Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Grave Surprise

By Charlaine Harris

The second in the new series by Harris, the first being Grave Secret.
Harper Connelly had the misfortune of being struck by lightning when she was fifteen. In addition to some debilitating physical side effects from the event such as headaches and weakness, Harper gained the ability to sense the presence of dead bodies and their cause of death. She now uses her ability to help the police and relatives of missing persons, assisted by her step-brother, Tolliver.
In this story, Harper is hired by a college professor to locate bodies in an old graveyard. The records for the graveyard had been long lost but were recently found. The professor, Clyde Nunley, wants to use the graveyard to prove that Harper is a fake. Too bad for the professor when she correctly locates and reveals the cause of death for each grave they look at. At the last grave, Harper senses the presence of two bodies, one of which is a little girl, a little girl who has been missing for almost two years, a little girl named Tabitha.
Harper already was familiar with this missing person. She was hired by the girl's family when Tabitha first went missing but Harper was unable to locate her at that time. Harper and her brother, Tolliver, get the creepy feeling that it is no coincidence that they were taken to the site of Tabitha's grave. What they have to try to figure out now is who gave their names to Nunley and how that person is connected to Tabitha's death. Things become even more dangerous when Harper finds a newly dead body in the same grave Tabitha had recently occupied.
Not only does Harper need to unravel the mystery surrounding Tabitha and her family but she also takes a closer look at her relationship with her stepbrother, Tolliver. And what about the new man in her life, the very pierced and telepathic Manfred, who seems like he would very much enjoy spending time with Harper.
This is only the second book by Harris that I have read and having started with the vampire series and not liking it that much, I didn't really expect much from this book. I am pleased to say that I enjoyed it very much and will look for others in the Harper Connelly series.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Definitely Dead

By Charlaine Harris

This is the sixth book in Charlaine's vampire series, but the first one I have read.
Sookie is a waitress who can read minds. Her ability has lead her into a life of danger and intrigue involving vampires, were-creatures, fairies, demons, witches and who knows what else.
In this story, Sookie has to go to New Orleans to deal with her dead cousin Hadley's affairs. She also investigates the circumstances that lead to Hadley's death. Hadley, by the way, was a vampire and the homosexual lover of the queen of the vampires of Louisiana. While in New Orleans, Sookie is required to attend a party given by the queen and her new husband, the vampire king of Arkansas. Sookie also has a hunky new boyfriend, a were-tiger named Quinn.
Here is a typical day in the life of Sookie: Meet your cousin's landlady and discover she is a witch. Find a dead body in your cousin's closet. Discover the body is actually not dead but is a newly-created vampire and he is just waking up very, very hungry. Get attacked and bitten by said vampire, who also turns out to be the missing employee of your new boyfriend. Go to the hospital to get bandaged up and find out your old boyfriend, Bill, only seduced you because he was ordered to by the queen of the vampires. Walk home from the hospital, leaving without seeing a doctor, and break in to your dead cousin's apartment because you don't have a key and are too upset to ask for help, and finally, wake up the next morning to find your fairy godmother is lying in your bed with you.
The story reminded me of Laurell K. Hamilton's work. She writes similar stuff. Except Charlaine's story doesn't have the graphic sex or quite as much mayhem as Hamilton's. Also, although I may not be remembering correctly, but I don't think Laurell has fairies or demons in her stories. But other than that, it was really similar.
The problem I had with the story, coming into it so far along in the series, was keeping track of all the characters and their relationship to Sookie. I picked up the book because it was recommended to me as a funny read. I didn't find it funny or even mildly amusing, so that was disappointing. Also, I am not a big fan of vampire fiction. But neither of those things are this novel's fault. Nevertheless, I have to say I didn't really care for this story. I didn't hate it, but I won't be looking to read the other five stories in the series.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

