Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Long Way to Go


By Borden Deal

A family is on vacation at the Florida shore. One day the parents put their three kids in the motel's daycare and go off for a day on their own. That evening, they fail to return. The motel manager is unable to find out what has happened to them. The three kids, who range in age from 11 to 6, are acutely aware of what an inconvenience they have become to the motel. Fearing they will be taken away by the authorities, they sneak away from the motel. Their plan is to walk home to Georgia, some 600 miles away. This is the story of their adventure. With $25 and a heap of common sense the three kids manage to get back home, meeting some kind, helpful folks along the way and in the process acquiring a dog, a mule and a goose.

It's an unlikely story but the author manages to make it all seem very believable. I just had one quibble with the story: that the kids had no relative or friend of the family they could contact to come and take care of them until the mystery of their parents disappearance could be solved. But other than that, their adventures were engrossing and authentic and I really enjoyed the story even though the book is intended for older kids or young teens. It's quite a story.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Land They Possessed


By Mary Worthy Breneman

Young Michal Ward and her family arrive in the Dakota Territory in 1885. They have purchased a farm with a nice little house and John Ward will also sell farm equipment in the nearby town of Leola.
At first, things go well. They plant wheat and the crop looks real good. That is until a hailstorm comes along. And Michal's little baby brother suddenly dies of an infection. Battling contrary weather, disappointment and blizzards, the Wards soon leave the farm and move to Eureka, where John Ward once again sets up business. But this time, the family will be living in Eureka and no longer attempt to raise a crop in the iffy climate of the Dakotas.
Michal loved the prairie and she misses it and takes long walks into the countryside just to be close to nature, the grasses and flowers and fresh air. But living in town has its advantages too: friends and companionship and church and school.
The Dakota territory is filling up with immigrants, come to take advantage of land available to anyone willing to put in the time and effort to work it. Many of these immigrants in the Leola and Eureka area are Russian Germans, fleeing an unfriendly Russian regime. A cousin of Michal's best friend Katie is one Karl Gross and Michal is fascinated by him from the time she sees him in a photograph belonging to Katie's family.
But the Americans don't mix with or approve of these foreigners. Her mother constantly asks Michal to stop being friends with Katie, also a foreign immigrant. But Michal doesn't understand her parents objections to foreigners or their snobbery. She stays friends with Katie and she is still attracted to the foreign, remote and aloof Karl. This attraction remains strong all through her teen years and Karl seems attracted to her too. But the opposition of their families keeps them apart and Michal eventually agrees to marry the son of a local lawyer. But in her heart she knows she will never love him like she loves Karl.

This book was first published in the 1950s. It is kind of a cross between the Little House stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder and a romance novel. It's a taste of life on the prairie with an intriguing romance that keeps the reader guessing until the very end. Michal ends up being torn between two worthy men, and having to figure out whether she will follow her heart and please herself and disappoint two families or do what she is expected to do and live a life of comfort and wealth and sophistication. It's a really fascinating story and I enjoyed it very much.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Diary of an Exercise Addict


By Peach Friedman

Peach was an ordinary college student just starting out her life of independence and graduating from college when she began to have an eating disorder. She had recently broken up with her longtime boyfriend (a mutual decision) and had also recently found out that her parents had separated. This convergence of events seemed to trigger her anorexia. She dieted her way down to a dangerous level of thinness but managed to turn the corner and get back to a more normal weight. But she still feared being fat so she started exercising to an extreme level. She had exercised a lot while anorexic but now began a course of exercise that resulted in chronic pain in her joints. That was when she began to face the fact that she had a problem with over exercising. Gradually, with help, she began to develop healthy eating and exercising habits and began to feel less fearful and out of control.

This was a pretty good book. At times I found her writing style tedious, especially when she sprinkles her sentences with unnecessary periods: "It's as if. Nothing has changed?" or: "I. Love. Boston." But, despite that, her story is important and it was really brave of her to reveal her personal struggle in such intimate detail.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Night Embrace


