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The Birds
The Birds
by Tarjei Vesaas
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "You are you.", February 6, 2016
This review is from: The Birds (Paperback)
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‘Tis a gift to be simple but sometimes, that gift can also be a burden. In this haunting book, Mattis – a slow-witted man in his late 30s – lives in a small village with his lonely older sister, Hege, who feeds and takes care of him. Their isolation is captured by two withered aspen trees that stand side-by-side, in among the green growing spruces, and referred to as Mattie-and-Hege by the villagers.

Mattis connects to the natural order around him. When a woodcock starts flying over his house, he views it as a miraculous sign. But then something portentous occurs: the woodcock is killed with his eyes shut and only Mattis is anguished by it. And not long after, one of the eternal aspens is felled by lightning, leaving one remaining. Is it Mattis or is it Hege?

Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas meticulously, sparingly, and respectfully invites us into Mattis’s world, slowly revving up the tension. We experience Mattis’s struggles to connect to both nature and human nature, to retain shreds of understanding and dignity, and to answer that all-vital question, “Why are things the way they are?”

The arrival of a stranger will have the power to upend everything. As Mattis strives to figure out what it all means, the novel reaches a slow boil. With wisps of Per Petterson’s works, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, this book has its own original, lyrical, and unsettling voice. Not a word feels out of place.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 7, 2016 7:03 AM PST

High Dive: A novel
High Dive: A novel
by Jonathan Lee
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.86

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Novel of Rare Depth, February 4, 2016
This review is from: High Dive: A novel (Hardcover)
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Let’s first look at the facts upon which the novel is based: in October, 1984, an IRA bomb exploded in Brighton’s Grand Hotel, in an audacious attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. She survived and even delivered a keynote address later; others who were present were not so lucky.

Readers who expect a taut political thriller or even an excavation of what led to this dramatic action will not find it here in this book. Although the book is based on the 1984 events, it is mostly interested in exploring people on the brink, poised to perform a high dive but really going through the motions.

Moose, the poignant Grand Hotel deputy manager, is in his mid-forties, bemoaning the glory days when he was poised to become a professional diver. Now he treads water waiting for a promotion that may never come, raising his teenage daughter, Freya, who is similarly treading water. has a temporary job at the hotel while she contemplates life after high school. The third key character, Dan, is a young Belfast man who is tapped to play a supportive role in the eventual bombing.

Always, the water is a metaphor for our immersion in life. In some ways, Moose could be a cousin to John Updike’s Harry Rabbit: a one-time star athlete swimming through the enchantments and disenchantments of life, trying to attain grace under pressure and becoming two-dimensional by his very ordinariness. In fact, all the characters grapple with action versus inertia, unearthing the meaningful, and small acts of kindness versus large transformative gestures which may, at the end, mean nothing at all.

This is a languid and at times, lyrical book. While we readers are aware of the tick-tick-tick of the bomb, it’s the tick-tick-tick of life and its sundry tasks that absorb us. At the end of the day, High Dive contrasts those private moments that history so rarely records – the true achievements of life – against those grand moments that eventually become asterisks in the annals of our collective histories.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 13, 2016 6:57 PM PST

The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End
by Katie Roiphe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.05

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Our Deaths Illuminate How We Live, February 1, 2016
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Death is one of our culture’s last taboos. We just don’t talk about it if we don’t have to. Yet the way we approach our deaths says a lot about who we have been in our lives. In some cases, there is bravery and beauty; in others, cold stoicism; in still others, self-destruction and wantonness.

Katie Roiphe chooses her subjects well to give a good cross-section of how some of our greatest creative minds approached their deaths. Susan Sontag, for example, is the poster child for another subject’s (Dylan Thomas’) much-quoted poem: Do not go gentle into that good night; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. And rage she does. She is determined to be the one person who defeats death, undergoing arduous medical procedures including near-lethal experimental chemotherapy cocktails. Driven, in all likelihood, by her raging narcissism, she appears stunned that she will die like any other mere mortal.

Sigmund Freud is the polar opposite. He is determined to project a cool, rational acceptance of the necrosis of the mouth that defigures and ultimately kills him. He refuses to part with the cigars and nicotine that almost certainly caused the cancer to begin with (Sontag also refused to give up her cigarettes) and another therapist would likely have a field day with analyzing what cigars really meant to him. He maintains control of his death to the end, when his hand-picked physician helps him in an assisted suicide.