This collection of stories won the Pulitzer Prize for 1966.
What a chore it was wading through this dismal collection of short stories and short novels. For the most part the stories are pretty depressing. I read fiction to be entertained. I was not entertained by any of these often grim stories. When it comes to grim reality, I have enough of that in real life. I don't need it in fiction too. I was not moved or touched or inspired or anything except relieved when I finally waded through the last depressing page. The only thing positive that I can say is that Porter paints a vivid scene.
I did come across a couple words I didn't know. One word was "pawky" as in "He went on in his pawky way trying to make clear to her his mystical faith..." According to what I found online, pawky means cunning, tricky. Another word was "quid" as in "He sat on the steps, shot his quid into the grass..." Quid means a chew of tobacco.
I also found a couple of interesting ideas in the stories, one in which she says, "And she brought it on herself by drinking lemon and salt to stop her periods when she wanted to go to dances." I had never heard of this before and I could find nothing online about using lemon and salt to stop menses.
The other strange idea is this one, "At Easter we ate only pork in contempt of the Jews..." Is this where the tradition of eating ham at Easter came from, to spite the non-pork-eating Jews? I had never heard this before and I couldn't find anything online to verify it.
If you enjoy wallowing in human misery, then you'll probably like the stories of Katherine Anne Porter.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Shattered Dreams: My LIfe as a Polygamist's Wife

By Irene Spencer

This is Irene's story of her experience as the second wife of a man who eventually had 10 wives. Both Irene and her husband were members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect that believes in the polygamy espoused by the founders of the Mormon religion. It is a pretty far-out doctrine which I find amazing that anyone would ever believe came from God and not from the unbridled lusts of a bunch of dirty old men. According to the author, Brigham Young claimed that there are spirits in the universe that need bodies to inhabit and that it is the duty of righteous men and women to provide these bodies and the best way to do that is through polygamy. They also were taught that men could become gods if they married at least two women (although seven or more is better) and had as many kids as possible. (Never mind that the ratio of men to women is about 50/50 so if one man has 10 wives then nine men must have none. Irene's man proves the ratio: he had 29 sons and 29 daughters.) As for the women, they could only become goddess if they help their man have as many wives and children as possible. They were also taught the "law of purity" that required abstinence from sexual relations before marriage and after becoming married during pregnancy, lactation, menses and after menopause. Of course the real reason for the purity law is to take some of the pressure off the man who is trying to service his herd of women and give him a break from his sexual duties. In Irene's case, she and her man only had sex to get her pregnant. She had thirteen kids with him and probably had sex with him less than thirty times in the more than two decades they were together.
Irene was raised in this strange sect and when she turned seventeen she decided she wanted to be a polygamist's wife. So she married her half-sister's husband. Right away she was miserable. Seems like her new man had neither the time or resources to spend on his new wife. Also the first wife didn't like sharing. But so what? That didn't stop him from going out and getting new wives over the course of the years. He ended up with 58 kids before he died at the age of 51. When I read he had died young, I figured it was from exhaustion. (It wasn't, he died in a car crash.)
This man dragged his wives and kids from place to place, from shack to shack, always short of money, making his families live on beans and little else, dozens of them crowded into one small house, living without electricity or indoor plumbing or even running water. Everyone worked like dogs trying to raise food and earn money to support the herd. It was never enough. Every time they would get a little ahead, he lead them off to another and usually worse place.
Even though Irene wanted to live the polygamous life, she found she didn't really have the temperament for it. She always felt neglected and very lonely. She longed for intimacy with her man and rarely got it. Every time he brought a new women into the herd, it tore Irene up. Her life was one of constant deprivation and labor and bearing so many babies nearly wrecked her health. She wanted to do what she thought was the right thing but she became so depressed she longed to die. Still, she stuck by him, even though, towards the end, she longed to escape.
This is an amazing story of Irene's journey through polygamy and fanatical religion and out to sanity and peace of mind and spirit. It is a story of love, hard work, endurance and survival. It is also an enlightening look at how people can be controlled and ruled by beliefs that seem silly to outsiders looking in. I felt sorry for Irene, but I couldn't help thinking that she only got what she wanted. She wasn't forced into polygamy. She saw how miserable it made her mother. She bought into the fantasy but she sure did bruise herself on the reality. If you are at all curious about Mormon polygamy then this is the book for you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Keepers of the House

By Shirley Ann Grau

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1965.

