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In Bed with the Phantom:
the archive

by Diannek


Turn out the light, damn it!

Summer 2018:

I just finished reading the Comey book, A Higher Loyalty. It's well worth your time. Clear writing, and from the heart. A memoir of Comey's professional life in government service. And his ethics. It's not a boastful book, just an honest retelling of the events of his life and why things went down the way they did. He's the one who cleaned up the mafia gangs in NYC. He's the guy who sent Martha Stewart to the slammer. Those stories were so interesting. Eventually, toward the end of the book, he talks about Hillary and the emails. Good to hear it from him. I still think he had other choices, but he does make a good case for why he did what he did. Then he gets to trump and how he was fired, and why. Essentially, he was fired because he wouldn't pledge loyalty to trump, ie, go easy on trump's pals like Flynn, and drop the Russia investigation. Comey wouldn't do that. Comey's loyalty is to the American People and the FBI, not trump. It's definitely a book that is essential reading if you want to understand what's going on now.

To be truthful with you, I haven't done much pleasure reading lately. I've been caught up in Washington politics and have spent most of my reading moments with news articles. It can take up lots of free time and it's totally depressing. I give big shout outs to the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, Politico, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, Salon, even the Wall Street Journal, and all of the online news outlets for their continuing and exhaustive coverage. I don't watch Fox or CNN, or much of the TV news any longer. I'd rather read the news than try to follow the frenzy on TV.

However, I did read The Rooster Bar, by John Grisham. I spent the weekend reading this thriller. I needed to get the politics out of my head. The topics for this novel were law student loans and deportations. John melded the two into a first rate story. I don't know how he does it, but he manages to keep my attention like nothing else does. He claims that we need to remember that these stories of his are fiction, but this one definitely has a ring of truth to it, and it held my interest until the last page, as usual. It was law students trying to figure out how to get out from under the huge load of debt they had racked up. They were very creative. One of them had parents who had been in the US for years but were being deported because of new ICE policies. Great story, very believable. Thrillers need to teach us something or else they are a waste of time.

I am still buying books and filling up my Kindle with TBRs. There are half read books with their bookmarks staring at me on every table and bookcase in the house. I decided to gather them up and share them with you, just for laughs.


My TBR booklist, 14 inches high, all just barely cracked open.

Saints of the Shadow Bible, Ian Rankin is a British police procedural writer. It's a good story, but you know how the British are, so many tea breaks and endless procedures.
Wait for Signs, Craig Johnson, Longmire short stories. Gripping, easy reading, great for bedtime.
Blood on Snow, by Jo Nesbo, is a crime thriller, very grim.
Plaid and Plagiarism,
by Molly MacRae, is dreadful. She wants to be Louise Penny. Hopeless. It's a murder mystery set in a teashop in Scotland, great setting, horrible writing.
Cop Town
, by Karen Slaughter. I'm a fan but haven't been able to get into this one. I think it's gonna get really creepy.
a social history of book selling. Fascinating. I worked for Barnes & Noble and for Dalton's so I have fond memories of my bookstore days. I own the Dalton D, from the sign outside Daltons. It was given to me as a gift because I helped pack up the Dalton bookstore in Valley Fair a number of years ago. One of these days I'll write about working in a bookstore.
Decorated Journal.
I have read this book already but I'm on my second reading. Gwen Diehn is a master of art talk. Love this book.
A Gentleman in Moscow,
a best seller. I find this story to be extremely annoying. Migratory Animals, a slice of life current times story about a Texas woman. Good story, just can't seem to pick it up and finish it.
In the Midst of Winter,
Allende. Another good story. I'll dive back into this one soon.
A Multitude of Sins,
Ford short stories, not really my kind of reading.
The Forest Lover,
Vreeland. Fictionalized biography of Canadian artist, Emily Carr. Love her art work, don't really care for this type of writing. I will eventually get back to it.

Books I haven't even looked at yet:
Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. I love the early Russian novelists. This is supposed to be Turgenev's best work. It's a beautiful leather bound copy that I found in our clubhouse library. I am welcome to take whatever I want from it. It's actually just a dumping ground for park residents cast offs. It's a dimly lit room with comfy furniture, mood lights and a fireplace. I've never seen anybody in there. Except, every so often a homeless guy shows up there. He loves the book selection, and the shower nearby. Oy.
Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See. One of those guilty pleasure girl books that we set aside for special occasions.
Zone of Interest, by Martin Amos. I found this one at the Dollar Store. Laughing because Martin is such a snob. I cannot imagine what he would say if he knew his books went to the Dollar Store. Ha ha!

I won't annoy you with another list. My Kindle reading will remain a mystery for now.

Have a great summer. Buy a real paperback and take it to the beach with you. It's a way better experience than Kindle reading. And if somebody steals it while you are on the water caught in a riptide, meh.

Later, the Phantom

Winter 2018: It's reading season, along with diet season, workout season, clean up the clutter season, and all the other seasonal good intentions that occur in January. So we must savor the book time. Here are some of the books that I've been reading:

Y is for Yesterday, by Sue Grafton. I'll start with this one. I was going to say some critical things about this mystery but under the circumstances I will applaud it instead. Y is a typical Grafton mystery, which Kinsey solves in her usual style. I was looking forward to Z, the final book in the series, thinking that it would be something special, a finale that wraps things up nicely. Maybe Kinsey finds somebody to share her life with, or wins the lottery. Anything that would convince us that all will be well in Santa Teresa.

Some of you may know that we lost Sue Grafton a couple weeks ago. Apparently she had been suffering from cancer for the past two years. So that means she was still writing while undergoing the usual cancer battle, which rarely ends well. She fully intended to finish this series, but unfortunately the completed series will not include Z. For her faithful readers, like me, it's a sad time. Kinsey Milhone won't be doing any further reports, and we will have to come up with our own happy ending for all the characters in this remarkable series.

Camino Road, by John Grisham, is my favorite book of the year. It's not your typical Grisham story. No lawyers this time. It's about books, bookstores, and first editions, rare books, stuff like that. There is something of a mystery, but no dead bodies. I liked that. Instead we are treated to a story about a somewhat shady bookstore owner, and a cast of writers that made me giggle. I loved this book, so much that I bought a hard copy of it after I read it, a first edition that John had signed.

Two by Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Good bye, The Late Show. Both are great page turners when you are doing too many things at once and need a breather. Good-bye is a Harry Bosch novel, where Harry becomes a private eye, something he never wanted to do. Loved that take, he makes a great one. Hope it continues. The story is believable and compelling. Late is a woman cop, new character. Another good story. Michael just keeps turning them out and never disappoints.

Japanese Lover, by Isabelle Allende. This is a truly remarkable love story about older folks. Actually it should be in the "saga" category because it follows the same main character through her entire life. It reads very "current", not old fashioned at all. Applause to Allende for being able to keep her writing fresh. There are many quite beautiful passages in it. This book would make a great gift to an older friend.

Nothing Allende writes is formulaic. I'm currently reading In the Midst of Winter, also by her, which is also relevant and timely. It's set in New York City but she also includes some horror stories about Latin America, stuff we need to hear.

Testimony, by Scott Turow. I felt like Scott was showing off through most of this book. It's about the 1990s era ethnic cleansing wars. It's a piece of history that has been forgotten by most readers, although it shouldn't be. Serbia and Croatia, Romania, are difficult for Americans. Some cannot even find that area on the map. The war was complicated and so is this book.

Scott chooses to tell the story through the eyes of an American prosecutor who is asked to join the international war crimes court to represent American interests. The case involves refugees from Bosnia, gypsies no less. It's complicated because there is a love interest, sort of. Our lawyer becomes co-opted right away, and doesn't know it. I think it would have been a much more worthy effort if Scott had left out that part. He probably figured he had to add that element so we would stay the course. Turow's work is considered to be legal thrillers, but this one was not terribly thrilling, and I would have much rather read it without the "love" interest.

That's all for now. There are so many books and so little time. I'm still mostly distracted into reading news reports these days. Living through our current political situation is disheartening. I'm hoping things get better soon.

Canada, by Richard Ford. This is a very strange book, a first-person narrative of what happened to the narrator when he was 15 years old. I usually don't like stories told by kids but this one kept my attention. It begins in Great Falls, Montana, and eventually moves to the Canadian outback above Montana. Scary times for the young boy, whose parents abandon him. I won't mention just how that happens because I don't want to spoil the story, but the whole storyline is so quirky and unwholesome that I wondered just how Richard thought of it to begin with. Talk about dysfunctional people, there isn't one person in this whole story that I could categorize as "nice" or "conventional" or "worthwhile to know." Canada doesn't fare much better. This is not a travel book, smiling to myself as I write this.


Spring 2017, An essay A Literary Journey

Fall 2016: As I write this update, my daughter Karen and I are smack in the middle of Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. We are reading it as a book club might (a very serious book club.) We assign pages, maybe 35 at a time, and we take our books to a restaurant or Starbucks for a nice long discussion. This book needs serious sorting out. We are reading real physical books and writing in the margins, bending page corners, and using post it notes to remember "good places" and sometimes going word-by-word to figure things out. I've re-read whole chapters that are so dense that they need some translation.

It's the novel of Ahab, the ship captain's obsession and revenge, and above all, it's a novel of perception. I can't remember another narrator who sees as much as Ishmael does. It's  very wordy, in a Shakespearian way at times, and overwhelming. The narrative devices Ishmael uses vary from poetry to play scripts, and everything in between. I can't decide whether Ishmael, the sailor is as astute as is Ishmael the narrator, who must be writing this memoir some years after the fact. 

I'm not looking forward to the actual meet up of the white whale with the Pequod harpooneers. I've warned Karen that I might have to skip that part. But there is so much to say beforehand about the whaling industry and whalers. It's a miracle that we still have whales. The narrator Ishmael spends a lot of time with the smallest observations about the whiteness of things (ominous), and his ship mates, each one gets a bio, so we will understand how they all fit into this story. And all matter of sea going things that us land lubbers never even give thought to. And Karen and I  are finding so many similarities to our present day lives that it's amusing and uncanny. Moby Dick is very much worth reading, is considered a classic American novel, and now I understand why.

I'm also trying to read the latest Mitch Rapp thriller, called The Survivor. I was charmed by this character when Vince Flynn was still alive. (Flynn was about 42 when he died of pancreatic cancer, a year or so ago.) Now someone has taken over where he left off, but it's definitely not the same writing, or plot or even intent. I'm not sure I can finish the book. Just looked at some Amazon reviews. I'm not alone. Too bad. Not everybody can write a thriller, even though a lot of writers think it's a piece of cake.

As I grow older, I have less time or interest in reading bad writing, trite plots, and long stories that seem not to know when to end. So more and more books get sampled and discarded. I don't care at all that so many books are going unfinished. But I do savor the ones that I love so much I don't want to see end. Bring those on!

Summer 2017:
I haven't been reading as much as I used too. I'm too caught up in social media. It's addictive. And of course, my pre-occupation with politics at its worst. But I did read a couple of books that I'd like to mention. The ones I threw against the wall in disgust, I won't mention.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett. I'm not a big fan of Ann's work, I can't put my finger on the reason, but there you have it. So I thought I would just take a quick look at this novel. Surprisingly, it held my attention. It's a family saga about a truly dysfunctional group, start to finish. And it's depressing. I know that's not a very flattering thing to say about a book, but sometimes we just need to go there and remember how common the dysfunctional family really is. The scenes are mundane. The parties, the interactions, the friends, the kids growing up, and the elders growing old. All mixed up in this semi-tragedy of daily life. And yet, I read it all, and for some reason, enjoyed it.

How the Light Gets In, Louise Penny. Louise has hordes of fans and has written 12 mystery novels now, I think. Mostly about a little artist enclave called Three Pines, in eastern Canada. They are a quirky bunch, to say the least, and they are all well rendered. Inspector Gamache from the Quebec Surety investigates. (Interesting that in such a small village there are so many murders. Reminds me of Cabot Cove.) The crimes are always complicated and need much hand wringing, good meals, many cups of coffee and good sleeps in Three Pines. This particular one involved quintuplets, which I thought very odd indeed, and a plot by some politicians to blow up a big bridge, plus some very intriguing technical stuff. I'm not a true fan of Penny's work, there is something about it that I find a little off putting, but I probably stand alone in that criticism. I think the plots could be simplified because we are more interested in the Three Pine folks than we are with the murders. But if you like cozies with an edge, this is the writer for you.

The Director, by David Ignatius. This spy novel is about the CIA, and is written by a journalist with lots of Washington DC experience. Here's the interesting twist: the CIA gets a director with no CIA experience. How can something like that happen? Never happen, in the real world, unless trump, but I digress. It's a cyber crime story, very complicated. The writer knows something about IT, but not quite enough.There are holes. For example, he never explains exactly what is going to happen, or why, or how the pieces fit together, for that matter. And I questioned one scene, where a sensor, not attached to a window, was able to pick up and measure the window vibrations caused by conversation, and convert that into speech, so the intruder didn't need a listening device to overhear the conversation. I'm still checking on that. Meanwhile, the director is trying to figure out how to solve a mole problem within the CIA, without any knowledge of how the CIA as an institution works, having no friends there and little experience about how spies operate. I didn't buy any of it but I did keep reading, so that's something.

Summer 2016:
I haven't done too much reading this time. I started several books but didn't finish them so I won't bore you with those details. Sometimes good books go into hiding.

I did read Euphoria, by Lily King. It was the Kirkus Prize winner in 2014. About a group of anthropologists doing field work in Papua, New Guinea in the 1930s. I do remember an anthro class from my undergrad years. The professor did his field work there in the 1970s, so this one had significance for me. The story goes into some detail about how they go about their work, what is important to know, and those pesky ethical issues. It's fiction, but it very well could have been somebody's life. It felt real, and was mildly interesting. I still feel sorry for those poor subjects of their intrusive studies. I'm also getting rather irritated by the come-ons emblazoned onto the book jackets these days. This one says: "taut, witty, fiercely intelligent", give me a break.

And I'm just finishing The Good German, by Joseph Kanon. As you will recall, he's one of my favorite writers. I'm nearly finished with him, unless he writes something else very soon. He writes about the post WWII era. He has an exceptionally good sense of place. This one is set in Berlin just weeks after the end of the war. The Potsdam conference happens, that's how soon after. But the story is about Berlin itself, the rubble, the German people just barely alive, rounding up the Nazis, the black market, all of the chaos. I still have to figure out who will turn out to be the good German.

Apparently it has been turned into a movie starring George Clooney. I missed it somehow. I guess it wasn't very good. It has the bones of a thriller but the book is not a page turner. It's too depressing, and slow moving. Tough reading. Kanon is a good historian. But like his others, there is definitely a sense of dread and hopelessness throughout.

Here's an old postcard I found hanging around. I've been meaning to share it with you. I actually know people like this. I'm sure you do too.

Night, night. Ttyl, Dianne

Spring 2016
: It's reading season. Raining in San Jose, really raining, bucket-filling rain. We are loving it. However, the rest of the country, except the west coast, is suffering under mega snow storms. Snow plow and hot chocolate weather abounds. Hope all is well with my far flung pals. Without further ado, here's what I've been reading.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo, is my current favorite. This Japanese lady knows a thing or two about de-cluttering our lives. It's an interesting quick read, even if you aren't particularly keen on cleaning up after your fine self. Most of us are. This book has been on the best seller list for ages. However, the editor in me thinks I could have done a bit better in organizing the book. She repeats herself and spends a lot of time justifying what she asks us to do. But the main points are all there and easy to remember. Just get in and start tossing stuff, all in one go, things you never believed you could, should or would ever part with. And then find a home for everything else. Once everything in your house has a permanent home, where it should be (not piled somewhere because it's still homeless), you will begin to feel the magic. And then remember to put things back where they belong. That easy. Except that you should have way fewer clothes, nearly no paperwork in your files, very few books and about half of your furniture. Gulp. If it doesn't spark joy when you pick it up, toss it.

Now, onward to the rest of current best sellers that I read during the past four months. They have a lot in common. All but the Alan Furst are mystery/thrillers. And they are all my favorite mystery writers, who are in their prime story telling mode. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the one lone spy novel by Alan Furst.

Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst, who is considered one of the best spy historians to write about WWII. This book focuses on tramp steamers, and their role during WWII of confusing the enemy, while spying for the good guys. It's the totally mesmerizing tale of the Santa Rosa, a small freighter, wandering around various Mediterranean ports, doing odd jobs of planting or picking up soldier spies, while looking like an innocent old steamer going about its business. Loved the captain and his crew, and the book rings with odd battles and authenticity.

I will just briefly recap the rest of these books because, in all honesty, they were good in the moment but none is outstanding.

A Banquet of Consequences, by Elizabeth George, focuses mainly on Detective Barbara Havers, who is still in trouble with her boss for some previous misdemeanor. She is sent to the British countryside to figure out a complicated murder. It takes pages and pages of Britishness to get to the heart of things. It's entertaining to read about Barbara's focus on food, and poor clothing choices, as she ferrets out each small clue. The suspects were all well perused, which was very time consuming. In the end it was another one of those strictly British angst things that drove the murderer to do the deed. And because there were no guns involved, the death itself was quite peculiar. I was happy to see the last page finally roll along.

Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith was next. Interesting that J.K. Rowlings, who writes as Gailbraith, is not quite so British sounding as George, who is an American writer, writing British mysteries. (Nice work, Elizabeth!) The most interesting thing about these Galbraith mysteries is the relationship between Cormoran Strike, the private detective, and his assistant, Robin. Recall that Strike has only one leg. They try to catch a serial killer, who carves up the bodies. Really creepy story. Robin is in jeopardy through the whole story, which is a device that I find hard to stay with. I prefer stories where the detectives are not directly involved in the murders.

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King. It's the sequel to Mr. Mercedes, a mystery that I liked a lot. And it's definitely the continuation of Mr. Mercedes, but it takes a while to understand that connection. An innocent bystander gets caught in somebody else's plan to get revenge. Things go very badly. It's hard to decide who to root for. The story involves old notebooks. I liked that. And we are taken in a very unusual direction for a typical mystery. In thinking about this book again, I'm liking it more than I did in the moment. Well done, Stephen.

Make Me, by Lee Child. Really creepy Jack Reacher story. Hard to read. A town full of mad men kill people for fun.
The Murderer's Daughter, Jonathan Kellerman. Parts of this story were extremely well written. But the story itself is hard to believe. A man and woman have quick sex after meeting in a bar, and then he is killed. She didn't do it but has a hard time proving it. And then the plot thickens in an unusual twist. Another odd Kellerman thriller. I did like the main character though. We spent more time with her than with investigator/psychologist Alex Delaware. I liked that too.
Pretty Girls, Karin Slaughter. Every time I read a Karen Slaughter I decide not to read another one. Such an extremely creepy premise. Torture! Snuff porn. No. I'm really swearing off of Slaughter now.
Radiant Angel, by Nelson Demille. I thought Nelson was off his game as far as amusing remarks go. A ship with a nuclear bomb aboard gets lost in the NYC harbor. Frightening scenario. Typical outcome. I'm getting tired of strange rich men trying to destroy the world.
Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham. I had to check to make sure I wasn't reading a collection of short stories. The lawyer featured in this novel handles lots of cases, and we read them one after another. The lawyer's personal problems glue them together. It reminded me of a lot of Grisham's previous stories. Not one of his better efforts. I'm sure regular readers will probably agree.
The Girl in the Spider's Web, Stieg Larsson and David Lagercrantz. The first couple of pages contain a few sentences that don't sound as if they quite made it through the translation process intact. After that it sounds exactly like Stieg's voice. Same characters, continuation of The Girl's horrible problems. Lots of murder and mayhem. I learned some stuff about artificial intelligence and hacking, to boot. And autistic savants. Good story, well told.

I feel like I'm all caught up on the current best sellers now. So I'll start looking around in the "better dresses" department for some more high quality fiction, if such a thing still exists. There are a rash of political books to ignore, that's the real trash, and a couple of biographies that I'm undecided about. There's always something to read. Never fear.

I hope everybody has a good book to help you through this awful winter. Just keep reading. Spring will be here before we know it.

Now put that light out!

The Phantom

Fall 2015:
I have read some good books in the past few months, also some duds, but I'm not going to talk much about the duds. Not worth it. Quality writing or great plots are never guaranteed even when a book hits the best seller list.

As I write this post I'm reading a book written by a Nigerian woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I heard her speak on NPR. She is fascinating. Her best seller is called Americanah. It's about Nigerian people living their quotidian lives (that means all the day to day stuff that is sometimes a little boring). I know this book is going to get better as the main characters get older, but for now I'm happy to read about how things go in Nigeria. Most of the books I have read about Africa were written by non-African white folks. No offense, but I always knew that there were real African writers "out there", that they have their own best sellers, and so forth, but somehow they never reach our shores. Well, finally, ta da, one has come along. And it's been on the best seller list for a long time so lots of Americans are reading it. It is taking me a long time to finish it, which means I'm not totally engrossed. Sigh.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson. We all vaguely recall that the sinking of the Lusitania had something to do with WWI, right? Yes, it did. Erik Larson fills in all the blank spaces. He has such an entertaining way with words and with history. For example, I learned a lot about President Wilson's love life, what the u-boat captain (German bad guy) was thinking when he sank the great ship, how u-boats work, that Lucy sank in the middle of a beautiful day just off the coast of Ireland, and most of all, I learned an amazing amount of information about the passengers aboard the fated steamer. Did you know that the Lusitania was a sister ship to the Titanic? Did you know that "Lusitania" is the Roman name for Portugal? It's all this and a great deal more rolled into a wonderful book that even those with just the faintest interest in history will enjoy. We know from the beginning that this wonderful ship sinks, but the real story is in the details, and Larson has once again worked his magic and given us a grand treat. Bravo, bravo. Great story.

Given Day, by Dennis Lehane. I found a hard cover first edition (2008) at the Good Will (Dear GW: it's worth a lot more than $2. You've blown it again) and was intrigued enough to read all 700 pages. It's an historical fiction slog about Boston in 1919. You will read of union busting, racial tension, communist infiltrators, love gone wrong and a host of real people doing cameos, including Babe Ruth. The usual descriptors include "epic" and "sprawling". Both fit, but somehow I was very happy to finally reach the last page of this very long book. Personally, I think once writers have had several successful books turned into movies something happens to them. And every book from then on is just another screen play. This one has that ring to it. But nobody from Hollywood has had the strength to pick up this heavy book yet.

The Harder They Come: a Novel, by T. C. Boyle. Boyle has achieved cult status. He has followers. I'm not one of them but I read this book anyhow. It's a depressing story start to finish, dystopian subject matter. I'll try to stay apolitical here. The story is about Sten and his family. We are introduced to Sten on vacation in Mexico. There is an incident and Sten becomes a national hero. Then he and his wife go back home to Willets, California, a small town in Mendocino County. Yes, that's right, where they grow the MJ. Sten has a son who isn't quite right in the head, to say the least. He has serious mental issues which his folks are trying to ignore. Sten, who is the retired Willets high school principal, is still a hero from the Mexico incident. He's also a well respected community member. His son gets into trouble. His son gets involved with a woman who also gets into trouble. Things get more complicated than I can even describe. Tragedy ensues. This one is a heart breaker.

The Tattooed Girl, by Joyce Carol Oates. This is her attempt at an off-the-wall murder mystery maybe. A strange, divorced college professor (well, she's a professor, so that's why), who is quite wealthy, and is young but seems really old, hires a housekeeper. She, the tattooed one, is supposed to cook and clean. He also needs somebody to sort through his professional papers, so that's her job too. She is an immigrant, hopelessly lost by all of his paperwork and bookish ways. None of his colleagues or family can figure out why he hired her. Odd does not begin to describe her, odd and extremely unlikeable, but then the college professor isn't likeable either. Wouldn't you just quietly close the book at this point and find something else to read? Not me. I kept going as the story got stranger and more peculiar with each turn of the page. Ultimately, an unsatisfying end to this dreary tale, but as I said, who cares. I didn't like them and I don't think you would either. But I do like to read the occasional Oates book. She too has a way with words.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer, or "what the fuck" if you are having a slow day. It was voted one of the 10 best books of the year 2014 by the NYT. Really! Supposedly it's a nail biting thriller set in Burma for a while, and then Portland and other parts of the Pacific Northwest after the writer gets going with the story. I enjoyed the Portland part because I still remember a lot of locales from my hometown that were mentioned (not Burma). It's sort of a quirky-young-people spy-romance with a lot of flying and driving, and good dialog, with laughs sprinkled here and there. The youngsters are accidentally involved with a techno-bad guy who wants to rule the world, don't they all? So there's some techo-wizardry to read through that sounds oddly realistic in places. But I think the author (again) didn't know how to end the story, although it started well enough, especially the Burma part (which reads like Graham Greene in places), so he just stopped writing. Perhaps he plans a series. I would pick up the next book if it comes along. This one reads like it might become a cultish, underground favorite.

I read two by Joseph Kanon last month. He writes about the post World War II era with an extremely good memory, or perhaps he has studied up. The Prodigal Spy is definitely a spy thriller that goes back and forth between Washington DC (McCarthy hearings) and Prague. Two love stories, lots of intrigue, all of it reminding me of The Third Man. The second one was Leaving Berlin, a German-American gets blacklisted (also McCarthy hearings) and flees to post-war East Berlin. Good spy stuff, lots of twists. Great descriptions of Berlin suffering through the airlift.

I've grown weary of WWII as subject matter but Kanon's era is after the war, at the beginning of the Cold War, before we actually knew who the bad guys were, and what horrors would be happening. His books are fascinating because he manages to make the era come to life, and there is always romance in the air..

The other Kanons I have read include:
Istanbul Passage, which was essentially a mystery-romance, with Istanbul beautifully rendered.
The Alibi, Venice after the war, lovers trying to get away with murder. War time Venice has secrets.
Los Alamos, mysterious death at the site of the atomic bomb facility. Tortured illicit romance.
I'm recommending them all. There are three more Kanon books which I'm putting on my reading list: Stardust, The Good German, and Leaving Berlin.

FYI: Here's a short summary of some of the books I tried to read but just couldn't get into: The Girl on the Train, The Martian, and John Sanford's mysteries. I read one, and won't go back to the others. On the other hand, I am enjoying the Richard Stark mysteries. They are all golden oldies, to me that's the era before cell phone/computer technology. Communication was so much more difficult then, and Stark writes about the bad guys. Genius. I'm also enjoying Robert Crais. Good beach reads. Oops! No beaches for me for a while yet.

I'm getting sleepy. Turn out the light and sweet dreams,

The Phantom

Spring 2015:
In looking over the list of books that I read over the past few months, I'm not terribly impressed. Usually there are several that I'm eager to tell you about. But this time I'm afraid I won't convince anybody to run out and read these books. I'll start with the best of the lot and move to the worst.

Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino. This is a Japanese mystery translated for English readers.  Good translation, it doesn't seem "americanized" in the least. The detective is astute (aren't they always), while claiming to be not so bright. We've seen this character before, not quite as boldly played as TV's Lt. Columbo, but vaguely reminiscent. The story is about a divorced woman and her daughter, they are the suspects in the murder of her ex-husband. Their neighbor is also a suspect. I won't reveal who Suspect X is. It's a convoluted story with an interesting ending. I think it would make a very good movie, but it's Japanese, so not too many Americans will read it. Somebody needs to pitch this one to the movie makers.

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel, by Anthony Doerr. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, just announced. This is another WWII novel, focused on a young German boy, a little genius who is an orphan, eventually placed in a special school and taught physics. He becomes a radio specialist and goes into the German army. The second important character is a young French girl, blind since she was very young. She and her father evacuate Paris and run to a small town along the coast where they hole up with relatives. Her father carries with him a very special artifact that the Nazis want. So it's a rather unusual war story. When young people are involved, war stories are more about the personalities than about the horrors of war. The German boy and the French girl meet up but tragically things don't go well. I kept reading but there were times when I could have put this book down and forgotten all about it.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters. This is a highly acclaimed novel, everybody seems to love it. It's sensual, yes it is. It's dramatic, even a bit overly dramatic, I'd say. Some literary types compare it with 50 Shades of Gray. That's terrible, that's like comparing Jane Austin to that piece of trash.

Waters knows how to write. However, I wanted to throttle the two women co-conspirators many times during the course of their dilemma. One thing I'll give her, I haven't forgotten the plot. It's the 1920s in London, and women still know their place, although times are changing. Life is difficult for women who prefer their women friends to the men in their lives, if you get my drift. This is the story of a spinster, living with her widowed mother, while trying to find some meaning in her life. The two endure a modest existence compared to their lives when the husband was still alive. They decide to take in boarders, the paying guests. They need the money. The guests bring trouble into their humble lives, there's a moral here. The setting and the problem seem totally believable, but once the plot thickens I started to grow very weary. It took a long time to resolve and I'm not sure it should have ended the way it did.

We are Water: A Novel, by Wally Lamb. Lamb books are always long, very long. This one is about a divorced guy, a psychology professor, and his kids, and of course, his ex-wife. She loved him but left him for the usual reasons: she was bored with him, he was working too hard, his students were more important than her, the kids were grown. And she was in love with someone else, a woman. She was a collage artist (liked that part) and her lover was a gallery owner (hmm). Sounds rather melodramatic, but it wasn't. That's the key to Lamb's success. His characters are believable, and their problems and how they go about mis-handling them have a ring of truth. There was a lot of background and history, unsavory past stuff, that gets aired, all of it interesting and pertinent. I liked this book more after I read it than while I was reading it. Another good sign. Worth the read, but I have to warn you that it was an Oprah book, there are readers who view that is a no-go. Better to be warned.

I started to read Bag of Bones, by Stephen King, got nearly to the end, but I couldn't finish it. It began well enough, sort of interesting even, but it went completely off the rails for me near the end so I flung it at the wall and forgot about it.

Next I read Let me be Frank with you, by Richard Ford. Let me be honest with you, I had to look up a review to even remember what this book was about. It's the third leg of his trilogy about Frank Bascombe. Four shortish stories featuring Frank are pulled together into one book. They are mildly entertaining. Frank is cranky, getting old, retired and not terribly interesting. Still muddling through his love life and not getting anywhere. If you've read the first two novels about Frank, maybe this one will interesting. Otherwise, skip it.

The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly. I also had to look up this one to remember it. Harry Bosch is teamed up with an inexperienced woman detective, which in itself is a tired concept. So we know that there will be a lot of mistakes and teaching going on. In police procedurals, teaching recruits can become tiring because most of us readers already know the procedures, we are not raw recruits. And this case is a complicated cold one, because that's all that Bosch is doing these days. He is close to retirement (yes, he is, IMHO). Cold case files are essentially ones where the detectives look for missed clues or evidence that might be reprocessed because of better forensics. All pretty boring stuff. But Harry finds something else, which leads to a new suspect and a twisty outcome. But not what I would call an exciting story.

I read many other books and parts of even more books over the last few months but I won't bore you with them. It's been a rather long and boring reading season. When I figure I've watched more TV than usual, that's the first clue. But I have faith that some new and interesting books will come along.

Until then, turn out the light and get some sleep,

The Phantom

Winter 2014/15

My most favorite book of the past few months was Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson. It's been around for a while, but I was avoiding it because I wasn't too clear on the premise. Something to do with bringing back the dead. I prefer dead characters to stay that way, or so I thought. Kate's novel features sort of a "what if" premise. She restarts the story every so often and changes some of the circumstances, so characters that met with misfortune of one kind or another avoid it, while others suffer the consequences. I know that's bizarre, but it works -- brilliantly, and makes for a fascinating work of fiction. Kate is English, if you didn't know that already, and the time period for this work is the early part of the 20th century. Hitler makes an appearance. I loved every word of it, couldn't put it down. Kate is a confident writer, whose prose never takes you out of the story. I love that part.

Second favorite was Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. Who knew a book about competitive rowing would have such an impact on the world. Just about everybody is reading this one. It's a true story about a very poor young man who gets to go to college, U-W, and joins the rowing crew. I had no idea that rowing could be so interesting. It's pre-WWII, and those famous Olympic Games of 1936 are the focus of the story. Never ending intrigue, and a paean to the American spirit. Pick this one up, if you haven't already read it.

Then I read The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith. You remember who that is, right? He's J.K. Rowling's pen name for her detective series about the private investigator with the amputated leg. Great character, forgettable storyline. It's just another private detective procedural. As I recall, it's a convoluted story, but the journey from here to there on his bum leg is memorable. So is the complicated relationship with his office assistant. I will definitely keep reading this series because the characters are so enjoyable in the moment.

Then I read two recent books by Stephen King, each one is mesmerizing. Mr. Mercedes is King's trial run at writing detective fiction. There are some creepy characters, but no horror, no ghosts, no super-nature powers at play in this story. An older woman commits suicide because her car, a Mercedes, is stolen and used to kill some folks, deliberately. She is blamed for the murders because she is accused of forgetting to lock up the Mercedes. A very odd premise. A retired cop is hired by a family member of the car owner to solve the case and exonerate her otherwise good name. I liked this story because of the interesting set up and also because King knows how to entertain us with weird characters doing rather odd things.

The other King book I just finished is called Revival. Revival refers to bringing back something. Like reviving old movies or plays -- Broadway musicals get revived all the time. It also has a religious component. That's where King goes. It's a rather innocent story at first, with a slightly creepy under current. It makes you not want to look under the bed while you're reading, or open the dark hall closet. Otherwise, it's a very long and interesting, sort of mundane, story. The main character is narrating i s life story, beginning when he was 6 years old. So despite not caring too much about young kid bios I kept reading. The kid meets the town's new preacher while playing in the front yard. When the preacher's shadow falls on the boy, that's the first creepy moment. But nothing bad happens. Turns out he's a good preacher, at least at first. But eventually things start to change. It takes pages and pages of quotidian prose to get us to the revival part. Still, I couldn't put it down. By the end, things really get close to being truly out there, King style, but by then I was totally hooked. Revival is not for the faint of heart, but it has its merits, because we get to enjoy King at his best, arguing with and about God again. He takes us all the way to the Great Barrier Reef (figuratively!) but he doesn't jump the shark. Love that guy.

Thriller Department: I read three by Owen Laukkanen, The Professionals, Criminal Enterprise and Kill Fee. Read them in that order. Very good stories, essentially they are investigator procedurals, but we also get insight into the criminals state of mind as a major part of the story. Sometimes we even root for them to get away with serious crimes. Nice work, Owen! Two very unlikely partners, one an FBI agent and the other a St. Paul, Minnesota cold case investigator team up to hunt down serial kidnappers in The Professionals, bank robbers in Criminal Enterprise and contract murder in Kill Fee. The stories rank high on the plausibility scale, which is a must for me. The dialog and other interactions between the cops also feel right. These books grabbed my attention and held it. I also read a handful of other thrillers by big name writers but I've forgotten them at this point so they are not worth recounting here.

I also tried to read the third installment of Ken Follett's trilogy, but it's trite, and worn out, even though he's romping through some very interesting and heart breaking eras, the '60s and '70s. I cannot imagine that anybody reading this series is at all enthralled by this point.

At the moment I'm reading John Grisham's Gray Mountain. It's about Virginia's strip mining, a true blight on our country. Grisham goes to great pains to explain all the nastiness of the cold mining industry and the lawyers who protect them while they get away with murder. For that reason alone we all should be reading this novel.

Since it's the holiday season I'm not reading anything other than thrillers and stories that will take me away for a few minutes. On tap are The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters, The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly, and perhaps the new Jane Smiley book.

If you are interested, my favorite books of the year were:
The Gold Finch
The Signature of All Things
Life after Life
Boys in the Boat
All of the Jack Reacher thrillers

Happy New Year and here's to reading your new favorite book!

The Phantom

Summer 2014

I've read lots of thrillers since we talked last. Decided to do the entire Jack Reacher series, author Lee Child. Don't know why Reacher interests me so much. Here's a character who goes through life looking for trouble. And he keeps finding it. He's continually on the road, wandering around the US, mostly walking or hitch hiking, with just a tooth brush, some cash and an ATM card in his pocket. When his clothes get dirty his buys new ones and throws the old ones away. He's retired from the Army, an MP, so he's tough, extremely tough, and knowledgeable about weapons and how to defend himself. He's also smart, of course, has a great memory and tosses off bits of information on all subjects, except technology. He can barely use a cell phone. Child's books are quick reads, intense and gritty. Since I've been talking about him to reading pals, I'm finding that Jack Reacher is a guilty pleasure for a lot of serious readers. We giggle about that.

I struggled through Greg Isles Natchez Burning. Isles writes historical fiction. He has written many books and seems to be quite popular. I think this book suffered from a lack of editing. It's is way too long, (800 pages). It's about Mississippi during the 1960s' civil rights era. Horrible things happened then, possibly horrible things are still happening in Mississippi that are being covered up. The story is convoluted, told through many perspectives, including the first person pov of his Penn Gage (continuing) character. That alone makes the writing suspicious for me. If you are writing a first person novel, all action is supposed to happen through that character. So Isles had to do a lot of "meanwhile back at the ranch" writing, because there are so many other characters with their own stories. The novel became very muddled, and it was hard to figure out just who's story it was. If I had to guess, like for an exam, I'd choose Penn Gage's father, because he seemed to be the lynch pin that set everything in motion.

The story takes place in present day Natchez, Mississippi, but event at the center of the story happened in the 1960s. Isles switches back and forth between characters and time periods at will. Cage and his wife are one piece of the story, and Cage's father is another piece, And there are all the bad guys still living who may or may not have had a part in the actual event. Honestly, it's a big muddle. There had to be a cleaner way to tell this story. And while the bad guys deserved a bad ending, I think Gage went way over the top finishing things off.

The problem with historical fiction is in deciding which part is real and which part is fiction. When you read a story like this one, you want to believe it's all true, and therein lies the problem. If I were a serious student of the civil rights movement and what happened in Mississippi and the rest of the south during that time period, I would definitely search out historical records and writing and ignore this book.

Ruth Rendell, one of a handful of England's most celebrated mystery writers, was born in 1930, which makes her 84 now. (Congratulations, Ruth.) She's still writing and is as entertaining as ever. I just finished, Babes in the Wood, which she wrote in 2005. It's part of her CI Wexler series. Rendell is known for her psychological insight and dark plots, which is probably what sets her work apart and helps enrich her character studies. The problem I had with this story was that I guessed the major plot twist way before CI Wexler did. And her ending was too convoluted than it needed to be. But it was entertaining in that British mystery sort of way.

I stumbled onto Stephen White's latest thriller, Line of Fire in the Barnes and Noble bargain section the other day. This book features the process (or dance) between patient and analyst Dr. Gregory during regular client sessions. I really liked this par, so interesting and informative, apparently White is a master at transference. The story has the usual characters, including Sam, the Boulder cop, who plays a big part, as does Dr. Gregory's family. White's fans are quite familiar with the cast, who are once again facing threats and becoming involved in life-and-death situations that Dr. Gregory cannot disclose because they involve his patient. White noted in his acknowledgements that Line of Fire is his next to the last book in this series. Apparently it's time to wind things up. I agree.

I have several other books in progress, that I may or may not finish. I just picked up a book called The Geographer's Library, by Jon Fasman, that I can't wait to stick my nose back into. It's a real book, beautiful dust jacket, lovely paper, a book lover's gift.

The Phantom

Spring, 2014

Like I said last time, sometimes you hit a dry spell. I've been reading like mad but mostly it's been disappointing books. So much so that I'm not going to review most of them.

Only two or three are mentionable. I'll start with Isabelle Allende, one of my favorite writers. I just finished reading two in a row by her. The first one, Maya's Notebook, was superb. Classic Allende -- a character-driven novel about a very young woman, who grows up in Berkeley, gets into serious trouble, goes on the run, gets lost in Las Vegas for a while, and then ends up on an off-the-beaten-track island off the Chilean coast. It is suspenseful, spiritual, and of course, politically charged throughout. Allende is in good form here, one of her better novels. I simply loved Maya.

The second Allende work is called Ripper, which is currently on the best-seller list. I was somewhat disappointed by it. It's a love story and a thriller combined. As usual the novel is brimming with interesting characters with complicated lives. Allende weaves all these characters together as only a true story teller can. But she has added a serial killer layer over the top, which truly wasn't necessary. These characters could have carried the novel to a fulfilling conclusion without the aid of murder, especially and unbelievable serial murders. That part was tedious, unbelievable and totally unnecessary. I was actually surprised that Allende would stoop to this format. She doesn't do suspense well enough to make this work. However, apparently I'm in the minority with this point of view because the book appears to be well-received. But it's the characters, as usual, who provide the entertainment.

In my humble opinion, read Maya's Notebook, and skip Ripper.

The last one I'll review this time is The Alibi, by Joseph Kanon. He's the niche writer whose specialty is the period right after World War II. This book is set in Venice, shortly after the Nazi's fled and the Venetians are pulling themselves back together. As usual, Kanon's sense of place is astonishing. He knows Venice very well, and who wouldn't want to read a book about it, right? He nicely sets up the love angle, which is the centerpiece of all of his novels, and then adds the problem. This one is reminiscent of his Istanbul novel, where the person who is supposed to figure out "who done it" is actually the one who did it. I love that angle because it's somewhat unusual for a police procedural, which is what ensues. The big problem with this book is that it starts to drag in the middle. He has a hard time moving the story to end. The characters are so interesting that he lingers with their stories much too long. However, I can see this story as a movie with beautiful scenery, decadent but weary Venetian survivors who are eager to forget the past four years, all topped off with a Hitchcock-like twist. I think it could be a great movie, but the book is somewhat tedious.

Winter 2013-14
I've been reading the bestsellers lately. It's a good list this year, and a great year for women writers. Applause, applause!

Let me start with my favorite book of the year: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. It begins with a terrorist act, a 13 year old boy and a famous painting. An odd combination for such an engrossing story. It's much more than a page turner, but it's a book you won't be able to put down. Some say it's Dickensian, I'm reminded of Crime and Punishment. It's a long story, nimbly written, no laughs, lots of anguish, a wild ride. If you only read one book this year, make it Goldfinch.

My second favorite is The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Yes, the same woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. But she has turned over a new leaf, moving from personal essay to grand-style fiction. She has written an elegant, old fashioned novel, brilliantly conceived, about botany and angst. It's the heart breaking story of a woman who must do her duty while questioning absolutely everything that comes her way. Alma Whitaker is a scientist, at a time when women didn't participate in serious scientific research. But since her field is botany, she manages to become an accepted expert in her field. Her main duty is to take care of her father and his estate, and in her spare time, she can study the mosses. Gilbert is a brilliant story teller, taking up a subject that would put most people to sleep and turning it into a first rate page turner.

I also read Grisham's latest, Sycamore Row. We are back in Mississippi catching up with the characters from his first novel, A Time to Kill. It's an interesting story about a dead guy who has written a holographic will and intends to stick it to his family from the grave. It's not exactly revenge we're talking about, it's more like setting the record straight and making amends. I liked this book, it's entertaining and moves right along, as Grisham's legal thrillers always do.

Scott Turow made the bestseller list for a few weeks with his latest mystery called Identical. It's set in Kindle County, where most of Turow's novels take place, but this time the crooked judges and bribe taking lawyers are off the hook. Instead it's a family story about identical twin brothers and a suspicious murder. Things get very complicated, but I found myself questioning the premise about half way through the story. Not good. When the twist is eventually revealed, it doesn't hold up.

The old guy, Frederick Forsyth, has written a new thriller, called The Cobra. He's the writer who gave us The Day of the Jackal 40 years ago. Cobra is an entertaining page turner about drug smuggling in the 21st century. I liked the story, but wondered whether the various governments involved would really go to such lengths and expense to shut down the drug cartels. Some of it reads more like a report than an actual story, but there was a lot to explain before we get down to the business of actually intercepting drugs. I was wishing Forsyth would use the more current format of spy story telling, giving us less back story and more focus on the characters and the sustained action. But this book is worth picking up. It definitely held my attention.

The last book I'll mention is Police, by Joe Nesbo. He's the Scandinavian writer who has made a name for himself here in the US. He write police procedurals, usually serial killer stories, usually very dark and graphic murders. Harry Hole is the detective who must eventually be called in to solve the case because Harry never fails to figure things out, even though he's a much flawed character himself. I'm not quite as taken with Harry as other are, but in a pinch I will read them.

I'm hoping to read more books like this current winter crop, but sometimes there is a long dry spell before another great story breaks through. However, I've found that there is always a good book lurking in the shadows just waiting its turn. If I don't care for a story, I don't hesitate to stop reading and move on to the next one. I usually give a book about 50 pages. But I do remember that there is a reader for every book. So keep looking, right?

Sweet dreams,
Diannek, aka The Phantom

Fall 2013

I spent most of the summer months reading mysteries and thrillers. Found some good ones that kept me up nights and days too. For those who can't wait to hear what was the best read of the summer: here you go. It was 11/22/63, by Stephen King.

But let me take you through the list of books I blitzed through. There are some good ones here and there.

First, the spy stories:  I had read The Tourist, by Olen Steinhauer several years ago and thought it was great, a complex spy story about “moles” – one of the most common problems in the spy business I guess. Then I found out that it was book one of a trilogy, so I read the other two. Tourist was great but the other two: Nearest Exit and American Spy, taking up where Tourist left off, were sort of trying. I got really tired of the whole mess by the time it was finally wrapped up.

Then, while I was at it, I read another Steinhaurer called Victory Square. It was a spy story about a fictitious Balkan country, suspiciously paralleling Romania’s uprising against the Ceausescu regime. It was bloody, grim and depressing, if such things interest you. I couldn't really care about any of the characters even though I felt sorry for the nightmare the people were going through.

Next I read Alex Berenson’s Night Ranger. Berenson is not for the faint of heart. He writes edge-of-your seat thrillers mostly about terrorists. His protagonist is John Wells, one of those macho, I can do this single handed, kind of guys, a one-man army. He has written some interesting stories about the middle east that I liked, but this one was set in Somalia and Kenya, and further confirms why I will never go to Africa. Drones figure in this kidnapping story, I'm thinking that drones are very smart war weapons. I'm also thinking that clueless Americans probably should be taking a look at those warnings about where not to travel when larking around the world. There are some bad places out there.

For a change of pace I read Dan Brown’s Inferno. Everybody is reading it this summer. It’s about Dante's Inferno, of course, and is set in Florence, Venice and Istanbul. Yummy. Dan uses the same plotline in every story. The professor and a beautiful woman have to figure out clues to a strange puzzle, this time from the Divine Comedy, while running for their lives. Really, Dan? Again? Loved the descriptions of the famous cities and their art treasures, and I especially liked getting to know a little more about Dante, but didn’t care for the story. It began to feel more like one of those computer treasure hunt video games than a real life and death struggle. And the demon in the story could have come out of the comic books.

Then I noticed that Cuckoo's Calling had made it the top of the summer NYT best seller list. That's the mystery by J.K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith. When the book first came out it wasn't doing well, but then the connection to Rowling was revealed and it hit the charts. It's a British private eye mystery. The detective is Cormoran Strike, a down-and-out, one-legged, ex-military guy who gets a case that will pay the bills, sort of. He's teamed up with an office temp, who is simply charming. The story is convoluted in the British style, wanders into pop star territory, and takes its sweet time developing characters as it goes. I found it a bit tedious in parts, but Strike is such an unusual detective that it kept me up at night anyhow. I had started thinking I figured out who really done it well before the finish, but kept telling myself that that couldn't be right, but it was. I think Strike will be back, because he and his temp are definitely the most intriguing detectives to come along for a while. I will read the next one, I'm thinking series here.

I definitely needed a change of pace after all that intrigue, so I turned to Isabelle Allende, and a book that’s been on my shelf for a while: Island Beneath the Sea. It’s a wonderfully complex family saga about the slaves, set in Haiti and New Orleans in the 1800s. Isabelle is a story teller, she has such a way with words. Don’t look for much dialogue, just dense paragraphs, but every word is spell binding.

I don't usually read Stephen King because he scares me too much. Horror is just not my genre. But my daughter was reading 11/22/63, while we were on vacation together, and she was chuckling out loud. Interesting, right? I was hooked. It's a time travel story, as only King can write. King's main character has found a way to go back in time to the late 1950s, but for what purpose? 11/22/63 is the date of Kennedy's assassination. Could he possibly go back in time and somehow change things so that Kennedy wouldn't die? What an intriguing scenario. What a great story. I hung on every word, every page. I did just what King wants his readers to do, skip chores, cancel appointments, delay dinner, stay up into the all hours, wading thru 700 kindle pages of this mega story. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you really want to stick your nose in a book, ignore your friends, lose your lover, make your dog want to find a new home, and go to debtor's prison because you forgot to pay the rent, this is the book for you.

Stephen L. Carter is an essayist who usually writes learned tomes on ethics and morality. But he took a breather from all those deep thoughts to write a novel called The Emperor of Ocean Park. It's about a professor at a small eastern college married to a lawyer wife who is being considered to become an appeals court judge. Oh, and did I mention that they are black? And that they have a house on Martha's Vineyard? And that this very long, thoughtful family drama/possible mystery is about the lack of ethics and morality among people in high places? I stuck with it because it has a certain appeal, and is easy reading, despite the topic. The author sprinkles his deep thoughts around, while charming us with his rather interesting character studies. Read this on while you are on a long winter break from reading thrillers. You won't be sorry.

After that I needed to get back to something a little more light-hearted. I realized that I had missed the latest Nelson DeMille, called The Panther. It's John Cory again, you remember him, right? The sarcastic guy who makes fun of everything, even in the most tense situations. This thriller takes place in Yemen, or Sandland, as Cory calls it. He and his wife are both federal agents, different departments, working for some terrorism bureau in NYC. They are tasked with becoming bait to catch a particularly nasty terrorist, the Panther. The CIA is also involved, always good for more tension. They go to Yemen, which is cool because you get to learn a lot of political stuff about Sandland, and most of it has a ring of truth. This is always the way with Demille. He does his homework. Drones are also involved. Of course they are, it's Yemen. I actually enjoyed this one, because I just can't help smirking at all those one-liners that Cory spouts. Good read, especially if you are on a long flight somewhere, hopefully not Sandland. The airport folks would probably confiscate this book.

If you haven't read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, I suggest you consider it. It's Cheryl's story of walking the Pacific Crest Trail, the hiking trail that goes along the mountains from Mexico, California, Oregon, to the Washington state border with Canada. Think Appalachian Trail, only much more difficult. It's not a funny book like Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, but Cheryl didn't know a thing about hiking when she started off either. She just needs to get away from her current situation which is totally bleak, and figure out some things, like what is she going to do with the rest of her life, since she has fucked up the first part. It's a good story, and Cheryl could use the cash, so actually buy this book. It will keep you entertained.

I was on a reading blitz this summer, so of course I read lots of losers too. I won't go into detail except to mention the titles. Don't read the following unless you are forced to: A Small Fortune, by Audrey Braun, Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walters, Redbreast: a Harry Hole Mystery, by Jo Nesbo, or A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carre (I can't even remember what this was about at this point). These aren't the worst books you will ever read, but there are so many way more entertaining ones just waiting their turn.

I have to admit that I'm still reading thrillers but I have the latest book club list in front of me so I will crawl up to the literature section of the bookstore for awhile. And of course I will report back sometime in December or early January.

Now turn off the the damned light, it's time for bed.

The Phantom

Summer, 2013: This summer I’m doing something a little bit different. I am taking a short leave of absence from my reading group (please forgive me), so I can read some of the books that have been waiting a long time to be opened and read. I told the group I would be back with them in the Fall so I’ve been reading like mad.

What I’ve found is such a treasure trove. So I’ve put the Kindle down for a while to read honest-to-goodness real books that are now somewhat dusty, but ready for their turn at the bedside table.

First up was one of the last real books I purchased, Sweet Tooth, (2012) by Ian McEwan. As is always the case with McEwan, it’s about the characters. Serena Frome, the central character, works for the British secret service. It’s a bit difficult to swallow McEwan’s version of MI5, but nevertheless, I tried not to let that bother me too much. Frome’s assignment is peculiar; she’s sort of a double agent, which gets terribly involved and personal. The story is complicated, of course, and is littered with moral dilemmas and interesting secondary characters. There is no thriller aspect, or even typical spy problems to solve. The book is supposed to be clever and amusing, but I felt rather betrayed and upset by the whole thing. Not one laugh. I felt terribly sorry for Serena by the end, which took a while to reach.

I’ve had this book on my coffee table for a while: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, a novel in pictures, (2011) by Caroline Preston. What a pleasure this was. It’s all collages and balloon thought bubbles. It is a novel about a woman who goes off to college in the 1920s and then to Europe on a grand adventure. The artwork is amazing and the story very well told. So engaging.

Next I turned to the travel section of my book shelves. I love travel writing, it’s always such a pleasure to drift along on somebody else’s adventure. I especially like to take them with me when I’m traveling, especially if they are going somewhere else. I sorted out the books I’ve already read and want to keep, but I found that there was still a rather nice stack that I haven’t even touched yet. So, in order, here’s what I’ve read so far:

Malaria Dreams: an African Adventure, (1994) by Stuart Stevens. Stevens and a female companion go to the Central African Republic to collect a land rover that belongs to a friend. The friend left it in storage and now wants it back. Stevens’ idea is to drive the car from central Africa to Algiers, where they can ferry it to France and deliver it to the owner. Sounds easy, right? Nope, that’s not the case. It’s billed as a hilariously funny story. To me it just seems like one frustration after another. The only reason I can figure that Stevens took on this favor for a friend was in order to write about it. And why the companion stayed with him for more than a couple of days is simply beyond me. However, it reads like it actually happened, you can’t make this stuff up. I stayed with the story to see if he would eventually be successful. It was an adventure, and I learned some things about Africa, or rather some things I had heard about Africa were confirmed. I now know that I will never set foot in central Africa, ever.

