Post-Easter reading blitz and domestic disasters


Hope you all had a lovely Easter. Sorry I had nothing of note to post. It's difficult keeping our heads above water right now, what with my father-in-law battling cancer, our water heater breaking and leaking all over the basement floor and our upstairs bathtub deciding to join the party and drip into our living room.

Re: the water heater, that's been replaced and so far all's well (save the bill). The bathroom has been completely ripped out (it needed it, anyway, as the decor was decidely 70s modern – Far out!) and it's down to bare walls and plywood flooring. The potential, the potential, yes that's already going through my head. Eighteen years of looking at that dog vomit yellow were eighteen years too many but other, more crucial projects kept getting in the way. 

The family room needs painting as well but may just have to hold out a while longer since the kitchen is in more serious need, what with the scratches on the sliding door trim, courtest of a certain two dogs, who shall remain nameless. Then there are the marks on the wall, which happen to match up perfectly with the tops of the kitchen chairs. Sounds like a case for Sherlock Holmes.

Right now it's that sort of seafoam green I associate with Martha Stewart (in fact, it's from her line of paints) and goes beautifully with the cabinets (birch), countertops (dark granite) and appliances (stainless). It was all the rage in the early 2000s, before Martha was sent up river for insider training. Whatever I choose will probably lean toward pastel again. Maybe a blue? An updated yellow? The mind boggles.

Since we probably aren't going on vacation this year, between worry over leaving the area too long and the need to conserve money since my daughter's starting college this fall (scream here), I'm thinking about taking a week's worth of vacation to repaint the kitchen. What larks, Pip! And what a wonderful way to spend my time off.

I'm sort of a slob when it comes to painting. I lack the crucial "painting along the top of the wall/below the ceiling" gene.  I can do walls, around woodwork and other things. But that ceiling line… I have shaky hands naturally, probably related to the fact my fight or flight sensor is set to Code Red.  Every, single time I paint I get a ceiling line that looks like an EKG report without a single flatline.

But ne'er mind all that. Let's shift to what I'm reading, which is becoming completely out of control again, SURPRISE.

First, Anne Tyler's latest The Beginner's Goodbye. I'm not a Tyler fan and I've felt inadequate about it a long time. Yet, nearly every time she comes out with a new book I'm all over it. Such is my utter determination to like something she's written, dammit!

In the case of her latest, so far it's actually not so bad. Not great, but, as some critics are wont to say, "readable." A more back-handed compliment's hard to find but I guess they mean it well.

TBG is about a new widower who, in his great sorrow, is trying to get his life back in order after the loss of his wife. I know from reading the blurb he's going to start seeing his late wife everywhere, so that's no spoiler. Guess I haven't gotten that far quite yet, though I'm just over the mid-point. Anytime Tyler's ready to let that start happening is fine with me.

The book's character-driven and to my surprise I haven't found any of them irritatingly quirky, the word so often used to describe Ms. Tyler's characters. The husband's a bit wacky but I suppose that's to be allowed, considering his current situation. But one complaint I have is this same character acts and speaks so much older than he is. I keep forgetting he's a 30-something, from the way he speaks in general and about himself, even if he does has a disability. I felt vindicated when I located this from Ron Charles, saying the same basic thing in his own review:

"Nothing about him suggests we’re in the company of a 35-year-old in the early 21st century; he seems dustier than the 60-year-old in “Noah’s Compass.” “That tickled me no end,” he tells us when he hears Dorothy talking. Confronted by an angry colleague, he exclaims, “Goodness.” Seeing his dead wife standing in the street, he says, “Dorothy, my dear one. My only, only Dorothy.” "

The novel's occasionally quite funny and tells a story of universal appeal but beyond that it's really quite superficial. I'd classify it a "beach read," or at the least a summer or book group. I'll probably forget it as soon as I close the cover. As entertainment it's not a total waste of time. It does that quite well.

As Ron Charles said later in his review:

"Even die-hard fans of Tyler’s work should probably let this one float by."

Err… I'm not a fan to begin with. That's not very good news, now, is it.





Next, a very strange, shorter novel called Spurious by Lars Iyer. The whole thing's a sort  of dramatic monologue between the unnamed narrator and W., a man never at a loss for words. If you aren't into dark, philosophical sorts of  books run away from this one very quickly. I'm around halfway and wonder if I should continue on or just drop it. Though I tend to lean toward darker books, for some reason this one's making me feel slightly uncomfortable and squirmy. It isn't bad. Not at all. It's funny and reads very quickly but it gives me a sort of Russian Novel Depression Disorder. (RNDD):

 "Idiocy, that's what we have in common. Our friendship is founded upon our limitations, we agree, and doesn't travel far from them.

We're full of joy, W. says as we walk back from the supermarket, that's what saves us. Why do we find our failings so amusing? But it does save us, we agree on that; it's our gift to the world. We are content with very little: look at us, with a frozen chicken in a bag, and some herbs and spices, walking home in the sun. The gift of laughter, I say – 'The gift of idiocy,' says W."

 From Steven Poole from

"It is near to the end of days, shortly before the appearance of a "stupid Messiah". Two British men, employed somehow in academia, muse on their lack of success and incapacity for real thought while drinking too much gin. "We are Brod and Brod, we agree, and neither of us is Kafka." Sometimes they travel to a conference, and drink too much there instead. One of the friends insults the other with spectacular, relentless cruelty. The insultee also has to deal with a damp problem in his flat that gradually assumes apocalyptic proportions of sweating metaphor."

This is a very well-written book by an assured writer. It's just that I'm a depressive to begin with and nothing here makes me feel any better. Not that it should but, at the least, I'd like there to be a reason for all the downer, dark comedy and not just show-offy "look how smart I am" quips.

Maybe, as one commenter replied to Poole's review:

 "…not something that Americans generally appreciated. A lot of the American reviews seem to have missed the point!"

 I can't comment back to him either way, since comments on the post have already been closed, drat it. It's true we in the States often don't get British humoUr and vice versa I assume. I tend to adore it, that dry sort of wit, and in fact it's my own style. But even I run up against a wall now and then. Maybe I've done that here?

