February 28, 2006

The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family

The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Finished on 2/23/06
Rating: A+ (10/10 Superb!)

I generally don’t read nonfiction. It tends to feel too much like school work and I usually like to read to relax or escape. However, there are a couple of nonfiction areas of interest that do appeal to me. I enjoy reading about World War II, but what I really like is a good memoir from just about any time period. Just barely out of high school, I stumbled on a copy of Yeager: An Autobiography and while it was obviously a self-serving work, I was new to the genre and instantly hooked.

Over the years, I’ve read dozens of memoirs, several of which I’ve raved about to anyone who will listen. And while doing just that during a dinner party this past weekend (hey, books make good conversation!), I had an epiphany of sorts. Almost all of my favorite memoirs are written by professional writers: All Over But the Shoutin’ (Rick Bragg), Wait Til Next Year (Doris Kearns Goodwin), Around the House and In The Garden (Dominique Browning), Birdbaths and Paper Cranes (Sharon Randall) and Fifty Acres and a Poodle (Jeanne Laskas). Sure there are others written equally well: Rocket Boys (Homer Hickam), The Road From Coorain (Jill Kerr Conway), and A Year By the Sea (Joan Anderson) but these folks aren’t columnists or magazine editors and are the exception to the rule. In my experience, most memoirs written by non-writers (e.g., politicians, scientists) seem stilted and contrived.

So what makes a good memoir? For me, it’s the author’s ability to draw me into his world, evoking a sense of time and place with a lyrical turn of phrase, a bit of humor and a touch of tenderness. When a memoir resonates with me, I’m tempted to dash off a fan letter and invite the author to dinner. These are people I want to know – to discuss their favorite books & authors over sea bass, risotto, and a nice bottle of wine.

I’ve just finished Jeanne Laskas’ second memoir, entitled The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family, and can’t praise it enough.

Laskas is a columnist for The Washington Post Magazine (“Significant Others”) and I first encountered her writing last February when I read Fifty Acres and A Poodle. I absolutely loved the book and gave it a perfect A+ rating (placing it in my Top Ten List for 2005). So, what a pleasant surprise to read such a satisfying follow-up this past month. It was such a pleasure to return to her family, friends, and menagerie at Sweetwater Farm in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania.

From the opening pages, I was roaring out loud with laughter, stopping to catch my breath, wipe my eyes and share the passage with Rod (who had already read the book, but enjoyed – or pretended to enjoy – hearing it again). Jeanne and Alex have quite a brood – dogs, horses, mules, you name it - with marvelous names like Marley, Betty, Wilma, Sparky, Sassy, Skippy, Maggie, and Cricket. And as if that weren’t enough, they borrow some of their neighbor’s sheep to help maintain their fifty acres of alfalfa. Animal antics always provide fodder for humor and dogs are the best, although losing a mule (especially one that happens to be wearing an orange scarf resembling a babushka) on opening day of deer season is pretty darned funny.

But life isn’t always a barrel of laughs. Still in the process of learning how one actually lives on a farm and managing her four-legged motley crew, Jeanne is abruptly forced to deal with issues of aging parents, in addition to her rather sudden decision to have a child somewhat late in life. Both situations are described with a gentle blend of humor and tenderness, often bringing a lump to my throat, as well as an occasional tear or two.

This is unquestionably a book to savor and I have to confess that after reading the last line, I hugged it to my chest while whispering, “good book!” Always a good indicator of an A+ rating.

I hope this isn’t the last we see of Jeanne Laskas. She still has so much more to share about her family, new friends, and of course the animals. However, if this is it, I still have her weekly columns, thanks to Google Alerts. And… I just happen to know a certain somebody who fits the criterion for a high-quality memoirist. He’s got a great sense of humor, can turn a beautiful phrase, and just happens to write for a living. Guess we’ll have to get to work on that menagerie, though. I’ve already got several names picked out.


Velocity by Dean Koontz

Finished on 2/21/06
Rating: D (1/10 Terrible, but suffered through it)

Poor Bill Wile. Life just hasn’t been very good to him. A horrific family tragedy strikes when he’s just a young boy, but he eventually grows up, moves on and finds comfort in his woodworking and writing. Unfortunately, an unpleasant incident befalls his fiancĂ©e, leaving her comatose for over four years. When he’s not at her bedside carrying on one-sided conversations, he leads a quiet, solitary life as a bartender in Napa County. That is, until he becomes the recipient of disturbing notes and phone messages that draw him into a psychotic nightmare with a madman. The first note, found on his windshield, demands one of two choices: Go to the police and “an elderly woman” will die. Seek no help, and a “lovely blond schoolteacher” will be killed. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This freak has forced Bill into a deadly game of cat and mouse and Bill has no choice but to play. He’s a player even if he opts not to be. Such a cruel nightmare, deciding the fate of one life over another. As the story progresses, the ultimatums reveal that the murderer is even more cunning and evil than was first apparent.

