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Blue in Washington "Barry Ballow" RSS Feed (Washington, DC United States)
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Oxo Steel CorkPull Wine Opener/Corkscrew
Oxo Steel CorkPull Wine Opener/Corkscrew
Price: $24.99
14 used & new from $22.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Innovative but simple and effective, October 1, 2014
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
We're a wine drinking household and seem to be pretty hard on corkscrews/wine openers (we've been through a lot of rabbit-eared, pressure-driven and otherwise exotic tools over the past years. So we're always looking for "the grail" of openers, and when the OXO corkscrew was offered, we didn't hesitate to give it a try. And bingo, it works. I'm not 100% sure how it works, but it opens the typical corked wine bottle with just a few easy twists. Like most OXO products, it has a substantive feel and heft, so we're pretty confident that it will last for a while, even with daily use.


Arctic Summer
Arctic Summer
by Damon Galgut
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.60
42 used & new from $9.93

5.0 out of 5 stars E.M. Forster's slow passage to happiness, September 30, 2014
This review is from: Arctic Summer (Paperback)
Damon Galgut has written a wonderfully-crafted fictional biography of the 20th Century author Edward Morgan Forster based on the latter's journals, correspondence, books and non-fiction biographies and commentaries that have covered his life and work. "Arctic Summer" is an account of Forster's life from age 27 (1913) to 66 (1945), with much of the story focused on his travels to India and the WWII years spent in Alexandria, Egypt.

It is a finely imagined look at his evolution as a writer--several major works sprang from the India and Egypt interludes--which includes long chapters on relations between the governing British in India and their increasingly restive Indian subjects. Author Galgut takes his Forster character on a long circuit through the sub-continent that the latter finds fascinating, appalling and frustrating in equal degrees. His experience is greatly colored by his passionate and unrequited love for a former Indian student who has returned home to become a lawyer.

And indeed, the other half of Forster's story is his painful, repressed efforts at romantic and physical fulfillment as a gay man. The latter evolution taking place in a post-Oscar Wilde period of time in Britain when fully realized same-sex relationships were out of the question for people of any class. More typically, such connections were subject to rigid class restrictions and more often than not were on a commercial basis. Forster formed crushes on many different young men, but they ultimately evolved to focus on males of a different class or race.

You could endlessly debate whether E.M. Forster had a happy life, but that is not the author's purpose (in my opinion, at least). He chooses instead to present the reality of Forster's successes as a writer--quite substantial--and his struggles as someone outside the social mainstream. The narrative and dialogue of the book are extraordinarily good and the story ends in a way that leaves the reader sympathetic to Forster and wanting to know more of his story. For the latter, Galgut has included a helpful bibliography at the conclusion.

An excellent read.


A Map of Betrayal: A Novel
A Map of Betrayal: A Novel
by Ha Jin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.74

4.0 out of 5 stars The high price of patriotism, September 24, 2014
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The intriguing story of a Chinese spy with conflicted loyalties and a belief that he was ultimately serving two countries--Communist China and the U.S. It's also the story of his American daughter who some 30 years after her father's death, tracks down the Chinese family left behind when the spy's mission began in the late 1940s. She will eventually find herself dealing with some of the same dilemma's as her father as the lines between family obligations and patriotism criss-cross and blur.

The poignancy of the spy's story, with an unrelenting yearning for a family and country left behind, reminded me of a personal experience I once had with a Chinese embassy official here in the U.S. As a State Department official, I had raised a concern that some Chinese students in the U.S. seemed intent on staying here (in violation of program and visa conditions). The Chinese official's response was that his government was not worried about such a possibility as "anyone born Chinese retained a connection and loyalty to their country and culture no matter where they wound up living."

That belief seems to be held by author Ha Jin as well. But, perhaps drawing on his own experience, such loyalties can be torture when new attachments to another country and culture evolve. Those complications are the meat of this novel and they make for very interesting reading.