The Howlands have lived and prospered in central Alabama since the early days of the 1800s. The first William Howland settled there and built his home. He was killed by Indians but his sons carried on after him. Eventually the Howlands ended up owning a lot of valuable land in the county and became one of the the wealthiest families in the area. As their fortunes grew so did their house.
Despite their prominence, the Howlands were not particularly well liked. The locals considered them a bit peculiar. The Howlands didn't flaunt their wealth and perhaps their neighbors didn't really understand just how much of the local economy depended on the well being of the Howland family's current representative, Abigail. But they are about to find out, because, in the words of Abigail at the start of the story, "I shall destroy as much as I have lost."
Abigail's grandfather, William, acquired a housekeeper after his wife died. The housekeeper, a mixed-race black woman named Margaret, became his mistress. Margaret and William had three children, Robert, Nina and Crissy. The eldest, Robert, is the same age as William's only grandchild, Abigail, who lives there also. All three of Margaret's kids look white and all three are sent away to school up north to give them the chance to live as white people. It is what their mother wanted for them. But being sent away like that causes some angry and hard feelings among the children.
Abigail grows up and marries John Tolliver, an ambitious man who wants a career in politics. He sees Abigail's wealth and prominence as a stepping stone to his career, although she does not believe this, despite her grandfather's warning. Tolliver is a bigot and a racist, or at least this is how he presents himself, because he knows that it is what will appeal to the racist and bigoted voters of the Alabama of that time (1950s-60s). He joins the KKK and the White Citizens Council. He is a smart politician and is zeroing in on the governorship when the family secret is leaked to the press by an angry and vengeful Robert: William Howland and Margaret were married, she wasn't his mistress, she was his wife. The instant Tolliver hears this news, he leaves Abigail and shortly files for divorce. His political career is now ruined and he no longer has any use for her and so he cuts out and heads back to his home town.
The county knew that Margaret's children were fathered by William and that was OK. But the idea that he actually married a black woman is not OK. Even though Margaret and William have been dead for years, still the mob must have its revenge and takes it out on the only Howland available, Abigail.
I found this to be a really interesting and engrossing story, although sad and depressing. This is not a happy tale, not at all. Margaret and William suffer because they cannot reveal their marriage or that their children are not illegitimate. The three mixed race kids suffer because they are sent away from their family. Abigail suffers when her marriage falls apart and she is forced to bear the brunt of the county's anger against her grandfather. No, it is not a happy tale but it was a fascinating read.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Peyton Place

By Grace Metalious

This book came out in 1956, although it is set in the late 1930s & early 1940s. It was an exposé of small town life in New England. Set in the fictitious town of Peyton Place, it focuses mainly on three people, Constance MacKenzie and her daughter Allison and Selena Cross. Constance is a prosperous shopkeeper with a secret, a secret that is unknown even to her daughter, Allison. Constance was never married. Selena Cross has a secret too. She was impregnated by her stepfather and had an abortion performed by the local physician, secretly of course, since abortion was not legal then. Allison doesn't really have any secrets but she makes up for it by being ultra-sensitive. Allison is so sensitive that she has to spend a week in the hospital when she discovers the housekeeper's dead body hanging in Allison's closet. The housekeeper hung herself when she finally faced the fact that her husband raped her daughter, Selena.
Yes, Peyton Place is chock full of secrets. Like the boy who enjoys the frequent enemas that his loving mommy is pleased to administer. Like the old lady who enjoys peeping at her neighbors as the man gives oral sex to his pregnant wife in their backyard. Like the high school principal who forces sex on a reluctant Constance for her own good. Like the mill owner who blackmails his employees into backing him in civic matters like zoning and schools. Yes, Peyton Place is a nasty place, but I guess the point of the novel is that nasty as it is, it is pretty typical.
Peyton Place was a shocker in its day. It is still a good story, though it comes across now as a bit soapy. It touches on almost all the sins of modern life: incest, child abuse, teen sex, hypocrisy, alcohol abuse. About the only thing missing is drug abuse. Religion even comes in for a few whacks when a protestant minister reverts to the religion of his childhood, Catholicism. And the local Pentecostals mistake a raving drunk who wanders into their church meeting for a prophet speaking in tongues. (That was actually a pretty funny scene as was the scene with the drunks on a bender in the cellar.) At times, I found the book a little dull and I didn't care for the oh so sensitive Allison. But still I am glad I read it.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Piece of Cake: A Memoir

