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Black Glass: Short Fictions
Black Glass: Short Fictions
by Karen Joy Fowler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.48

4.0 out of 5 stars A 5-star book...but is it a 5-star for ME?, May 26, 2015
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What do you do with a book when your head clashes with your heart? How do you possibly rate it?

That’s the dilemma I face with Black Glass. The collection has been dubbed “ferociously imaginative and provocative” and I absolutely agree. Karen Joy Fowler is a superb writer and her blending of magical-realist elements are innovative, erudite and risk-taking. I could not help but admire these stories – each and every one.

There are some, of course, that particularly shine. Lieserl, an epistolary story that focuses on Albert Einstein’s first daughter, is particularly well-written. It helps, though, to know the back-story of Einstein’s callous abnegation of responsibility for Liserl to truly appreciate what Ms. Fowler is accomplishing. Another strong story, The Faithful Companion at Forty, is a wickedly satirical piece about Tonto and his midlife meltdown and soul-searching about the Lone Ranger’s narcissism and disrespect (“For every day, for your ordinary life, a mask is only going to make you more obvious. There’s an element of exhibitionism in it.”)

Then there are others – the title story, by far the longest, when an introspective DEA agent summons a hatchet-wielding zombie, personified in the temperance crusader Carry Nation…and then is forced to combat her with voodoo. It’s daring, experimental, ferociously intelligent and, at times, downright hallucinatory. Then there’s The Elizabeth Complex, a clinical-study-of-sorts, integrating three Elizabeths into one: Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Taylor and Lizzie Borden.

So – Carry Nation, Queen Elizabeth, Tonto, Albert Einstein, Mrs. Gulliver, a Japanese Christ-like messiah – all of them and more in a collection that shimmers with craft, inventiveness and more than a touch of outrageousness. If I were a professional critic, that’s the recipe for a 5-star read. But I’m not, and reading is subjective. The magical and sci-fi elements made me gasp in admiration, but I can’t say that it got inside my heart. It’s sort of like standing in an elegant window and seeing a totally original dress…all the time knowing that it would be perfect for someone else, but it’s not really “speaking” to you. The fault, I’m afraid, is in this reader, not in the author. Black Glass is not for everyone but it’s certainly for those who seek an inspired narrative voice.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 27, 2015 7:14 AM PDT


DII Home Essentials Breathable Woven Paper Under the Bed or Closet Soft Storage, Sweater Size, Damask, Set of 2
DII Home Essentials Breathable Woven Paper Under the Bed or Closet Soft Storage, Sweater Size, Damask, Set of 2
Price: $11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Need organization? Here's your answer., May 25, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
First of all, this storage bag is far more attractive than the photo would indicate. The Damask print is subtle and understated, yet elegant. It folds down to next-to-nothing, but when it's expanded, there's more than enough space to take care of the clutter. I used one bag for all my scarves, and another for sweaters and tops that I wear infrequently but are not quite ready to part with. I then placed the bags on the top shelf of my closet and it all looks neat and organized. Although I haven't had these breathable woven paper bags very long, they do seem sturdy and durable and not easily ripped apart; time will tell if they truly do last. For this low price point, this purchase seems a no-brainer. I like these DII Home Essentials far more than similar bags I got at The Container Store for nearly double the price.


Circling the Sun: A Novel
Circling the Sun: A Novel
by Paula McLain
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.52

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Many Reinventions of Beryl Markham, May 24, 2015
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When I read The Paris Wife about Hadley Richardson Hemingway, I became convinced that Paula McLain had a gift for bringing her historical people to life. After reading Circling The Sun, I am sure of it.

Here she takes on the lesser known character in the Karen Blixen-Denys Fitch Hatton-Beryl Markham triangle. Thanks to the book and movie Out of Africa, Karen and Denys’s love affair became widely known. What was less known is that he equally loved Beryl, the self-sufficient and wild-spirited daughter of a failed racehorse trainer.

“Africa is the cure, then, the opposite of being boxed in. Has it ever failed you?” she asks Denys Fitch Hatton. His answer: “Never. It’s always new. It always seems to be reinventing itself, doesn’t it?”

Indeed, Africa does continually reinvent itself as does Beryl herself. Within these pages, we see her shift shapes from a daring young wild child to the youngest horse trainer (and one of the few female trainers) ever licensed, to the wife of a wealthy and well-positioned man, to the charmer of royalty to the aviator of a solo flight across the Atlantic. Whew! That’s more reinventions than the vast majority of individuals ever experience in a lifetime.

