Echo House

Just, Ward. Echo House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997.

Covering three generations equaling 90  years of politics and power struggles, Ward Just follows the lives of the Behl family starting with Adolph and Constance Behl and their quest (notice I said their quest) for the White House. Adolph’s son, Axel and grandson, Alec continue the saga with their own political ambitions (although Alec goes the legal route becoming a lawyer). Supporting them, and sometimes leaving them, are the women who forever loved them, loved power and had ambitions of their own. Ward Just includes an entire host of Washington characters as well as well-known political events through history. At the center of it all is the Behl family mansion, Echo House. Built to be the next White House it is the scene of secrets of all kinds. Dirty secrets, family secrets, secrets told, secrets kept, secrets that help, secrets that hurt. While nothing terribly exciting happens it’s what doesn’t happen that makes Echo House such fun to read.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called, “Ward Just: Too Good To Miss” (p 135), and from the chapter, “Politics of Fiction” (p 189).


Lost Steps

Carpentier, Alejo. The Lost Steps. New York: Noonday Press, 1956.

The Lost Steps is about a man who takes a journey that becomes more than travel to him. Married to an actress who barely has time for anything but the stage, he takes a trip to South America with his mistress with the mission of finding primitive musical instruments for a museum curator. In the beginning of the story the man is fixated on making himself happy. For example, caught in the middle of a violent revolution where the streets are riddled with gunfire, he cannot think of getting himself to safety. Instead, he is fixated on returning to his companion for fear she has already (within minutes) taken up with someone else. Throughout the story his priorities change and he begins to imagine the wild landscape back in time, before mankind. His imagination takes him to unchartered territories that are vividly described. Carpentier’s observations are astute and he writes with remarkable clarity. The landscapes of South America are breathtaking.

Favorite lines, “When my birthday was celebrated among the same faces, in the same places, with the same song sung in chorus, the thought invariably struck me that the only difference between my previous birthday and this one was the extra candle on the cake, which tasted exactly like the last one” (p 9). “In this country, I was told, passing from power to prison was the normal thing” (p 60). “Silence is an important word in my vocabulary” (p 109).

Something else I found interesting: The New Yorker claims The Lost Steps begins in New York City yet Alejo Carpentier prefaces the story with a note that begins, “even though the site of the first chapters of this book does not call for any specific location…” (p v). The New Yorker must have gotten the New York City information from another version.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called, “Cubi Si!” (p 68).


Wonder Boys

Chabon, Michael. Wonder Boys. New York: Villard Books, 1995.

From what I understand, Wonder Boys was made into a movie. Of course, that means I haven’t seen it. I don’t even know if it was any good when it first came out.

Wonder Boys was a pleasure to read once I actually sat down to read it. The story is written from the point of view of aging, graying, heavy-weighted, writer/professor Grady Tripp but it’s really about his writing student, James Leer. James is a young, quiet, skinny, troubled, yet talented writing student who is obsessed with Hollywood suicides. Almost like a party trick he can recite style of suicide along with date of death and no one finds this strange. Somehow Leer and Grady become involved in a couple of crimes together and the rest of Wonder Boys is their journey in search of redemption and sanity. Michael Chabon’s style of writing is eloquent with a bite of sarcasm. Humor and sadness hold hands on nearly every page.

A few of my favorite passages: “Her own parents had married in 1939 and they were married still, in a manner that approximated happiness, and I knew she regarded divorce as the first refuge of the weak in character and the last of the hopelessly incompetent” (p 30), and “They weren’t my family and it wasn’t my holiday, but I was orphaned and an atheist and I would take what I could get” (p144).

BookLust Twist: Spotted a couple of times in More Book Lust – first in a chapter called, “Big Ten Country: The Literary Midwest (Pennsylvania)” (p 30). Also in “Lines that Linger; Sentences that Stick” (p 143). Just so you know, I didn’t quote the sentence that drew Ms. Pearl in. I found others I liked better.


Walls Came Tumbling Down

Deal, Babs A., The Walls Came Tumbling Down. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1968.

