Showing posts from January, 2013

The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison: A review

Shan Tao Yun is Han Chinese, at one time an inspector in Beijing. That was before he got in the way of a powerful Chinese official when he probed in some inconvenient dark corners.  Shan was then stripped of his rank, accused of "conspiracy," and unceremoniously shipped off to a Tibetan gulag, where he was put in a Tibetan work crew along with Buddhist lamas and priests whose gompa was destroyed by the Chinese invaders. We never do learn just what "conspiracy" Shan was supposed to be a part of. In the work gang - the 404th is its designation - Shan is accepted by the Buddhists and, over the course of three years, he learns to admire them and their philosophy. He begins to learn the ways of their belief system. He is able to perform some important services for his group, one of which is to get an old lama freed on Chairman Mao's birthday. This secures his fame among the Tibetans. Then one day, while his labor gang is working on a road up a mountainside, t

Wanted: A plot

The plot of "Downton Abbey" in its third season has been a mess so far. It lurches here and there with no clear purpose, and, seemingly, with no goal in mind. We started the season with Shirley MacLaine appearing as Lady Cora's filthy rich American mother. And why was that, exactly? Well, she showed up for Lady Mary's wedding, but evidently she was there to reinforce just how single-minded Mary is in her determination that Downton remain Downton, that nothing changes. We learned that that idiot Robert had dithered away the family's fortune and that the Granthams were at the point of having to sell Downton, so Mary and the Dowager Countess came up with a devious scheme to inveigle Mary's American grandmother into giving up a sizable portion of her vast fortune in support of saving the old homestead. When she refused, Mary pivoted immediately to insisting that her new husband, Matthew, forget his principles and accept a bequest from the father of his dead f

The perfect Mr. Darcy

January marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice , arguably her most popular work. To mark the anniversary, there are all sorts of events planned, from twelve hour readathons to themed balls . There have been a spate of articles this week about the book, including the one I saw today about all the different covers the various editions of the book have had over the last two hundred years. There have been a lot of them because the book has never been out of print. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Ms. Austen's book must surely be one of the most sincerely admired works of art ever. It sometimes seems that everyone and her dog has written a pastiche homage to the book. One of the latest of these was the dean of British mystery writers, P.D. James whose Death Comes to Pemberley came out in 2011.  It was also one of the most successful efforts at channeling Austen's spirit, in my opinion. (I reviewed it here . )

Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin: A review

Detective Inspector John Rebus of the Borders and Lothian Police was retired by his creator Ian Rankin five years ago in Exit Music . Rebus had reached the mandatory retirement age for B&L police and perhaps Rankin was a bit tired of the old guy after writing his stories for twenty years. But, as many a Scottish bad guy has learned over the years, John Rebus is not so easily fobbed off. Ian Rankin went on to write other things. He started another series about another Scottish policeman named Malcolm Fox. Fox was the antithesis of Rebus. He was abstemious, a stickler for the rules, and never one to fraternize with the "natives," for which read "criminal class." Fox was perhaps ideally placed as a policeman who investigated other policemen. He was with the "Complaints," the police ethics division that investigated alleged infractions of the rules. Rebus, of course, was never one to be bound by rules if they interfered with him getting a "result.

Poetry Sunday - Cold Blooded Creatures

Cold Blooded Creatures BY  ELINOR WYLIE Man, the egregious egoist, (In mystery the twig is bent,) Imagines, by some mental twist, That he alone is sentient Of the intolerable load Which on all living creatures lies, Nor stoops to pity in the toad The speechless sorrow of its eyes. He asks no questions of the snake, Nor plumbs the phosphorescent gloom Where lidless fishes, broad awake, Swim staring at a night-mare doom.

Get to work, George!

