Showing posts from May, 2012

Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill: A review

After reading the first book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series,  The Coroner's Lunch , I decided that I had not had enough of the good doctor and so I immediately started this second book in the series,  Thirty-Three Teeth . It is another charming study of Colin Cotterill's unique character, the 72-year-old Pathet Lao revolutionary, who, upon the success of the revolution in 1975, was drafted by the Party to become Laos' one and only coroner. In this entry, it is 1976 and something is killing women in Vientiane. It seems to be an animal of some sort, one which leaves the marks of its huge bite on the bodies. At first Dr. Siri suspects a bear, partly because he has recently seen a bear in one of his visionary dreams. Then he learns that a bear that had been housed in inhumane conditions in the city has escaped its cage and he feels that his surmise must have been correct. But his assistant, the redoubtable Dtui, begins to have her doubts and she learns from a Russian ani

Wordless Wednesday: Waiting


The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill: A review

Laos 1975. The long Pathet Lao Revolution has succeeded. The monarchy has abdicated and the new communist regime is in the process of being formed.  Dr. Siri Paiboun had been a part of the long revolution. He has been a communist for 47 years, but he didn't really become one because of ideology. He became one out of love for a woman he met while studying in Paris. She was a committed communist and so, to please her, he joined the Party. The two were married and ultimately returned to Laos to join the struggle. Now that struggle has succeeded and Dr. Siri is 72 and looking forward to retirement and a reprieve from the long privation of life in the jungle. His beloved wife is long dead, killed in an explosion. She had been so devoted to the revolution that she had refused to have children and so Siri has no children or grandchildren. He is alone, but looking forward to a life of solitude. It is not to be. Siri is informed by a Party official that he has been designated to be

The grass covers all

GRASS by Carl Sandburg, 1918 PILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. Shovel them under and let me work-- I am the grass; I cover all.    And pile them high at Gettysburg And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. Shovel them under and let me work. Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: What place is this? Where are we now?    I am the grass. Let me work. HAVE A SAFE AND HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND AND NEVER FORGET WHAT WE COMMEMORATE WITH THIS HOLIDAY. DON'T LET THE GRASS COVER OUR MEMORIES.

The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell (Translation by Stephen T. Murray): A review

The Fifth Woman  is the sixth in Henning Mankell's series of books featuring the morose Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, and in this one I felt that he finally hit his stride. It was well-written (also well-translated which was important since I was reading it in English) and kept the action moving, which kept me turning those pages. It was interestingly plotted and featured a goodly number of red herrings, some of which were never explained. By now, we are used to the fact that Wallander is a severely depressive personality who also suffers from hypochondria. He's always imagining he's coming down with something, a common cold, a heart attack, or whatever is the flavor of illness at the moment. But at the beginning of this book, we see a different Wallander. He has made a trip to Rome with his aged father who suffers from the beginnings of Alzheimer's. It is a trip that his father had long wanted to make and that had been long postponed. Both of them understand th

A good interview piques my interest

One of the great joys of my life as a reader is discovering a wonderful writer that I had not read before. That's happened to me several times within the last year, and one of my favorite discoveries was Richard Ford . It's not that I was unaware of Mr. Ford, who has been a superstar in the American firmament of writers for many years now. But I had just never gotten around to reading him. Finally, last year, I read his Frank Bascombe trilogy: The Sportswriter , Independence Day , and The Lay of the Land . From the first pages of The Sportswriter , it was clearly evident to me what all the shouting was about. The man can write! He has a love of language and of finding just the right word for expressing what he wants to say that shines through in every sentence. It was also clear to see why the second book in the series, Independence Day , had won all those prizes. It is still the only book ever to have won both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner awards. For a couple of weeks

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

Maisie Dobbs has been on her own as a private investigator/psychologist for about a year in this second entry in Jacqueline Winspear's well-written series. She has gained a new office, new living quarters, and an assistant, Billy Beale, and she has gained some measure of respect from the police, especially Detective Inspector Stratton of Scotland Yard. She is contacted by a self-made, brash, and impatient businessman named Joseph Waite (An impatient businessman named Waite. Get it? Sorry, couldn't resist!) It seems that Waite's daughter, 32-year-old Charlotte, has run away from the family home and Waite wants her found and brought back immediately if not sooner. Meantime, the police are investigating the murder of a young woman about Charlotte's age, but before the crime can be solved, another young woman is murdered in similar fashion. As Maisie proceeds in her search for the missing woman, she discovers that there may be a link between her and the murdered wome