I'll give it another go before I throw my hands up in despair.


Quickies – In Progress:


Sister by Lupton:

Compelling, if a bit over-written at times.

Marriage Plot by Eugenides:

Late night, pre-sleep Kindle read. Funny, funny and more funny.

This Burns My Heart by Park:

Free Review Book for bookgroup moderation at

1984 re-read:

Another Kindle read, for Classics Book Group discussion at my library.

Religion for Atheists by de Botton:

Free review book. Compelling ideas I, so far, agree with.


Reviews actively working on or just finished:


The Cove by Ron Rash for

Published 4/10/12 (today!)



(UK cover)

A Daughter's Tale: The Memoir of Winston Churchill's Youngest Child by Mary Soames

for Library Journal

Pub. 7/12


Carry on! As you were.





While trawling through the web one day…

Welcome to Tuesday, the week before my kids have Spring Break from school. And I don't. For what it's worth, my birthday (March 28) has always fallen the week of their break. When they were little I told them that's the purpose of their week off, to celebrate my birthday. For a while there I'm pretty sure they believed me.

Kids. It's so fun messing with their minds.

Here's some stuff I found on the interwebs. Hope you enjoy it.


This one may make you CRY. It did me, forcing me to face the fact I can't read all these gems:

Have you read any you feel I simply cannot die without having read? Loads of them already on my wish list…


Amazingly wonderful and thoroughly considered blog post re: the current eBook battle between libraries and publishers:


Essay on finding artistic inspiration:


A favorite quote:

"Like many novelists, I tend to experience an existential crisis every time I finish a book. Why bother? Why engage in such an intangible and self-involved vocation when I could be doing something more tangibly and socially useful? (i.e., stopping a pipeline, regrouting the bathroom.) Why write longform narrative in a world that prefers to live swiftly and episodically?"

– Kyo Maclear, from "The Beautiful Afterlife of Dead Books"





Lizzie Skurnick on 50 Shades of Grey: The new self-published eBook erotic thriller that's (inexplicably) shot to the top of the bestseller list.

Review and thoughts on the book from Smart Bitches Trashy Books


Book review lust:




Four First Novels Reviewed:

The Telegraph






And, finally, this Youtube Video: Super Mario Saves the Princess (á la The Family Guy):





Book Review: Glass by Sam Savage @ Independent Publisher



Check out my new haunt: Independent Publisher, where I'll be reviewing for as long as they'll have me.

This is also where I'm on the judging panel for the IPPY Awards. Indies are the "little guys," the academic presses, the not-Random-Houses who tend to get squeezed out by the Big Guys. Independent Publisher strives to show readers there's so much else out there they've never dreamt of in their philosophies. And this is no little start  up operation: they've been around 15 years.

"Each year the "IPPY" Awards recognize the best indie-published books of the year in 69 categories, 11 regions, and 12 Outstanding Books of the Year. Entry for the 2012 Awards will open in July." 

Are you an indie publisher? Well, then, hie thee over. Time's a-wastin'.



Fiction Award contenders, batch #1

My first review at IP is Sam Savage's Glass. And if you haven't heard of Sam Savage you have no excuse. I've given him raves. If you've missed those it would mean you don't visit enough. I keep the coffee hot and the scones fresh. What more could you want? Dancing girls? Fine. I'll go slip on some tap shoes. Better yet, some clogs.

You can find my review of Glass here. And Sam Savage's publisher, Coffee House Press, here.

The offerings at Coffee House are phenomenal. Really, take a look. They are a big little press.




Coffee House Press
$15 Trade Paperback Original
ISBN: 978-1-56689-273-5


Review: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry



 It had to happen eventually. Though I was determined to read it slowly, once I hit the last quarter there was no putting it down.

A Long Long Way is slowly paced. Not as in oh my God when will this thing get going, as I found opined on another blog written by a reader struck, initially, by an unfortunate episode of dubious taste.

Think of lying back in a boat, reaching over the side trailing a finger in the water, wearing Edwardian dress and holding a parasol to protect  milky white skin. Of course, if you're male you may wish to make substitutions. You'll be rowing the boat so the lady may laze, reposing comfortably upon cushions downy soft. Because a lady neither breaks a sweat nor exerts. She is better suited to daydreaming, occasionally sighing gently.

Now that we have that settled.

I've mentioned already how easy it is to sympathize with Willie Dunne, the sweet young man sent off to fight in the fields of Belgium while his heart is back in Ireland with his love, Gretta of the green eyes. It's wrenching witnessing horrors through Willie's eyes and difficult knowing such a large part of his motivation for serving is the need to impress his father, because his son is not manly enough for his taste. Doesn't make one feel inclined to sympathize much with the man, even after his speech about having been a loyal policeman putting his life on the line as Ireland's beginning to split apart at the seams. But dear God things shift so cruelly by the end.

Though the plot is certainly attractive and keeps a due amount of tension it was for me far more about absorbing the language. I swear, this man's tax returns must be more romantic and poetic than the average love letter. Each time I open the book I tell myself I'm going to figure out the formula for how he does this but each time I'm so pulled in by his magic I forget I'd even had an agenda.

I know he does it by use of long, lulling sentences and keeping that slow pace mentioned above. But there is action and that's when any idea of analysis slips away. It's a time of war. Men are alternately being blown to bits and desperately seeking solace, living for weeks in filthy, sometimes flooded trenches with no food or water for days. And through it all Sebastian Barry manages that incredible flowing prose I'd know anywhere. I believe I may admire him for it, too.

I don't believe I need tell you the plot because really it's all here. Willie Dunne does his duty with a mixture of bravery and raw fear. There are friendships and losses, misery followed by brief furloughs. Back home are his sisters, his policeman father and his love, Gretta. And he misses them terribly when allowed the luxury of thinking beyond basic survival. Ireland is on the brink of civil war before WW I interrupts but the rifts have started and there is violence in the streets, part of which Willie's father finds himself in the midst of, his life and those of his comrades on the line. All the time Willie is away he awaits word from Gretta, and yes I assumed she must be a horrible person when the letters are from his sisters, instead. There's nothing more I can say, really, without giving away too much.