It was announced this week that George R.R. Martin has co-edited an anthology called Dangerous Women . Moreover, he contributed a novella to the collection called The Princess and the Queen . It is set in Westeros in the time of the Song of Ice and Fire and is about the origins of the war between the Targaryens that split the society apart and led to the ongoing conflicts of House against House that we read about in the first five novels in the series. All of which leads me to wonder just what a novella by Martin would look like. Would it be just 500 pages instead of 1000? Further, it makes me wonder, WTF, George? What the heck are you doing working on a novella and co-editing a freaking anthology when you should be working on that next book? Don't you know we are dying out here? We want to know if Jon is dead or alive. Will we finally find out who his mother (and maybe father because I still suspect it wasn't Ned) was? Has Daenerys Targaryen gotten her dragons under good

Hillary is not impressed

This was the week that congressional Republicans have been panting for since September - the moment when they finally got to grill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the attack on the consulate in Benghazi on September 11. They've spent the last five months appearing on Sunday television news shows denouncing the "cover-up" and "scandal" which they attach to that incident. They also spent several weeks maligning the secretary of state and implying that she was afraid to appear before their scary committees and so was faking the "Benghazi flu." In fact, of course, she was ill, but I don't think any of the maligners have yet acknowledged that or apologized. What they also haven't done - at least many of them haven't - is actually attend the briefings which the intelligence people have conducted to explain the facts of what is known about the attack. But then they are not really interested in the facts. They are interested in grandsta

Notorious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich: A review

The most inept bounty hunter in the state of New Jersey and possibly on the face of the earth, along with her equally inept sidekick, is at it again. Yes, Stephanie Plum and Lula are busily chasing skips around Trenton. Chasing, rarely catching. This time, Stephanie is on the trail of Geoffrey Cubbin,  facing trial for embezzling millions from Trenton’s premier assisted-living facility. Geoffrey mysteriously disappeared from the hospital after an emergency appendectomy. Now Stephanie needs to find him so that her boss, Vinnie, will not have to forfeit all that bond money. But Cubbin has vanished without a trace, without a clue, and five million dollars of embezzled funds are missing. Things take a sinister turn when it becomes known that Cubbin isn't the first patient to vanish from this hospital. He isn't the last either, for soon, another post-surgery patient who was facing trial also vanishes in the middle of the night. What could be happening here? Obviously, they mus

Wordless Wednesday: Cat discovers snow


Trail of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz: A review

I've been reading really serious literature recently and I decided that I needed a bit of fluff to clear my reading palate. It doesn't get much fluffier than Lisa Lutz and her family of ditsy San Francisco detectives, the Spellmans. This is the fifth in the Spellman series. Several years have passed in the family's history since the series began, and yet it is hard to see much growth in most of the family members. They still spend more time surveilling each other, trying to trip each other up, and playing silly pranks than they ever do on working for their clients. It's really hard to see how they keep the business going. In this episode, it is not only the Spellmans who are hiding things from each other, but all of their clients seem to have ulterior motives and are hiding secrets which may or may not impact the jobs they've hired the Spellmans to do. On the home front, Rae, the younger daughter, is now in college. David and Maggie are married and are now the par

The poetry of the inauguration

This was the big day in Washington, the day that the Republican Party had devoted itself heart and soul for the last four years to prevent. It was the day of  Barack Hussein Obama's second inauguration as president .  These events are always inspiring and are full of pomp and circumstance, but occasionally they do reach the level of poetry. Perhaps I am prejudiced but I thought today's event did and not just when the poet Richard Blanco came to read the poem he had written for the day. Throughout the ceremony, at least the parts that I saw, it seemed to me that this inauguration had a poetic grandeur, and the president's speech matched that sense of poetry. I was happy to hear him refer to some concrete policy issues in the speech and not just in the typical airy fairy pie-in-the-sky kind of way of these kinds of speeches. He spoke about the need to further enhance equality for all citizens, about the need to make sure that children are safe and that they have what t

Poetry Sunday: The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Paul Laurence Dunbar A little bird, with plumage brown, Beside my window flutters down, A moment chirps its little strain, Ten taps upon my window-pane, And chirps again, and hops along, To call my notice to its song; But I work on, nor heed its lay, Till, in neglect, it flies away. So birds of peace and hope and love Come fluttering earthward from above, To settle on life's window-sills, And ease our load of earthly ills; But we, in traffic's rush and din Too deep engaged to let them in, With deadened heart and sense plod on, Nor know our loss till they are gone. Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was born in Ohio in 1872 to former slaves and had a very prolific career as a poet. You can learn more about him here.