Maybe I could move to Canada

I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show on NPR this morning and her panel of guests - a bunch of political pundits - were going on and on about how the presidential election would be decided by 15 "battleground" states because all the other 35 are already in the bag for one of the two major parties. All of a sudden I just wanted to scream or pull my hair out or maybe both - just do something dramatic! I thought, "Oh. My. God! I cannot stand this for another six months!!!" Wherever one turns these days, it is all presidential politics all the time and most of what we hear is just dreck. And it's only May! The conventions haven't convened yet. The real campaign hasn't even really started, but already I am totally disgusted with the process. The cynicism, the lying, the posturing - it's all just too much for me. Time to tune out. Thank God for baseball. At least I will have the distraction of the most perfect game ever invented through September and

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: A review

My daughter, the classicist, is always recommending to me books that are based on ancient texts. She is also a huge fan of Margaret Atwood.  The Penelopiad  then combines two of her main interests and she eagerly passed this short book along to me. It could be read at one sitting, although I read it over a couple of days. It was a pleasurable read, for Atwood is an excellent writer. The story of Odysseus is well-known from Homer's  The Iliad  and  The Odyssey . The story of Penelope, the faithful and long-suffering wife to the unfaithful Odysseus, is less well-known. Her story is tangential to the adventures of the trickster and hero Odysseus as related by Homer. Here, Atwood undertakes to tell of the events of Homer's epics as seen through the eyes and experiences of women - namely, the faithful Penelope and twelve of her maids. The story is told by Atwood in modern times. We find Penelope, nearly three thousand years after the facts of her story, in Hades, along with all t

H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian: A review

H.M.S. Surprise  is the third in Patrick O'Brian's twenty book historical fiction series concerning the English Navy in the Napoleonic War and early 19th century period. The entire series has been acclaimed by professional reviewers and ordinary readers alike. The books are extremely well-written with tenacious attention to detail and that continues to be true in this third entry. Fans of naval history love the series for its wealth of detail regarding the most arcane aspects of life on a navy ship in the early 19th century. O'Brian obliges them with long passages describing, in the terminology of the period, how the ships are set up and how they are run, and the passages concerning the naval battles, I am sure, have those who are turned on by such things drooling. That really isn't me and I confess my eyes glaze over a bit at those times and I tend to skim hurriedly through them. But these books aren't just about the hardships of life on board ship and about nava

Finally, Texas is #1!

Yes, finally our state is rated number one in something, but we shouldn't break out the champagne or the Dos Equis just yet. It seems that the thing which we are rated tops in is the number of workplace discrimination complaints filed in 2011 . The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that  during the 2011 fiscal year,  nearly 10,000 of the record 99,947 federal charges of workplace discrimination received by the EEOC were filed in Texas .  The most common complaints within the state were "retaliatory charges," or those alleging that the employer fired, demoted or otherwise retaliated against an employee because he or she fought against discrimination in some way, such as going to the EEOC.  The second most common complaint was a claim of race bias and third was gender bias. These  were followed in rank by national origin bias claims and religious discrimination claims. According to EEOC officials, one reason that Texas ranks number one is because i

Revenge of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz: A review

This is another wacky romp through San Francisco with one of the most screwed up private investigators you are ever likely to meet - on the pages of a book or anywhere else. Namely, Isabel (Izzy) Spellman, she of the Spellman PI dynasty. At the beginning of this book, Izzy is no longer associated with the family firm. She is working as a bartender in her friend Milo's bar, The Philosopher's Club, and barely getting by. She has finally found an apartment she can afford in the Tenderloin but she finds that she's unable to tolerate the wildlife that share the apartment with her and she contrives a characteristically Izzy-like solution to her problem. Her brother, David, with the 2500 square foot house with three bedrooms now lives alone since his divorce, but Izzy can't bring herself to ask for his help or to move in with him. However, when she learns that his house has a secret basement apartment, the solution seems perfectly clear to her. She decides to squat there w

What could Texas learn from Massachusetts?