For this book Sebastian Barry was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. You may recall how I felt when his On Canaan's Side didn't make it to the Shortlist in 2011 and I would rather not go into my feelings on the Booker in general, thanks very much, though many congratulations to Julian Barnes. However, the stars did align for The Secret Scripture (the first of his books I read), winning him both the Costa and James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which are proof some judges on this earth know their business quite well. And did I mention A Long Long Way was chosen for Dublin's One Book One City read in 2007? Because it was.

Overall I guess what I'd like to say I've already said. I love many styles of writing from the florid prose of Dickens to the stripped down minimalism of much contemporary fiction but Sebastian Barry is on an entirely different plane. And you may not agree, that's fine. Though I'd rather not speak to you if that's the case.

Next, I'm not sure if I'm supposed to go backward to Annie Dunne or re-read The Secret Scripture and then Annie. But I'll figure that out. I found an affordable copy of his first novel, Macker's Garden, which I believe has no relation to these about the Dunnes but I won't read that 'til I've read through to On Canaan's Side again. However, neither love nor a reasonable amount of money will get me a copy of The Engine of Owl-Light, as of the last time I nosed around. This was his second novel and I've had no luck at all adding it to my collection. If I have to I'll fork over more money than I was comfortable with before but I'll deal with that when it's time. Mayhaps  a miracle will happen in the interim and I'll luck upon it in a used bookshop.

Speaking of time, his novels take quite a bit of that and being a playwright as well there's his tendency to write those when I'd rather he worked on a novel. Far be it from me to dictate to a genius but, well…

Let's face it. I'm going to be forced to start on the plays,  now, won't I. I may have a wait between novels and I'm not sure I can sway or hurry him with stories of my tears falling upon the keyboard, my wails splitting the ears of my family as I wallow in abject misery. Being a gentleman he'd pat me gently on the head and express his regret, which would not be a bad happening, mind, but in the meantime it's read and re-read and hope.







Bleak House, Various and sundry.

My hands were itching to talk books with you all week but my wishes were thwarted due to a Typepad glitch. Seems the goodly blogging platform had quite a taste for all things Bluestalking. Not only would it not let me save new posts, it ate the last two I wrote as well and of course I hadn't backed them up because nothing like this has happened in forever. And I hope it had galloping indigestion to match my level of irritation.

Appealing to them via Twitter did me no good, a tactic that's served me well in the resolution of other consumer complaints, most recently in the replacement of a brand new sofa with a mangled underside. If there's one thing you never want it's a mangled underside and I was certainly having no part of that, especially when it's literally just been brought through the door. The store refused to replace it, offering instead to "fix" it. Unacceptable. Telling over a thousand followers of my woes got immediate attention. The store tweeted me within minutes and I had a phone call to schedule a re-delivery/switch the next business day. Now that is customer service, even if I had to lean on them to get it. Let them push me around? I think not.

That explains, in more detail than you needed, my relative internet silence over the past few days. But today I'm having another go, cautiously optimistic my computer won't blow up or my underside become mangled. If it does, I'm relying on all of you to Tweet it to the world.


In Progress:

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Yes, yes I was supposed to have finished it for last Wednesday's book discussion but that didn't happen. It was nearly impossible reading Dickens at the galumphing pace required, but luck was with me and no one else save our brave facilitator had finished, either. In fact, I'd gotten the furthest of us all, save the one person who finished but was unable to attend. Victory! Well, of sorts.

Consensus was the book was very, very long. A wise conclusion considering how much paper is between the covers. As to the story itself, opinion was a bit more mixed. Keeping all gazillion characters and plotlines straight proved a difficulty not worth the effort for some, roughly half I would say. One gentleman, after reading only the first few pages, saw fit to pick up the Cliff Notes instead, eschewing the original for the shortcut. What's discouraging is he seemed to have as good a grip on things as I did, having finished roughly 85%. Then again, he wasn't obliged to read the vast quantity of words with which I grappled. So there.



We spent an awful lot of time asking each other, "What was the name of the _____ family's friend's servant?" and trying to untangle everyone with a similar name to another character. Partly because of this, if you haven't read Bleak House (or have but still aren't sure exactly what was happening) it's almost impossible spoiling the plot for you. The question would be, which plot are you even talking about, since there are so many. Of course they all funnel into the main plot regarding Esther Summerson (and cousins Richard and Ada), Lady Dedlock and the ongoing court case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in one way or other. It's always baffling how Dickens will manage to bring it all together by the end, yet always he does, minus a few characters who wander off but in some ways that's for the best, for the sanity of the reader.


So, what does BH say about Dickens and the Victorians? Jarndyce v. Jarndyce illustrates opinion about lawyers and court cases hasn't changed at all since the Victorians. Lawyers are generally nasty, self-serving creatures and court cases convoluted and dull. Shock horror!

As for the innocents, they so often suffer, sometimes losing their lives in unjust and unnecessary circumstances. Innocents include those with mental disabilities, children and those from the lower social order in general. BH is particularly sharp in the anger it directs at do-gooders, Mrs. Jellyby being a prime example, the woman so concerned with a village in Africa she doesn't notice anything happening in her own home. And I do mean anything. And Mr. Jellyby! If there's a better example of deep clinical depression in all of Victorian fiction I haven't read it.

Poor Mr. Jellyby, forever sitting with his head against a wall.

So, what of charity, to Dickens? Certainly not much of merit, extending past temporarily alleviating the suffering of those at hand. But even in that case, using Jo and his illness as an example, charity can backfire, leaving the best-intentioned permanently blemished. Going out of your way to help take care of your fellow wo/man doesn't fare well at all in BH.

Dickens has been called out before re: his depiction of women as either saints or whores. BH is filled with examples of saints – the "angels" in the house – with only one true "whore" in Lady Dedlock. She pays the price of her transgressions, in cruel ways. To be fair, so does the man who was the other half of that relationship, but he's largely shrouded in mystery. We know how he dies – destitute and alone – and there's a suggestion it was intentional, but Dickens shows us every bit of Lady Dedlock's agony.



