Thursday, June 21, 2007


Last Man Standing, David Baldacci, Warner Books, 2002, 638 pp

Last month I made a trip to Michigan to help my mom who was ill. This was my airplane read. I had forgotten to pack books in my carry-on, so I bought this in the airport. It is no where near as good as the other two I've read by Baldacci but it got me through the flight.

Web London is FBI, part of a team of snipers who go into danger spots and recover hostages or take live prisoners who will testify against drug lords. The story begins with Web's entire team being killed in a drug raid. He is the last man standing because he experienced a moment when he froze, could not move, so that when he overcame it, he was not in the cross-fire.

There is trouble in the Bureau and it appears that the traitor is inside the organization. Enter shrinks, horse dealers, an undercover agent and the 10 year old son of a local drug dealer. Web has issues due to being abandoned by his father when he was 6 and abused by his stepfather.

So it goes, it all gets solved. The reader knows more than the FBI, Web suffers Bruce Willis style and I was almost bored by page 600. It is a wonder to me how a writer gets worse. Defies logic.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai, Grove/Atlantic Inc, 2006, 357 pp

I read this on the plane to France and in the hotel room in Paris. It is great! A family in a remote part of India lives in reduced circumstances in a crumbling house. The grandfather was a judge. He had been educated at Oxford and risen from his family's poverty; one of those Indian situations where all resources went to the smart son of the family in an effort to raise their status. Now he is a bitter old man.

His granddaughter came to live there when she was nine. Her parents had died in Russia, where her father was involved in the space program and there was no more money to pay for her boarding school. Fascinating the different kinds of lives that people lead.

The entire book was a study in Indian customs and social issues. A cast of odd individuals in the village include two spinster sisters who have English sensibilities left from colonial days and who continue the granddaughter's education. At 16, the granddaughter gets a tutor from the village for science. He is from another very poor family; they fall in love but he gets caught up in a tribal terrorist group.

Finally there is the family cook, who is the person who has actually cared for the granddaughter and who has a son trying to make a life in New York City, working in one restaurant after another and living in the immigrant bowels of the city.

No one's dreams come true, mostly all is lost and in this way it is a sad story. But I found it to be an excellent assessment of the way human beings reach for dreams and love and self-importance in many varied patterns. The interaction of cultures and social levels is an old story on planet Earth, so it is Desai's considerable skill as a writer that makes the novel a unique and fresh tale. She was awarded the Booker Prize and I think she deserved it.

Monday, June 18, 2007


Black Girl in Paris, Shay Youngblood, Riverhead Books, 2000, 232 pp

Before I went to Paris, I wanted to read some fiction set in the City of Light. I searched the library catalogue for contemporary fiction set in Paris and this is one of the books that came up. Otherwise I would possibly never have heard of or read this excellent novel. I read it the week before I went. It is just the sort of book I love: a bit quirky with exquisite writing and an admirable heroine.

Eden is an orphan, found in a paper bag as an infant by the poor black couple who kept her and raised her. She grows up and gets educated with a dream to be a writer. She is fascinated by black artists who had gone to Paris for a respite from racism: James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Josephine Baker, and the many jazz musicians who found acceptance and freedom there.

At the age of 26, she sets out for Paris with $200. It is 1986 and terrorism by immigrants is killing people daily in the streets. Eden is looking for freedom to create and freedom from fear. She is courageous and open, surviving by her wits, finding friends and working as an artist's model, a poet's helper, an au pair, just to make enough to eat.

This is a creative coming-of-age tale written as a poetic memoir, in the great black female writing tradition of Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid and Alice Walker.


It has been a while since I posted a word of the day. I like how some of my readers put sentences for the word in the comments. So here is a new word.

from Postwar by Tony Judt

n. state, quality, or instance of being venal (can be readily bribed or corrupted); willingness to be bribed or bought off, or to prostitute one's talents for mercenary considerations
derived from French venalite which is from Latin venalitas
(ref: Webster's New World Dictionary Third College Edition)

My sentence: A member of one of my reading groups accused Elizabeth Gilbert of venality for writing Eat, Pray, Love.

Sentence, anyone?

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Twilight, Stephanie Meyer; Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 498 pp

This Young Adult novel is the #1 favorite of my boss's 12 year old daughter. She got all her friends to read it and they talk about it incessantly. These young girls are quite innocent and somewhat protected by their parents as to what they read. I don't think my boss who is the owner of the bookstore where I work has read Twilight.

So here is the deal. Seventeen year old Bella goes from Phoenix, where she has been living with her long-divorced mom, to live with her father in a tiny town in Washington state. She is a smart, self-sufficient girl but she was not a social success in Phoenix. Bella is extremely accident prone, has never had a boyfriend and has a rock bottom self image.