The Roads Taken: Travels through America’s Literary Landscapes, (1993), by Fred Setterberg. This is a small, but beautifully crafted book. Lovely dust jacket, tightly bound, with wonderfully smooth paper. Everything I treasure in a book. And the writing, easy to read and evocative. Setterberg travels the country visiting the iconic settings of some of America’s literary treasures. Kerouac’s travels, Thoreau’s Walden Pond, and Willa Cather’s Nebraska, to name a few. I enjoyed the tone and the style of this book, and it was a pleasure to remember all the books and authors from around our country.

American Places, (1992), by William Zinsser. I absolutely loved this book. Zinsser is most famous for his book about learning how to write, called On Writing Well. He practices what he preaches in this slim volume. He travels to 15 of America’s most visited sites and writes about them in such a loving and thoughtful way that it makes me want to get in the car and see every one of them again. From Mount Rushmore to Pearl Harbor, it’s a sentimental journey about what is best about America. I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this one.

A Sense of Place: great travel writers talk about their craft, lives and inspiration, (2004), by Michael Shapiro. This is a book of conversations with the greatest travel writers living today. Shapiro travels to meet with them, one on one. He has done his homework, knows their books so the conversations are lively, personal and interesting. All of my favorite writers are in the book, including Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Isabelle Allende, Frances Mayes, Tim Cahill, and Jan Morris, to name a few.

He also interviews a couple big names in travel guide writing: Arthur Frommer and Rick Steves. I totally enjoyed their interviews and have much more respect for what they have done for tourism after reading about them. Both of them are totally committed to travelers having the time of their lives on the road, and sincerely try to give advice about traveling simply and enjoying the moment.

I haven’t quite finished this book but I was so happy to find the time to finally dig into it. I have the paperback version and its cover pictures an empty room with a small window and a cat sitting on a wooden chair. It reminds me of something I might have seen on the road, and also reminds me of what is waiting for me when I return.

Last, I’ve been reading off and on P. D. James’ memoir called Time to Be Earnest: a fragment of an autobiography. James is much loved in England and everybody seems to know her life quite well, so she was not anxious to write her memoirs. She is not a journal keeper either, but she was encouraged or perhaps arm-twisted to write a journal for one year and publish it. She chose Aug 1997 through July 1998. She catalogs what she is doing each day as well as filling in her early years, and she also talks about her craft. I was just barely interested in her background, found the day to day stuff sort of interested and liked very much to read about how she works. I don’t really care for bios, and I’m thinking that somebody I don’t know very well must have given me this book. I don’t think I’ll finish it, but I was mildly interested to know a little bit more about Inspector Dalgliesh’s creator.

As soon as I finish the travel section, I’m going to wander into fiction and see if I can find some great summer reading. I’m sure there are some hidden gems patiently waiting their turn too.

The Phantom

Spring 2013
It's reading season. So great to curl up in my comfy chair in my book-lined living room, reading and snoozing with my cats. One of the best perks of retirement.

You may have noticed that I already mentioned Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior. I'm recommending it but it's a depressing book, beginning to end. It did make me want to wander down to Pacific Grove and see how the Monarchs are doing. I'll update you on that later.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is getting a lot of buzz in Silicon Valley because Google makes an appearance. It's an odd story about decoding an old book that is supposed to reveal some big secrets of life. I found it interesting but it gets a little geeky in places which might makes some great minds wander.

Over the holidays I read Ken Follett's Fall of Giants and Winter of the World. These are two of the three-part trilogy Ken is muddling through. Fall is about WWI and Winter is about WWII. Think Downton Abbey, the girls scouts and the Hardy Boys go to war. It's several families, English, American and Russian, whose lives intertwine. As a result several family members manage to be part of every significant event in the past one hundred years. It's basically junk reading with a few good moments here and there. Winter seamlessly continues the first story, so you have to read them in order. I guess "Spring of ____" is on the way. I won't read it. So many trees give their lives for Follett books. Read them on your Kindle and save paper.

Even though I had heard it was grim reading, I waded through J. K. Rowling's Casual Vacancy. This is her first attempt at adult fiction. The book made it to the best seller list but it probably shouldn't have. She should stick with kiddy lit. It's a dreary story, there are no likeable characters, no imagination, nothing compelling here. If these are the types of families that inhabit present day middle England, their stories should remain a secret.

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl was fun. It's been on the best seller list for a long time. The plot made me think of the Scott Peterson murder for a while, but the second half of the book proved otherwise. Good writing saves this story.

Hope everybody got a Kindle, a Nook or some other electronic reader for Christmas. They are a godsend. Let's figure our book collections are complete now and just buy electronic from here on out.

Turn out the light. Talk to you again soon,
The Phantom

Winter, 2012
I do most of my reading these days from my Kindle and books seem to come and go and never leave a trace, which is a shame. I am a book collector and am surrounded by books in every room of my house, so the idea of never adding to my collection gives me something to think about. But I do understand that it's probably for the best to keep up with electronic technology, and I have to admit that the Kindle is way easier to lug around, especially when traveling.
But as a result, I'm going to come up with another system to keep track of what I read. Usually, there is a big stack of books on my desk so I can do my quarterly book report easily. Not so this time.

Earlier this week my book club held our annual Christmas luncheon and we talked about The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje. The book is getting some very good reviews by the literary class, and about half of our group raved about it, but some of us admitted that it was a slow read, even ponderous at times. I noted that part of the problem is that Ondaatje chose the "story telling" format. There is very little dialogue in this novel of three young boys running loose on a three-week journey on a passenger ship sailing from Ceylon to London in the early 1950s. I felt like I was sitting at a dinner table with one of those old bores who never let's anybody else get a word in edgewise. When there's no dialogue, there are no other points of view, and this book has a sort of depressing aura about it as well. Definitely not my cup of tea.

I couldn't wait to read Grisham's latest: The Racketeer. It's a revenge story told by a lawyer who ends up in prison, claiming that he was innocent of some lawyerly crime. He plans his revenge very carefully, using a law statute that allows prison snitches to get out of jail as well as a new identity if their information brings another criminal to justice. I found the whole thing to be very entertaining.

I'm also reading the spy thriller series written by Daniel Silva. It's about an Israeli spy who is also an art restorer. Very gritty stories, about 12 of them altogether, lots of underhandedness, lots of hand wringing about the questionable morality of the spy business, love that part too. If you are interested, go to Silva's website and get the list and read them in order. Some are better than others, the first three form a sort of trilogy of why Israel needs to do this work. I'm not reading them one right after another. It's better to read other stuff in between, but it's one of those entertaining collections that you will want to go keep up with, if spy fiction is your thing.

All for now,
The Phantom

Fall, 2012

The Summer reading season was fun, as usual. I always think that I’ll be relaxing on my porch with a book and a sweaty glass of lemonade every waking moment. Then reality creeps in and overtakes those lazy day plans.

I spent a week in Cambria (California, near SLO) with my daughter in June when it was nice but still a little cool-ish. We rented a beach house, one of my favorite things to do. It was a wreck of a place, tacky, old rickety furniture, smelled like mildew, mismatched dishes, questionable plumbing, you know those places, right? And of course, they had books, sort of middle-aged dusty volumes. I love to read other people’s books so I carefully sifted through their “collection”.

Found one called Purple Dots, by Jim Lehrer, which I read.  It was a truly awful  – a DC mystery about retired Langley types and corrupt politicians with a thin storyline, uninteresting characters, and an unbelievable premise. That’s where the purple dots come in. I think Lehrer is read because everybody loves the guy.

Such an odd assortment of books in that house, art books, sailing books, books that probably had to do with the owners’ profession (which I guessed  was accounting), with time on their hands for expensive hobbies (which excluded taking good care of their second home).

But I did find one book that I truly enjoyed. (And no, I do not steal the books. I read them and leave them.) It was called The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals, by Michael Kernan (1994, amazon 5 stars). The story is about a collection of old notebooks found in a musty barn in Long Island that might have written by the Dutch artist. The current owner can’t read them, and doesn’t know if there are authentic, he wants them translated AND authenticated because they could be worth a fortune. A translator is found, a homeless grad student. The story takes places just before computers become common so the student is translating the notebooks in long hand, while bouncing around different friends’ apartments, and secretly working on the project. It’s two stories in one, we get to read Frans Hals fascinating life in 17th century Netherlands, and the grad student’s turmoil at the same time. It goes back and forth as he finishes a few pages at a time, both stories are fascinating. Loved it.

Speaking of manuscript stories, I found another one at Recycle Books. It’s called In Secret Service, a novel, by Mitch Silver, a thriller (2008, amazon 3-1/2 stars). A woman scholar, who is the grand-niece of the late Winston Churchill, is bequeathed the contents of a safe deposit box in Dublin, Ireland. She retrieves a manuscript from the box, which has been in storage for close to 50 years. It supposedly was written by Ian Flemming, a World War II story that was so sensitive and politically damaging that Flemming didn’t want it published until all parties connected to it had died. Flemming knew Churchill and had met his grand-niece after the war when she was a little girl. He took a chance that she would grow up smart enough to know what to do with the information 50 years later. The minute she picks up the manuscript things start happening to her. She’s on a plane bound home to the US, reading the manuscript with a strange man sitting next to her. She becomes suspicious. When the plane lands she realizes she is in danger. It’s a race to find safety and figure out what to do with the still damaging information that Flemming’s shocking manuscript reveals. I thought it was a good story, well told. Loved the back and forth between the manuscript and her race against time.

I finally finished reading In the Garden of Beasts: love, terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson (2012, amazon 4 stars). I am a big fan of Larson books but this one left me cold. I’ve read lots of books, both fiction and nonfiction, about the time leading up to WWII. This book about the American ambassador and his family in Germany seems oddly dispassionate and gossipy to me. We all know that this particular time period was filled with intrigue, innuendo and tension, but Larson somehow manages to make the ambassador seem ineffectual and clueless, which he very well might have been, but the pages are filled with monotonous daily life stories that somehow miss the point. I kept asking myself: what does this story possibly add to the mountain of literature already in print on this subject? Nothing, IMHO. I cannot understand why this book remains on the best seller list.

Then I read The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein (2009, 4-1/2 stars, amazon). When this book first came out I heard it was a dog story, literally, a memoir narrated by a dog. I love dogs, don’t get me wrong, but dogs-as-writers is a subject that I know something about. I have written a couple stories where the animals are narrators (cats have stories to tell too). They were fun to write and popular with readers, but I never considered that dogs should take themselves seriously enough to publish full on memoirs. That’s what this is, and this is one special dog, I must say, very philosophical, and loyal and, well, helpful, as only dogs can be. Love this book from the very first sentence, in spite of my misgivings. Are dogs really this smart? I hope so.

Throughout the summer I also read lots of mysteries and other thrillers, too many to write about and mostly so forgettable that I won’t even list them. But thrillers do have a place in our lives. They can take us somewhere else and keep us glued to our recliner or beach chair or uncomfortable airplane seat like nothing else. A big round of applause for all the thriller and mystery writers out there. Keep up the good work.

The big book I read this summer is called At Home: a short history of private life, by Bill Bryson (2011, amazon 4 stars). It’s a big heavy book so I recommend that you read it on your Kindle. I found a used copy at Recycle, which I should have left there and just remembered to get the Kindle version, but I love Bill and thought I might want the actual book for my collection. This book is so entertaining, Bill uses the rooms of his home as the typology for this wonderful history book. Each room gets sorted out, and nothing is left untouched. When you finish, you have a very good idea of the history of every room in your house, and why these odd divisions came to be. Nobody can tell a story quite like Bill does. I learned so many interesting things that are simply not included in any “official” history of anything. He fills in the blanks that we never knew were blanks. I savored this book, a few pages a day, and I was sad when it ended.

The last book I’m going to talk about is one that I read this weekend, in two days. It’s book club reading so I put it off until the last minute thinking I’d start it and then decide if it would be interesting enough to finish. It’s a remarkable novel, called appropriately, Remarkable Creatures: a novel, by Tracy Chevalier (2010, amazon 4-1/2 stars). It’s a historical novel about real-life women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, two fossil hunters in 18th century England, set in Lyme Regis, England. Women led tough lives in the 18th century, (think Jane Austen, who gets a mention). Mary is an uneducated girl, part of a half-starved, dirt-poor Lyme village family. Ann scours the beach every day searching for curies (curiosities) to sell to tourists. She becomes friends with Elizabeth, who with her sisters, has been sort of banished by the family to this small seaside village after they aged out and became official spinsters. Ann begins to find other things as well, things that need to be dug out of the cliffs, things with vertebrae and bones and strange-shaped heads, things that startle, intrigue and frighten people. Religious dogma is threatened, Darwin has not yet written Origin of the Species. This novel, like others of Chevalier, has that ring of authenticity and spirit of the time that make them impossible to put down. Loved this book. And these two women actually existed and Mary would be quite surprised to learn that people are still reading about her after all these years.

My book club, still functioning after nearly 30 years of reading, has come up with an interesting list for next year. So I’ll get you up to date when the next issue comes out. That’s it for now from the Phantom so turn out the light and get some sleep.

TTFN, the Phantom

Summer 2012

I'm sorry to say I haven't read many books since I last checked in with you. It's possibly the time of the year that has me distracted, or the fact that I've been traveling a little and doing other fun and time-consuming things that have kept my Kindle sitting on the bedside table unused and forlorn. I have to admit that I took up card playing for a time. Many years ago I learned how to play bridge and then got a refresher course not too long ago. One thing led to another and before you know it I was off playing cards two or three times a week. I kept getting more and more invitations from different groups and said yes too many times. I had thought that bridge playing in general was headed for doo-doo-ville but apparently not. There are still thousands of older folks still addicted to this wonderful game. Then I decided that I really didn't want to sit around the card tables that much, even though it is a fascinating social experience. (And I do recommend Idiot's Bridge for those of you who might need a reference book with a sense of humor.)

When I last left you I was finishing up some long-winded book club reading, which I tried very hard to finish, but didn't. As I was looking through some travel brochures I had brought home from Hawaii I remembered how charmed I had been to see the "canoe" plants in the Kauai botanical garden. That led me to remember Michener's old book, Hawaii. I read it years ago and knew that the first part of it was about the Polynesian's outrigger canoe journey across the Pacific to their new home. I downloaded a copy telling myself I'd just read the first part. Michener was never one of my favorite authors, although I did remember liking Hawaii a great deal.

What I realized after the first 20 pages or so was that I had totally forgotten every word of the book. And I also found the book to be totally absorbing and well written. So I kept on reading, all 937 pages of it. In fact, I couldn't put it down and kept telling all my friends to get a copy and re-read it. After all, Michener wrote it in the 1950s, the copyright is 1959. So the book is over 60 years old. It doesn't feel that old when you read it, and there is much to learn from it that still applies to today's world. I have to give a big round of applause to Michener. It's a terrific historical novel, really needs a comeback. Nobody seems to be writing "big" novels like this one any longer. What a disappointment.

After I finished that huge book I needed something lighter, so I read Secret Soldier by Alex Berenson. I shouldn't call this light reading, because it scares the hell out of me. This time John Wells gets involved with the Saudis and it's another frighteningly real scenario. I get the impression that Berenson knows what he's talking about when it comes to the Middle East, and the Saud family. If you recall, there has been a recent death in the family so I'm sure lots of people are a little uneasy now just waiting to see how things go, just like they were doing in the novel. If you'd like a good scare and some information on Saudi Arabia, check this one out. Also google the NYT book review. It's a good one.

I read several other mysteries not worth talking about, I think we all read them and then forget them by the time the light gets turned off. There are way too many private eyes, police procedurals, and innocent by- standers these days. And there are so many "club" mysteries, those sickening crime novel series' like knitting clubs and chefs, so-call cozies, that are poorly written and widely distributed. Good grief, people, we need better stuff than that.

Speaking of better, I grabbed up the latest Alan Furst spy novel, right after I saw it on the NYT best seller list. It's called Mission to Paris. I've read all the Fursts, and I think this one is the best. The plot is straight-forward, no complicated points to figure out. It's still WWII, it's 1938 Paris and an innocent bystander gets caught up in some Nazi business. The bystander is a movie star, think Cary Grant here. The writing about the movie business seems accurate and interesting. Nice departure from the usual spy stuff. Bystander Stahl has a past, but also has a huge public following. He's in Paris to shoot a movie. As usual the pre-war atmosphere is just right, so is Paris and so are the R-rated bits. Furst is very good with those too. It's a great distraction, too bad it wasn't longer.

I have a Kindle full of books so I feel like the kid in the candy store. Hopefully I'll have a few good ones to write about next time.

Yours truly, the Phantom

Spring, 2012
I did promise myself I would do some serious reading for this issue but that was an empty promise. Instead, summer reading season started a little early for me this year. And I can’t wait to download a bunch of guilty pleasures onto my Kindle. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard of any juicy new books yet. Guess I’ll have to actually go to a bookstore and look at some titles, and have a cup of coffee if the students who live in the Barnes & Noble cafe ever give up a seat. In the meantime, here’s a brief recap of what I’ve been reading these last few months.

I’ll start with the book club reading – our theme was Paris:

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, by David McCullough, is a biography/social history of American visitors to Paris from the early 1830s to the end of the century. Sounds interesting, right? Well, maybe, or maybe not. For biography lovers, especially those who like small bios of not-too-well-known folks living abroad, this might be just perfect for you. I thought the first part of the book was the most interesting when McCullough described how difficult it was to actually travel to France aboard the sailing ships – rough passages. And at the beginning of this 500-pager it seemed like McCullough was going to tell us something interesting about Paris that goes beyond what we can read in tour guides. That didn’t happen. What we got was a passenger list of Americans who went to Paris to study medicine or the arts, over and over again. One batch stayed on awhile, studied, painted, walked around, and then left, and another batch moved in. It got a little tedious in my humble opinion. For me the most interesting part of the book was the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war. It was the bio of the American Ambassador, who played a heroic role during that time. The rest of it just drug on and on and there didn’t appear to be a theme or a thread to tie it together, except that they were all in Paris, no interactions with Parisians, no vivid descriptions of changing Paris, just the chronology of visiting Americans.

Dancing to the Precipice, by Caroline Moorehead, is another French social history book. It covers the French revolution era, from just before the big event to sometime afterwards. I didn’t finish it even though it was an interesting story, well researched and written. I may go back and finish it one day but it’s not high on my to-do list. There’s something appealing about the French, every aspect of their history reveals more and more about how their particular point of view skews their thinking away from ours. Americans continue to misunderstand the French, so it might be a good idea to read some of these books.

Between and around and during the time I was trying to read those two books, I was having way more fun catching up on my thrillers, spy stories and miscellaneous mysteries. I will only hit the highlights here. John Grisham’s The Litigators was great fun. Grisham is back to his old format of using his wry sense of humor to tell an engaging story of what it’s like inside those law offices. The topic is tort law again, one of his favorites, and the lawyers this time are a small firm of ambulance chasers who aren’t very successful. Again it’s the new guy who manages to up-end the bad lawyers in a most entertaining way. Great fun!

Sue Grafton is now finished with V, V is for Vengeance. Kinsey Millhone has become so familiar to me that she feels like one of the loonier members of my family. It seems that as Sue gets older, Kinsey works less and less. V was more about the other characters than Kinsey solving the case. Kinsey never seems to get into trouble these days. She doesn’t sneak around so much with her lock picks, she’s never in serious danger, and she even fell asleep in her car while she was supposed to be watching a suspect. Sue has only four more left to write and I do hope that she perks up a little and gives Kinsey some interesting cases to solve that will make us chew on our finger nails again.

Then I read French Lessons, a novel, by Ellen Sussman, which is short stories set in modern Paris, using the premise of French teachers giving lessons to American tourists. The teachers get involved with the tourists on very personal levels. It’s an interesting idea and the stories are well developed and very French in nature. I enjoyed most of them, but some do get a little dark and depressing. It’s refreshing to read a book that is as engaging as this one was.

Then I read the thriller, The Silent Man, by Alex Berenson. His main character is John Wells, a CIA agent who saves the world from the really bad guys. This is the third book in the series and apparently the third time Wells has saved our country from massive destruction just in the nick of time. In this one the baddies are making a thermonuclear bomb that can be attached to a handgun and fired from a great distance. There are even instructions included for making such a weapon. Hopefully, Alex has left out a step or two in the process so that the nut balls out there won’t find this nuclear weapon recipe too useful. It’s one of those gripping stories that you hate yourself for staying up all night to read. I emailed Berenson about Wells. He answered that in the next thriller Wells might not be quite as predictable. I’m still debating whether I need to read it.

Finally, I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. You will remember this author from Nickel and Dimed, of course. She’s the investigative reporter, who is also a scientist, so she’s a careful observer, even of things that can be seen without a microscope. This one is about breast cancer, because she’s a breast cancer survivor herself. She came smack up against this relentless positive thinking conspiracy when she was in treatment. She skewers it and I applaud her for it. She traces origins of the cult of positive thinking through America’s cultural history and does a convincing job of pointing out all the hooey. It’s always such a treat to read her books. Brava, Barbara.

All for now, The Phantom

Winter 2012: Happy New Year! That's what I'm looking for, a way better year than 2011. Sometimes real life comes crashing down on you, and a person has to put the books down for a while. That's what happened to me last June. Lots of personal stuff to deal with, but now things are settling down and I've finally found time to do a little reading, just dipping back into it again, nothing really heavy duty. Small steps.

I'm thinking that this is another way of saying I haven't read anything really memorable lately.

I'll start off with some recent book clubber reading:
Half Broke Horses
, by Jeannette Walls was an interesting story, not terribly well written though. It takes a while to get used to the way Walls puts her sentences together, she has what we might call a very distinctive voice. This memoir is about her grandmother, a woman of great endurance and grit. The story starts off in Chicago, when she was young and on her own during the first part of the twentieth century, a time when things were difficult for single ladies. After meeting, marrying, and leaving a scoundrel, she returns to her family somewhere in the southwestern US, where things are even worse. She does unimaginable things to survive. Probably the most interesting was when she works as a school teacher in a one-room school house in the desolate countryside miles from home. It's hard to admire some of the things she did, but you have to hand it to her, she's a survivor. It's a compelling story, a page-turner, because you have no idea what's coming next. Everybody seems to love this book.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. It's another memoir, this one by Hemmingway's first wife. I was never much of a Hemmingway fan, but now that I know a little something about his personal life, I like him even less. I don't know how many wives he had, but I think there were a number of them. Look it up on Wikipedia, I'm not that interested.

The Paris wife, Hadley was her name, was head-over-heels in love with the guy and in way over her head. She was a small town girl used to the simple life. She had no idea what she was in for when they moved to Paris. If it weren't for her small trust fund inheritance, they would have starved, but that had no effect on Hem. He did whatever he wanted to do, took advantage of poor forlorn Hadley, mistreated her terribly and then left her for another woman after he began to be a somewhat successful writer. And that pattern was probably repeated with the rest of his wives.

It was so similar to the memoir we read about that other womanizer, Frank Lloyd Wright. Same pattern, same deceit, same excuses.

I think I'll go back to my earlier position on reading memoirs and biography, which was "DON'T". It's a too-much-information situation. These guys were scum, and their women were pushovers. It's a little easier to like their work when you don't know them. Their lives seem to be about their ego-centric personalities and the clueless women trailing around after them. I'm really not interested!

On the other hand, I did enjoy Committed: a love story, by Elizabeth Gilbert. My book club does not like this sort of story -- a strong woman who knows what she wants, and who can write funny to boot. They prefer the tragic woman in the hopeless situation sort of memoir I'm afraid.

Committed picks up where Eat, Pray, Love ended, with Elizabeth in Bali with her lover. Neither Elizabeth or her lover want to marry again, they just want to live together. But they can't because he gets kicked out of the USA, some sort of TSA deal, they think he's a terrorist. He's not, but that's okay because otherwise there would be no story. Elizabeth finds out that the only way they can be together is if they get married. Then they can live in the USA. Of course, they could have lived elsewhere together for the rest of their lives, but then there would be no second book either. I digress.

While they are waiting for the US officials to grant them official permission to marry and live in the USA, they wander around the world and Elizabeth investigates all forms of marriages, like a benighted anthropologist writing a treatise. She's trying to convince herself and her lover that marriage would be a good thing for them. The story is wonderful, and the reader learns something about the institution of marriage in various forms, and eventually everything works out, or maybe not, but then that's life. (See the note above.)

So after reading three consecutive memoirs, I had had enough. I read part of a number of murder mysteries, actually finished several of them. None are interesting enough to write about. One called The Drop, by Michael Connelly, is still on the best seller list. Good for Michael. It's not a particularly interesting mystery but Michael is doing well and he's on the writing gravy train now, churning them out, while raking in the big bucks. Wait for this one, buy it at the Goodwill or on the remainder table. Ignore the NYT list.

One memorable book I read is called A Week in December, by Sebastian Faulks. He's British and has written a number of novels, some quite good (Birdsong, for example, about WWI). I do have to admit that he is one of my favorite writers, but I'm not recommending him highly. It takes some grit to stay with him.

It's a "modern" novel", set in London, seven days, seven stories, and it's about seven of the longest days ever, because the book rambles along, seeming never to get to the point. But, eventually, the seven characters sort of cross paths (in a Kevin Bacon sort of way), with a thriller ending (remember, it's British, so it's a British thriller ending). Many readers won't get that far, I'm afraid. It's one of those books that is worth it to read through to the end. I learned a few things along the way, which is always a good thing to say about a novel. Why else would we read anything, right?

I am going to begin some serious reading very soon, when I figure out what "serious" means to me at this point in my life. So stay tuned, maybe we'll find the perfect reading material very soon,

Yours truly, The Phantom

Spring 2011: reading, reading, reading

Reading season is in full swing, book clubs are meeting, bed lamps are working overtime and Borders is closing. What a complete shame. Barnes & Noble and Borders came along a while back and knocked off all the little independent bookstores, and now they are suffering the same fate. Before long, there will be no bookstores left, unless you consider Costco to be one (patooey!). These days most of us buy our books online from amazon or else just download them. I’m as guilty as the rest of you, because that’s what I’m doing. It’s a changing world, but once all those friendly bookstores disappear for good, we will definitely miss them. We are more interested in saving a buck than supporting our local stores. (Of course, there is the tree-into-paper argument, but I think it’s simply capitalism and technology on the march again.)

