Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Idea of Perfection

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The Idea of Perfection is another book I’ve read for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. Sadly, it’s another award winning book that I just couldn’t like. This novel by Kate Grenville, an Australian writer, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2001. The truly curious thing is that same year, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was shortlisted for the same prize. I had read that long before I started this blog, and it is a far superior novel.

This book hosts the most unlikely cast of characters one could imagine. The principle characters are supposed to be Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman. They are strangers on temporary work assignments in the fictional town of Karakarook, New South Wales. Harley is in town to help build a “heritage museum”. She is a textiles expert from a museum in Sydney. Douglas is an engineer, who has been sent to supervise the destruction of an old, worn-out bridge, and the construction of its replacement. They are both incredibly self-involved. They question every move and conversation-who has time for that?

A portion of the book is devoted to the story of Felicity Porcelline, the prim wife of the bank manager. In fact, she seems to be more of a main character than Harley or Douglas. Far too much of the book is focused on Felicity fantasizing about the town’s Chinese butcher/photographer, Alfred Chang. Talk about an unlikely character.

I really had to force myself to read this book all the way through. Is it too much to ask that a book be well-written and have interesting characters that I could enjoy reading about?

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Viking Penguin 2002
Softcover edition-Penguin 2003

The Idea of Perfection

Where Are You Now?

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Mary Higgins Clark-what else can I say? This book came my way when I was looking for a little distraction and light reading. Perfect! If I hadn’t promised myself to write a post about every book I read, I wouldn’t have bothered with this entry.

Let’s face it, Clark’s books are all pretty much the same. Her astounding popularity, and ability to sell books, have always perplexed me. Where Are You Now? is slightly better than the last MHC book I read (don’t remember the title). It’s a mystery, with the requisite red herrings thrown in.

I really have nothing else to say about this book. If you’re a fan of MHC, read it.

In USA:

Published in hard cover-Simon & Schuster-2008
Softcover edition-Pocket Books to be published March 2009

Where Are You Now?: A Novel

The Appeal

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The Appeal is the latest legal thriller by John Grisham. Once again, the wealthy and powerful are preying on the poor and weak. This time, the scheme involves fixing an election for the Mississippi State Supreme Court. The short term goal is to overturn a particular jury verdict; the long term goal is to make it virtually impossible for a plaintiff to successfully sue for damages in a personal injury case.

The protagonists include a husband-wife team of attorneys, Wes and May Grace Payton. The Paytons represent a number of plaintiffs suing Krane Chemical for deaths and illnesses caused by Krane’s dumping of toxic waste, which has polluted the groundwater in Bowmore, Mississippi. As the book opens, the jury returns a $41 million verdict in the first of the cases to go to trial.

Of course Krane will appeal. But how can Krane possibly win on appeal when the State Supreme Court routinely votes 5-4 to uphold such jury verdicts? Enter Barry Rinehart, a shady operative whose business is finding, and electing, pro-business candidates for seats on appeals courts.

The concept of The Appeal is interesting. And the book is a quick and easy read. At this point, Grisham seems to be writing with half the enthusiasm of his earlier works. There is little tension, and the characters are not all that interesting or sympathetic. If you are a Grisham fan, you should read The Appeal. Otherwise, maybe buy the paperback and save it for that long airport layover.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Doubleday 2008
Softcover edition-Dell 2008

The Appeal

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

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The Wild Swans:Three Daughters of China is the fourth book I’ve completed for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. This memoir won the British Book Awards “Book of the Year” in 1994. Wild Swans tells the story of three generations of women in Jung Chang’s family: her grandmother, her mother, and herself. It spans the years from 1909, when her grandmother was born, to 1978, the year Jung Chang left China to study in Great Britain.

Wild Swans encompasses the personal history of Chang’s family, as well as the tumultuous history of China. At the age of 15 Yu-fang, the author’s grandmother, became the concubine of a warlord. Jung Chang’s mother, De-hong, was born 7 years later. After the war lord’s death in 1933, Yu-fang married Dr. Xia. De-hong was raised in his household, as one of his children. Jung Chang was born in 1952, the second of 5 children born to De-hong and her husband, Shou-yu.

This book details the family’s struggles, as China itself struggles. Some events that impact the family include: World War II; the rise of Mao Tse Tung and the Communist party,;the founding of the People’ Republic of China; the Great Leap Forward; the Cultural Revolution; and China’s eventual opening up to the West.

Chang’s parents are loyal Communists, yet they suffer denunciation, re-education and imprisonment. The entire family is subject to the daily indignities of life in a totalitarian society. As children, Chang and her siblings rarely see their parents. Fortunately, Yu-fang is able to care for them.

