Saturday, November 6, 2010

True Home

Anny Scoones
Touchwood Editions

I love this series - Anny Scoones lives near my home, and I visit often to buy eggs from her heritage chickens and ducks. Duck eggs make the most delicious omelettes.

This is the third in her series about life at Glamorgan, a heritage farm where she raises heritage breeds of chickens and ducks, goats and horses, geese and turkeys. She loves pigs passionately. Two great Gloucester Old Spot sows named Mabel and Matilda each weigh more than seven hundred pounds. The breed is considered extinct in Canada, and she loves to show them off the the Saanichton Fair in the fall.

Many stray and rescued animals come to live - cats and dogs came to live out their days in peace. Bee was an old cat who came from a rescue organization. Anny said, "I'll take an old cat." Older cats never get adopted. The girl who was a volunteer said, "This is Honey Bee. She was found half alive in the gutter downtown. Nobody wants her, and she's ancient - she should live out her final days at a peaceful home. Take her home to die." Winnie was an elegant feral calico rescued from the crazy cat place where the old woman had lived alone with fifty cats Norman was found by a cat rescue society in a back alley in a seedy party of town.

Some come as gifts. Jasmine and Ju-Jube are two of Jake, the Drake's, five immaculate wives - the others are Jemima, Jewel, and Jessica. Jake is afraid of water so is usually filthy. He only ever put his head in the water and never bathed.

I laughed when I read about her joining a yoga class. She had a stiff, sore neck from a fall on the ice during the previous winter. Her pig veterinarian recommended yoga - "she looked fit and calm and healthy - the mayor did yoga, she was my divorce lawyer  years ago." And she resisted the whole idea.

the whole idea of having to wear skin-tight pants, which show every lump on your thighs plus a pot-bellied midsection; having to go barefoot, which shows all the thick deformed toenails, overlapping, calloused toes and bunions, and having to lie down on a rubber mat that other people have probably perspired on - the whole thing mad me rather cynical. But I thought if it helped my stiff neck, I'd give it a shot.

I was completely self-conscious. The whole thing for me was totally embarrassing. I lay on my sticky rubber mat in my tight pants, and listened to the instructor. She told us to close our eyes and 'observe our breath' and to forget all thoughts. Lying on my back was killing my neck.

Finallly came some silence, and I realized that silence with people is really uncomfortable to me, but silence in the woods, or silence with my dear old sows or with my cabbages gives me bliss and serenity, a deep contentment. She read a short quote from a Buddhist teacher whose name is Thich Nhat Hanh. He talked about Home and how true home is now. This moment is what is important. This moment is our true home.

That's why I decided to call my third and final book about Glamorgan Farm True Home.

Anny read from this latest book last month at a local cafe. She said this will be the last book about the farm. There are other books to come, and I look forward to whatever comes next.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Risotto with Nettles

a Memoir with Food

Anna Del Conte
Random House
London 2009

She was born and grew up in Milan. When war came to Italy, her family had to abandon their apartment and the city for the countryside. Peasants still ate well, but life was dangerous.

This is a memoir of a life seen through food - there are recipes and memories of her native land - from lemon granita to wartime risotto with nettles.

I stumbled across this book quite by accident when I was browsing in our local bookshop. The title caught my eye immediately. Nettles have been important in my life on several occasions and in different places. When we were living at the farm on the island, Glen and I picked the young and tender nettles for dinner. Boiled and served with butter and salt and pepper - delicious with small new potatoes. Later in the season, when they' grown older and tougher, I used them as dye material for spinning and weaving. They produced a gorgeous soft, pale green color.

Anna and her family were evacuated in 1942 to Albinea, a village in the foothills of the Apennines. Life was quiet and peaceful for a year. Then they were moved out of Villa Viani and into the villino next door. It was a cramped and more primitive lodging - there was a lavatory but no bathroom and no heating. Once a week they'd put a large zinc tub in the kitchen and pour hot water from jugs to have a proper, all-over wash.

I went to prison twice during the war, once in February 1944, and the second time in the following December.

After the war in 1946, she moved in with her parents in Milan, and in 1949 moved to London - "a culinary wasteland". She married an Englishman, and while bringing up her children, she wrote books which inspired a new generation of cooks.

I'm not sure which I enjoy most - the stories or the recipes - all sounding quite delicious and unusual.