In the meantime, I’ve had my nose firmly planted in books for the past few months. I’ve enjoyed a number of guilty-pleasure thrillers and other mysteries that I won’t write about. In the whole stack there was nothing worth remembering, even though I was totally engrossed in them at the time. Love that. Page-turner writers deserve our undying respect and a round of applause for knowing how to keep us awake and entertained. Thrillers are the perfect answer for tedium when you are stuck at the airport, hanging around the doctor’s office, or just want to be somewhere else.

Now let me report on what we might consider the ‘literature’ that I read over the past few months:

 I’ll begin with Franzen’s Freedom. This book was touted by the reviewers and the folks at NPR as the next great American novel. Really? Did you read it? I thought the whole thing, all 562 pages, was a complete mess. It read like the characters all needed long-term psychotherapy. If they were patterned after real people, I truly feel sorry for them. If they were figments of Franzen’s imagination, I feel sorry for him. The book was brimming with self-centered obnoxiousness, and the storyline was tedious to the max. And Franzen’s voice, especially during the first 100 pages, was just plain gossipy as he introduced Patty and Walter and sets up their saga. And it is a dreadful saga, not heroic or dramatic in any way, so it reads like something from People Magazine, rather than like an important story. Franzen’s cynical world view and his twisted understanding of the meaning of Freedom is apparent throughout. I would find it embarrassing if this novel is chosen as representative of America as I know it. I read it through to the end because somebody told me that the ‘Conclusion’ section made the whole thing worthwhile. Really?

Next I read two books by Alan Brennert about my favorite setting: Hawaii. The first one was called Moloka’i. Of course it’s about leprosy (I dare somebody to write about Molokai and not mention leprosy). It’s a historical novel set around the time that Father Damien dies, which is a great place to begin. Once you’ve read about the Damien era, you don’t want to read it again. By the turn of the century, leprosy on Molokai wasn’t nearly as awful as it was before the good Father showed up and began treating the poor folks who were dumped there to die. The book follows the life of Rachael Kamala, who at seven years of age, was diagnosed with Leprosy and sent off to Kalaupapa. Brennert does an admirable job of bringing her and the colony to life and telling us a very memorable story.

His second historical novel is called Honolulu. It’s the story of a Korean picture bride who lands in Honolulu in 1914. Her Korean name is Regret, her parents wanted a boy. She calls herself Jin when she begins her life on Oahu with her new husband. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that she has made a terrible mistake.  She is forced to make some tough decisions and big changes to her life. Once we figure out that Jin is a survivor, the story grows a little long and becomes somewhat predictable. But this is the kind of book that older reading groups tend to love. And the book definitely smacks us with a big dose of local culture. So it’s definitely worth reading for that reason alone.

Next up is John Grisham’s latest, The Confession. I was eager to read this book until I got into it. Grisham had already written a death penalty victim book (The Chamber), so I was somewhat surprised that he would take up the topic again. This is a dreary subject, especially if you move the setting from Mississippi to Texas. Texas justice is even more peculiar than Mississippi justice. This story isn’t going down as one of my favorites. I thought it dragged on too long, was too depressing, and made me even more irritated with Texas in general because I think there is more than a grain of truth in it. I imagine it won’t be a big seller in the state of Texas, outside of Austin.

My favorite book of this go-round is called One Day, by David Nicholls. He’s a Brit and he writes funny. It’s a love story, with a bitter sweet ending. Have I said enough? No? Okay. It’s so difficult to write an amusing story that appeals to me. I want to laugh out loud, and, unfortunately, I rarely do. But I couldn’t put this one down, and I did giggle, even though it’s a story about a British TV personality who is full of himself, a total loser, awful to the ladies, and madly in love with a woman who won’t have a thing to do with him – at least for the first half of the book. This is a great set up for a love story that will knock your socks off in the end. And this is not chick lit. It was recommended to me by a lawyer who usually only reads spy novels and thrillers. This book is definitely the pick of the litter this time out.

I’ve got a whole shelf full of books just waiting their turn, as well as several others blinking away on my Kindle, so I’ll be back in a few months with another report.

The Phantom

Winter 2010/2011: What the Phantom reading:

This time I’m not going to bore you with the entire list of what I’ve read or tried to read during the past few months. Lots of second-rate popular fiction that entertained me for the moment but then was immediately forgotten. I think I’ve now completed the entire canon of John Lescroart and Stephen White. I zipped through several by Jonathan Kellerman, and started several other thrift store, mass market, paperbacks before throwing them against the wall in disgust. But now that I'm using a Kindle, I can no longer throw irritating books against the wall.

I again tried to be entertained by Ian Rankin, a Scottish mystery writer, who has been recommended to me several times. Watchman is a novel I thought would be interesting because it’s about British spies. But it turns out to be another one of those “insider” spy mole stories. I keep wondering if spies ever do anything else besides fret and wring their hands about double agents. Tiresome for the most part, with a few moments of good stuff when the spies go to Ireland.

Another one of my reading pals suggested Cara Black to me. She’s a northern California mystery writer who writes the Aimee Leduc mysteries set in France. I’ve read two of them now and I’m sorry to report that they don’t appeal to me. There’s something missing, but I’m not exactly sure what it is. I love the setting, but I’m not sure that Aimee is all that believable. It’s a shame because I thought I’d love this series.

So on to the “better” class of books:

The Postmistress, a novel, by Sarah Blake is an odd little World War II story about a woman who joins the post office and travels to a small town in Maine to become their post mistress. The local folks are strange and rather quaint, as is the town. In the meantime, it’s the London Blitz again, this time reported to the US by an American (female) radio commentator. These two women’s paths cross in a rather surprising fashion. It’s well-written, serious, and even after all these years (and all these books about World War II), it has a certain freshness about it. One of the reasons why I read it was because of the beautiful artwork on the dust jacket, and second, it was recommended by Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help. (editor’s note: see! this kind of promotion actually works!)

I was pleased with the possibilities contained in our book club reading list this year, so I dove right in with Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. Set outside Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, circa the 1970s, it’s a mission hospital run by a group of misbegotten ex-pats from a variety of places, who’ve been there for years, doing much the same kind of medical work that’s still being done in Africa. Eventually this rambling story focuses on orphaned-at-birth twin boys growing up at the hospital. They both become doctors, sort of, so medical issues play an ongoing role in this saga. I couldn’t like any of the characters very much. They were all flawed or quirky in some way, due to a wide variety of circumstances that are described in excruciating detail by the author.

The writing is way over-blown, overly melodramatic, and just plain wordy. At times Verghese has an irritating habit of changing direction just at the crucial point in the story, so there’s always a cliff hanger pending, which might hang there for 50 pages or so. Not my favorite way to tell a story, it works in thrillers, but I was under the assumption that this particular book was categorized as “literary fiction”. I’m sure I’m holding a minority opinion about this book but be prepared for a very dramatic story set in Africa that really isn’t so much about Africa as it is about dysfunctional medical people who could be having the same personal problems anywhere in the world.

Because we were reading this so-called “Africa” book, it was suggested that we also read a romantic thriller, A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve, which was also set in Africa. I’m not sure why this book made it onto the list, because as far as I’m concerned, it was a big mistake.

First of all, there’s the awful writing. Shreve is a best-selling romance writer so she should know better but at this point I guess nobody’s actually editing what she writes. It’s about the commas. If you are writing a thriller, it’s all about pace -- short sentences moving the story along at a good clip. But does she do that? No. She’s enamored with commas, and conjunctive, and subordinate clauses, and any other form of comma interruption that she can manufacture. Very distracting to say the least. She must have interrupted herself a hundred times during the first 50 pages. Eventually that went away.

Then there’s the character development. Every character in this story can be identified by their character flaw because each character has one glaring flaw and not much else. It makes it so easy to follow the story that way. (read, read, read, oh, that’s the guy who hits on women, read, read, read, oh that’s the woman who is impatient….) Please!

Then there’s the setting and plot: it reads like Shreve went on a three week vacation to Africa, did a safari, climbed a mountain and walked down the main street of one city. No insight into Africa at all, no smells, no sounds (it’s a very quiet novel), no emotion, and very little Africa beyond the stereotypes.

And then there’s the plot, all incidents are contrived to further the rather pathetic love angle. And as if climbing the mountain once wasn’t stupid enough (that’s the change of altitude), she took those pathetic, one dimension characters hiking again. I was astounded by this dreadful turn of events. By this time, I would have put it down in disgust but it was book club reading so I finished it.

A one word review of this book: annoying. Two words: Pul-Eeze. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why anybody is reading this novel.

I did a short study of romance thrillers (very short): I read one by another writer, Nora Roberts. I was heartened to find out that she’s a much better writer and her plotting and character development is much more mature and in line with what other successful thriller writers are turning out. But reading two romantic thrillers was plenty. Give me a second rate mystery any day over this stuff.

Probably the best book I read from the reading list was Saturday, by Ian McEwan. This book could be categorized as a literary thriller. McEwan is a superb writer, you usually aren’t aware of the writing, the flow is never interrupted, there is no “hey, look at me, I’m writing a particularly beautiful sentence here” sort of stuff going on. It’s just spare and precise prose meant to convey the story. This book, however, is slightly different for McIwan. It’s a one-day story, one person’s typical Saturday, that goes very wrong. It could happen to any of us, and it’s written in stream of consciousness style. That gives the story its immediacy and the thriller aspect. You literally do not know what will happen next, every dreadful moment. I suppose one could argue that this story is a metaphor for our current times when we’re told that terrorists are lurking everywhere and you never know where or how they will strike. Whatever. It’s a very good book.

And finally, a new one by Alan Furst. If you remember, he’s the author who writes the “historical fiction – WWII spy novels”. I thought I’d read them all, but apparently not. Now he’s embarked on another spy series called “The Spies of___”. I read The Spies of Warsaw. It’s about French foreign officers in Warsaw before the Polish invasion, and  double agents, treasonists, insurrectionists, bureaucrats, they’ve all assembled to go through their paces yet again. The WWII era atmosphere is just right, the characters bring it to life and we’re off again fighting the Nazis, knowing full well the outcome of this horrid time. Loved it. Next up will be The Spies of the Balkans, one of my favorite sites for intrigue.

So now it's on to the uber-serious winter-to-spring reading. I'll be reviewing Franzen's new book, and the latest Grisham of course, plus a couple historical fiction books set in Hawaii. And of course, the bedside table is much less cluttered these days, now that I'm using my Kindle, which I highly recommend. They are very reasonably priced and ever so handy. Think green reading, no trees lose their lives when using a Kindle.

Summer 2010: Summer reading is one of my favorite pastimes, it's just head of spring, fall and winter reading. But I can justify more "guilty pleasure" reading in the summertime than any other part of the year. Let's start with the so-called "good" books I read during the past few months.

I'll begin with the fiction. The first is The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, a prize winning novel, and well deserved. This novel follows an odd boy/man-writer called Harrison Shepherd, an American who grew up in Mexico and in Washington DC. His mom was an American who left his dad to follow a string of other men, back and forth between Mexico and the US. (Not a great way to raise a child, me thinks.) Due to some rather odd historical circumstances, Harrison lands back in Mexico where he works for Diego Rivera and Freda Kahlo, then Leon Trotsky. You have to suspend disbelief here in order to swallow the plot points that lead him to be in such company. Eventually, after Trotsky's death, Harrison returns to the US to become a recluse-writer, and has some success, even though he is odd and psychologically damaged. He then gets caught up in the anti-communist scare of the late 1940s. I guess Kingsolver wanted to write a slightly critical social history of the US, so this story reflects American attitudes and prejudices and how the public can so easily be manipulated. I didn't think it was quite as brilliant as her earlier works, but it certainly was imaginative.

Somebody recommended The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee to me, and sheep that I am, I read it. Claire Pendleton is the piano teacher who comes to Hong Kong after WWII. She is the title character but she isn't exactly the most important character, she's more like a vehicle used to tell the unflattering portrait of British ex-pats living through WWII in HK. The book, told through flashbacks, is like Chinese music, beautiful, but unending and nearly unintelligible.

Finally, the third book in the Stieg Larsson trilogy was released so I ran right out and picked up a copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. As Salander convalesces in lock down at the local hospital somewhere in Sweden, Blomquist tries to unravel her history and prove that she is innocent of serial murder. It's a long story, with lots of twists, so at times it seems to cover the same material again and again, but eventually everything gets resolved. Larsson was originally going to produce eight volumes, but this book glues all the loose ends together, Salander finally gets her revenge, and we can hope that she will now live her odd, sort of Ashbergerish, life in peace.

The most brilliant and most well-remembered book I read in the past few months is called The Help, a novel by Kathryn Stockett. Apparently this is her first book. Happy to hear that. Maybe she'll write us something else just as compelling -- soon. It's 1960s Mississippi, and a southern belle, called Miss Skeeter, with nothing worthwhile to do with her life decides she wants to become a writer. She gets an assignment from a New York editor to write stories about the black women (who are known only as The Help), who have worked for the local white women for years. It’s difficult to get the black women to cooperate and actually reveal what's been going on, especially to a white southern woman. A real eye opener. Loved this book.

I only read one piece of "non-fiction" in the past few months. It was called Game Change by Heilmann and Halperin. It's "current" history, a meander through the 2008 presidential election with nice, long portraits of all the contenders. It's a well-rounded picture and good reminder of what we all went through. Not too many surprises, mainly the most interesting was how clueless McCain really was about every aspect of his campaign, and what an incredibly bad choice he made picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. She continues to boggle our minds.

So finally to the guilty pleasures: I discovered John Lescroart, a local writer (Bay Area, California), who's been at it for years. I've seen his name and books here and there for years but I was ignoring him. So that's good news for me. I have something like 18 mysteries to plough through, starring defense attorney Dismas Hardy and his cop-friend Abe Glitsky. The stories are court room dramas, and each book focuses on some aspect of what it's like to be a defense attorney working on "big cases".

Here are the ones I have read so far:
The 13th Juror
, a woman is suspected of killing her husband and child, there is much evidence against her, she is found guilty and receives the death penalty, but it's really a case of SODDIT (some other dude did it).
In Guilt, the client, happily married attorney Dooher (I would pronounce this "Do-er"), is attracted to a young female attorney, plots how to get her into his firm, and eventually to become his wife. He is charged with killing his first wife, evidence against him mounts up, there is plenty of guilt to go around for Hardy and Glitsky to figure out.
has a quirkier set up than his usual fare. The first two-thirds of the book involves the three people who will be involved in the eventual trial. It's about a private contractor-war profiteer-assassin, a soldier serving in Iraq and his girl friend. They end up in the Bay Area where the murder takes place. Again, the main suspect might not actually have done it.
The Suspect
is about an angry husband, who gets mad at wife, has a huge argument with her and then takes off for Tahoe. While he's away, his wife is killed, and he is the suspect. Is he guilty or is this another case of SODDIT?

This is the recurring theme of these mysteries, but the added benefit is the insight into the mind of a well-meaning defense attorney (if there ever was such an animal). I'm calling these Lescroart mysteries a treasure trove of guilty pleasure. They are well-written and smart, the characters are not stereotypes and they help us understand the games that lawyers, cops and judges are playing. It's not really a pretty picture.

Here's a quick review of the other mysteries and thrillers that I've read this summer. None compare as favorably as the Lescroarts:
Jonathan Kellerman's Evidence: Alex Delaware goes through the paces in a totally forgettable story about a half-built and abandoned LA mansion and a predator. One has to wonder why people keep buying this stuff.
Steve Martini's The Arraignment, where attorney Paul Madriani gets involved with a fellow attorney who is accidentally murdered outside the courthouse. As Paul tries to figure out who done it, he ends up in Mexico with a bunch of Mexican land developers who also steal rare artifacts. Complicated but also forgettable.
Lee Child's Nothing to Lose: talk about conspiracy theories! Two small towns in the middle of the desert called Hope and Despair are apparently so far off the beaten track that totally weird and desperate things can happen and nobody outside of town ever hears about them. But Jack Reacher is walking through the desert (it’s complicated) and uncovers an impossible problem in Despair. So far fetched, yet readable mainly because it’s mystifying that anybody could dream up such junk.

Stephen White's latest is called Dead Time. The Boulder, Colorado psychologist Alan Gregory
’s long time ex-girl friend is involved a flash back mystery involving a camping trip to the Grand Canyon that can only be unraveled by Alan. Not terribly interesting. The best Whites are Kill Me and The Program. In both of these stories, Gregory remains on the periphery.
Undone, by Karin Slaughter – 2 homicide detectives, Will Trent (who cannot read) and Faith Mitchell (generally screwed up) are working on a murder case, where women are kidnapped, tortured and raped by a serial kidnapper. It's nearly unreadable because of the awful acts that occur. I tried to read Faithless but it was just too grim.

Finally, as the summer winds down, I'm looking forward to my book club starting up again. Perhaps they will have some great choices for "good books" for the coming year. A girl can hope. If not, I have a passel of mysteries and other guilty pleasures on hand. So if something keeps me out of the bookstores and unable to fire up Amazon, I'm still set with plenty of books on the nightstand.

Here's hoping you all get through the Dog Days of summer with a book in one hand and a cool one in the other, The Phantom.

Spring, 2010:
I read lots of books this winter, many of them while I was on vacation in Hawaii (lucky me). So of course that means beach reading, even though I didn’t spend much time in a lounge chair under a palm tree. Instead of listing each book I read chronologically, I’ve sorted them into groups.

The first is travel essay and perhaps the best book I have read this year: Traveling on the Edge: Journeys in the footsteps of Graham Greene, by Julia Llewellyn Smith (2000). She’s a Greene scholar, so she begins her travels in England, Greene’s home and the place he most wanted to get away from. Greene traveled widely and set his most of his novels in dangerous places filled with desperate people doing suspicious things. Smith followed his footsteps, and most of those places are even more dangerous today. 

Smith manages to explain what’s going on and why things are so desperate, so she’s not just describing Greene’s old haunts while sipping tea with Greene’s old pals. She has figuratively gone the extra mile to shed some insight into unanswered questions. Like why do rich people still live in Haiti? (Answer: drug running). And of course, why did Greene want to go there in the first place. (Answer: these places are the exact opposite of boring and stifling old England.)

Greene’s world is inhabited with petty dictators, miscellaneous tyrants, corrupt businessmen and politicians, and of course, spies. To name just a few of her stops: Paraguay, the setting for Honorary Counsel, survives without much in the way of infrastructure, manufacturing or farming today, just as it did when Greene visited. The World Fact Book says Paraguay deals in "re-exporting" goods to its neighbors. That’s a polite word for smuggling. Illegal and illicit stuff goes in and out of Paraguay for a fee, Paraguay sort of runs a corrupt laundry business. Smith visits Sierra Leon, where people get their limbs cut off by rebels, it wasn't that bad when Greene was there. In Chiapas, Mexico, the setting for Power and the Glory, rebels are causing more grief. And Haiti, where even before the earthquake, it was an awful place to live.

This book won’t tell you where to sleep, or what to eat when you travel. In fact, once you finish reading it, you won’t want to visit any of these places, but you might want to pick up an old Graham Greene novel. And you’ll definitely know a little more about the world than you did before you read it.

Next group: book club reading. At the moment I’m reading Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, which won the Pulitzer Prize last year (2009). Olive appears in a collection of short stories, not as the main character, but as a presence. These are stories about sad, lonely people living in small town Maine. Their troubles and problems resonate with everybody. The book reminds me of the previous Pulitzer winner, Richard Russo's Empire Falls – same people, same problems, same tone. Perhaps we’re going through a distinct literary period of turn-of-the-century writing that will mystify scholars in the 2060s. They might called it the Prozac period.

The other really odd book I read is called The Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. I just noticed that it’s on the Best Seller List now. I can’t fathom why. It’s the  turn of the 20th century in blizzard country, somewhere west of Chicago, where a country millionaire needs a wife, so he puts an ad in the Chicago Tribune. He’s waiting for her to arrive via train as the book opens. He has no idea what he’s in for. The book is a bit off the wall, and its characters just barely manage to keep my interest because they are so darned damaged and strange. It is one of those books that keeps you on your toes trying to figure out what will come next. But I'm not recommending it very strongly.

And the last book I remember reading before turning to my favorite guilty pleasures is The Women, by T. C. Boyle. I wasn’t sure I would be interested in this novel after reading Loving Frank, because both of them are about Frank Lloyd Wright, that scoundrel! I had no idea little Frank was such a womanizer, chiseler and gad-about. He didn't believe he had to pay for anything, he left piles of unpaid bills wherever he went. This is really an excellent book, laying out even more of Frank’s outlandishness. I have to say I have even less interest in his architectural achievements now that I know something about his personal life. He may have been good at his trade but he was definitely awful to the people who knew him.

The last group I want to tell you about is my favorite -- “guilty pleasure” reading: mysteries, which to me includes thrillers and spy novels. The absolute best one I read is called The Tourist, by Olen Steinhauer, published in 2009. Don’t know why it isn’t getting more buzz. It’s better than most of the stuff on the shelves these days. To give you a hint: Milo Weaver is a CIA agent, one of a group of super spies known as Tourists. They travel the world on assignment, usually assassinating people, often other spies, as it turns out. It seems to me that the CIA is still suffering from a near terminal case of paranoia. They spend more time worrying about moles and double agents than anything else. In this book, they have turned on Milo and he’s on the run. It’s a complicated story, of the Bourne variety. Someone once said, if you want to learn about how the CIA really works, read spy novels. This one reads like a primer on the Company. If half of it is true, we need a new Company.

Next up, Sue Grafton’s latest: U is for Undertow (2009). She’s still stuck in the 1980s as you may recall, which is making her work read more and more like historical fiction, especially since in U Kinsey is working on a cold case, one that occurred in the 1960s. It’s sort of interesting, new evidence on a missing person case, but mostly I’m admiring Grafton’s grit, staying with this series to the bitter end (almost). She only has V, W, X, Y and Z to go. Kinsey is going to solve all those letters, or else.

Then I read David Baldacci’s The Camel Club, (2005) which was simply dreadful, like all of the other Baldacci’s. The only reason I read this one was because somebody told me that it was better than most. I have to ask: what’s he smoking? I just read some amazon reviews of it, mostly written by disgruntled tea baggers. They surmise that Baldacci is a left leaning pinko hired by move-on.org to ferment socialism in the US. Really? No kidding. I didn’t read any of that in this book, I simply thought it was conspiracy theory drivel. There are way better conspiracies out there, ones that actually make my hair stand on end. Not this one. I want the left wing to be represented by better drivel.

I found several old Brits that I overlooked. Two by Deborah Crombie: Where Memories Lie -- a World War II brooch turns up at an estate sale. It was stolen from a Jewish refugee, who now years later recognizes it as hers. But the story withers and dithers because the writer doesn’t know what else to do with this plot -- after all, she’s British. The second one was called All Shall Be Well. It was so forgettable, a story about a woman dying of cancer, who gets killed. Was it murder? I’ll never tell. It also plods along at an excruciatingly slow pace. Again looking at amazon, I discover that Crombie has written at least 16 mysteries. Unbelievable.

Then I made the mistake of reading Elizabeth George’s first Inspector Lynley mystery. It’s called A Great Deliverance. I shouldn’t have, her later ones are much better. She's lucky the publisher decided to stay with her.

Last of the mysteries, I found an old ratty Nevada Barr in a thrift shop in Kona. It’s called Firestorm. It could have been interesting because it’s about fighting forest fires. But Anna Pigeon is there so somebody must have been murdered, right? Yes, a fire fighter was murdered as he was trying to protect himself from getting burned to death. Really? This story is so far-fetched that it’s hard to stay with it. This lame plot would never have happened. But I needed something for the trip home. I should have just left the book in the seat pocket next to the barf bag. Maybe the next passenger would have seen the irony.

Where does the time go? I’ve been so busy with my usual life, that it’s hard to focus on good literature these days. But no matter what’s going on, there’s always a book with me, even when I go for a walk in the neighborhood. Now I’m listening to John Grisham reading his new short story collection called Ford County. He doesn’t read very well, but who can tell him not to do that. And the stories are good, especially if you like reading about Mississippi good ole boys. It’s a kick to be walking along the well manicured Bay Area suburbs reading about the back woods boys.

So keep reading, but now it’s time to turn off the light and go to sleep, honestly!

The Phantom

December 09
: well into the long reading season. If you are like me, you aren’t too interested in reading to improve your mind. What you are looking for is escape. However, it needs to be good stories, well written, timely and intrinsically interesting, not the same old stale “whodunits”. Am I right?

A pal of mine works in a bookstore so she has access to Advanced Readers, which she passes along to me when she thinks they might fit my reading criteria. Often, they are disappointing, unfortunately. I do like to give good reviews of books that publishers have gone to the expense of manufacturing and handing out freely.

One unfortunate title Advanced Reader is A Duty to the Dead, by Charles Todd, another British WWI nurse story. This one is probably the worst of the lot (see earlier posts for the others in this category). Apparently the Brits love this sub-genre. Our heroine, Bess Crawford, is charged with the sorrowful duty of visiting the family of a dead soldier she nursed to death in France. She chose to call on them rather than simply sending them a note with the soldier’s last words on it. The words form a mystery that Bess feels duty bound to solve. It’s a rambling, meandering, totally unbelievable and unnecessary slog through the family history to ferret out the mystery. The story reads like mid-Victorian melodrama rather than turn-of-the-century wartimes. I found it boring.

Lisa Scottoline is a mystery writer that most women read when they must get on an airplane and have to sit in the middle seat. It’s a sort of amusing tale and if you get bounced around a little or elbowed and miss a few words on the flight, it won’t matter. Scottoline’s Killer Smile is perfect for such an occasion. Lisa’s protagonist, the widow Mary DiNunzio, is an attorney working a very cold case dealing with American internment camps in WWII. This time it’s the Italians in the camps. (I didn’t know the US rounded up Italians too. Apparently we did. Will our stupid ideas and goof ups ever cease?) Anyhow, nobody in her office even wants her to work on this case, so she has to sneak around while collecting evidence. The closer she gets to solving the crime, which involves an inheritance, the more people start dying. I’m not terribly amused by funny murder mysteries, so this book was somewhat trying, but it actually ended well with a personal note from Lisa about her own family members and their time in the camps.

Then somebody handed me a thick paperback called Devil Bones, by Kathy Reichs. Fox television has made a TV series called Bones, based on Reichs’ stuff. That’s a hint about what you are in for. Her main character is a forensic pathologist, working part time for the coroner’s office, in addition to teaching classes at the local university. She goes into great detail about decaying flesh and stuff like that, sort of in the CSI vane. If that’s your cup of tea, then Reichs is for you. However, I won’t be reading another one.

