Apples Are From Kazakhstan

Robbins, Christopher. Apples Are From Kazakhstan: the Land that Disappeared. New York: Atlas & Co., 2008.

I think this quote sums up Robbins’s primary reason for writing Apples Are From Kazakhstan, “Unexpectedly, vague curiosity developed into real interest during that time [two years], and continued to grow, until I became determined to visit the birthplace of the apple” (p 10). This comes after sitting next to an American who told him, “apples are from Kazakhstan.” What follows is a delightful travelogue of all things Kazakhstan. The chapters bounce around, punctuated by delightful illustrations. While Robbins uncovers the skeletons in Kazakhstan’s closet he also manages to unveil the beauty of a country few know anything about.

Quotes I really liked, “I began to wonder how many more toasts I could bang back without dying” (p 71) and “Camels now roam where ships once sailed” (p 121 ).

Side note: I think the cover is striking. At first glance it is an apple with an awkward bite of out it. Looking closer it still is an apple but the “bite” is the country of Kazakhstan with the bordering “stan” countries and the Russian Federation around it.

Reason read: Kazakhstan won it’s independence in December.

Author fact: Robbins was so moved by the statement “Apples are from Kazakhstan” that he wrote a book about the country.

Book trivia: I’ve been reading a lot of reviews that call this book In Search of Kazakhstan: the Land that Disappeared.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Where in the World Do These Books Belong” (p 262).


Bellwether

Willis, Connie. Bellwether. Read by Kate Reading. Blackstone Audio, 2009.

Funny. Funny. Funny. Sandy Foster is a sociologist working at the research corporation, HiTeck, studying trends in the form of fads. Just how do they start? When we first meet Sandy she is trying to deduce when the fad of hair bobbing first erupted. It’s a conundrum. But, the bigger conundrum is Sandy’s work relationships. While Flip is the most annoying mail clerk known to mankind Sandy finds herself quoting her. While Sandy is practically engaged to a sheep ranger she finds herself drawn to a fad resistant coworker studying chaos theory.

I don’t know what it is about the most recent audio books I have chosen to listen to but I’m on a roll picking humorous ones. The Galton Case by Ross MacDonald was great and so was Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers. Bellwether by Connie Willis is just as good, if not funnier. Listen to it. Seriously. But, make sure you are listening to the version read by Kate Reading. She is hysterical as Flip.

Reason read: Willis was born on the last day of December…

Author fact: If you check out winners of the Nebula award you will see Connie Willis’s name a few times. She’s won it at least five or six times.

Book trivia: The title of the book is really clever. Bellwether refers to the practice of putting a bell on a castrated ram who leads his flock of sheep. This bell ringing allows herders to hear them coming before they see them. So, the phenomenon of bellwether is the creation of an upcoming event or trend.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Connie Willis: Too Good To Miss” (p 246). As an aside, Nancy Pearl says her favorite Willis book is Bellwether.


Strong Poison

Sayers, Dorothy L. Strong Poison. New York: HarperPaperbacks, 1995.

Lord Peter Wimsey is at it again. Only this time in addition to solving the mystery he’s looking to fill his personal void. He wants a wife. While his methods are a bit strange (he proposes to a virtual stranger, someone he is trying to prove isn’t a murderer) you can’t help but love his enthusiasm. Harriet Vane is a mystery writer who just happens to know a thing or two about poison so when her estranged fiancee shows up dead…poisoned…guess who gets the blame? For all appearances this is an open and shut case. She had the motive and the means but Lord Wimsey thinks differently. Her first trial is thrown out due to a deadlocked jury so Wimsey has time to rebuild Harriet’s defense…and propose with the promise “I’ve been told I make love rather nicely” (p 46).

Lines I liked, “Bless you, may your shadow never grow bulkier!” (p 75) and “I merely proceed on the old Sherlock Holmes basis, that when you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbably, must be true” (p 93).

Truth be known, I like Wimsey’s butler better.

Reason read: Reading this book is a complete and utter cheat. I read it thinking it was continuing a series. The only “series” thing about it is that it features Lord Peter Wimsey again. Blah. Note to self: take the other Sayers books off the list, for now…

Book trivia: So, technically this could be called a series since Harriet shows up in later books.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Ms. Mystery” (p 170).