This one's for you, Nan. I'll miss you

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Edge of the Taos Desert

An Escape to Reality

Mabel Dodge Luhan
University of New Mexico Press
Albuquerque 1937

This is an autobiographical account describing Luhan's first months in New Mexico.

In 1917 Mabel Sterne, patron of the arts and spokeswoman for the New York avant-garde, came to the Southwest seeking a new life. This autobiographical account, long out-of-print, of her first few months in New Mexico is a remarkable description of an Easterner's journey to the American West. It is also a great story of personal and philosophical transformation. The geography of New Mexico and the culture of the Pueblo Indians opened a new world for Mabel. She settled in Taos immediately and lived there the rest of her life. Much of this book describes her growing fascination with Antonio Luhan of Taos Pueblo, whom she subsequently married. Her descriptions of the appeal of primitive New Mexico to a world-weary New Yorker are still fresh and moving.

She put Taos on the map of the international avant-garde, bringing, among her scores of visitors, D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O'Keeffe, Willa Cather, and Ansel Adams. In prose, paint, poetry, and photography, all of them celebrated her frontier paradise.

I'm reading this again now because we watched a movie this week about Georgia O'Keefe. It was so beautiful, and the caste was magnificent - Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons; Tyne Daly played Mabel Luhan. Seeing again the lush and colorful landscape of New Mexico made me long for the tiny cabin there where I spent one glorious year at Jemez Springs in Northern New Mexico, not far from Taos.

Winter in Taos
first published in 1935
by Haracourt Brace

"Winter in Taos" unfolds in an entirely different pattern, uncluttered with noteworthy names and ornate details. With no chapters dividing the narrative, Luhan describes her simple life in Taos, New Mexico, this "new world" she called it, from season to season, following a thread that spools out from her consciousness as if she's recording her thoughts in a journal. "My pleasure is in being very still and sensing things," she writes, sharing that pleasure with the reader by describing the joys of adobe rooms warmed in winter by aromatic cedar fires; fragrant in spring with flowers; and scented with homegrown fruits and vegetables being preserved and pickled in summer. Having wandered the world, Luhan found her home at last in Taos. "Winter in Taos" celebrates the spiritual connection she established with the "deep living earth" as well as the bonds she forged with Tony Luhan, her "mountain."

This moving tribute to a land and the people who eked a life from it reminds readers that in northern New Mexico, where the seasons can be harshly beautiful, one can bathe in the sunshine until "'untied are the knots in the heart,' for there is nothing like the sun for smoothing out all difficulties." Born in 1879 to a wealthy Buffalo family, Mabel Dodge Luhan earned fame for herfriendships with American and European artists, writers and intellectuals and for her influential salons held in her Italian villa and Greenwich Village apartments. In 1917, weary of society and wary of a world steeped in war, she set down roots in remote Taos, New Mexico, then publicized the tiny town's inspirational beauty to the world, drawing a steady stream of significant guests to her adobe estate, including artist Georgia O'Keeffe, poet Robinson Jeffers, and authors D.H. Lawrence and Willa Cather. Luhan could be difficult, complex and often cruel, yet she was also generous and supportive, establishing a solid reputation as a patron of the arts and as an author of widely read autobiographies. She died in Taos in 1962.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Two Canadian Authors

Lisa Moore
Harper Collins Canada 2009

nominated for the
Scotiabank Giller Prize

In her external life, Helen O'Mara cleans and does yoga and looks after her grandchildren and shakes hands with solitude. In her internal life, she continually revisits Cal, who drowned when in 1982 the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland during a Valentine's Day storm.

This book caught me at the first paragraph wherein the author describes skate sharpening -

Helen watches as the man touches the skate blade to the sharpener.  There is a stainless steel cone to catch the spray of orange sparks that fly up

It took me right back to my childhood in Toronto where we skated every day after school until dark. I could smell the wet mitts and soggy socks in the tuck shop.

And then on the second page she let her grandson take a quarter to buy a jawbreaker - his mother will be furious. Timmy doesn't eat his vegetables - he lives on macaroni and cheese. They have rules - Helen's daughters all have rules. This sentence grabbed me by the heart and wouldn't let go

The fate of the world can hang on a jawbreaker

The Flying Troutmans
Miriam Toews
Alfred Knoff Canada 2008

Hattie has just been dumped by her Paris boyfriend, her sister Min is going through a particularly dark period, and Min's two kids are not talking or talking way too much.

