bestseller in France and I read it when it came out in English ten years ago. Many hundreds of books later, I still remembered the thrill I had at the risk the author had taken with her unusual murder mystery centered around a blind mute quadriplegic. I know, I know, how can this be? It was almost as if the author, sitting around with friends over several bottles of good wine, had taken a bet to see if she could construct a story about the most unusual of protagonists—one that cannot move nor see nor speak.

I searched for the title again, and decided to have another look…just to see how the author constructed the mystery and how she kept the tendrils of the mystery in my brain after so many years. The voice of Elise, our narrator, is so piquant and particular that we follow her willingly through a series of grisly murders. We think also what it must be like to be handicapped so completely, and how other people relate to the handicapped. These things alone make the book worth reading. The central mystery itself is impossible to foretell—I defy anyone to figure out the ending in advance—but the ending is not as cleverly wound up as the beginning is laid out.

The facts of the mystery are this: over a period of several years, young boys are found murdered and mutilated not far from a quiet suburban French village. Elise, blinded and paralyzed as the result of a bombing in Ireland, is befriended by a disturbed young girl who whispers to her that she knew who killed the boys. Unable to speak, Elise can only listen and postulate about the identity of the killer as more clues accumulate. Another child is killed, and Elise herself becomes a target, but even she does not know why.

I think the author, Brigitte Aubert, deserves kudos for maintaining momentum through this novel, and for trying something completely new. As I say, it is difficult to get this book out of your head, so if you try it, be prepared to find yourself thinking about it for years. After its success in France, the author apparently wrote a follow-up novel which was also translated into English, called Death from the Snows, also with Elise as a main character. I haven’t read this one yet, but I am interested to see how the author proceeds with a new mystery involving our unusual heroine. Brigitte Aubert is a well-known thriller writer in France, but only a few of her many books have been translated. While this book has flaws, it is remarkable and memorable.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

The Summer Book Jansson captures not only a season but life itself with this short novel of a grandmother and her granddaughter summering on an island in the Gulf of Finland. The freshness of spring turns to the muggy veil of summer, and when August comes, our feelings of ending and loss are those we experience every year in this month.

Grandmother remains unnamed, perhaps to preserve that essential privacy that she explains to her friend Verner must always be reserved. But her granddaughter Sophia is six years old. Sophia’s mother has recently died, and her loss is little mentioned but much felt in a handful of remarks made by each throughout the time they spend together. How can an aging grandmother who is often aware of her diminished physical and mental capabilities relate to a six-year-old? About as well as a six-year-old can relate to a sixty-year-old…with difficulty, but with synergistic results. Life is a struggle no matter what creature we are, and we can’t always control the things that will affect us. But we can do the best we can and allow God to handle the rest. “The thing about God, she thought, is that He usually does help, but not until you’ve made an effort on your own.”

I have not read Jansson’s series of books for children yet, called the Moomin books, but they are described in NYRB’s introduction by Kathryn Davis thus: “the Moomin books—pictures in which creatures of cartoonlike simplicity comport themselves in a painstakingly detailed natural world…” Jansson describes the island habitat of The Summer Book with Zen-like clarity:
She saw the conical depression in the sand at the foot of the blade of grass and the wisp of seaweed that had twined around the stem. Right next to it lay a piece of bark. If you looked at it for a long time it grew and became a very ancient mountain. The upper side had craters and excavations that looked like whirlpools. The scrap of bark was beautiful and dramatic. It rested above its shadow on a single point of contact, and the grains of sand were coarse, clean, almost gray in the morning light, and the sky was completely clear, as was the sea.”

The characters in this book for adults, however, are not “cartoonlike in their simplicity.” They are rich with feelings of anger, spitefulness, tiredness, boredom, as well as joy, happiness, pleasure, and love. The grandmother can be crotchety to the point of sharpness, and little Sophia surprises us with adult words and emotions newly learned. But the two feed each other’s imaginations: they create a sea-side Venice, furnish a magic forest, and set off in journeys of discovery. Together they create a world neither would give away for any other.

A friend has shared a website on Tove Jansson with essential facts and pictures. She was Finnish, born in 1914 and died in 2001. She was born into a warm, open-hearted home in which both parents were artists and storytelling was prized. She became a painter and writer. In another blogpost, we get pictures of Tove Jansson’s mother with Tove’s niece, Sophia, and the picture makes the entire book come clear. This is a wonderfully atmospheric story that will allow you to experience summer at any time of the year.

