Tuesday, March 31, 2009

'Life of Pi' is Weird Form of Mystery

Review of LIFE OF PI (Highbridge Audio 2003)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

hor, Yann Martel; read by Jeff Woodman with Alexander Marshall

LIFE OF PI is not a who-dunnit, but a did-it-happen. I am way behind the power curve on this one—people recommended it to me way back when I could read books with pages. Silly me, I judged by the cover—a folk art pic of a tiger in a rowboat. Maybe not, I kept thinking haughtily, eyes sliding to the next book on the shelf.

Finally, I got LIFE OF PI on CD—even then it sat alone on my dresser—all the other tapes came first.

Boy, was I a dope. Pi is not the mathematical constant, but a 16-year-old Indian lad’s first name (he’s named after a swimming pool, as he will tell you in the somewhat sleepy introduction to this adventure—bear with it, it’s worth it). His dad is a zookeeper and the family moves from Pondicherry to Montreal, sailing with some animals that have been sold to zoos in Canada and America.

A storm arises, and Pi can’t sleep and goes on deck. What happens next—well, that’s the mystery. He ends up in a lifeboat with some of the animals, including a 450-lb Bengal tiger, a hyena, an orangutan, a rat and a zebra.

No, this isn’t some cheesy Noah riff. The hyena attacks the zebra and tears off chunks. Pi is afraid of the tiger and suspends himself on an oar sticking out of the bow to stay safe. At this point, the ship gurgles beneath the ocean.

Pi is at sea with the tiger for seven months—or was he? How does he survive? Can he intimidate the beast enough to live? They finally come to a weirdly undulating island made of delicious algae and swarming with meerkats. But I will leave that part for your delectation.

In an Epilogue, officials of the Japanese shipping company approach Pi and ask what happened. He tells them what we already know. They don’t buy it. Okey-dokey. He tells them another story, weirdly paralleling the first. Is this the truth?

Or is a tiger roaming the jungles of Mexico?

Your call.

Star Lawrence is a writer in Chandler, AZ, and can be reached at jkellaw@aol.com. She's a frequent contributor to The Book Grrl and authors the blog Do the Hopey Copey, a humorous how-to guide to handling the recession.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Moody little Moon, Singleton Hippie Art

Moody Little Moon(C) Singleton"Hovering...Hanging out on top of my world,loitering,lounging,listening.....The many faces of the night changing...."Colored markers, pencils, ink on Cardstock.... Sometimes peace is found in the midst of chaos....And sometimes you just have to be a hippie to believe....Listening, waiting for les frivolites to answer....I believe....in peace and love and people....

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Story of a 'Restless' Spirit

RESTLESS (Bloomsbury USA 2007)
William Boyd

Literary spy thrillers have become a new favorite genre of mine. RESTLESS by William Boyd is about as literary as they come. The writing has a certain lyrical rhythm to it, the sentences running long, strung together by commas, sort of like this one only longer. And Boyd loves to use words that evoke marvelous imagery, likes description such as that of a manor house "falling down, on its last woodwormed legs, giving up its parched ghost to entropy. Sagging tarpaulins covered the roof of the east wing, rusting scaffolding spoke of previous vain gestures at restoration and the soft yellow Cotswold stone of its walls came away in your hand like wet toast."

See what I mean?

In the "interminable hot summer of 1976, that summer when England reeled, gasping for breath, pole-axed by the unending heat," our protagonist, single mom Ruth Gilmartin, finds out that her mother isn't Sally Gilmartin of London at all, but a Russian emigre named Eva Delectorskaya (try saying that ten times fast). Eva was recruited by the British Secret Service in 1939, after her brother died working for them. Eva's brought into the intelligence fold by a mysterious man named Lucas Romer--a "swarthy" man "with dense eyebrows, uncurved,like two black horizontal dashes beneath his high forehead and above his eyes," who also has "very white, even teeth," which he occasionally bares in an intriguing smile.

