Monthly Archives: January 2013

My Kindle’s Embers Have Lost Their Fire

claytabletToday I called Amazon’s help desk in relation to a problem with my Kindle.  The device had suddenly developed a strange banner at the top of the screen, and although it did not interfere with most texts, was just not right.  When the helpful young man on the line looked up my records (Amazon knows everything about you, don’t be fooled), he saw I had a second generation Kindle, but reacted as if he had just learned I was still muddling through life without indoor plumbing.  Long story short, since I was an “early adopter” of the Kindle way back when, at a time when the very basic device was over $200, I was no longer covered under any warranty.  Needless to say, I was disappointed, having spent so much for it, and not having used it much, I felt it should have held up better.  And as I told Mr. Amazon, no, I have not damaged the screen with pressure or exposed it to long periods of sunlight.  Sigh.  The pace of technology upgrades is so blistering, that if you buy the latest thing, you are making a mistake… Look at Apple.  The early adopters are constantly feeling as if they’ve been hoodwinked, when they rush out to buy the latest and greatest, only to find a few months later the item has been upgraded and the price reduced.  Amazon did offer to sell me a re-habbed Kindle Touch at a reduced rate, and assured me that all my content would transfer.  Well, of course it should, I thought.  I bought it.  But no, not really.  It’s not like buying a book, that you pick up at the store, pay for, and carry home with you.  I’d like to see Amazon come to my house, rifle through my shelves, and take back some of the tomes I’ve purchased, but that is in essence exactly what they can do with content “residing in the Cloud” if, for some reason, the copy write laws change or there’s been some sort of other impropriety.  Amazon giveth, and Amazon taketh away.  So, what is the deal with the preponderance of e-readers, and will they ever succeed in accomplishing the death of the printed, bound book?  I like my Kindle…but not for everything.  I like it for satisfying my “instant gratification” itch, when I’ve heard about a book I want to just start reading–now!–not waiting to find it at the library or bookstore.  I also tend to Kindle books I know I probably wont care to read again or loan to friends…what does that say about me? That I use my Kindle exclusively for “junk reading?”  Right, so, what are you reading there on your Kindle?” folks ask, to which I respond, “Oh, just re-reading War and Peace. You know, I get more out of it each time…” but in reality, I am devouring some scandalously mindless bodice ripper.  Who’s to know? Alas, my poor old Second Generation Kindle with its cute, tiny keypad may not be long for the world, its fires burning low behind its screen.

OldKindle

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Winter on the Farm

Fatty Paddy in the snow
Fatty Paddy in the snow

The forecast is calling for temperatures to dip into the 20’s all next week.  Weather is an obsession for anyone who has to care for outdoor animals, and in my case, horses.  They are not just “livestock,” but pets, so as such, prompt a much deeper concern for their wellbeing.  Whenever a weather event looms on the horizon, be it a hurricane or snowstorm or freezing temps, I am spurred to take action in preparation, not just because it is the sensible thing to do, but also because it gives me a great sense of being a good steward of the living things in my care.  With the cold coming on, we are pulling up the water troughs to install the tank heaters to keep them from freezing, getting in some better hay, bedding up the stalls, and making sure the horse blankets are in good repair.  I am ambivalent about the cold.  In the heat of summer I long for some cooler temps and in the winter I track the course of the sun and wish for longer days.  It is human nature never to be satisfied, and I believe there is no place that brings that out more starkly than on a farm.  So, I decided to list the pros and cons of the winter cold:

Pro: No flies to plague the horses

Con: Cold winds to bring out the bush goblins and spook them

Pro: The mud freezes!

Con: The grounds too hard to ride on

Pro: My fat horse may loose some weight!

Con: My normal horse may loose some weight!