By Sherrilyn Kenyon

Talon is a vampire-ish guy but not a vampire. Yeah, he has fangs and can drink human blood and has to stay out of the sun for fearing of burning up and he's pretty much immortal. But he is not a vampire, he's a vampire killer. He's also a very lonely guy.
Back in the time of the Druids, he was a king, with a pregnant wife and a little sister he loved dearly. His wife died in childbirth as did the baby and he and his sister ran afoul of politics and were both slaughtered. When Talon was brought back to life as a vampire hunter by divine intervention, he was so scarred by the deaths of those he loved most that for hundreds of years he remained self-contained and isolated, without emotional attachments. Lots of hook-ups but no love. But then he met Sunshine.
Sunshine is an artist who lives in New Orleans and she and Talon feel an immediate bond, although Talon tries to resist falling in love. Falling in lust is OK but not love. Because Talon bears an ancient curse. Back in the olden times, he killed the son of a god and that god has declared that anyone Talon loves will die. So if Talon allows himself to love Sunshine he guarantees she will shortly die.
Meanwhile, it will soon be Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the masses of humanity attending the festival will also attract lots of vampires, or as they are referred to in the book, daimons. So Talon and the other vampire hunters gathered in New Orleans will be very busy trying to protect an unsuspecting public. To make matters worse, it transpires that a group of cast out gods, including the one that cursed Talon, are planning to bring about the end of the world in order to regain all their lost powers. So the Talon and the vampire hunters have to try to stop these rogue gods, plus Talon has to protect Sunshine while he and she struggle to find a way to be together and keep her alive. Plus it turns out that Sunshine is Talon's dead wife reincarnated.

This was a pretty good story. The plot is pretty complicated with lots going on and lots of different characters, all of them drop-dead gorgeous, even the bad guys. There are werebears and werewolves and werepanthers and ghosts and lots of gods popping in and out and psychics and vampires and vampire hunters and lots of people who seem to be there mainly to lead the reader on to the next story that will feature that particular character. Yup, there is a lot going on in this story, maybe too much. Still, I enjoyed the book even if at times I felt a bit lost or overwhelmed with the number of characters to keep in mind and all their complicated relationships and pasts.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Toast


By Nigel Slater

Nigel Slater is the author of several cookbooks and a columnist for The Observer in London, England. This book is a look back at his childhood from the year his mother died when he was nine until he graduated from cooking school and got a job at the Savoy Grill. It looks at his life very much from the foods partaken during those years.
Nigel was a middle class boy growing up in England. His father was a man with a narrow outlook who loved growing flowers and who had a fiery temper at times. Nigel was a skinny, frail-looking child who was a constant disappointment to his dad. He was a lonely boy who, after his mother died, had no real love in his life. His dad married the cleaning lady, a woman that Nigel claims only married his dad for his money and the chance to move up in life. The marriage didn't last very long as Nigel's dad died when Nigel was about fifteen. The stepmother lived up to the reputation of the typical stepmother, criticizing and judging Nigel and piling chore after chore on him, a little boy who had never been required to do any chores, including putting his toys away or making his own bed. It got to where it seemed that everything he did was wrong. For example if he stayed in the house, she complained that he was too much indoors. But if he went out to play she complained that he spent too much time outside.
But through it all runs the foods of his life, meat and potatoes, candy and desserts, cakes and puddings and a few things he really disliked such as milk and eggs. One of his favorite foods at the time was buttered toast, hot or cold, he liked it either way. His mom was not a good cook but that didn't matter. His stepmom was a good cook, but that didn't endear her to him either. She went out of her way to make delicious foods but perhaps did it only to prove her indispensability to Nigel's father. But all his young life, Nigel had a feel for food and ended up making a career out of it, something neither of his parents lived to see. Except for the stepmom, and I suppose she doesn't count.

I liked this book a lot, in fact I read in one day. Nigel's story is touching, engaging and at times rather puzzling when he refers to foods eaten that were unfamiliar to me. I didn't discover the glossary in the back of the book until I had finished reading it. It would have helped a lot if I had known about it. I guessed that icing sugar was probably powdered sugar and that Setlers must be some kind of antacid. But what ribena or maltesers were I couldn't begin to guess. Turns out one in a beverage and the other a malted milk ball. Anyways, despite the language barrier, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Nigel's memoir. I bet his cookbooks are pretty good too.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Swimming to Antarctica


By Lynne Cox

Lynne Cox is not your average person. She is a swimmer but not for her your backyard swimming pool. Nope, she swims in the open ocean. But even beyond that she swims in places where people are not supposed to be able to survive, like the icy waters of the Bering Strait. She has even swum off the shore of Antarctica, which would probably kill a lesser person. But Lynne has managed to condition her body to survive the freezing temperatures, but not without some toll to herself.
She began her long distance swimming career as a teen off the coast of California when she and the other members of their high school swim team swam the Catalina Channel, a swim that took them about 12 hours. She followed that up with a record-breaking swim of the English Channel. She had terrible cramps following that swim, not knowing at the time that she was becoming dehydrated on her swims, something she later learned to prevent. Since those early days she has broken and set numerous long distance swim records and has swum in places no one else had ever tried to swim. Her life has been one continuous adventure as she proves that the human body is capable of coping with extreme conditions, given the right preparation and training. Her story is amazing and inspiring and just plain unbelievable and I really enjoyed reading about this remarkable woman. An excellent read.

