Friday, February 26, 2010

Of Butlers, Bulldogs and Bird Stumps

To Say Nothing of the Dog or, How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump At Last by Connie Willis (F WIL Main)
Reviewed by Jeanne

When Lady Schrapnell agrees to endow the time travel project, it seems like a dream come true for the researchers at Oxford University. They didn’t count on their benefactor deciding to use the project to re-create Coventry Cathedral, sending travelers back to umpteen different time periods to locate objects. Time lagged and exhausted, Ned Henry is sent back to Victorian England to recuperate away from the demanding patron. Unfortunately, he’s sent so hastily that he arrives unprepared to fit into an era of séances, village fetes, and penwipes. He lands at a railway station in 1888 where he meets a dreamy college student who spouts poetry and tends to fall in love suddenly, an eccentric Oxford professor, a bulldog named Cyril and a whole host of characters who could have walked out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Ned is infatuated with Verity, a fellow time traveler, but he isn’t sure if it’s true love or time-lag. Whatever, they need to resolve a little problem caused by Verity’s accidental removal of an item that needs to be returned to its rightful place or else. . . well, they’re not quite certain what may happen but that might mean the downfall of civilization. At the very least they might be stuck in the past.

As you may have gathered, this is a difficult book to explain properly. I can tell you that it’s an entertaining adventure with science fiction, a bit of romance, some farce and a comedy of manners. I think it’s a delightful tale that should appear to a wide variety of readers, including those who don’t usually like science fiction or fantasy. One of my favorite scenes has a weary 1940 time traveler telling a colleague that a native asked about the Queen. “I told him she was wearing a hat. She did, didn’t she? I can never remember which one wore the hats.” They all did, is the response, except for Victoria. And Camilla. (It’s worth noting that this book was written in 1997.)

By the way, the title comes from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, but you don’t need to have read that to enjoy some of the in-jokes and brushes with history.

Connie Willis is a multiple award-winning author who lives in Colorado with her family. She takes her time between books, so fans certainly don’t expect a book a year. However, she’ll have two books out in 2010 because the book she was working on became so long it was decided to publish it in two parts. Once again, Willis sends researchers from the future back to WWII England at a critical moment in history in Blackout and the following book, All Clear.

I read this book for the first time recently because it was highly praised by members of the mystery list Dorothy-L. I echo their praise and highly recommend To Say Nothing of the Dog for your reading pleasure. It’s a book I intend to read again and again.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Grisham: You Can't Read Just One

Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

The Associate by John Grisham
(F GRI Main and Avoca; CD F GRI Main; SSB F GRI Main)

Ah-h-h.  Grisham is back and doing what he does best, fast-action legal thrillers.
The Associate reminds me of his earlier stories:  suspense, twists & turns that keep you glued to the page from the beginning.  There are shadowy figures, an idealistic young Yale law student, and corruption. 
At a ball game being coached by future lawyer Kyle McAvoy, thugs show up with a video of an alleged five year old rape accusation.  They blackmail him into taking a law job with a huge Wall Street firm which is handling a multibillion dollar military lawsuit.  As a new associate, he is first buried in billing.  Key people are manipulated and a friend dies a mysterious death.  He is expected to steal, lie and furnish information that could get him sent to prison, if not outright killed.  He plays cat & mouse with his handlers and, having read spy-thrillers, he uses spy techniques and tries to disrupt their plans. 
It’s a page turner.  I couldn’t help but root for McAvoy.  Young, idealistic, wanting to work in a small office, helping society. The little guy pitted against a sinister well-organized group with possible government ties, not to mention a gigantic sweatshop of a law firm that would just as soon throw him to the dogs.  And of course, there is a romance with Dale, a former teacher turned lawyer who shares his small cubical at the firm. 
Turning the tables on the bad guys is fun to watch.  Spy stuff.  Good ole boys, small time lawyer involvement, competing law firms…Oh, yeah!