And yet. And yet. As Janis Joplin famously sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” At one pivotal soiree, one of the characters says, “It’s all just a little empty…I don’t understand that kind of sport.” Liberated from conventions and propriety, Beryl is untamable and often unlikable. The one constant is her self-absorption (e.g., her friendship with Karen Blixen and her betrayal of that friendship to pursue an affair with Fitch Haddon. Or her several marriages of convenience while loving the unattainable Denys.) Self-absorbed people can often be fun to be around…until they aren’t anymore.

Since the story is told in the first person, there is sometimes a lack of insight in her telling – never more so than when Beryl marries Mansfield Markham. Almost overnight, her third husband shifts from adoration to frustration and disgust. Over and over, men seemed to fall for her quickly and just as quickly, burn out.

Paula McLain writes beautifully and Africa comes alive under her craftsmanship. It was easy to close my eyes and believe I was right there in the “Great Gatsby” era of Kenya. I liked it but maybe not quite as much as I hoped to.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 25, 2015 6:28 AM PDT


A Cure for Suicide: A Novel
A Cure for Suicide: A Novel
by Jesse Ball
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "We can provide you with an unspecific life.", May 17, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
About halfway through Jesse Ball’s latest work of experimental fiction, his character says this: “You must listen to stories not to understand, but merely to be human.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to totally understand what’s going on in this peculiar yet strangely enticing novel with its Orwellian undertones. We do know this: an unnamed man – called Claimant – awakes in a place called “Gentlest Village”, where he is isolated with a woman called “Examiner”, whose sole mission is to teach him about the fundamentals of living. Eventually, both take on false names as he learns to “engage with the cacophony of objects.” They then move on to the next village in the chain, a village that’s remarkably similar yet just a bit different…and the process begins again.

The prose itself mimics the progression of the story. For the first 158 pages, the content is deceptively spare and very exacting, with ample white space. Then everything changes suddenly in the chapter entitled “A Place You Go Last” – 50 pages of dense, unbroken type in a breathless and heady style, reaching a crescendo. It almost reads like a musical composition-of-sorts.

So what is it all about? Certainly, it’s about the nature of self and identity and our place in the flow of life. It’s also about memory: “We think of memory as a redeeming thing. We built monuments that appear to be monuments to this person or that person or this struggle or that, but really, do you know what they are? They are monuments to memory itself.” Who are we, indeed, when memories are stolen from us or recreated...or entirely erased? What happens when free-will and individuality are taken from us to save us from ourselves? When the Claimant says, “..I think we are all alike,” the Examiner answers, “We may be. But feeling we might be – that is what is most important.”

Does it all succeed? My answer is “yes.” And “no.” By using the criterion from my first paragraph, it DOES succeed. The book is thoughtfully written and downright haunting; it does help us readers “to be human”. The dense type section does not bring with it the payoff I was hoping for, which was simply this: who was the Claimant before (hints are given, but not nearly enough to satisfy me as a reader). I recommend the book for readers who enjoy a challenging read from a writer in command of his material.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 18, 2015 10:50 AM PDT


Lovers on All Saints' Day: Stories
Lovers on All Saints' Day: Stories
by Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.48

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Every man is an island, May 15, 2015
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These stories are not new; they were first published in Spanish over 14 years ago. Their themes, however, are ageless: mostly flawed men at their middle point of life who, for have reached crisis points in their relationships and indeed, in their lives.

Set primarily in France and Belgium, some are more compelling than others. In the eponymous story (slightly retitled: The All Saints’ Day Lovers), the timing itself is fortuitous; a night when the curtain that separated this world from the other was torn.” As the narrator’s marriage teeters, he is compelled to spend the night with a grieving widow, taking her dead husband’s place and even wearing his pajamas. “Nobody wants nights like these,” he later says. But there’s a suggestion that we’re all together…alone.

In another, At The Café of the Republique, the narrator – a man losing his anonymity as a potentially cancerous growth takes over his neck – uses his struggle to convince his abandoned wife to get together one more time to visit his estranged father. We witness the push-pull of his desire for two mutually exclusive goals.