Wild Swans is a very long and complex book. The appendices include a brief chronology of modern China juxtaposed with Chang’s family’s milestones. There is also a very helpful family tee and a map of China. I referred to these often. This memoir is quite thorough. I learned a tremendous amount about modern China.

Unfortunately, it did get a bit repetitious. We read numerous times that De-hong was upset that her husband put his very strict Communist principles before his family’s well-being. And the family’s constant struggles with other Communist Party officials, while important, are also tedious after a while. Some of the language seems a bit stilted. Chang did not learn English until her early 20’s, and the awkwardness shows. Overall, this memoir was quite good. It took me a very long time to read it, and I think it would be improved greatly by skillful editing.

In USA:

Published in hardcover- Simon & Schuster-1993
Softcover edition-Touchstone 2003

Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China

Eagle Eye

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Shia LaBeouf plays Jerry Shaw, an underachiever who can’t pay his rent with the wages from his job at Copy Cabana. He can’t even get money from his ATM. Then, his twin brother suddenly dies in an “accident”. Returning to his run down Chicago apartment from his brother’s funeral, he stops at the ATM to deposit a check from his father. Lo and behold, there is over $700,000 in his bank account, and he can’t scoop up the money fast enough. When he gets home, his apartment is full of packages that have been delivered in his absence. Unfortunately for Jerry, these packages all contain weapons, ammunition, and explosives. His cell phone rings. A woman’s voice tells him he has 30 seconds to get out before the FBI comes to arrest him. And then the fun begins.

Eagle Eye is an action packed adventure, fueled by the idea that someone is monitoring every move we make (even you reading this!). There are cameras everywhere, and “they” can pick up every word you say, even when your cell phone is turned off. The only hope is to remove the battery.

This movie has chase scenes, car crashes, assassination plots, and even a little romance. It also has the most devious computer on screen since HAL made us frightened of new technology in 1968. The voice of Aria (not credited) is that of a placid woman, but she has devised a deadly plot, and carries it out with brutal efficiency.

Shia LaBeouf is fairly good in this movie. Michelle Monaghan seems out of place. Billy Bob Thornton is, well, Billy Bob Thornton. The real star is the action and the computer. It was a lot of fun. In some locations, it’s playing in IMAX and if I had the time to see it again, I’d probably do that.

Eagle Eye

Burn After Reading

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Burn After Reading is the latest movie from Joel and Ethan Coen to hit the movie theaters. It boasts a stellar cast: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and a host of other very talented actors who are not exactly household names.

The print ads for the movie carry the tag line “intelligence is relative”, and that certainly seems to be the case. Burn After Reading opens at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. John Malkovich is Osborne Cox, a long-term CIA agent about to be re-assigned. Tilda Swinton portrays Katie Cox, Osborne’s wife. She is a doctor who is involved with George Clooney’s character, whose wife is a well-known children’s book author.

Somehow, these intelligent, accomplished people get involved with Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). They are personal trainers and close friends. Neither one of them is too bright, but they are ambitious. Linda’s current ambition is to change her life by getting extensive, and expensive, plastic surgery. Thanks to a CD found in the women’s locker room at the gym, Chad and Linda cook up an improbable blackmail scheme to get the money for Linda’s surgeries. There are numerous mishaps along the way, of course.

This movie is funny and fun. The Washington D.C. locations are great (although most of the film was shot on location elsewhere). This is a great reminder that the people we rely on in this country for intelligence are as fallible and flawed as the rest of us.

Burn After Reading

Bad Girl Creek

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I had never heard of the author of Bad Girl Creek, Jo-Ann Mapson, until this book was given to me. She is, apparently, quite a popular writer and at least one of her books has been made into a TV movie.

Bad Girl Creek is set in coastal California, in a fictional town which seems to be located on the Monterey Peninsula, very likely Carmel. The setting is lovely and idyllic. There are beautiful homes and cottages by the sea. Most of the action takes place on a flower farm which Phoebe DeThomas has inherited from her aunt. Phoebe is confined to a wheelchair and is unable to run the farm alone. She takes in three roommates and their animals (a horse, a dog, and a parrot). They all agree to pay rent and work on the farm, in exchange for future profits.

The roommates come with difficult and very different backgrounds. The story is told through the perspective of each of the women, and is further divided into sections by the seasons. The women bond as the months pass. There are, of course, complications, including health scares and problematic relationships with men.

