Thursday, July 15, 2010

Library Day

"Poppleton took library day very seriously." --Cynthia Rylant.

Poppleton's library day was Monday.  Ours is Thursday.  Ruth Keeler Memorial stays open until 7PM so it gives me a couple of hours after I quit working at 5.  Sometimes Julie comes; always AJ comes.  I browse the stacks while he plays with the puppets in the children's room.  Then I tell him it's time to check out and he picks 2 DVDs and I browse the kid shelves for anything that might look good for bedtime reading.

Summertime has the additional joy of being able to stop by Country Farmer or Outhouse Orchards on the way home to see if there's anything yummy.  So tonight there will be corn on the cob, tomato and mozzarella salad, boiled red and blue potatoes, and a spot of cole slaw.  Then I will look at the books I brought home and decide what to read first.

I brought home:

Holy Man's Journey by Susan Trott

The Little Book: A Novel by Selden Edwards (it's not a little book in the spirit of my last post which kind of disappointed me but oh well)

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Jewels: A Secret History by Victoria Finlay

Paris from the Ground Up by James H. S. McGregor

Monday, July 12, 2010

How do you have time to read? Read a little book.

I don't watch TV.  Yeah, I said it.  TV doesn't appeal to me much so most nights you can find me with my nose in a book.  After starting this blog you'll probably find me with my nose in the laptop, but anyway....

I often think I'd like to be held hostage in a library.  Most of the books you'll find here are not the latest best-sellers.  I figure everyone is reading those.  I do check the "new fiction" section of the library but what I really love to do is trawl the stacks looking for treasure.  Plus, a stack book can be checked out for three weeks instead of just one.  My library late fine rap sheet is something to be discussed on another post.

And so to start the blog off, I give you a list of little books.

By "little" I mean at my last trip to North Salem Library, I searched the stacks looking for books that were little.  Short.  Diminutive.  I think it's an interesting publishing decision to print and bind a book that's small (and maybe somebody in the business can comment on that?).  Their smallness gives them presence on the shelf.  They are charming before you open a page.  They fit well in a purse.  They are not intimidating.  They make you think, "I have time for this."

They are:

Lilyand Looking After Lily by Cindy Bonner
The cover illustration drew me in to this wild west love story, and I confess I'm a sucker for cowboys.  Based on true events surrounding a vigilante posse that went after a band of outlaw brothers in post Civil War Texas, "Lily" introduces us to the motherless Lily DeLony.  Living on her father's farm and raising her younger brothers and sisters, she herself has been raised to be god-fearing and good.  But she is inexplicably and irrevocably drawn to Marion "Shot" Beatty, one of the infamous Beatty brothers whose misdeeds of robbery and even murder are well-known but never proven.  Lily tells her side of the story at a Christmas Eve shoot-out that sends her running from her family and into Shot's world with a pistol in her skirt pocket, never looking back.  "Looking After Lily" continues the story, this time from the point of view of Shot's younger brother Haywood.  Just twenty years old, Haywood is charged with looking after the now-pregnant Lily while Shot serves hard time in jail.  The two make an unlikely but resilient pair of survivors as time after time Haywood tries to settle Lily and go out on his own adventure, but his misadventures bring him time after time back to Lily and the promise he made to Shot.  In the end the brother- and sister-in-law find a place to settle together and wait for Shot and it's then that Haywood faces the fact that he has grown to love the courageous Lily.

Elementals: Stories of Fire and Iceand The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Storiesby A. S. Byatt
I got hooked on A.S. Byatt with her novel The Children's Book, but fell in love with these two little books of her short stories.  Or rather I should say they are intelligent fairy tales for adults.  They are full of her gorgeous language and imagery.  "Cold" in Elementals was by far my favorite:  a tale of an ice princess who falls in love with a prince of the desert, an inventor and genius glass-blower.  She leaves the environment in which she flourishes and travels to her husband's land where she wilts in despair.  But her husband designs a new palace for her, in essence creating ice with the power of fire.  The title story in "Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye" gives a modern look at the three wishes bestowed on a British woman by a genie (djinn) in a bottle of Turkish nightingale glass.

The Holy Man by Susan Trott
Insomnia can take credit for this little book by Susan Trott which Kirkus Reviews calls "gently profound."  Instead of counting sheep, Trott counted pilgrims on their way to visit a renowned Holy Man who lives in a hermitage in a place never really identified although the Tibetan mountains come to mind.  It hardly matters.  In thirty-four lovely chapters we meet the Holy Man, his fellow monks at the hermitage, and the pilgrims who line up every day for a chance to see him.  Each interaction between pilgrim and Holy Man is witty, human, charming and yes, gently profound.  And I was happy to find out that this is actually the first book in a trilogy, to be followed by The Holy Man's Journey and The Holy Woman.

The Mirror by Lynn Freed
Agnes LaGrange gives today's modern woman a run for her money.  In 1920 she flees an unpromising future and arrives in Durban, South Africa to be housekeeper to a gentleman she refers to as "the Old Jew."  He presents her with a mirror, along with his advances, and regarding their reflections in the mirror she falls in love with the power of her own beauty.  Armed with ambition and no thought for social mores of the day, she rises from housekeeper to hotel owner, acquiring property and wealth and a string of lovers.  Freed paints a portrait of a not exactly likable character, but as a woman of her day refusing to be dependent on a man for her happiness and self-worth, Agnes deserves admiration.

Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 5, December 1998

Cupid & Diana, by Christina Bartolomeo
Diana Campanella, a decidedly '90s woman with a penchant for early-'50s fashion, can't help but wonder if there isn't more to life. True, making the switch from her dull government job to ownership of a vintage clothing shop has been a personal victory. But the shop is about to go the way of the corset, and Diana's bank balance is dangerously low. Meanwhile, acting as referee between her head-butting sisters (a professional lingerie model in one corner, a perfect Catholic housewife in the other) is intolerable at best. And lawyer-fiancé Philip--handsome, well-dressed, a veritable Clark Kent with a bankroll--provides Diana with stability, security, and a notable shortage of profound passion.

Enter one Harry Sandburg, a displaced New York lawyer with a five o'clock shadow and a rumpled suit to match: "He had the sort of sweet and sad smile some Jewish guys have. It radiated a wry self-deprecation in which there was nothing humble or cringing." Harry is witty, wise, and utterly endearing. To make matters worse, their fervent lovemaking is enough to peel paint from the walls--a fact Diana learns one sweltering evening after a little too much Chianti and meatballs. Profound passion? Yes. But Harry's staying power is questionable, and Diana isn't getting any younger. Amidst mounds of manicotti and family feuds, vintage Roxbury suits and dreary Washington, D.C., political events, Diana struggles to choose between what she should do and what she truly wants. Funny, warm, sophisticated, and intelligent, Bartolomeo's debut is a keen romantic comedy packed with both fictional and fashionable delights.

A Cup of Tea, by Amy Ephron
Ephron's tragic little novel is an elaboration of the Katherine Mansfield short story of the same title. The setting is New York during the first year of U.S. involvement in World War I. Rosemary Fell is a pampered and protected young lady, engaged to marry the ever-so-suitable Philip Alsop. One day, Rosemary comes upon a young woman who has obviously fallen on hard times. Out of a sense of noblesse oblige, Rosemary invites this person--Eleanor Smith--home for a cup of tea. Philip happens to drop by, and a shared glance between him and Eleanor sparks what later flames into an affair. Philip enlists, and his orders to embark for overseas mean that his marriage to Rosemary has to be moved up, but his departure for Europe leaves behind a pregnant Eleanor. Despite being thought killed in battlefield skirmishes, Philip returns home to New York, but no happy ending is to be had. In fact, the under-developed ending left me a little flat.

Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian
From the day back in the '60s when Sibyl Danforth stepped forward in an emergency to help a pregnant friend give birth, she fell in love with the birthing process and dedicated herself to a calling as a lay midwife in rural Vermont. But as her obstetrician daughter, Connie, points out, Sibyl never bothered to obtain certification from the American College of Nurse-Midwives. Still, neighbors who wanted to have their babies at home felt comfortable calling on her. Among Sibyl's patients in 1981, the year Connie turned 14, was a minister's wife named Charlotte Bedford, a fragile woman whose incredibly difficult labor led to a stroke and what appeared to be Charlotte's death. Prevented by a heavy snowstorm from getting Charlotte to a hospital, Sibyl frantically tried to save the baby's life by performing an emergency cesarean on the presumably dead woman. Only after Charlotte is carted away does the question arise: Was the woman actually dead when Sibyl cut her open?

Narrating this superb book, Connie re-creates that terrible year when the state's attorney, Charlotte Bedford's family, the local medical community, and even members of the Danforths' small hometown seemed to conspire to put not just Sibyl but the entire practice of home birthing on trial. Connie, fearing witch-huntstyle reprisals, eventually broke the law to protect her beloved mother's freedom. But the question remains: Did Sibyl kill Charlotte for the sake of her baby? 

A fantastic and informative read.  The courtroom action was tight and suspenseful, but the moments of quieter, “human” action were just as compelling.  I couldn’t put it down.

The Lazarus Child, by Robert Mawson
On her way to school, Jack and Alison Heywood's seven-year-old daughter, Frankie, is hit by a truck and sent into a deep coma. Her 12-year-old brother, Ben, who witnessed the accident, is so traumatized that his hair turns white and he becomes nearly catatonic. The medical establishment offers the Heywoods no hope of a cure for Frankie and little help for Ben, whose guilt prompts him to attempt suicide

In desperation, Alison turns to Dr. Elizabeth Chase, a genius neurologist who operates a highly experimental clinic for coma victims in Virginia. Chase, whose own brother died in a coma, is intrigued by Ben's apparent knowledge of what Frankie is experiencing while she is unconscious.  His reports that she is fully active in a beautiful world we can't see, tally with Chases suspicions that her coma patients communicate with each other in some sort of “joint plane of awareness”.  Welcoming the Heywoods to her clinic despite increasingly threatening attacks by fanatics, the Defense Department, and the local D.A., she urges Ben into her world of the collective unconscious to find and rescue his sister. In the end, Chase must join her young hero in this video-gamelike universe where archetypal characters offer vital provisions and “magic” tokens to help seekers.

It was a good read, an interesting concept - I liked it, but there were times when just too much was going on.  The strained marriage of Jack and Alison; Ben’s trauma; Dr. Chase’s motivations; the dream-sequence narratives of Frankie’s experience; sub-plot layered upon sub-plot until the sandwich was just too big to get your teeth into.  I’d rather Mawson had picked one or two of the ideas and developed it fully. The ending was kind of vague.  Still, an enjoyable read.

Miriam’s Kitchen, by Elizabeth Ehrlich
An assimilated Jewish woman’s attempt to embrace the religioius traditions of her ancestors results in this beautiful book. The memoir traces the deepening relationship between Ehrlich and her mother-in-law, Miriam, as well as Ehrlich's memories of her fiercely left-wing family in the inner city of Detroit. Both families celebrate their Judaism through food, drink, ritual, prayer and family ties. Ehrlich's views on Judaism shift as she travels the road to middle age, first as a young girl, then as a young adult, next as a new wife and, finally, as the mother of three young children. Along the way she explores such complexities as Miriam's memories of the Holocaust and her native Poland, the challenges of managing a kosher home, and the joys and regrets of interfaith unions.

Rich with love, lore, memories, cooking tips and recipes.  Outstanding.  My favorite.

Land Girls, by Angela Huth
During World War II, young English women left the cozy world of traditional female jobs for exhausting agricultural labor so that male farm workers could take up arms. Agatha, Stella, and Prue are from distinctly different backgrounds and social classes, but genuine patriotism for their country binds them together. Pushed beyond their imagined limits, they all achieve what their culture has denied them as women: adventure, physical challenge, and personal growth. As ordinary citizens fighting for their country the best way they can, they transform themselves into women of honor, courage, and stature, proving themselves more noble than the highest generals.

With her attention to physical detail and human emotion, Huth manages to make the mundane, day-to-day lives of the Land Girls interesting.  It’s a quiet book; the action doesn’t jump out and scream at you, the war is far away, the joy is in the characters.

Wives of the Fishermen, by Angela Huth
Anatomy of a friendship.  Myrtle Duns, harbors a loving heart, a forgiving disposition, and a keen mind.  She and Annie Macleoud have been friends ever since kindergarten, but while Myrtle is steady, beautiful Annie is selfish, frivolous, and notoriously flirtatious.  Despite their differences, though, the two are close and loyal friends: Myrtle appreciates Annie's exuberance that lightens even the darkest of days, and Annie relies on Myrtle's good sense. Now married, like all the village women, the two women face the fear of death daily as they play cards and drink tea while their men are away fishing.

As she waits for husband Archie's return, Myrtle recalls the best and worst moments of their friendship: their joyous childhood pranks and the hurt when she learned that Ken Macleoud, the boy she yearned for, was in love with Annie. Later, Myrtle married Archie, a man every bit as good as she, and Annie, jealous, shortly married Ken, whom she didn’t love, and had a daughter, Janice, a girl the childless Myrtle loves as her own.

After Archie's death in an accident at sea, for which Ken and Annie are indirectly responsible, the friendship begins to fray. Myrtle forgives Ken and Annie, but Annie's subsequent behavior, her confessions of long-concealed envy, and her vituperative accusations are no help.  Finally, the closeness ends when Myrtle glimpses the 14-year-old Janice trying to seduce the man Myrtle’s just beginning to love. Virtue, though, does indeed have its own reward as a new love and life await Myrtle.

The Inn at Lake Devine, by Elinor Lipman
In the early 1960s, a Massachusetts family suffers a polite awakening. Inquiring about summer openings at a Vermont inn, the Marxes receive a killingly civil response, which ends, "Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles." Apparently the Marxes are not quite as ideally average as they thought, at least on the basis of their surname.

Natalie, the youngest Marx daughter, will literally spend years responding to this rebuff.  At first she taunts the innkeeper, Ingrid Berry, by phone and mail, stressing by exaggeration that a system which welcomes WASP wife-murderers but not famed convert Elizabeth Taylor is both unfair and inane.

The next summer Natalie manages to engineer an invite to Lake Devine, coming in on the coattails of Robin Fife, a good-natured, none-too-swift fellow camper whose family are regulars at The House of Devine.  By the end of her stay, Natalie is fed up with the Fifes' relentless good will and Mrs. Berry's covert ill will.  All in all, she is relieved to return to firm social ground, and doesn't devote much thought to her "Gentile ambitions" for the next 10 years.

A letter about a camp reunion, however, brings Robin back into the picture, and Natalie is again invited to Lake Devine--this time for her campmate's marriage to the eldest Berry son.  There the unexpected happens, in the form of a horrible accident, and also in the form of love, as the younger Berry brother, Kris, and Natalie lock eyes and hearts.