Hattie returns home to Canada after receiving an SOS call from eleven-year-old Thebes that Min is on the way to a psychiatric ward. She quickly realizes that she is way out of her league and hatches a hare-brained plan to find the kids' long-lost father. They hit the road and head south.

One reviewer, Kevin Sampsell, said:

Who wouldn't want to go on a road trip with Miriam Toews?

This is another top notch delight in an increasingly brilliant career. The best thing about MT's writing is that it manages to be both cool and heartbreakingly sweet. The dialogue is the best thing out of Canada since the movie "Highway 61" and the characters are complex and deeply felt. I am going to marry this book. We will be registered at Macy's

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Bark of the Dogwood

This book sat on the bedside table for many months before I finally started to read it. I thought it was about trees and landscaping and architecture and heritage buildings. I bought it because the cover was beautiful and the reference to "dogwood" appealed because that's our provincial flower. In April, our towns and cities and villages have masses of dogwood trees in bloom.

The subtitle was misleading ... I wonder if that was intentional? This is a series of stories written by a transplanted Southerner now living in New York. Writing an article for a magazine assignment, he returns to his roots and examines such delicate topics as race, sexual orientation, family dysfunction, mid-life crisis. He remembers things in his not-too-distant past and especially the most horrific event in his life that had been obscured until now.

I'm re-reading this now because I bought a book about a house this morning. One reviewer compared it to this one. It's hard to put down .... lots of funny bits, humor and horror ... one reviewer said, "not for the faint-hearted".

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mr. Rosenblum's List

or Friendly Guidance
for the Aspiring Englishman

Natasha Solomons
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

I came very close to not finishing this book because in the early chapters so many sad things happened. I didn't feel like I was ready for that just yet. Now, I’m so very glad I did finish it.

It’s about this German Jew named Jack Rosenblum who keeps a list of the ways he must assimilate to the British Way, particularly after his experiences being detained as an Class A Alien during the Second World War. Eager to never be mistrusted by the British Crown again, he wants the ultimate goal for any Jewish person of the time: being a Jew lucky enough to be given membership to a Golf Club.

Turned down by nearly every Golf Club in his area, he decides to build his own golf course, gaining not only a reputation as the “Mad Jew” of the countryside he dwells in, hell bent on making a golf course he need not be ashamed of being allowed to play on, but he gains friends like Curtis, an old school Dorset fellow who believes in the mysterious Woolly-Pig - a strange creature that is only seen by the truest of Dorset men.

Jack desperately feels the need to belong as an Englishman in England. He's ashamed of being German, and also ashamed of being a Jew. His new religion is the pamphlet he received on arrival to England entitled, "Rules of Being English." He incorporates each rule into his everyday existence.

While, Sadie, on the other hand, was never willing to give up her heritage nor her memories. She doesn't want to forget where they came from or the family they've lost. Sadie loves to bake - it keeps her close to her memories of family who died in the Holocaust. Her special love is the Baumtorte. In one lovely passage, she is teaching her grown daughter, Elizabeth, to make it in hopes that she might remember too.

The two women lugged the tin bath inside to scrub it clean. They counted out the eggs, weighted the butter, flour and sugar and mixed them together. Sadie unfastened her stockings, washed her feet, and climbed into the bath and began to tread the batter slowly between her toes, the mixture oozing creamily.

Taking her time, she blended the ingredients, feeling them grow smooth and slippery beneath her skin. Elizabeth watched as she ladled the buttery mixture into great tins and toasted each layer under the grill. The cake grew tall, sprouting like a sapling ... the sweet scent of baking pervaded the house. The fragrance of Baumtorte was always tinged with sorrow."

Baumtorte means Tree Pie in English. The circular layers of the torte resemble the circles in the trees.

 Living in London has driven Jack and Sadie apart. They no longer can remember their early days spent crazily in love. It isn't until moving to the Dorset countryside and Jack's impossible scheme of creating his own golf course that breaks down their barriers and allows each of them to look, REALLY, look at each other. In Dorset, they learn to love again. In the land of woolly pigs, bluebells and jitterbug cider.