Billy

French, Albert. Billy. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

This is in every way the wrong kind of book to be reading at Christmas time. It’s full of racism, prejudice, violence and hate. Ten year old Billy makes a huge mistake. With twelve year old friend, Gumpy, Billy explores a local pond only to be confronted by the owner of the pond’s daughter, an older girl named Lori and her cousin. Lori is a mean white girl who doesn’t take too kindly to black boys splashing in “her” pond. The situation gets out of control and the entire novel spirals into death and disaster. It’s tragic for both families involved; for the entire community for that matter. Sadly, it’s also typical of Mississippi in 1937.

Sorry this review is so short. I really couldn’t wait to finish this book. It was so sad I didn’t pay attention to thought provoking lines. Mea culpa.

Reason read: Mississippi became a state in December and Billy takes place in Mississippi…

Author fact: Billy was Albert French’s first book.

Book trivia: This book will tear your heart out.

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


Rosalind Franklin

Maddox, Brenda. Rosalind Franklin: the Dark Lady of DNA. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

One of the very first things I learned about Rosalind Franklin is that she was destined to become a scientist of some sort. How could she not? She came from a long line of scholars. But what she didn’t inherit was the ability to be gracious. From the very beginning Franklin was called obstructive (Nancy Pearl calls her “cranky”) and people couldn’t wait to be rid of her. But, for all that she was brilliant. Brilliant at a time in society when women in general were supposed to be anything but! “…she was spared military service and allowed to remain at university, to her father’s dismay. Yet what exactly she ought to have been doing instead was hard for him to say, as a woman’s place in the war effort had not been defined” (p 71).

Best line, “She knew enough about herself to know that she liked people better when she didn’t have to live with them” (p 75).

Reason read: Rosalind Franklin was born in December 1920. I’m reading her biography in honor of the occasion.

Author fact: Brenda Maddox excels at writing biographies. In addition to Rosalind Franklin she has written about William Butler Yeats and Molly Bloom, just to name a few.

Book trivia: Rosalind Franklin: the Dark Lady of DNA was a story on NPR.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Genuine Genes” (p 96).


Women of the Raj

MacMillan, Margaret. Women of the Raj: the Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India. New York: Random House, 2007.

The title of this book says it all. In a nutshell MacMillan paints a portrait of British women during the 19th century in India under British rule. She covers all aspects of a woman’s life during the Raj from arriving by the boatload to (for some) dying in the Mutiny and everything in between. What you will discover is that McMillan’s work isn’t overly scholarly. It is more of a commentary on the social, economic and cultural dynamics of a slice of history from the perspective of a wife, daughter, sister, mother…

Interesting line, “They had psychological security of knowing where they belonged” (p 52).

Reason read: December is supposed to be a pretty good time of year to visit India.

Author fact: MacMillan has an Indian-born mother and MacMillan wrote a thesis on the British presence in India in and around the 19th century.

Book trivia: The photographs in Women of the Raj are amazing.

Sad but true story ~ I had just started reading Women of the Raj and was barely 20 pages in when I started to doze off. Drowsily I put the book on the end table above my head and settled in for a little afternoon nap. I wasn’t asleep for more than ten minutes before I was startled awake by my husband’s swearing. He had spilled a glass of water on my book. Why? A strip joint two towns away had blown up and the blast was loud enough to make my husband jump.

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


Big Mouth & Ugly Girl

Oates, Joyce Carol. Big Mouth & Ugly Girl. New York: HarperTempest, 2002

Anyone who has felt like an outcast even once in his or her life can relate to Ugly Girl. Anyone who has been caught in the crossfire of a rumor gone bad can relate to Big Mouth. Put the two of them together and you have the quintessential high school experience that we have all had. Matt opened his Big Mouth and said something terrible, so terrible he was accused of being a terrorist. Ursula walked around with a chip on her shoulder, scowling like an Ugly Girl but her insides were a different story. In her heart of hearts she knew Matt could never be the bomber everyone accused him of being so she had to say something… Together they make an unlikely pair but as rumors escalate they find out exactly how much they need each other.