The saint above all saints in BH is Esther Summerson, a character who may – I'm warning you – drive you barking mad by mid-book. She's exaggeratedly kind (and I really don't think it's intented ironically). Her interaction with Ada made me feel vaguely nauseous. There's friendship, then there's over the top and saccharine. But even the saints don't escape some very steep trials.



Did Dickens hate women? Oh, I don't know. There's lots written about it. I can tell you he treated his wife with callous indifference and almost surely had an affair with a beautiful actress. He also had a sort of crush on his dead sister-in-law, practically throwing himself in her grave when she died. Not sure what all that proves, if anything.

Ask me more later in the year. I'll know better by then.

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, BBC – 2005


Dickens at 200

Serendipitous Bleak House was the January read in our classics book group, considering the Inimitable's 200th birthday is coming up February 7th.

Martin Chuzzlewit is next up for me, in my personal celebration of all things Dickens. MC and the recent Claire Tomalin bio. This will be my first foray into MC and I know nothing about it – one reason I'm looking forward to the experience.

After MC I honestly can't say I'll have the luxury to fit in another Dickens novel in 2012, since I am attacking Ulysses starting Bloomsday this year (June 6). I'm allowing the rest of the year to read that one properly, relying heavily on true Irishman Frank Delaney and his podcasts on Ulysses to minimize my inevitable confusion.

To celebrate properly I'd need to take a trip to Dublin. I'm cheating myself by not doing so and I think I'll put that on my official Bucket List. There's a pub out there, somewhere, that has a stool with my name on it, and a few barrels of Guinness to get together a good drinking game to go along with a public reading of the book. One swallow for every swear should have me under the table in less than two hours. Change that to every sentence longer than a page and I'll be out in half that time. Of course it's likely I'd wake up with a shamrock – or worse – drawn on my forehead and my hair matted in who knows what.

Yes, onto the Bucket List it goes.




From an article in The Guardian



A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Heartrendingly gorgeous and I'm in no hurry to finish, as Sebastian Barry hasn't written all that many novels. I do so love his writing and this in no way involves a massive crush of an adolescent nature, mixed with a great appreciation of his lyricism and unfailingly gorgeous writing.

I'm further along but reluctantly so. It's difficult reading about the horrors of war and I've grown so fond of Willie Dunne it's hard seeing inhumane events through his eyes. Right now I'm just past the point at which he realizes his last letter offended his father, though he's not positive why. And as for the lovely Gretta… I just don't trust that one. Great looking or not, I have a feeling Willie could have chosen better than herself with the green eyes.




Author Sam Savage


Glass by Sam Savage – Currently reading for review.

I have loved Sam Savage's writing since his first novel, Firmin:

"Savage's sentimental debut concerns the coming-of-age of a well-read rat in 1960s Boston. In the basement of Pembroke Books, a bookstore on Scollay Square, Firmin is the runt of the litter born to Mama Flo, who makes confetti of Moby-Dick and Don Quixote for her offspring's cradle."

Publishers Weekly

I interviewed him following the publication of that novel, now that I think of it. Such a dear man.

Glass is about a widow asked to write a new introduction for the re-issue of her late husband's book but actually more about her life, memories and adjustment to being alone. What's sweetly poignant is there's a rat in this novel, as well, though the standard mammal who isn't able to read and express himself in words. Loads more than this is poignant but it was the rat that really got to me.

Between Firmin and Glass there was The Cry of the  Sloth:

"Living on a diet of fried Spam, vodka, sardines, cupcakes, and Southern Comfort, Andrew Whittaker is slowly being sucked into the morass of middle age. A negligent landlord, small-time literary journal editor, and aspiring novelist, he is—quite literally— authoring his own downfall. From his letters, diary entries, and fragments of fiction, to grocery lists and posted signs, this novel is a collection of everything Whittaker commits to paper over the course of four critical months."

– from

I love books that rip out my heart, dice it to bits and toss it onto a plate. Even better are those with a wicked dark sense of humor involving books, readers and/or writers. Sam Savage manages to hit my soft spots in every, single book he writes. He's not nearly as well known as he should be.

Read him. Do.


Restoring Grace by Katie Fforde – Reading for librarian group.

Nope, I'm not one for conventional romance and my last reading round up covered the reasons I chose this when forced to read outside my genre comfort zone: British, ancient home and single women living together, making a go of it sans men. Oh, and the Irishman, coming to woo the owner of the ancient home…



Losing It: In Which An Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain by William Ian Miller

From the good people at Yale U.P. and it's basically about what it says. It makes a good NF read to pick up while the rest of the family's watching t.v.  I can read NF with noise going on around me but not fiction. Not without a rise in blood pressure that's not worth it, I should say.


Coming Soon:

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – next read for classics group.

Love this book, can't wait to re-read, so you know it must be a heart-ripper. Also planning to squeeze in McCullers's unfinished autobiography, an Amazon purchase I allowed myself last week, though my fondness for the Amazon Daily Deal eBook has me well on my way toward addiction. Funny how I managed to side-step making an actual resolution about book buying this year. Or, not so much funny as frightening.



In between reads for BookBrowse, LibraryJournal and Booklist. Then there are the various and sundry review books, otherwise known as The Great Horde, including Barry Unsworth's latest The Quality of Mercy.

Also checked out from the library: How it All Began by Penelope Lively and Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare. Re: the latter, right now I can't recall what it's about or why I ordered it. Must have had some good reason. Funny, the ILL books that wind up on my desk are usually of this ilk. I either can't remember requesting them or why.


As usual, I'm obviously bereft of great reading material. All my time is wasted on breathing, eating and sleeping until such time as I can find my way back to reading. They say Americans are reading less and less every year, though whether that includes Tweets and McDonald's game pieces I don't know.

I smell another government study that needs funding! Perhaps I'll drop past Twitter and mention it.







Book Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn West




Few things get my attention as quickly as a come-from-behind award win by a new or not widely known author. And the 2011 National Book Award was won by a come-from-behind, not widely known author: Jesmyn Ward, author of the previous novel Where the Line Bleeds.

