Wednesday, August 16, 2006

TheFull Cupboard of Life (A #1Ladies Detective Agency)

by Alexander McCall Smith (read July 2006)
This is book 5 in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. There are more after it, but this is the last one I'll read. I've enjoyed the first 4 with their simple outlook on life, but book 5 left me lacking. It was boring, slow, and just plain stupid - not even the simplest mystery to solve. I rate this book a 1 out of 5, and that only out of kindness for the others in this series which were quite delightful.

The Screwtape Letters

by C.S. Lewis (read July 2006)
After reading Cassie's wonderful review of The Screwtape Letters, I was encouraged to reread this classic. Glad I did, although I realized that I am more in the devil's clutches now than when I first read it as a 20-something year old. My desire for comfort above anything else is just what my little 'Wormwood' would be most pleased with, as in this quote: "No sort of action plases Hell so much as the easy road, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings."

The Screwtape Letters are a series of letters written by Screwtape to his young, tempter-apprentice nephew concerning the tactics of securing a human soul for the Lord of Darkness. One tactic was to change a word such as charity for unselfishess. The subtle difference in the meanings of words can make a sizeable impact. In the case of unselfishness, the human focuses on his own acts and he takes pride in those things he does for other, keeping a running score of just how good he really is. The idea of charity is that the human focuses on the needs of others and that he is an instrument only in the work of God. There were several other examples given, watch for them as you read.

I always did a double take whenever Screwtape referred to the Enemy, who refers to God. Not a word typically used to describe Him. One favorite quote includes such a reference: "To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience, which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere porpagada, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself--creatures whose life, on its minature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself; the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct."

I liked this statement given in the preface.. The great secret is that one gives oneself up, the thing devils will never do. "There are only two kinds of people in the end," says Lewis, "those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' "

A short, enlightning, and enjoyable read. I rate it 5 out of 5.

The Little Balloonist

by Linda Donn (read July 2006)
Sophie is a 'woman with courage' who marries the older Jean Pierre Blanchard, a balloonist, but is still in love with her childhood playmate, Andre. She attracts the interests of Napolean Bonaparte and becomes his 'official little ballonist'. The story reads like a young adult novel - quite simply simple. I enjoyed it, but didn't feel like there was a lot of depth. Several of the characters are from history: Napolean, Duguerre, Goethe and Blanchard but Sophie is ficticious. Which is weird because Blanchard did have a wife who took over flying his balloons and bringing in the paycheck just as Sophie did in the book. I enjoyed The Little Balloonist because it was entertaining, but mostly because I learned a tiny bit about these people and time period of French history. I'm only going to give this book a 3.5 rating out of a possible 5. Not a book to get too excited about, but not a waste of time either.

Sophie's marriage to Blanchard was arranged before she was even born. The night Sophie's parents received the letter saying he was coming to marry their daughter, her parents fought. There voices were soft, "but then her mother's voice grew sharp, until an unusual, harsh response from her father ended the conversation. To Sophie the sound was like fabric tearing, like something that maight be mended but would never be the same."

Something that made me chuckle: "At midnight she was asleep beneath a comforter when he walked into the bedroom and sat down on her. As Sophie stuggled out from under him, he stared. 'How am I to know you are lying in a bed if it is as flat as a crepe?' He teased. For days, on entering the room, he asked the bed quite formally if anyone was in it."

The History of Love

by Nicole Krauss (read June 2006)
This book is amazing, unusual, confusing, provactive, creative, tender, sad, humorous and multidimensional. It's moved onto my favorite-of-all-time books' list. There's no way to describe it or even explain the stroyline. I thought at times that I was going to loose my mind trying to figure things out. I was compelled to keep reading, even more so than in many mysteries, because I HAD to know how everything was going to come together. I still keep thinking about little things from the book even though I've finished it. I suspect I will read this one again. If you think you might want to read it don't let anyone tell you too much about it. I went in knowing nothing about the plot or characters and so it was all pure wonder. Krauss is a gifted writer. I can't comprehend how she knew when to change from one character to another, from one story to another, from one situation to another; and then weave them so artfully together into such a complex and intriguing tapestry. WOW! I hope someone (anyone of my links) reads this one soon so I can discuss it with somebody. This book rates a 5.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


by Diana Gabaldon (read June 2006)
This was my Romance selection for the Summer Reading Program. I usually skip this genre even when challenged, but this one was intriguing because of the time travel element and the reviews on were glowing.