Dylan Thomas is, of course, a story of excess. Ms. Roiphen writes, “The true mystery of Thomas’ last days, however, is not the precise medical cause of his coma; it is how the unnatural fear and apprehension of death melts into a craving for it…It seems if you are afraid or preoccupied with something for long enough, you begin to develop a feeling toward it not dissimilar to love.” John Updike, the creator of the Rabbit series, attempts to turn “pain into honey” in his last days, with poems that carry the urgency of his early work, the sharpness and swiftness he was afraid he had lost. And Maurice Sendak, who kept Keats’ original death mask in one of his rooms, obsesses about death but lives a long life. The very end includes an interview that Ms. Roiphe conducts with James Salter, who is afraid not of death itself but the fear of death—the panic at its approach.

Thoughtful and nuanced, the book has much to say about our acceptance of our own mortality.

Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice
Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.78

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How does Pride & Prejudice translate in today's world?, January 31, 2016
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It already seems that Eligible has divided discerning readers into two camps. Some believe it is an engrossing beach read with a propulsive plot and is, indeed, wickedly entertaining. Others see it as a banal reimagining of one of the most widely read books of its century == Pride and Prejudice. Who is right?

It depends. Curtis Sittenfeld takes on an extraordinarily difficult task in adhering so closely to the original. The power of P&P lie in its wry analysis of the social/cultural mores of the time starting from the very first sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a godo fortune, must be in want of a wife." The class structure, mores, and rigid behaviors of the time are a far cry from our world today, where class distinctions are usually not impediments to good marriages and where women have choices. The Liz of Eligible -- a cousin to the Elizabeth in P&P -- suffers by comparison. The conflicts and successes pale by comparison.

The new close friend of Mr. Darcy -- Chip Bingley -- appeared on Eligible, a show based on The Bachelor. The Bachelor -- during its 20 year run -- has been all about myth-making. The whole point of the show is that what you see is not what you get (a recent season featured an "aw shucks" farmer from Iowa who, in reality, was a narcissistic self-promoter who couldn't wait to get away from the tiny Iowa town he grew up in.) The Bachelor, too, has much to say about our values and our reshaping of the truth. Not so here.

I have not yet finished this book. But these are initial impressions that are keeping me from total immersion.

What Lies Between Us: A Novel
What Lies Between Us: A Novel
by Nayomi Munaweera
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.76

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An inheritance of silence and shame, January 28, 2016
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When you’re a passionate reader – as I am – you inevitably begin to compare one book to another. In the past two or three years, I’ve read a number of books with a similar structure: the first part is a coming-of-age narrative that takes place in an exotic native locale (Nigeria, Uganda, Sri Lanka). The second part takes the now-grown narrator (usually female) to America, where she experiences culture shock and feels like a stranger in a strange land. Inevitably, part one is more compelling than part two.

I was afraid that What Lies Between Us would be too derivative and in that regard, it is (which is why I’m withholding the fifth star). But it rises to a higher level by taking on a heartbreaking topic: false memory and the effects of PTSD on the present.

We know almost from the first sentence that our narrator is in prison and it is strongly hinted that she has killed her child. So it is no spoiler that this is a central plot point of the book. But what triggered such an unnatural deed…particularly in a narrator that we, as readers, come to like?

The writing is confident and lyrical and once begun, the book maintains a constant gravitational pull on the reader. You could do far worse than spend several hours with this haunting book in hand.

The Good Liar: A Novel
The Good Liar: A Novel
by Nicholas Searle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.11
52 used & new from $2.81

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "One big lie is all you'll ever need.", January 24, 2016
This review is from: The Good Liar: A Novel (Hardcover)
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Roy is a bona fide liar but he’s not at all good. As the layers of his life are peeled away, we experience him at different junctures – starting at the present and going back in time to the late 1930s – and with each revelation, he becomes more and more heinous.

Lying is sport to Roy. “One big lie is all you ever need, he knows through experience, and to feel the joy solely internally is gratifying enough. It’s necessary not to ignore the endgame, but that’s not where the sense of accomplishment lies from Roy. It’s in the execution, the act of deception.”

In the opening pages, we meet Roy at the closing pages of his own life. He’s determined to fleece Betty, an attractive and wealthy widow that he meets online, out of her lifetime savings, just for the fun of it. But almost instantly, we discover that Betty isn’t even a fraction as naÔve as Roy suspects she is. There’s a sense that she has her own agenda – but what is it?