Ward is assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama. For 2010 – 2011 she was the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. From 2008 – 2010 she had a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

Need I say it? She is a writer of exceptional talent and potential. And – Hello World! – now everyone knows it.

Salvage the Bones is set in the Mississippi Gulf hamlet of Bois Sauvage, in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The patriarch of the Batiste family is attuned to the impending disaster,   smelling danger in the air. Having delivered his family through the furor of Camille, preparation is his obsession:


"Makes my bones hurt," Daddy said. "I can feel them coming."


Meanwhile, China – veteran dog-fight winning pit bull – is preparing to give birth to her first litter of puppies. And Esch, the fifteen-year old daughter is coming to a realization: she's pregnant by one of her brothers' friends. Juxtaposed with both of these events is the memory of their mother's death after giving birth:


"Maybe you need to help her [China] push," I [Esch] say. Sometime I think that is what killed Mama. I can see her, chin to chest, straining to push Junior out, and Junior snagging on her insides, grabbing hold of what he caught on to try to stay inside her, but instead he pulled it out with him when he was born."


The Batistes are a close family whose love and loyalty to one another are central to the story, stronger than the Job-like challenges they face and stare down. The father is an alcoholic who sometimes flies into drunken rages – mostly taken out on his son Skeetah – but even that doesn't diminish their cohesive family unit. They are as attuned to one another as their father to the oncoming storm, as China the pit bull to her owner, Skeetah. Their love, unconditional.

As the oppressive heat pushed ahead of Katrina bears down on them, Esch, Skeetah and their father face the personal trials of their lives. Esch – filled with the story of Medea she's been reading – is trying to conceal her pregnancy from her family, while dreaming the father of the child will love her as she loves him. Skeetah fights for the survival of first China's puppies and then China, the two as intertwined as lovers. And their father, a widower fighting to raise his family alone, goes from strong family leader to an injured, helpless man reliant on his children to take on his role for the protection of them all.

The layers in this story could be analyzed, the references to mythology traced, but frankly how many readers really want to? Never mind all that; leave it to the professors to note the themes of love, water, blood and violence and tie them up neatly. The story is urgent. The characters burrow themselves under your skin. Then comes Katrina, the off-stage character waiting three quarters of the book to make her appearance. Teeth bared and sharpened, She furiously slams down Her fist as they huddle together, realizing with growing horror She is no Camille.

The final quarter of the novel is a nerve-wracking race to the finish, life vs. death, Katrina the god  orchestrating the maelstrom. The water rises, the wind howls and ultimately it's up to Skeetah – most clairvoyant of them all – to make the decision that will save or undo them.

And the writing is gorgeous:


"It is terrible. It is the flailing wing that lashes like an extension cord used as a beating belt. It is the rain, which stings like stones, which drives into our eyes and bids them shut. It is the water, swirling and gathering and spreading on all sides, brown with an undercurrent of red to it, the clay of the Pit like a cut that won't stop leaking. It is the remains of the yard, the refrigerators and lawn mowers and the RV and mattresses, floating like a fleet. It is trees and branching breaking, popping like Black Cat firecrackers in an endless crackle of explosions, over and over and again and again. It is us huddling together on the roof, shaking against the plastic. It is everywhere. Daddy kneels behind us, tries to gather all of us to him. Skeetah hugs China, and she howls. Daddy's truck careens slowly in the yard."


So much talent in such a young writer. So much to look forward to.






Brava, Jesmyn Ward.


At the ripe old age of 35, Jesmyn Ward is at work on a memoir. Let's hope she has another novel in mind, too. In progress would be better. Finished? I don't dare dream.


Slow to the Finish, Though I Eats Me Spinach: January reading, etc…

I haven't finished one book yet in 2012. Not one. I've started a few, and made some good progress but I keep getting distracted by other books and can't finish a single one. It's getting a little frustrating, especially seeing so many other book bloggers joyously declaring they're ready to post their first – or even second, the over-achievers! – review of the year, then here's me – six days into Apocalypse 2012 without a single finish to call my own.

I hang my head in shame.


LonglongwayI'm just over halfway in A Long Long Way, Mr. Sebastian Barry's previous Booker nominee. It tells the tale of Willie Dunne, of the recurring Dunne family, and his experiences in WW I. Positively gut-wrenching stuff. The description of death by mustard gas was an agony to read. How could human beings be so cruel to each other?

It's not all horrific, thankfully, but much of it is dedicated to expressing the brutality – and frustrations – of war. Impossible not to love Willie Dunne and wish him anywhere but along the front lines. Also difficult not to feel enraged when his superior officer denigrates the Irish, putting them down as stupid for going and getting themselves killed. As if they'd done so on purpose? I could have slapped the man which goes to show you how Mr. Barry creates such emotion in – in this case – a more stripped-down example of his prose, a less-poetic book than On Canaan's Side but powerful nonetheless.

During Willie's visit home on leave it feels so easy identifying with the glory of being bathed for the first time in ages, though I've never been that dirty I assure you. Reading it made me feel the itch of the nits (I'm scratching my head as I type this!) and the relief after the scrub down by his father, while Willie stood in the tin tub shivering but enjoying the personal attention from the parent who'd always found him lacking before. Such a simple scene, really, though not simple at all from the standpoint of their fraught relationship. Having been tested and coming through one stage of the war raised the boy in the opinion of his father, disappointed as he'd been by his son's short stature and inability to prove himself strong and manly otherwise. Sad knowing it took so much to get his father's attention though Willie himself seems proud enough of the fact. 


MagnificentobsessionIn a nonfiction work for review it's the story of Victoria and Albert, specifically Victoria's obsession with death and mourning, contrasted with Albert's complete resignation he had no doubt he would die young. Many readers will find it eerie how accepting of death Albert was, though Rappaport does a brilliant job explaining reasons for it. For one, he was a German having to live away from his homeland and all his family. For another, when he married Victoria he was discriminated against for being foreign and also emasculated for his status as mere husband of the monarch, until made Prince Consort.