Birds Without Wings


By Reina Murray with Sylvester I. Okoro

Like so many people, Reina's parents messed up their own relationship then married other people, bringing strangers into their children's lives. Although Reina does not go into detail about her mother's husband, it is apparent that there was something not good going on there otherwise her father wouldn't have gotten sole custody of Reina and her brother and sisters. Too bad for the kids that Daddy's new wife was the stereotypical stepmother: evil, cruel, warped and maybe just a tad insane. Then to compound the father's stupidity, he often left his kids alone with this monster for months at a time as he had to travel for his job. No, while Daddy was away from home, the monster stepmom had free rein to indulge her depraved urges to dominate and destroy the children entrusted to her care. Not that he didn't have a clue as to what was going on. No, the stepmom didn't hide the fact that she whipped and beat his children, but they were going by the old testament precept of spare the rod and spoil the child. But even if a parent sees nothing wrong with spanking a misbehaving child, what this woman was doing went way beyond that -- she actually drew blood when she disciplined her stepkids.
But nothing lasts forever and Reina eventually got big enough to face her stepmother down. In a final confrontation, she knocked the woman on her ass and her stepmother never laid a finger on her again. But when Reina became an adult and married and had a family of her own, she cut her father out of her life since he stayed married to her abuser. So for twenty years she didn't see him and rarely spoke to him. It was only when her father was quite elderly that she consented to come see him and his wife and upon seeing how weak and infirm the woman had become, Reina was able to put her fears behind her and have a more normal relationship with her dad.

This was a good read. Reina and her siblings had a rough time of it. Even beyond the physical abuse they received from the stepmother was the psychological abuse. She treated the kids like servants, making them maintain the house, requiring them to enter the house only through the back door, making them use rags to bathe and dry themselves, making them eat their meals out in the garage. But these kids were resourceful. They managed to take care of themselves and they managed to cope with the abuse. And they often managed to get around their monster stepmom. They survived.

War Memorials


By Clint McCown

Nolan Vann is not having a good time. The trouble all started with insurance. Even though Nolan worked in his father's insurance agency in a small town in Tennessee, when he built a new addition on his house he neglected to inform his insurance company and then when a huge tree fell on the new addition, demolishing it, it wasn't covered by his insurance. To compound his stupidity, Nolan tried to back date his insurance policy and was caught by his father and was fired. Then he failed to tell his wife about the addition to the house not being insured and he also didn't tell her he had lost his job, instead choosing to struggle by with a series of crumby jobs, the latest being a repo man.
But things were off in Nolan's life even before his big screw-up. His wife is seeing another man, although Nolan doesn't tell her that he knows this, and she is pregnant by that man, something Nolan also knows. His marriage is not strengthened when he accidentally kills his wife's pet lizard that she loves. Nor is it strengthened when Nolan starts up a flirtation with a beautiful would-be zookeeper, whom he meets when repossessing her washer and dryer. Nolan just goes from bad to worse, but he is not a bad guy, he has a good heart: he is just your typical loser trying to get by. His part of the country is lousy with war memorials, commemorating every war from the Indian wars to Desert Storm. But Nolan wonders why there isn't a memorial to the ordinary guys on the homefront who struggle everyday to hold things together. Because it's a war, it's just not fought with guns and bombs.

I really enjoyed this book. Nolan comes off as a real dope right from the beginning. But he is gradually revealed as a guy who is basically sweet at heart. He just messed up but he is trying to get things back on track without damaging either himself or his errant wife in the process. It's a good, quirky, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic story of a smalltown guy just trying to cope.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Pamela


By Samuel Richardson

Pamela is a young woman who gets a job as a maid in an upper class house. Everything is fine until the lady of the house dies and her horny son takes control. He has his sights set on pretty Pam and does everything he can to force her to yield to his importunings. But she staunchly resists all his advances, even after he kidnaps her and destroys what is left of her reputation. He eventually gives up and asks her to marry him and she agrees.

