Monday, May 30, 2011


The title refers to a community that lies beneath a reservoir in Vermont. As a teenager, the main character, Cath, glimpsed the underwater buildings from her grandfather's boat. This experience leaves a lasting impression, especially as Cath delves into her grandmother's submerged past, gleaning intimate knowledge of her grandmother's life by reading her grandmother's diaries. Georgia, the grandmother, was confined to a TB sanitarium while she was a young woman, and there she fell in love with a charismatic, dying young man. After her release, Georgia married her much older physician, John. Their marriage came about partly due to John's misunderstanding and manipulation. As these facts come to light, Cath realizes that Georgia's marriage flourished, despite its shaky foundation. Both women lost their mothers at an early age. After Georgia's mother succumbed to cancer, she scoffed at the opportunity to live with their grandparents, as she had been running the household throughout her mother's illness. Cath's mother, Georgia's daughter, is schizophrenic, and Cath does move in with Georgia and John after her mother commits suicide. There are scads of other parallels. Both women become involved with young men in relationships that they know are flawed, and like Georgia, Cath is eventually sent away, not to a sanitarium, but to Paris to stay with her aunt Rue. Cath perhaps starts to realize what's important in her own life after becoming aware of Georgia's struggles. With three grown children and two ex-husbands, she has a chance to reinvent herself.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


The first half of this book, which takes place in Paris, ends with the tearful separation of mother and daughter. The second half, which takes place in Hungary and the Ukraine, begins with the tearful reunion of another mother/daughter pair. In fact, there are innumerable separations and reunions throughout the book, as lovers quarrel and reconcile, and conscripted soldiers depart and return, if they survive the torture and inhumane conditions they are forced to endure. The main character is a young Hungarian Jew, Andras Levi, who receives an unexpected scholarship to study architecture in Paris in the late 1930s. There he meets and falls in love with a Hungarian ballet instructor, Klara, with a daughter almost as old as he, and a secret past that prohibits Klara's return to Hungary. Just as he is beginning to earn some kudos for his talent at school, Andras finds that he must return to Hungary, now a Nazi ally, to renew his visa. We learn at that point that he will never reside in Paris again. The second half of the book recounts his several stints in various work camps where atrocities abound, from officers skimming vital food and supplies from the supply trains, to the senseless murder of children in an orphanage. Andras and his friend Mendel create a humorous and semi-subversive newsletter to help bolster morale, and one of Mendel's articles describes a bridge, purportedly designed by Andras, that is invisible to enemy troops. This bridge could be a symbol of any number of things—the connection between loved ones, the link between the past and the present, and the fragile line that divides those lucky enough to survive from those who perish. This period of human history was a mine field, where the path to safety was indeed invisible.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A LITTLE YELLOW DOG by Walter Mosley

Easy (short for Ezekiel) Rawlins has friends in both high and low places. With these connections, he has a good job as a school custodian supervisor and can also round up someone to watch his back when he knows the situation will be dicey. Despite his connections, he is unacquainted with the nattily dressed man who turns up dead at the school. Then Easy discovers the body of the dead man's twin brother, and I was sure that it was all going to boil down to a case of mistaken identity. The dog in the title is Easy's nemesis and a pawn in all the shenanigans, placed in Easy's care by the dog's owner, who happens to be the wife of the second dead man. I had some difficulty keeping up with who was who and where they went and why, but this confusion didn't detract from the story all that much. Easy is an appealing character, and I loved the dialog, especially how Easy varies his dialect to fit the situation and the listeners. And his name is appropriate, because he's certainly "easy" with regard to his dalliances with women.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

THE ICE MAIDEN by Edna Buchanan

I'll grant you this was a page-turner, but in the end it was somewhat predictable and not very satisfying. Britt Montero is a Miami crime news reporter who stumbles onto a possible key to an old murder case. Two teenagers, a boy (Ricky) and a girl (Sunny), were beaten, shot, and left for dead. Sunny crawled to help and survived. She's the Ice Maiden of the title, as she has become an artist and is creating an ice sculpture when Britt meets her. Meanwhile, Britt has personal problems of her own, since the head of the Cold Case Squad has apparently stolen her boyfriend and has put the quietus on her staff's pursuit of Ricky's murderers. I think this rivalry could have made for a juicier subplot, but it's really very tangential. Other red herrings include the bumping off of an informant that is ultimately a random act of violence. So why put it in there at all? Then there's a subplot that seems superfluous but isn't, in which a friend's violent husband has been released from prison early.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THE WOODS by Harlan Coben