The best part for me was when they became friends and then realized how much they had in common.

Reason read: Joyce Carol Oates was born in December.

Book trivia: I loved the email exchanges between Ursula and Matt.

Author fact: This is Oates’s first young adult book.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called “Best for Teens” (p 25).


Wholeness of a Broken Heart

Singer, Katie. The Wholeness of a Broken Heart. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.

This is a novel driven by character development and dependent on the past. It tells the life story of Hannah starting when she was ten years old. On the surface she is a girl growing up, becoming a woman, and struggling with a rapidly unraveling relationship with her once adoring mother. Digging deeper it is the story of several generations of women, each with her own trials and tribulations. Wrapped around all of them is their Jewish culture, their history of survival (the Holocaust, emigrating to America). Chronologically, the story moves like waves across the water. Each wave is a different generation and all of their stories wash over Hannah as the proverbial shore. The voices from the “Other World” are a little hokey but these ghosts are necessary vehicles for bringing out the truth the living characters can’t face.

Favorite lines: “My happiness spouts out of my ears, out of my skin” (p 32). What a great image. More lines, “He has a grin so full of dirt, a casket it could cover” (p 50), and “A woman can carry the whole world” (p 123).

Reason read: December is a time of many different holidays. One that I haven’t given much thought to is Hanukkah. I decided to read The Wholeness of a Broken Heart to honor that religion.

Author fact: I normally skim the acknowledgement section except when it comes to new writers. I like to see who they thank and why. Singer has an interesting thank you list. According to her she sustained her writing “primarily by house-sitting.” I found it amazing that she was able to house-sit for 21 different people. I also like that she thanks the reference department at the Santa Fe Public Library. Rock on. Oh, and one more fact – Singer is a pretty cool jewelry maker. I didn’t dare request a price sheet!

Book trivia: The title of the book comes from a Yiddish proverb, “there’s nothing more whole than a broken heart.”

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “The Jewish American Experience” (p 132).


Crossing to Safety

Stegner, Wallace. Crossing to Safety. New York: Random House, 1987.

Crossing to Safety is a story you have to stick with in order to understand. For the first 100 pages you might find yourself asking, “what is the point?” because it seems to be about two couples who have a great relationship with one another. It’s all about the ups and downs of their friendship through the years and Stegner’s characters move in and out of prose casually, almost nonchalantly. He makes assumptions that you already know them by name. There are no obvious introductions to anyone. What’s more, there is a certain carefree attitude of the first decade of their friendship as well (mid 1930s). The women of the bonded friendship, both pregnant at the same time, enjoy champagne on a picnic. As the story moves along you can’t help but be drawn into the loyalty of their friendship; the push and pull of individual need against the fabric of their woven relationship.

Favorite lines (and there were a bunch of them), “It was a toss-up who was neglecting whom” (p 84).

Reason read: Wallace Stegner went to the University of Iowa and was in the Graduate Program in Creative Writing, “the Iowa Writers’ Workshop” and Iowa became a state in December. Yes, it is a stretch but that’s what I’m doing.

Can I just say I love the picture of Wallace Stegner on the back of Crossing to Safety? Or maybe it’s just the sweater. As an aside I would like to thank Stegner for introducing me to the 1931 Marmon. What a classy (but gangster!) car!

Author fact: There is a great website dedicated to Wallace Stegner here.

Book trivia: People either love or hate the “nonplot” approach. I loved it…once I got used to it.

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


Galton Case

MacDonald, Ross. The Galton Case. Read by Grover Gardner. New York: Blackstone Audio, 2010.

I’ll see if I can sum this up without giving anything away or confusing myself. Lew Archer, private investigator, has been hired by an old friend (and lawyer) to find the missing son of a wealthy widow. The investigation appears to be pretty pointless. Son Anthony Galton ran away twenty years earlier when he married a woman not to his parents’ liking. They were so upset they ordered him to “never darken their doorstep again” which he hasn’t. Now, twenty years later mum wants to make amends and give her prodigal son his share of the inheritance…only no one can find him. Here’s what is found: Anthony took on the assumed name of John Brown and he presumably had a son of the same name, John Brown Jr. Now the real mystery is does John Brown Jr. deserve his share of the pie? Of course there are many, many more twists and turns to this mystery!