The shortest and most unusual of the collection – The Return – is the only story which pairs two sisters, one of whom killed the other’s fiancée (as well as her chance for future happiness) for love of a house. We follow the jailed sister, devoid of emotion, until we learn the very unusual revenge her sister has wrought.

I am a fan of Juan Gabriel Vasquez; his novel “Sound of All Things Falling” is magnificent. And although is craftsmanship is in full display here, I couldn’t help but feel distanced. The somberness – the similarity of narrators living in the twilight of their relationships and the pessimism of their condition as they seek to conserve their independence – seemed too unremittingly dark. I admired the writing and the ability of Mr. Vasquez to capture a scene or an emotion with a few well- chosen phrases…but that admiration never rose to the level of love.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 18, 2015 9:28 AM PDT


We Are Called to Rise: A Novel
We Are Called to Rise: A Novel
by Laura McBride
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.24
105 used & new from $2.96

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Different Strokes, May 14, 2015
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We Are Called To Rise is a popular book and with good reason. The characters are compelling: an immigrant boy, a betrayed housewife with the world of worries on her shoulders, a wounded vet, a court-appointed children's advocate. The writing is strong and compelling and the theme is nothing less than the failure of the American Dream.

It reminds me somewhat of the movie Crash -- the intersection of unrelated lives and how that coming-together reveals something bigger and greater. Yet I couldn't help but feel that the book was an amalgamation of hot-button issues: immigration, poverty, PTSD, divorce, domestic abuse, tempting superficiality, the underbelly of society. Despite some very fine writing, I couldn't help but feel as if I were being led by the author. The book, filled with "how would I react?" questions, would, I think, be a great choice for book clubs. I'm not sure that it made a great choice for this particular reader, but that's just ME.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 14, 2015 7:56 AM PDT


Where Women Are Kings
Where Women Are Kings
by Christie Watson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.56
72 used & new from $0.63

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When Love Must Combat Wizards, May 12, 2015
This review is from: Where Women Are Kings (Paperback)
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Here in America, wizards are perceived as wonderful and wise. Perhaps the most famous wizard of all – the Wizard of Oz – famously said, “I know I have a heart because I feel it breaking.”

Well, my heart was breaking the entire time I was reading this haunting book. Elijah, a Nigerian boy, believes he is possessed of a different kind of wizard – the receptor of an evil power that lives within him. Wrested from his mentally ill mother, Elijah is cast into a variety of foster homes before finding his “forever” home with Obi, a man who shares Elijah’s Nigerian heritage, and his Caucasian wife Nikki who is eager for motherhood.

Both Obi and Nikki have chosen to give back in their professions although having a birth child has eluded them. They know that Elijah has been traumatized and needs special care and attention, and their hearts are big enough to accept the challenge. But they are not adequately prepared for just how wrenching these challenges become.

Christie Watson does not shy from painful issues: child torture, pernicious “faith”, alien belief systems, the difficulty of rehabilitating a loving child who believes he’s at fault. The characters – particularly Elijah himself – are totally believable and the narrative builds a momentum that makes it unputdownable.

That being said, this is not a perfect book. The narrative alternates between Nikki and Obi’s story and Deborah (the birth mother’s) story. Deborah’s chapters should have been written in third person; I did not totally believe her voice and from time to time, she seemed to be channeling the author itself in educating the reader on Nigerian ways. The foreshadowing at the end became quite transparent and leading. From time to time, I could tell precisely what Christie Watson wanted me to take away from certain passages.

That being said, I read the first 150 pages at one clip, unable to tear my eyes from the page. And far more than once, I wanted to reach into the book and comfort this little boy who wanted nothing but to be loved. 4.5, rounded up.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 17, 2015 7:43 AM PDT


H is for Hawk
H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.77
75 used & new from $13.62

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Soaring with wonder, May 11, 2015
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This review is from: H is for Hawk (Hardcover)
When a friend extolled the virtues of H is for Hawk, nothing about it sounded particularly appealing. Falconry? To me, the subject is a big yawn. T.H. White? Certainly T.H. White is a brilliant author, but Arthurian legend The Once and Future King is not the kind of book I gravitate to. So why, then, am I so sure that H is for Hawk will not only land on my list of the best books I read this year, but also take its place as one of the finest contemporary books I’ve read, period?

For me, the answer is that the finest books have always taught us what it means to be human. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald discovers that “you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it means to be not.”