Ironically, it turns out he's the one who put the ramrod iron in Victoria's spine, disciplining her from a silly thing (Victoria?!) into a serious ruler. But even then he was every inch the king, though not in name. He answered official correspondence, heavily influencing the direction Britain took, necessarily using his persuasion on Victoria herself, as well.

My idea of the romance between Victoria and Albert was smashed by the reading of this book. Certainly, they loved each other, and when Albert died Victoria was devastated. Only, she was one for indulging herself in deep mourning, almost taking pleasure in its austerity, judging from her reactions to other deaths in the family. It's all riveting and shocking, not at all the story I was expecting. Fascinating stuff. During this year of the celebration of Dickens's 200th it's a wonderful addition to my reading, thanks to Library Journal!

And should you read an LJ blurb on the back of the finished U.S. edition that would be ME. The first time I saw a quotation from myself in the guise of Library Journal (individuals aren't credited) I was taken aback, I was so impressed. I told the person I was with, "I wrote this review, so I know I said this, but I don't remember it!"

So it goes as a review churner-outer. I expect I'm all over the place and don't know it. I'm too focused on what's next I seldom look back, though I may wish otherwise someday. Ah, but it will still be there now, won't it.


Bleakhouse2On to Dickens (happy birthday in a month and a day, old chap!) and Bleak House! It's a huge, huge book – weighing in between 900 + and 1,000 + pages depending on the edition – and I'm just past the middle reading it on my new Kindle Fire.

Until last night I was so proud I'd been keeping all 5,000 characters straight, then I hit a scene in which I had no concept on earth what had just happened, nor did I recognize to whom it did. I soldiered on, hoping it would come clear but then it never did after another 50 or so pages.

The remedy for that will be a quick look at Spark Notes or the equivalent, which I believe an excellent resource when you're actually reading – or have read – the primary work and have a question to be answered. Because falling behind in a Dickens novel is a serious thing, indeed.

This is at least my second read of BH, if not my third. I can't keep anything straight I live in such a muddle of books. I'm not as irritated with Esther Summerson this time around (reserving that feeling for Ada, the long-suffering fool), and far more annoyed with Richard Carstone. Mrs. Jellyby is still a nuisance of a thing I'd love to slap, and her Peepy adorable beyond words as a background character you can't help but love, the poor duck.

I just don't remember the covers of the book being so far apart,or the distance between mentions of Lady Dedlock separated so much. If this were a modern book I'd be screaming WHERE IS THE EDITOR?! but it's funny with Dickens I push through all the diversions.

But I honestly don't recall all these side-plots… The Smallweeds and granddaughter Judy, for one, though any scene featuring them is grimly hilarious. Old Smallweed is tossed around, as an elderly invalid, but the reader feels no sympathy at all for the calculating old coot. When he's pushed too close to the fire and his stockings begin to burn the reader almost wishes he'd been pushed a little closer.



Nasty old thing.

And here's a wonderful link with Bleak House illustrations in case you're looking for them and you hopefully will be someday, if not today.

So, having lots of fun with this but I'm getting a little nervous about finishing on time for the group discussion in another week or so. I read 'til I can't keep my eyes open every, single night and get through hundreds of pages but did I mention the book is VERY  LONG?


And don't even ask me what's up and coming or I'll slip into a coma. A publicist for Barry Unsworth sent me a note asking if I'll review his new one,  The Quality of Mercy, coming out January 10. Well, if I can I love to post a review right as a book's debuting and though this one's not so chunky as BH it's still over 300 pp. of thoughtful reading, with the Victoria and Albert review due January 8, no less.

Next week I'm attending a signing for Sara Levine (and three other writers but never mind that…), author of Treasure Island!!! with which I had mixed reading success. For her I'll be working up a review-y, maybe interview-y thing for local papers,  plus of course the blog. With photos, video if possible but don't hold your breath.

As if that's not enough to make a woman a raving lunatic, my library is hosting a TREMENDOUSLY PROLIFIC BIG NAME AUTHOR during National Library Month in April and I've, to date, read only one of her 20ish books. SO I WILL NEED TO REMEDY THAT. And she may be bringing along another writer, first book coming out in May, and I NEED TO LAY MY GRUBBY HANDS ON A COPY OF THAT AS WELL.

And no, that's not all that's between January and April, just all I'm willing to type.

I may not come up for air until June, during which I'll have roughly two weeks to cry piteously until time to gear up once again and read the works of NUMEROUS WRITERS I WILL BE MEETING AT BOOKTOPIA 2012 in Oxford, MS.

For all or  most of these writers my work will include much of my usual services. Of COURSE there's much joy and rapture in all my endeavors – or damned if I'd do it – but it makes my brain feel squeezy sometimes, you must understand. Occasionally it becomes so squeezy all the blood flees my brain, my head flops to the side and I stare at nothing for hours until someone comes along and pushes me over, allowing my blood to again flow freely. Then I eat chocolate and all is right with the world.

So all this is a very round-about way of saying, "Gosh I'm busy." You could have just read this last bit and avoided everything else. Makes you want to kick yourself, doesn't it?


Review: Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

I would have sworn I'd finish no more books by the end of the year but it just goes to show when you make such a pronouncement you're nearly always wrong. The virus that's knocked me flat over the past few days made it impossible to stay awake the first two but yesterday, lo and behold, I was able to maintain consciousness long enough not only to read Sara Levine's Treasure Island!!! but also most of Ali Smith's There But for The.

 I believe I was so starved for reading time my pace was set to double-quick. Also, it didn't hurt Levine's book went so quickly and Smith's was clearly written by angels. Actually, know what it made me think of? Sebastian Barry. Oh shut up with your "doesn't everything…" because no, it doesn't. The style – the beautiful, poetic prose – is uplifting in the same way as Barry. No wonder it was one of his favorite reads of 2011, and, okay, part of the reason I decided to go ahead and slip it in the line ahead of Jennifer Egan's blockbuster Goon Squad.

Happy now?