Red states and tea partiers really, really love to beat up on Massachusetts. To hear them tell it, you would think that the Bay State is hell on Earth. Well, let's look at some facts and see how that assessment holds up . Massachusetts is well-known for having some of the top colleges and universities in the country, or in the world for that matter, but what about children's education? Testing of fourth and eighth graders reveals that Massachusetts kids are tops in the nation in reading and math. Furthermore, rating the state as if it were a country, it would rank fifth in the world in reading and ninth in the world in math. That's a heckuva lot higher than the country as a whole rates. Moreover, when it comes to health care and social well-being, the state again is tops in the country. For example: The state has the lowest rate of uninsured, 5 percent. ( Texas has 25 percent .)   They have the highest level of first trimester pregnancy care. They are second highes

I remember Mama

Reba Cromeans Aldridge 1921 - 2004 If you are lucky enough to still have your mother with you this Mother's Day, be sure to tell her how much you love her and how much you appreciate everything that she has done for you. Make the time to spend with her whenever you can, because too soon it will be too late. Happy Mother's Day  

Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz: A review

I've been reading some dark books lately. It was time for something light and frothy. Lisa Lutz's second entry in her saga of the dysfunctional, but highly functioning, Spellman family,  Curse of the Spellmans , filled the bill nicely. How to even begin to sum up this story? The Spellmans are a family of San Francisco private detectives. The head of the family, the father, is a former cop. The mother is a hot size 2 dynamo who attempts to keep a tight rein on her family's shenanigans. The oldest child, David, is the perfect son, and is now (in his thirties) only tangentially involved in the family business. He is a successful lawyer, now married to his sister's best friend, Petra. The middle child, Isabel (Izzy) is the narrator of these stories and the focus of the action. The youngest child, teenaged Rae, may actually be the best detective in the family and she has adopted Inspector Henry Stone of the San Francisco Police Department as her best friend, much to his chag

"Ban that book!"

It was just a matter of time I guess. As the mommy porn book Fifty Shades of Grey and its two sequels gained notoriety through word of mouth from its satisfied customers and then whipped past the competition to the top of the best seller list , it was bound to come to the attention of some of the more prudish among us and their reaction was thoroughly predictable. "Ban that book!" It was reported this week that libraries in at least three states have either refused to purchase the book or have removed it from circulation. Their excuse is that it is semi-pornographic and too poorly written. I guess they don't have any other books that are crappily written with steamy masturbation-inducing scenes in them on their shelves. Anyway, several  libraries in  Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida have either declined to order the book or pulled it from their shelves. No doubt libraries in other states will follow. Who knows? It might even finally displace  And Tango Makes Three   a

The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell: A review

A problem that I have with almost all the Swedish novels that I read (and there seem to be quite a lot of them) is that often the language is incredibly stilted. Since I'm reading the books in English and I'm not familiar with the Swedish language, I can only assume that it is a problem with the translation, that it must be especially hard to render Swedish into English and make it flow easily over the page. Nowhere do I notice this problem more than with the books of Henning Mankell. I often feel like I'm reading a Saturday Night Live parody of a Swedish scene. That was especially true with  The Man Who Smiled . We're now more than a year after the time when Kurt Wallander, the famously depressive, dour, angst-ridden Swedish detective, was forced to kill a criminal in the course of duty. It was self-defense, but still he is riven with guilt and has had to take sick leave from his job because of his emotional distress. He has tried unsuccessfully to find solace in booze

Wordless Wednesday: A butterfly's life begins



I've mentioned here before that I am a Game of Thrones fan, both of George R.R. Martin's books A Song of Ice and Fire series and of the HBO series . When a book, especially long and extremely complicated books like Martin's, get adapted for the screen, there are bound to be changes. Plot lines are compressed and combined. Disparate characters are combined, their names sometimes changed. Some things get left out. Some things get added. Although the first season of Game of Thrones on television adhered pretty closely to the storyline presented in the first book, this second season has been another matter. While the action on the screen has stayed fairly true to the spirit of book two, A Clash of Kings , important changes have been made that will only be evident to readers of the book. Some of them are disconcerting at least to some readers. Me, for example. The scriptwriters have changed the stories of Arya, Jon, Robb, and Daenerys (not to mention Bran and Theon) in

The Ranger by Ace Atkins: A review

Ace Atkins (Surely that isn't his real name!) is a writer that I had never heard of until recently when I read about this book in Bookmarks magazine , even though he's been on the scene for several years now, long enough to publish nine books. I was intrigued by the description of the book which described its setting as the "corrupt hill country" of Mississippi. Having grown up in that hill country in the northeastern corner of the state, I knew I had to read that book. Then, on a trip to Murder by the Book, my favorite indie bookstore, last week, I found the book on the table at the entry, so I paid the price and took it home with me. I'm not disappointed that I did. This book was the beginning of a new series by Atkins featuring an Army Ranger named Quinn Colson. We meet Colson as he's on his way to his home county of Tibbehah, a fictional county not unlike Yoknapatawpha, from Fort Benning, Georgia. He's headed back for the funeral of his uncle. He'