Ruth's mother tells her about this. But not all at once. She spoons out the story one chapter at a time. And, in between, we get a chapter from Ruth's life. Needless to say, Ruth has a hard time believing any of this at first. She's got enough on her hands trying to raise her son, Jochen, without benefit of a partner, while working as an English tutor for foreign students attending Oxford University. And then other complications ensue. Ruth doesn't want to have to deal with her Mum going all dotty on her.

But Mum's not dotty. She's right as rain and this spy story is the truth (stranger than fiction, as they say). She continues to provide Ruth one chapter at a time--in order to work out the story's imperfections, she says--but of course it's a writer's trick. It's just Boyd saying, "Wait for it . . ."

And as each woman's tale unfolds, they eventually find past and present coming together. Ruth ends up getting pulled into her mother's narrative, so to speak, though for the most part they have separate stories, that run in interesting parallel ways.

Regardless of how you feel about lengthy sentences, rich with description, a great yarn (or two, really) awaits you along with them in this book.

Ruth is also a likeable character, whether she's kidding with her son or cursing out a patronizing man. She's full of keen, funny observations and she has an interesting life, though quite different from her mother's. Her mother's is just amazing. And, even if Ruth is technically the protagonist (I'd say she is--her part is in first person and Eva's is in third, thus letting the reader identify more with Ruth), her mother's story is nonetheless the main event.

And, of course, as there always are in spy thrillers, there's a big twist. I saw it coming the moment it was set up (I'm not sure whether being a writer myself or a voracious reader is to blame), but that was okay. The question then became when will the twist happen, how and (more to the point) why?

Those questions were answered satisfactorily enough for me, and being a spy novel there was enough double-cross and triple-cross action to make your head spin trying to follow it completely. And, again, that's fine. Because, along with the story, which hums along to its fitting conclusion, there's this overlying theme of questioning how well we know those closest to us. Plus an exploration of the mindset necessary to survive playing spy games. Which, in a word, is: restless.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Online Book Recommendations

Here's an interesting new search engine to try. A site that will recommend books based on the author and title you type in.

I tried searching on "Walter Mosley" and it asked (Google-like) if I meant DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS by that author. I said, sure--why not? Hit return. And got some interesting results.

HITMAN: A STANLEY HASTINGS MYSTERY by Parnell Hall--that I can understand. But HANS SOLO'S REVENGE and STAR TREK - SAREK? Not sure where those came from.

Farther down , it says, "To get more accurate suggestions, add more books you've loved to your list - to do this you'll need to register." Ah, there's the catch.

Think I'll just keep choosing books the old fashioned way. Learn about them and decide for myself.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

'Ready For Love' Faerie Skirt

A Whimsical Parade of hand-me-down chokersand midnight bets,Spitting out sweet reminders...Stuffed,Tucked ,Crammed,Shoved,Smooshed,Packed,Wedged.Waiting...I know...that I really don't knoweverything that there is to know...Traipsing away from a field of free wishes,losing sight and sound and along the way,losing all the fears that keep so many tethered hereFreeSpinning, weaving, sewing threads of

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Catching Up on News

I saw recently that James Purdy died. His writing is described as "darkly comic." As I read this, I became intrigued. I've never read his stuff, but have made a mental note to add him to my TBR list. (When Gore Vidal calls someone an "authentic American genius," that gets my attention.)

And, on the dark side, had to post about Hard Case Crime's 50th release titled FIFTY-TO-ONE. No one does it like Hard Case Crime or Charles Ardai. Well--more accurately--they used to do it, and Ardai is doing it again. :) Really well, at that.

And check out this list of book blogs. At least one of these (BookSlut) simply must go on my blogroll and I'll have to consider adding the rest. Swear I'll get 'round to that soon. (Thanks to Anne Wayman of About Freelance Writing for these.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Parker Runs Through the 'Slayground'

Review of SLAYGROUND (Random 1971)
Richard Stark

The late Donald Westlake is another one of those authors who's been praised to skies (especially after his death) and whose work I've been meaning to check out--again.

I can't remember which Westlake book it was that I tried first--something with Dortmunder in it, I think. It had to be Dortmunder because that was his comic character and Westlake was trying so hard to be funny. Ha ha, I said, and put the book down without finishing it.