Claire, the main character, served as a nurse during WWII while her husband served in the English army. After the war Claire and Frank are getting reaquainted and settling down to life, when Claire quite accidently slips 200 years back in time. The majority of the book takes place in the 1700's. I was a little disappointed that she never gets back to her life in the 1900's, at least not in this book. But not to worry - this is book one of a trilogy. Gasp! That about put me off because, not only is the book is 850 pages long, I certainly did not want to get hooked on another series. I read the first 500 pages and, even though I enjoyed it, I felt like I wouldn't be compelled to read the rest of the series. By page 600 hundred I knew I'd be reading the whole series, but not right away. After finishing, I'm anxious to read the next book.*

Claire is forced to marry the fiery, virile Scot, Jamey Fraser, in order to save her life, even though she's alread married to Frank. There is definitely romance (really good romance!) but there's also lots of adventure. I loved and hated the main characters. The bad guy was detestable. I'm finding it hard to summarize a book this long. Suffice it to say, I loved it and give it a rating of 5.

*BTW, I checked on the trilogy. Turns out it was supposed to be a trilogy, but turned in to 6 books instead and each of the other books is longer than Outlander. Whoa! It may take me the rest of my life, but I think I'll try to read them all. I won't read them consequetively, because my attention span needs breaks - I need to go from one thing to another and then back again. So even though I'm dying to read book 2, I will read something else first.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Birth of Venus

by Sarah Dunant (read May 2006)
Interesting historical fiction. After reading the first chapter I was full of questions I wanted answered. I enjoyed Dunant's writing well enough that I would like to try another one of her books. According to the jacket she has written a few mysteries.

The story takes place during the late 1400's in Florence, Italy when the Medici family is basically in control of the city. When Leonardo da Medici dies, a Catholic Dominican friar, Savonarola, becomes the powerful force in Florence. The protagonist, Alessandra, is caught between the Medici state with its love of luxury, learning, and dazzling art and the hellfire preaching and increasing violence of Savonarola's suppression.

I made note of this passage that demonstrates the conundrum going on in Alessanda's thinking.
When I was a child it had all seemed so simple. There had been one God, who, though He had a voice like thunder when angry, also had enough love to keep me warm at night when I spoke to Him directly. And the more I learned and the more complex and extraordinary the world became, the deeper His capacity to accept my knowledge and rejoice with me. Because whatever man's acheivement it came first and foremost from Him. This no longer seemed true. Now man's greatest achievements seemed to be in direct opposition to God, or this God. This God was so obsessed with the Devil the He seemed to have no time for beauty or wonder, and all of our knowledge and art was condemmed as just another place for evil to hide. So now I no longer knew which God was the true one, only which was louder.

Played against this backdrop, the story centers on Alessandra who is starting to fall in love with a young artist but who is suddenly given in marriage to a man 30-years her senior.

A worthwhile read: entertaining, nicely written, intriguing and informative. I must have missed something though, because I never figured out why it was titled The Birth of Venus.

The Madonnas of Leningrad

by Debra Dean (read June 2006)
A beautifully told story of a Soviet immigrant, Marina, who is slipping fast into the clutches of Alzheimer's. She drifts back and forth between her present life in Washington state and the past when she was a tour guide in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad at the beginning of WWII. As the Germans approach the city, Marina and other museum workers remove pieces of art to be shipped from the city. They were told to leave the frames hanging on the walls. Marina creates a 'memory place' in her mind based on the rooms and the artwork. These memories provide a retreat from the devastions of war - the hunger, cold and terror. It's interesting to me that the memories of the museum and of the war provide Marina with a 'memory place' to escape from her present day confusion.

In an early scene in the book Marina is standing at the kitchen sink holding a pan of water. "But she has no idea why. Is she rinsing the pan: Or has she just finished filling it up? It is a puzzle. Sometimes it requires all her wits to piece together the world with the fragments she is given: an open can of Folgers, a carton of eggs on the counter, the faint scent of toast. Breakfast. Has she eaten? She cannot recall." She questions if she is hungry or not, but can't tell. She decides she's hungry. When her husband walks in the room carrying the dirty breakfast dishes, he finds Marina poaching eggs.

Dean makes a comparison to the ravages of war and the ravages of Alzheimer's without spelling out what she is doing. The effect is subtle but powerful. An incredible book that I will be thinking about for years to come.

Utah Blaine

by Louis L'Amour (read June 2006)
I have done several 'first' this year. Earlier I read my first Stephen King novel-it was somewhat enjoyable. Now I've read my first Louis L'Amour novel and I liked it, too. Utah Blaine is the main characher, just the kind you need in a western - good looking, broad shoulders, excellent and fast shot, and he falls in love with the right girl. L'Amour is not the best writer in the world, but he does tell a fairly interesting story. If ever you need to read a western for some kind of assignment, this would be a good one. It is short, which is another reason I chose it.

Ship Fever

by Andrea Barrett (read June 2006)
I love Barrett's writing, she takes one strand after another and weaves them together so that at the end of a story she's created a very pleasing and satisfying piece of work. This collection contains eight stories - six are marvelous, the other two are so-so.