Reason read: Ross MacDonald was born in December.

Author fact: Ross MacDonald’s real name was Kenneth Millar (which makes me think of Kevin Millar).

Book trivia: I heard somewhere that someone wants to make this into a movie. I haven’t looked for evidence to support this rumor.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “I Love a Mystery” (buried on page 122).


Tattered Cloak

Berberova, Nina. The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels. Translated by Marian Schwartz. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

The Tattered Cloak is one of six novels in Berberova’s book of the same name. Well, she calls them novels. Each story is under 100 pages so ‘novella’ might be a better description. The six stories are as follows (with my favorites being the first two),

  • “The Resurrection of Mozart” ~ theĀ  coming of World War II
  • “The Waiter and the Slut” ~ one woman’s tragic effort to stave off loneliness and growing old
  • “Astashev in Paris” ~
  • “The Tattered Cloak”
  • “The Black Pestilence” and,
  • “In Memory of Schliemann”

All stories are written in that traditional stark Russian way. Most of the stories leave you hanging in that, “and then what happened?” kind of way. For example in “The Resurrection of Mozart” the reader is left asking did they escape the war or did they wait too long?

Lines I loved: “…and Maria Leonidovna felt that he was about to tell her something she would remember for the rest of her life” (p 23) and “I feared life and I believed in it” (p 166).

Reason read: December 31st 1976 was the coldest day in Russia. I’m reading a Russian author to celebrate frigid Russia.

Author fact: Berberova emigrated to America after living in Paris.

Book trivia: None of the libraries in my immediate area had a copy of The Tattered Cloak. My copy came from the Brookline Public Library.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Russian Heavies” (p 210). Interestingly enough, Pearl calls the book The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories while my copy is The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels. I think Pearl’s title is more accurate but I have to go with what’s in my hand.


Lives of the Painters, Vol 3

Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vol. 3 Translated by A.B. Hinds. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1927.

A glance through the table of contents led me to believe Vasari was on a mission to cram as many painters, sculptors and architects as he could into this third volume. Many of the chapters contain more than one artist and a few chapters contain the words “and others.” It’s almost as if volume three was supposed to be the last one and he didn’t want to miss anyone. Like previous volumes
Vasari continues the habit of getting sidetracked talking about other artists. He brings himself back to the main artist with “to return to (fill in artist here).” He definitely has a formula for writing about the artists and this formula can be dull at times but every once in awhile Vasari will include a tidbit of the artist’s personal life that gives depth to the biography. I especially liked reading about Da Vinci’s newphew Piero (or Pierino).

Quotes I liked, “But he [Francisco Mazzuoli] wasted time in seeking for what could never be found, and neglected his art to the detriment of his life and reputation” (p 6). As an aside, it was Mazzuoli who stood painting while Rome was being sacked. The Germans were so taken by his art that they let him continue to paint while they pillaged around him. Another quote I liked, “When no longer able to work, and worn out by old age, he rendered his soul to God in 1546” (p 66). One more and this is just a phrase, Michelannolo’s chapel “a stew of nudes” (p 90). Don’t you just love it?

Reason read: Continuing the Lives of the Painters series started in October to honor National Art month.

Author fact: I’ve run out of things to say.

Book trivia: Volume III contains the portrait of Giorgio Vasari which was nice to see (although he reminds me of my father-in-law).

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called “Ciao, Italia” (p 46).


Good Thief’s Guide to Vegas

Ewan, Chris. The Good Thief’s Guide to Vegas. New York: Minotaur Books, 2010.