Then I read all those glowing post-mortems on Westlake's career. I wondered, "Is it me? Maybe I should try another one."

I saw from the retrospectives that Westlake wrote under no less than three names. (Wow, I thought. It's hard enough just to write under one. And, if you read Wikipedia, it'll tell you he used many more.) And, under the name Richard Stark, he wrote about a hard-edged anti-hero, a cynical robber named Parker. And one Parker novel drew this blurb from Anthony Boucher: "Nobody tops Stark in his portayals of a world of total amorality." Wow, Anthony Boucher said that? I'm in.

SLAYGROUND starts with an armored-car robbery gone wrong. The getaway car in which Parker and his two cohorts flee the scene gets into a terrible crash. Parker grabs the cash and leaves the cohorts to their own devices. He runs for the nearest hiding place he can find--an amusement park called Fun Island. (Can you feel the irony yet? Don't worry, you will.) As he climbs the gate with the cash, he notices two men in hats and dark overcoats (it's winter and the park's closed) with two uniformed policemen--out there in the middle of nowhere. One of the cops is holding a long white envelope. And we all know what that means--it's not a love letter inside that envelope, it's cash, and that means that the cops are being bought and that means that the men in hats and overcoats are "wise guys." The Mob. And they notice Parker noticing them.

Parker realizes he's in big trouble when he finds out there's no other way out of the park. He can't go out the gate, because then the bad guys will nab him. So he knows they'll eventually be coming in for him. And he gets ready for this. He runs from one section of the park to the other--from New York Island to Alcatraz to Treasure Island and Voodoo Island and so on and so on--setting up traps (it doesn't say so, but it's pretty obvious that's what he's doing) in the funhouse the various boat rides and the submarine ride and so on and so on. And his circuit of the park is described in "over the river and through the woods" detail from about page 15 to about page 38, at which point, it's night and Parker is waiting and wondering why those guys haven't come after him yet. And I'm thinking bo-o-o-ring and I'm almost ready to put the book down. But I always give a book 50 pages. And the next 12 pages made all the difference.

That's when you get to meet the bad guys--the two cops and the two hoods--each of them interesting characters. You get to find out about each of their agendas and why they waited so long to come in. Once they're inside--let in by a hapless night watchman who ends up tied up, blindfolded and gagged in the watchhouse--all the fun starts. It starts with a bang and things seem to go well for Parker at first. But then things take a turn. And Parker suddenly finds himself in deep doo-doo.

The rest of the book is Parker versus the bad guys. Parker's movements continue to be described in great detail ("over the bridge, past the tiki hut, into the blacklight ride . . ."). I think the description is supposed to reflect the cold nature of his character--his sheer calculation--because Parker really hasn't much personality to speak of. Or maybe it was just the author's style. I don't know. Anyway, Parker is so thoroughly a man of strategy and action, without those attributes he'd be as colorless as the invisible man.

Yet, oddly, I got used to the cadence of description and the level of detail as Parker plays cat-and-mouse with the Mob. I got so caught up in the suspense, I stayed up late reading because I simply had to finish the section (the book's divided into four) that I'd started.

So did this book work for me? Well, yes. It was exciting, well-written, escapist fun. (I did blow through the description a bit, but still . . . I liked the story.) Would I agree with Boucher's assessment? Well, Boucher wrote it in 1966--before The Sopranos, The Wire and all sorts of other tales of amoral folk. I suppose, for its time, this was pretty harsh stuff. Nothing about the people in this book particularly shocked me in the amorality department, but it's not 1966 anymore, is it?

The book ends on a note that practically begs for a sequel. And there is the small matter of the hapless watchman. I wonder what happened to him?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mysterious Place of Water, Mud, Tigers, Crocodiles and Dolphins Stars in 'The Hungry Tide'

Review of THE HUNGRY TIDE (Recorded Books 2005)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

hor, Amitav Ghosh; read by Firdous Bamji

The Sunderbans, on the border between India and Bangladesh, sounds like a half-mythical fairyland of goddesses, tigers and marvelous creatures of yore, but this story is set in both the present day and a generation before. Amitav Ghosh weaves together the two journeys of Nirmal, a Rilke-loving revolutionary wannabee, and Piya, an Indian-born American scientist studying fresh-water dolphins in this watery world.

