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Alan A. Elsner "Alan Elsner, author" RSS Feed (Washington DC)
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Where Sea Meets Sky: A Novel
Where Sea Meets Sky: A Novel
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Awesome New Zealand scenery in this love story, April 17, 2015
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This book is a weird mixture of travelogue of New Zealand interspersed with sex scenes. It felt like reading a Fodor guide -- except every so often the characters would pause from climbing mountains, descending into caves to see fireflies, bathing in pristine fjords and admiring the awesome scenery to get physical.

The story wasn't much of a story. Gemma, a New Zealander, meets Josh, a Canadian wannabe graphic artist, at a party in Vancouver. She's on the last night of an extended tour of North America. They hook up, have mind-blowing sex -- and next day she flies home. Then Josh, who we are told has lovely tattoos all over his body, decides to follow her even though he doesn't have a contact address. But surprise surprise, they meet anyway.

Gemma is about to go on a trip around New Zealand with her American cousin and invites Josh to come along. Her boyfriend, a nasty Aussie ex-rubgy player, decides to come too. he rugby player is clearly not match for the compassionate, generous Josh - in fact he's a selfish, macho twit.The four of them go tooling around various beauty spots until the rugby player is eventually dumped and Gemma and Josh resume relations. But Gemma has ISSUES -- can she commit, can she trust? Blah blah blah.

While she's deciding, they climb a few more mountains, visit the family winery, swim with dolphins and penguins and make passionate love a few more times. Then, disaster! Time has run out. Josh must go home. He offers to stay but Gemma can't commit. All seems lost. We readers hold our breaths collectively while Gemma figures it out. After all, a sweet guy with that many tattoos only comes along once in life.

This book was certainly a wonderful advertisement for New Zealand. Josh seemed like an OK kind of guy but Gemma was just plain annoying. The sex was great for the characters but just so-so for the reader. Mark it down as average.


Bittersweet: A Novel
Bittersweet: A Novel
by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.45
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty good gothic mystery, April 15, 2015
This review is from: Bittersweet: A Novel (Hardcover)
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Mabel Dagmar is the gawky overweight daughter of a working class family from Oregon who finds herself sharing a college room with haughty blue-blood Genevra Winslow. We're not exactly sure when this story is happening. At some points, the narrator seems to be looking back some decades, at others it seems as if we're more or less in the present. This jumbled chronology adds to the dreamy, unrealistic atmosphere that surrounds the book at various points.

Mabel, a cygnet waiting to blossom into a swan given the right physical regime, is unexpectedly invited to spend the summer at the Winslow family compound, a collection of houses compromising almost a complete village somewhere on the Vermont shores of Lake Champlain, deep in mosquito-infected woods. Mabel desperately wants to belong to this family of assured elitists, having rejected and been rejected by her own family -- and also because she is concealing her own deep and dark secret which she alludes to every few pages but never explains in true Gothic style.

It's a common motif -- the poor outsider trying to win acceptance from a group of glamorous rich people who have effortless style and panache but turn out to be morally flawed and decadently corrupted. This book faithfully follows that formula.

As she is drawn into this family, Mabel becomes aware of a palpable dysfunction, a cold unease that seems to have infected all its members, none of whom is capable of telling the truth for more than a couple of seconds at a time. A cousin has committed suicide, a fortune has been mysteriously lost and made, a secret diary is discovered and needs to be decoded. Genevra, we learn, is conducting a secret love affair with one of the help and Mabel herself becomes emotionally entangled with one of her brothers, who may or may not be worthy of her love. The plot gets wackier and wackier and more and more unrealistic as revelation is piled upon revelation. The more we, and Mabel, think we know, the further we are from the truth, which we understand will eventually be revealed as being unspeakably evil.

For most of the book, the weirdness of the story doesn't matter. Every new disclosure unpeels another layer of onion skin. The reader wants to know the ultimate truth about this unpleasant clan. But toward the end, for me at least, the constant revelations eventually broke the spell. That essential suspension of disbelief was snapped. I began to ask questions. Why had this happened? Why was this happening? The explanations offered by the author through her narrator no longer seemed rational or convincing. And the final chapter wrapping it all up I found to be a total cop-out.

Still for much of its considerable length, this book is quite a page-turner. Mabel is not exactly a heroine one can fully embrace (her name in itself is a piece of gratuitous cruelty on the part of her creator). She's too needy - and her constant allusions to her own secret become annoying. But she is sufficiently resourceful and intelligent to identity with most of the time.