I found the writing to be a bit stilted. There were a number of grammatical issues (aren’t there copy editors?) which really annoyed me. Although the set-up and the characters seemed original, the plot developed in a rather predictable manner. However, it was a decent effort, and fine to read when I was not in the mood for a challenge. As an aside, Mapson seems to be friends with Earlene Fowler, and one of her books is referenced in Bad Girl Creek.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Simon & Schuster 2001
Softcover edition-Simon & Schuster 2002

Bad Girl Creek : A Novel

The Virgin's Lover

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The Virgin’s Lover is another historical novel by the popular British writer Philippa Gregory. Gregory has very obviously done a tremendous amount of research on British history in general, and the Tudors in particular. The Virgin’s Lover tells the story of the early years of the reign of England’s Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth was only 25 when she ascended to the throne. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She succeeded her older half-sister Mary I, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Mary died at the age of 45, leaving no heirs. For a time during Mary’s reign, Elizabeth had been imprisoned in the Tower of London. There were, of course, a number of other candidates with claims to the throne but, shortly before her death, Mary recognized Elizabeth as her heir. Elizabeth was crowned at Westminster Abbey on January 15, 1559.

Matters at the Court were not easy, particularly for a young and inexperienced Queen. Elizabeth relied heavily on her advisers, particularly William Cecil. These are the generally accepted facts. From this point on, Gregory takes the story into the realm of fiction. She presumes that Elizabeth falls in love with the married Robert Dudley (later named Earl of Leicester) and begins a passionate affair with him. This book follows the trajectory of their affair and its consequences.

Elizabeth, of course, never married (hence the sobriquet “Virgin Queen”) but, for much of her reign, she entertained various royal suitors. Most of these proposed matches were considered for political purposes. In The Virgin’s Lover, Elizabeth negotiated with emissaries from King Philip II of Spain (the widower of her late sister) as well as from the Hapsburg Archduke Charles of Austria.

This book doesn’t grab your attention like The Other Boleyn Girl. It took me a while to get into the story. For me the interest was more about life in sixteenth-century England. However, as more of the back story was revealed, and as the machinations of the Tudor court were depicted, I got more interested in the story. So, if you don’t care for this book at first, it is worth reading a bit further on.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Touchstone 2004
Softcover edition-Touchstone 2005

The Virgin’s Lover (Boleyn)

The Mandelbaum Gate

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The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark is the third book I’ve completed for the Book Awards Challenge. In 1965, it was the winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Muriel Spark is better known for writing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was made into a movie in 1969.

This novel takes place in Israel and Jordan in 1961. Barbara Vaughan is a British schoolteacher, and a convert to Catholicism. She travels to the Holy Land to go on a pilgrimage, and to visit her fiance, an archaeologist at a dig in Jordan. Freddy Hamilton is an employee at the British Consulate in Jerusalem. Since Barbara was born half-Jewish, Freddy decides that it is too dangerous for her to travel to Jordan alone. Freddy arranges for her to tour Jordan in disguise. As a consular officer, Freddy travels freely between Israel and Jordan. In 1961, Jerusalem was a divided city so Freddy’s back and forth between counties essentially consisted of walking through the eponymous Mandelbaum Gate between East and West Jerusalem.

At the same time, the trial of Adolph Eichmann is proceeding in Tel Aviv. One of Barbara’s Jewish cousins, an international lawyer, is called to Israel to consult on the case. Barbara meets with him, and attends one session of the Eichmann trial.

And there are many other peripheral characters in this book. Unfortunately when each is introduced, there is no way of knowing if the character will be integral to the story, or not. While the story is interesting, the writing seems dated and stilted. The chapters are quite long, which makes the book seem disorganized.

Now, it’s not that this is a bad book, I just think it was written in a different style than we generally see these days with popular novels. It’s a bit dated sand lightly difficult to get through. The true value of The Mandelbaum Gate is reminding us that what we now call Israel was controlled, not too long ago, by Arabs who hated Israel. The book does refer somewhat to the issue of the Palestinian refugees, but also only in a rather offhand way. I have a hard time enthusiastically recommending this book to anyone, except as a curiosity.

In USA:

Published in hard cover-Alfred A. Knopf 1965
Softcover edition-Welcome Rain Publishers 2001

The Mandelbaum Gate

Wall-E

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Wall-E, the animated Disney film, is absolutely charming. Wall-E, the robot, is irresistible. Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class has spent 700 years cleaning up the planet. He compacts and stacks the trash one cube at a time. His only companion is a plucky cockroach. In his spare time, Wall-E watches a clip from Hello Dolly! No, Wall-E is not your ordinary robot.

One day, a space ship lands and out comes Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, a state of the art probe deployed by Axiom. Wall-E is enamored of EVE, and he hitch a ride on the ship when it returns EVE to her home in space. And then the complications begin.

Like other Disney/Pixar ventures, Wall-E is extremely well done. It will appeal to all ages. There is very little dialog, but those who are too young to follow the plot will nevertheless be captivated by the the music, the action, and of course the robots. I’d recommend this to anyone, except for anyone who is really a curmudgeon.

Wall-E (Wall-E and Eve) Movie Poster Print – 24″ X 36″