But let me backtrack. Helen Macdonald – a naturalist, historian, poet, illustrator – enjoys a very close relationship with her photographer father, who dies prematurely and unexpectedly in 2007. Engulfed by grief, she retreats from the world, taking on a monumental task: training a goshawk, where she is compelled to spend every waking second in a “delicate, reflexive dance of manners.” Here is her description of her goshawk, named Mabel: “The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel.”

Indeed, the polymath that Helen Macdonald is – an observant naturalist combined with a lyrical poet – pervade this description and many others. Gradually, Ms. Macdonald colors in the personality of Mabel without ever depriving her of her natural savagery. Take this: “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all. The hawk in flight, me running after her, the land and the air a pattern of deep and curving detail, sufficient to block out anything like the past or the future, so that the only thing that mattered were the next thirty seconds.”

This alone would propel H is for Hawk to the very top of my list. But there’s more. Ms. Macdonald also weaves in “The Goshawk” by T.H. White, a man who is revealed to be a damaged outcast, and a secret sadist who is consistently fighting his basest instincts. Both T.H. White and Helen Macdonald fight demons – his are abuse and his gender orientation; hers is her oppressive grief. Yet a hawk helps each of them take wing.

Helen Macdonald performs a magical feat, immersing the reader in a claustrophobic location where nothing exists but the reader, the author, and the hawk. Often, I found myself near tears without quite knowing why. The journey of Helen and the hawk – solitary, self-possessed, free from human emotion, untouched by loss – is one that will remain with me for a long time.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 12, 2015 5:15 AM PDT


Apex 8550-50' Flex Alloy Garden Hose, 5/8" by 50'
Apex 8550-50' Flex Alloy Garden Hose, 5/8" by 50'
Price: $37.65
14 used & new from $27.89

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very durable but..., May 11, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
In the past, I've had problems with low-quality hoses getting brittle and springing a leak,which can happen over a hard winter. So when I read that the Apex 8550-50' Flex Alloy Garden Hose was much more durable than other hoses. I was instantly impressed by the tough-looking outer skin and the heavy spring at the end that fits onto the faucet. However, I did notice a problem when I screwed the end into my outdoor faucet. It dripped a little, and the dripping didn’t stop even when I tried tightening the connection. This could probably be fixed by placing a rubber gasket inside the connection, but I haven’t tried that yet.

The real test, of course, will be to for this hose to get stomped on over the summer months and then go through one of our deep-freeze Chicago winters (that humans can barely endure, let alone hoses!) So let’s just say this jury is still out.


The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
by Anna North
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.36
57 used & new from $6.48

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unknowable Woman, May 7, 2015
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The title of this book – The Life and Death of Sophie Stark – implies that Sophie is the main focus of this nuanced and engrossing book.

But is she? Or is the key focus really about those whose Sophie’s life has touched – her love interest, brother, husband, producer and others – and how this accomplished avant-garde filmmaker revealed them for who they really are?

I would argue that the latter interpretation makes the most sense, and here, to me, lies the brilliance of the book. We learn about Sophie through a chorus of voices who confess their impressions of Sophie. Sophie herself never speaks; she remains a cipher, someone whose reality is only defined by others.

We know this: she is quirky, enormously talented, straightforward, lost, and totally committed to honesty in her art. Even her name is not her own; it is taken from a photo she particularly admired. The voices that describe her are often indistinguishable; I believe, with reason. Although we learn a little more about Sophie from each one, the portrait of Sophie that emerges remains – in many ways – constant. In the most important way, Sophie is defined by the stories others tell of her. As Sophie herself says (as related by one narrator): What is famous? “It’s like having everyone mispronounce your name every day…And after a while, you start to wonder if you even have a name. Are you even a person? Do you even exist?”

Great insight, but far more intriguing is how the interactions with Sophie become transformative. Sophie represents “truth” – that nagging feeling that there is something deep within you that is holding you back that you haven’t addressed. Each narrator is damaged in his or her own way, and each one uses Sophie, as a catalyst of sorts, to become more authentic or to overcome an obstacle that stands in the way. “Sometimes the sick part of me just seems like the truest part,” one narrator admits to Sophie. This novel speaks of what connects the characters – and ultimately us – to those hard-to-confront truths.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 14, 2015 5:40 AM PDT


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