The real star of the show is this archipelago of islands and rivers fed by the tides, rising and falling each day. The mangrove forests are home to huge tigers, who attack and kill several inhabitants each month. Giant crocs bask on the banks of the heaving rivers. And the Irrawaddy dolphins, friendly as piglets, poke their heads from the stream to regard their chronicler.

Nirmal’s story is one of an idealist married to a social activist. He finally retires from teaching and, half in love with a young widow with a son, gets involved in an illegal takeover of one of the islands by Bangledeshi refugees. The second story comes a generation later, when that single mother’s son, Fokir, also married to a no-nonsense, modern woman, meets Piya, the American cetologist studying dolphins. Common to both stories is Nirmal’s nephew, Kanai, a rich businessman and translator, who is also attracted to Piya.

The love stories tremble beneath the surface, barely rising visibly in the same way the rivers rise with the tides each day.

I am a 21st century woman sitting in the desert in Chandler, AZ, and this story gently tugged me in. I lived for a few days in a world where you can’t sleep untroubled on the deck of a boat anchored in the middle of a river. Tigers can swim for miles.

The reader, Firdous Bamji, is flatout fantastic—keeping the timbre and accents of each character separate, no mean feat.

As the residents of the Sunderbans learn to walk in calf-deep mud on the tidal beaches of their waterways, I learned to almost smell and taste the fires, the musky tiger fur, and the understated yearning of hearts trying to connect and never quite touching before being borne away on the tides.

Star Lawrence is a writer in Chandler, AZ, and can be reached at jkellaw@aol.com. She's a frequent contributor to The Book Grrl and her audio reviews also appear on http://chandlerazoo.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

'Sharp Objects': A Tale of Small Town Family Dysfunction

Review of SHARP OBJECTS (Shaye Areheart Books 2006)
Gillian Flynn

SHARP OBJECTS appealed to me right from the start. Just the little bit I'd heard about it intrigued me--a Chicago reporter returns to her hometown to write about the murder of two adolescent girls. Along the way, she must deal with her own demons and tragedies from her past. All in the slightly creepy confines of the
small town she grew up in.

That got my interest. But then I'm a big fan of David Lynch and that whole creepy small town thing.

The protagonist, Camille Preaker, works for a paper that's pretty low on the Chicago media food chain. Her editor sends her off to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri (from the Windy City to Wind Gap--I kept wondering if that was intentional), to investigate one girl's murder and another girl's disappearance. The second girl is also found murdered, and the killings may be connected. And no one else in Chicago is covering them. (Why would the Chicago papers cover two maybe-connected murders in a tiny town way down south in the Missouri bootheel?) So it would be a coup for the paper and Camille to break the news. (It would? Well, okay.)

One of Camille's issues is that her sister, Marian, died very young--a horrible wasting death that left its mark on Camille's psyche (and . . . shh, don't say it). Camille's big problem is not completely disclosed until around halfway into the book. Suffice it to say, you get clever little clues about what that problem is, but they aren't obvious. So when it was finally revealed, I went, "Oh . . . now I get it."

Another one of Camille's problems is her family situation. Her mother, in particular.
Camille's mom, Adora, is quite the piece of work. Very la-de-da and rich. Very proper and ever so solicitous. Camille's step-father, Alan, constitutes little more than a thin, quiet presence in the house. He's so thin, Camille says, "I wanted to administer an IV when I saw him." (The book is full of great lines like that.) Together, the two have produced Camille's half sister, Amma. (All those A-names. That must have been intentional.) Amma seems to hold a special place in Adora's heart. She loves Amma in a way she's never loved Camille. The way she also loved Marian.

Amma, age 13, is quite a piece of work herself. She rules over a small group of bitchy, blonde preteens. Think "Mean Girls" in middle school. Camille is initially repulsed by her, but later gets to know her and harbor all sorts of feelings about her.