The Walls Came Tumbling Down is very much a late 1960s book. In the beginning I wasn’t sure I would get into it or even like it. It is the story of seven sorority sisters still living in the same small town, still friends as adults. Their friendships are tested when a skeleton of an infant is found in a wall of their sorority house. An investigation would prove the baby was hidden during a renovation that happened during a summer when only those same seven young women were living in the house – twenty-four years earlier. The majority of Deal’s book is filled with busybody gossip, small town snobbery and the uncovering of many secrets besides a hidden pregnancy and birth. Adulterous affairs, the inability to trust one another, and the growing suspicions and prejudices are all brought to light when literally and figuratively, the walls come down.

My favorite line: “I do not want to believe I fell in love with a smile” (p 56).
One of the most telling viewpoints of the times: “His secretary was Miss Wilson. She had been an airline hostess until she got too old. She was thirty-two: (p 109). Thirty-two is too old? Yikes?

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called, “Southern-Fried Fiction (Alabama)” (p 206).

ps~ I found it interesting that Babs Deal had a small obsession with what kind of cars her characters drove.


Tortilla Curtain

Boyle, T. Coraghessan. The Tortilla Curtain. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

From the very first page this book had me cringing. The back cover of Tortilla Curtain reads, “…from the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delaney into intimate contact…” The opening scene is the freak accident and it sets the tone for the entire story. To be honest I cringed my way through the entire book. Like watching a movie with one eye squeezed shut I could barely stand what devastating thing would happen next. There is nothing more tragic than misguided trust laced with preconceived notions about another individual. Reminiscent of House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III Tortilla Curtain is the story of two couples hopelessly fated to forever misjudge and distrust each other. The color of their skin provides a blinder for each pair. While how they react to their blindness differs from person to person their prejudices identically driven. Delaney Mossbacher and his second wife, Kyra, are a well-to-do couple living in the newly gated community of Arroyo Blanco. They worry about coyotes taking their family pets and the real estate market (Kyra is a successful realtor). Below them, scraping out an existence in the dessert are Candido Rincon and his wife, America, two illegal immigrants from Mexico. They worry about where they will get their next meal and when they will be sent back across the border. Two totally different worlds living within yards of one another. Inevitably the two will collide with disastrous results.

Favorite line: “He took the phone off the hook, pulled the shades and crept into the womb of language” (p 32). I wish I had more time to do just that.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called, “Growing Writers” (p 107).


Soloist

Salzman, Mark. The Soloist. New York: Random House, 1994.

I hated to put this book down. I started off reading it at the same time as two other books (which shall remain nameless), but soon I found myself favoring The Soloist over the other two. Which, when you think about it, isn’t a very smart move because when I finished The Soloist I was left with the lesser liked books.
Lesson learned. There is a reason why dessert is served at the end of the meal – save the best for last. It tastes sweeter that way. That goes for books as well, especially The Soloist. I can’t wait to read Salzman’s other books.

In a nutshell The Soloist is about a man who is struggling with who he was as a child in relation to who he has become as an adult. As a child Renne Sundheimer was a prodigy who mastered the cello and thrilled audiences world-wide. As an adult, having mysteriously lost his talent, Renne has become a cello teacher for a university in Southern California. His life revolves around the music he used to make until two completely different events happen. First, Renne is summoned to jury duty where he hears a case involving a murdered Buddhist monk. Second, Renne finds himself the tutor of another cello prodigy, a nine-year old Korean boy. In both situations Renne started out an unwilling participant. He was convinced he didn’t want to serve on a jury and planned to profess an undue hardship. He was also convinced he didn’t want to give private lessons to an introverted Korean boy. In both cases he fails to extract himself from involvement and ultimately ends up changing his life.

Favorite lines: “Human beings are primates, and primates weren’t designed to tie themselves up into knots and hold still (p 99). I’m not sure how my yoga friends would take to this comment, but I found it funny.
And the last lines of the book are perfect, “I don’t think about the past as much as I used to, and I hardly ever think further than a semester ahead. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, though. I’m starting to think that the larger picture is overrated” (p 284). Precisely.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called, “Mark Salzman: Too Good to Miss” (p 194).

Off topic comment: When Pearl introduces Salzman in her second Lust book she mentions not going to readings given by authors she likes. She is always afraid of not liking the person behind the words, or thinking of the author’s voice when reading his or her newest offering. I’m like that with music. Once I see the musician I can’t get their image out of my head and sometimes, often, it skews the music.