"In the graphic title novella, a self-doubting, idealistic Canadian doctor's faith in science is sorely tested in 1847 when he takes a hospital post at a quarantine station flooded with diseased, dying Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. The story, which deftly exposes English and Canadian prejudice against the Irish, turns on the doctor's emotions, oscillating between a quarantined Irish woman and a wealthy Canadian lady, his onetime childhood playmate." - from Publishers Weekly. This is a most remarkable story. Even if you don't read the other stories in this book, you should read this one.

The English Pupil dealt with the end of Linneaus' life when he suffered from Alzheimers - sensitive and sad. The Behavior of Hawkweeds is a modern story with links to Mendel. Rare Birds is about 2 women in 1762 who behaved most unladylike and conducted experiments to disprove Linnaeus' theory that sparrows wintered over by 'hibernating' in frozen lakes.

I rate this book 4.5 - deducting a little for the 2 lame stories.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Beekeeper's Apprentice

by Laurie R. King (read Nov. 2003)
I usually have a list when I go to the library of books recommended either by family and friends or This one caught my eye from the shelf, probably because it had beekeeper in the title and I had recently finished two other books about beekeepers. I can't imagine that I actually set down and read it because the write-up didn't sound that intriguing: A 15-yr-old girl's tutelage and adventures with the retired sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. I mean, really!, who would read that?
I loved it and have since read all 8 books in that series (Mary Russell) and a few other novels by King. I haven't read any of the books in King's Kate Martinelli sereis, however.

Keeper of the Bees

by Gene Stratton-Porter (read Oct 2003)
This was one of our county library book club selections. Although a little far-fetched at times, I really enjoyed this book.

"... the damaging things of this world are going to go past a mind that is fully occupied with something legitimate and constructive." I liked this quote because it reminded me of a basic concept my mother taught me and that I have since used with my students when they talk about gross and/or stuff. They tell me it's apart of life and I say, "So are sewers, but I don't need to spend my time thinking about them when I can focus on rainbows, flowers, music, etc."

Another quote I liked: "To be able to tell himself that he would do something constructive with the knowledge in his heart that he would have the strength to do it and the uplift in his spirit that would give him joy in the doing..." If I change the wording on this just a little, it would be the essence of my prayers.

The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd (read Feb 2003)

I loved this book - wonderful characters, well written, compelling, forceful and just a tinge of mystery about each character's earlier life. I look forward to reading more from this author.

The Secret Life of Bees is the touching story of a young white girl, fourteen year old Lily Owens, whose mother died in a tragic accident when Lily was about four. Lily lives with her father, a harsh man with whom no love is lost, on a peach farm outside Sylvan, South Carolina. Her mother's death stands between them.

Neglected by her father, Lily is brought up by Rosaleen, a big-hearted black woman, who loves Lily and whom Lily loves. Yet, hers is a lonely existence, compounded by her unquenched thirst for information about her mother, Deborah. All she has left of her mother are some cloudy memories and a box containing a few mementos, among them a picture of a Black Madonna, inscribed with the words, "Tiburon, S.C."

When Rosaleen goes into town to register to vote, she feels empowered by the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and has a run-in with the town's three biggest racists, resulting in Rosaleen being taken into custody. Lily arranges for her to break free. Together, they seek sanctuary in Tiburon, South Carolina, where Lily discovers the mystery of the Black Madonna.

Taken in by a trio of middle-aged black women who are sisters, as well as beekeepers, Lily is introduced to the secret life of bees and begins to learn some important life lessons. She also learns something about her mother and finds love where she least expected.

A few quotes: "Oh, Lily," she said, and there was a gentleness in her words, like they'd been rocked in a little hmmock of tenderness down in her throat. "Why would I go and hurt you with something like that?"

"Knowing can be a curse on a person's life. I'd traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth and I didn't know which one was heavier. Which one took the most strength to carry around? It was a ridiculous question, though, because once you know the truth, you can't ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies, heavier or not, the truth is yours now."

"And when you get down to it, Lily, that's the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love but to persist in love."

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Rug Merchant

by Meg Mullins (read May 2006)
Sometimes while reading a book, I have mixed feelings about it--wishing I was reading something else, maybe. Then when I finish and think back on it I begin to enjoy it more and am glad I read it. The Rug Merchant was that type of book for me. I don't think I would encourage anyone to read it, however, because there are books with better storylines, more compelling characters and more masterful use of language that will provide better entertainment and/or increase in understanding/knowledge.