A really nice, light read wrapped around social commentary, personal identity, and food.

Lost in Translation, by Nicole Mones
Alice Monnegan moved to China after college, and now, known as Mo Ai-Li, makes her living as a translator for visiting businessmen and other Americans.  At 36, Alice is still unable to forgive her politician father for breaking up her only serious romance, a decade before, with a Chinese student.  She often picks up Chinese men for one-night stands, as if to defy her father's racist beliefs, but in truth, Alice is devoutly enamored of all things Chinese.

Alice's life begins to change when she gets a job helping an American professor search for the whereabouts of a great archaeological treasure: the bones of prehistoric Peking man, which disappeared following World War II.  As Americans and Chinese scientists travel to northwest China, where the remains were last seen, Alice falls in love with one of the Chinese members of the team. Alice realizes that she must accept her past and who she really is in order to come to terms with both her father and the man she loves.

The key to the novel's success is Mones's in-depth knowledge of China's culture, history, and politics. The question of cultural identity is at the core of her tale, and she skillfully weaves various aspects of Chinese life -- from ancestor worship to the Cultural Revolution -- into the personal relationships of her characters.  By novel's end, readers have discovered a great deal about archeology, China, and most especially about the unmapped territories of memory, desire, and identity.  Very entertaining and interesting.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler
In 1496, Jews living in Portugal were dragged to the baptism font and forced to convert to Christianity.  Many of these "New Christians," in secret and at great risk, persevered in their rituals, and the hidden, arcane practices of the kabbalists, a mystical sect of Jews, continued as well.

One such secret Jew was Berekiah Zarco, an intelligent young manuscript illuminator. Inflamed by love and revenge, he searches, in the crucible of the raging pogrom, for the killer of his beloved uncle Abraham, a renowned kabbalist discovered murdered in a hidden synagogue, along with a young girl in deshabille.

Risking his life in streets seething with mayhem, Berekiah tracks down answers among Christians, New Christians, Jews, and the fellow kabbalists of his uncle, whose secret language and codes both light and obscure the way to the truth he seeks.

A Song for Summer, by Eva Ibbotson
Ellen is a mystery to her family. Her mother and the aunts who helped raise her were all militant suffragettes and are now part of the Bloomsbury intelligentsia, while Ellen would much rather pursue the domestic arts and follow in the footsteps of her grandfather's Austrian mistress and housekeeper. In the spring of 1937, Ellen does so, traveling to Austria to become a housemother in an eccentric boarding school that specializes in the arts and serves as a haven for adults and children who have nowhere else to go.

Under Ellen's gentle, resourceful care, Hallendorf School begins to function with Victorian efficiency; even the once-atheist children start attending church. Meanwhile, sensible Ellen is thrown among a quirky mix of instructors: a Russian ballerina, a hysteric metalworks teacher, and an overly emotive drama coach. None of the staff, however, is as intriguing as the mysterious groundsman, Marek, who turns out to be a prominent Czech composer hiding incognito at the school to better facilitate the rescue of a Jewish friend from a concentration camp. Ellen and Marek's acquaintance grows into a deep friendship and then love, and an engagement ensues, taking the two to Marek's vast country estate. The Nazis, though, take revenge on Marek for helping with the escape of his friend, and mayhem breaks loose. Marek is believed lost, Ellen returns to London to marry an old admirer, and many of the Hallendorf children seek refuge at the Carr residence.

Will the two lovers reunite? Will the Allies win the war? A happy ending is, of course, guaranteed.  Fluff, but high-quality fluff.

Saturday, August 1, 1998

Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 4, August 1998

Magic, Merriment, Macabre and the Mediterranean


Under a Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, by Frances Mayes
Reviews have ranged from “A beautiful book overflowing with luscious imagery and warmth” to “Slightly over rated!”  From “Lazy, hazy, yummy read” to “Whiny and obnoxious - Martha Stewart in Tuscany.”  I loved it, but then again, I’m the type to take comparisons to Martha Stewart as a compliment.

In the same armchair-travel spirit as Year in Provence, only set in the Tuscan countryside of northern Italy, we follow Frances and her companion, Ed, as they purchase an old Italian farmhouse and renovate it to within an inch of their lives.

Frances Mayes reveals the sensual pleasure she found living in rural Italy, and the generous spirit she brought with her. She revels in the sunlight and the color, the long view of her valley, the warm homey architecture, the languor of the slow paced days, the vigor of working her garden, and the intimacy of her dealings with the locals. Cooking, gardening, tiling and painting are never chores, but skills to be learned, arts to be practiced, and above all to be enjoyed.

I loved it because a life like this is one I often envision for myself.  The slower pace, the simpler needs, and a culture that places so much emphasis on food and friendship and entertainment appeals to me.  The difference between Tuscan Sun and Year in Provence is that in Provence, I felt that obtaining such a life was possible.  There was no question in Tuscan Sun that Mayes had a lot of money to burn.

But one can dream…

The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Armin
Enchanted April is a book (or movie!) for anyone who feels stiff, unloved, or used up - a restful, funny, sumptuous, and invigorating vacation for the mind and soul. It begins one cold, rainy February afternoon soon after the end of World War I when Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Wilkins come across an advertisement for a villa in Italy to rent for the month of April. Mrs. Arbuthnot, with the "face of a patient and disappointed Madonna," and Mrs. Wilkins, "her clothes infested by thrift," barely know each other, yet the fantasy of a wisteria-covered Italian villa sparks something in each and brings them together. They raid their meager nest eggs, find two more women - the formidable Mrs. Fisher and the unspeakably lovely but bored Lady Caroline Dester - to help defray costs, and set off for their dream of sunshine and beauty.

At San Salvatore, remarkable changes occur. Mrs. Wilkins becomes Lotty - intuitive, sensual, self-confident; Mrs. Arbuthnot loses her religious self-righteousness. Lady Caroline finds herself with "that really rather disgusting suspicion that her life till now had not only been loud but empty," while Mrs. Fisher starts to feel a "very odd and exciting sensation of going to come out all over buds."

Elizabeth von Armin portrays these transformations in wickedly dry British humor interwoven with descriptions of the lush, soul-stirring terrain of San Salvatore. The effect is refreshing, charming, and romantic


Blood Dance, by James William Brown
Brown takes a Greek island so small that it's ignored by all during WW II and makes it the setting not only for a story of passion, the past, and the invincible grip that a small community has on the individual, but a place where pagan beliefs still survive. The story is told from three different voices, beginning and ending with a commentary from the Women and Men, respectively. Like a traditional Greek chorus, they set the scene, hint at what's to come, and provide the concluding wrap-up.

Another voice is that of Katina, a refugee from Turkish oppression who came to the island as an archeologist and stayed to marry Grigoris, the last of a noble family. She describes her life as a young wife, widow, and mother of the beautiful and independent Amalia, whose friendship with a Scandinavian tourist precipitates the defining crisis. Like the tourist, Katina has never been accepted by the villagers, who resent strangers.  They jealously preserve the old ways and customs, some of which date back to pagan times.

Nikos, Amalia's island suitor and husband-to-be, takes up the story, adding his version of what has come before, followed by Amalia herself, who offers a few snippets of her own, including her reasons for marrying Nikos--the transcending one being her belief ``that love will come as a reward for waiting'' for enduring the losses of her father, her secret lover, and the Scandinavian who promised to take her away with him.