This is not a perfect mystery, because I did guess one piece of the puzzle. However, it's still an absorbing page-turner with a rekindled romance thrown in for good measure. Paul Copeland is now a county prosecutor in New Jersey, but in his youth he was a murder suspect. Four teenagers disappeared from a summer camp, but the bodies of only two were ever found. Paul's sister Camille was one of the missing two. Paul's life has been no picnic ever since. His mother disappeared after Camille went missing, Paul's wife died of cancer, and his father has also just passed away. His 6-year-old daughter and his fast-track career are the only bright spots. When the other missing person, Gil Perez, turns up under an alias in the morgue, the 20-year-old case resurfaces, although the alleged murderer is behind bars. Paul reconnects with Lucy, his former girlfriend who distracted him from his bed check duties that fateful night at camp. She's now a college professor with a drinking problem. And if this isn't enough to hold your attention, Paul is in the middle of a trial of a couple of frat boys accused of raping a stripper. Sound familiar?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

BODY OF LIES by Iris Johansen

I picked up Iris Johansen's Body of Lies by mistake. I thought that it was the basis for the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. Anyway, it was not a bad read for a formulaic mystery. There's one character, Nathan, supposedly a reporter, who keeps hanging around, and it is a little too obvious that he is not who he claims to be. The two main characters are Eve Duncan and Joe Quinn, and this book is apparently one in a series about these two. Eve is a forensic sculptor, which means that she uses clay to re-create faces from human skulls for identification purposes. In this book, she takes on a job in order to get away from Joe, who has lied to her about the death of her daughter. We know, of course, that they're going to reconcile, but, in the meantime, Sean Galen, a capable ex-con with good instincts, has been assigned to protect her from unsavory characters who don't want Eve to complete her project. Galen enjoys taunting Quinn with innuendoes about Galen's relationship with Eve, and they all cheat death a few times. Mindless entertainment is therapeutic sometimes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

SAVING FAITH by David Baldacci

This thriller comes under the heading of mindless entertainment. It's implausible and predictable but tense, especially the opening. Our hero, Lee Adams, is a muscled, handsome private investigator who's been anonymously hired to follow Faith Lockhart, a beautiful Washington lobbyist. The plot didn't really make sense to me, but basically, some renegade CIA agents, led by Robert Thornhill, are trying to kill Faith, and Lee is getting in the way. It's a no-brainer that Lee and Faith will fall in love and ride off into the sunset, but the pages in-between are action-packed, as Lee gets to use his boxing skills against a karate expert, and Faith gets to take one for her boss/mentor, Danny Buchanan. The FBI are on the side of the good guys, although someone in that organization is leaking Faith's whereabouts to Thornhill. The identity of the mole is one of the few surprises in the book, as the author leads us down a couple of dead-end paths. Buchanan categorizes members of Congress as Believers, Townies, and Zombies. It would be useful to have this insider information about our own representatives when we go to the polls.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Three women, Eliza, Nell, and Cassandra, of different generations, are on a journey of discovery. Each travels to a cottage on the Blackhurst Manor estate in Cornwall. Eliza is plucked from a Dickensian childhood in the late 1800s to her rightful home at Blackhurst, where her mother was the apple of her brother's eye. Eliza becomes the companion of Rose Mountrachet at the manor, but retires to the cottage when her role as Rose's confidante is filled by Rose's new husband. Eliza is known as the Authoress, writing fairy tales that stem from the experiences of her own rags-to-almost-riches life. Nell is a child in the first chapter of the book, abandoned by the Authoress on a ship bound for Australia. On her 21st birthday, the man who raised her tells her that he is not her father and that he knows nothing about Nell's real family. This revelation sets Nell on a quest to discover her roots and the reason for her solo voyage long ago, armed just with a first edition of Eliza's collection of fairy tales that was in her suitcase on the ship. While in England, she recognizes Rose's portrait as that of her mother and proceeds to buy Eliza's cottage, with the full intention of moving there from Australia. However, an abandoned child comes into her own life—her granddaughter Cassandra. When Nell dies, leaving her the cottage, Cassandra, too, travels to Cornwall and finds that restoring the garden at the cottage helps restore her own life, providing a distraction from the well of grief that she has sunken into. This novel is sort of a braid of these three women's lives that Morton unwinds for us, just as Cassandra untangles the overgrowth and the secrets of the cottage. The book is slightly confusing, in that it is difficult to keep up with each woman's progress in fitting together the pieces of the puzzle, but it doesn't really matter who is unraveling what. Fortunately for the reader, Morton heads up each chapter with an approximate date, so that we at least know whose story we are about to resume. This book reminds me of A. S. Byatt's Possession, one of my all-time favorites, but with occasional fairy tales, rather than poems, interspersed throughout the book.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I loved A.S. Byatt's Possession, but The Virgin in the Garden was somewhat of a grind to read. Like Possession, it's quite long, and it's written in a style that seems more 19th than 20th century. The plot, on the other hand, is quite modern, with lots of sexual promiscuity, even though it takes place in the early 1950s. The title has a double meaning, referring both to Elizabeth I, who is the subject of a play that is being rehearsed, and to the main character, 17-year-old Frederica, who becomes increasingly obsessed with losing her virginity. Frederica is appropriately cast as the young Elizabeth in the play. Frederica and her sister Stephanie both have a crush on Alexander, the author of the play, and a colleague of their father's. Stephanie's story is actually less tedious than Frederica's. Daniel, the fat local curate, asks Stephanie to marry him, and she consents, even though she doesn't share his faith. In fact, her father is a stanch atheist and appalled at her choice of a husband and Stephanie's abandonment of an academic life. The girls also have a brother, Marcus, who is clearly mentally ill and spurred on by his friend Lucas Simmonds, who is even more profoundly deranged. (Simmonds thinks that Marcus has magical powers, and I find it amusing that Marcus's family's last name is Potter!) I had to reread the Prologue, which takes place 15 years later, after finishing the book. Several characters are noticeably missing in the aftermath, and I guess I'll have to read the three sequels to find out what happened to them. Not.