In The Times review, they said, “Hilarious and touching … Yes, the movie is already on its way – but please read the delightful novel first.”

The author says the book was inspired by her grandparents, who arrived in England from Berlin in 1936 with almost nothing. On disembarking they were handed a pamphlet titled Useful Advice and Friendly Guidance for All Refugees.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Time was Soft There

A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.

Jeremy Mercer
St.Martin's Press
New York 2005

A young Canadian journalist flees his hometown, Ottawa, for Paris after becoming inadvertently mixed up with some crime figures. He runs out of money and ends up living at Shakespeare & Co., since they have a writer-in-residence program.

The bookstore is filthy and filled with all sorts of odd and possibly violent characters. The owner is possibly the worst businessman ever in the entire world. It’s one of the world's most famous bookshops. The original opened in 1919 and was frequented by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.

It was forced to close in 1941 with the Nazi occupation and complications. In 1951 was reopened under another name and in 1964 it resurrected the original name and became the principal meeting place for beatnik poet notables such as Allen Ginsberg, Wm. S. Burroughs down to Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell.

Down til today the tradition of the bookstore continues and writers of all sorts find their way here, one being Jeremy Mercer. He finds himself in Paris with very little cash and the very real possibility of becoming homeless.

A chance encounter leads him to the bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. Here he finds a temporary home in return for a little work and the requirement of reading books.

”When I'd arrived, Shakespeare & Co. appeared the answer to all my problems. A place to recuperate, time to calculate my next steps, an assortment of lost folk to camouflage my own disenchantments.

”This was the best of Paris. Dreams, like money, can be accounted for in simple terms of deficit and surplus...In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafes...Hope is a most beautiful drug.”

We watched the movie, Julie and Julia last week. There is a scene where Meryl Streep, playing as Julia Child, enters the bookstore. It was summer and lovely, but didn’t mean that much to me. And then a few days later this book fell off the bookshelf at the library and into my hands.

I’ll likely not get to Paris in this lifetime, but this book made me feel like I’d been there.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Winter Book

Tove Jansson
Sort of Books
London 2006

I'm reading this wonderful selection of stories for the second time - because it's so very hot here. As Nan said, Mrs,Bale would not like this. People in other parts of the continent would laugh at us. Folks are sweltering in Toronto; there was a major power failure - everyone was using their air conditioning. I grew up in Toronto when not many of us had AC, so I know what it's like. That's why I live here on an island in the Pacific Northwest where it's usually cool  and green. We're just not used to this.

Now, isn't the cover of this book just lovely. Makes me feel cooler just to look at it. The stories are not all about winter - the first section is titled Snow. The stories are drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century.

Tove Jansson is probably best known for the Moomin Books, one of which I wrote about three years ago. it's here if you'd like to look.

Philip Pullman commented "As smooth and odd and beautiful as sea-worn driftwood, as full of light and air as the Nordic summer. We are lucky to have these stories collected at last." Tove Jansson died in 2001 at the age of 86. This is a picture of the young Tove

She grew up a bohemian artistic child, a daughter of artists and bohemians; her mother was the famous Finnish/Swedish illustrator and artist Signe Hammarsten; her father, Victor Jansson, was an equally well-known sculptor.

After her mother died, she wrote The Summer Book, the acknowledged adult masterpiece. Ali Smith wrote "the simple, spare story of a very old woman and a very young girl and the adventures, losses and gains that inevitably follow when great age and youth live together on a very small Scandinavian island for the whole of an endlessly lit summer."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bento Box in the Heartland

My Japanese Girlhood in
White Bread America

Linda Furiya
Avalon Publishing

Her father arrived in the U.S. from Japan with $29 in his pocket. Her mother left a highly satifying, fulfilling life working in Tokyo and spending the weekends skiing and hiking, to go to the U.S. to get married and become a housewife in a foreign land. Her dad worked two jobs throughout her childhood, one of them "chick sexing" (separating the male and female chickens), and her mom spent much of her time planning how to make Japanese foods and rationing ingredients so they wouldn't run out

Linda Furiya grew up in rural Indiana, in one of the few Asian-American families in her community. She takes us back to her early childhood and describes her unique family upbringing, of which food was central. Her parents felt closer to home (Japan) when they could eat Japanese food; however, this was not easy given the unavailability of fresh Japanese ingredients in rural Indiana in the 1970s. She recalls with the occasions when they would drive into Chicago or Cleveland to procure Japanese ingredients or go to a Japanese restaurant, and how those excursions lifted the whole family's spirits.