Corelli’s Mandolin: A Novel, by Louis De Bernieres
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  It was funny, touching, frightening, maddening, emotional and descriptive. The writing was just terrific and the characters so memorable, especially since each chapter, like Blood Dance, is told from a different point of view,  including one chapter told from the eyes of Il Duce himself, Mussolini.

This novel, set on the idyllic Greek island of Cephallonia, follows the lives of its inhabitants from the peaceful days before World War II through the Italian occupation of the island into the present. It is funny, heartbreaking, and horrifying in its fictional testimony to the changes the war exacts on the townspeople.   If you ever needed proof that war is hell, this book will provide it.

The story centers around a family that includes a widowed, enlightened doctor working on a biased history of the island in his spare time; his clever, independent daughter; and Captain Antonio Corelli, a responsible but irrepressible officer of the Italian garrison who is also a musician and leader of the latrine opera club La Scala.

I really loved both Blood Dance and Corelli’s Mandolin and recommend them highly.


The Tattooed Map, by Barbara Hodgson
At one time, Lydia and Christopher were lovers as well as travel companions; now they are merely fellow travelers. While on a trip to Morocco, Lydia notices a small mark on her hand which begins to grow and spread in thin, tattooed lines that only she can see. Eventually, the marks reveal themselves to be a detailed map of an unknown land, and Lydia begins to understand that these marks, invisible to all but herself and a mysterious Moroccan man named Layesh, will lead her on a strange and perilous journey.

The Tattooed Map is Lydia's journal of the days and weeks leading up to her disappearance. Each page contains her daily experiences--her growing shock and fear as the map unfolds itself, her deteriorating relationship with Christopher, her conversations with strangers--as well as the memorabilia she collects along the way: maps and postcards, train tickets and postage stamps, lists of books she's reading and souvenirs she's bought--all pasted in the margins of the journal.

When Lydia disappears midway through the journey, her friend Christopher takes up the journal, using it first as a means of recording his search for her and then, increasingly, as a clue to her fate. A combination travelogue, mystery, and ghost story.

The Tattooed Map is a physically beautiful book.  The story becomes three-dimensional because each page is decorated with all the bits of scrap paper, momentos and jotted notes, which travelers often find cluttering their pockets and notebooks at the end of a trip.  I found that sometimes the marginalia was distracting me from the story; so I read through it again.  It wasn’t wasted time.


Paris Out of Hand, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
This isn’t a story, it’s a travel guide.  It’s a very silly, whimsical unofficial travel guide through the Paris that is, that might be, and never was.  It’s a beautiful, little red book, very entertaining with it’s own hotel-rating method, exerpts from concierge guest books, and special guest commentaries.  Lots of illustrations and marginalia à la Tattooed Map.

For fun, for dreams and for lovers of Paris.

Magic and Macabre

These next three books could be categorized as “fantasy literature”, or “interactive reading”, or, as I prefer to put it, “pop-up books for adults.”  They take the illustration/marginalia concept of Tattooed Map one step further.  The result is a hands-on, touch-and-feel-and-participate fairy tale.  Marvelous graphics, rich textures, and soft subtle messages.  After reading the descriptions at, I decided to buy them for myself instead of borrow from the library.  They are beautiful books to own and give, as well as to read.

The Secrets of Pistoulet: An Enchanted Fable of Food, Magic and Love, by Jana Kolpen and Mary Tiegreen
“Far away in the remote, untraveled southwestern French countryside, there is a small village which contains two homes, an eleventh-century church, and a very special farm known as Pistoulet."

Thus begins The Secrets of Pistoulet, a charming and beautiful little book filled with food, magic, and love. Part fiction, part cookbook, this richly illustrated book possesses a collection of letters to be removed from envelopes, and recipes tucked into their own little pockets. Drawings, photographs, snippets of diaries, and mysterious maps decorate this tale of Mademoiselle J., who arrives at Pistoulet with a broken heart. There she is welcomed by the farm's tenants: Madame Claude; Monsieur Andre; the black dog, Marcel; and a chicken that lays golden eggs. Soon, such soul-strengthening dishes as Potage of Babble (guaranteed to cease excessive chatter), Potage of Passion (Cooks beware: this soup has been known to result in marriage proposals!), and Tart of Sunshine (sure to heat both body and soul) have Mademoiselle J. on the road to recovery.

The Legend of the Villa Della Luna: The Sequel to the Secrets of Pistoulet, by Jana Kolpen and Mary Tiegreen
The adventures of Mademoiselle J continue; after healing her broken heart at Pistoulet, she learns to open it once again to love and relationships.  While a  guest at a magnificent Italian seaside villa, Della Luna, Mlle. J. reaches out to a grieving man who has isolated himself inside a lighthouse after a tragic love affair.

The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy, by Nick Bantock:
(I) Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence.
(II) Sabine's Notebook
(III) The Golden Mean

The trilogy follows the correspondence between Griffin Moss, a graphics artist, and Sabine, a mysterious woman living thousands of miles away.  It seems that as Griffin draws in his London studio, Sabine can see his images in her mind’s eye.

You follow their relationship through beautifully-designed postcards with their hand-written messages.  Then letters on hand-painted stationery arrive, to be taken out of their envelopes and pored over.  This clever method draws you into the story, and it seems to be a sweet, romantic, transcendental affair between two long-lost soulmates…then it starts getting weird.  Love turns to infatuation, to obsession.  All is not what it seems.  The line is blurred between reality and fantasy.  Is Sabine real?  Is she a figment of Griffin’s imagination, or vice-versa?  Who is the potter and who is the clay?  Etc., etc., etc….

Open-ended, up for interpretation and extremely entertaining.  The whole trilogy is on my bookshelves, if you ever feel like reading someone else’s mail!  I know I will want to explore further the quirky art-fiction of Nick Bantock.

Monday, June 1, 1998

Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 3, June 1998

Presenting a Summer Fruit Basket for You!

Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
In Kitchen, and its accompanying story Moonlight Shadow, Banana Yoshimoto gives us two simple, moving stories about love, loss and dealing with loneliness.

In Kitchen, a young woman, suddenly bereft of her family, is invited to live with a close school friend and his eccentric, endearing mother.  The mother is a transvestite club performer, a well-meaning man who became a woman to assure best opportunities for his son.  The three live in a small apartment with a wonderful kitchen central to the plot.  The narrator has always taken great comfort in kitchens, and in this particular healing room, she learns that families come in all types and can be found in many unexpected places.

Moonlight Shadow tells of a young woman grieving her lover who died entirely too young.  She begins running as a means of counteracting her severe insomnia.  One morning, she meets a strange yet compelling woman.  The woman seems to know her, seems to instinctively feel and understand her pain.  Through this woman, the grieving jogger is given a bittersweet, mystical opportunity to say good-bye to her beloved.

Both stories are sincere and tender, and told with such simplicity that you almost don’t realize what a myriad of subjects they touch upon.  Not only death, loss and grieving, but joy, strength, friendship, love, food, kitchens.  Set against the background of modern-day Tokyo, but the themes are universal.  I highly recommend it.

Banana Rose, by Natalie Goldberg
I took this out from the library, but I will probably end up buying a copy for myself.  I know I will want to read it again, re-visit Taos, New Mexico and these wonderful characters.  It’s a big, grilled-cheese sandwich of a book!

It’s a rather plotless story of a group of hippies living on a commune in Taos, New Mexico.  Among them is Banana Rose, born Nell Schwarz in Brooklyn, New York.  Rose is a struggling artist, trying to find her voice and her style.  She meets Gaugin (born George Howard), a likewise struggling musician, and they fall passionately in love, a little too passionately for their own good.