Friday, May 6, 2011

SNOW by Orhan Pamuk

The poet Ka, after years of political exile in Germany, is back in Turkey to cover the political situation and a suicide epidemic in Kars for a German newspaper. He also wants to convince the beautiful Ipek, recently divorced, to marry him. A snowstorm has cut the impoverished town off from the rest of the world, leaving it vulnerable to a possibly violent clash between the secular government and the Islamic fundamentalists. Over the course of Ka's stay, an actor stages a couple of theatrical productions in which the bullets may be real. A newspaper reports deaths before they happen. A charismatic Islamic revolutionary named Blue is in town and may be responsible for the murder of the Institute of Education's director, an event which Ka witnessed in a café. Blue may be the lover of Ipek's almost equally beautiful sister, Kadife, the leader of the headscarf girls, who have been prohibited by the state from covering their heads at the public colleges. A lot happens in a 3-day span, but I still felt as though I were trudging through snow myself. I frequently had to reread passages because my mind started to wander. This is not an easy or fast read, and I don't think it's just because it's a translation. Reading this book requires a lot of thinking, and many of the situations, except for being snowed in, which happened here in Atlanta in January, seem so alien. Ka has walked into an intrigue-filled battleground, and the line between the good guys and the bad guys is very blurred. In fact, he could be a hero or an assassination target himself. The conflict over religion is not that foreign, either, nor are the stereotypes, such as the belief that the intelligentsia are all atheists and the fundamentalists are all poor. Ka is accused by the boys at a religious school of being an atheist, but the snow makes him think of God. In fact, he is churning out poetry all of a sudden, after a long drought, and claims that the inspiration is not coming from within. Actually, his faith, or lack thereof, seems to vary, depending on the listener. One thing we know for sure: he's not comfortable with happiness. Ipek finally agrees to accompany him back to Frankfurt, but Ka seems to do everything in his power to prevent that from happening. In fact, many of the characters are self-destructive, including Ipek, who harbors a secret, futile passion.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