Tiepolo’s Hound

Walcott, Derek. Tiepolo’s Hound. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

At first glance Tiepolo’s Hound is pretty deceiving. It looks like a simple poem with gorgeous pictures. Upon closer inspection Tiepolo’s Hound becomes more complicated. One narrative becomes two. Aside from Camille Pissaro’s desire to leave St. Thomas to follow his artistic dreams, the author describes his own journey to rediscover the details of a venetian painting. The dual narration tangles the storyline and leads to an anti-climatic ending to an otherwise fascinating journey. The vivid imagery of the sights, sounds and smells of St. Thomas make the poem beautiful. The colorful descriptions of the surrounding landscapes are what successfully capture the reader’s attention and hold it until the end.

Favorite descriptor: “thunderhead cumuli grumbling with rain” (p 10)
Favorite line: “I felt my heart halt” (p 7).

Favorite aspect of the book: so many references to the sea. For example ~ blue gusting harbor, wide water, cobalt bay, quiet seas, wooden waves, furrowing whitecaps, soundless spray, sea-gnarled islets, etc, etc. Simply beautiful.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called, The Contradictory Caribbean: Paradise and Pain” (p 55).


Last Best Place

Kittredge, William and Annick Smith, ed. The Last Best Place: a Montana Anthology. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1988.

When this book first arrived I took one look at it and freaked out. How in the world did I manage to order a book that is not only 1161 pages long but also is not renewable? How would I ever get through 1000+ pages in two weeks? It was ridiculous. When I did the math it equalled out to approximately 90 pages a day in order to finish it on time. Ridiculous. Ridiculous because I was still struggling through the 900+ page biography on Winston Churchill. Luckily, Last Best Place was fun to read!
Starting with Native American Indian folklore and diary accounts of expeditions through the virgin geography of Montana Last Best Place opens in the early 1700’s. It ends with a section of contemporary poetry. The folklore was probably the dullest part. I firmly believe stories like these are best communicated orally because of their repetitious nature. First hand accounts of settlers seeking new land were the most interesting.This is not a book to read all at once. Its 1161 pages encourage random readings and not necessarily in chapter order.

Favorite lines: “Curiosity, a love of wild adventure, and perhaps also a hope of profit, for times are hard, and my best coat has a sort of sheepish hang-dog hesitation to encounter fashionable folk…” (p 170).
“The situation of a man gliding over a beautiful river in a boat always has something magical about it…(p 205).

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called, “Montana: In Big Sky Country” (p 156).


Last Lion

Manchester, William. Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill – Visions of Glory 1874-1932. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1983.

The scope of daily life during Churchill’s lifetime is covered extensively in Manchester’s Preamble and Prologue to Last Lion. The changing social scene, the evolving cultures and ever-daring fashions are included; while these details are simple,  they bog down the biography making it long and tedious. The preamble and prologue to Last Lion are like an old buggy, a very slow start. As a result the first chapter doesn’t begin until page 110.

Once the reader gets to the real beginning of Manchester’s biography on Churchill the story is fascinating. Manchester does an amazing job including photographs and letters to illustrate Churchill’s fascinating life. Manchester’s style of writing flows freely. Humor gives the biography a certain sparkle.

Favorite lines, “Churchilll could be very difficult. When a plane was preparing to land and the NO SMOKING sign flashed on, he would light up a cigar. If he found himself driving in a traffic jam, he wheeled his car out on the shoulder or sidewalk and drove to the head of the line” (p 27). While those situations would annoy the crap out of me I couldn’t help but laugh at them, too.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called, “Winston Churchill” (p 44). Go figure.


Plague

Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage Books, 1948.

I have to start off by saying I was shocked to discovery my library does not have a copy of The Plague in its collection. I don’t know why that surprises me, but it does. Maybe I will donate my copy?