Treasureisland Therebutforthe


I'm not ready to talk about There But for The, aside from the fact it's gob-smackingly BRILLIANT through the 3/4 point, where I am. Not that I expect it to take a nosedive, as that would be shocking indeed. It's more that I honestly don't have time to get into it as deeply as it deserves right now. But for Treasure Island!!! there's time enough.

Let's first cover a point I know I've heard ad nauseum, therefore so probably have you. That is, the issue of "I don't like the main character, therefore how can I be expected to like the book?"


A bit of a literary lesson, if I may be so bold: YOU DON'T HAVE TO LIKE EVERY CHARACTER IN A BOOK FOR IT TO BE WELL-WRITTEN! Sorry for using my outside voice but STOP SAYING THAT!

I find Humbert Humbert one of the most reprehensible, revolting and disgusting bits of slime ever to walk the pages of a book but by damn Lolita is a fine piece of literature. I'm not supposed to like HH. If I did there would be something sociopathically wrong with me. Same goes for Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. Anyone find him particularly endearing? So, is Oliver Twist any less a masterpiece? Etc., etc., etc.

Intentionally creating an unlikable main character is a skill, sort of like juggling, or playing the piano – anything that requires you do two things at once. Assuming other characters in a book are at least moderately likable, forming that one true baddie who provokes loathing in a reader is no easy feat. As for how this all ties into Treasure Island!!!, I'm reading it with an online group, and so far the most common complaint is "I don't like her!" Well, that's understandable, because throughout most of the book the main character is a selfish, conceited bitch. Though, on the other hand, she's at times a hilariously funny, selfish, conceited bitch.

Personally, having said an awful lot about recognizing an author's skill despite how you feel about her characters, in the end – despite the character's very last minute growth/change – I did not find the book that satisfactory a read. It was funny at times, wicked at others. And at the end I could kind of, sort of understand the character's motivation (in addition to seeing the aforesaid growth) for all the things she did within the course of the book. But was she a masterfully-drawn character?

Not quite. There simply wasn't enough to the book. It didn't have enough to say about, well, anything in particular. It's an entertainment, rather than a piece of literature I walked away from feeling in some way transformed, more enlightened about the human condition. Despite an okay ending it just didn't grab me. I love books that knock me around a bit, leave me bruised and battered.

What's it about? The main character – who, as far as I can recall, is never named – becomes, for no apparent reason, obsessed with R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. She carries the book with her everywhere, taking endless notes, mostly about extraneous details most of us wouldn't care about, some of them in code for whatever reason. Her telling remark about the book, an image repeated several times, is:

"If life were a sea adventure, I knew: I wouldn't be sailor, pirate or cabin boy but more likely a barnacle clinging to the side of the boat. Why not rise, I thought. Why not spring up that very moment, in the spirit of Jim, and create my own adventure?"

And a barnacle she is, throughout the course of the book, occasionally realizing it but mostly just going along for the ride.

When the book opens she's working at a "Pet Library," which is exactly what it sounds: animals are checked out and returned after a specific lending period. After blowing all the owner's petty cash on a parrot, she's fired. Oddly enough, she's never charged with stealing the  money. For the rest of the novel she knocks about, living off people and doing as she pleases. With the  parrot, of course. The parrot she despises. The owner of the Pet Library was curiously uninterested in adding it to her collection, though her money bought the incredibly expensive bird.  Why not try to recoup that investment or demand it be returned and her money restored to her? Again, I just don't know.

She meets and develops a boyfriend relationship with a man named Lars, moves in with him once her unemployed state makes her unable to afford her own apartment, and starts spending his money like mad. Things go forward, little makes any sense and telling more would just be spoiling the plot.

Books that are just okay, fun while they last then forgotten, are pretty much useless to me. I don't read "beach books," "chick lit" or, usually (though watch for an upcoming exception to that rule), "cozies." I don't like the light and fluffy. I don't need a lighter book between more serious books. They waste my limited reading time. I want the exceptional, the concise books that pack a serious punch or the longer, poetic, angelic books of the sort Sebastian Barry (!) and Ali Smith write. Among others, of course, but choosing favorite writers is much like choosing a favorite among my children. Depending on the day.

But it's not all bad for Sara Levine. She writes some howlingly funny stuff, like this:

"I've never liked Long John Silver, but reading about him vigorously stumping around on his wooden leg prepared me to see the positive side of a crippled life. I shudder to think of it, but I know my strengths: I could lose a limb and, with the right wardrobe, still come off as sexy. I'm not saying I would want to wear a prosthetic hand, only that I'm the kind of girl who could pull it off, whereas Adrianna – what can I say? Her appeal is limited."

Her humor, dark and snarky, is the sort I like. I just didn't love the book as a whole. After discussing it with the Rumpus Book Group I may have a more generous point of view but I expect it won't change dramatically. On a scale of one to Sebastian Barry it's a mere meh. Nothing to get excited about, nothing to flail my arms around recommending. It's funny, the main character is basically a useless but wonky leach, and in the end she undergoes a sort of awakening. So it's all there, all the requirements of good writing. It just didn't excite me. Plus, there's a bit about cruelty to animals. Gratuitous cruelty. And sorry, that's just not funny.

My two cents? I'd take a pass on this one.


Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

Europa Editions (December 7, 2011)

ISBN:    978-1609450618

Pages: 172

$ 15.00


Source: My personal library.





NaNo…. NoNo

I fell behind. The wagon hit a bump in the road and I fell off. I was trampled by the horses, scraped off the street and tossed onto the sidewalk.

Yesterday was November 30, 2011. In order for me to have finished NaNoWriMo I would have had to write something along the lines of 30,000 words by the end of the day. That didn't happen.

What bothers me most isn't that I didn't cram 50,000 words into 30 days. I'm concerned by how embarrassed I've been to come online and admit defeat. If anyone else said to me, "Hey, I tried, but you know how much else I have going on. I just couldn't get there." I'd say, "No worries. You gave it a shot." I need to extend to myself that same empathy. Chin up, woman! There's nothing saying I can't take what I started, finish it and rework it into something, now is there. Besides, I changed my mind about the entire direction of the piece and wasn't sure how to go on, leaving the first 50ish pages hanging while twisting the plot, mid-novel, into something totally different. I just wasn't feeling it this year, I guess. Or I was, but knowing I didn't have time to go back and revise made me reluctant to go on.