In a spiritual coming-of-age story, we follow Banana Rose and her  relationship, from the sun-drenched mystical mountains of Taos, to the bitter cold streets of Colorado and Minnesota.  There they marry, and attempt to live a “conventional” life, but Rose feels empty somehow.  She deals with her Jewish identity, the growing conflicts in her marriage, and her prying family in Florida.  She also has unfinished business with Anna, a writer from the Taos commune who moved to Nebraska.

The book is filled with descriptions of breathtaking scenery, food, life in a small New Mexican town, and deep emotions.  I loved Banana Rose.  I loved her passion, her struggling, her resiliancy, how she screwed up and hit rock bottom but kept on plugging along, kept on trying, and in the end, followed her heart back home where she belonged.  It sounds corny, but I find myself still thinking about her, wishing her well.

The Orange Cat Bistro, by Nancy Linde
Like Banana Rose, this is a book I’ll want to read again.  I wish I hadn’t been so fast in returning to the library because there were a number of passages and sentences I wanted to jot down and remember.  It was a very good book to have around me at a shaky time.  It’s comforting when someone else puts into words what you are feeling and wish you could express yourself.

Claire is a writer whose novel is taking over her life. Or, rather, her novel's protagonist, a shy, eccentric, beautiful sculptor named Nevada, is living a life that's becoming inextricably linked with Claire's own; the two women have become not just friends but actual players in each other's lives. While Claire struggles with her fiction and her real life (it's often hard to tell the difference, as she spends most of her time working on the book), Nevada struggles to free herself from a bad relationship with Alec--an egotistical but talented painter--and from her latest piece of art, an enormous shell that contains within it a world of its own.

As Claire sits typing her manuscript in her room above the Orange Cat Bistro, occasionally banning Nevada to "Literary Hyperspace'' when her character refuses to behave, she reflects on her divorce, her solitary state, and on a traumatic episode from her past.  This episode is something else she and Nevada share in common, and it was a little anti-climactic when I found out what it was.  It came so late in the story, that it remained tantalizingly undeveloped.

Who is the potter and who is the clay?  Did Claire invent Nevada, or Nevada Claire, or are they both created by Madame, who owns the Orange Cat Bistro?  I found I didn’t really care, I was too taken in by what the characters had to say.  I thought the dialogue passages were great.  There were great exchanges between Claire and Nevada in Madame’s kitchen; wonderful conversations between Nevada and her new love, Nicholas.  Again, there was a lot in here that I wish I’d thought of myself.  A really great read.

The Orange Tree, by Carlos Fuentes
Five novellas spanning a wide range of eras and characters.  Each features an orange tree, symbol of Spain, brought by the Moors to Spain and by the conquistadors to Mexico.

"The Two Shores" explores the power of language and interpretors in the New World; from his grave, the narrator tells of his adventures in the service of Hernan Cortes.

"The Sons of Cortes", is told in counterpoinrt by the two sons of Cortes, one legitimate, the other the son of Cortes’ Mayan mistress.  The two Martins bring the man and his times to life with their conflicting view.

"The Two Numantias" is about the Roman conquest of Spain.

"In Apollo and the Whores", an aging, Oscar-winning actor comes to Acapulco about to portray his greatest role: death.

And in "The Two Americas", Columbus returns by jet to America, 500 years after he left.

A cornucopia for the senses and an interesting look at the conquest of the Americas.

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, by Kiran Desai
Poor Sampath Chawla, at 20 years old, has become a complete misfit in the eyes of his family and to the villagers of Shakhot.  A failure as a postal worker, he runs away and takes residence in a guava tree.  There he attains widespread celebrity as he begins showering his observers with matter-of-fact revelations, and shocking insights into their personal lives (the latter of course, attained by his days in the post office, reading their mail!).

Sampath’s family sets up a compound in the guava orchard: his practical father; Pinky, his sister, who has had the bad grace to fall in love with the village ice-cream man; and his ever-hungry mother, Kulfi, who is on a quest to cook her son the perfect meal.

The hullabaloo increases when a band of alcoholic monkeys also take up residence in Sampath’s tree, and a local Atheist Society sends one of their spies to prove Sampath a fraud.

I had mixed feelings.  On the one hand, it was beautifully written – I loved the language and the descriptive passages; it reminded me somewhat of John Irving’s A Son of the Circus.  When the story stayed within the Chawla family, I was interested.  Once the monkeys, and the spy, and all the government characters were introduced, I found myself skipping ahead.  It was charming, like a fairy-tale, but it got stretched a little too thin, and the ending just kind of dwindled away.

I did not actually read these, because I couldn’t find them at the library (and I’m trying to be good and not spend a lot of money on books).  But they were fun to pick out!  All reviews were taken off

Watermelon, by Marion Keyes
A grand first novel by Irish writer Keyes is a hilarious treatise on love’s roller coaster. Both elated and exhausted after giving birth to a daughter, the 29-year-old Claire is shocked senseless when her husband James comes to the London hospital not to celebrate, but instead to break the news that he's leaving her for their dowdy downstairs neighbor.

The stunned Claire, with new baby in tow, and feeling as big as a summer melon, hightails it back to her family in Dublin to sort out her life. Wandering around her childhood home in her mother's old nightgowns, a vodka bottle in one hand and the bawling Kate in the other, Claire tries to banish images of the frolicking James and his ``other woman.'' Her two younger sisters prove to be a comfort.  Sweet Anna, a hippie drug-dealer, loans Claire money for booze, and haughty Helen deigns to buy it for her. And drunken anguish does have its rewards, for in no time Claire sheds her extra weight, thanks to a steady liquid diet and nights spent on the family rowing machine fantasizing James’s ruin.

But it is only when Gorgeous Adam appears on the scene that Claire begins to recover a sense of purpose. A college friend of Helen's, Adam exemplifies perfect manhood--and helpfully takes a liking to her, too. But just as things begin crackling between them, James shows up, oh-so- generously ready to forgive Claire for driving him into the arms of the other woman. Torn between the comforts of her former life in London and a new, heartening sense of self-worth and self-sufficiency, not to mention the Gorgeous Adam, Claire finds herself hard put to make a decision. A candid, irresistibly funny debut and perfect summertime read. – From Kirkus Rewview, Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
Esperanza and her family didn't always live on Mango Street. Right off she says she can't remember all the houses they've lived in but "the house on Mango Street is ours and we don't have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it's not the house we thought we'd get."

Esperanza's childhood life in a Spanish-speaking area of Chicago is described in a series of spare, poignant, and powerful vignettes. Each story centers on a detail of her childhood: a greasy cold rice sandwich, a pregnant friend, a mean boy, how the clouds looked one time, something she heard a drunk say, her fear of nuns: "I always cry when nuns yell at me, even if they're not yelling." Esperanza's friends, family, and neighbors wander in and out of her stories; through them all Esperanza sees, learns, loves, and dreams of the house she will someday have, her own house, not on Mango Street.  --Reviewed by Jesse Larsen, from 500 Great Books by Women

Apple Blossom Time, by Kathryn Haig
When World War II breaks out, Laura joins the British war effort against the Nazis. Her assignment takes her to Egypt where she learns the horrors of war, including the death of her spouse.

When her term is over, Laura has an obsession to learn more about her father, whom she has never seen since he died a hero’s death in France during World War I.  She journeys to his village to learn that her sire’s name is not included on the war memorial honoring the dead. Her own family refuses to speak about him except to say that he was a hero. As she digs deeper into her family’s past, an unknown assailant begins sending her letters that threaten her with bodily harm.