In relation to timeline The Plague is simple. It covers the duration of a bubonic plague. The story begins with the death of rats. First, a few rats are found here and there until they are everywhere; dying by the thousands all across the Algerian city of Oran. Then, the plague increases in intensity and starts killing hundreds of people until finally, colder temperatures arrive and the plague is mercifully over. But, The Plague on a philosophical level is much deeper than the spread of a disease. Dr. Bernard Rieux is a doctor trying to save the community of Oran from the ravages of a plague. Even though Dr. Rieux patiently tries to care for everyone in the makeshift infirmaries most of his patients die. It appears to be a losing battle. Soon it is obvious the bigger question on Dr. Bernard Rieux’s mind concerns humanity. For him, the struggle between good and evil is all apparent. He observes how people react to the disease, are influenced by the disease, and are changed by the disease. In the end, the whole point of the didactic lesson for Dr. Rieux is that we all need someone. Rieux’s biggest discovery is that he is content to continue the crusade against any disease, any suffering, any pain or death.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called, “100 Good Reads, Decade by Decade: 1940s” (p 177).

Confessional: Maybe this is my 21st century thinking, but I ridicule the idea of a man’s mother coming to keep house for him while his wife is ill. Can’t the man cook or clean for himself?


Dingley Falls

 Malone, Michael. Dingley Falls. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1980.

I chose Dingley Falls in honor of National Author’s Day being in November. Nothing more random than that.

Even if you didn’t know anything about Michael Malone you would swear his novel, Dingley Falls, is supposed to be a script, or at least the backdrop, to a titillating, slightly scandalous soap opera. The town of Dingley Falls, fictitiously located somewhere in Connecticut, is teeming with odd characters with even more bizarre stories to tell. It is as if the entire community has digested some mild altering hallucinogenic that causes everyone to come unglued. To give a few examples, mild-mannered Mrs. Abernathy suddenly ends up under a tree in the pouring rain having wild sex with a poet she has just met; post mistress Mrs. Haig is forced to retire because of a bad heart. It’s not the job that is stressing her out, it’s a snapping, snarling dog who chases her home five nights a week; Headmaster Mr. Saar has trouble controlling his sexual appetite and will wind up handcuffed to a bed in a seedy motel in New York City, naked and dead, if he isn’t careful. Mrs. Ransom tries masturbation for the very first time only to have some stranger catch her in the act.
The list of characters goes on and on, so much so that Malone needed to list his crazy community individual by individual at the start of his book.

When you discover Michael Malone has years and year of experience as the senior writer for One Life to Live then Dingley Falls begins to make sense. The heightened drama, the outrageous characters, the never-ending bizarre situations in Dingley Falls suddenly become par for the course…just a little more graphic with the sex scenes and violence, the things you can’t show as vividly on daytime television.

Favorite lines: “The elderly shut-in bought a new car every year – each racier than the last – as if she thought she could outdrag death if she only had the horsepower” (p 94). “‘Did you know that until I drink this cup of coffee, anything you know is knowing too much?'” (p 145). “He drank in order to pose count; not like Walter Saar, to get in touch with who he was, but to stay out of touch with who he might have been” (p 157).

BookLust Twist: In Book Lust and More Book Lust. This is a popular book in Pearl’s world. First, from Book Lust in the chapter called, “Southern Fiction” (p 222). From More Book Lust in the chapter called, “Michael Malone: Too Good To Miss” (p 160).


Invitation to Indian Cooking

Jaffrey, Madhur. An Invitation to Indian Cooking. New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1999.

I have to start off by saying I love Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbooks. I own several and all of them are well-organized and beautifully illustrated (or have gorgeous photographs).

An Invitation to Indian Cooking might have been a more accurate title had it included the subtitle Getting to Know Indian Cuisines and Ingredients because Jaffrey not only invites you into the world of Indian cuisine she also includes history lessons and ingredient explanations in addition to recipes. While her tone is conversational I found it to be a little didactic at times. Her claims that Americans, on the whole, don’t know what well-prepared rice tastes like is one such example. Another drawback to An Invitation to Indian Cooking is its out-of-date information. Basmati rice, Jaffrey recommends, is readily available at specialty stores. That may have been true in 1973 when her first cookbook was published, but I expected the reprint to have some updated information. I also find it hard to believe that out of 50 states only 12 have stores that carry authentic Indian ingredients.
But, having said all that, I love the recipes Jaffrey includes in her first cookbook. I like her attention to detail and her comparisons between American and Indian products. For example, Jaffrey points out that American chicken is more tender than chicken purchased in India, therefore traditional Indian cooking techniques would not work well on an American-raised bird.

