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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Hidden in Darkness   Leave a comment

Snowblind
I get on book kicks and my latest has been mysteries; they’re my reading guilty pleasure. It’s especially satisfying to come across something as well-written and intriguing as Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson.

Set in a small town in northern Iceland, Jonasson’s novel is dark –thanks to the limited hours of daylight so close to the Arctic Circle – and is filled with intelligent characters with plenty of positive traits and foibles – like most of us.

Ari Thor is in the process of completing his exams at the Reykjavik police academy when he’s offered a job in a small, but once-thriving fishing community on the other side of the country. Without consulting his live-in girlfriend, he accepts the position and leaves her behind.

What he initially encounters is the difficulty of fitting in where most of the residents have lived, if not all at least most, of their lives. He’s an outsider. He’s repeatedly told by his captain “Nothing ever happens here.”

The narrative is told in two different parts: one beginning in spring 2008 and ending in January 2009; the other, set off in separate chapters and in italics, describing a murder. The reader knows the two will intersect, but the question is not just when but how. Jonasson deftly teases curiosity while leaving very few clues along the way.

In the place where nothing happens, Ari Thor deals first with an accidental death and then the brutal beating of a woman. Yet, these are only part of the plot.

Snow Blind
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Minotaur Books, 2010
302 pages

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The Girl Who is That Girl   Leave a comment

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (Millennium Series #5)
David Lagercrantz is no Stieg Larsson, but at least Lisbeth Salander, the notorious bad girl who, ironically, stands for good and justice, has been given new life.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye is Lagercrantz’s second contribution to what started as Larsson’s Millennium Triology. This fifth novel resurrects most of the original characters, including Salander along with Mikael Blomkvist, Holger Palmgrem, chief inspector Jan Bublanski and several others.

Salander remains an intelligent, obstinate young woman. She’s physically and mentally strong. She is also intolerant of ignorance and injustice.

This most recent addition to the series finds Salander in prison where she manipulates a bad situation to her advantage. In the process, she comes to the aid of an inmate, a Bangladeshi woman, who is threatened by Benito, another prisoner who essentially runs the roost.

The narrative features two paths, one involving Islamic extremists and the other focusing on a sadistic study of twins. Salander traverses both. Consequently, there are plenty of near-death misses, brutal encounters and last-minute escapes. Thus, a strong ability to suspend disbelief is a requirement for getting through the book. The beatings the main character endures, for example, would defeat most mortals.

Salander feeds small pieces of information to Blomkvist to pursue, while she does the dirty work. He knows she’s onto something big but it takes him longer to digest. Still, the element of suspense is strong and once again it’s easy to cheer for Salander, even if her tactics are not always palatable.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye
Three-and-three-quarter Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
347 pages

Hippie Meals   Leave a comment

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Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook by Alice Waters is like dining at what’s supposed to be a very good restaurant but only a few of the entrees are enjoyable. Unfortunately, not all of Waters’s memoir is interesting. The parts that are, really are though.

Waters is credited with helping change the culinary scene in the 1960s by opening Chez Panisse which relied on a prix fixe menu that changed according to what was fresh that day.

Waters shared too much minutiae from her childhood. I don’t care about a costume party when she was four years old or that her step-grandmother was a cold woman. Things pick up when she transfers from college in Santa Barbara to Berkeley. What I found most interesting was how a trip to Paris her junior year of college and her years in Berkeley made such an impact.

The narrative is told mostly in chronological order leading up to the opening of the restaurant. Anecdotes about life post-opening are indicated in italics throughout most of the chapters. These asides are noteworthy, but they are also distracting.

The story of Chez Panisse begins with Waters’s desire to replicate flavors she experienced in Paris through a cozy, hip bistro-like ambiance. What set her apart at the time was what is now recognized as the slow food movement and the reliance on the freshest possible ingredients. Yet, there’s scant mention of either, nor of her recognition today as an advocate of sustainable agriculture.

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook
Three-and-three-fourths Bookmarks
Clarkson Potter Publishing, 2017
306 pages

 

Art Inspires Art   2 comments

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Author Christina Baker Kline brings “Christina’s World,” the painting by Andrew Wyeth, to life in her novel, A Piece of the World.

Kline blends reality with imagination as she recounts Christina Olson’s life, the woman who provided friendship, hospitality and inspiration to the young artist. It begins in 1939 when Christina first meets Wyeth. The story is also told in flashbacks to the late 1800s when as a young child she’s stricken with a neurological disorder that affects her legs and hands. The story chronologically alternates between each time period: the former illustrates the relationship between Christina and Wyeth; the latter tells of her life and family history. Christina and her brother, Al, live in the house in which they were born. It’s been in the family since the mid-1700s.