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Thursday, August 4, 2011

White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

The excitement of discovering this book was one I have not felt for years. It is all the things great literature should be: it shows as well as teaches; it is recognizable but fresh; it is on some level profound; it is memorable. The book is written in dialect, and it was a revelation to me to see phrases written down that I’d only ever heard. It added much to the general impression of the first section of the book as a stage play. And a wonderful, rich, funny, tragic stage play it would be.

The cover copy of White Woman… says it is a love story, and so it is. But this is the story of a love affair with a country, and with a people, as well as love between two married people. Just as one recognizes the ups-and-downs in a marriage, the love affair with the country follows the same pattern—lavish love, and lashing pain. Sabine, the main character, describes her early love of George, her husband, in the following way:
Our courtship was very swift. We won each other, you could say. We were each other’s prize. People liked us, we were one of those couples; other people enjoyed having us around. Parties were gayer when we were there. Others basked in our happiness, envied our devotion. We brought out the potential in each other. George, in those days, gave me the experience of being at my best, moments, hours, days, a long period of complete happiness.”
“We brought out the potential in each other.” This is the way I always thought love with another person could be—a state where one is something more, something better, when the other person is by one's side. The story takes place in Trinidad over a period of fifty years. Sabine and George come as representatives of a British shipping company, and find a way to live and love through the rise and fall of politicians promising more for locals, less for foreigners.

In an interview, Roffey tells us she did a lot of research before she began to write. The tight narration of the political scene in Trinidad during the 1960’s and 1970’s does much to enhance our interest in the concomitant lives of Sabine and George. One comes away feeling one has witnessed history--and that we share that history. The book has connected us to the Trinidad, a “landscape parading it’s fertility, a banquet of eccentric delicacies.”

Monique Roffey is not really a newcomer: this is her second novel, which became a nominee for The Orange Prize, one of the United Kingdom's most prestigious literary prizes, annually awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English, and published in the UK the previous year. Roffey’s first novel, Sun Dog, was published in 2002 by Scribner. Sun Dog, set in South America, employed magic-realism, and was warmly received by critics. My guess is that it may show us the early promise of this accomplished novelist.

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Midnight Fugue (Dalziel & Pascoe #24) by Reginald Hill

Hardcover, 362 pgs, Pub 2009 by Harper, ISBN13: 9780007252701, Series: Dalziel & Pascoe #24, Lit Awards: Barry Award Nominee for Best British Crime Novel (2010)

Reginald Hill is in a class of his own. His mystery series featuring Dalziel “the fat man” and Pascoe is a long-running masterpiece of British humor. Hill populates the series with many characters and much activity, but exhibits masterful control in keeping everyone doing…the wrong thing.

Once again Dalziel manages to extricate himself from an ambiguous-looking situation that would be career-ending for anyone else, and comes up accepting kudos from his coworkers—all except Pascoe, who thinks Dalziel might just as well retire before he does them all in. Dalziel knows he is not long for the force, but decides to hang on for the sheer cussedness of it, and the pain he knows it gives those who long to take his place.

I did not read the series in order—Hill was incredibly prolific, and had written 24 books in the Dalziel and Pascoe series. In this novel, we learn that Dalziel has survived a bomb attack previously and is back on the job a little worse for wear. He has forgotten which day it is and ends up driving madcap to work early on a Sunday morning. Just as well, since he has two cars following him which he needs to sort out before he gets back into the maelstrom that is work.

Dalziel is a “fat man,” but what we love about him are his appetites. He is enthusiastic, wily, generous, experienced, and has this case figured out long before he can prove anything. Hill even lets us into the secret, knowing full well that we have no way of uncovering information before he decides to share it with us. We love Dalziel because he is so much more incorrigible than we would ever allow ourselves to be, but he is that rare creature that always knows what justice is. We can reliably place ourselves in his hands and know that he’ll work out whatever trouble we face—though not without a few bumps and scrapes along the way.