The NRA's Congressman Brady

On Wednesday, President Obama offered his plan for requiring universal background checks, restricting access to some guns and high capacity magazine clips and other changes that are intended to help cut into the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Soon after, my email box received a statement from my elected representative in Congress, Kevin Brady, a Republican. His response to the president's proposals was straight from a script of National Rifle Association talking points. I want our children safe at school and our Second Amendment rights protected at home. Today's proposals do neither. Strong gun control laws in Connecticut didn't stop the Sandy Hook tragedy - and won't stop others like them in America. In fact, areas with the most restrictive gun laws historically suffer from higher rates of gun violence. As for the 23 executive orders, why did it take the deaths of school children, movie-goers and an attack on a congresswoman before the President f

Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin: A review

The broad outlines of Bruce Springsteen's life are fairly well-known to his fans, of whom I consider myself one. He has been written about often in the press over the past 35 to 40 years as he made his way from a skinny, scruffy, struggling New Jersey teenager in thrall to rock 'n' roll and trying to live that religion to, today, his position as cultural icon and folk hero. It's been a bumpy ride, but no one could claim that the man has not remained true to his faith. Peter Ames Carlin has written about other rock musicians, including Paul McCartney, so he knows the form. He had the advantage of having Springsteen's cooperation and of having his blessing in contacting all the musicians and business associates who have known him as well as friends, lovers, and family members. Carlin has taken full advantage of that access and has produced a pretty exhaustively researched book that reveals the man, warts and all, and explores the roots of his music. It is a trib

NW by Zadie Smith: A review

Zadie Smith employs a non-traditional format and punctuation in telling this story, something that is almost guaranteed to turn me off immediately. I just find it annoying. And yet, several pages into this book, as I got into the flow of the story and of the language of northwest London, suddenly it didn't really matter any more.  Smith uses a stream of consciousness technique in telling the tangled stories of Leah and Keisha/Natalie, as well as Felix and Nathan.  Indeed, the reader reflects, how else could these stories be told? And so we have these four people who were connected in childhood and whose lives are now tangential, sometimes touching, sometimes intertwined in the small community that is NW.  The main story here, though, is the story of a city, a complicated place where people live cheek-by-jowl and yet are in their own worlds. It is a place that will seem very familiar to urban dwellers everywhere, I think. We follow the characters from their private homes - flats

One month later

Yesterday marked one month since the slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Since that day, 917 more people in America have been killed by gun violence. And since that time, debate has raged - rage being the operative word - across the television screens of the country, adding more heat than light to the issue of gun violence. There has been a spate of crazy people posting videos threatening to start killing people if anyone tries to take their guns . And then we have the truly delusional. Have you heard about the latest conspiracy theory by the gun nuts that the entire Sandy Hook incident was "performance art" , something dreamed up by the Obama Administration in order to soften the country up for the confiscation of guns? All those parental tears are just pretend. Those children are not dead! All those little coffins were empty. The Sandy Hook "truthers" are even going so far as to harass a man who helped some o

Poetry Sunday: Letter to a Lost Friend

You know how sometimes when you read a bit of poetry it speaks to you, resonates with a chord deep within your psyche, in ways that you may not even be able to verbalize? So it was when I read "Letter to a Lost Friend" in Poetry Magazine this month. I can't explain just why it moves me, but it does. Letter to a Lost Friend BY  BARBARA HAMBY There must be a Russian word to describe what has happened               between us, like  ostyt , which can be used for a cup of  tea that is too hot, but after you walk to the next room,               and return, it is too cool; or  perekhotet , which is to want something so much over months               and even years that when you get it, you have lost the desire. Pushkin said, when he saw his portrait by Kiprensky,               “It is like looking into a mirror, but one that flatters me.” What is the word for someone who looks into her friend’s face               and sees once smooth skin gone like

Cat Man Do

Time for another visit from that devious feline, Simon's cat.

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny: A review

One of the pleasures of the Armand Gamache series - and there are many - is the description of the food. Wherever his job as head of the homicide division of the Surete du Quebec takes him, Gamache always seems to eat exceedingly well, and Louise Penny describes it all in intricate detail - the herbs used, the consistency of the sauce, and especially the aroma of the baking bread and of the coffee, always the coffee. That is never more true than in this fourth entry in the series. Armand and his beloved Reine-Marie have gone to the Manoir Bellechasse for a short vacation and to fulfill their tradition of celebrating their anniversary at this inn which holds so much nostalgia for them. It's their thirty-fifth anniversary and they are enjoying their time away from it all, being cosseted and pampered by the staff of the Manoir. The Gamaches are not the only guests. The Morrow/Finney family has arrived for their family reunion and a more obnoxious and unattractive family is hard