Each chapter ends with a recipe, most of which are fairly simple for those unitiated to Japanese cooking. Roasted Pork Tenderloin (Yakibuta), Short-Necked  Clams Steamed with Sake, Chestnut Pastry (Kurimanju), Steamed Buns with Meat Filling (Nikuman). I don't much fancy Japanese food - too salty for me, and most dishes contain meat or chicken. But I loved reading this book because it made me remember my three year's living in a Japanese community when I was working in Hawaii.

Her girlhood in the small Indiana Farm community where she grew up ws marked by differences. She was the only Asian in her school, the only girl whose mother packed rice balls and chopsticks in her lunch box, the only one whose parents' idea of a family vacation was loading the station wagon with an oversized cooler and driving across state lines for twelve hours in search of fresh fish.

"Maybe it was the game fishing TV shows on Sunday mornings, with glistening fat fish fighting the line and arcing in the air, but that summer he got the idea in his head that Florida was Mecca. The focus of that summer was to obtain fresh fish. We headed south from the glacier-cut hills and rivers of Indiana, through the rolling horse country of Kentucky, and down through the forests of Tennessee. After spending the night at a Holiday Inn in Georgia, we reached the salty sea breezes and moss-covered banyan trees in Panama City, florida's 'Redneck Riviera.'" Japanese home cooking had become the only daily thread her parents had to their culture... a simply bowl of perfectly steamed rice or ramen noodles in hot broth could do wonders in keeping homesickness at bay.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Snowman

Jo Nesbo
translated by Don Bartlett
Random House 2010

Another compelling Scandinavian crime novel - this one takes place in Norway. For me, Jo Nesbo has replaced Henning Mankell, and I intend to read more of his books.

In 1980, a young child is made to wait in the car for his Mother as she says she needs to pop into someones house for 10 minutes. When the Mother returns to the car 40 minutes later (scared, as she is sure that she saw someones face at the window) she finds her child in a state of fear and confusion saying that he “had seen him”. When his mother asks who, he can only reply “The Snowman”.

Twenty-four years later, Oslo Detective Harry Hole is investigating the disappearance of several women who all share the fact of being married with at least one child. He is assigned a new partner, the very pretty but aloof Katrine Bratt, and the two of them set about trying to find the connection between the women who have disappeared and the only thing that seems to connect them all is that there is a snowman at the scene of every disappearance and the women have all vanished every year on the first day of snowfall. Not only that, but Harry feels he is being watched. He received a mysterious note claiming to be from The Snowman and inviting him to find out who he is. Harry and Katrine then find out that a Detective in Bergen, who also appears to have been investigating the case, disappeared 14 years ago and has never been seen since.

As Harry Hole starts to fit all the pieces together, it is clear that there is more to the case than meets the eye. With a smattering of red herrings and mistaken identities you start to suspect everyone who graces the pages of this book. There is, of course, the obligatory nail-biting climax to the book when everything comes together all at once, and the old race-against-the-clock, will he / won’t he make it in time. I love that though; the edge-of-your-seat stuff.

Details of the murders are really quite gruesome. I had to take a break often, but the story won't let me get too far away, and I'm back again soon.

This is the seventh book about Harry Hole. The red herrings, the false roads which all do connect, in a way, just not the way the police want them to, are an amazing road to follow. Twist after turn will have you gasping as they go after who they think is the killer only to find they have suspicions of someone else ... more than once. I really can't convey how cleverly this plot was woven together, with a myriad of clues, characters and evidence Nesbo doesn't miss a step in seamlessly creating an airtight thriller.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Girl She Used to Be

by David Cristofano
Thorndike Press 2009

How do you know who you are if you can't reveal who you've been?

Though I have been on this earth for twenty-six years, the last twenty have been one long string of boredom knotted by a few moments of unimaginable terror.

Melody Grace McCartney. Just another name in a long, long line of names - Sandra Clarke, May Adams, Karen Smith, Anne Johnson, Jane Watkins, Terry Mills, Shelly Jones, Linda Simms... But it's not just another name. It's her very first name.