O, Africa!: A Novel
O, Africa!: A Novel
by Andrew Lewis Conn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.30
89 used & new from $0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Fiiming Fantasyland - 3-, September 20, 2014
This review is from: O, Africa!: A Novel (Hardcover)
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Highly original and gutsy in taking on at least one major social issue of the times (late 1920s). This is the story of two brothers who were in the vanguard of early film making in the U.S., and a big part of the narrative in "O Africa" is about film production, actors and the business of cinema. The novel's second big focus is on the personal lives of the brothers--twins--one involved with a young black woman and the other coming out as a gay man. Here we get into a back and forth byplay of Harlem and Africa, with the author's main message on race contained within. The story jumps back and forth from personal to professional and from New York to Hollywood to Africa and back frequently, making for interesting, if challenging reading.

This is a book that I wanted to like a lot for its adventurous approach. Ultimately, I found it frustrating and unconvincing. Part of the problem for me was the handling of the characters which verged on caricature and stereotype a bit too often. I think this was deliberate on the part of the author to give credence to the period, but it still came across as off-putting to me.

The book's greatest fault is the completely bogus construction of the Africa of the storyline. I have to believe this was also deliberate on the author's part, but the place that the brothers are sent to film and eventually reach some kind of personal peace is more like a Hollywood set than anything that actually existed in Africa. Somehow, this is of no importance the author, who is telling a story about race, honor and personal awakening. He can get away with this only if the reader forgives the outlandish descriptions of the place (English-speaking Belgian Congo?!) and the unlikely indigenous people, led by a highly-educated man, but otherwise ignorant and superstitious. It was too unreal for me to ignore and it spoiled the core of the story for me.


Time Out New York For Visitors (Time Out Guides)
Time Out New York For Visitors (Time Out Guides)
by Editors of Time Out
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.32
41 used & new from $4.45

5.0 out of 5 stars Abbreviated guide to NYC--really all you need, September 19, 2014
Was looking for an updated Time Out guide for New York City and found this version in magazine form. It is a terrific value more than any would need for a week or less in NYC. Great sections on museums, theater, music, restaurants and neighborhood roaming. It strikes a good balance between basic info and insider gossip and what and when to avoid events, traffic, rip off stores, etc. Good also for nightlife. We used it to find a hotel and to navigate the West Village where we based for three days. Get this magazine-ish guide and you really won't need anything else.


Full Measure: A Novel
Full Measure: A Novel
by T. Jefferson Parker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.25

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A tale of our times - shifting the pain from the battlefield to the hearth - 3+, September 13, 2014
This review is from: Full Measure: A Novel (Hardcover)
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Pat Norris returns to his small Southern California community after a horrific deployment in rural Afghanistan. After witnessing the deaths of countless fellow Marines and Afghan civilians, the 22-year ex-corporal arrives just after a massive brush fire has devastated the town and most of his parents' avocado farm. Reluctantly, he commits to helping his family resuscitate their groves and help get his mentally disabled older brother Ted on his feet and back into the good graces of his parents and the community. The story gradually shifts its focus from the Marine's return and adjustment to civilian life (rocky, at times) to the much greater problems of Ted.

This is a melancholic tale, well-told and probably all too common in contemporary America. The problematic lives portrayed here are familiar to us all by now, but there is the promise of redemption and happier times ahead. For regular readers of TJ Parker, this short novel is free of the occult/metaphysical elements that marked some of the author's recent books. For me, that was a good thing.


Victus: The Fall of Barcelona, a Novel
Victus: The Fall of Barcelona, a Novel
by Albert Sanchez Pinol
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.22
54 used & new from $7.20

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A story of 18th Century siege warfare, September 12, 2014
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There are some good moments in this sprawling historical fiction work, but it also contains some distracting quirkiness that keeps it from greatness. The time frame is the early 18th Century as the War of Spanish Succession picks up steam and draws all of the European powers to battlefields in the Iberian Peninsula. Protagonist Marti Zuviria is a fledgling military engineer drawn into the conflict by his nationality (Catalan) and his impeccable training credentials (with French Field Marshall Vauban). The story unfolds in retrospect as 98-year old Zuviria dictates his memoirs (a la Salieri in Amadeus) with melancholy and sadness. And, in fact, it is a story of the few short years that the engineer spent in training and as a feckless, job-changing mercenary in Spain and Catalonia. Secondarily--and quite intentionally--the novel sets forth a list of Catalonia's historic complaints against the Spanish-speaking parts of Spain that are meant to resonate contemporarily.