I listened to the audio version from Whole Story Audio Books, and thought Jonathan Keeble did a brilliant job of the reading by distinguishing characters by accent, and giving the whole a perfectly comprehensible pace.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity & Islam by Eliza Griswold

The concept of this book is a fascinating one: the Tenth Parallel, which runs around the earth 700 miles north of the equator, could be thought of as the dividing line between warring religions. Griswold makes the point that north of the tenth parallel, the Arab/Muslim religion and culture largely holds sway, while below, in Africa at least, Christian and indigenous religions mix. She has put her finger on a critically important subject and has found an area of the world where that divide can be witnessed within one country.

Griswold is the daughter of Frank Griswold, former bishop of the Episcopal Church. She travelled with her family in Africa and later as a journalist in the entourage of Bill Graham. Her background, therefore, informs her interest in the religious divide, and we may assume she brings both experience and a certain amount of access with her history. She doesn’t, however, appear to have an overt religious bias, but points out abuses, overstepping, political purpose, and overweening personal aggrandizement on both sides of the religious divide. She makes important points: changes in climatic conditions on the continent in Africa are forcing a mixing of religious cultures that have been traditionally separate; poverty and famine are exacerbating religious conflicts; both sides are eagerly trying to gain converts through political and economic means.

Having given credit to Griswold for staking out an important area of the world, the sub-Saharan region of Nigeria, Somalia, and Ethiopia, I had to leave half this book unread (I had the audio version) because of the diffuse and fractured manner of presentation. I note the author is a poet as well as a journalist. There was, perhaps, a little too much description of local color. Griswold’s descriptions distracted me from the points she was trying to make. (I have an indelible picture of Billy Graham’s ostrich-skin boots, and the house and face of a Somalian religious warlord.)

Griswold travelled to remote and dangerous sites to conduct interviews, but somehow what she came away with was less impressive than her getting there and back in one piece. There may have been too much running around and too little analysis in this account. I couldn’t help but feel this was one reporter who had the instincts for an important story, but was unnecessarily kinetic in her pursuit of it. There is always a wide audience for a tight analysis of a conflict area, with historical elements woven in. The audio reading was very fast (and the reader, Tavia Gilbert, has a disconcertingly young-sounding voice), but I began to suspect I was getting the same material again and again. I even checked my discs to make sure I was going forward rather than backwards. This could have used a far less indulgent editor, and instead given us a pinpointed analysis that doesn’t get buried with fact-slinging.

I am curious now why this was recommended by someone at Politics and Prose, the independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. While the subject is undoubtedly an important one, the narrative cannot rank with the best.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Snippy, snarky, and wholly original, the voice of Rosalinda Achmetowna will stay with you long after you close this book. First published in German in 2010, this Booker-nominated bestseller explodes with personality, wit, and the wisdom of an older woman. Not that Rosie thinks of herself as old.

Life in Russia was never easy, but Rosalinda thought her daughter, Sulfia, made life especially hard for herself. In the time-honored way of mothers everywhere, she hectored, berated, cursed, and finally resorted to direct intervention in her attempts to get her daughter gainfully wed. And it’s a good thing, too, since Sulfia had a child—a lovely child—who was soon to become central to the trio’s “escape to the West.”

It is rare to encounter a voice so fresh with biting insights and yet so laughingly tender at the same time. Always on the lookout for the main chance, our heroine finds myriad ways to game the system while she holds on, white-knuckled, to the gains she feels she deserves. It is hard not to feel regret when we close the book at last, for she is a woman with the carapace of a beetle, but an interior soft as unalloyed gold. “People liked it when someone tugged at their heartstrings. I couldn’t understand why,” Rosalinda tells us. But I think Alina Bronsky understands it.

Classic Rosalinda:
”I noticed that by German standards, I was a fairly young woman. It was as if I had stopped aging. Of course, I hadn’t forgotten my real age. In Russia I knew I was young but that other women my age no longer were. Here I realized that the women my age really were young, even if they looked worse than me.

Even some women much older than me were still young. I stared at the first real old lady I saw—one with violet-colored hair—after she passed me on her bicycle. I took a picture of the second one. The third time I saw an older woman on a bike, it made me think. Then I bought myself a secondhand bicycle from a newspaper ad.”