Apple Blossom Time is a very good period piece that will be enjoyed by fans of the first half of the twentieth century life styles of the English. The story line is actually three sub plots that blend into a wonderful tale rich with intriguing characters. Though the novel may prove to British too be everybody’s cup of Earl Gray, fans of Masterpiece Theater will love this family saga.  – Reviewed by Harriet Klausner

Shadow of the Pomegranate, by Jean Plaidy
Synopsis from The seemingly ideal marriage of Katharine of Aragon to young Henry VIII took place under the insignia of the pomegranate, the Arab sign of fertility, in an ironic gesture of fate. What follows fills this vivid novel of love, intrigue, and betrayal in the royal courts of England and Spain--
meticulously detailed by one of the most popular authors of historical fiction

While I didn’t find this particular book by Jean Plaidy on the library shelves, I did find the other 30 historical-fiction books she’s written on every European monarch in history!  I am not allowed to go near that shelf, otherwise you will never hear from me again!

Death by Rhubarb, by Lou Jane Temple
Synopsis from Heaven Lee is one of Kansas City's premier caterers. With a string of failed careers behind her, Heaven's finally found her true love--Cafe Heaven. Open-mike night at Cafe Heaven gets pretty hairy but Heaven is shocked when lawyer Tasha Arnold drops dead from poisoning. With the law and word-of-mouth threatening to close her down, Heaven turns sleuth to find a killer who could turn her into Kansas City's freshest corpse.

Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, by David M. Masumoto
Masumoto is a third-generation fruit grower in Del Ray, California. In his simple memoir, the college-educated farmer discusses the continual challenge of growing fruit in an area where annual rainfall is marked in single digits (irrigation is the answer) and weeds threaten to overtake the crop. In chronologically arranged chapters that extend from spring planting to summer harvesting to winter waiting, Masumoto reflects on a variety of topics, including the fact that his succulent, organically grown peaches, which have a shelf life of only one week, aren't in demand; and his recollection of losing 35,000 trays of drying raisins to intense rainfall reveals why he always "feels persecuted by the power of nature." A lyrically written memoir by an introspective orchardist. – From Booklist, Copyright© 1995, American Library Association. All rights reserved

Raspberry Island (Our Town), by Willa Hix synopsis: Looking for a taste of true adventure, wealthy Jenna Guildenbergh becomes the nanny for the children of lighthouse keeper, widower Erik Ingman. But as Jenna slowly makes a place for herself in Erik's home--and in his heart--Erik knows he has found more than someone to care for the children. He has found a woman who makes his life worth living again

Friday, May 1, 1998

Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 2, May 1998

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, by Jennie Fields
Attention anyone who sat in the movie theatre, watching Bridges of Madison County and the scene where Meryl Streep sits in the truck, her hand reaching for the handle, will she jump out and run off with Clint Eastwood or will she stay?  And for those of you who sat, screaming silently, “GO!  GET OUT OF THE CAR!  GO WITH HIM!  TO HELL WITH IT!  GO!!!”  To those of you who wished for the fairy tale, alternate ending: read this book.  Read it in good health.

Zoe Finney has moved from her posh Manhattan digs to Park Slope, Brooklyn.  With her are her charming daughter, Rose, and her severely depressed, nearly catatonic husband, Jamie.

Zoe and Jamie’s personas are vast and complex.  Zoe is the daughter of holocaust survivors.  Born poor, raised to believe she had no right to want anything, need anything, or dare complain about it, she satisfies her aching soul by shoplifting, attaining an almost sexual thrill from her petty thieveries.  This need to take what she feels she can’t have continues even after she marries into money.  Jamie, one of the Feeneys of Baltimore, believes a curse follows him; a teenage drunk-driving incident which left two people dead leaves him riddled with guilt, further compounded by the accidental death of Jamie and Zoe’s first child, Charlotte.  He satisfies his soul by retreating deep within.

Zoe hopes the move to Brooklyn will provide an escape from her rich, snobbish in-laws who never accepted her anyway.  Perhaps it will even help Jamie to snap out of it and start anew.  Instead, Zoe becomes attracted to the schoolteacher next-door, Keevan O’Connor, whose passion for life is made more intense when compared to Jamie’s depression.  He woos her with games of Clue, literary discussion, and an Irishman’s virility (he’s desribed as redheaded but I kept seeing him as Billy Baldwin…)

As a passionate affair begins, Zoe’s need to shoplift is quelled, but her guilty heart is as heavy as ever.  Jamie has become not much of a husband, and less of a father to Rose (Rose calls him by his first name, even wishes he were dead so Mama can marry “Uncle Keevan”). Her wonderfully eccentric sister-in-law, Alicia, urges Zoe to leave Jamie for Keevan.  (“If you love this man, let him be in your life.  Yes, I’m encouraging you.  I’m giving permission, damn it!”)  Still, Zoe longs for the Jamie she once knew, and her vacillations between love and duty, between Jamie and Keevan, go on until resolution finally arrives.

Woven within the main plot are several mini-plots: a peek into the lives of the other brownstones in this predominantly Irish neighborhood.  The most enjoyable is the plight of Patty, Keevan’s sister-in-law, who finally manages to kick out her deadbeat husband, get over her infatuation with Keevan and get a life.

OK, even I admit that some of the complicated situations get tied up and fixed up a little too easily.  Zoe’s shoplifting, for one thing.  Naturally she’s going to get caught (she nearly does, once, only managing to elude arrest by puking on the sales clerk and making a run for it).  Probably she wants to get caught so her dirty secret will be out there and she can finally test Keevan to see if he really loves her.  And Patty, for another – imagine all you can do with the right haircut, a pair of high heels and some lemongrass.  But I cheered her on, anyway.  Sometimes, I’m just in the mood to read a story where it all works out all right.  I loved it.  What really did it for me were the the vivid and nostalgic descriptions of the tight-knit, lovably-nosy neighborhood;  the likeable and believable characters, and face it, some of the SEXIEST writing I’ve ever read.  It was yummy.

The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson
Wow.  A big, reverberating WOW!  Wow. Wow. Wow!  I was up half the night because I couldn’t put it down, and when I put it down, I’d still be up with the creepy-crawlies. Pretty scary stuff.  Pretty gross.  And pretty Fan-tatty!  What really knocks me out is that this is Ann Benson’s first novel; all her other works have been about beading!  Yes, I said Beading.  How does a beadweaver just sit down and write this incredible medical thriller?!

You have 2 stories going at the same time; the chapters alternate.

Plot 1: 14th Century France.  Alejandro Canches is a Jewish physician on the run.  His crime: dissection of corpses to further his medical studies.  He hides in Avignon under the name of Hernandez – a name he takes from the Spanish soldier who bodyguarded and befriended him back to the city, and subsequently died of the plague.  Canches/Hernandez, the renegade Jew, in an ironic twist of fate is appointed by Pope Clement to the court of Edward III of England, in an attempt to protect the court from the plague which is ravishing all of Europe.  At the same time, Alejandro must protect his true identity from the king, the court, and most of all, from the woman he comes to love.