Every time I read a Chris Ewan book I like his style more and more. Yes, his Good Thief books follow a certain formula. Writer/thief Charlie Howard gets himself into trouble time and time again and lives to write about it. Ewan can make Charlie visit every major city in the world and then some. And if Charlie ever settles down and has a kid who takes after pops…well, sky’s the limit. The trick is to make every story stand alone and Ewan does that. You won’t be missing out if you read just one (but you won’t want to). It’s definitely more fun to read them all in order.
When we catch up to Charlie Howard and his editor sidekick Victoria they are in Vegas, trying to enjoy a little holiday after being kicked out of Paris. Charlie gets himself into a little bit of trouble when he decides he wants to rob an obnoxious magician who rubbed him the wrong way. Finding a dead woman in the magician’s hotel room is only the beginning. There weren’t as many laugh-out-loud moments in this one, but it was still a pleasure to read.

No favorite lines in this one.

Reason read: To “finish” the series I started in September but truth be known, I would have read this in October, in honor of my cousin who lived on the mean streets of Vegas.

Author fact: According to the back flap Chris Ewan lives on the Isle of Man but spent his honeymoon trying his luck in Vegas. Funny how he doesn’t tell us how that turned out!

Book trivia: This is the third Good Thief book in the series.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust to Go in the chapter called “Las Vegas” (p 128).


Brush with Death

Duncan, Elizabeth. A Brush With Death.

A Brush with Death picks up where Cold Light of Mourning left off. We rejoin Penny Brannigan right after she has moved into her dear friend Emma’s cottage (Emma died in the earlier book). While cleaning and clearing out some of Emma’s belongings Penny comes across a secret Emma has kept for more than thirty years, a lesbian romance with an artist named Alys from Liverpool, England. The relationship was cut short when Emma’s beloved was killed by a hit and run driver. For years the death was ruled an accident until Penny uncovers clues indicating wicked foul play. Thus begins the mystery. Most of the same characters in Cold Light of Mourning return to help Penny solve the crime. I have to admit I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Cold Light of Mourning. I think it’s because Duncan’s main character Penny seemed to be a bit more of a busybody in this one. This one had more of a “Murder, She Wrote” feel than the other. What I appreciated the most was the continuation of a lot of details from the first book. Penny’s relationships with individuals as well as her standing in the community as the place to get a manicure. Her relationship with a boyfriend grows as does her business.

Favorite line, “We could never figure out if he leaned to the lavender” (p 237).

Reason read: to finish the “series” by Elizabeth Duncan.

Author fact: Do a Google search for Elizabeth Duncan and you get search results for a murderer. This is not that Elizabeth Duncan.

Book trivia: I wasn’t the only one who felt this “Brannigan tale” was a little predictable but I still liked it.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust to Go in the chapter called “Wales Welcomes You” (p 250).


Akhenaten Adventure

Kerr, P.B. The Akhenaten Adventure: Children of the Lamp, Book One. New York: Orchard Books, 2004.

This was really fun! I think I read the first 150 pages in only an hour. I finished the rest of the book at the end of the day. I even surprised myself.

John and Philippa are not your ordinary twelve year old twins. On the surface they look like typical rich kids living on New York’s upper east side. That is, until they both need their wisdom teeth pulled. At twelve. From there things get even more strange. Turns out, John, Philippa and their mother, Layla are from a long line of djinn. In order to explain this to the children they are shipped off to their djinn uncle in London, England. He is supposed to teach them how to control their powers, give them the history of the different tribes of djinn, and of course, get them involved in a little murder mystery on a trip to Cairo…
While this is supposed to be “just” a book for kids I found it completely entertaining. Like, how does a one-armed man pretend to tie his shoelaces? I kept picturing a movie.

Great line, “The English themselves speak a very mangled mashed-potato form of English, which has no obvious beginning and no obvious end, and is just a sort of thick mess that they dump on your plate and expect you to understand” (p 78).

Reason read: There is a really big fantasy convention that happens in November. I’m reading The Akhenaten Adventure in honor of that convention.

Book trivia: The Akhenaten Adventure is book one of the “Children of the Lamp” series. It’s the only one I’m reading.

Author fact: According to the back flap of The Akhenaten Adventure P.B. Kerr write his first story when he was ten years old. But, I think this tidbit is much cooler – he grew up without a television.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called “Fantasy for Young and Old” (p 83).