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham
(F GRI Main and Avoca; CD F GRI Main)

When I think of Italy, American style football usually doesn’t come to mind.  Apparently, there are football fans everywhere, including Italy.  That is the premise of this fun novel from John Grisham.  Not his usual heart stopping thriller – more like a second helping of spaghetti.
Third-string NFL quarterback, Rick Dockery, becomes a laughingstock when he single handedly loses an AFC Championship game with just minutes to go and a 17 point lead. His long suffering agent can only find a football team in Italy that is interested in hiring him.   So off to Italy he goes.
Not able to speak or understand a word of Italian, Rick finds himself the starting quarterback of the might Panthers of Parma, Italy.  His teammates are colorful.  One is the local judge, who has the police bring him by just to say” hi.”  Rick, himself, hopes to start a new life.   There is a romance along the way.  And the underdog Panthers challenge the powerhouse Bergamo Lions for a shot at the Italian Superbowl!
Ah.  The food.  The countryside.  Grisham is very descriptive of both. 
The story is about redemption.  Going from an apathic NFL player, Rick comes to love the Panthers, his team mates and his new country.  Satisfying as a good Italian wine on a cold winter night.

The Broker by John Grisham
(F GRI Main & Avoca; SSB F GRI Main & Avoca; CD F GRI Main)

Reading Grisham is sort of like eating cookies: one leads to another.  And before I knew it, I read three, one right after the other.
In The Broker, Grisham is back to the unexpected and pitting the little guy against the big boys.  The twist is that the “little guy” was once an extremely important lawyer and lobbyist.  He was known as the “broker” because he had access to all levels of government.  Here however, he has been in prison for 6 years when the book begins.   
An unpopular president pardons Joel Backman as a parting shot to his critics.  The CIA director had pushed for pardon, mostly to see who would kill Backman first.  Before going to prison, Backman had represented three computer hackers who had accidently hacked into a secret satellite surveillance system.  No one is sure of the country that originated it.  However several countries are interested in obtaining access to it.  The hackers died mysteriously.  While in prison, Backman was safe.  Free, the Israelis, the Saudis, Russians and the Chinese all want to “talk” to him.  The CIA gives him a new name and identity.  Send him to Italy – and arrange for him to learn Italian.  They try to keep him under their thumb, until they are ready to leak his whereabouts to the interested parties.
It is cloak & dagger.  Slowly, Backman transforms.  Once a power broker, then from prison life, holding on to the apron strings of his CIA handlers, to escape and into his own.  Phew.  He also becomes a nice guy along the way with a budding romance with his Italian tutor.  They just might make it.  At least I hope they do.
I think Grisham must love Italy.  In both Playing for Pizza and The Broker, he is both a tour guide of small-town Italy and has a love affair with the food.  Both of which I enjoy.  They are fun books, and you want to read them while ordering Italian.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Happy (belated) Valentine's Day!

The BBL writers would like to wish everyone a happy Valentine's Day and a happy Chinese New Year!  This is the Year of the Tiger, which Melon finds quite appropriate-- certainly more appropriate than a fake rose in a bowl which should have tuna or chicken or some other tasty treat.  According to Chinese astrology, Tiger Years are bold and dramatic, with change and travel being the norm.  Disagreements may also arise.  Since we think Melon needs to be on a diet and Melon thinks he needs more food, we have already had our first disagreement.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Visit with Dr. Ralph

Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times by Dr. Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean (781.642 STA Main) Reviewed by Jeanne

This region has long been known for the wealth of music nurtured on the mountainsides and up in the hollers. Traditional music brought over by European immigrants melded with elements from Native American and African American music to produce a unique sound. “Pop” Stoneman is credited with extolling the virtues of the region’s music to Ralph Peer, encouraging him to come here to record. Peer soon found that Pop hadn’t exaggerated: there was a lot of good music in these hills. At about the same time that Peer was making his recordings, a second son was born to Lee and Lucy Smith Stanley at their home in Big Spraddle, Virginia. The baby was named Ralph, and he and his older brother Carter would be steeped in mountain music from birth.

Such is the start of the long awaited autobiography of Ralph Stanley, traditional music icon and legend. The story is told as if you’re just sitting on the front porch, passing the time as Dr. Ralph reminisces: he tells us that he knows proper English, but he chooses to tell his story in the phrases and terms of home. I was reminded of times when, as a child, I’d hear the adults laugh about long-ago shenanigans involving outhouses or stray cows, sing bits of old ballads or hymns, pass along local lore and gossip, and speak of ghosts and faith healings and the proper way to milk a cow. Dr. Ralph would be right at home with that group, though he’s realizes that he’s speaking to a wider audience, ones who may not know , for example, the difference between Primitive Baptists and Old Regular Baptists. He explains mountain customs, history and traditions, while being neither ashamed nor condescending. He does an excellent job of describing a way of life without electricity, television and indoor plumbing.