Unfortunately, this mystery failed to satisfy. It was hardly an edge-of-your-seat thriller, although I have to admit I wasn’t able to determine the identity of such a Machiavellian killer. Perhaps I need to take a break from Dean Koontz. I’ve read several (well, three) of his books since I first read Odd Thomas and none have wowed me the way that particular book did. Velocity isn’t a bad read. Just nothing I’d recommend and probably one I should’ve returned to the library unfinished. I know I told Rod several times that I wasn’t the least bit impressed with the storyline or characters, and all that was pushing me to finish was simple curiosity. I’ve never been much of a skimmer; I either read a book in its entirety or simply quit when it fails to entertain. Maybe I should be a little more flexible and, rather than waste an extra day or two, simply read ahead enough to satisfy that insistent curiosity and then be done with it.

In this case, Koontz disappointed me, but perhaps I should have quit reading when I realized that the plot just hadn't grabbed me.

February 26, 2006

Shrink Rap

Shrink Rap by Robert Parker

Finished on 2/?/06
Rating: A (9/10 Terrific!)

Sunny Randall continues to be one of my favorite characters. She’s a tough, intelligent, no-nonsense private eye who paints landscapes for pleasure, adores Rosie (her miniature bull terrier), and juggles her mixed emotions as she tries to figure out if she really wants to rekindle her relationship with her mobbed-up ex-husband, Richie. She’s the perfect heroine, warts and all.

While surreptitiously investigating a prominent psychiatrist, Sunny not only comes face to face with a manipulative killer, but inadvertently uncovers some of her own unpleasant issues while undergoing therapy.

I zipped through Shrink Rap in record speed, laughing out loud as often as I held my breath. It’s a quick read (99% of the text is comprised of rapid-fire dialogue), but at the time I thought it was the second to the last in the series. Not knowing if Parker had plans to continue indefinitely as he seems to have done with his Spenser series (exceeding 30 titles – all of which I plan to read someday!), I desperately tried to drag my reading experience out as long as possible. This proved difficult as the intense climax caused the pages to fly.

While there is nothing lyrical about Parker’s writing, he delivers a fun-filled read (I like to think of it as brain candy). P.J. Tracy fans might do well to consider taking a look at this series as they eagerly await the release of the next Monkeewrench installment (Snow Blind), which is due out in August.

There’s a lot of good reading to look forward to this summer. I’m elated to have just learned that on June 6th, the fifth in this series (Blue Screen) will be released! And I still have Melancholy Baby in my library stack. Boy, it doesn’t take much to make this fan happy. I love this series and am completely addicted. Parker had me from hello.

Shadow Prey

Shadow Prey by John Sandford

Finished on 2/?/06
Rating: A- (8/10 Very Good)

This is the second installment in John Sandford’s Prey series, which I’ve recently discovered. As with the first (Rules of Prey), the story revolves around detective Lucas Davenport’s attempt to capture the individuals involved in a string of grisly murders. It’s no mystery to the reader who is responsible for the murders, as the chapters alternate between unraveling the details and motive and Davenport’s struggle to pinpoint and trap the killers. We learn more about Davenport’s personal life (of course, there's a new love-interest) as well as bits and pieces of the supporting cast’s.

After the tragic loss of Rachel to the hands of a murderer, I often wonder how I can possibly find a murder mystery so entertaining. Sandford’s books are not “cozies.” They're full of fairly graphic detail of the workings of the twisted minds of killers. But it’s not so much these details that entertain, but rather the character development, smooth pacing, and somewhat predictable structure of each novel. I know that in the end the good guys will win and that, for the most part, Davenport will pick himself back up, climb back into his Porsche, and drive off into the sunset (either with or without the girl).