By Cupcake Brown

When Cupcake Brown was 11 years old, she discovered her mother's dead body. Her mother had suffered a seizure and died during the night. After receiving this devastating blow, she and her brother were ripped away from the only father they had ever known and given over to a man they had never met, their biological father. This man wasted no time abandoning his two children to the foster care system, as he was only interested in gaining access to whatever funds they would receive from their mother's estate and from the Social Security system.
The home the children were placed in was abusive to say the least. It got so bad that Cupcake ran away, several times, only to be returned to the abusive foster family or placed in other foster families that were also abusive. Raped and sexually abused, Cupcake ended up on the street, surviving by prostitution, eating out of garbage cans and masking her pain with an escalating series of drugs and alcohol. During the course of her teen years, she joined the Crips gang in Los Angeles. After she was shot in a drive by, she left the gang, but continued to abuse any drug that came her way and supported her druggie lifestyle by stealing, prostitution and a series of jobs that she managed to hang onto despite her crumbling lifestyle. As she describes it, "After smoking crack or using various forms of speed all night, my heart would be beating so hard and so fast that it felt like it was going to (literally) explode. My eyes would be trying to see everything everywhere at once, and my body would be zooming. Because of these 'health reasons,' I allowed myself to drink in the mornings. And when I couldn't get away long enough to sneak a couple of drinks, I'd pop reds, T's, blues, or valium. Of course the downers and booze did what they were supposed to: calmed my body down, slowed my heart rate, and steadied my eyes. Problem was, they slowed everything down so much that I'd damn near fall asleep at my desk, in the bathroom, or wherever I happened to be when they kicked in. So to counteract the booze I'd toot some crank or pop some beauties or yellow jackets at lunch. They lifted me up and gave me the oomph I needed to make it through the afternoon."
Her drug and alcohol abuse got so bad she ended up sleeping behind a dumpster and turning tricks to earn the funds for her next hit. Then she caught a glimpse of her reflection in a gas station window and was shocked and alarmed by what she saw: "You look like one of those starving children in Africa, I told myself. Honestly, those children looked healthier than I did at that moment."
At this point she realized that if she didn't get some help she could soon be dead. She got herself checked into a hospital and entered a 12 step program. Using the daily meetings, her sponsor, and turning her life over to God, Cupcake turned her life around. Not only did she kick booze and drugs, she went to college and graduated with honors, moved on to law school and eventually became a lawyer.
This is an inspiring story that points out that it isn't the adversity that ruins a life, it's how one chooses to respond to it. Cupcake buried her grief and pain with drugs and alcohol and she was only able to truly live her life when she turned from chemical anesthesia and faced the brutal pain of her horrific past.
For another review of this story, check out Bookreporter.com

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Reivers

By William Faulkner

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1963.