Christina’s existence is full of hardships and disappointments. Kline’s portrait of her subject doesn’t gloss over the hardscrabble difficulties of living on a remote farm near a small coastal town in Maine. The descriptions are vivid and at times painful as Christina’s dreams are repeatedly cast aside. Yet, she is not a character who evokes pity. She is strong-willed and often frustratingly stubborn.

Wyeth’s character is more of a supporting character. For 20 years he comes and goes in the summer months using the Olson house as his studio while bringing Christina out of her past and her reclusive ways.

In addition to the rich images of the landscape and people, Kline’s fusion of fact and fiction is creative and engaging.

A Piece of The World
Four Bookmarks
William Morrow Publishers, 2017
310 pages

 

Refugees, love and peace   Leave a comment

Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is part parable and entirely too timely.

Hamid’s story follows Nadia and Saeed who meet in an unnamed war-torn country. She is distanced from her family because of her strong desire for personal independence. He lives with his devoutly religious parents. The two fall in love as the world around them crumbles.

Through a series of doors, which conjure images of Alice in Wonderland or Platform 9 ¾ in Harry Potter’s world, the couple escape from one refugee situation to another. The settings include the Greek island of Mykonos, London and Marin, California. They are different and in many ways similar to one another. Of course, the common factor is the large number seeking refuge from countries all over the world.

Although, the narrative is important because the question of immigrants/refugees/asylum seekers is something facing most Western countries, it is also heavy-handed. There is no doubt this is a serious issue with no easy steps toward resolution. Ultimately, the story is less about Saeed and Nadia. They’re simply the vehicle making the journey but the matter of what to do with the influx serves as the passenger.

Hamid’s writing is stark, yet evocative. There is a sense of fear and relief from one passage to the next. There’s a feeling of hope, initially for Saeed and Nadia, but eventually for something larger. Yet, something in the telling of the story falls short. Perhaps, because it’s somewhat fantastical, but mainly because the characters never truly come to life.

Exit West
3 Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2019
231 pages

Food and Personalities   2 comments

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I enjoy reading titles on bookshelves. I want to know what people are reading; it’s a question I frequently ask. Similarly, I like to know what my friends and family have to eat when they go to a restaurant, host a dinner or are dinner guests. That’s why when a dear friend sent me a copy of What She Ate by Laura Shapiro it was perfect in so many ways because of the content and it’s such a thoughtful expression of friendship.

Shapiro’s book is subtitled Six Remarkable Women & the Food that Their Stories Tell. These are not women that necessarily first come to mind. There’s no Julia Child or Alice Waters among them. While they’re fascinating, the half dozen Shapiro profiles are engaging for a number of reasons, some because they are familiar and some because they are not.

Only one, Rosa Lewis, a London caterer during King Edward VII’s reign, has a direct link to food or cooking. The others are Dorothy Wordsworth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym and Helen Gurley Brown.

There is as much about the women’s relationship with food as a reflection of the eras in which they lived. Braun, for example, was more interested in maintaining a slim figure than eating. The foods she ignored, riches only available to the Nazi elite, further highlight that regime’s cruelty.

At times, though, Shapiro gets bogged down with too much detail. Overall, this is an intriguing look at those she researched with food at its heart.

What She Ate
Four Bookmarks
Viking, 2017
307 pages, including notes and index

Get Lost   Leave a comment

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Watch Me Disappear is disappointing. Sorry. There’s no hemming and hawing on this one. Yet, I read all 300-plus pages waiting for some redeeming elements. Some surfaced only to quickly fade. It wasn’t exactly a slog, but it was far from a nice walk in the woods.

There is a hike, though; at least references to one, which is part of the story.

Jonathan and Billie Flanagan, with Olive their 16-year-old daughter, live in Berkeley. By all appearances they’re a happy family. He’s a workaholic for a hi-tech publication, Billie is an out-doorsy bon vivant, stay-at-home mom occasional graphic designer with a past, of course. Olive is a bright introvert at a private school.

The narrative follows the grief-stricken father and daughter dealing with the presumed-dead Billie who, nearly a year earlier, goes missing while on a solo backpacking trek on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Jonathan quits his job to write a memoir about Billie, the love of his life. Interspersed among the chapters are pages Jonathan has written. They reveal as much about him as about Billie. Meanwhile, Olive begins having visions of her mother offering hints as to her possible whereabouts. Thus, the two begin separate searches to find the missing woman.

Part of the problem with Janelle Brown’s novel is that it’s predictable; the few surprises are just that, too few. It doesn’t help that Olive is the only appealing character or that the ending – and this reveals nothing – is very tidy.

Watch Me Disappear
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Spiegel & Grau, 2017
358 pages