The imagery and lyrical language evoke the Indian landscape beautifully, but for me the prose was too choppy, and the same goes for the plot. The author tells the story in bits and pieces ("small things") non-sequentially with insufficient clues sometimes as to whether the main characters, Rahel and her fraternal twin brother Estha, are children or adults. Also, the death of their cousin Sophie bisects their childhood into before and after. Sophie's funeral takes place at the beginning, and the rest of the book tells of the events leading up to her death and to the banishment of Estha to live with his father. One of the repeated themes in the book is that we talk about the small things and leave the big things unsaid. This truism and numerous other phrases and images, including descriptions of Estha's and Rahel's hairdos, are repeated throughout the book in different settings. From the title I would think perhaps that this is the story of the small things that compose the characters' lives, but the horrific defining events are actually quite big things. The book is supremely sad, and I'll never look at a movie theatre snack counter in quite the same way again.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


A man lives near the Tumen River, the border between China and North Korea. He gathers ginseng to sell and also has a small farm. His solitary life is interrupted by the increasing numbers of people who cross the river into China to find food or perhaps a new life. One is a prostitute that he now prefers at the brothel he visits once a month when he takes his ginseng to market. Another is a child who could be the prostitute's daughter. The understated prose of this novella belies the tragedy of the North Korean refugees. The only person's name mentioned in the book is Mrs. Wong, the madam of the brothel, and all of her employees are known as Mrs. Wong as well. When she feels that she can no longer harbor the woman that the ginseng hunter favors, Mrs. Wong offers to sell the woman to him. Although tempted, he dreads the further disruption that this addition to his household will cause. In the meantime, the prostitute disappears, and the ginseng hunter undergoes a fruitless search for her in the places that she has mentioned in the tales of her past. The book is rife with symbolism, not all of which I can probably interpret correctly. One is the absence of names and the assignment of one name to many women. Perhaps this is indicative of the loss of identity or even of the North Koreans' humanity. Another obvious symbol is the ginseng root itself, whose age partly determines its value, but more importantly, must be extricated from the earth in a very painstaking manner so that it is completely intact. This says something to me about the fragility and value of human life. The ginseng hunter's life is certainly broken, cut off from personal relationships, and this disconnection has rendered him emotionally torn about how to handle the unwanted responsibilities that have cropped up. Or the author could be saying something about how the North Koreans are being uprooted, severing connections with family and friends, to avoid starvation. There's also a parable in which the ginseng hunter as a child painted the backs of 2 large ants, one blue and one red. Later he dug into the colony, fruitlessly trying to find them again, only to have them reappear much later when he know longer expected to see them again. He obviously holds out hope that the prostitute will reappear in the same manner.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

EMPIRE SETTINGS by David Schmahmann

Five narrators give their spin on Durban, South Africa, during apartheid and after, when they have all gone their separate ways. Three of the narrators are members of the Divin family—mother Helga and her two children, Danny and Bridget. The other two are Baptie, the Divins' servant, and Santi, the daughter of a neighbor's servant. I liked this format and found each new perspective enlightening. Danny has 2 segments, and in the second one, the story lagged a bit as it sank into the clichĂ© of a forbidden love story (with Santi). However, the exuberant finale brought me back to a solid thumbs-up. Another character whose story could/should have been included was that of Tesseba, who meets Danny on a bus after his U.S. visa has expired and volunteers to marry him so that he can avoid deportation. Also noteworthy is the fact that the Divins, particularly Helga, are well-known proponents of social reform. Paradoxically, their servants' quarters are in serious disrepair and among the least inhabitable in the neighborhood, while Silas Divin struggles financially as an exporter during the U.S. embargo. After his death, Helga marries the wealthy, arrogant Arnold, who makes frequent generous offers with no intention of actually making good on them. At least we can rely on him for a little comic relief, until he enlists Danny's help in the dangerous and illegal mission of getting Helga's inheritance out of South Africa.

Monday, May 2, 2011


Tracy Chevalier's novel is a fictitious background story for Johannes Vermeer's famous painting. The tale is plausible enough, told from the perspective of the girl in the painting. Griet is a teenager in 1664 who becomes a maid in the service of Vermeer's family, but the artist recognizes when he meets her that she is a good observer of color. She has placed her chopped vegetables in the shape of pie wedges, so that adjacent colors in the wheel are not similar. The prose is unpretentious and straightforward, evocative of the well-mannered Griet, making this book a quick read. I thought it rather predictable, especially with regard to the hurtful mischief that Vermeer's daughter Cornelia stirs up and the eventual role that Griet earns as Vermeer's assistant. Of course, we know from the outset that he will paint her, and it was handy to have a photo of the painting on the cover as a reference.