I'm raising the white flag of surrender. NaNoWriMo, you have officially kicked my lily-white, Irish/Dutch/English posterior.

I haven't been idle, though. I published an interview with Michael Cunningham in the Illinois Library Association Reporter. I also submitted a couple book reviews: one on Caitlin Flanagan's Girl Land for Booklist and the other Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina for Library Journal. Don't think either of those have been published yet, or at least I haven't had time to check.

Also, there are the blog posts in our local online newspapers ( and TribLocal), book reviews and an interview on behalf of the library:  an interview with Michael Popek, author of Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller's Collection of Odd Things Found Between the Pages; my thoughts on Hillary Jordan's latest When She Woke; and also Peter Ackroyd's latest London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets.


What am I reading now, you ask? I'll tell you!:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Plus my latest review book for, one I can't reveal just yet, mostly because it makes it sound mysterious and exotic. All I'm saying is: grim, short stories, southern. That narrows it down.


Soon to start:

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

2012 being the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, I plan to read several other books by and about my favorite Victorian. One is Claire Tomalin's latest biography: Charles Dickens: A Life and the other possibly Michael Slater's Charles Dickens, about which I've heard only great things. I've missed Victorian literature. 2012 is my year to revisit a few old favorites and also give some new ones a try.



Also, I've been tremendously blessed by several publishers who answered my clarion call, sending me review books I requested, plus those who continue to send titles they'd like me to cover. Here are a few of those, received over the past week:




Special thanks to Coffee House Press and Yale University Press. Wow!

Loads of things bookish happening here, plus the inevitable pull into the holiday season. It's going to be a busy month.

Book chat and a book & website for rabid bibliophiles

Reviewing [SEE: Reading for and writing] has been taking up much of my reading time. So has dipping into too many books, finishing none of them. Right now I have two Booklist reviews I'm working on, one for Library Journal and a novel on its way. My library classics group is reading James's Portrait of a Lady, and after recently meeting writers including Bill Bryson and Michael Cunningham I now want to read/re-read their entire backlists. Meeting them reminds me  how ultra-wonderful they truly are.




For the library I've committed myself to producing at least two reviews on a bi-weekly basis, though further thinking makes me wonder if I shouldn't just make that one review per week. I'm making these book recommendation posts part of our already existing library blog, titling my portion "The Librarian's Shelf." It's pithy and the meaning is clear. Gotta be short and snappy these days. Say it in 140 characters or less or you lose your audience.

Hey, get back here!

Guess it's okay to say my first Booklist review coming down the review shoot is Caitlin Flanagan's Girl Land, due out January 2012. For Library Journal it's more Russian history (yum!) with Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina by Virginia Rounding, also slated for publication early next year. Won't tell you the title for BookBrowse, sorry. I know that's just crushing you but I have refusal option and can't say I'll elect to finish and review it at all.

What else in book  news? I finished Chris Paling's Nimrod's Shadow. Lovers of English mysteries involving the contemporary flashing back to a related plotline in the Edwardian era will eat this one up. Doesn't hurt if you're into artists of a young and handsome nature living alone with his Jack Russell terrier, either.




Here's a blurb via Amazon:

"Reilly is an impoverished painter who lives alone in a shabby garret, with only his unsold canvases and his faithful dog Nimrod for company. He seems destined to remain in artistic obscurity until the most influential art critic of the time begins to notice his talent. But no sooner has he found a patron than the critic is found downed in a local canal and the trail leads directly back to Reilly. From Reilly's prison cell in Edwardian London to an exclusive gallery in contemporary Soho, the clues that lead to the real murderer lie carefully hidden, until the day when Samantha, a young office assistant, finds herself drawn to one of Reilly's pictures and decides to embark on her own investigation…Steeped in atmosphere and laced with intrigue, Nimrod's Shadow is a gripping tale of genius, jealousy, and revenge – with a few twists and turns along the way."

Finished it last night at nearly 1:00 a.m. I had to know what happened, I cared so much about both Reilly and Samantha. Such great imagination this man has! Wonder if I can track him down for a quick email interview? Dear Readers, I will try.

Turns out he's written several other books as well. And somehow Nimrod was the first to make my radar. I wrote his publisher, asked for a review copy and voilà! A couple weeks's worth of great reading (in between other books). Just wish Nimrod himself had featured more. Then again, owning two JRTs I'm a little prejudiced. But this one's not getting nearly enough attention here. Looks like it's available in the States in Kindle edition only. Not sure if that's a good or bad thing. In any case, it's a genuinely entertaining read and a page-turner and so dratted  much fun!

Paling's described as a melancholy but uplifting sort of writer. We need to get to know him better. Don't let the Brits keep him to themselves!

Guardian review – Nimrod's Shadow:

Finally, I stumbled upon this for the most ravenous of us Bibliophiles:



The writer's a used/rare bookseller, bestill my heart, blogging here. Pop over to see some of the curious things he's found in books through the years, and buy a copy of his book to have it for your very own, to read and re-read during the wintry months when you'll need a good laugh. At least I will, in snowy Chicagoland. Here's an article the author, Michael Popek, wrote for the The Wall Street Journal.

In my former life as an online bookseller I found some pretty nifty things, too, though nothing on the scale of this. My most lucrative find was a DOLLAR BILL! And, for a bookseller, that's a big boost to profits. The most interesting thing? Two black and white photos of Edwardian era women, taken in someone's parlor/drawing room. If Icould track down their family or families I would. Can you imagine the genealogical interest? I have a book (recipe and "receipt" book) with Nixon family genealogy written in. I've posted twice to Nixon family genealogical forums and no one's contacted me back. Know a Nixon from Ohio?

And no, I'm sure if it's that Nixon.

As usual, I'm having far too much fun reading and poking into corners finding books that make my heart go pitter-pat.

Have a lovely.