This novel was written back in the 1700s and takes the form of letters written by Pam to her mother in which she chronicles all her misadventures. It is really long, the version I read over 500 pages. Its hard work wading through all that but still its a pretty good story, as Pamela seems to overcome every dirty trick her boss throws at her. She is a really resourceful and determined young woman and stands her ground no matter how her boss tries to trick, force or lure her.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Heart Choice


By Robin D. Owens

On Celta people are a little different. Many of them have magical powers that they call Flair. In fact, most of their technology is based on magical power. Although they originally came from Earth they no longer rely on Earth technology instead using their magical powers to handle almost everything in their daily lives, from dusting the living room to placing a call.
The most powerful are the Great Lords who are very wealthy and pretty much run things on Celta. One of these Great Lords, Straif Blackthorn, suffered a terrible tragedy when everyone in his family died of an infectious disease. Normally this disease isn't fatal but for his family it was because of a genetic defect they all shared. Only this man survived and he was so traumatized by the event that he set off on a quest to find a cure, either for the disease or for his faulty genes. He was just a teen when he left his home and he didn't return for fifteen years, abandoning his family's estates and neglecting the duties required of the Great Lords. Still, after fifteen years of searching in vain for a solution to his condition, Straif has now realized it is time to come home and resume his duties and restore his neglected estate.
So he hires an interior decorator to help him with the process of repairing and refurbishing his mansion. The woman, Mitchella Clover, is not a member of one of the Great families, she is just a commoner and her magical abilities are of a lower order than Straif's. But she is a talented decorator and is just the person to help Straif reestablish his home and thus his place in society.
Of course, since this is a romance novel, Straif and Mitchella fall in love. Which wouldn't normally be a problem. But Straif, being the last of his family, is anxious to have children, lots of children. And Mitchella is sterile, she is unable to conceive or to bear a baby. Straif has to make some tough choices, give up his dream, or lose the love of his life.

This was a pretty good story. The magic and the different way the people of Celta live their lives are really inventive and interesting. That's the part I enjoyed the most, reading about how they manage their lives using all these magical abilities and magic-based technologies. Over all, I enjoyed the story, although, I did find it a little slow in places.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Magnificent Obsession


By Lloyd C. Douglas

Robert Merrick is a young wastrel, content to live off his fortune, frittering away his days with drink and merry-making. One day, while out on the lake in his sailboat, he was knocked unconscious by the boom and fell into the lake. There was a suspicion that he was drunk at the time. Anyway, an inhalator (a device used to help people breathe) was rushed to his side and saved his life. Unfortunately, on that same lake a man died because the inhalator was not available to save him when his crisis happened at the same time. This man was a respected brain surgeon and his death was a great loss to the world.
When Merrick learned of the terrible coincidence, he felt really badly. He decided to turn his life around and even decided to go to medical school with the eventual goal of becoming a brain surgeon.
In the meantime, Merrick happened to meet the dead man's very young and beautiful widow and became completely smitten. She, of course, was not thrilled to met the man who indirectly was the reason for her own husband's death. Merrick pined after her but kept his distance.
He went on to become the brain surgeon and entered into practice at the same hospital as the dead man. Here he became friends with the dead man's friends and was given a journal, written in code, by the dead surgeon. Merrick managed to decode the journal and found within it a philosophy of living that the author claimed would increase a person's power and bring success to them if followed correctly. It was something to do with helping people, giving them secret loans, and not expecting to be repaid, instead the person helped would, in the course of time, help someone else. So Merrick decides to give the philosophy a go and it works for him even going to far as to give him a moment of intimate communication with God, or as he calls it, the Major Personality. To Merrick, religion becomes not a matter of faith but a science, using the method revealed in the journal to build his own personal power and establish communion with God. He becomes a very successful surgeon and helps out a lot of needy people, in secret, because that is required by the method.
Meanwhile, his love affair with the widow just continues to decline. Every time he tries to help her out, it blows up in his face. Her bad opinion of him grows and grows, until she is gravely injured in a train crash and Merrick rushed to her side in time to save her life. Her suspicions of him are gradually assuaged and they finally get together in the end.

The method is based on some verses in the Bible from the New Testament book of Matthew. The author refers to Jesus Christ as a man who figured out how to magnify himself using this method.