Somebody told me they loved Faye Kellerman’s work. Faye is married to Jonathan Kellerman, of Alex Delaware fame. So I read The Mercedes Coffin. She’s a really clunky writer. It’s so apparent. She’s writing along and then decides she needs to throw in some color, so she will describe somebody’s clothing. She does this over and over. It has nothing to do with the story and we really don’t care. All the characters speak in the same tone of voice and use the same diction (probably Kellerman’s), also not good. The story was formulaic. No surprises, no new knowledge gained from wading through some 400 pages. Very disappointing.

On the other hand, Jonathan Kellerman’s Twisted, which features Petra Conner, is very good. It’s one of those hard boiled police procedurals, but don’t let that get in the way. It’s yet another complex cold case that Conner wants to unravel, even though her boss doesn’t want her to (how stale is that concept getting, I ask you?). She’s mentoring a grad student who is studying biology data in criminal cases. He’s onto something. Petra just feels it in her bones, but it sounds too weird to share with the department heads, so she takes on the case by herself, with some able assistance by her lover, who just happens to be an ex-cop. It sounds hackneyed, but the story hangs together and the characters are interesting and believable. The ending is somewhat gruesome, but we can take it, if it doesn’t go over the top. I’m really beginning to like Petra. I hope he writes her into more of his mysteries.

I usually love Elizabeth George mysteries. She writes those British Inspector Lynley stories. For those of us who follow the tribulations of Lynley, we know that he’s in real emotional trouble these days, ever since his wife was gunned down. In Careless in Red, he’s stumbling around, literally, along a Cornwall footpath, not caring whether he lives or dies, when he comes across a body. He must pull himself back together, temporarily, to help the locals sort things out. It’s all very British, which is brilliant writing for George, who is an American. I enjoyed it, but I would like Lynley to get back on the job. It’s time.

Ken Follett has been writing for ages. He did a detour from his usual thriller writing to write a couple of British historical novels that were very well received. I didn’t like them (but I’m picky). Before that detour he wrote a sort of thriller called Night over Water. I enjoyed it mainly because the bulk of the story takes place in a Pan American Flying Boat. You might not even have ever heard of them. They were pontoon planes that had to take off and land in water. Apparently they were like flying in the lap of luxury in those pre-WWII days. Follett is a competent writer who knows how to keep people entertained. This is an “old” book, written in 1991, but it kept me interested throughout.

I finally finished Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black (pen name of “acclaimed” Irish author John Banville). It’s billed as a dark, ambitious crime novel. That’s the truth, very dark, very brooding, and very boring. Again, we learn nothing, which is not good in a whodunit. It’s about baby stealing in the pre-WWII era of troubled times for many people. Irish babies are stolen from poor mums and transported to the US and put in Boston orphanages. There’s a crooked priest, some conspirator nuns, a wealthy American and a network of others involved in this complicated, totally unbelievable, story of wretchedness. Don’t go there. It’s not worth it.

John Le Carre spy stories are usually treasures. Not so with Our Game. This one reads rather like it has too much autobiography in it and not enough plot. However, the characters are intriguing in a twisted way and it kept my interest at the time. Now, several months later, I’ve totally forgotten what it was about. If you are a Le Carre fan and haven’t read it yet, you might enjoy it.

What you’ve just read (if you are still with me) were books I tackled from the late summer and early fall. Things got a little better in the reading department after September.

My reading group decided to read about Montana (don’t ask why). We began with Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky, a sort of rambling autobiography of Doig’s Montana in the “early” days. I thought it was too earnest and terribly over written. Next we read Winter Wheat, a novel by Mildred Walker (circa pre WWII). It’s really a coming of age story about a Montana woman, Ellen Webb. She grew up in hard scrabble, really rural Montana, and then goes Back East to college. She loves school but is a fish out of water. The book juxtaposes rural and Back East American values in a nicely plotted and believable story. Walker paints a vivid picture of Montana and it becomes understandable why people choose to live in such a rugged and physically difficult part of America.

The club then branched out with the sprawling saga of the pioneer West called The Big Sky, by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. It’s one of those “down the Missouri in a paddle boat while fighting the rapids and wild Indians” books. It did win a Pulitzer Prize. Part way through it I remembered I had read it or something very similar several times already and I wasn’t in the mood to do it again. Maybe once down the Missouri in a paddle boat is enough.  

I was aimlessly wandering through Borders one day and spotted a paperback of Paul Theroux’s latest travel book, called Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. I immediately put down the mysteries and started in. This book recreates a train trip that Paul took about 30 years ago (that long???). I’m a big fan of Paul’s writing so I totally enjoyed this journey with him. He goes by train from England through Europe, then the Middle East, down to Sri Lanka. Then he flies to Burma and then back on trains from Cambodia, Viet Nam and into China. He then flies to Japan for more train rides, and eventually crosses to Russia for a ride home on the Trans-Siberian. Most places he visited I now feel I can cross off my itinerary, with the possible exception of Hanoi. He rambles around, talking to strangers and trying to figure out the real life politics of each country. And this time he was able to compare how things are now compared to “back in the day.” I totally enjoyed every minute of this book, but I do understand that you have to be a fan of travel writing to like this stuff. It’s not a book about where to stay and what to eat or even what to look at, but it does give you a good idea of what is going on in places I’ll never, ever see first-hand. Bravo, Paul. Good job, well done.

My life has been flashing before me in a blaze these last few months so reading at those odd moments between difficult or time consuming stuff was really important. That’s when I love mysteries the most, because they are easy to pick up, and engrossing. I’m sure everybody reads them for the same reason. But sometimes they are so engrossing, that everything has to stop while you finish the damned book.

Not so with Michael Connelly’s Brass Verdict, which was sort of predictable and forgettable at the same time. Better was his Nine Dragons that takes Detective Bosch to Hong Kong. I liked that one even though I feel sort of manipulated when the detective’s family members get written into the story.

Next I read a truly quirky mystery called Citizen Vince, by Jess Walter. It won the Edgar for best novel of 2005 (?). I’m not even sure I would call it a mystery. Vince, the main character is in the witness protection program (that always interests me for some reason), and is trying to make a new life, but he is not “going straight”. Then things get complicated, both in his criminal and his love life, and his social conscience kicks in. And it takes place in Spokane, Washington. Good story, well told.

Then I read the extremely over blown and disappointing Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. He uses the same plot outline for this novel as he used for all of his others. This time he has really crossed the line -- like when a movie becomes a franchise and each successive sequel becomes more ridiculous than the one before. That’s exactly what we have here  --  in Washington DC with freemasonry as the subject matter and the bible as the holy grail. Brown’s blacks are too black and his whites are too white and there’s nothing in between. This was garbage.

Then I finally was convinced to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. It’s the Swedish international sensation of a page turner, very nicely translated, by the way. I was captivated by this richly plotted mystery with great quirky characters and totally engrossing story. It does has a grisly aspect, but it’s nice to know that awful things happen in other countries too. It is well worth the time spent to read this book. Now I’m working Larsson’s second one, The Girl who played with Fire. There is one more Larsson book in the pipeline, The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest, due in May and then that’s it. Unfortunately the author died -- what a dirty, rotten shame.

Time to turn off the light. Until next time, hope you find something good to read,

The Phantom

Summer 2009: My book group, the lady's tea drinking society, made a couple of bad reading choices this spring. First one was Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X, by Deborah Davis. It's a biography of Sargent, the sort of famous turn of the century artist. He painted Madame X, an American ex-pat living in Paris. He painted her with one strap of her evening gown slipping off her shoulder. This caused Parisian cultural outrage of the "what's the world coming to" variety during the late 1800s. Uh-huh. Riveting stuff, non? No! It was a book about a social scandal that was truly not worth knowing about, at least as far as I'm concerned. However, we had a very good tea party talking about it.

Our second bad choice was John Updike's Widows of Eastwick, a truly boring book that Updike never should have written. If these are the thoughts he left this world with, I truly feel sorry for him. As you may know, he died recently, so our group decided to read it as a memorial to him. We even had a memorial luncheon, complete with viewing of the old movie Witches of Eastwick. We found the movie to be so dreadful that we turned it off half way through and used it as a jumping off point to trash Widows. However, it did give us a change of pace and lots of laughs, so despite the book and movie, we had a very good time.

After two disappointments with so-called serious reading, I turned once again to Richard Russo and finished off his huge, rambling saga of that very small town in upstate New York, Bridge of Sighs. The book ended in a whimper, finally. By then I had had it with literary novels for a while. Actually, for at least as long as it took me to read eight page turners, some of which were quite good.

It was now really time for a change of pace. I need more junk food reading in my life.

I used to read Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Deleware psych thrillers, but they eventually got tiresome, because I think Kellerman ran out of ideas for Alex. The investigations became so bizzaro that I couldn't go there with him any longer. BUT now he has come up with a new sleuth who is much more interesting and down to earth, and to my relief, not a psychologist. She is Petra Connor, an LAPD detective. I read Billy Straight, which turns out to be a classic police procedural with some nasty characters and world weary detectives on their trail. Nicely written, and entertaining all the way.

Next I read a disappointing Stephen White. I've read nearly all of his thrillers now. If you recall, he writes the Alan Gregory psycho mysteries that take place in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder must have more than it's share of psychotics, if you were to believe any part of this series. Dry Ice reprises a character from The Program, which was a very good book. Ice, however, was an after thought, and maybe White is also running out of good plot ideas. In this one Gregory is a psychotherapist who is feeling depressed. A psychologist with a mental problem? Oh,no! That's just about the last thing I want to read about.

I found three oldies-but-goodies at the Goodwill that I couldn't wait to dive into. One was Cards on the Table, by Agatha Christie. It's a Hercule Poirot mystery about four bridge players. She wrote it in 1937 when just about everybody played bridge, I guess. I play, so I was fascinated, but Christie is really pretty tame stuff these days. Then I found a Nancy Pickard from 2001 called Ring of Truth. In this one she has moved away from her Jenny Cain series, which was also getting rather stale. Truth was a good story about an interested bystander working with a police detective. It's the bystander who finally solves the case. We like those stories, right? We all know we are smarter and more diligent than the cops. Yup. It's set in Florida, also an engaging setting for any murder mystery. And my third Goodwill find was an old Ed McBain, from 1973, called Hail to the Chief. It was about street gang warfare, mostly told as journal entries -- the confession of the gang leader. A remarkably good, rather off-beat story for detective fiction. You go, Ed.

Then I sank to new lows reading some really awful page turners, from authors who are making tons of money, literally churning out this dreadful pop fiction mass-market junk: Lisa Scottoline's Final Appeal, David Morell's Long Lost, and Sandra Brown's The Witness, all fit well into this category. They aren't particularly well written, the plots are clumsy and implausible, they are filled with conspiracy theory and out-there scenarios that don't deserve to be considered, and worst of all, the characters are all cardboard cutouts dressed in black and white, there are no shades of gray, no innuendos, nothing literary or life affirming in any of this stuff. The only redeeming feature for this kind of writing is that it makes somebody a lot of money. Arrgh.

So that's all I read since I last checked in. Our book club has decided on our theme for next season: America's Heartland. So I'll be reporting on Montana and Nebraska when I get back to you next time. Oh, you want to know the actual books we'll be reading? Sure, here's the list:
     September: House of Sky, by Ivan Doig
     October: Winter Wheat, by Mildred Walker
     November, Big Sky, by A. B. Guthrie
     December, Dewey,b y Vicki Myron

Lights out,
The Phantom

Spring, ’09 This is supposed to be “reading season”. You know -- the nights when it’s raining, or snowy and cold, those are great times for cuddling up with a good book. Does it seem to you that there aren’t as many good rainy day books out there these days? I’m having a hard time finding them. At this peculiar moment I’m supposedly reading four books, that’s what I’m claiming anyhow. But none of them are shaping up to be absorbing page turners. I’ll get to those later.

In order, sort of, here’s what I read since we last got together, starting with my book club, which I have begun calling the Lady’s Tea Drinking Society. We love a party, but these days, mainly tea parties. We totally loved Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman. It wasn’t so much about liberalism, as the title suggests, rather what Paul really wrote was the history of the American conservative party since the Great Depression. Sounds intriguing, right? It was. We learned lots and had an invigorating discussion, and it wasn’t all bashing the bad guys either. Everybody could learn a thing or two about the often dirty business of politics by reading this book. By the way, Krugman won the Nobel Prize for economics last year, so he knows his stuff.

Then the tea drinking society moved on to Bridge of Sighs, by Russell Russo. He’s the guy who won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which is on my to-do list. Sighs is a big slow novel about small town folks in upstate New York, where not much happens. It’s an interesting book, and Russell can tell a good story about the smallest little incidents. I have no idea what this book is really about. At the rate I’m reading it I will still be trying to finish it when the conservatives come back into power.

I had to spend two weeks in Palm Springs last month so I had to read USA Today, you don’t want to make a practice of reading The Desert Sun unless you love desert news and liberal bashing. USA has a good book section and did a short interview with Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of Seventh Generation. (You don’t know what that company does? Oh my – they make environmentally friendly household products so I love them.) Anyhow, Jeffrey mentioned his favorite books and authors. We have lots in common. One of his favorite books is The Poisonwood Bible. And, get this, he loves women authors: Marilyn French, Alice Hoffman, Anna Quindlen, Anita Shreve, and as he says “even Jodi Picoult and Susan Isaacs”!!! His favorite male writers are John Fowles, Pat Conroy, John Irving and Tom Wolfe. He must be a romantic, and he could have been looking at my bookshelves. A girl’s gotta love that.

Speaking of Susan Isaacs, that’s what I’m up to lately. I found two Susans on my to-read pile and it was their turn. Long Time No See is the return of Judith Singer, the main character in Compromising Positions, first published in 1978! In Long Time, Judith doesn’t have quite enough to do now that her husband died, so she decides to solve a murder that was committed in her neighborhood. A mobster’s son’s wife disappears and everybody naturally thinks either the son or the father killed her and dumped the body. It’s really a romp with a twist, a very engaging mystery.

Then I read Isaacs’ After all these Years, it’s about another school teacher turned sleuth, who must figure out who killed her ex-husband. She finds his body in her kitchen with a knife in it. She tries to pull out the knife, thinking he might still be alive. So her fingerprints are now on the weapon. Nobody believes that she didn’t do it, except her. This is also a funny story, and totally entertaining.

And still speaking of Isaacs, one of the four that I am now reading is yet another one titled Past Perfect. It’s her attempt at writing a CIA spy novel. Isaacs creates yet another smart, very neurotic New Yorker who just can’t keep her nose out of other people’s business. This one is fun too.

Still in the Guilty Pleasure department: 

Nelson DeMille’s latest is The Gatehouse. This is DeMille at his most amusing, a truly giggly story. I couldn’t stop laughing and that made me sort of irritating company since I couldn’t put it down, even during TV time. It’s the characters from The Gold Coast revisited. If you haven’t read Gold Coast yet, you gotta start there and then read Gatehouse. It’s mafia vs. snobbish Long Islander fun.

Another guilty pleasure was Sandra Brown’s Smoke Screen. A celebrity is kidnapped, this is her story. Almost believable, a page turner, great airplane reading. Otherwise, totally forgettable. I’d tell you more about the story but I’ve forgotten it already. Take it to the dentist.

I always buy the latest P.D. James. She’s getting old, you know. Her latest is called The Private Patient. It’s almost dreadful, she’s just going through the paces, her characters no longer have interesting personal lives, and the murders are really contrived. Not very good.

And of course, the king of the guilty pleasure: John Grisham. His latest is The Associate. Not quite as good as The Appeal, his previous one, which I think everybody should read for its timeliness, it’s the one about buying judges, as you will recall I hope. The Associate is sort of about morality and how easy it is to compromise it. Good story, great background on how big law firms treat their recruits. Grisham knows this stuff.

So that leaves me explaining the two other books I’m reading in addition to the Isaac spy novel and dipping into Bridge of Sighs occasionally. First is Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson, the author who wrote Devil in the White City. Thunder is about Marconi, as he is inventing wireless telegraphy around the turn of the twentieth century, and Larson also weaves in a murder mystery into Marconi’s bio. This one isn’t working as well as Devil did, but I’m enjoying learning about Marconi, a real weirdo inventor.

And last, but certainly not least, recommended by Obama himself, I’m reading Team of Rivals. Go get this book. Truly worth it.

Last item: I’ve been prowling the Goodwill shelves these day. I know it’s probably not good for the economy to be buying used books but what’s a girl to do when she too is on a tight budget. I found what I think might be some real treasures: Loop Group, by Larry McMurtry, The Mask of the Red Death, by Harold Schecter, which is a re-write of the old Poe story, and some guilty pleasure reading, Billy Straight, by Jonathan Kellerman. Also on tap is Empire Falls, if I ever finish Bridge of Sighs and I think I’ll read Susan Isaacs oldie, Compromising Positions. Sounds like fun.

Cheers, The Phantom

December 08: Books, books, books. They are piled up everywhere, but unfortunately, I lost the list of books I’ve read in the past three months. Ah well.

Unfinished business department: I’m still plowing through the Stephen White thrillers set in Boulder, CO. Alan Gregory is a practicing psychologist who keeps stumbling into other people’s messy business, usually involving dead bodies. Also, filling in the gaps between “literary” reads is more of Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct novels. Eight Black Horses is one of his later ones, bringing back The Deaf Man for one last visit to the precinct. A little hard to swallow, but readable. Also read Kingdom of Shadows, another Alan Furst WWII historical spy novel. These are getting a little tiresome too. I think I’ve read them all now. It might be time for Furst to take a break. I also squeezed in Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, another one of those weird serial killer stories. If all the fictional serial killers came to life, we would be in a serious trouble. Luckily, they are few and far between in real life.

I tried to Like Sara Paretsky’s Total Recall. This is her “one off” into WWII concentration camp horrors. So many writers have done it better. V.I. Warshaski should stick to what she does well, solving insurance crimes in Chicago. This book is a muddle, sort of boring, and totally unfocused.

My book club selected March, by Geraldine Brooks for our October session. It won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s the American Civil War, and March is Mr. March, father of Alcott’s Little Women. Mr. March played a small part in Little Women so Brooks had little to work with. Brooks’ March is a flawed character, one that didn’t generate much sympathy with me. However, the Civil War from March’s perspective adds another fictional layer to this war. The book showcases Brooks’ vivid imagination as well as her ability to bring history to life. If Civil War stories interest you, consider reading The March, by Doctorow, which was published at the same time (around 2006 I think). It would make a great companion to March (and I think it’s a much better story. Unfortunately I’m not on the Pulitzer committee). Buy them both as a great gift for that special reader on your list.

Then I read People of the Book, also by Geraldine Brooks, another book about war, this time in Sarajevo, with a smattering of WWII. The connection between the two wars is “the book”, a 15th century, illuminated Hebrew manuscript. The story of the book’s time travel is revealed through forensic evidence found in it, and Brooks traces its journey from Spain during the inquisition, where it was produced, to modern day Sarajevo, where it ends up. It’s a fascinating journey, which began to remind me of Dan Brown’s Da Vince Code, at times.

The Interpretation of Murder, by Jed Rubenfeld, is an interesting murder mystery. It takes place in turn of the 20th century NYC. Freud and Jung are visiting (hence the name, which alludes to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams). Freud and Jung are bickering, and Jung’s weirdness is played to the hilt. They have bit parts in the drama, which is about yet another weird serial killer. Nicely written, and a great interpretation of Freud and Jung. I totally enjoyed this one.

After reading Ian McEwan’s brilliant Atonement, I decided to read his next novel, On Chesil Beach. What a strange small novel, probably best described as a character study about two young people who were born in 1940s England (WWII is not mentioned for a change). It’s the story of their extremely flawed romance, which comes to a tragic end, but not the tragic end that we usually read about. Nobody dies. I cannot really recommend this book to anybody younger than 65. You simply will not understand it.

The book I’m finishing up this December is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It’s an epistolary novel (a novel told thru letters), that is set on the island of Guernsey in 1946. Guernsey is close to France and played an intriguing part in WWII. It was invaded and occupied by Germany for five years. The island was not liberated until the end of the war. Guernsey is part of the UK, but they were cut off and on their own until the end of the war. WWII literature is usually very dark and dramatic. Not so with this novel. It’s rightful genre is probably “chick lit”, because it takes a rather serious subject (post war), and treats it with a very light and amusing touch. The book is easy reading and perfect for this time of the year.

Happy New Year! Keep reading, as long as your partner lets you keep the light on,

The Phantom

Fall 2008: What the Phantom is reading:

For some reason it was a great summer for reading even though I’ve been really busy with other things. I won’t go into detail about all the mysteries I read (a big list), but instead I’ll concentrate on four books I read that are probably worth talking about.

First up is Atonement, by Ian McEwan. I know most of you have read it already and I guess most people have seen the movie, which followed the book closely. However, the book is beautifully written, for those maybe have started it and put it down. My advice, maybe you should consider picking it up again. During that very slow beginning where every movement seems to slog on forever, the peculiar and tragic storyline is set up. When the war starts (WWII), the reader knows, page by page, that things are not going to end well, especially if you’ve seen the movie. The scenes describing Dunkirk are stark and realistic. This book exactly explains why McEwan has earned his reputation as a master fiction writer.

Next I read Life Class by Pat Barker, another Brit. She is known for her trilogy, sometimes referred to as The Regeneration Trilogy, about WWI vets with psychological problems. They are disturbing books, difficult but compelling reading. Life Class begins before WWI and is set in an art class. The students are self centered, focused on art class problems, which are perhaps sort of trivial in the grand scheme of things, with war looming in England and the continent. Paul is a reluctant student, sort of a fish out of water, unsure of himself and what he’s doing, both in class and in the pubs after class. When the war begins, he chucks the class, the women in his life, and volunteers to become an ambulance driver in Belgium, after he learns that he isn’t healthy enough to become a soldier. That’s when the story becomes riveting. Barker draws on her deep knowledge of WWI in describing what’s going on in behind the lines as the wounded soldiers are brought in for treatment. It’s a love story, and in a way, seems to parallel Atonement in that respect. Different war, same feelings. Another disappointing ending that we come to expect before we turn the last page. Life Class is a moody book but is definitely “lighter” reading compared to her trilogy.

Maisie Dobbs, written by Jacqueline Winspear, another Brit, is the opening book in what has become a series of British mysteries, set in the years between the wars. This first book isn’t really a mystery as much as it is a long character sketch of Maisie’s early life. She is working on a case, that of a dead WWI soldier, who actually survived the war only to die mysteriously afterwards. As she goes through the paces of solving the case, we learn something of her early life, which vaguely reminded me of Oliver Twist. Maisie, as young girl is thrown into “service” and eventually is taken under the wing of a wealthy family when they find out how smart she is. She becomes a nurse and goes off to war to take care of wounded soldiers (see how the themes of these books are meshing!). She has a wartime romance which ends badly. But we meet Maisie after the war, and she is wholly recovered both from her war experience and from her love affair. Or is she? This book was a step above the typical British mystery but I have no idea how the following stories will fare.

It’s just a weird coincidence, right? -- that these three books are all about the World Wars, all are British, all begin with love stories, and all move to the battle field, where the main characters are all part of the medical corps, rendering treatment to wounded soldiers. And all these love stories end badly. Hmm.

The fourth book is also British. For some reason it seemed to be all British, all summer for me. The Photograph, by Penelope Lively, is a rather depressing piece of fiction.  (But blessedly it is not war fiction.) The story is about a photograph of several people, two of which are surreptitiously holding hands. When the photo surfaces, many years after it was taken, lives and marriages are shattered. It’s all extremely British. I think many American readers would be in total dismay at the book’s premise and will just shake their heads in disbelief. It’s probably a cultural thing. However, I found it rather entertaining, indeed. (How simply British of me. Yes, I’ll have two lumps please, and pass me a crumpet, will you?)

Summer ’08: What the Phantom has been reading:

In a nutshell, I’ve been concentrating on what some book snobs might call “trash” reading. I guess thrillers are a guilty pleasure. Some thriller merchants write better than others, which is usually fairly obvious after a couple of pages. Some are better at putting the plot points in a line that makes sense and allows the reader to suspend her disbelief just enough to stay with the story. Sometimes the reader actually learns something along the way. Those are the best!

Before I go any farther, here’s a quote I totally agree with:

"I swear, if one more literary person says in that oh-so-condescending tone, 'Oh, I don't read ... mysteries,' I'm going to take a novel by Peter Abrahams and smack him on his smug little head." - Michele Ross, Cleveland Plain Dealer

I started off with Grisham’s latest: The Appeal. It’s about crooked lawyers turning into crooked judges and how crooked business people with tons of money can buy their own justice. It’s cynical and disheartening, mostly because it has a fundamental ring of truth about it. We know this story is happening right before our very eyes and there's nothing we can do about it. We watched it happen in Florida a few years ago, it’s getting worse. It’s political, right-wing politics at its grimiest.

Grisham’s other book on the best seller list is called Playing for Pizza. It’s not a thriller, it’s a one-off from G’s usual stuff. Pizza is a story about a third string quarter-back, who has run out of options in the big leagues. His agent finds a gig for him in Parma, Italy. So this is the pleasant, amusing story of a culturally clueless American football player in Italy. It’s charming.

Then I stumbled onto thriller writer Stephen White. His psychological thrillers are set in Boulder, Colorado, which is a nice change of setting. “Psychological” might not be exactly the correct term for them. The protagonist is Dr. Alan Gregory, a practicing psychotherapist. The plots are usually mysteries, and Gregory is the somewhat innocent bystander who gets drawn into the murder cases because of his therapy practice. He usually has some information that would be useful to the police but he cannot divulge it due to doctor-client privilege.

Each thriller, there are lots of them, deals with a different aspect of psychotherapy. So far my favorite stories have been The Program: the central storyline has to do with the Federal Witness Program; and Kill Me: this story was written in the third person and was not an Alan Gregory story, but rather was told from the point of view of one of his patients, a man who hired a hit man to off himself. Very unusual, totally engrossing. Others that I have read include: Missing Persons (subject matter is schizoid personality disorder); Critical Conditions (what happens when people refuse to speak); Privileged Information (subject matter: transference – explained very well); Warning Signs (subject matter: retribution); and Cold Case (subject matter: covering up guilt). Great summer reading.

Somebody gave me Tim Cahill’s slim volume (non fiction!, not a thriller) on walking in Yellowstone National Park. It’s called Lost in my own Backyard. This is must reading for anybody who likes the outdoors or who is even slightly interested in our country’s geology. I had no idea that Yellowstone is really the world’s largest dormant volcano. If it blows, or I should say, when it blows again, it will cause the equivalent of a Nuclear Winter, and all life between Nebraska and the West Coast will be obliterated. Who knew! It’s a fascinating book, a real insider’s look at this fascinating landscape. If you can’t visit Yellowstone this year, read about it.