You get the idea… 🙂

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Happily Ever After

MarriagePlotCoverHow many stories end with a wedding, declaring that the couple lived “happily ever after?”  The main character in Jeffrey Eugenides “The Marriage Plot,” — Madeleine Hanna– is a student at Brown, studying English literature and writing her thesis on the “marriage plot,” which runs throughout 19th century literature in the tradition of Austen and James.  Eugenides book opens up on Madeleine’s graduation day, finding her hungover, ill-prepared to meet her parents knock at the door, and having spent the night in suspicious company.  Madeleine Hanna, a “good girl,” successful, from an excellent family, becomes linked romantically with the charismatic but flawed Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant student from a poor and dysfunctional family, who carries that chip on his shoulder into his relationship with Maddie.  Enter the third main character–Mitchell Grammaticus–a religious studies scholar, focused on Christian mysticism, who comes to believe that despite all evidence to the contrary, he is destined to marry Maddie.  The story takes us through the students’ last days at Brown, tells us a lot of detailed background on their families and undergraduate previous four years, then brings us forward into the year after graduation, when Maddie and Leonard struggle through their relationship together, while Mitchell travels through Europe on his way to India, to find himself spiritually.   The prose is clever, the characters sharp, the descriptions are nearly cinematic in their clarity, yet I did not like the book.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the students and professors at Brown, their snarky showing off in conversations of one-upsmanship (and wish I had a pen and paper to write down all the books referenced–alas, I was listening to the work on CD), but I became tired of the characters mewling and whining, obsessed with their self-absorbed concerns.  I so wanted to give them all a collective dunce slap on the back of their heads and shout, “Get over yourselves!”  Leonard, who suffers from manic depression, is an especially difficult character to like.  He is at turns manic and cruel, impatient with lesser humans, and then depressed and contrite, hating himself and incapable of loving anyone else.  Maddie is frustratingly passive in dealing with Leonard, but then lashes out at her parents who are, in my observation, the only ones in the book on firm ground and pulling  their own weight. Mitchell is a dreamy idealist, who when faced with actually faced with actually having to live what he believes, runs away.  The three graduates, over a year after graduation, are still either living off their parents or floating through life without jobs or responsibilities.  Alas, the reader slogs through this torturous trajectory of fate with Maddie eventually marrying Leonard, and their lives crashing in disaster.  We are brought along for the ride throughout its downs and further downs until the final scene, all the time wondering if the “marriage plot” of the heroine (Maddie) finally marrying the man who is the one destined for her (Mitchell) will come to pass.  The book ends with a note that the marriage plot in this century can be re-defined, with the heroine not necessarily in need of being married to anyone in order to fulfill her destiny.   I felt the book dragged me through an awful lot of unnecessary scenes to get to this point.  Interestingly, just this week, I heard that Gilbert and Gubar won the lifetime achievement award for literature.  These authors, most known for their 1979 “Mad Woman in the Attic,” helped shine a spotlight on womens’ literature, and examined the restrictive role of women in fiction as either angel or monster.  The female characters in the works examined were often entrapped, either physically (in the attic) or metaphorically (in marriages and strictly defined roles).  In light of “The Marriage Plot” with its more modern ending, I wonder what Gilbert and Gubar would say about the character of Maddie Hanna, whether she was indeed truly freed from the confinement of traditional expectations of daughters, wives, and women.  madwoman

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Epistolary Wallflowers

Wallflower“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky is the story of a freshman high schooler, Charlie, who reveals his story through a series of letters over the course of a year to an unnamed recipient.  The epistolary novel has a rich tradition as a vehicle for humorous, philosophical, historical, and all manner of tales,  notable amongst which is “Fanny Hill,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Princess Diaries,” and a personal favorite–“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” And as such forms of novels go, I believe “Wallflower” is one of the best.  The author creates such a unique voice in Charlie, that without much in the way of descriptions, I could envision him and all his friends.  The story of his freshman year, when he meets two charismatic seniors, brother and sister named Patrick and Sam, who launch him on to a series of experiences, unfolds slowly, uncovering more and more of the personality and past of this boy who stands on the sidelines and observes all in the world around him.  Charlie is clearly a unique boy who experiences everything with the full force of emotion, often reducing him to tears.  Yet, at the same time, he seems passive and reluctant to take charge of his life and actions, and maddeningly allows people to ‘act upon him’ without consequence.  We as readers as also passive observers of Charlie’s experiences as he encounters the world of first sexual encounters, drug experiments, the underworld of anonymous homosexual hook-ups, first dates, teen pregnancy, child abuse, and family dramas. Despite the weightiness of these topics, we also vicariously experience the feeling of being a teen–cruising in a car with your best friends, listening to that perfect song, and as Charlie describes it:  “And in that moment, I swear, we were infinite.”  Charlie’s friends are all lovingly described and perfectly drawn…although I find the character of the siblings Patrick and Sam to be wise way beyond their years, (along with being seemingly parentless and extremely reckless.)  Charlie, with  a profound innocence as he observes the world around him, seems to be almost “Gump-esque.”   In the end of the novel, Charlie uncovers a long buried secret, which is at the very heart of his passivity and which changes everything.  The theme, in the end, seems to be encompassed in Sam’s wry and somewhat cynical observation: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”  wallflower2