Final quibble: the title of the novel seems trite -- snatched from the romance genre - and really does not describe the book at all. More creativity would have certainly produced a better title.


The Dancer from Atlantis
The Dancer from Atlantis
Price: $3.70

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Leaden time travel story without any suspense, April 14, 2015
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A strange book about four people from randomly-chosen historical periods plucked out of time by some futuristic time traveling machine and cast together in ancient Greece on the eve of the great earthquake that destroyed the Minoan civilization. The premise sounds promising but the execution is so poorly imagined and executed that the book is really no fun to read. The characters have no life, there is little suspense and the author seems to imagine that four people thrust together from vastly different times and geographies would just get along like fellow passengers on a guided coach tour of Europe. Sorry, can't recommend this book.


The Bellwether Revivals: A Novel
The Bellwether Revivals: A Novel
by Benjamin Wood
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.29
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping novel about nature of sanity and insanity, April 10, 2015
This novel fits into but also expands what has become a genre, the coming-of-age Gothic sentimental education novel. In this genre, a small, close-knit group of young people, usually students, welcome a newcomer into their midst. The group is strange in some way, the newcomer "normal" or conventional. They don't quite fit into society and perhaps reject it as too boring and limiting. The newcomer wishes to fit into the group and become part of it because these young people have a mysterious allure; their strangeness and outsider nature gives them a sort of glamor - but the strangeness of the group is also dangerous. They feel themselves to be special and exceptional - but perhaps they are just spoiled, indulged, self-absorbed snobs who need a good dose of reality to bring them down to earth.

In this book, Oscar is a working class nursing aide employed in an old age facility in Cambridge, the location of one of Britain's elite universities, full of upper class toffs and intellectuals. He is part of the city, but not part of the university. He feels drawn to that world, but lacks an entry. One day, on his way home, he is drawn into the chapel at Kings College by the haunting sound of organ music. The musician is the strange Eden Bellwether and Oscar also meets his sister Iris, whom one imagines could grave a Neo-raphaelite portrait. Oscar and Iris become lovers but the charismatic, disturbed presence of Eden hangs over their relationship.

Eden believes his organ music can heal people - from flesh wounds, from advanced brain cancer -- even revive them from death. He is suffering, we learn, from some kind of borderline personality disorder, namely Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). But is this a real disease? Might Eden have true powers? What is his delusion if not hope, a delusion that grips us all as humans?

This book is superbly written and tremendously engrossing. The character of Eden is particularly well-drawn. He does not come off as one-dimensional and the writer even manages to convince us that he may well be the sanest character in the book - up to a point. He manages to infect us, his readers, with the same delusion as his central character . We begin to suspect that he really can perform miracles and we begin to hope that everything will somehow come out OK. And yet, we know that Eden is seriously disturbed and dangerous -- and we glimpse from time to time the real menace and evil that lurks within him.

Next to Eden, Iris and Oscar struggle a little to emerge as full-fleshed-out characters. Oscar is level-headed and basically decent; Iris is talented and sweet but has been exposed too long to her brother. A delicate and sweet love begins to blossom between these two - but can it flourish next to the malign influence of Eden? The other friends in the group never emerge as real characters. They are there to make up the numbers.

This book eventually does reach a shattering climax that one doesn't quite see coming -- and yet realizes is inevitable. A truly absorbing novel.


Elevating Overman: A Novel
Elevating Overman: A Novel
Price: $2.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tiresome slog through life of 55-year-old failure, April 8, 2015
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This overlong novel looks at the life of a 55-year-old car salesman, who is also a failed father and husband and harbors a horrible secret from his youth. After Lasik surgery, the aforesaid Ira Overman suddenly acquires new confidence - maybe even superpowers. He thrashes his friend at tennis without losing a point and seduces the sexy receptionist at the car dealership. How powerful is he? Can he turn his life around and perhaps do some good in the world?

Up to this point, the author had me. Perhaps, this would be an amusing book about how a middle-aged angst-filled Jew suddenly becomes a superhero and what he does with his powers. But the book takes several strange turns, loses momentum and coherence and becomes a slow slog. Ira decides he must right wrongs committed decades ago; he also rescues his friend's son from a cult, only for the friend and his son to make him the object of another cult. The novel becomes neither one things nor another. It is not amusing, neither is it a very deep exploration of any serious issues. It just becomes more and more words.