Plot 2: London, 2005.  Virulent outbreaks in the US have made all antibiotics obsolete and sent aspirin and ibuprofin back behind the counter and onto the black market.  A medical reassignment lottery has forced Dr. Janie Crowe (bereft of both husband and daughter from the outbreaks) to leave her career as a surgeon and enter the field of forensic archaeology.  She arrives in London with her assistant, to complete a soil-sample study that will hopefully result in her certification.  The samples are taken from random sites in London, and one of them contains a little something more than dirt: Yersinia Pestis.  Bubonic Plague.  The microbe is dormant, waiting for a host, and a freak lab accident provides the host.  Once again, plague is on the loose in Europe, and mankind is just as helpless to it as he was in Alejandro Canches’ time.

Ultimately, the stories converge.  Two parallel stories, two parallel characters, linked by history.  It was a thrilling, exciting “doomsday” tale, something like the Hot Zone, or Outbreak, but with a much more intruiging flavor because of the historical aspects.  A great blend of love and loss, medicine and politics, the medieval and the futuristic.

Wow (shiver).


Three Daughters, by Anna Mitgutsch
Three generations of women in rural Germany.  A portrait of poverty - material poverty and emotional poverty, and the struggle to survive both kinds.  Mother beats daughter, who grows up to beat her daughter.  Third daughter desperately trying to break the cycle with her own daughter.  I hope she does.  I don’t know because I couldn’t finish it.  It was too brutal, too depressing, too violent, too upsetting.  I couldn’t go on, I couldn’t take another beating; I don’t know how the narrator did, or even how the author kept on writing.  I really don’t.


The Serpent Garden, by Judith Merkle Riley
A tale of Tudor England.  King Henry VIII arranges the marriage of his younger sister Mary the aging French King, Louis XII, with the intent of putting an English heir on the French throne.  Within Mary’s wedding entourage is a widowed painter, Susanna Dallet.  Left penniless after the murder of her lecherous, spendthrift husband, Susanna is forced to rely on her natural wit and artistic talent to provide for her household. The daughter of a talented Flemish painter, Susanna had been rigorously schooled in the meticulous technique of the portrait miniature. Initially regarded as a curiosity, Susanna soon gains fame and renown as a portraitist, and is retained by Thomas Wolsey as the official "paintrix" of the court of King Henry VIII.  But within her unwitting possession are the remnants of a valuable manuscript that holds the key to an age-old mystery involving the French Royal line and the Knights Templar.  Susanna becomes the target of a diabolical secret society intent on procuring the ultimate power. 

I loved it.  It had a little bit of everything: history, mystery, artistry, suspense, romance, court intruige and a tinge of the occult.  The only thing I didn’t like was that it was so closely and intriguingly woven in with the myths, mysteries and histories of the Knights Templar.  If you happen to be a Templar-phile, you’ll love it.  If you haven’t a clue who they were or what they were about, the book is still enjoyable but you might be a little lost.  I fall into the latter category.  I knew they were the order of Knights involved in the Crusades, but all the talk of “the great secret” left me confused.  The “secret” is eventually revealed, towards the end of the book, but I was so curious that I stopped reading about halfway through, went onto the Internet and did some research on the Templars.  I suppose it was cheating, but I did read the rest of it with much more pleasure, without that eyebrow-wrinkling feeling of “huh?” at every other chapter.

Again, the book is totally enjoyable in of itself.

Also by Judith Merkle Riley: The Oracle Glass, in which Riley again blends her tremendous historical knowledge with romance, mystery and a touch of the supernatural.  Set in the court of Louis XIV, where elegant French aristocrats rub secret shoulders with fortunetellers, poisoners, abortionists, and stagers of black masses. Within this dangerous milieu, Genevieve Pasquier finds notoriety, wealth, love...and an exit. 

Born crippled, into a noble house, Genevieve is rescued from suicidal despair by La Voisin (a real personage, as are several other characters), the queen of France’s occult society.  La Voisin sees potential in the sixteen-year-old, and so brings Genevieve to her house on rue Beauregarde and reinvents her as the Marquise de Morville, a 150-year-old fortuneteller.  Genevieve, now as the Marquise, is a success, with a true talent not only for cards, but for reading the swirling waters of the oracle glass which she does for King Louis, and his queen, and his reigning mistress.

The descriptions of court life are contrasted with the bustling hovel of female energy which is La Voisin’s house.  But there’s murder in the streets, the cries of witchcraft are rising, the Sun King’s satellites are closing in, and the house on Rue Beauregarde is soon to fall.  Genevieve is bound for the dungeon and ultimate trial unless she can escape…

London, by Edward Rutherford
Wow.  For the highly ambitious history lover (that ‘twould be me).  A two-pound book of historical vignettes spanning two millenia from Celtic times to the World War II Blitz, all made thoroughly entertaining by great characters and great storytelling (much better than James Michener’s, in my opinion).  Starting from Caesar’s invasion of the city on the Thames, eighty generations of several different families tell the story of London.  That’s a lot of people to keep track of, requiring several flips back to the family tree page, trying to recall who is related to whom.  Often, as soon as you become endeared to one character, the chapter is over and a new one’s begun, it’s forty years later an now you’re dealing with that characters grandchildren.  Each chapter can almost be treated as a separate story in of itself.

This is not light reading!  But I loved it, not only for the historical detail and the storytelling, but also because in every chapter, I learned something interesting: linguistic expressions (how such-and-such place got its name; cultural traditions; why stock is called stock; why the door to Parliament is ceremoniously slammed in the monarch’s face at every season opening, etc., ad infinitum). I can’t say the story was 100% enthralling from start to finish, but if you are interested in the genre of history to begin with, I think you’ll enjoy it.
Also by Edward Rutherford: Sarum, another century-spanning novel of England, this one set in the city outside Stonehenge; and Russka, same idea, set in Russia.  Both given to me for my __th birthday from Jen, thanks honey!!! (kiss kiss)  Again, not intense page-turners; I found I could put one down and pick it up again a few days later with little loss of plot.  But I enjoy history, and these stand as the most enjoyable ways for me to learn about it.

Pillars of Gold and Silver, by Beatriz de la Garza
After the death of her father in the Korean War, 7-year-old Blanca Estela and her mother, Lilia, move from Los Angeles to Ravilla, Mexico, to live with Lilia’s mother, Doña Anita.  Blanca Estela is troubled as she arrives in this strange land, so different from her home.  Her mother’s acute sadness disturbs her.  She does not understand much Spanish, and she worries about making friends.  But the children who befriend her are kind, and they teach her games.  The games, which all involve folk songs, serve as a ribbon which weaves together the chapters.  Blanca becomes close to her grandmother, learns about the lives of her neighbors, makes her first communion, and gradually, her concept of “home” changes.

I didn’t realize it was a “children’s book” when I took it out.  But after exhausting myself reading Rutherford’s London, Sarum and Russka, this was a delight.  To go from all the busy, historical detail of great, bustling cities and social/political intrigue, to the slow-paced life in a rural Mexican town was a welcome change.  Sensory descriptions of food, clothes, people and places; the charm of the children’s games; the tender, growing relationship between daughter and mother and grandmother.  A simple story, uncomplicated and touching and not just for kids.  Something to curl up in bed with.

Good Intentions, by Patricia O’Brien
Rachel Snow and her producer, Berry Brown, need a hook to expand the audience for Rachel's morning talk show on a Chicago radio station. A mysterious caller claims to be "the Truthseeker," a man who stalked and killed college students; he scares Rachel with his sexy talk and the details he knows of her life. Berry wants a show to revolve around him, so she lines up stalking experts and solicits media coverage.