Ushman Khan left his wife Farak and his mother in Iran after a devastating earthquake revealed the danger of living there. For three years he has been selling rugs from Tabriz to wealthy clients. But his dream of bringing Farak to America is shattered when he learns that she is pregnant (after five previous miscarriages with him) by another man and wants to move with him to Istanbul. All of this happens just when Ushman is ready to make a sale of a $30,000 rug to Mrs. Roberts, his beset client. However, after learning that Farak wants to divorce him, he impulsively gives the rug away on the street and watches it being thrown in a garbage truck.
Totally distraught, Ushman goes to the airport and is transfixed by a girl sitting in a waiting area. Although he has never been attracted to American women, there is something about this blond that is appealing — perhaps it's the length and curve of her neck. Or that she seems to gazing at him. This also is something out of the ordinary since in America Ushman feels that he is viewed not as a man but as "a curiosity, an oddity, a foreigner."

Stella is a 19-year-old college student who was raised in the South and attends Barnard. It is her birthday, and they go out to talk. No one has ever paid so much attention to Ushman and he is buoyed by her energy and vitality. It is a while before they connect again, but one day Stella shows up at this shop in deep pain. She has just learned that her mother tried to commit suicide while on vacation with her husband in Italy. Ushman provides a shoulder for her to cry upon and they draw closer together. But his own special brew of anger, grief, and shame about Farak works its way into mind and will not let him totally enjoy this new romance.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Red Hat Club

by Haywood Smith (read Jan 2006)
I like a wide range of genres and usually enjoy most books I read, but this one was a real looser! This was a selection for our Library Book Club. I don't know who picked it and I'd just as soon not know because I don't want it to reflect badly on that person's character. Obviously, there are millions of women who like this book and belong to a national Red Hat Club. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood when I read it, but it just seemed like a lot of fluffy and inane stuff. I was very bored at the first and just grabbed a big chunk of book, flipped to the back and finished reading.

I say - don't waste your time.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

by Lisa See (read Feb 2006)
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a powerful story about relationships, regrets, and life-long friendships. While set in a traditional Chinese world, almost anyone can relate to the themes and emotions in this book.

This story begins with Lily, a elderly Chinese woman in the mid to late 18th century, as she reflects upon her life as a woman. As most traditional women of her time, her passage to womanhood begins with her foot-binding. The success or failure of that sets in motion the luck of her future. With beautifully bound feet and good protocol, she is guaranteed a good husband and many sons.

Because of her good feet, she is given the opportunity to have a laotong, “old same”, named Snow Flower. This relationship is with another girl and is as sacred as a marriage as they are keep each other company through life. They converse using the secret women’s writing known as nu shu. Nu shu was a means of communication used by women in the Hunan province. This style of writing was more curved and fanciful than traditional Chinese calligraphy (men’s writing). Written on objects, sown into handkerchiefs, this writing looked more like art than literature. There were fewer characters that men’s writing, relying on the phonetics and context to convey the meaning. Many of these were also sung, having a rhythmic beat to the words. Not many examples of this art remains today. Many pieces were burned upon a person’s death, as was the tradition of the time. The art was further devastated during the Cultural Revolution where it was banned and all but died out until it was discovered again in 1983. Today it is viewed as a national historical treasure, with even a museum dedicated to the few remaining examples.

Lily and Snow Flower's laotong begins with a fan which they continue throughout their life to write messages to each other back and forth. While this relationship starts cheery and bright, the story progresses through the events that lead to Lily’s regrets in life as an old woman and how she betrayed her laotong. Ms. See does a wonderful job of describing the events of Lily’s life with so much color you feel as if you’re sitting along side her. For instance, as her feet are bound, you can feel her agony and wonder how they endured. All the while, Ms. See drops reminders into the story that manage to keep reminding the reader we are viewing this world through a window.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. One of my favorites.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen (read Apr 2006)

Now I know why my twenty-something daughter and 2 nieces love this book and most especially why they all want to meet their very own Mr. Darcy. The only thing I knew before reading P&P was that Darcy possessed real swoon factor. So,I have to say as I started reading about Bingley's friend, Darcy, who was conceited, rude, and an all around bore, I was having trouble reconciing the two very different Darcys. I was totally impressed with Mr. Bingley, and he was so perfect for Jane.

What a sad state of affairs it used to be that a father of five duaghters had to get them all nicely married off, becuase he would have nothing to leave them or his wife, either, when he died. The mother, Mrs. Bennett is unbearable, but given the time period and she with five daughters, she may deserve here nervous spells every now and again. But a little goes a long way with that woman. I really like Mr. Bennet (more in the book than in the movie).

The storyline was immensely interesting. There were subtle twists and turns. The characters where interesting. The time period and its custom were very interesting to me. I usually feel such a sense of relief about living when I do, but I do wish we courted in a genteel way - and slower.

I join with Alyson, Julie, and Cassie - that Mr. Darcy is a very fine man and I hope they each find their's because I've already found mine.

Pride and Prejudice is a well told story; sometimes humorous, other times sad. Most of the time there's the suspense of how will things possibly turn out.

A definite must read, if you missed the chance in high school or college, consider reading it now. I've watched the A&E version and thought it was quite true to the book. Would love to watch all the versions. This book goes on my favorites list.