“Wallflower” reminded me of another “teen novel” I read a year ago: “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher.  In this story, the main character, Clay Jensen, receives a mysterious box of tapes.  When he listens to them, he discovers they are the recordings of a class mate and former crush, Hannah Baker, who two weeks previously has committed suicide.  As Clay listens to the tapes, he learns about the thirteen people and incidents which prompted Hannah to take her life…and one of those thirteen is him.  The story unfolds through the alternating voices of Hannah on the tapes, and in Clay’s thoughts and observations as he spends the night re-tracing the places in town where various incidents occurred.  The story was compelling and the concept/execution  of the two voices was technically well done…however, I remember intensely disliking the Hannah character, which greatly effects one’s ability to sympathize with her plight.  Interestingly, in this novel as well there is an element of passivity (on the part of Hannah) who does not take action when she could have to avert a terrible event.  This passivity leads to her sense of guilt, but unlike Charlie, however, to a different end.  Overall, “Thirteen Reasons”  was a good read and I applaud the author for taking on the important topic of teen suicide.

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Going to the Dogs

Sometimes when I’m reading a lot of books in a row that deal with “weighty” topics, or require some intellectual heavy lifting, I turn to some lighter fare for a change of pace.  It is not unlike opening the window in the dead of winter to air out an over-heated and musty room, or to savor a spoonful of sorbet between courses rich in sauces and rich meats.  Well, for me, lately, this breath of fresh air has come in the series of books by Alexander McCall Smith–the series that started with EddiedelaHay1 EddiedelaHay2“Corduroy Mansions” –featuring a feisty little Pimlico terrier named Eddie de la Hay and a series of quirky characters who dwell in genteel poverty in a housing complex for which it is named.   Dipping into one of the books in this series (The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, A Conspiracy of Friends) is like putting on a comfy pair of slippers: the same characters  return in new situations, relationships develop and evolve, and the intrepid terrier is there to comment on all who surround him.  I love Smith’s gentle wit and wry humor, revealed through the philosophy expressed by the characters, in particular, the middle-aged wine merchant, William French.  Even the names of the characters brings a smile: Oedipus Snark, Terence Moongrove, etc.

I first discovered this series because the book’s cover had the picture of a charming little dog, one which looked like a Jack Russell Terrier (JRT).  So, judging a book by its cover, I took it home.  When I needed another dose of comfort, I bought the second in the series, “The Dog Who Came in from the Cold,” which featured our hero the terrier.  Now, a word about such dogs… I have a JRT and she has been the most challenging dog I have ever owned.  She is a runt, only nine pounds, but for all those nine pounds she is more like nine tons of trouble.  MaddieShe has black “button eyes,”  velvet triangles of floppy ears, and a masterful head tilt, which will melt your heart, until you see just beyond her that she has torn apart the diningroom chair, or dug up a plant in the livingroom.  My husband shakes his head and laments, “The devil hath a pleasing face…” She refused to be housebroken for two years, she chases and threatens my mare (whom she distrusts for some reason), and is convinced that she rules the roost.  No measure of firm hand has dissuaded her.  And yet, this little devil is so devoted to me that she will not leave my side, she sleeps next to me in bed, and once, when I had to leave the country for a week, sat in the driveway for several days, refusing to come in and eat, awaiting my return.  You have to be a certain skewed type of individual to love these dogs!