Walking Across Egypt

Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton
Contemporary Fiction

Finished on 2/10/06
Rating: C (3/10 Ho-hum)

Here is another example of a book that’s been in my to-be-read shelves forever. I don’t remember what drew me to it originally, perhaps a glowing review by a fellow book buddy. The bad news is I didn’t care one bit for the bland plot, narrative voice or characters. I found the whole thing a bit too cloyingly sweet and was ready to be finished after the first dozen or so pages. The good news is I went into it without any high expectations, so I didn’t feel let down. And since it’s a fairly short story, I was able to whip through it less than 24 hours. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have bothered reading the whole thing had it been much longer.

February 25, 2006

These Granite Islands

These Granite Islands by Sarah Stonich
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 2/9/06
Rating: A (9/10 Terrific!)

We all have favorite authors, ones that with baited breath we wait for their next release, succumbing to the hardcover price or pestering our librarians to quickly order the title, begging them to place our names at the top of the waiting-list. These are the authors whose collections of books take up entire shelves at Barnes & Noble and Borders. Even non-readers are vaguely familiar with their names: Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, Elizabeth Berg, Anita Shreve and Dean Koontz.

There’s nothing wrong with having favorites, but every now and then it’s nice to discover a new, relatively unknown author. It’s especially nice when the debut novel turns out to be such a gem that even before finishing the last sentence, you’re frantically searching Amazon for more titles you can get your hands on. This is exactly what happened to me earlier this month while I was perusing my shelves (yes, I have shelves and shelves of unread books – kind like having my own personal bookstore – I even have coffee & Biscotti) and glanced at a title, vaguely recalling the high praise from a fellow book-lover when I originally mentioned that I’d acquired the book. These Granite Islands has been on my shelf for at least two years, and I’m glad I finally got around to giving it a read. Having just finished Isabel’s Daughter, I was a little concerned that the odds of two great books, back-to-back, would be pretty slim. I shouldn’t have worried. Sarah Stonich delivers a great story and I was almost instantly transported back to the summer of 1936. While it took just a little more than a chapter to grasp the structure of the narrative, it wasn’t long before the transitions smoothed out, alternating between Isobel’s (yep, another Isobel) past and present as she reminisced about her life as a young wife and mother and the new friendship that brings tragedy and mystery to the small mining town of Cypress, Minnesota. Isobel’s adult son, who sits quietly alongside her hospital bed, listening as she recounts the details of that strange summer, slowly discovering that the memories he had and held to be true were only a young boy’s interpretation of what actually took place.

I didn’t expect such a page-turner, but I finished in less than two days. As the final pages drew near, I found myself slowing down, lingering over each sentence, not wanting to leave the characters or the lakeside community. Stonich casts a spell with her flair for rich detail and I particularly enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the two friends working side by side, as they transformed a portion of Victor’s (Isobel’s husband) tailor shop into a millinery, bringing to mind the details I so loved in Jennifer Donnelly’s The Tea Rose (another fine example of an exquisite novel by a fairly unknown author).

Stonich has written a second novel entitled The Ice Chorus and I’ve just now added that to my ever-growing Amazon wish list (which also serves as my library list). I own so many other books I should read first, but somehow I can’t let another two years pass before reading more by this author. She deserves to join the ranks of Anita Shreve, Anne Tyler and Alice Hoffman.

February 19, 2006

Isabel's Daughter

Isabel's Daughter by Judith Ryan Hendricks
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 2/7/06
Rating: A (9/10 Terrific!)

What an enjoyable book. I was completely engrossed and grew anxious to get back to my reading when busy with other things. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so taken by a novel and I savored Hendricks’ lovely, descriptive prose. I found it a bit reminiscent of Elizabeth Berg’s detailed narratives.

I read Hendricks’ debut novel, Bread Alone, several years ago and while I enjoyed that light (read: fluff) story, I believe Isabel’s Daughter has more depth, both in plot and character development. I took pleasure in reading both about the location (Santa Fe) and the culinary details.

I discovered this lovely quote at the front of the book (page after the dedication page):

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched
With its color.

W.S. Merwin

I highly recommend this gem of a book and plan to read more by the author. I’m anxious for the paperback edition of The Baker’s Apprentice to hit the shelves. Maybe this time I’ll get lucky with a sequel!

By the way, does anyone know the name of the page that comes after the dedication page??