All the boys at her new high school are after her but she falls for the weirdest, though best looking, guy who turns out to be a vampire. Edward the vampire is equally stricken but must control his urge to do what vampires do. Very unusual twist on the whole vampire thing.

What I took away from the story is an unmistakable theme of sexual tension, except there is no sex beyond touching and kissing. The sexual urge has been transmuted into the vampire thing and Edward is a "good" boy because he controls himself and doesn't suck her blood.

If I were anywhere from 12 to 17, I would be so turned on by this book. Do their mothers know? I won't be the one to tell them.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Rough Strife, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Harper & Row Publishers, 1980, 200 pp

After reading Ruined By Reading and feeling that here was a kindred spirit, I wanted to read Schwartz's fiction. This is her first novel; it is accomplished and I loved every page. It is the story of a marriage which has lasted twenty years so far. A marriage of two independent spirits bound by passion for sure, but also by whatever mysterious element keeps two individuals anchored to each other through the rough strife of everyday life.

Ivan and Caroline are so well portrayed that I felt I knew them the way I know myself and my husband. You get the story through Caroline's viewpoint and she is a complex and complete individual. She has goals and intelligence and strong personal boundaries. Despite her professional field of advanced mathematics, she has a wild imagination. Ivan also is a strong character who know what he likes and what he doesn't, who handles people well and is not pushed around by anyone. He reminds me of my husband.

Perhaps because in my first marriage I succumbed to the divorce mania of the 70s and because in my second marriage we have hung on through every experience that could have broken us apart, I particularly was enthralled by this story. But I think anyone who has been married to the same person for many years would laugh, cringe and feel rewarded by reading Rough Strife.


Yesterday I spent the afternoon at a cool bookstore in Malibu called Diesel. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love was speaking and signing. It was mobbed and I had to stand the whole time, but she is as good a speaker as she is a writer and she graciously answered questions for so long that I had to go out for some oxygen before it was over.

For some reason, I didn't buy a book. I don't even know why. On the way home I decided to stop for something to eat only then I didn't have a book! Whenever I go out to eat by myself, I read. I couldn't really deal with parking and walking in to another bookstore. I was SO hungry. Right next door to the Thai restaurant I was going to was a big chain grocery store (Ralph's to you Californians) where I knew they had some books. So I popped in there and it was bad: only Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, some male mystery writer whom I wouldn't even read on an airplane, etc. Then way back I found Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, only one copy and only there because it is the new Oprah pick. I haven't read it so I grabbed it and headed for checkout.

I found a line with no people and three young women in their late teens or early twenties chatting because they had no customers. As I was paying, the girl checking me out said, "I need to get into reading." The other two girls said they did too. So all my guilt about not buying a book at Diesel and on top of that buying a book in a grocery store (it was heavily discounted, of course) flew away as I realized I had done a good reading deed in reminding those girls that they meant to read a book one of these days!

Thursday, June 07, 2007


The Lighthouse, P D James, Alfred A Knopf, 2005, 383 pp

I read this for one of my reading groups. I think it is her second most recent book. That is more than 43 years of writing mysteries. So now I have read from both ends of her oeuvre. I don't totally get why people think she is so great. She certainly has the genre down perfectly, but I just didn't find The Lighthouse to be all that exciting. Of the female mystery writers, I still like Sara Paretsky best.

Adam Dalgliesh is the investigator and I understand that he figures in many of her books. Then there are his two assistants. Each has a personal life, which gets some pages, but mainly they are solving a murder which happened on a private island off the Cornwall coast. It is a writer who was killed and every person on the island is a suspect. She does keep you guessing but I didn't feel completely satisfied at the end. The actual murderer kind of comes out of the blue.

Basically I am not a mystery fan. That's all there is to it.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


What Was She Thinking, Zoe Heller, Henry Holt and Company, 2003, 258 pp

I read this before watching "Notes on a Scandal", the subtitle of the book and the name of the movie made from it. Actually, I haven't seen the movie yet. It is somewhere in my Netflix queue. I was impressed by the writing which is simple but masterful, and by the several layers on which the story works.

Ostensibly it is about a 40 year old married, upper middle class woman who has an affair with a 15 year old pupil at the public school where she teaches pottery. They are found out and a scandal ensues, ruining Sheba's life and marriage. But the real story is about female friendship, which every woman knows is an aspect of life fraught with pitfalls. Barbara Covett is an older teacher at Sheba's school, a lonely spinster, who tells the tale and is Sheba's only friend after the scandal breaks.

Barbara is a piece of work, as they say. Her obsessions with Sheba, with her cat Portia and with the affair are what power the story. I was reminded of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Woven throughout is a rich layer of social satire. Really I haven't read a better, more complex book about modern life in a long time. I am highly anticipating the movie, especially with Judi Dench as Barbara.