Rain Fall by Barry Eisler: A review

John Rain is a political assassin in Japan. He is half Japanese (his father) and half American (his mother). He sees himself as a perpetual soldier, a samurai, a warrior loyal to his overlord and carrying out his commands, fighting his battles. Personally, I think John Rain is full of s... er, self-delusion. But then maybe we all are to some degree. I have a few problems with this book. First of these is, what is the time frame? If we were ever explicitly told, it must have been in a part that I rapidly skimmed over. (There were several such parts.) It is written, though, as if it were a contemporary story and since the book was published in 2002, that would mean 21st century. Now, John Rain is described as a veteran of the Vietnam War trained by the U.S. Special Forces. He was in Vietnam, we are told, for three years. He had lied about his age to join the military when he was 17, but any way you add it up, by 2002, John Rain would be getting a bit long in the tooth for some of the a

An afternoon at the museum

Few things are calculated to make me feel my ignorance more keenly than a trip to the wonderful Museum of Fine Arts Houston . The place is a cultural treasure for our area and one that should be visited and enjoyed as often as possible. Even if it does make you feel stupid. And so, to Houston we headed this morning, fighting heavy Friday traffic on our hour-long trek into the city. The museum has expanded and renovated several times since my first trip there back in the 1980s. Today it is barely recognizable as its former self. Indeed, it has grown so that it is no longer possible to see it all in one visit - if it ever was. Looking at art takes time. You have to give each painting, each sculpture its due. You can't just rush through it. We hardly even made a dent in seeing what was available to us today and yet after a couple of hours I was completely overwhelmed. The museum doesn't have any big A-list exhibitions right now. King Tut just closed and Rembrandt is coming n

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith: A review

It's always such a pleasure to pick up a new No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Novel. Spending time in the company of Precious Ramotswe is like being with an especially kind and understanding and positive old friend who may know your faults and weaknesses but who loves you anyway. It is like a refreshing cup of tea at the end of a trying day. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection  is the thirteenth in this series, and, in my opinion, it is one of the very best. The pages slipped by much too fast for me. I was very sorry to bid goodbye (for another year or so anyway until Mr. McCall Smith can crank out another one) to Mma Ramotswe at the end. As always, the mysteries that beset Precious here are of a commonplace nature. A young man, the best of the apprentices at her husband's Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors garage, is wrongly accused of dealing in stolen goods and is arrested. Mma Ramotswe's old friend, Mma Potokwane, who has devoted her life to caring for the orphans o

Jesus' true disciples

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is a paternalistic and misogynistic medieval institution that believes it is infallible and all-powerful. It exists in the alternate universe of the fabulously wealthy and self-deluded that has little to do with the real world that the rest of us live in. The hierarchy shows no understanding of or empathy for the lives and struggles of real people. There is, however, a segment of the Catholic Church that stands with common people and that spends every day on the front line struggling right along with them. That would be Catholic nuns. These women, with their devotion to being living examples of the gospel of Jesus , have earned the admiration even of people like myself who view the Catholic Church as an anachronism. It would stand to reason then that these same nuns would not be in the good graces of the hierarchy of a church which views women, in general, with a jaundiced eye, the instigators of sin in the world. In recent years, American nuns

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

Isabel Dalhousie, meet Maisie Dobbs. That's what I was thinking as I delved into this first book of Jacqueline Winspear's popular series. The character of Maisie at first reminded me a great deal of Isabel. Both are philosophers and psychologists, and are deeply intuitive people who rely on those intuitions to understand and solve mysteries. As I got further into the book, though, I found significant differences. For one thing, I liked Maisie a lot, whereas I often find Isabel irritating and exasperating in the extreme with her constant agonizing over the moral issues of  everything . ("Shall I wear the pink blouse or the white blouse today? Which is the moral choice? What would David Hume do?") Maisie is a more down-to-earth, practical sort of person who lives in the real world of England ten years after the Great War and has real problems. I suppose one of the things which makes Maisie a more sympathetic character for me is the fact that she comes from the working