I got sucked into buying yet another John Dunning mystery, The Bookwoman’s Last Fling. His shtick is mysteries about books. This time I learned more than I need or want to know about horse racing, particularly about hot walking race horses. I also learned about bibliomania, a psychic disorder that causes people to buy books by the cartloads, not because they want to read them, but because they cannot help themselves. Weird. Not a great book, like his earlier ones, but since he has a following, he keeps writing and getting published.

Another misfire is called Beautiful Lies. It’s the first book by Lisa Unger. She tells the story of a woman who was taken from her mom at an early age, out of a dysfunctional home and into the arms of a family that raised her with love, affection and worldly goods. But, they didn’t tell her she was adopted. Turns out she was a stolen child, the plot thickens and so does the reading, it’s like wading through mud to get to the end of this mess. Maybe Lisa will figure out a quicker pace and more interesting plot for her second book.

I had one more Alan Furst book left to read in his continuing series related to WWII spies. This one was Red Gold. It’s the French resistance again, sort of, running guns for the French Communist Party. Some brutality, some intrigue, lots of skulking around and brooding, not much food, some sex, very depressing. My overall impression of these books is that they fail to encompass the totality of the war. It’s little snippets of the huge canvas, but the war seems to disappear into the personal story. Maybe I’ve read enough of them.

Speaking of Alan Furst, he edited an anthology of Literary Espionage for Modern Library, called The Book of Spies. It contains excerpts from the best of the spy novel writers, or so says the blurb. I thought it would be masterful. Unfortunately it isn’t. Most excerpts were pieces I had already read, some were memorable, especially the ones by Graham Green and Steinbeck, who wrote an under- appreciated novel called The Moon Is Dark. Part of it is included. Maybe would-be students of the spy novel would get something out of this volume, but somehow I think the point got missed.

If you've got insomnia, try reading Henry James. If you want to stay up all night reading even though your eyes are growing heavy, try mysteries.

That's it for now, The Phantom

Spring 2008: This is the best time of year for reading. We’ve got rainy cold days and long dark nights, perfect weather for cuddling up with a couple of cats and a good book.

I’m a big fan of Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote the best seller, Nickel and Dimed. She’s at it again with Bait and Switch: the (futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. This time she goes undercover as an unemployed executive on the hunt for a new job. She tries all the professional “in transition” schemes, from coaching classes, job fairs, book camps, to networking events and more. As with Nickel and Dimed, she dives into the research with every intention of success. It’s a fascinating tale of frustration and insight. This is must reading for every middle management person you know.

Sue Grafton is now up to: T is for Trespass. Grafton writes this one from a slightly different perspective. Grafton’s mysteries are usually the first person narratives of private detective Kinsey Millhone. This time Grafton adds the voice of her antagonist to the story. Solana Rojas is a chilling character, much darker and more evil than Kinsey’s usual suspects. We follow Solana as she steals a co-worker’s identity and uses it to prey on the elderly who need home care. It’s a darker version of the usual Grafton work, very entertaining and chilling because this one sounds like it actually could happen, and probably does happen with regularity.

Silicon Valley is reading the distant land of my father, by Bo Caldwell (2001). It’s a novel that reads like a memoir, the reminiscences of Anna, recalling her father’s life in 1930s Shanghai.

The book’s tone is curiously standoffish, probably because of its structure. We are asked to believe that Anna, at the age of six, can recall her life in Shanghai with her dad, a Shanghai businessman, most likely involved in shady dealings, while making millions of dollars in the process. She recalls special days spent with her father in great detail. One example, he helped her to memorize the names of all the buildings in Shanghai’s “Bund”, a district of western enterprise. As World War II looms, life in Shanghai takes a serious turn for the worse. Western people like Anna and her family are caught up in the War.  

Anna was still very young when she and her mother finally leave Shanghai, at the time of the Japanese invasion. The father stays on, believing that no harm can come to him. He’s wrong, of course. Our passionless narrator is able to recreate what happens to him because at his death many years later she comes across journals that he has written that detail his ordeal. However, most of the history of the time is glossed over, and the passionless tone continues throughout the story as Anna grows up with her mother, estranged from her father but nevertheless yearning for his return.

I am waiting with great anticipation for the “official” Silicon Valley book talk on this particular choice. It seems like an odd one to me, with only a slender connection to our lives here. Hopefully, the person who chose the book will give us some clue about why it was chosen, other than the fact that its author is a Bay Area resident.

Another reading group selection: Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan. The difference between this novel and the one above (distant land), couldn't be more startling. It's a novel built on the "true life" love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney. Horan brings to life the passion, intrigue and scandalous nature of this remarkable relationship in a beautifully crafted novel. This somewhat overlooked novel deserves our attention.

My daughters and I read together sometimes so I bought some used books for us to have a go at. One is God in Concord, by Jane Langton (1992). Langton writes “cozy” mysteries, those are the ones where even if something awful happens, it just doesn’t seem all that bad. I chose this book for three reasons, first, one of my daughters cannot read scary stuff, second, there were quotes from Thoreau’s Walden and references to his works throughout the book and three, it has several murders and an environmental twist. It’s pabulum, of course, but nevertheless an interesting way to spend a few hours.

If you’re looking for a grimier mystery, try Susan Hill’s, The Various Haunts of Men. Hill is a British mystery writer (yummy!) and this book’s American publication is due in April (but you could get hold of a used UK edition from amazon, of course). Hill is very popular in England and now I know why. She’s on a par with the best of them. This is one of those creepy serial killer stories that the UK seems famous for. And things don’t always turn out for the best.

And now for the unfinished business. Our book club read Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson last month. After about a cup and a half I’d had enough, thank you. It’s not a bad book, especially if you like to read about another person’s frustration. This is Greg’s true story of how he eventually built at least 40 schools in the outback of Pakistan, schools mostly for girls, a tremendous achievement, very inspiring, very frustrating.

Also unfinished and put on the shelf: An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke. After about 125 pages I had simply had it with the little jerk at the center of this piece of fiction. Same with Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union. It's off to the used book store.

And the last book that I probably will not finish is the latest Elizabeth George, which is sort of a one-off called What Came Before He Shot Her. It’s the backstory of the person who shot one of the characters in the previous novel. It details a very grimy part of life in the UK, well sorted out, but difficult to read. I like her regular formula mysteries with her familiar characters at the center of the action much better.

It’s past time for bed now! Click off that light!

Winter '07/08 The end of another year is at hand. This is the time of year that I'd really like to curl up with a good book, but unfortunately it's the holidays (oops, that sounds rather bah-humbug). December will fly by as it usually does and THEN we can curl up, right?

I have been reading but they have mostly been rather forgettable books so I'll be quick about it. Here's a list of books you might want to leave on the used bookstore shelves:

Scott Turow's Reversible Errors. I've already forgotten what it's about. Let me see, oh yes, it's about a "loser" attorney who has been given the pro bono assignment of representing a death row inmate. Oh, no, not this plot again. This story has lots of twists and some interesting characters, but do we really have to go here again? I did but you don't.

Alan Furst's Night Soldiers. I've read quite a few Furst WWII spy novels now. This one was disappointing. Very muddled, very long, starts in Spain, during the war before the war, then on to Paris, Italy, down the Danube, sounds intriguing, right? It does more plodding, than necessary. I think it was one of his earlier efforts. I did enjoy parts of it and read the whole thing, but his later, shorter novels were much more rewarding.

John Lawton's Bluffing Mr. Churchill. Lawton is another WWII writer, who is getting some good reviews. This time it's the London Blitz again, and we are treated to a look into the lives of the locals during that period. It was pretty awful, but this book is awful in other ways. It tries to be a mystery as well as a war story. It doesn't work all that well, and the reference to Churchill is tacked on the end, which eventually appears.

Jeff Shaara's Rising Tide. This is yet another WWII historical novel. It's heavy on history, light on novel. Reads like a history book. He attempts to bring the actual soldiers to life and at times he succeeds. His portrayal of Rommel is spot on. I even began to feel sorry for Rommel as he tried to carry out his assignment to defeat the Brits in Northern Africa. It's a battle he should have won. Eisenhower also comes to life. I really liked this book and have become even more educated about the military events leading up to the American invasion. The book's main weakness is with his handling of the regular tank soldiers. Their stories seemed wooden compared to his real people. Worth reading though.

Marcia Muller's Dead Midnight. Marcia is a well respected mystery writer, and member of that "sisters in crime" writing group that includes Sue Grafton. I've read several of Marcia's books and have always found them to be amateurish and far-fetched. It's the same with this one. Her main character is just too smug and smart for words. Don't go there.

Here are a couple books I tried to read but just couldn't.

Debbie Macomber's A Good Yarn. It's a "cozy" mystery, one of those cute "themed" mysteries that are really too trite for words. If you knit, don't tell anybody. That way you won't receive any of Debbie's mysteries.

Dana Stabenow's Breakup. A "Kate Shugak mystery". Kate is really too angry and cranky to be interesting. She should spend a little time in the lower 48, she's been in Alaska way too long. I think maybe she's got a bad case of that illness you get when it stays dark too long.

I'm trying to finish reading 3 books at this point. I'm through about 150 pages in each of them: I will fill you in on them next time. They are Greg Mortenson's 3 Cups of Tea, Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union, and Rudy Delson's Maynard and Jennica.

I hope you unwrap lots of good books this season. That's what I'm looking forward to.

Happy New Year, The Phantom

Fall 2007
We've got gray clouds overhead, but I think it's just smoke from the forest fires, something we're not at all accustomed to, but we'll cope. Smoke makes it look like fall has arrived, even though the temperatures will be in the 80s for a while longer, and more hot weather expected before fall officially arrives. I say all this so you'll realize I'm still way into my "beach reading" time zone.

I feel like I spent most of the summer in WWII. It was really the defining era of the 20th century, the time when America became a great power. And that era continues to provide so much material for fiction writers. I began the summer by finishing up the Olivia Manning trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, (which takes place in Egypt).

Next I read the book that all the book clubbers have been buzzing about: Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky. The book is based on her journals, which she kept during the early years of WWII. She was Jewish, living in France, was picked up in 1942 and sent to a concentration camp, where she died. Apparently, SF was just recently published. It's actually two novellas. The first one is about the Parisians fleeing as the Germans enter Paris. It's written with an ironic tone; because Parisians will be Parisians, they are mainly concerned about eating and sleeping well, more worried about possessions than politics. Apparently they fled into the countryside in droves and then most of them crept back to Paris to resume their lives as best they could after the dust settled and the occupation began, about a month later. The second novella is about a small village, also during the German occupation (the Germans occupied France for three or four years, roughly). At any rate, the German occupation of this particular village was peaceful, what resistance was going on was deep under cover and not terribly effective. The drama was with "fraternization". Apparently, the Boch were quite handsome, well-mannered and had money to spend on French girls. While readable, to me these novellas were pretty light weight stuff. For those who need more insight into the French character in general, it could be worthwhile reading.

I took a break from WWII to read the Nelson De Mille thriller, Wild Fire. I read De Mille because he's an amusing guy with a great imagination and really does keep you turning those pages. This particular page turner has enough grains of truth to make a person break into a sweat. The gist is that some super rich right-wing nut jobs have an idea how to end the middle east crisis once an for all, by bombing the middle east with nuclear weapons. Apparently it doesn't matter to them that the oil would be lost too. Or maybe I forgot that part. Anyhow, their idea was to first set off a nuclear bomb in a major American city, like San Francisco or Las Vegas, and blame the bombing on middle east terrorists. They figured that the American people would be so incensed by that act of terror that they would go along with bombing the middle east off the map. John Cory, our hero, figures out what they are up to (against the wishes of his bosses, of course, some of whom are part of the right wing nut job circle), and is the only one who can stop them. The plot is not without merit. I think our country has more than our share of right wing nut jobs with money. Now that the idea is in print, if anybody tried it, somebody would remember this book, I hope, and start to wonder just WHO exactly was behind things before acting stupidly (I'm not naming names here.). This books takes about 1 week to read and is entertaining. Don't get a manicure before you start it.

Next I decided I needed a break from all the drama, so I picked up Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. This book has been on the Best Seller List (non-fiction) for years. It's billed as a travel memoir, which it is. Gilbert is youngish, recently divorced, a writer, sort of rich and totally confused and depressed. She decides to take a year-long break from her regular work but floats her travel ideas to her publisher, who thinks she's onto something. Here's what she comes up with. Four months in Italy eating and learning to speak Italian, while recovering from her divorce. Then four months in India to learn how to meditate properly. Then four months in Indonesia (Bali, specifically), to learn how to love again. Sounds corny, right? It's not. Gilbert had a great idea that is probably making her millions. You will love her, she is screwed up, but funny about it, she's a great observer and there's a message in this book for everybody. Terrific summer reading.

Then I decided to read a couple of sort of generic mysteries just for the fun of it. I had never read any John D. MacDonalds and found an old one (maybe they are all old) at the used bookstore. It's a Travis McGee mystery called The Deep Blue Goodbye, circa 1964. Perhaps it's not one of his best. Here's what the jacket blurb says: "Travis McGee, beach bum and salvage expert (he'll retrieve what you've lost for 50 per cent), lives on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale. Instead of taking retirement at sixty, he takes it in chunks as he goes along. If he likes you he'll help you, and he likes Cathy Kerr, who has been robbed of everything but her dignity...the first in the series establishes the fast-talking, wisecracking standard MacDonald maintained for 20 years." I'm not sure whether I want to know much more about Travis, even though Carl Hiaasen thinks I will like him if I like Florida. Hmm.

I found Lost Light, by Michael Connelly at the Goodwill the other day. Connelly writes the Harry Bosch mystery/thrillers. This one was written after 911 (have you noticed that fiction has changed since then?) and starts off with Bosch, who is a retired LAPD detective, working one of his old cases. We hear the theory about how all retired police detectives want to solve all their old cold cases. Bosch is one of those guys. This particular case is about an unsolved robbery/cop killing that gets very complicated. The best part is when Bosch gets mixed up with the FBI. That's the new post-911 scary stuff. The FBI has what they call the BAM squad. BAM stands for By Any Means. Now doesn't that just have a ring of truth. They pick up Harry and hold him without cause, trying to convince him to get off the case. While in the slammer, Bosch notices lots of others who are being held for months/years without cause. There have been "disappeared". See, I told you it was complicated. The FBI, as usual, has almost everything wrong and is determined that Bosch should be stopped, but Bosch eventually unravels this case. I knew he would but I was entertained, as usual.

It's still summer, right? Still time for more mysteries. I've had a boatload of Scott Turows beside my bed for awhile, so I decided to go back to Kindle County again. This one was Reversible Errors, one of his better efforts in my humble opinion. It's another complicated story about a death row inmate (oh, no, not that again). New lawyers doing the last minute appeals (oh, no not that again). Yes, afraid so. But because it's Kindle County, most of the legal players involved have "issues" that come into play. Very juicy story, great characters, no way of figuring it all out until the end. I totally enjoyed it.

I did a big clean out of old books this summer, our house is simply littered with them. The used bookstore pays me cash or credit for them, and the ones they don't take go to the Goodwill. Everybody got a big increase in inventory this summer. But I found a treasure trove of spy novels at the the bookstore. So it's back to WWII, this time with Alan Furst, recognized as "master of the historical spy novel." These are spy novels for the thinkers among us, they are extremely well written, beautiful descriptions, very moody and dark, romantic, all carefully researched from old journals, newsreels, and early WWII novels. He has written a series, I've read four of them: The Polish Officer, The Foreign Correspondent, The World at Night, Blood of Victory. The first three of this lot were just superb, the fourth, Blood of Victory, is rather muddled and sort of difficult to follow. All are set in Paris, Poland, the Balkans, Germany, or Spain, and the main characters are not "professional" spies, but rather people who get caught up in the resistance. The characters change, each book can be read as a stand alone.  All stories take place between 1938 and the early '40s.They remind me of Casa Blanca in style, tone and moodiness. What a treat!

Now that my book club has had our annual "book choosing" meeting, it's time to tip into more "important" reading, if you will. I've listed our reading list here if you are interested in such things. To me, all books are worthy, and we all gravitate towards different books. As long as we're reading something, right?

Summer 2007
One page flip of the calendar and we're looking at summer. Where does the time go? In looking over my book journal I realize I forgot to update you since last Winter. Good grief! So many books... 

I thought I had mentioned the Philip Roth book earlier -- The Plot Against America. What was Roth thinking? It's a "what if" novel about WWII. What if Nazi-loving flyboy Lindberg became president instead of FDR? It's an interesting idea, but Roth's execution of it misfired. Should an important story about a serious subject be told through the eyes of a 9 year old boy? Should the author's voice mimic a gossipy Jewish yenta? I think not. The prose was tortured. It was like Roth wanted to show off his ability to string prepositions and clauses together in an unending dialog of nonsense. For all these reasons the book fails.

Off to another war. I decided to read E. L. Doctorow's The March. It's the Civil War and we're with Sherman's army cutting its terrible swath through the South at the end of the war. The book follows an army surgeon, who is hacking off limbs and trying to patch up soldiers as best he can from his medical wagon. Doctorow must have done some research. It's a fresh look at an old war, very compelling reading, a beautifully crafted novel.

B&N was having one of their "drastic reduction" sales and on the scramble table I found a book by Ngaio Marsh called Artists in Crime. It was written circa 1938 and reprinted a couple of years ago. Marsh was considered to be part of the British Golden Age of mystery writers. The intro to the story, character sketches, and so forth are much more interesting than the murder investigation itself. Reading this old stuff is a little boring when comparing it to the stories being told by today's mystery writers -- unfortunately. 

A confession: I did the impulse-buying thing at the drugstore the other day. Bought a Jeffrey Archer "paperback best seller" called False Impression. Jumping on the 911 bandwagon, Archer, a British "thriller" writer couldn't resist profiteering from this event. (Archer's personal life is much more interesting than his fiction. Google him and see for yourself.) Anyhow, FI is a thriller about an unethical American banker who covets impressionist paintings and will go to any length, including murder, to get the paintings he wants. This book might amuse you on a long airplane ride, but don't put it at the top of your list.

I guess I wasn't finished with the "junk" reading because I found an irresistible copy Native Tongue, by Carol Hiaasen. It was a very well used paperback with a note scrawled on the inside cover, stating: "so inane I quit half-way thru". HA! A lot of other people read this book before I got to it, but who knows why. We just love Hiaasen, his biting sarcasm, his morbid fascination with the Florida weirdos, and above all, his sense of outrage at the way Florida's developers and politicians have ruined that state's ecology. I thought it was humorous, and over the top, but totally engrossing.

My recent book club assignment was Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford. This is a brilliant book, beautifully written, well researched, and sure to please history lovers. According to the author, the world didn't really know Genghis Khan's "true" story until recently, when scholars unearthed information that hadn't been available before. It's like a Rosetta stone discovery, that when pieced together, explains in vivid detail exactly what happened when Khan's Mongol army swept through Asia and the middle east. And the book then details the changes to civilization that occurred as a result of it. This is one of those "who knew" books. Westerners could learn a great deal about the other part of the world by reading books like this one.

Since I'm still in my Balkan period following our reading of Balkan Ghosts, by Robert Kaplan, I decided to order a copy of The Balkan Trilogy, by Olivia Manning. Oh, in case I forgot to mention, Balkan Ghosts was another book club assignment, suggested by a member who loves to read about the Balkans. She forced us to read Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, by Rebecca West, some years ago. According to Kaplan, Black Lamb is one of the finest books ever put together about this very confusing part of the world. The other book Kaplan recommends, for people who are interested in such things, is The Balkan Trilogy, which is a collection of three novels, set in Bucharest during WWII. Manning is a Brit, and these novels are about an ex-patriot British couple, Harriet and Guy Pringle, who are stranded in the Balkans during the war. He is an academic, a lecturer working for the British schools abroad, and she is his young wife, adrift in a strange country with nothing to do. The Trilogy is extremely good reading, and was apparently a sensation in Britain when they were first published in the 1970s (?). 

I am now reading The Levant Trilogy, also by Manning, which takes up where BT left off. The couple had to flee Bucharest for Greece, and then on to Cairo, where they are when LT begins. Manning's writing style is workman-like, her long narrative flows nicely, and she has worked out the plotting very well, so that the story moves at a quick pace, even though not too much seems to be happening. She has a keen sense of place so you can imagine exactly what life was like for the Brits in Cairo during the war. Britain still occupied Egypt during that time, although things were very uneasy between the Brits and the Egyptians. She captures that feeling quite nicely, as well as this feeling of dread that creeps around the edge of every chapter. 

At this point I've just started the last book of the Levant Trilogy. I'm totally captivated by these novels, but don't actually know why. The Balkan Trilogy wasn't really about the war at all, but the Levant Trilogy does get into the desert war to a degree. But it's not so much that this is a WWII novel, but it's Manning telling in intricate detail this truly odd story that keeps me reading. If you've got some time on your hands and want to get involved in a mesmerizing saga, get both of these books (about 1800 paperback pages in all). Try the library first. If you can't find them, amazon's independent book sellers have stray copies.

On my shelf for summer reading: Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky, and Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason. Then I'll dip into some old stuff, some mysteries and who knows what else. There's always another good book in the wings.

Have a fine reading summer. Remember the old days when the libraries did reading contests for children? Those were fun and a good way to get little kids interested in books. Once you are hooked on reading, it's for life.

Later, The Phantom


Winter 06/07

Personal life, in the form of grand-parenting, continues to be a priority with the Phantom these days. It has gotten so bad that the Clever staff has decided to forego handing out our annual Book Awards this year. We were looking over the NYT Notable Book list, just published, and discovered that we had not read any of them. We didn't even recognize any of the titles. So we are declaring a hiatus for the awards. Next year we'll be back at it again. At least that's our story and we're sticking to it.

I did find a little time for reading during the past few months and found some books that I totally enjoyed. First up is a book that I had heard about some months ago. It was finally published, called Journal: the short life and Mysterious Death of Amy Zoe Mason, found by Kristine Atkinson and Joyce Atkinson. It's actually a series of collages in story form, a genre that goes by the name of Book Art. The collages are wonderful and the story is quite intriguing. It's in the bookstores now. It would make a lovely gift for the artsy types on your list.

I found an old dog-eared copy of an Erle Stanley Gardner mystery called The Case of the Deadly Toy at a charity book sale. I realized that I had never read a Gardner mystery before so I bought it. The story reminded me of that old TV Perry Mason series. I can see why both the books and the TV show were so popular. The writing was good and the story moved along quite well, even though the premise was lame. This one was first published in 1958 so it reads like social history too. Not great reading but not a waste of time either.

Then I found a reprint of an old spy tale on the remainder table at Barnes & Noble and realized that I hadn't read it before either. It's called The Quiller Memorandum, by Adam Hall. It won an Edgar in 1966. Once again we are back in the Cold War spy era. The book spawned a TV series, as well as other Quiller stories. It was a well-written page turner that kept me interested for a week or so.

Next I picked up a couple of Sarah Dunants because I had liked one of her mysteries. First I tried to read her bestseller, Birth of Venus, a coming of age novel of a fourteen year old girl in Florence in the 15th century. I found it predictable and boring, and wasn't the slightest bit interested, even though I love Florence. So I threw it against the wall and started another Dunant mystery, Under my Skin. I read some of it, put it down, and picked it up again. Her British private investigator, named Hannah something, must figure out who is responsible for the evil mischief going on at a spa outside of London. It was not quite dreadful, but nearly so. Don't know why I bothered finishing it. One thing I do know, I'm finished with Dunant.

But by far the pick of the litter is a book called The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies. Namesake is a novel about a young Indian man who comes to the US to work as an engineering professor. He brings along his new  Indian wife. The story is about their life in Boston. It is so well written and personal that you actually become Bengali. It's so poignant and detailed that I was totally and profoundly engaged in their story. The title refers to their son, born soon after their arrival Boston. He is hurriedly named Gogol, after the Russian writer. The novel is brilliantly conceived, turning on this odd Russian name. I highly recommend this book.

As this issue of Clever is being published, I am reading four books at the same time. All are very good and I'll give you a full report on them later. They are all so different that it is easy to keep track of them and I've heard that it's good for the brain to read more than one book at a time, so there. The titles are: The Innocent Man, Grisham's new non-fiction story, My Cousin Rachael, a classic by Daphne du Maurier, The Lighthouse, by P.D. James, and a book about book collecting in the 21st century called Among the Gently Mad, by Nicholas Basbanes. Don't you just love the title?

So why not curl up with a good book, your favorite hot drink and a comforter? This cold snap will be over before we know it.

Happy New Year and keep reading,
The Phantom

Fall 2006
I haven't done nearly as much reading during these last few months. I've been busy with personal stuff. I became a grandmother for the first time, and luckily I'm getting to spend lots of time with the little one. It's great fun but tiring, so the bedside light isn't shining nearly as long these days.

I found a book at the used bookstore called Blinded by the Right, by David Brock, that I've been dying to read but refused to purchase regular retail. I do have to admit to you, in case you hadn't guessed it, that I am an extreme liberal. Clevermag is not political, so I don't make a big deal about it, unless you read my blog. I did a rant on the book there but in case you didn't read it, here it is:

From the Phantom's blog: "I’m hoping that you will find a copy of this book and read it — immediately. But here’s the warning. I don’t want you to buy it retail. Since this book has been around for several years, there are plenty of copies in used book stores, on amazon and at half dot com. What I don’t want to do is help Brock make any more money from the sale of this book. (If you buy it from the Good Will or a used book store he won’t get a penny.)

Brock calls himself an ex-hit man for the neoconservatives. This book is his mea culpa, because he says now that he was wrong at the time, that his moral compass was off when he was a hit man. (Actually I don’t think this guy has a moral compass. What he has instead is a metal detector for gold bars.) He did some despicable things while writing for right wing conservative slander magazines and newspapers: The Washington Times, The New York Post and American Spectator. As he became more famous, he got more greedy and amoral.

As he confesses in this very book (after the statute of limitation has conveniently run out), he ruined Anita Hill’s reputation and he’s  very sorry about that now. Brock and his crowd were so convinced that Clarence Thomas was the perfect supreme court judge to do the dirty work of the right wing that they ignored all the evidence, especially Hill’s, that he wasn’t fit for the bench. In fact, they smeared, slandered and lied, obscured evidence and did everything they could to get him confirmed. As we all remember, it was Hill who stood up before The Committee and told her story about the kind of man Thomas really was, and it was the neocons who hid evidence and slandered her in order to confuse the congress to the point where they would confirm him. Then, after bearly succeeding, because the neocons still wanted more red meat, Brock wrote a book called The Real Anita Hill, which was a financial success while ruining Hill’s reputation. One wonders how a person can write a book claiming to know a person when he has never even met that person. 

He went on to join up with “the vast right wing conspiracy” (yes, it does exist, just as Hillary said), that was trying to undermine Clinton’s presidency. His book names names, posits their strategies and goals, AND more importantly describes just how underhanded and hypocritical and dangerous this group really is.