Forever Odd

Forever Odd by Dean Koontz

Finished on 2/3/06
Rating: B- (5/10 Fair)

Rats! I’d been looking forward to this sequel to Odd Thomas ever since I first heard there was one in the works. What a disappointment! It was no where near as good as Odd Thomas. Compared to the first book, all the wonderful relationships between Odd and his friends were trivial in this sequel. I missed the interaction between Odd, Stormy, Chief Porter and Teri (Elvis was still hanging around, though) but I also missed the suspense and romance that I so enjoyed in the first book. I read almost 150 pages (just about 50% of the book) before I began to have any interest in the plot and even then, it simply lacked the enchantment of Odd Thomas. This said,
I haven't let my disappointment affect my opinion of Koontz’s ability to entertain. As a matter of fact, I'm currently reading Velocity, another one of his cat and mouse thrillers.

February 18, 2006

Nature & Books

Nature and Books
belong to the
eyes that
see them.

February 17, 2006

Odd Thomas

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
Finished on 2/1/06
Rating: A+ (10/10 Superb!)

I originally read this wonderful book back in August 2004. It'd been years (decades?) since I'd read anything by Koontz, but a friend raved about it and I decided to give it a try. I wasn't disappointed and it wound up on my Top Ten list for the year. When I learned Koontz was about to publish a sequel (Forever Odd), I was thrilled and decided to re-read Odd Thomas in preparation for the continuation of Odd's story.

Again, I was not disappointed. The book was just as good as I remembered (the mark of a truly great book, in my humble opinion) and made me even more anxious to pick up Forever Odd. Of course it helped that I'd forgotten several narrative details in the past year and a half. But I also remembered several that enabled me to read late into the night without spooking myself as I did the first time around.

Koontz not only weaves a spell-binding tale of horror, but writes a lyrical love story that will remain in my memory for years to come. I fell in love with Odd and felt his joy as well as his sorrow. He joins my list of favorite male characters, keeping company with Owen (A Prayer for Owen Meany), Ender Wiggin (Ender's Game) and Charlie (The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud).

I'd love to see this on the big screen some day. It's got something for everyone -- thrills, chills, humor and romance. Too bad Viggo Mortensen isn't a few years younger.

The Tender Bar

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer
Rating: DNF (Did Not Finish)

Gave up after 40+ pages. Just couldn't get interested. Disappointing since I've heard great things about this book from several friends.

Rules of Prey

Rules of Prey by John Sandford

Finished on 1/25/06
Rating: A (9/10 Terrific!)

Another Lucas Davenport mystery – actually, the first in the series. While I enjoy a fast-paced, intense mystery, for me it’s usually the main characters that provide the most entertainment and keep the pages turning. However, in this particular thriller both elements worked together to make me even more eager to read the next in the series (Shadow Prey). There’s a marvelous scene involving Davenport in a foot-chase and I as I was reading as fast as I possibly could, I discovered I’d been holding my breath in anticipation of the outcome. I love a good cat & mouse game and Sandford provides just the right amount of tension.

Maybe A Miracle

Maybe A Miracle by Brian Strause
Contemporary Fiction

Finished on 1/?/06
Rating: C+ (4/10 OK, but don’t recommend)

Strause’s debut novel starts out with a bang, piquing my interest from the very beginning. Unfortunately, the momentum begins to slip even before the halfway point. Ignoring my inner voice of reason, I continued to read, curious to see how Strause would wrap things up. I loved the narrative voice of Monroe, the young teenage protagonist who saves the life of his younger sister in a drowning accident. Yet, in spite of this very likeable character, the inconsistent tempo and repetitious details of the novel were disappointing, leading to a low rating.

Favorite Passage:

“It’s like life’s this slippery slope and we’re never really in control and sometimes it seems like running into a tree is the worse thing that could ever happen, when really it’s what stops us from going over the cliff.”

Julie and Romeo Get Lucky

Julie and Romeo Get Lucky by Jeanne Ray
Contemporary Fiction

Finished on 1/?/06
Rating: B (6/10 So-so)

Regardless of genre, book or film, most sequels lack the pizzazz of the original. I found this to be the case in Jeanne Ray’s follow-up to Julie and Romeo, although I can’t quite put my finger on what was lacking. It may be a combination of the lack of humor and the fact that Romeo, supposedly one of the main characters, rarely appears. The family dynamics and silly plot wore on my patience and more than once I was tempted to skim ahead to the ending. A bit disappointing, but then that’s almost inevitable when you let the hype and excitement of a sequel get the better of you.

Ray remains one of my favorite authors and I won’t let this unsatisfactory sequel tarnish my opinion of her ability to entertain. And I highly recommend Step-Ball-Change and Eat Cake to those who are new to Jeanne Ray’s novels.