Pity, there could have been a novel here with some clear thinking and editing.


Retracing a Winter's Journey: Franz Schubert's "Winterreise"
Retracing a Winter's Journey: Franz Schubert's "Winterreise"
Price: $9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very technical, very deep analysis, not for general reader, April 6, 2015
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Even lovers of "Winterreise" who are quite obsessed by this cycle of 24 poems set to music by Schubert may find this guide heavy going. The author does an admirable job of describing the poems and explaining the background of how the song cycle came to be written. She then goes bar by bar almost through each of the 24 songs, examining how specific words are set to music, the many key changes, the amendments that the composer made and every other detail you may wish to know.

A score of the piece is definitely required to follow the argument.

This book really doesn't work well on the Kindle. It's awkward to page back to reread things that are relevant from previous chapters and the score extracts don't show up well.

This book is recommended for professional musicians, music majors and specialists in German poetry - in the paper version. It's not for the general reader or amateur lover of Schubert.


The Lone Wolf (The Lone Wolf Series Book 1)
The Lone Wolf (The Lone Wolf Series Book 1)
Price: $0.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Old-fashioned and not very exciting, March 26, 2015
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This book published in 1914 certainly tests the reader's vocabulary. Other than that, it is very old-fashioned and also contains some racist and anti-Semitic allusions that were perhaps perfectly acceptable then but are no longer.

The basic plot, mostly set in Paris, is about a master jewel thief, the eponymous Lone Wolf, who decides to go straight because he seeks the love of a young woman. But he is being chased and harried at every turn by an international syndicate of criminals who want to eliminate him because he won't join them. It's all a bit confusing but the author certainly knows his way around Paris and takes us on chases by foot and automobile street by street. There's also an interesting account of an early airplane ride which was not for the faint of heart.

There isn't much character development and one never gets very invested in the leading couple and their fate. If one counts the books that have remained in print and read from over a hundred years ago, it's hard to make a strong case for this one.

Now to the words I learned:

cicernone - a tourist guide;
valetudinarian - a person unduly anxious about their health;
louring - dark and threatening;
gasconade - extravagant boasting;
recrudescent - recurring;
coruscant - vibrating or glittering;
hypothecate - pledge by law to a specific purpose;
enceinte - an enclosing wall;
opalescent - showing many points of shifting color against a dark background.

These may show up in the National Spelling Bee some day - and if you read this book, you'll be prepared.


Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel (Jewish Lives)
Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel (Jewish Lives)
Price: $11.99

12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but ultimately unpersuasive look at influence of Judaism on Rothko, March 25, 2015
What is it that gives the paintings of Mark Rothko their tremendous power? Why do those squares of vibrating color, that seem to float in space, somehow liberated from their canvases, exert such fascination?

Of the depth of emotion they provoke, there can be no doubt. In the words of British art historian Simon Schama, who regards Rothko as the equal of Rembrandt or Turner, these paintings are “emotionally stirring and sensuously addictive, emanating an uncanny force field …”

Rothko’s development as an artist is the subject of this new study by Algerian-born French scholar Annie Cohen-Solal, which its publisher is promoting as “the only up-to-date biography of the artist available in English.”

Cohen-Solal puts forward an interesting hypothesis – that Rothko’s Jewish roots were central to his mature identity as an artist. “This complex relationship to the Talmud is in fact the key to understanding the life and work of Mark Rothko,” the author claims. Unfortunately, her argument is unpersuasive.

Markus Rotkovitz was born in the city of Dvinsk (now in Latvia) in 1903. His father , a free-spirited, pharmacist and voracious reader, had chosen secular schools for his first three children – but decided to send Markus to an orthodox Talmud-Torah. The author speculates that a wave of vicious anti-Semitic pogroms across the Pale of Settlement in 1905 lay behind this decision.

Marcus’ Jewish education did not last long. By 1913, the whole family had emigrated to America, settling in Portland, Oregon, and a year after that his father died. The only family member with a Jewish education, the young Markus dutifully recited the daily Kaddish -- until one day the 11-year-old decided that he would never set foot in the synagogue again. And from that point on, his relationship with formal Judaism was at an end.

It is ironic that this book is published by the Yale University Press in light of the miserable time the young Rothko endured at the Ivy League school from 1921-23. Rothko felt excluded by its WASPY elite and dropped out after two years. It was soon after this, in 1923, the author tells us, that Rothko suddenly decided to become an artist. “According to the legend, Marcus Rothkowitz discovered his calling by chance, or rather, by epiphany. One day in 1923, he visited a friend who studied figure drawing at the Art Students League. ‘It is the life for me,’ he said on the spot.”