 In his book he claims that he finally found his moral compass and is no longer a card- carrying neocon. Actually he says he was never really accepted into their arms because he is gay, even though he was in the closet the whole time he was writing as a right-winger — because the neocons hate gays. Actually, they hate everybody except their own tight little group, which is now ruling the USA and can be found in littered throughout our government.

It occurred to me that at the very time he found his moral compass, he also realized that he could probably make some money confessing the very dispicable things he did as a bad guy. His personal goal had always been to sell books and articles to the “mainstream” in addition to the neocons. Well, this book did just that. Let’s not give him another dime. However, it is time for “the good guys” on the left to read this book and realize once and for all that civil discourse between the left and the right is a thing of the past. The right wingers will stop at nothing to keep power. We democrats, liberals or moderates (whatever you call yourself) must change tactics in order to stand up to the right-wing under-handedness. We’ve been “the nice party” long enough."

Whew! I'm glad I got that out of the way. The next book I read comes from Ireland and was a prize winner. It's called Book of Evidence, by John Banville, who has been billed as the next Dostoevsky. I don't agree so I wrote a book review for amazon.com with my opinion of it. (I do that occasionally just for the fun of it. Anybody can, it's no big deal). So here's a copy of my amazon.com review, which I called: 

Book of Evidence, by John Banville: Crime and Punishment Lite

"Banville's Montgomery occasionally reminded me of Raskolnikov, but not often enough. (I won't repeat the novel's premise because previous reviewers have done a remarkably good job on it. I read this book on a close friend's recommendation, it came with no pedigree, other than what's on the book cover: short-listed for the Booker Prize, and the winner of an Irish prize that I'm not familiar with. Since I'm reading prize winners this summer, that qualified it. Also, get this, it was a gift from the people of Dublin to the San Jose, CA library.) So I didn't know I was actually reading a wanna-be classic.

I thought the writer's style was remarkably compelling and I think that's what kept me reading, because it was not Monty's plight. Monty, from his jail cell, is writing what turns out to be a book-length confession as he awaits his murder sentence. The book itself is dense, like a journal with no dialog, just his dogged narrative, broken only when he interrupts his own thoughts. I totally enjoyed that device for telling this story.

But to the story itself, I had no sympathy whatsoever for this total jerk. His sense of entitlement and overbearing manner was unfathomable, but something kept telling me that people like him actually exist. Maybe that's why I kept reading.

I'm not sure where the notion that Monty was an ex-scientist came from. (See other reviews.) What I remember of his background was that he was a math student at Berkeley when he met Daphne and eventually married her, but from his own account, it didn't appear to be a love match. Apparently his dad was funding his education abroad, and perhaps continued to fund his life in general, which appeared to be one of penurious leisure somewhere off the coast of Spain with his wife and child. A man of manners but no job or ethics or morality, he gets into a financial jam that eventually risks the lives of his wife and child.

So he dashes home to Ireland to see if he can get mum to give him some cash so he can literally free up his family from a loan shark. Things go badly at home so he comes up with a plan to steal some artwork, which he also thinks really belongs to him as part of an inheritance that he should receive when mum passes on to her reward (that sense of entitlement again). That plan goes even worse and now he's murdered somebody.

That's when we begin to see the similarities between him and Raskolnikov. He is nearly undone by his shame, I guess. It's not remorse that works him over to the point where he cannot run away, even though a family friend lends him the money to take off, he's just a coward. He holes up with said friend and waits for the inevitable moment when he will be captured.

But remember, this tale is recounted from his prison cell, so he has had time to embroider the details into what could be considered sympathetic. We could ask ourselves if he was mentally unstable and thus explain his behavior that way. We could ask ourselves if he felt some remorse and was therefore worthy of our compassion. Or we could question whether it's society's fault that landed gentry or even pseudo landed gentry like Monty exist in the first place.

So the bottom line here is if you are left asking yourself questions like these at the end of a novel, perhaps the novel was worthwhile after all. I still cannot say that I would place this book among the greatest classics ever written, but it is definitely close."

Since then I have contented myself with reading willy-nilly and listening to my audio books, but have been too distracted to even remember the names of the mysteries that I've heard. One I did remember went by the unfortunate title of Bad Twin, by Gary Troup. 

Here's what amazon.com reviewer Poetlinus said about it: " Bad Twin tells the story of Paul Artisan, a private eye with a penchant for tracking down insurance scammers and cheating spouses. He meets up with one Cliff Widmore, a rich businessman, who hires Artisan to find his long lost identical twin brother Zander. Adventure ensues as Paul island hops from New York to Key West to Cuba, and meets up with the usual suspects; beautiful women, naked gurus, crusty sailors with secrets to hide. As a stand alone mystery, the book is fairly solid if not overly challenging.

Those of us who are Lost fans, however, the book layers in a second meaning. As Paul returns home, and checks in with his own personal guru, a retired professor named Manny, we learn snippets of information that may or may not relate to the show. Discussions of King Lear, redemption, and yes, the philosopher John Locke, pepper the plot between the action scenes. Throw in a trip to Australia on board Oceanic Airlines, and other little surprises (like the twins birthdays), it was enough to whet the whistle of this Lost fan."

I did enjoy this story BECAUSE OF the discussions of King Lear and so forth. It added texture to an otherwise extremely mundane story.

I did breeze thru a very unremarkable book by John Dunning. His audience is mystery lovers who are also book collectors. He has written several very good books, but unfortunately Sign of the Book isn't one of them. I don't even want to tell you about it for fear you might want to read it. Don't!

Then for some unknown reason I read one of those testosterone thrillers that men love to read, called Persuader, by Lee Child. The protagonist is a sort of rogue avenger, part-time contractor for the CIA maybe. He takes on some very bad guys as a pseudo under-cover agent. The story is mainly about high-tech guns and revenge among frustrated government agents. It's readable. Guys love this stuff, women usually don't.

I am now trying to read four novels at once because none of them have really grabbed me, and I don't have much time for reading anyhow. Perhaps the best of the lot is The Fourth Hand by John Irving. JI is one of my favorite writers but for some reason this story is just too snarky for me. Irving may have honed his craft too carefully this time out. 

I'm also plodding through a book called Meritocracy: a love story, by Jeffrey Lewis. It's a pretentious piece of writing in a slim volume about well-bred college students who have an unbelievable sense of entitlement, circa the 1960s. Now doesn't that just sound awful? It is.

Also, I'm trying to finish Scott Turow's The Laws of our Fathers. This one was written under the guise of a court room drama, but the flash backs to the 1960s have gotten out of control. Usually in mysteries or thrillers, the characters contain their musings to a few paragraphs, but these musings about the past run into full chapters. Turow should have just written a memoir about the '60s in Berkeley and have done with it. It's just too boring for words.

Also, sitting around gathering dust in the meantime is a book called Person or Persons Unknown, by Bruce Alexander. England in the 1800s, a murder mystery. The protagonist is about twelve years old. Shades of Oliver Twist. I've tried and tried to get interested in this story but it's just not happening, even though the descriptions of the time period are compelling. 

If you are still reading this essay, you must be suffering from extreme insomnia, and I've nearly cured it. Gently turn off the light now. You'll get a good rest.

Better book choices coming up with the next issue, I promise.

Cheers for now, Grams aka The Phantom

Summer 2006

Whatever would I do without a big stack of books on my bedside table? I'm trying to stay out of the book stores these days because I have so many good books just waiting their turn. It was back to mysteries after I finished off reading the book about the English couple traveling up the Nile in the 1800s. Michael Connelly has abandoned his protagonist Bosch in his latest mystery, Lincoln Lawyer. I was happy to hear that because Bosch was getting a little too depressed chasing after the Poet all the time. Lincoln Lawyer was a breath of fresh air. Defense lawyer, Mickey Haller, defends the undefendable working out of a fleet of Lincoln Town Cars, hence the title, so you can see right off the bat that things are not quite so serious. A very entertaining story.

Next up was a reading group selection. It was our "classic literature selection" for the year, a book called The Dean's December, by Saul Bellow. This was my first Bellow book so I was in for a treat. Bellow's writing is very interior, complex and detailed. The plotline is a mundane one: During the December break, a college dean must accompany his wife to Bucharest because her mother is dying. He is also enduring a crisis at work so he's torn between two worlds -- the bleak Cold War era Romania, and his problem back at the office. As he goes through the motions of the death and funeral of his mother-in-law, he sifts through his life trying to figure out what it was all about. If you like angst-ridden novels, this one is for you.

After Bellow I decided I wanted to read more "important fiction" for a change and since I had a huge store credit at the local used bookstore, I printed out a couple of book lists and came home with a handful of "good" books. And as an afterthought, I might try some other Bellows one of these days.

First on my list was Them, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Joyce Carol Oates. It was an old book, written in the 1960s about Detroit during the era of the riots. It's a gritty novel about a working class family who are victims of their time and their social class. It was difficult to stay with, depressing and long, but worthy nevertheless.

As I read Them, I was also listening to Ed McBain's last mystery novel, Fiddlers. I take my IPod with me on my walks and listen to full-length audio books. It's a good thing. When I'm listening to a good book, I do more walking. Apparently Fiddlers was sort of a one-off for McBain, not his usual thing and also his last novel, but I enjoyed this serial killer story, even though it too was rather dark and foreboding.

Then I picked up a WWII mystery by John Lawton called Blackout. It had been recommended by a friend. Even though it was a British mystery, it wasn't the usual fare. Lawton began this WWII series in the 1990s and has earned respect for them. He writes the war realistically, one has to wonder how he does it at this point. It takes a strong constitution to plow through Blackout. I will read his others but will space them far apart.

Next up was Head-long, by Michael Frayn, a Booker Prize Finalist. Ya gotta love the Bookers, some of the strangest stories get chosen for this award. In this romp of a novel, I learned the difference between iconography and iconology, also a great deal about the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands, and art collectors, all in this modern morality play about collecting and selling "important" art. It was very amusing as well.

Then I read another v/short British mystery (a vacation read), by Sarah Dunant called Fatlands. Dunant has a nice sense of dry British humor, and is a talented modern mystery writer. She also weaves American culture into her work. She loves movies and movie stars. Nice touch to an otherwise unremarkable mystery.

Then I had to race through Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, for our next reading group meeting. It's a non-fiction best seller about our ability to make snap decisions and what lies beneath that ability. It's based on social/psychological studies, many of which I had read during my own professional career. Gladwell rambles through a handful of scenarios trying to explain his point. Much of his book is sort of off target, I think he has lots of axes to grind, but it was entertaining anyhow.

I spotted a paperback edition of Elizabeth George's latest mystery, With No One as Witness. I've been eager to read it because I heard that one of the family was going to get "offed". Thankfully, nobody had blabbed to me yet. George's books are always good, very traditional fare, and most of us love Barbara Havers because she dresses and eats badly but usually figures things out first. This was another typically British serial killer plot. I guess the Brits have to dream up unusual ways to do their murders because there aren't enough guns around for their psychotic killers. But the lack of guns does not mean that there are a lack of psychos. This was an exceptionally gruesome case.

Next I tackled Fraud by Anita Brookner. It's a plodding story of older British women, and how they spend their boring days. It couldn't find the brilliance or the complexities in this British morality tale. It sounded as if it were written in the 1950s. The back cover blurb threw me off, saying the story began like a classic detective story. Don't be fooled. Skip it if at all possible.

So I guess I saved the best one for last. Three Junes, by Julia Glass, won the National Book Award in 2002. Don't know why I didn't get around to this one sooner. Get this: it is cataloged as Scot-American fiction,  Scotland fiction, Fathers and sons fiction, and gay men fiction. The Junes refer to the month, not women, and the story is about the gay son of a Scot family, who flees the British Isles for NYC and opens a bookstore. This one is a complex novel, sensitively written and focuses on family problems in a rather fresh way. Glass's prose is remarkable! I loved this novel and certainly understand why it won an award.

So, I read 11 books in 3 months. That's not excessive by any means. My mom used to walk to the library every two weeks. She always brought home three books and read them in the allotted time and then returned them (on time) and got three more. She always chose hardbacks and she read everything she could find. She told me that she had to change libraries occasionally because she wore them out. So I'm just following the family pattern, but mom might tell me to pick up the pace a little.

Keep that little light shining and don't forget to polish your reading glasses,

Cheers, Dianne

Spring, 2006

I was still thinking of Maureen Corrigan's book, Leave me alone, I'm Reading a few months after I read it. She calls herself a professional reader and claims an interest in mysteries and other genre fiction, as well as the more literary offerings. So after I finally finished up with the rather longish Kavalier and Clay, I decided to go back to Scott Turow, one of Maureen's favorite authors. She loves the setting of his legal mysteries, which is Kindle County, a fictitious place somewhere in the Midwest. I chose Pleading Guilty, and figured about half way through it that it should have been called "Getting Away with it". In this one a Kindle County lawyer gets revenge against his law partners in a complicated story with a wanna-be Grisham twist. Corrupt lawyers, cops, pro sport figures, fire fighters stealing stuff from burning houses -- everybody's doing the wrong thing and Turow spends a lot of time musing about Irish-Catholic guilt. I wasn't too impressed.

But I thought I've give Turow another chance. I picked up Personal Injuries and was once again thrown into the midst of corrupt Kindle County lawyers and judges. In this one, the government invents an elaborate sting operation in hopes of catching Kindle's judges who are suspected of taking bribes and fixing cases. It's a very complicated story and Turow spins his wheels for pages and pages before he finally figures out how to end it. I nearly gave up on the whole thing but I was too sick to even get up and try another book. I finally finished it but won't recommend it to anybody except the most die-hard Turow fans and those who are interested in seeing how the mighty fall -- eventually, sort of.

But here's the thing, while I was reading Personal Injuries, I remembered that Turow has a new book out, a "one-off" (ie, sort of different subject matter than he usually writes), called Ordinary Heroes. It's Turow's WWII novel. The hero, called Dubin, is from Kindle County, but that's an aside in this story. We're in Europe and the war is raging with the allies racing through France, not the Midwest this time out. Dubin is a JAG lawyer, thinking he'll probably bypass most of the real fighting. Turns out he was wrong. He is given the assignment of capturing a spy, well maybe the guy's a spy, or then again, maybe not. In the meantime there's a wartime romance. It's a good story, a blessed relief from Kindle County as far as I'm concerned.

So then I started reading the backlog of junk that's been sitting on my "read this" shelf for a long time. First up, a Kate Martinelli mystery called Night Work. Martinelli is a San Francisco cop investigating some odd serial killings. It's a real snoozer. Skip it. 

By this time the holidays are finally over and I'm feeling better, but it doesn't last and once again I'm in bed with that never-ending cold that everybody has. Back to my book shelves again. I'm reading about one book per day at this point because I really do not like to watch daytime TV, even when I'm sick. I found a dog-eared paperback by Donald Westlake, called Put a Lid on It. Good for a laugh or two. Ya gotta love the mysteries with a sense of humor because most of the writers these days have none. In this one, a burglar named "Meehan" is removed from prison by "the feds" to pull off a crime for POTUS, which we all know stands for President of the United States. POTUS has a problem he wants to cover up. The book is a riff on Watergate, it's essentially a caper story with a nice twist at the end. Quick read, lots of fun.

All the while, I'm listening to The Innocent, by Harlan Coben, on my Ipod, it's the unabridged version so it takes a lot of walking to finish this one. It's a confusing story with lots of characters whose paths don't cross until the very end. I guess it would be categorizes as a cold case file, and it's a little far fetched, but I listened to the whole thing.

Still convalescing, I've decided to just pig out on mysteries for another couple of weeks. Sue Grafton is up to S now, her latest is S is for Silence. Kinsey is hired to solve a cold case by the victim's daughter. Actually the daughter doesn't really know what happened to her mother, she just disappeared 28 years before (that's a long time to wait before getting serious about a missing person). The police have investigated but didn't try hard enough. Everybody in the small town in middle California just assumed she ran off -- all but the really bad guy who knows the truth. Everybody is hiding some small piece of the puzzle and Kinsey interviews everybody and finally puts it all together. It's one of the better Graftons.

I was in Borders the other day and on their remaindered shelf was a Stuart Woods mystery called Capitol Crimes. Get this, a hardback first edition that they are trying to peddle for $1 -- no kidding. I figured it was probably an awful book, but I've often wondered about Woods because I see so many of his books in paperback. Don't really know why he's so popular. This story was so predictable, a serial killer on the loose, killing off Washington DC VIPs. Nobody seems too upset about the whole deal, including the president's wife, who just happens to be the head of the CIA. Too corny for me. The dialog is awful, the writing is bad, but the story moves along. I finished it but felt like I was sitting through a bad movie the whole time.

Speaking of bad dialog, simpleton writing, and a no-brainer story, I then read Back Story, a Spencer mystery, by Robert Parker. This is another writer that Corrigan loves, don't know why. She claims to be smitten with Spenser's characters. They include Spencer, his wife Susan, their dog Pearl II, and Hawk. Everybody speaks in five-word sentences and they all have the same sense of humor. Everything amuses them and nothing frightens them. Spencer spends more time musing over lunch than trying to figure out who done it. 

Speaking of who done it, I've done it. I'm done with bad mysteries for a while. No more Turow, no more Spencer, maybe Westlake for quick reads and when the mood hits, I'll wander back to the British. They really know how to do it. It's time to start reading something a little smarter.

So I'm slogging through a book for my reading group called To the Heart of the Nile, by Pat Shipman. It's a memoir about a Victorian couple, Sam Baker and Florence Baker, Victorian travelers who wander up the Nile under very difficult circumstances, trying to discover its headwaters, like so many other British during the last half of the 19th century. It's well researched, well written and heartfelt, but sort of long winded. Our book club has read other books about this subject before and it's getting somewhat tedious to me. The thing with scholars writing books that use memoirs as their foundation is that they don't know how to condense things. This one is no exception. It does ramble on. But if you are interested in knowing more about the British in their heyday or how awful things were in the Sudan in the late 1800s, then this is the book for you. Also, Lady Baker's personal story is an epic unto itself.

I'm looking forward to reading the latest Doctorow novel called The Last March, which just won an award, and then perhaps some Joyce Carol Oates and John Irving. The book club has a couple of non-fiction books in store for us: Blink and Rising Tide. After that I'll be back to the Brits with a couple by John Lawton and Sarah Dunant, and then the latest Elizabeth George. Everybody is still talking about the Joan Didion memoir so I'll probably put that one on the list too.

Sweet dreams, The Phantom

Winter, 2006 (almost!)

When I left off last fall, I was plowing through Le Carre’s Constant Gardener, which I’ve decided is one of his best novels to come along since he wrapped up the Cold War. This sort of slow-paced thriller is about a British Embassy headquartered somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. A junior staff member’s wife is murdered, so the story at first glance is a straight-forward murder mystery. Who killed the wife? The subtext is a description/expose of the cynical, greedy and unethical practices of drug companies peddling drugs to poor, desperate Africans. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most Westerners don’t know or care very much about the continuous atrocities that are foisted on Africa. This is part of what makes this such an important piece of writing. Le Carre has a way with us. His understated and confident writing never tries to shock us, but we gain some insight into the awful mess that we are making of things there. Actually, in a postscript at the end of the novel is a short Q and A session with the author. When asked whether the drug companies are really as bad as he describes them, he says he has only exposed the tip of the ice berg, that things are really much worse over there!

By the way, the movie does an excellent and expert job of bringing this novel to the big screen. I was a little apprehensive at first because I wondered just how the film makers could capture the tone and mood of this story. Not to worry. They made a first rate film. 

My reading group put together a list this fall but I’ve read everything on it for many months so I was free to go back to my own choices. Lately I’ve been working over the used bookstores, mainly because I never see much of interest coming off the presses. A friend recommended Ian Rankin, another British mystery writer, so I read Knots & Crosses. It was one of those depressing mysteries that turned out to be sort of predictable. I’ll try another Rankin one of these days before passing final judgment.

Then I spotted a new book – a book about reading – I’m a sucker for those. This was called Leave me alone, I’m Reading, by Maureen Corrigan. Her bio says she’s “a professional reader, scholar and NPR critic and reviewer.” Those are good enough credentials for me. Her book is a little more serious and scholarly than the title suggests, most likely because she’s also an English Professor. So she had to include a thesis: decoding the classics, or something like that. She breaks down her favorite classics into broad groups that she calls “female extreme adventure novels” which would include Jane Eyre, Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters’ works. Ya gotta love that. She also analyzes detective stories as the last fictional working stiffs. She’s got a point. Today nobody really works in novels except investigators. Writers write about what they know which seems to be about writing and perhaps working in bookstores.

So the next four novels are all Maureen’s fault. She stated that the Maltese Falcon really started off the current mystery phenomenon. That jogged my memory. I hadn’t read it yet. So I got a copy and tried to read it. It’s pretty boring so I haven’t finished it yet. She also adores Robert Parker, not so much about the story plots, but for the family of characters that live in Parker’s world. I found Hush Money in a used bookstore and spent a weekend with it. I cannot for the life of me remember anything about the story but I do remember that I enjoyed it at the time. Weird.

She’s also a Susan Isaacs fan. Susan writes all over the place but generally her writing is considered to be “chick lit” by most readers. I’ve never spent any time with Susan but since Maureen recommended her I thought I’d give her a try. Maureen recommends Shining Through which is Susan’s version of World War II from the perspective of a woman file clerk turned spy. It’s mainly a romance but the mood of the times is nicely evoked. I wasn’t as crazy about it as Maureen was. So I tried another Isaac since the used bookstores are simply littered with them. Next up was one called Long Time No See. This one is an innocent bystander mystery story. Her “detective” is really a teacher with time on her hands, and the convoluted story is merely a backdrop for a parade of interesting characters and a romantic dalliances. I’m agreeing with most readers. This is chick lit.

I needed to read something a little more depressing to sort of balance things out so I picked up a Barbara Vine novel. As most of the true British mystery readers know, Barbara Vine is really Ruth Rendell’s darker side. It’s VERY dark on this side and No Night is Too Long is pitch black depressing. It’s basically a very strange love story which begins with two gay lovers in a twitchy sort of relationship. Then one switches sides and takes a woman lover and falls deeply in love with her. It was written in 1994 so it’s not as politically correct as it would be today. Do these things really happen, one wonders…The story is really a morality play about sin and guilt. It’s set in England and Alaska, two of the moodiest places on earth maybe.

Next I decided to upgrade my reading out of the trash bin. I’d been bottom feeding for too long. Sorry, Maureen. I found a nice used copy of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. I had neglected it because I heard it was about comic books, not a terribly interesting subject for me. But as with most Pulitzer Prize winners, there is much more to it than you first think. There’s a certain style of writing that the Pulitzer staff likes. Chabon demonstrates it nicely. There’s a lyrical quality to the writing and the characters are truly larger than life. It’s an amazing book, well worth the effort.

So the bottom line is that I’m recommending two books that are truly worthwhile: Le Carre’s Constant Gardener and Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay.

Fall, 05: It seems like summer is nearly over, even though it stays hot well into September here in California. But my book club meets very soon now to create our next year’s reading list. We are all very civilized about this task and usually end up with a list that we can all live with, although probably nobody is really thrilled with it. We are all excited when we come across a book choice that we can savor, but usually I end up slogging through something somebody else adored, but leaves me sort of cold. So I have to quickly finish up my summer junk reading and get on to more serious book club offerings very soon.

Here’s how I spent my reading summer. I began with L’Affaire (2003), by Diane Johnson. It is book three in her series of French novels of manners. Her main character, Amy, is a rich American Silicon Valley woman, who made tons of money during the dot.com era (and still has it). She is so wealthy that she decides to take a year off from software developing, and go to Europe to get some culture. She, of course, gets into big trouble when she volunteers to help out some French people who are in distress. Her expensive mission of mercy complicates everybody’s life. Johnson, the author, gets in her digs, she’s an authority on what the French hate about both the Americans and the British.  It was fun.

After that good start, I was in our local used bookstore one day lamenting about not being able to find the perfect summer mystery. The clerk recommended Frances Fyfield, A British mystery writer, somebody I’d never heard of. I chose Perfectly Pure and Good (1994). This is a macabre story (and nobody does civilized macabre better than the Brits). There’s a gruesome murder and a set of extremely odd characters, but the story was a little too unusual to really be called a mystery. I’ll have to read another one by her before I pass final judgment though.

I spent a couple of weeks in Mexico this past July and fretted a bit about what books to take with me. Thanks to Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran), I decided to take a Henry James along. I chose The American, written in about 1850, because the title character travels to France (and the book was on the fifty cent rack). It’s a classic novel of manners about a wealthy American in France (see -- it sort of goes with Johnson’s book), and since I was also traveling, I thought it would make a good companion. I was wrong. The American is a self-made bachelor looking for the perfect wife. He is introduced to a French woman who would be perfect for him, but there is a problem. She’s French nobility and cannot marry a commoner. That’s the set-up. I struggled through 260 pages of it but nothing happened, except that he keeps hanging around this lovely and off-limits French woman, while being sneered at because he is an uneducated American (with tons of money!). I know that’s terribly compelling, but I tucked it under my dirty laundry and carried it back home unfinished. I promise to finish it soon and I’ll let you know how it ended so you won’t have to suffer through it too.

When we reached Lake Chapala (outside of Guadalajara) we stayed in a lovely bed and breakfast complete with a wonderful library filled with books that had been left by other travelers. I spied one called On Mexican Time, by Tony Cohan. It was published in 2000 and had been a best seller but I had not read it. So I left one of my horde of unread books as trade and took it with me. It was perfect reading for Mexico. Cohan, a novelist, and his artist wife moved to San Miguel de Allende (not too far from where we had spent nearly a week). Cohan goes into great detail describing their adjustments to life in Mexico. Many of the situations he described had befallen us on our journey. I was totally mesmerized by the book, couldn’t put it down and kept my traveling buddies groaning as I went on and on comparing it to our adventure.

Back home again and time for another book choice. A friend lent me a novel called The Little White Car (2004), by Danuta De Rhodes. It was supposed to be clever, I think. It's difficult to write funny. The best most people can do is mildly amusing. That's about where I'd rate this attempt. Dan Rhodes, a Brit, produced this very slim novel as Danuta de Rhodes (wink, wink) so maybe we'll think it was the translated work of a breathless French coquette. The main character, Veronique, is a very young (French) woman with a problem. She thinks she may have killed the princess (Diana, of course) after getting stoned and breaking up with her weird boyfriend, Jean-Pierre. That's the set up. Don't you just love it? (No, not me.) The point of the novel is sort of slippery or perhaps non-existent altogether but I think that maybe Uncle Thierry is the lynch pin of it all.