“The chicken available in American markets is so tender that it begins to fall apart well before it can go through the several stages required in most Indian recipes” (p 86).

If you are ambitious enough to make several Indian recipes at the same time Jaffrey includes a series of different menus to try.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust  in the chapter called, “India: a Reader’s Itinerary” (p 125).


Caddie Woodlawn

Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn. New York: Scholastic, Inc. 1973.

Thanks to Phish and a midnight show I was able to read this in one night (my other November books hadn’t arrived yet). While Kisa listened to a live show from California I was nose-in-book for a few hours. This was cute and completely reminded me of the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Caddie Woodlawn is the quasi-true story about Caroline “Caddie” Woodlawn. I say quasi because Brink got her stories from her grandmother and she changed some of the details for the sake of the plot. Caddie is Brink’s grandmother (with a slight name change). As an impetuous, spunky tomboy, Caddie would rather run wild with her two oldest brothers rather than stay home and cook and sew with her more demure sisters. The whole book is about Caddie’s struggle to balance wanting to be a good girl while being a natural wild child.
The year is 1864 and the Civil War is raging to an end in the East while a different prejudice is infiltrating the midwest. The conflict between Native American Indians and the white man who invaded their territory is being fueled by ignorance, rumors and fear. Caddie is eleven years old and coming of age at a time when the country is doing the same thing.

Favorite line, “She whipped out her ruler, and laid it sharply across that section of Obediah’s person on which he was accustomed to sit” (p 68).

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the introduction (p x).


Just So Stories

Kipling, Rudyard. The Complete Just So Stories. New York: Viking, 2003.

It took me a very long time to find a version of Just So Stories  that had the exact stories I was looking for. My library has a book that it calls Just So Stories but isn’t the complete volume of all stories. It’s missing the two crucial stories I needed for the Book Lust Challenge, ” How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was Made.” 

Despite being published in 1902 I am glad I found a 2003 republication. Isabelle Brent’s illustrations are wonderful! She took some liberties modernizing Taffy and her father who were supposed to be ancient tribal people, but her depictions of animals are accurate and her use of color is great.

I only read two stories from Just So Stories, “How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was Made.” Both were incredibly fun to read, especially aloud. Kipling pokes fun at the stereotypes of parents and children with names like, “Lady-who-asks-a-very-many-questions” for the mother and “Small-person-with-out-any-manners-who-ought-to-be-spanked”  for the child. In both stories the theme is the need for better communication skills and are meant to be read together. The first letter makes up the alphabet later on and one story is a continuation of the other. Rumor has it that both “How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was Made” started out as oral stories, told to Kipling’s daughter Josephine in 1900.

Favorite line: “We must make the best of  bad job” (p 70 from “How the First Letter was Written”).

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called, “Alphabet Soup” (p 11).


The Life You Save

Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

What do Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy have in common? For starters, they are all authors who struggled not only with identity, but religious faith as well. It’s this search for religious truth through writing that binds them together. They conducted their searches and tested boundaries of Catholicism through the art of writing.  Mary Flannery O’Connor began her writing career in Georgia at a very young age and was considered a prodigy by many: Thomas Merton, just a couple of states north in Kentucky began his writing as a Trappist monk who wrote letters about his faith: Dorothy Day, while older than all the others, founded the Catholic Worker newspaper in New York: Walker Percy started out as a doctor in the furthest south of them all, in New Orleans, but quit medicine to become novelist. In time the group became known as the School of the Holy Ghost because of their pursuit of the answers to religion’s biggest questions. Paul Elie brings that School of the Holy Ghost back together again in a 2003 book called The Life You Save May Be Your Own containing biographies and literary criticisms of all four writers. Elie does a great job detailing all four lives and the times they lived in, but is more thorough with the women than the men. Flannery O’Connor gets the most attention while Thomas Merton gets the least.

I didn’t find any quotes that really spoke up or out, but my favorite part was Elie’s breakdown of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I am almost tempted to read it again now that I have a better understanding of Percy and what he was trying to say.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called, “Group Portraits” (p 109).