This book counts towards the 2011 Europa Challenge. The Europa Challenge Blog: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

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To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

To a Mountain in Tibet

"In the beginning Kailas was just rock—rock and stones. Without spirit. Then the gods came down with their entourages and settled there. They may not exactly live there now, but they have left their energy, and the place is full of spirits…"the myth behind Mt. Kailas
Now in his seventies, famed travel writer Colin Thubron left his wife and home in England and trekked to a holy mountain in Tibet from Nepal. It was a personal journey. From Nepal, where his father hunted bear and big cats eighty years before, Thubron headed to Kailas, or Gangs Rinpoche, the holy mountain, the “precious jewel of snow.”
”Early wanderers to the source of the four great Indian rivers—the Indus, the Ganges, the Sutlej, and the Brahmaputra—found to their wonder that each one rose near a cardinal point of Kailas.”
Kailas is a holy mountain for Buddhists and Hindu alike, and thousands of worshippers every year pilgrimage to Kailas to circumnavigate the base.

At 15,000 feet, the base of Kailas is 52 km long, and it sits next to the highest freshwater lake in the world, Manasarovar. Kailas is reflected in its waters: “To the Hindus…the lake is mystically wedded to the mountain, whose phallic dome is answered in the vagina of its dark waters.” Kailas has never been climbed. Perhaps it is true that “only a man entirely free from sin could climb Kailas.” Thubron’s journey to Kailas is spiritual as well. He meditates on his life, his recently deceased mother and long-dead sister as he walks, but he shares with us what he sees along the route, in case we don’t get the chance.

The journey begins as if “through a ruined English garden,” strewn with viburnum, jasmine and syringa, honeysuckle, dogwood and buddleia. Soon the track becomes “savage and precipitous,” and as he gets closer to Kailas, the road becomes positively alive with pilgrims dressed “in a motley of novelty and tradition,” often scattered in groups of two or three, who look "unquenchably happy". And closer yet:
The monks, who have been praying in a seated line for hours, advance in a consecrating procession. Led by the abbot of Gyangdrak monastery from a valley under Kailas, they move in shambling pomp, pumping horns and conch shells, clashing cymbals. Small and benign in his thin-rimmed spectacles, the abbot hold up sticks of smouldering incense, while behind him the saffron banners fall in tiers of folded silks, like softly collapsed pagodas. Behind these again the ten-foot horns, too heavy to be carried by one monk, move stentorously forward, their bell-flares attached by cords to the man in front. Other monks, shouldering big drums painted furiously with dragons, follow in a jostle of wizardish red hats, while a venerable elder brings up the rear, cradling a silver tray of utensils and a bottle of Pepsi-Cola.”
But finally the destination is reached, and a Buddhist monk shares his philosophy: “Only karma lasts. Merit and demerit. Nothing of the individual survives. From all that he loves, man must part.”

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam

The People on Privilege Hill

Stories, short and quick and with adult emotions, is what we find in this marvelous collection published 2008 by Europa. Gardam has a laser-eye and can have a razor-tongue, but she knows what humans are and what makes a story.

In “The Fledgling," we are introduced to that self-conscious teen ready to leave the nest, and the mixed emotions of parent and child are recognizable and painful and funny at the same time. In “Dangers” we encounter a story reminiscent of the UK’s BBC radio show My Word, where segments often feature a funny and circuitous word etomology. “Waiting for a Stranger” may be my favorite of all, as an uncertain hostess waits for an overseas guest to arrive at her remote farm cottage. There had been only a day to prepare--it was a sudden request from her minister and her guest is a black African bishop. She is a farm wife and mother, and she’d never seen a black man in the flesh before, just on the telly. There is something terribly poignant about the care for a stranger.

In ”The Virgin of Bruges,” Gardam displays her trademark dry wit:
But even if she had not wanted me I would have gone to her. Frédérique is unlike me. She is a mother, wife of a farmer, beautiful, resourceful, practical, intellectual. I am a small, short man.
"Pangbourne" is a story of cherishing another being, sharing their space, and their life, with no expectation of any return. And Gardam breaks our hearts with “The Latter Days of Mr. Jones,” the story of an elderly man, alone and never married, accused of hateful crimes against children. Each story illuminates corners of the human psyche and doesn’t bore us with too much of anything—explanations or asides, regrets or remarks. Just short stories that remain long in one’s memory.

This book counts towards the 2011 Europa Challenge. The Europa Challenge Blog: The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam

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