Meanwhile, Rachel buys and remodels the house in which she was raised and deals with personal matters as best she can. Her mother, who keeps quiet about money and cancer worries, returns from Florida while Rachel's daughter, Edie, comes home from private school for Christmas with a new driver's license and a lascivious boyfriend. Rachel must also cope with two beaus, one a newspaper reporter and the other the station owner, who are polar opposites. With all the activity swirling around Rachel, she learns that friends are not always what they seem.

This is a good “who-dunnit”; great summer reading.  I read a few critiques which complained that there was just too much going on, and true, Rachel is dealing with quite a lot.  But I didn’t feel overwhelmed at all.  I was compelled to stay with it and find out who the stalker was (I was also quite pleased with myself for having pegged the culprit about ¾ through).  I enjoyed the characters, I thought they were very believable, very interesting women.  In particular I enjoyed the mother-daughter and grandmother-grandaughter interactions.

The Serpentine Cave, by Jill Patton Walsh
After her mother dies, Marion Easton goes back to the house of her childhood to confront her past and find the identity that has been kept from her.  Her artist mother, Stella, had been a highly eccentric, highly secretive mother who was more devoted to her painting than her daughter.  She kept the past, particulary the whereabouts of Marion’s father, a tightly guarded secret.

Middle-aged and divorced, Marion brings her two grown children to the town of Cornwall and its colony of painters called “The St. Ives Society of Artists”, of which Stella had been a member in the war years.  Of Cornwall, Marion has only sketchy memories.  But there is a cave, and a distant recollection of something terrible happening in it, a narrow brush with death, and a man who saved her.  Was the man her father?  Where was this cave and what did happen there?  Through interaction with the people of the remote fishing village, Marion finds that her identity and her mother’s artwork are tied to a 1939 lifeboat disaster.

While Marion is sleuthing her past, her children are on their own personal quests: Alice is a talented violist with love problems, and Toby is a broker with some inside-trading troubles.  The village comes to touch them as well, as the past is slowly unfolded.

I wouldn’t call this mystery/suspense so much as a story of a town’s secrets.  I took it out thinking it would be similar to Rosemunde Pilcher’s novels, which I love so much.  It turned out to be nothing like, but still, I enjoyed it a lot.

Bitter Grounds, by Sandra Benitez
Memorable pairs of mothers and daughters, caught up in the violence of recent Salvadoran history, live, love, and die for their passions. Benitez tells the story of three generations of mothers and daughters whose lives intersect.

She begins with the infamous massacre of 1932, when Indian peasants suspected of being communists were slaughtered in the countryside. Thirteen-year-old Jacinta and her mother, Mercedes Prieto, are the only survivors of the attack in which their home is burned and Mercedes's husband killed. The two struggle to survive. When Mercedes begins working for wealthy landowners Elena and Ernesto de Contreras, however, life improves.  Elena, a more enlightened product of her class and times, has her own sadness: On the eve of daughter Magda's wedding, she discovers Cecilia, her best friend, in bed with Ernesto. Hurt and angry, she vows never to see Cecilia again, which of course has repercussions in a story that suffers from foreshadowing.

As the country experiences coups and falling coffee prices, the women try to live normal lives but find it impossible. Exile in Miami with a hint of a happy ending as the war heats up in the late '70s is the only option for Jacinta, Magda, and her family.

A vivid chronicle of strong women facing the challenges of living in sad and violent times.  I really loved it…its style was very similar to Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna, or The Chin Kiss King by Ana Veciana-Suarez.  I’m looking forward to reading A Place Where the Sea Remembers.

The Third Miracle, by Richard Vetere
In the playground of a parochial school in Queens, a statue of the Virgin Mary is crying tears of blood.  Within the church, a mass is being said for the late Helen Stephenson, a prominent lay-nun in the convent.  Late for mass, little Maria Katowski, who is ill with lupus, is alone in the schoolyard and witnessing this miracle.  She reaches out to touch the blood, and is cured of her disease.

Thus the wheels of beatification are set into motion.  Led by Father Killeare the parish pastor, the people of St. Stanislaus petition the Cardinal to make Helen declared a saint.  A cult arises in the schoolyard, with the sick arriving to be healed by the tears of blood, which for ten years now, have been falling every October (the month of Helen’s death).

The postulator appointed to investigate Helen’s case is Father Frank Moore.  Moore has been involved in other such miracle-investigations: the last case involved Frank’s mentor, a priest who became surrounded by miracles following his drowning, and was also a candidate for canonization.  After discovering that Father Falcone’s death was a suicide, Frank’s faith was shattered (he now calls himself “the Miracle Killer”), and he went into hiding.

Frank is appointed by the Cardinal to Helen’s case.  In no way does the Cardinal wish Stephenson beatified because she spoke in favor of females being ordained as priests.  It’s Frank’s job to search for skeletons and character flaws in Helen’s life.  One skeleton seems to be a purported relationship between Helen and Father Killeare.  Another is Helen’s daughter, Roxanna, whom Helen abandoned to enter the convent.  It seems Roxanna has never forgiven her mother.  It is she who holds the key to the liason between Helen and the parish priest.

Whether the unholy relationship existed or not, the validity of the miracles, and his own sudden passion for Roxanna, are all things Frank must take into consideration as he presents Helen’s case to a Vatican team of cardinals.

An interesting, absorbing story of the inner workings of the Catholic church, the process of canonization, the nature of miracles, and faith.

Shifting Stars, by Page Lambert
Skye MacDonald is the product of two proud cultures: Highlander Scots and Lakota Sioux. Her mother, Breathcatcher, was a Lakota princess when she met and married Gregory MacDonald, a trapper who left Scotland to escape persecution of Highlanders.

When Skye is a child, Breathcatcher is killed by a wild cougar. Now a young woman, she returns with her father to visit her maternal grandparents, hoping to connect with her Lakota heritage.

Skye’s grandmother, Turtle Woman, hopes to teach Skye what she needs to know of women’s ways.  Through stories, rituals, festivals, Turtle Woman imparts the ancient, handed-down wisdom of the Lakota women.  Skye responds to the nurturing presence of her mother’s people, and becomes enamored of a young warrior scout, Mahto.

But all is not well in the Lakota camp. Gregory's old rival for Breathcatcher, Caws Like Magpie, still nurses a bitterness that he now directs toward Skye. His ominous presence eventually separates Gregory and Skye and propels her toward a deeper understanding of her mixed heritage.

Wonderful reading.  A profound, spiritual story of love and revenge, the frontier and the tragedy of White Man’s impact on Native American culture, but also, how tragedy of man-conquering-man has been a universal occurrence in all cultures.

A Natural History of Love, by Diane Ackerman
This is one of those books that you can read a little here, a little there, skip a paragraph or a chapter.  Take what you like, leave the rest.  A cultural, literary and physiological exploration of that “great intangible”, that “white light of emotion”, also known as: love.

Interpretations of classic love stories such as Orpheus and Eurydice and Tristan and Iseult.  Stopovers in Egypt, Greece and Rome.  An extended pondering of the tradition of chivalry and courtly love.  A selection of vivid profiles of such lovers and students of love as Don Juan, Ben Franklin, Stendhal, Proust, and Freud.   I admit I skipped over all the philosophical stuff in favor of studies such as: hair; the cuddle chemical; the evolution of the face; women and horses; men and cars; men and mermaids; kissing; and sexual chic.

Interesting, and a lot of fun.  If you enjoy it, try Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses.  Another great book to “nibble” on.  A potpourri of scientific facts, history and personal observation on each of the senses.  If I remember correctly, it includes a whole chapter devoted to chocolate.  Or maybe it was a whole chapter on kissing?  Either/or.