I didn't much care for this book. I thought the method sounded unlikely. I have no problem with helping people out but the idea that it will accrue power to yourself just didn't ring true. But besides that, I just found the book a little dull.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Stone Diaries


By Carol Shields

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1995.

This is the fictional autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett. She was born in 1905 in Canada and her life started out not so good. Her mother died giving birth to Daisy and a few months later her father walked out of her life, leaving his baby daughter with a neighbor woman. Soon after this, the neighbor woman moves in with her grown son and together they raise Daisy until she is eleven when the woman dies in an accident. The son has lustful thoughts about young Daisy and so he sends her off to live the father she doesn't remember. The father, a stone cutter, has done well for himself and he manages to give Daisy a good home. She goes off to college and marries soon after graduating but her husband dies on their honeymoon, falling out of a window while intoxicated. Daisy moves back home, still a virgin, and lives with her father until she is about thirty. She moves out when her dad remarries and Daisy finds she is uncomfortable with the new wife. So she goes back to Canada to visit the man who helped raise her and they decide to get married. He has a good job and Daisy bears three children for him. Of course, he is a lot older than she and he dies when she is in her fifties. She then gets a job writing a gardening column for the local newspaper, and she really enjoys it and is very crushed when, after doing the column for about nine years, the newspaper gives the column to someone else. Daisy becomes very depressed but eventually recovers and moves to Florida to be with her two best friends from childhood, Beans and Fraidy. By this time Daisy is getting old and the novel concludes with the circumstances of her death.
Daisy is just an ordinary woman who lives an ordinary life, but who goes through her life marked by the absence of love in it. Her mother dead, her father gone, her foster mother dying and her foster father sending her away, her first marriage a tragedy and her second marriage almost a marriage of convenience, Daisy never feels truly loved, and never experiences a grand passion. Even with her own children and grandchildren there is a sense of distance and estrangement. All through her life she searches but never finds much sense of purpose or fulfilment, mainly she just goes through the motions, doing what is expected, doing her duty, being a good mom, a good wife. But in the end satisfaction still eludes her, as she admits on her deathbed that she is not at peace.

This was a pretty interesting read, though I can't really say why. The book has no plot to speak of, just the details of an ordinary life. But the story just grabs you from the very start with the strange and sad beginning of Daisy's life, in the kitchen of her parent's house as her obese mother gives birth to a baby that she didn't even know she was carrying.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Comfort Me with Apples


By Ruth Reichl

"Comfort me with apples for I am sick of love" is a quote from the "Song of Solomon" from the Bible and it is a pretty apt quote for Reichl's book. In this book she describes her early years as a restaurant critic and featuring prominently are her two love affairs she had while married to her first husband.
She started out wanting to be a writer but she had a passionate interest in food and when the opportunity came along to be the restaurant critic for a locally published magazine she decided to try it out.
In the meantime, her husband, an artist, was becoming a commercial success and he had to travel a lot, which put a strain on their marriage, especially when he revealed that he was no longer sure that he wanted to have children. At this time, Reichl was in her thirties and time was running out for her. Somehow she became involved with her boss and that affair lasted until the boss married someone else. She then fell head over heals in love with Michael, a reporter, and eventually married him.
Of course, the book is about more than Reichl's love life. She talks a lot about food and restaurants and the many chefs she has known and also includes a few recipes: Crab Cakes; Dacquoise; Asparagus with Balsamic Vinegar; Michael McCarty's Pasta and Scallops; La Vieille Maison Soup; Dottie's Spinach; Dry-Fried Shrimp; Soy Sauce Chicken; Channing Way Shrimp Curry; Sweet Potato Pie; Apricot Pie; Big Chocolate Cake; Mushroom Soup; Swiss Pumpkin; Miang Kam; Charlene's Semolina Egg Noodles with Smoked Ham, Asparagus, Onions and Garlic; Warm Salad; Raspberry Ice Cream; Grilled California Goat Cheese on Toast; Chinois Curried Oysters with Cucumber Sauce and Salmon Roe; Danny's Lemon Pasta (based on a recipe of Danny Kaye's); and Fried Capers and Calves' Brains with Sherry Butter Sauce.

This was an interesting and absorbing book and I enjoyed it a lot even though I can't agree with her adulterous lifestyle. She has been there and done that, met a lot of interesting and famous people and travelled to many exotic and far away places. Her life certainly doesn't sound dull. And she tells a good story too.