Meanwhile, there's still an investigation and articles to write. Camille strikes just the right balance between hard-nosed reporter (with her witty, blunt observations) and vulnerable victim (with her emotional baggage). The narrative unwinds at an unhurried, but relentless, pace. And the suspense builds.

Gillian Flynn writes beautifully. Her prose is so polished it just about shines. She can turn a phrase like nobody's business and makes you feel like you're inhabiting Camille's skin (which is . . . don't say it). Makes you feel Camille's reluctance to stay at her mother's house. Makes you feel how conflicted she is about doing her job and having to be in Wind Gap. Makes you smell the stink of the local hog farms and slaughterhouses--the ones off which Camille's mom made all her money (talk about filthy rich).

The story is an artful blend of suspense and whodunnit. The last thirty pages pour on the revelations and build to a climax that will hold you until the very end.

My only real nit-picking problem was with the Big Clue that starts the rush toward the climax. It's a thing from the past, but I can't say what it is, because it's a spoiler. I'll just say that maybe this kind of warning would go unheeded, even as recently as 20 years ago, in the boonies of south Missouri. Maybe.

Chalk it up to my big city ways, but I strained a bit to suspend my disbelief about that. However, I didn't mind.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

'Your Money or Your Life': The Title Says it All

Review of YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE (Penguin Books 2008)
Vicki Robin & Joe Dominguez (with Monique Tilford)

For those who are struggling to save or just get a better understanding of how to handle money, YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE may seem like more than you need to know.

The book was actually written with debt-saddled people in mind--seriously debt-saddled, that is. The nine-step program within it (developed by the late Joe Dominguez) provides what I would describe as a holistic approach to financial planning.

Dominguez and Vicki Robin co-authored this book (which has just been updated with an assist from Monique Tilford) based on the program originally offered in seminars. Without going through all the nine steps (three fewer than twelve!), I think the message essentially boils down to this: your money has value, but it represents more than the value placed on it by the marketplace. When you consider what you make at your job, then subtract out how much it costs to do your job (your commute, dry cleaning, lunch, etc.), you may end up with net pay of much less than your official salary. Then add in the fact that you're not only expending money to keep a job, you're also expending time. Therefore, the money you're making not only represents a net value of earnings minus job-related costs--it also represents the life you've sacrificed to maintain that job.

Once you understand that money actually represents time in your life, you can start to view spending differently. You find yourself asking, "Is this sweater (or car or vacation) really worth the two hours (or four hours or forty hours) it's costing my life?"

There's also the concept of having enough--just enough so your needs and wants are met, but not too much. A Goldilocks view of acquisition. Because, as the book points out, simply buying things won't make us happy. Going into debt to buy things you don't need will make you less happy still. I love the term the authors use to describe people who work non-stop to support excessive lifestyles. Instead of "making a living," they call it "making a dying."

Finally, the authors tell you that their program will not only get you out of debt and keep you there, but will help you build savings and, ultimately, lead you to financial independence or FI (the state of having enough money so it will work for you, so you won't have to work for it).

Like I said, this book was based on seminars offered for people in debt, but I think it's useful for anyone who's trying to use and invest their money wisely. Sometimes the writing feels a tad repetitive. At least one discussion related to long-term care struck me as a bit simplistic. But mostly the ideas made sense to me.

The book has a boatload of success stories. Each person who's completed the program has different values, different risk tolerances, and so each has chosen a slightly different path toward becoming FI. They illustrate how the program can work for different people in different ways.

And how do you know when you've got enough? How do you determine what your money is really worth in terms of your life? And just how do you become FI? Three words: read the book.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Books--Still Useful, Still Popular, Not Dead Yet

Got a bit of a mash-up of book-related stuff that caught my eye (courtesy of The Reader's Advisor Online).

First, an interesting NY Times article on a literary alternative sentencing program for convicts.

Second, proof positive that print books are still in demand. But is this a book giveaway or a warehouse looting? (Check the third photo down. The title on the red book made me smile.)

Finally, if we switch to e-books, I guess we'll stop judging a book by its cover. (Assuming we ever did. Question: would complete conversion to e-books render that expression meaningless?) But some people would argue that the covers themselves can sometimes make the book.

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