Melody hasn't been Melody since she was six years old, when her family witnesses a mob hit, and the Feds come to take them away and put them into the Federal Witness Protection Program. She's had to learn new names, new towns, new histories, new job skills. Every time she moves, she has to be someone new. The very family who they were supposedly being protected from assassinated her parents twelve years into the program.

I’ve always wondered about the witness protection program, and I often thought about what happens if you are found? I had no idea how much I would enjoy this book. I had no idea about the other aspects of being in the Witness Protection Program. What kind of life do you really have? Can it be a life at all when you cannot be the person you once were? How is a child impacted by being in this program?

This story is a must read. It is compelling and heart wrenching. I had no idea how Cristofano would end the story, but I was crying buckets by the time it was over. The tears were for me rather than for the story - remembering my homelessness and lack of family, moving from place to place looking for one.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Inside the Whale

Jennie Rooney
Chatto & Windus
London 2008

This is a sweet, sweet love story, told in alternating short chapters by Stevie (short for Stephanie) and Michael. Funny and sad

It begins on the first Sunday of September in 1939 when the war was announced. After she left school, Stevie spent four years chopping root vegetables in the canteen of the Sun Pat peanut factory.

I had wanted to be a teacher but found myself arranging pale cabbages on trays and chopping carrots into perfect cubes. They made me stand on a wooden box so that my elbows didn't disturb the other women.

War came, and Michael trained carrier pigeons for the Royal Corps of Signals in Cairo

The years roll by, and the alternating stories jump back and forth and on into old age.

This is Jennie Rooney's first novel, and she's published another book that I look forward to reading... The Opposite of Falling hasn't been released here yet, but soon I hope. Toby O'Hara and Ursula Bridgewater meet at Niagara Falls. One of the attractions is a red and blue striped hot air balloon offering rides over the rushing water. The balloon is a day job for Toby  ... his  night work is to continue to perfect his father's design for a flying machine.

Her metaphors are enchanting ... under the sea inside a whale and then up in the air in a hot air balloon. I probably won't wait for this to come in July ... next stop the Book Depository.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Golden Collar

I haven't read this book yet. I just picked it up at the library last night. The cover was so beautiful. Published in 1984 by Severn House in London. I'd never heard of Edith Cadell and could not find much about her by googling ... bibliographies, but no biographies

I wonder now if the book will be as wonderful as the cover. This is what I discovered by opening the pages at random

He turned and looked at the garden spread below him, glowing in the late May sunshine. There had been a little rain that morning, and drops still glittered on leaves and petals and gave a sheen to the expanse of smooth lawn ...... beyond was a carpet of white narcissi threaded with purple violets.

hmmmm ... not bad

You know that old saying, "don't judge a book by its cover". How often do you choose a book by its cover?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

Alan Bradley
Doubleday Canada 2010

Flavia's back ... with all the family and friends from Bishop's Lacey and Environ - Buckshaw, St. Tancred's, Culverhouse Farm, and Gibbet Wood. Aunt Felicity has joined the household as a guest, annoying each and every one in their turn. "Father said, 'she still has all her own teeth --- and she knows how to use 'em.'"

Flavia finds herself untangling two deaths. Rupert Porson, the beloved puppeteer, has had an unfortunate rendezvous with electricity.The death of a child some years before may not have been an accident.

Colorful characters are plentiful, and Flavia sets aside her chemistry experiments and schemes of vengeance against her insufferable big sisters and races about on her trusty bicycle, Gladys, in search of Bishops's Lacey's deadliest secrets. There's Mad Meg who lives in Gibbet Wood, the catatonic woman in the dovecoat, the German pilot obsessed with the Bronte sisters, and Porson's assistant, the charming but erratic Nialla.

Alan Bradley is a genius .. he juggles this mix of oddball characters like a magician. The plot twists and turns, and I truly couldn't guess the final outcome until the very end.