As I read it I was vaguely reminded of Bridget Jones, Helen Fielding's brilliantly zany young British woman. Of course Fielding called on Jane Austin for back-up. All Rhodes had was Uncle Thierry. There are no big laughs but occasionally there are bits that might make you chuckle. It’s short. Did I say that? You can read it in one or two sittings. That’s part of its charm. Put it way down on your reading list, if at all.

Next up, I found a copy of Stargazey (1998) by my old pal Martha Grimes, another British mystery writer on my bookshelf. This is one of her innumerable Richard Jury stories. The plot is simple: a woman in a sable coat is found dead in an herb garden of Fulham Castle (a third tier tourist stop in London. I think Fulham Castle might be fiction.) The mystery should and could unravel in a straightforward manner, but it doesn’t. Grimes trots out a huge cast of oddball British characters, none of whom play much of a role in solving the crime. There’s lots of tea drinking and drawing room talk, but I didn’t learn anything, so it was sort of boringly British, and the ending made me groan. Now I remember why I quit reading Grimes some years back.

After two British mysteries I was in the mood for something with a little quicker pace. I happened on a couple of John Case thrillers in Borders. He’s one of my favorites. I don’t know why he isn’t more popular. In my humble opinion, I think he’s much smarter than Dan Brown. First up was the eighth day (2003). Danny Cray, the main character, is an artist and part-time private investigator (don’t you just love that combination!). He needs the money so he goes to work for a very mysterious and elusive billionaire, who sends him to Italy – Rome and Siena of all places – where they run the palio. I loved the descriptions of the travel. Danny ends up on the run – from his boss, of course. Along the way, we learn about nano-technology and some very mysterious middle eastern religious practices. It’s a page-turner of the first rank. I loved it.

Then I read Case’s Murder Artist (2004), another mass market paperback thriller. These things are so easy to read and you simply cannot put them down. Some readers call them bottom feeder reading but they are enjoyable. Prisoners are crazy about them! Anyhow, this one is about kidnapped kids. That’s not a subject I like to read about, but Case manages to get the frantic father’s emotions just right as he tries to figure out who took his kids and why. Along the way I learned about voodoo and magic. That’s exactly what I like about Case. He’s smart and passes along what he knows. If he had a better sense of humor (like, say, DeMille), he’d be perfect.

Next up: As we go to publication of this issue, I’m reading Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener (2001), soon to be a major motion picture. The pace of this novel is a bit slower than the usual mystery/thriller, it has more pages and smaller type so I’ll be lucky to get through it before it’s time to give up the guilty pleasures and go back to book club reading. More on that one later. On the bedside table is Ahab's Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund, Letters from Yellowstone, by Diane Smith, and an unpublished proof (somebody found this old copy in a bookstore and thought of me!) of Eric Newby's Round Ireland in Low Gear. 

So here’s the bottom line: skip The Little White Car, The American, Fyfield and Martha Grimes in total, and go for the rest of the list. All in all, summer reading was fun this year. Now turn off the light and go to sleep, will ya!?  

June '05: I use books as my own personal barometer: the number of books I read correlates to how much spare time I have AND how interesting, engaging and/or difficult the choice of reading material. I didn't get as much reading done in the past three months. I'm chalking it up to several things: not as much time for reading is number one, but also, I was having some trouble staying interested in several books on the bedside table. 

In March I was reading for my reading group -- The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. It has been a non-fiction best-seller for quite a while. The White City refers to the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago. Part of the story is a truly mesmerizing account of building that great extravaganza and marvelous wonder of the world. The Devil refers to our country's first serial killer who was at work in Chicago at the same time. Larson is a terrific researcher, and he interwove these two stories so well that I simply couldn't put the book down. Apparently I was not alone in that opinion. It's a worthy book, as history and as suspense.

Then I read I am Charlotte Simmons. Here's what I said in my blog about Charlotte (You'll have to scroll down thru the blog to find it). I was so wound up about the book that I couldn't wait to spew out my take on it.

Browsing bookstores gives many of us great pleasure. There's something about all those brand new books crowded onto the shelves that is so appealing to us, right? Plus, you add the fragrance of coffee brewing, soft music in the background and the friendliness of book people in general, just too wonderful for words. I was wandering around B&N the other day when I noticed a pile of very small books on a table near the bargain book section. Each book was about the size of a postcard and was less than an inch thick, hard cover books with cloth boards, one of those silk bookmarks glued in, very nice oniony-skin paper, and gilt edges. So pretty, so small, even the print, and every one a classic. Sort of like those Penguin classics' up-scale cousins at $5.00 each. I glanced through the offerings and realized that I had already read most of the titles. Bummer. Then I found The Picture of Dorian Gray, Persuasion, and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes -- all books I have not read yet. I'm now carrying "Picture" in my purse. I hardly know it's there and I can drag it out during those odd moments when I'm waiting for somebody or hanging out in the doctor's office. Unlike others, when I have to wait, I DO NOT pull out my cell phone and bother everybody within hearing range... (but I digress...)

In April I decided to read a couple more Nevada Barr mystery stories because I really needed a change of pace. When life in general gets a little nerve-wracking, I turn to mysteries. If you recall, Barr's protagonist is Anna Pigeon, the Park Service Ranger, who always ends up investigating murders. Each mystery is set in a different U.S. National Park. Deep South, takes place on the Natchez Trace, so we're deep in southern corn pone this time out. The plot is not as interesting as the nature/history/character aspects, even though her southerners were stereotypes. Barr has a huge following though so these stories are resonating with many people. The second one I read was Liberty Falling. In this one, Pigeon is sort of on furlough, visiting her sick sister in Manhattan, but staying with a fellow employee on Ellis Island in the New York harbor. It's pre-911, but Barr is writing about terrorists anyhow and they want to blow up the statue of liberty. The story plods along because Barr spins her wheels with the back story for many, many pages. She finally gets down to business if you're still with me on about page 200. Pigeon does stupid things, as usual, but always comes through in the end. This is a dark, brooding tale that I'm not sure I'd recommend to most mystery readers. I was happy to finish it.

Next I had to read another book club selection, Without Reservations, by Alice Steinbach. It's Alice's travel memoir. She gets to take a year off from work to travel, apparently she's a writer/journalist of some sort, works for the Baltimore newspaper, and is probably famous but I did not know her. She spent lots of time in Paris, what's not to like about that. She met a dark mysterious Japanese man who drops into and out of her life which makes Paris v/romantic. She then goes to London and hangs around for awhile and even more mysteriously, meets up with the most interesting people who immediately become her best friends (uh-huh, well, maybe she really is famous). Finally she goes to Italy where Japanese mystery man shows up again. Throughout her adventure, she meets fascinating people, makes pals easily and generally has a wonderful time. The whole thing seems rather self-agrandizing to me, and a little tedious to boot. But nice descriptions of the cities, that was worth the effort.

While I was reading Reservations, I was also listening to Nelson DeMille's latest: Nightfall. I only listen to audio-books when I walk, so I got a lot of walking done. John Cory is Nelson's guy, a smart alecky, wise-cracking investigator who is married to an FBI agent (currently). This thriller is about the famous Flight 800 that blew up and crashed into Long Island Sound. It's a thoughtful take on all the conspiracy theories that surround this plane crash. Otherwise it's just an amusing page-turner or walking partner if you will.

Next up was a John Dunning mystery called The Bookman's Promise. Dunning is famous with book collectors because he knows so much about rare books. I really liked this story because the subject of the mystery was the famous 19th century explorer, Richard Burton, and the journal that Burton kept during his travels. Ya gotta hand it to Dunning for the plotline and subject matter. Very unusual. 

A friend gave me her copy of a newly reprinted best-seller from 1942 called Our Hearts were young and gay, by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. It's another travel memoir about two v/young women going off to Paris for the summer, without chaperons -- something very risqué and daring at the time. They were silly women, very naive, wholesome and unworldly even. But their story was amusing, even today. V/light reading...

My reading group tried really hard this year to come up with selections that everybody would find entertaining and worthy. But I think we got clobbered by the Reading Group Snobs (for want of a better word). I'm talking about that genre called "Reading Group Books". It's become an industry. Somebody "out there" is deciding the kind of books we should be reading and then somehow we all read them! The next book I had to struggle through falls into that category: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. Apparently those in the know think that book clubbers are totally interested in Middle Eastern women's problems. Well, yes, we are, but we've been reading about them now for years and it's extremely painful reading. Our group had a great meeting discussing politics instead of the book at our get-together about Reading Lolita last week. And to give Nafisi her due, she has excellent insight into Western Literature, and her love of it comes through v/well. I am even tempted to reread Nabokov, Gatsby, Henry James, Austin and Saul Bellows after finishing this book. But I'm suspicious of her motives for writing the book. I had a hard time believing that she was able to recall classroom discussions so well. Her students were so smart...was she putting the words into their mouths...hmm. Lots of other nagging questions remain about her too. I was so happy to turn the last page of this book that I gave myself a little party.

I am now working on a Diane Johnson book, number three in her series of French novels of manners, called L'Affaire. She continues to display good insight into both contemporary French and American culture. She's no Henry James by any means, but there are nuggets of insight here and there that make her books worthwhile, in a sort of fluffy way. A good way to kick off my summer reading adventure.

On the summer short list will be our last reading group selection of the year: Cabaza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. I'll take this one to Mexico with me. It's a slim volume and seems appropriate for travel. Also on my list will be a couple other Nevada Barrs and maybe some Joyce Carol Oates. I did pick up a couple Henry James and two by Ian McEwan, but I'm not sure they will make the cut. I'm on the lookout for more mysteries, and will soon be listening to the latest Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's The Closer. 

More later, my eyelids are getting droopy. Good night!

Spring, 2005:
We've got some catching up to do so get out your cleanest reading glasses, pour yourself a glass of wine, and settle in to do some serious and not-so-serious reading. First off, my book club selected its list for the next year (!), yes, they choose ten books every September to read during the next year. This year they decided that each book chosen had to have been read by at least one book clubber first so we could eliminate some "duds". It's working to a degree, but since everybody likes different kinds of books, there is still some room for groans and throwing of books against the wall. So far we have plowed through that little Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress book, which I thought was over-rated; then we read The Forger, another WWII novel about the French trying to save their art treasures from the dreaded Germans. Great writing, lots of imagination, good fun. Next, we tackled The Kite Runner, a book that I didn't finish. I figured out early on that I would have difficulty getting through it, although it was simply written and heart felt. I have read many books now about the region and didn't want to struggle through that kind of material again. But many members of the group liked it. Middlesex came next, a Pulitzer Prize winner, well deserved. Great writing, engaging story, a family saga with a hermaphrodite as the central character. Then came Gertrude and Claudius, John Updike's take on Hamlet through the ages. I skipped it.

In the meantime I spent some time with my favorite guilty pleasures: the mysteries. First off, while I was in Taos, NM working on the now-defunct Kerry campaign, I picked up an old ragged paperback called A Cold Day In Paradise. I was desperate to dive into something sinister that had nothing to do with politics. This one worked. The author, Steve Hamilton, won the Edgar in 1998 for best first novel for it. Good work. Then it was Kinsey Millhone's turn, Sue Grafton's R is for Ricochet has been out for a few months now. This volume was slightly different from the others and Kinsey was the innocent bystander in it. Sort of forgettable unless you're a die-hard Grafton fan like me. 

I hadn't had enough of the mysteries yet, so I continued with my Elizabeth George reading festival, plowing thru Playing for the Ashes, In the Presence of the Enemy and A Suitable Vengeance. George is so earnestly British, even though she's an American, and her characters are so complex and depressed. I cannot really pinpoint what it is I like so much about the George stories, they are very strange, and the detectives in them are all mildly dysfunctional. After a while they become like screwed up family members. The plots themselves are secondary to the character development and all things British. 

Then I read Carl Hiassen's latest romp, Skinny Dip. If you don't read Hiaasen, you should. Florida will never be the same for you. Then it was Grisham's turn, his latest is called The Broker. It's more about Bologna than anything else. This time it's a lawyer-gone-bad on the run. I'm predicting that tourism to Italy will increase as a result of it. Then I must admit that I've been listening to Michael Connelly, who writes hard-boiled police procedurals. Yes, I can listen while walking with my MP3 player plugged in. The Narrows was good and now I'm listening to City of Bones. They are somewhat gritty an depressing but that's to be expected from Connelly.

After listing all those mysteries I realize that I spend a great deal of reading time with them. However, I have read a couple serious books this past six months. My other small book club selected The Good Earth to read, along with Oprah. For some reason I had missed it years ago. Loved it, read it on vacation, China will never seem the same. The group also chose Cloud Atlas, which I have decided is one of the strangest books I've ever read. I secretly think that the author just strung six short stories together that had been languishing unpublished under his bed for awhile. They were all wildly different, some rather engaging, others odder than odd and he tied them all together into a novel of sorts. It's a stretch to figure it all out, but some people are claiming rights to the task.

In between those fine books, I read another odd book that was recommended by a pal of mine who has worked at the Barnes & Noble on Stevens Creek (San Jose) since its early days (thanks, Ellen). It was called One Thousand White Women: the journals of May Dodd, a novel, by Jim Fergus. It's a "what-if" novel about white women joining the Cheyenne Nation in 1874 to become brides. Yes, they really marry "Indians" in this novel after a deal was made between the Indians and the white men, the thought being that it would help the Cheyenne assimilate into American culture. It's a riveting story, flawed in places, but worth picking up. It's a page turner.

Now I'm working on The Devil in the White City and am really enjoying it -- the biography of the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, the white city, and a serial killer, the devil. You would like it, I think. It's a best seller so lots of people are with me on this one. And on the horizon is The Orientalist and I am Charlotte Simmons. Then summer reading comes along, my excuse for more mysteries of course.

Until next time, turn off the light and go to sleep now!

August 2004
: During the summer we're supposed to read differently. Even schools have summer reading programs for the little tykes. The rest of us browse the book stores and book lists for "beach reading". The thinking goes that one must not do any heavy reading while on vacation. It's sort of like "summer movies" I guess. We're supposed to use our precious reading time snoozing through junk writing, or paying to see junk movies. So to do my bit I picked up one of Janet Evanovich's mass market paperbacks and spent a few days with Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter, going through the motions in To the Nines. Great fun, but totally brainless. 

To be totally honest, I have been trying to read several other, more serious, books this summer. I pick them up, read a few pages and then bookmark them before piling them carefully on my bedside table for later. 

In reading limbo are: 

Reading Lolita in Tehran, a Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. This is a worthy book and I know that it has been on the best-seller lists for months and months. All the book clubs are reading it (or pretending to.) It is eloquent, and scholarly, without a doubt. But it is also painful. And I have already felt the pain of Middle Eastern women having read Princess, by Jean Sasson, and Palace Walk, by Naguish Mahfouz just this past year. But I do intend to finish it. In fact, after reading a third of it I am convinced that I need to re-read Lolita, by Nabokov, because from the way she explains it, I guess I missed Nabokov's point the first time round.

Kitchen Confidential, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain. This book starts off really well. In the first chapter, Bourdain explains how as a child, he didn't like food very well until he was forced to go to France as a little boy. It's a charming introduction to this memoir, but somehow I'm just not as interested in the culinary underbelly as I thought I would be. He claims that he wrote the book for other chefs. I'm taking that into consideration, but am still hopeful that I'll regain interest in it, maybe later.

Botany of Desire: a plant's-eye view of the world, by Michael Pollan. This book was on my book club reading list and I tried to maintain my interest in the sex life of a potato but just couldn't. Apparently I missed a great deal, but I have little hope of ever finishing this book.

100 Years of Solitude, by Garcia Marquez. Another reading group choice. The group met at Consuelo's in Santana Row, a very upscale eatery. The discussion was amazing because several of the group had actually finished the book. They explained it to the rest of us. I got into about 50 pages. It's South American magic realism, the kind of reading that only appeals to a select group. The food and drinks were terrific. Ole!

Here's the list of books that I actually finished and enjoyed:

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. It won the Pulitzer in 2003. No wonder. This guy can write so poetically about such odd subjects. It's the saga of a strange Greek family, with a genetic problem. They immigrate to America in the 1920s and live in Detroit (of all places). It's a worthy page-turner.

A Patchwork Planet, by Anne Tyler. Tyler also writes odd stories about screwed up American families. This novel is typical of Tyler's style of writing and story-telling. She juxtaposes a very young man with problems with senior citizens in an artful way. More worthwhile reading, and by the way, Tyler also won a Pulitzer but not for this book. (FYI: I did review this book for amazon. You can find it on their site.)

Deception on His Mind, by Elizabeth George. It is summer so I'm entitled to read murder mysteries now, and I love George. Her continuing characters are appealing underdogs, especially Barbara Havers. She's over-weight, she smokes and she eats greasy food. She's with Scotland Yard and they always investigate the most interesting English crimes. The English murder rate is nearly non-existent compared to the USA so they take great pains to solve their crimes. This one has an ethnic twist. I'm hooked.

On the horizon: My list for future reading includes: R is for Ricochet by Sue Grafton (we're going on vacation soon), Lolita, the annotated edition, as I mentioned previously, The Fourth Hand, by John Irving, and something by Joyce Carol Oates. I will also be scouring the earth to come up with the next round of Clever Book Awards. Stay tuned.

June 2004: I’m reading a book called So Many Books, So Little time, by Sara Nelson. She decided to read a book a week and write about reading and about what was going on in her life at the same time. Many of us could do that. The reading choices we make have something to do with our lives, or else they have so little to do with our lives that they provide an avenue of escape from them. The interesting thing is that many of us go through life with a book in our pocket, another one on the bedside table, and if you are me, there’s one on the floor beside my tub at all times. There’s another one in the car for those unexpected minutes when there’s nothing else to do and then there are the books that I read for work. So as June begins I'll catch you up on what I've been reading for the past three months.

I don’t really have a reading plan, I read eclectically and with abandon. When I’m not reading books that are required either for work or as a member of two different reading groups, I just read whatever seems to be interesting or close at hand. Let’s just say that I read all the time, often several books at a time, which isn’t very hard to do at all. I listen to people who talk about books, I browse the best seller lists for gems and I read book reviews. Then I cruise the bookstores, new and used, and I wander into the Goodwill always on the lookout for likely candidates.

Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell them: a fair and balanced look at the Right – I couldn’t wait to read this one. I’m a Franken fan. This is a funny book, of course, but Franken also makes some great points about how the Right Wing Lunatic Fringe has been distorting facts in an ongoing smear campaign against the good guys. And unlike his counterparts, Franken uses facts to back up his assertions. Plus, here’s a bonus: there’s a chapter in the book called “Operation Ignore,” which outlines Clarke’s beefs against the Bush administration. You remember Clarke: he’s the former terrorism specialist who worked for both Bushes and Clinton. You don’t have to read Against All Enemies if you’ve read Franken. You know exactly what Enemies is all about. Franken has done his homework (with the help of a host of dedicated Harvard interns, who Al calls, “Team Franken). Easy reading, lots of chuckles and good info. And there are so many political books these days, too many to wade through.

My guilty pleasures are thrillers and mystery novels. I don’t read many of them but I do have my favorite writers and try to keep up with them. I’m one of those readers who likes to read all the “good stuff” by the same author. Sometimes this is impossible, like Joyce Carol Oates for example. I know, I know. She doesn’t write thrillers or mystery novels, but she is horribly prolific, and has written some surprisingly good stuff, like Middle Age, a romance, for example. But I digress. Thrillers by Grisham are one of my favorite ways to spend a reading weekend.

John Grisham’s The Last Juror – I couldn’t wait to pick up that one. Some people consider Grisham to be bottom feeding, but I am a loyal fan. He's still not quite back to doing what he used to do so well – the legal thriller. He started to wander off course when he went to South America and wrote The Testament. Then he wrote The Painted House, his venture into literature. Now he seems to be returning to familiar territory again. The title might give you the idea that this latest book is another courtroom drama, and the blurb in the NY Times doesn’t help. It says something like “jurors are getting picked off one by one…” Actually the first juror doesn’t get picked off until the book is nearly over. And get this: the main character is not a lawyer. Surprising, huh? Well, there are lawyers in the book, of course, and we don’t like them very much, but the main character is a small-town Mississippi newspaper man. You’ll learn something about the newspaper business in the early 1970s, and some Down South nostalgia, but this Grisham won’t keep you awake, you can sleep through several chapters and not miss a thing. Still, for Grisham fans, it’s nice to have a new one for a rainy weekend.

I must mention my book club reading for the past few months. March and April were devoted to the Brits, a couple of fairly forgettable novels. One was called Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. The Mitford family had worn through their fifteen minutes of fame many years ago but unfortunately they surfaced again last year as a biography called The Sisters. Nancy, one of the sisters, authored a couple of books eons ago which some people consider to be classics, which is debatable. So we read Cold Climate to see whether the status was deserved. It’s a novel of manners set in the time between the wars (I & II), and it’s about the British upper class, their foibles, their silliness and the fact that they really have no reason exist at all. It does not meet my standard for classic fiction.

The second novel we read is called Double Vision, by Pat Barker. This is a contemporary novel about sort of broken people, suffering the effects of our current wars. Barker’s claim to fame is a trilogy of World War I novels called the Regeneration trilogy. I read them and was more impressed. She did her homework and brought those war years back to life again explaining the psychological problems of soldiers and how they were “mended” in order to be sent back to the front again. It’s a grim trio but worthy reading. Double Vision, however, doesn’t measure up to her earlier work. I think it was published because she’s still riding a wave of popularity spawned by the trilogy.

After all that time in England, you’d think I’d have had enough, but no, not quite. That batch of British writing had left me feeling a little depressed so I picked up P. D. James’ newest novel, The Murder Room – a mystery novel about a museum devoted to, of all things, the time between the wars! And, Adam Dalgliesh, James’ favorite protagonist, is on the case. There’s nothing extraordinary about P. D. James mysteries, they are the typically gruesome English stuff with the same plodding police work. But what sets James’ work apart is her eye for detail. That’s the thing, it’s all so familiar: the tea trays, the lingering over misty English gardens, and Dalgliesh’s brooding about his love life. I guess these are Jamesian metaphors for something amiss in British culture, but I didn’t want to delve that deeply. To me the book was very satisfying and comfortable, another addition in a long series by this Grand Dame of mystery. Now I was ready to leave the Brits alone for awhile.

I figured I had time for another book before my next reading group deadline. I felt like slipping into some escapist stuff for a long weekend. The Syndrome by John Case had been on my list for a couple of years. Now was the perfect time to polish it off. It's a thriller about mind control, filled with interesting information about how unknown entities go about turning victims into hit-men robots – conspiracy theory abounded. But Case’s writing is competent, and not too pretentious, so it’s easy to read at a fever pace. His protagonist was the innocent bystander who is caught up in an experiment that renders him unable to know his past and clueless about what he might do next. He and another innocent victim are forced to unravel this most unusual problem. In my estimation it was a much more interesting novel than even DaVinci Code. If you see a copy in the remainder pile at your local book outlet, grab up a copy. It’s perfect beach reading.

Next up for the book club was the novel, Their Eyes were watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, written in 1937 to modest acclaim. It lingered somewhat unnoticed until the 1970s when academics became more interested in African American literature. Now the novel has become a classic. Unfortunately, Hurston died in 1960 and didn’t know that her novel would reach such stature in later years. It’s about a young black woman, rather free-spirited in a mean spirited time. It was probably fairly shocking in its time because at its core it is a love story. The writing is poetic at times. She writes sentences to linger over, and she writes the negro vernacular quite well too, which does slow the reading pace down, but the story is powerful and important even today, a worthy book.

There’s probably no sane way to analyze how we choose books to become part of our lives, sometimes we are forced to read different things, other times we get to choose them. Next up on my reading list are the following: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (the Pulitzer Prize winner), Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, both of which I think will be great vacation companions. Either for the tub or the car will be a book called 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, then another Oates that I’ve meant to read for some time: Them. The reading group is tackling 100 Years of Solitude. As you see, there’s lots of new stuff to talk about.

June 2003 -This summer is not shaping up as the year of fantastic travel. It's probably a combination of events that make us want to stay home: post-war skittishness, post 911 jitters, post layoff lack of funds, and just plain laziness are some of the excuses I've been hearing. This year the bragging rights are about how close to home we're all staying. Trips are short, like day trips to the beach, sojourns to the relatives and so forth. It's getting so bad that a trip to the grocery store is worth writing about.

So we are all making plans to hunker down in the backyard with the hammock in full swing, the barbecue fired up and a good book under our noses. Life couldn't be better. But for those of us who would like to pretend to have gone somewhere truly noteworthy, let me recommend the following books. They are all guaranteed conversation starters. And for those with vivid imaginations, we could probably convince some unsuspecting folks that we've actually visited these places once we've read this short list.

The Phantom's List of 2003 Summer Reading:

The Da Vinci Code
By Dan Brown (still in hardcover only, but it's only $14.97 at amazon.com)

This is the mystery-thriller page-turner everybody's reading this summer. So if you want to get in on the conversation, you'd better get hold of a copy. Plus, it's conspiracy theory on the grandest scale -- it's the search for the holy grail again, but this time the clues are in Paris at the Louvre. It's an extremely smart story, filled with interesting information, and an intricate plotline. You're hooked by page one, and it's very difficult to put down.

A Year at the Movies: one man’s film-going odyssey
By Kevin Murphy (paperback, 10.47 at amazon.com)

Take this journey with Kevin and you’ll spend 52 weeks with him watching movies from some very unusual places, including his hometown of Minneapolis. Kevin knows everything about movies from the technical to the film school studies to just how wide the arm rests should be for the perfect movie-viewing experience. Join him for film festivals, travel Route 66, find the world’s smallest movie theater, smell the popcorn and above all, have lots of fun.

The Nanny Diaries, a novel
By Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (paperback, $13.95 at amazon.com)

Ever wanted to know exactly what’s going on behind the closed doors of those very exclusive Central Park Apartments? Nanny knows everything and she tells all. This New York Times best seller claims to be “Diabolically Funny” but I’m guessing that the authors have another more subtle point to explore in this page-turner. Nanny, a young NYU college senior, studying to be a child care expert, takes a part-time job as a Nanny for a Central Park matron, mainly because she loves kids. She chronicles just how difficult, demanding and painful this kind of work really is, and our hearts go out to those poor little rich kids whose lives must be a living hell, if there is any truth behind this novel (and something tells me McLaughlin and Kraus are writing the voice of experience here.)

Blue Latitudes
By Tony Horwitz (hardcover, $18.20 at amazon.com)

Retrace Captain Cook’s south sea journeys of discovery with Tony and his pals. Tony researched Cook’s travels with great dedication, and is determined to go boldly where Captain Cook has gone before. It’s an extremely fascinating, informative and funny narrative. And even better, after vicariously visiting some of these south Pacific islands, you’ll be able cross them off your list of places you’ve always wanted to visit. Once you’ve explored Tonga and Tahiti with Tony, there’s no need to go back again.

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