This is a cleverly written book that slowly relinquishes its secrets through by moving backward. While I enjoyed it, there were some elements that were just too pat. Betty never quite seemed the kind of “mark” that would have put up with Roy in ordinary circumstances. Nor did I quite buy into Roy’s desire to create one final lie, given his circumstances and failing health. The denouement seemed more than a little contrived. And, I found myself unaccountably wanting to get back to the Roy and Betty story during the flashbacks.

All in all, it’s a fine concept that could have been even more compelling.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither
Spill Simmer Falter Wither
by Sara Baume
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.43

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "You are the only thing, One Eye. You are the only.", January 19, 2016
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Spill Simmer Falter Wither doesn’t surrender its secrets easily or gladly. Much of the power of the narrative is not what is revealed by our narrator but rather, what is secreted away.

The narrator is 57-year-old Ray, a socially awkward and reclusive outcast, who chooses to adopt a presumably abused and distrustful one-eyed terrier. If you’re looking for a feel-good man-and-dog bonding novel, this is not your book. Both Ray and One Eye are unlovable outsiders who shelter and hide their painful pasts and who have trouble living in a cruel and potentially harmful world.

As a conceit, Ray narrates the world around them to the dog, describing (sometimes in excruciatingly precise but always lyrical detail) the sights, sounds, and smells of the landscape. We follow them through four seasons as life becomes more and more precarious. “This is the way life’s eaten away, expended by the onerous effort of living oneself.”

One Eye is Ray’s one connection, his one reason to hang on. In observing the dog on an exploration journey, Ray muses, “I realize you were not born with a predetermined capacity for wonder, as I’d believed. I realize that you fed it up yourself from tiny pieces of the world. I realize it’s up to me to follow your example and nurture my own wonder, morsel by morsel by morsel.” One suspects that Ray is the dog’s reason to hang on as well. Trust is slow to blossom but takes root.

This debut is not a fast read. It is in turns meditative and contemplative, subtle and harsh, atmospheric and haunting not unlike the Irish landscape that almost acts as a third character. At times, Ray evokes Steinbeck’s Lennie (Of Mice and Men) and One Eye is his own unique character. As readers, we suspect the preamble to this story, without ever having all of it fully confirmed. The book is not always lovable, but it’s definitely admirable. And it lingers with you.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 10, 2016 5:36 AM PST

Cuisinart TOB-260N Chef's Toaster Convection Oven, Silver
Cuisinart TOB-260N Chef's Toaster Convection Oven, Silver
Price: $219.99
13 used & new from $219.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tenderfoot in the world of convection baking, January 17, 2016
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With our Viking oven on the fritz lately, I was primed to try a temporary alternative: our first convection oven. The Cuisinart "Chef's Convection and Toaster Oven” easily fits on our counter. That means the inside is really quite small – 8 inches high by 14 inches across by 12 inches deep. But I've been packing a lot of stuff into it – a beef roast, a 12-inch frozen pizza and a muffin pan holding 12 regular-sized muffins – and all of it has turned out well.

First, some convection oven basics: the concept is an improvement over a conventional oven because its built-in fan distributes the oven’s heat. This means your food is cooked evenly, baking times are a little shorter and the temperature is somewhat lower than what the cookbooks call for.

The evenly circulated heat means that you can even bake two different shelves of muffin pans. However, when I tried this, the surfaces of some muffins in the top pan did get a little darker (but were still edible) and the steady stream of air from the fan left a permanent wave in them.

Being a tenderfoot in the world of convection baking, I still don't know exactly when the food will be done. It should always be less time than called for in the recipe, but it's not clear how much less. While the manual does provide a few basic pointers on baking, broiling, roasting and pizzas, I didn’t see any advice on oven times or adopting the temperature settings in standard cookbooks.

Also, the recipes provided in the manual tend to be over the top – such as pizza made from scratch and "Asparagus and Leek Quiche with Gruyere." I suspect that the good folks are Cuisinart are trying mightily to show that their product is not just for cavemen who want to shove in a frozen pizza. The actual limitation, though, is not in the complexity of the recipe but in the size of the food item. You can't cook a anything more than 6 inches high – which rules out large roasts, turkey or all but the tiniest chickens – or more than 12 inches wide – ruling out a 14-inch pizza.