This is the story of a boy, a stolen car and a stolen racehorse. It is set in 1905 and the car in question belongs to the boy's grandfather. The grandfather's driver, Boon, takes advantage of his employer's absence and he sets out on a trip to Memphis and brings the grandfather's grandson, Lucius, along, as a kind of insurance, I guess. They also have a stowaway on board too. Hidden under a tarp is Ned, a family retainer.
Boon is bound for Memphis to visit a woman he likes who works in a bordello. Why Ned decided to come along isn't made clear until the very end of the story. Boon and Lucius are not there very long before they find out that Ned has sold the car in exchange for a racehorse, a stolen racehorse. This particular racehorse is famous for not liking to race. Ned explains that he can get the horse to run and win and with their winnings they will be able to buy back the car and get back home and maybe Lucius' grandfather won't put them in jail. Meanwhile, Lucius gets a thorough education in the facts of life that he later wishes he could unlearn, thanks partly to Otis, a creepy and nasty boy who is a guest at the bordello.
Lucius also is witness to the tempestuous relationship between Boon and Corrie, who is one of the bordello girls, and Butch, a corrupt official who also wants Corrie.
I hadn't read Faulkner before reading The Reivers. This story started out really hard to read, the style very dense and meandering and full of interjections. Fortunately, it becomes more readable before long. The details of the car/horse race swap went over my head, being very tangled and rather unlikely, as far as I could tell. I didn't really get that part of the story, maybe because I am not a gambler and I don't follow racing and I don't know anyone who does.
Other than that, it was an engaging story, often times amusing, and Lucius a likable kid and the stowaway, Ned, a fount of down home wisdom. It was a fun and sometimes scary trip back to the old south and the days of the "Jim Crow" laws.
For a better review of The Reivers, go to Jonathan Yardley's review in The Washington Post: "William Faulkner's Southern Draw: 'The Reivers'"

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

the hollow chocolate bunnies of the apocalypse

By Robert Rankin

This book was named SFX Magazine's best book of the year, according to the cover, and to quote the cover, SFX described the book as "unputdownable."
I found it very "putdownable." To begin with, I was just put off by the premise, a city of living toys and of nursery rhyme characters. But I kept up with the story because it had been recommended to me as a fun read. So a series of violent murders, described in loving detail, occur. One of the murders is presented as being gruesomely funny. I didn't think it funny, just gruesome. A hollow chocolate bunny is left at the scene of each murder. Maybe I missed it, but I never found where the significance of these bunnies is explained. True, there is a lot of nonsense in the book. One of the running jokes that is that one of the main characters, a toy bear, has no thumbs and it greatly inconveniences his life.
The two main characters are Jack, a young outsider just arrived in Toy City, and Eddie, the toy bear. Eddie is the associate of one Bill Winkie, who is a private detective. Winkie was paid to investigate the really nasty murder of Humpty Dumpty but Winkie has vanished. Eddie ropes Jack into helping him carry on the investigation but then the bodies start piling up, including Little Boy Blue and Mother Goose. Eddie and Jack realize they have a serial killer on their hands, a serial killer who is taking aim at all the big names of Toy City.
This book was an OK read. There is a lot of silly stuff in it that is supposed to be funny but I guess it just didn't appeal to me. I found the book kind of juvenile, except that the murders are just too gruesome to be appropriate for juvenile reading matter. I had never read any of this author's books before, but apparently he has published lots of novels. Maybe I just happened across a dud. It happens, even among the best writers.
If you are a fan of his works, then you would probably enjoy this story too.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years

By Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis is an authority on Islamic and Middle Eastern history and an Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. He has written several books about the Middle East and Islam.
As the title says, this book is a brief history of the Middle East from the beginnings of Christianity up to modern times. Written in 1994, it is now a tad dated. It is a comprehensive look at the history of a part of the world that is composed of many different peoples and cultures united under one religion, Islam. This is not to say that Islam is the only religion in the region but it certainly is the dominant one.
This book lays out a good overview of the area, discussing the different dynasties in brief and concentrating on the forces that drove the history of the area. Bernard Lewis is English born and bred and sometimes the language is a bit difficult. I had to keep a dictionary nearby to look up words at times. Some foreign words, Arabic and other terms, are used throughout. I would have preferred their English versions. Despite these quibbles, though, I found it a very well laid out, interconnected look at the history of this area of the world.
For a deeper review of this book, visit Daniel Pipes. Daniel Pipes is an author, historian and Middle East analyst.