Favorite Passage:

“Love is passion and commitment, tenderness and endurance, but love is also memory. It is important to make a beautiful gesture from time to time, not only for the moment, but as something to hold on to in the future – so that when we were old, really old, I’d be able to hold his hand between our twin beds in the nursing home and think, When you were merely sixty-three you carried me up a staircase.”

February 16, 2006

Broken Prey

Broken Prey by John Sandford

Finished on 1/3/06
Rating: A (9/10 Terrific)

This is Sandford’s latest “Prey” thriller, but my first encounter with hero Lucas Davenport’s life. The book came highly recommended by Rod, so of course I decided to give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed and am rapidly becoming a huge fan. I’ve since read the first two in the series and plan to read the remaining fourteen.

Davenport is a very likeable cop (head of Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, to be precise) in spite of his flaws. He’s kind of like Tony Soprano. Big, tough, macho guy with the heart of a teddy bear. Sort of. I can even ignore his womanizing. Mostly.

In this particular book, while the mystery is certainly entertaining, what really pulled me in was the cast of characters. I loved the bantering between Davenport and Sloan. I also enjoyed reading about Davenport’s attempt to come up with a list of rock’s 100 greatest songs (he got an I-pod). There’s even a list at the back of the book, which I plan to refer back to so I can see how many of my favorites made the cut. Forget about trying to figure out who the serial killer is. I want to know if “Brown-Eyed Girl” is on the list!

Julie and Romeo

Julie & Romeo by Jeanne Ray
Contemporary Fiction

Finished on 1/?/06
Rating: B+ (7/10 Good)

I read this a few years ago, but decided to re-read it before picking up the sequel, Julie and Romeo Get Lucky. It was perfect to read on an airplane as it didn’t require a lot of concentration and could easily be picked up and set aside. I didn’t think it was quite as engaging or funny as the first time I read it, but it still held my interest.

February 13, 2006

Small Wonder

Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver

Finished on 1/27/06
Rating: B+ (7/10 Good)

I discovered Barbara Kingsolver several years ago when I read her debut novel, The Bean Trees. I fell in love with her writing and since then have read everything she’s written, with the exception a nonfiction work entitled Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 and a National Geographic coffee-table book (Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands). You might say I’m a fairly devoted fan, buying everything as it’s published. Yet when her second collection of essays was released in hardcover, I held off. I’d heard negative reviews and complaints of her overbearing political opinions, and decided to wait until the paperback was released. But even then, once I finally got around to buying a copy, it sat on a shelf for over two years. It wasn’t until this past winter when I was struggling to find something that would grab my attention and reading more nonfiction than usual, that I was tempted to give it a try. It wasn’t a quick read and I was tempted to give up a couple of times. In “What Good is a Story,” Kingsolver admits to being a demanding reader, granting a mere thirty pages to be impressed before tossing the unfinished book in to the donation box. Ironically, had I adhered to such a strict guideline, I never would’ve reached the second half of the book in which 11 (out of 23) favorite essays lay in wait. I would’ve missed gems such as “Letters to a Daughter at Thirteen” and “Letters to My Mother.” “Marking a Passage” and “Flying” resonated so much more than “Knowing Our Place” and “A Forest’s Last Stand.” It’s not that I don’t care about our country and environment. It’s just that right now I’d rather read about family and gardening -- things that bring me comfort rather than anger or fear. To quote Kingsolver, I’d found “words that might help me become a better mother, a wiser friend.”

Two favorite passages:

“I learned a surprising thing in writing this book. It is possible to move away from a vast, unbearable pain by delving into it deeper and deeper – by ‘diving into the wreck,’ to borrow the perfect words from Adrienne Rich. You can look at all the parts of a terrible thing until you see that they’re assemblies of smaller parts, all of which you can name, and some of which you can heal or alter, and finally the terror that seemed unbearable becomes manageable. I suppose what I am describing is the process of grief.”

“It used to be, on many days, that I could close my eyes and sense myself to be perfectly happy. I have wondered lately if that feeling will ever come back. It’s a worthy thing to wonder, but maybe being perfectly happy is not really the point. Maybe that is only some modern American dream of the point, while the truer measure of humanity is the distance we must travel in our lives, time and again, ‘twixt two extremes of passion – joy and grief,’ as Shakespeare put it. However much I’ve lost, what remains to me is that I can still speak to name the things I love.”