The book's greatest strengths are its deeply researched, detailed account of the siege warfare employed against those Spanish/Catalonian cities loyal to the pretender Carlos III (and the Austrians) and the host of richly drawn characters that Zuviria interacts with throughout the period. In the latter context, it is a kind of coming of age for the young engineer who is in continuous pursuit of a mystical engineering concept that will give some definitive meaning to his training and relationship with the formidable Marquis de Vauban.

The reader would be hard put to find another book with as much detail and fine feel for what is endured by either side during the siege of a city. These are experiences deeply embedded within the experience of the Iberians; and this author, Albert Sanchez Pinol, is passionate on the hardships and lethal effects visited on civilians and field troops alike in such conflict. The mud, blood and destruction is vividly portrayed here and well contrasted with the cynicism and lack of personal involvement by the powers who are behind the war in the first place.

Protagonist Zuviria is, like Salieri his historic contemporary, not a wholly sympathetic character, but he does evolve as a human being as the story unwinds, and ultimately, I wanted to hear more about his very long life (the book ends when he is about 24 and on the run.)

An interesting historic novel which will be entertaining for any fan of the military history genre.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 22, 2014 8:47 AM PDT


Fives and Twenty-Fives
Fives and Twenty-Fives
by Michael Pitre
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.08
77 used & new from $10.79

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A powerhouse of a novel, September 6, 2014
This review is from: Fives and Twenty-Fives (Hardcover)
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Michael Pitre writes about war, battle and the aftermath with a depth of understanding that is authentic and soul-penetrating. His straightforward language and matter-of-fact descriptions of the controlled and disciplined approach to modern warfare by the organized military, the uncontrollable nature and results of the actual fighting, the indiscriminate destruction of people's lives and the shearing of social fabric are totally effective--much more effective than they could be if adorned with all the action adjectives and adverbs thinkable.

Pitre's novel follows the lives of three main characters--all young men in their 20s, without much prewar life experience. There is Pete Donovan, the thoughtful platoon leader, who heads a mine-clearing platoon and is therefore saddled with responsibilities he hasn't been prepared for; Doc Pleasant, the kid who is a natural as a combat medic, but who eventually sees too much suffering and death; and Dodge (Kateb) the bright Iraqi university student obsessed by "Huckleberry Finn" who becomes an interpreter for Donovan and Doc's unit after his own alienation from a family that has fallen from privilege with the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Wonderful secondary characters flavor the protagonists' lives in battle and in the aftermath.

The unadorned honesty of this novel makes every page interesting and credible. I was truly sorry when the story ended, leaving all of the principal characters in hopeful, but not completely resolved situations. This is not a criticism by any means. When authors leave you wanting more then surely they have succeeded. Extraordinary read and highly recommended.


The Reckoning: A John Madden Novel by the Author of River of Darkness
The Reckoning: A John Madden Novel by the Author of River of Darkness
by Rennie Airth
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.68
65 used & new from $9.95

4.0 out of 5 stars The war that keeps on taking - 4+, September 2, 2014
Fine new novel in the John Madden series--this one set in 1947 England, but in the shadow of an earlier war. The plot runs on parallel tracks: a serial killer is at work throughout the book on track one while a wide-ranging procedural is put in place to track the killer down. Former Chief Inspector John Madden, long since retired to a farm in the country, is brought onto the case when an early victim in the case is discovered to have written him a letter before his death. The investigation will eventually lead back to events of an earlier wartime period even as England struggles to get back to normal after the recent ending of WWII.

Rennie Airth is a talented writer who spins a smoothly unwinding story that is a complete pleasure to read. His characters are multi-dimensional and interesting. Very good read and recommended.


Lonely Planet Sicily (Travel Guide)
Lonely Planet Sicily (Travel Guide)
by (Travel writer) Gregor Clark
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.87
72 used & new from $12.86

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent basic guide, August 31, 2014
Lonely Planet has upped their game since I last used one of their guides. This one for Sicily is crammed full of info about history, culture, food and festivals as well as the usual recommended itineraries, hotels and transportation. It has a good selection of maps--some of them of principal cities, but LP still does not include a lot of glossy photos. I don't mind the latter absence--my first choice for guides is still the Michelin greens, and they are also stingy with illustrations.
At $20.00 LP Sicily is neither cheap nor expensive, but a pretty good value for a lot of useful information.


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