There’s no further discussion in the book of this decisive moment – what led up to it, what provoked it, how it happened. To quote from the classic Western, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:’ “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Throughout this turgidly-written book, the author occasionally cherry picks facts to back up her thesis that Judaism and Talmud are central to Rothko. “A radical but disciplined scholar, using the rhetorical tools of the Talmud and its tradition of study, he engages in a series of challenging one-on-one conversations with an imposing list of the great names of the past,” she declares. In another passage, she argues, again without attribution, that Rothko’s artistic quest was a pursuit of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world.

In no sense is this book a true biography. For all the layers upon layers of details lavished on the circumstances of his birth and early childhood, the author skates over Rothko’s mature personal life. His last, unhappy years, when he fell into depression and heavy drinking and when his marriage fell apart, are dealt with in a couple of pages. His suicide is dispatched in a single sentence.

Ultimately, this book misses the main point about Rothko, drowning his vision in a welter of words. How did he achieve those shimmering panels of color? Quoting Schama again from his superb BBC documentary ‘The Power of Art,’ (available on YouTube): “It’s not what the colors are that make them work on our senses. It’s what they do. Colors in motion, they seem to breath and swell like sails catching the wind…beckoning you into some kind of deep, undefined, radiant yonder.”

A few hours pondering these powerful and mysterious expressions of wordless sensation may not explain Rothko any more than one can truly comprehend Bach or Shakespeare – but they do somehow, bring us closer to the basic emotions that define our humanity.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 27, 2015 8:52 PM PDT


December 6: A Novel
December 6: A Novel
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $7.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant thriller takes us to Tokyo on eve of Pearl Harbor, March 24, 2015
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This interesting and gripping novel is set in Tokyo on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The protagonist, Harry Niles, is the son of American missionaries who grew up in Japan and actually feels more Japanese than American - although he is a curious amalgam, really neither one nor the other. Like Rick in "Casablanca," he runs a nightclub and makes his living by gambling and putting together various semi-legal deals. Like Rick also, beneath the cynical exterior beats the heart of a sentimentalist.

The setting in a country devoted to the cult of the Emperor and militarism and informed by ugly racism is beautifully depicted. Through flashbacks, we see Harry's upbringing, neglect by his parents, abused by his Japanese classmates. Harry is a survivor - a chameleon in a country where his face immediately brands him as a gaijin or outsider. He trusts no-one and is trusted by no-one. He has ties through his childhood friends (or enemies) to the Navy, the intelligence service and the criminal underworld. But Harry is also a classic knight errant. He feels the war about to come and he ultimately knows which side he's on. And Harry knows, or at least strongly suspects, where and how the attack is coming.

This is a brilliant book. It looks at the other side of Pearl Harbor and makes us understand the various forces working within Japanese society -- and especially its military elite. There is a creepy samurai villain, an enigmatic heroine, and many other characters and sub-plots, all expertly woven into an exciting and interesting plot that is deeply satisfying.


Artful Dodger (Maggie Kean Misadventures Book 1)
Artful Dodger (Maggie Kean Misadventures Book 1)
Price: $3.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not very good, March 24, 2015
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Maggie Kean finds the body of her elderly neighbor, Elizabeth Boyer, blocking her septic tank at the beginning of this poorly-plotted book. Hunky detective Sam Villari shows up to investigate. He seems pretty incompetent and Maggie decides to look for the killer herself, which she proceeds to do in a completely haphazard and silly way. The two grandchildren of the deceased butt in as possible suspects. Maggie and Villari exchange some kisses, even though she thinks he suspects her as the killer -- and despite the fact that he smokes. The smooches with Mr Ashtray Mouth are pleasant for both parties and he invites her to meet his stereotypical Italian-American family. Mamma makes spaghetti and likes Maggie. Maggie likes spaghetti. Some more investigating happens and vague clues emerge. Threats are issued. More smooches. A climax of sorts happens. Someone or other is exposed as the killer and some kind of motive is offered. And then this entirely predictable and utterly absurd book ends and the scene is set for the next in the series. Hopefully the author will prosper and write another 60 books about the irrepressible Maggie. Her fans will rush to buy them for 99 cents apiece. Everyone will be happy. But for me, the series ends here with book one. Enjoy!


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