Cuisinart recommends using the oven for toasting – turning it into a glorified toaster oven. But I suspect this is simply another attempt to position the product. That said, this oven is really very useful to cook small items, and that fits me and my husband just right. In fact, I need to end this review because my husband is eagerly awaiting another batch of blueberry muffins. As you can see, this product has become something more than just a temporary replacement of our regular oven.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Everyone Brave is Forgiven
by Chris Cleave
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.29

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Everything will be restored. If one won't believe that, how does one endure all this?", January 17, 2016
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Chris Cleave had a fan for life when he wrote Little Bee, a book I thought was powerful and mesmerizing. But then he followed it with Gold, and appeared to be trading in his literary gifts in pursuit of a best seller. In his latest book – inspired by his grandparents’ role in the Second World War – he’s totally back in form with a book that kept me turning pages well into the night. It’s a labor of love and it shows.

The book centers on a few memorable characters: Mary North, the affluent daughter of a Parliament member who fervently wants to contribute to the war effort and does so by become a teacher. Tom is her boss and sweetheart; his flat-mate, Alistair, a restorer of art for The Tate, whom Mary meets later on, is overseas fighting for Mother England. Since most children have been evacuated in anticipation of the London blitz bombing, the only ones who remain are the “undesirables”, including Zachary, a young black boy and the son of an American minstrel show Interlocutor, and he quickly becomes one of Mary’s favorite students.

There is a gentleness and cleverness in the repertoire between and among these characters. Typically I’d take issue with every character being so bright and witty, yet here, it works beautifully. We come to truly care about each of these characters and his or her eventual fate, which offsets the horrors of the daily bombings of London.

It is a delight to see how the plot unfolds, yet there are also some weighty themes that are never too twee, ponderous, or pedantic. At one point, Mary says, “We are a nation of glorious cowards, ready to battle any evil but our own.” The quote is in response to a heinous situation: white children are evacuated to the countryside whereas "undesirable" children (including black children) are left behind in London. Even THAT is not enough; Zachary experiences much prejudice for the crime of being born black.

Another theme is the necessity of having enormous faith in life and each other during the worst of times. Chris Cleave powerfully shows the impact of war, both overseas and at home, and the unimaginable ways we struggle to stay alive and perhaps more importantly, keep hope alive. He has obviously done ample research, yet it never becomes obvious that this is a researched book. All characters struggle to be brave but there is no manual for what it means to be brave when civilization is on the brink and rules are thrown out the window. Morality no longer becomes a simple matter of black and white. As one character says, “Everything will be restored. If one won’t believe that, how does one endure all this?” . The forgiveness that the author alludes to in his title is most of all, self-forgiveness.

In his preface, the author writes “I hope that readers will see the book simply as the honest expression of wonder of a little man descended from titans, gazing up at the heights from which he has fallen.” As the world actors of World War II take their final bow, his humble tribute brought tears to my eyes.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 20, 2016 7:22 AM PST

Ginny Gall: A Novel
Ginny Gall: A Novel
by Charlie Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.64
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Slow Journey More Than A Destination, January 9, 2016
This review is from: Ginny Gall: A Novel (Hardcover)
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Ginny Gall is an Africa-American term for “the hell beyond hell, hell’s hell”, and indeed, it’s an apt description for the 1920s/1930s, when beatings, lynchings and firebombings were all too commonplace.

The book centers on Delvin Walker, the child of prostitute, who soon must find his own way in the world and ends up being schooled and apprenticed by the black owner of a funeral home. Gradually, he learns the realities of life: “Hurt and desolation, the crime of being black, the uselessness of fighting back, fear like a grime covering every surface, the tremors and quakes, a softness in the heart you couldn’t obliterate.”

Right from the start – when a very young Delvin becomes fascinated with some beads on a mannequin and is given a beating—racism is omnipresent. As Delvin grows and comes face-to-face with a world stacked against him, the devastation of America’s inherent racism becomes achingly apparent.

As someone who has long abhorred racism in America, I very much wanted to like this book. Charlie Smith writes lyrically and there are many passages that illustrate just why he is an esteemed writer. But despite myself, I kept coming back to a discussion I had with an African-American friend who is also a professor of literature. She questioned whether anyone who is black could truly channel the black experience.

I like to think the answer is “yes”. Yet I kept comparing Ginny Gall to the works of, say, James Baldwin or Richard Wright or Toni Morrison and somehow, the passion was lacking. Ginny Gall is a ruminative novel, one that lingers on the journey and that describes – in precise detail – the journey of Delvin. Yet too often, I felt that my head was engaged more than my heart. Perhaps the problem is my own expectations. I would urge other readers to reach their own conclusions.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 13, 2016 7:52 AM PST

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