Tuesday, October 28, 2008


The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova, Little Brown and Company, 2005, 642 pp

I bought this book when it first came out but did not get around to reading it. Knowing that my husband liked Dracula stories, I gave it to him but he couldn't get into it, even though he read and liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell by Susanna Clarke. Finally it got picked by one of my reading groups and I read it. I loved it!

Admittedly I found it hard to get going. In fact, I started over three times, because there are three over lapping stories and frankly, at first that is confusing. I also looked up all the words I didn't know and seriously used the map in the front of the book as well as an atlas. By then I was hooked on knowledge and began looking up important buildings and monuments on Wikipedia, which has fabulous photos for many of them.

I have always liked history and yearned to know it all, but most nonfiction history texts are to me, boring and dry in the extreme. I like learning history from historical novels (and really, if you read enough of them, you don't have to worry about inaccuracies too much.) Kostova made me work so hard that I felt virtuous learning history from her novel but truly she made me be a historian. That she interwove three deeply moving love stories as well as travelogue blended with mystery and danger, made reading all those pages pure pleasure for me.

I found it amusing that most of today's vampire novels, including the Twilight series, are vampire-light compared to the horror and evil of Kostova's Vlad Dracula. This guy is no Disney character and she leaves you wondering if his minions are possibly still with us in the world.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin, Viking Penguin, 2006, 331 pp

I had to read this book for a reading group. I was not looking forward to it despite all the raves I had heard from customers and perhaps because of its bestseller status. Turns out it was great!

Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber who became a promoter of peace by deciding to build a school for a poor village in Pakistan. That decision, made after the villagers saved his life, turned into a lifelong commitment involving an unbelievable amount of work, energy, danger and frustration.

Because Mortenson is a man of action, the book is a combination of extreme adventure and social/historical commentary. Extreme adventure makes up the much bigger percentage and is the impetus for Mortenson and the reader.

I am glad I read it when I did because this summer of political conventions was not making me feel hopeful about my country or my world. Three Cups of Tea reminded me that politics and government have rarely brought about good for the world. It is the actions of people of goodwill that have created better conditions for their fellowman.

Monday, October 20, 2008


An Open Book, Michael Dirda, W W Norton & Company Inc, 2003, 322 pp

I read an inordinate amount of book reviews, partly because books are my passion and partly because I have come to be known as the "fiction expert" at the bookstore where I work and try to keep up on what's new and good. I have my likes and dislikes when it comes to reviews so I was pleased to discover a reviewer whom I could respect and even emulate.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize winning critic who writes for The Washington Post, one of the few remaining American newspapers that has a dedicated book review section. The Washington Post also employs another of my favorite authors and reviewers, Carolyn See. In an effort to improve my own reviewing skills and develop my own voice as a reviewer, I decided to study the experts.

An Open Book is Dirda's memoir of the reading life and the story of how he became a critic. I came away from this book with an image of a complete book nerd. I love book nerds. I am one. Dirda grew up in Lorain, Ohio (also the home of Toni Morrison), son of second generation immigrants: a Russian father and Slovakian mother. They were poor but literate and Michael was read to by his mother from a small collection of Golden Books, as was I.

He became the reader of the family, read indiscriminately from an early age, loved the little local library located in an old house and suffered from being accused of having his nose in a book all through his childhood. This is like a male version of me (he was born just a year after I was), except that his family was blue collar and mine was white collar middle class. I went to college all expenses paid by my parents and dropped out by junior year. Michael went on scholarship, worked hard and actually got an education.

Though there were some dull parts which dragged for me, though Mr Dirda has a careful, controlled style of writing, I was quite taken by his story. It has a bit of Elmer Gantry, a touch of Charles Dickens and a lot of the passion of someone who followed what he loved and figured out how to make it his life's work. He has also published two collections of his criticism, another volume about reading and of course, you can read his weekly reviews at washingtonpost.com.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Savage Garden, Mark Mills, G P Putnam's Sons, 2007, 335 pp

I will just say right up front that I did not enjoy this book. It got stellar reviews in all the right places and sounded great: "a darkly provocative mystery set in the Tuscany hills: the story of two murders four hundred years apart-and the ties that bind them together." (from the back cover of the paperback.) Unfortunately, though Mr Mills can put a sentence together, he is not a good writer.

The hero, Adam, is a young Cambridge scholar though really he is a slacker. He is assigned by his advisor to travel to Tuscany and write a scholarly article about a famous garden at Villa Docci. There he finds statues, grottoes, meandering streams, mythology, a fascinating older woman descended from an ancient Italian family and an even more fascinating young woman for whom he lusts. Sound good, no?

No. Boring actually. How could someone make such a thrilling collection of ingredients boring? It's a wonder.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


My oh my. It has been two weeks since I have posted. Bad blogger.

But I have been reading, of course. And I have been writing! I mean real writing, not just my journal and my micro reviews. Because of the book on writing which I mentioned last time, I finally got going again on my novel, reworking the first chapter. I also helped a friend from one of my reading groups get her writing group going again by hosting it at my house. We had our first meeting last night and it was super great. Four out of five people read things and they were all good. I polished up the first half of a short story I had started long ago and now I am inspired (by their kind and helpful comments) to finish it and maybe even submit it somewhere.

Meanwhile I scaled the mountain of huge books and actually finished Andersonville, by MacKinlay Kantor. It was a bestseller in 1955 about a POW camp in Georgia during the Civil War. Gruesome, long but quite good. Then I read The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, which I had been wanting to read since it was published. After Andersonville at 760 pages, it was almost 100 pages shorter at 642, but dense, full of history and situated in eastern Europe, where my geography is sketchy at best. I learned lots but also loved the story. It is about the legend of Dracula and these are not your Stephenie Meyer vampires. Oh no.

I also read two other books from 1955 by Robert Heinlein and Norman Mailer and I am almost through one by Robert Penn Warren. Veering back and forth in a span of 50 years does make my head spin at times. Then there is the fact that I have been alive through all those years and more.

I still have not finished The Second Sex. Hopefully this week. Another goal this week is to finish the long overdue next chapter of my memoir. Why oh why do I have to go to work, cook, do laundry, etc, etc, etc?

As always, I would love to hear what you are reading. Has anyone read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle yet? Even more exciting to me is the new Toni Morrison which comes out in a few weeks I believe.