Naturally, much of the book is devoted to the music, starting with the brothers’ early experiences in singing gospel in churches and at community gatherings such as pie suppers. Then came the gig on “Farm and Fun Time” on WCYB where the Stanley Brothers first made an impression on the region. Many of their songs became country and bluegrass standards. Carter’s easy way of working a crowd, along with his fine singing voice and gift for songwriting made him the natural leader of the group, while Ralph was shy and generally deferred to his older brother. Many believed that the “Stanley sound” would end when Carter died. It was up to Ralph to not only prove the naysayers wrong, but to determine a new course for his music, going back to “old time” mountain music rather than pure bluegrass.

Earning a living through music is rarely easy and Dr. Ralph doesn’t glamorize life on the road, with seedy bars, jealous musicians, and fleabag hotels. While there are humorous incidents, there are as many that are somber: Lee Stanley’s deserting the family when the boys were young, Carter’s early death, and the murder of a band member.

Although Dr. Ralph—and yes, the book does explain how he received that title—has been known as a man of few words, he does a fine job of telling his own story without skimping or whitewashing. Several reviewers have expressed surprise at how candid he is; he does have a few bones to pick (he didn’t care for the way he was portrayed in a play, for instance) and he isn’t shy about how he views his place in traditional music, but the overall tone isn’t self-serving. He does a bit of name-dropping (A. P. Carter, Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, etc. )but not nearly as much as he could have. He is generous in his praise of some musicians who really haven’t gotten their due, giving names to folk rarely credited in mainstream music history. In a few places he seems downright circumspect. He is honest about the toll the years have taken on his voice, but feels that the true emotion gathered from life experience compensates.

This is more than just a story of one man: it’s the story of a region and a time long past. Co-author Dean, a veteran writer for publications such as Spin magazine, has done a wonderful job of telling the story while keeping to the background. The book sounds as if it came straight from Dr. Ralph’s lips, without prompting or rewrites.

Several reviewers wished for more photos. I second that, and will add that an index would have been a plus, even if it did take away from the homespun feel.

I picked this book up thinking that it would be another standard celebrity biography, perhaps with a slab of cornpone on the side. I hoped there would be some mentions of this area among the name-dropping, but I wasn’t exactly holding my breath. Instead I found a book to which I could relate and one that I’ll be recommending to anyone who wants to know about Appalachian life and who enjoys a good, well-told story—even if it’s someone who covers his ears when he hears a banjo being played. I wouldn’t be surprised if Man of Constant Sorrow becomes a standard text in courses on Appalachian history and culture, but I hope it’ll continue to be read just for the sheer pleasure of hearing such an original and authentic voice.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Italian Seasoning

Uniform Justice: A Commissario Brunetti Novel by Donna Leon (F LEO Main)
Reviewed by Jeanne

A cadet at an exclusive military school in Venice is found dead, an apparent suicide. Commissario Brunetti is called in to do a perfunctory investigation, but he finds himself troubled by the other cadets’ lack of interest in the dead boy. Even more baffling are the reactions of the boy’s parents: they don’t believe he committed suicide, but neither do they want an investigation.

This was my first Commissario Brunetti novel. I’d read some very good reviews but wasn’t convinced until one of Leon’s novels was excerpted in the BPL Online Bookclub. I decided to pick one at random instead of starting at the beginning as is my usual preference with series books. I had a little trouble sorting out some of the characters at first and the unfamiliar Italian terms gave me pause at times, but for the most part I had no problems. If you have any interest in things Italian, you’ll find these books a rare treat. The food sounded wonderful, the charm of the city was on display and writing was full of those “read aloud moments,” in which you want to share a choice bit with someone else. (My personal favorite was Brunetti’s musing that government is akin to a mother in law, which demands obedience and respect whether or not it deserves either, and, when thwarted, will respond with "repercussions too devious to be foreseen.") It was also nice to have a book with characters who love to read and who mention authors and books without seeming pretentious. Brunetti himself is a caring man who adores his family and who enjoys life. The mystery was gracefully done amid all the departmental politics due in great part to the amazing Signorina Elettra who manages to produce information through not exactly approved channels.

American Donna Leon is a former teacher who has lived in China, Saudi Arabia and Iran but who now makes her home in Venice. Among the things she likes: opera, Jane Austen, dogs and “anyone who brings me coffee in bed.” Her novels have been translated into several languages but are just now becoming available in the U.S.