I so look forward now to his next book in the Flavia series  A Red Herring without Mustard that he's currently working on now in Malta, where he lives with Shirly and Amadeus and Cleo, his wife and two "calculating" cats.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

When Wanderers Cease to Roam


by Vivian Swift
Bloomsbury 2008

A charming illustrated celebration of puttering, doodling, daydreaming, and settling down after years on the road

A delight to read straight way through, or to pick up and browse at any page.  The entire text has been hand lettered by the author. The dedication is to Walter Marlin, famous for paving the Royal Mile for King James V in 1532. His last wish was to be buried under the cobblestones of his own road there Marlin's Wynd, and to her mother, Mary Marlin - "thanks for the DNA"

Organized by months, the March chapter is titled March is the Tea Time Month, when life gives you March, make tea. In A Tea Time Memoir, the author describes and illustrates five locations: the famous Bewley's tea room on Grafton Street in Dublin; at the Muffin Man in Kensington, London; an ancient stone walled village on the coast of Brittany, Saint Malo; harps playing Vivaldi at Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires; and Wolf's Lane Deli on Long Island.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fine Just the Way It Is

Wyoming Stories 3
Annie Proulx
Scribner 2008

I love Annie Proulx – her stories are just as good by what they do NOT say as compared to what they DO. The characters are wonderfully drawn and you get a sense of the incredible beauty of the landscape and the harshness of farm life. The characters are so real – flawed just like the rest of us.

We drove by her home in Newfoundland when we were there a few years ago. It’s set far back from the road, so we couldn’t see much. I was told she lives half a year there and the other half in Wyoming.

This collection of short stories is the third in her Wyoming series. They are sad, sad, sad. In the last story, “Tits Up in a Ditch”, Deborah Hicks says, “Every ranch … had a lost boy … boys smiling, sure in their risks, healthy, tipped out of the current of life by liquor and acceleration, rodeo mishaps, bad horses, deep irrigation ditches, high trestles, tractor rollovers and ‘unloaded’ guns.”

Michael Knight of The Wall Street Journal said, “Ms. Proulx writes with all the brutal beauty of one of her Wyoming snowstorms.”

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Maine Massacre

Janwillem van de Wetering
G.K. Hall & Co.
Boston, Massachusetts 1979

I first read Van de Wetering’s books many years ago. He is a former Zen monk and wrote two books about his experiences, first as a novice monk in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery The Empty Mirror and again in an American Zen community in New England. A Glimpse of Nothingness. And now, this year, I’ve discovered from a friend that he wrote many mystery novels – the Amsterdam cop series is probably most famous. He volunteered for the Amsterdam Reserve Police, doing uniform duty as a constable, later constable-first-class, and passing sergeant and inspector exams

Het Werkbezoek ("The Working Visit," published as The Maine Massacre), which in its French translation won the Grand Prix Policier, brings the commissaris and de Gier (police officers from Amsterdam) to the Maine woods in winter, where they solve a series of murders and along the way encounter a very intellectual gang of young nihilists and a rich hermit. They find a town full of suspects and a series of shady real estate deals seemingly connected to the death of the commissaris' brother-in-law. He has traveled to assist his sister in the settlement of her affairs so that she might return to her homeland in the Netherlands. Sergeant de Gier, worried about the old man's failing health, follows - on the pretext of studying American police methods.

Possibly because so much of his own life and personality went into his main character, van de Wetering failed to give him a name. In novel after novel he just appears as “de Commissaris”, the Inspector. The inspector’s two underlings, Grijpstra and de Gier, lent their names to about 15 of his novels.

The book is interesting because the characters are real; this one gives a peculiarly Dutch perspective on American culture, which at times is laugh-out-loud funny, like de Gier, in his eternally curious cop mode, wondering why on earth anyone would buy bags of ice.

His background in Zen philosophy really shows, as here where he describes Fox’s answer to a question about “the hermit”.

Jeremy is my local sage. I used to go over to the island and I would ask him questions, but he never answered. He would talk about other things instead, different things altogether. Tell me stories, jokes, anything. But he never seemed to hear what I asked. Then later, maybe the next day, I would think about what he had said and find that he had answered. Very funny, and annoying too. He plays around, and very seriously, once you get a feeling as to what he is doing. But go ahead, you can ask me questions now. I may want to try to imitate Jeremy’s method, but I won’t be as good at it as he is.

I intend to read more of this series now that I’ve found it … one more is on my request list at the library

Coincidentally, while I was reading this, steeped in the icy cold Maine winter, we watched that old movie Cider House Rules, one of my many favorites of John Irving. And I’ve always remembered the line that Michael Caine says each night, “good night you princes of Maine and you kings of New England.”