Which brings me to my other dog series of books… Author Jon Katz, who has written a number of books on his dogs and his pioneering life on an old dairy farm in New England, struck a note with me when I happened upon his work.  I read the book he wrote about his beloved, troubled Border Collie in “A Good Dog” and have recommended it to many people since.  But be warned, it is a difficult story.  Katz has blended his tales of the healing of people (himself included) with the healing of animals, the healing power of animals, and the seemingly lost value of isolation, quiet, and  reflection,  which he found when moving to his farm.  I have read “A Dog Year,” “The Dogs of Bedlam Farm,” “Dog Days,” “Izzy and Lenore,” and “Rose in a Storm,” which is a fictionalized story of his dogs and perhaps the weakest book of those mentioned.   Although if you read more than one of his books they can become repetitive, as some of the stories and essays seem to overlap, but they are still by equal measure cathartic, and insightful, and real.  I enjoy his work and find his writing restful–like a good dog lying at your feet.  Here, a picture of my good dog, Lexi, in the snow. LexiSnow

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Getting Away With Murder

beulahannan“The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago” by author Douglas Perry is an education in the miscarriage of justice in the 1920’s era, during an epidemic of “gun girl” murderers who got off based solely on their looks and style.  In the Cook County Jail in 1924, a “murderess’ row” housed a group of women, most notorious of whom was Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, two married women who had shot their lovers.  Despite physical evidence, their own confessions, and a host of other compelling facts pointing squarely to their guilt, both women walked away from the charges.  During the trials, the media maintained an intoxicating love affair with their stories, following every move, lovingly describing every detail of their dress, their hair, their comportment in the court room.  Beulah was dubbed “prettiest” and Belva “most stylish,” and based on the inability of an all-male jury to convict an attractive or sophisticated lady, that these two murders hoodwinked the public and were freed.  One newspaper writer, however, was not taken in by their wiles–Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who wrote scathing, satirical reviews of events.  Watkins, a rare item herself being a female police reporter, later penned the play “Chicago,” which debuted in its namesake’s city in 1927 to rave reviews.  The author of “Girls of Murder City”, Perry, presents this well-known story in a fresh way, exploring the events of the murders, but also the societal influences at the time which accounted for the city’s love affair with two murders and the juries’ inability to convict.  He raises the issue of the view of femininity at the time–that an essentially good woman, who was weak (as they all are), could be lead astray by liquor and a strong male influence.  The women were too pretty and too classy to be truly brutish murders, so after all, it wasn’t really their fault. The press fueled this skewed defense by playing up Beulah’s looks and, based on those looks, her certain girlish naiveté. Conversely, an older and rougher female inmate was characterized by the press as a dirty, hulking beast, capable of incredible brutality and clearly quite dangerous.  The courts, not surprisingly, convicted this woman and recommended the death sentence with much less evidence of her guilt.  One observer commented that the “refined murders” did not scare the men like the rough ones, and therefore were deemed harmless. Perry does a wonderful job wrapping up this 1920s package of mob bosses, flappers, gin joints, and corruption into an atmospheric tale of Chicago in the Jazz Age, and raises some serious questions about the power of the press to sway public opinion.  Has anything really changed? If you liked “Devil in the White City” and “American Eve,” you’ll likely enjoy this book as well. girlsmurdercity

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Judge a Book by Its Cover… Why not?

bookpilesHappy New Year, Everyone!  A new year, new beginnings– a sense of “do over” and second chances.  For me, January also means that my book club will meet and hash out the twelve or so books we will read and discuss this year.  The book club is composed of wildly intelligent and fun women who all have their own interests, likes, and reading habits, yet each year  (for the last seventeen years) we have managed to hash out a list of books to read we can all agree upon.   Come the end of January we will come together, armed with a few books to pitch to the group, then “vote” on the few we’ll take on for 2013. The book club is very useful for me, because it spurs me to read outside of my comfort zone, to take up books I never would have selected on my own, and to broaden my reading experience—and to my surprise I have made some new discoveries!  Which brings me to ponder this question: How do people pick out books we want to read? I always have my antenna out for a good recommendation, so besides the ones selected for my book club reading assignment, I often get a recommendation from a colleague,  or jot down titles based on author interviews I hear on the radio, or from magazine reviews.  I’m also a great one for zeroing in on other books by the same author, once I discover someone I really like, but have at times been terribly disappointed with this tactic.  And what about that cover, the one we are not supposed to judge the book by?  If you were to ask publishers, the cover is all important, as are the blurbs provided by other well-known authors about the work.  Do you check out Amazon, the customer reviews, and look at what the all-knowing Amazon computer has suggested for further reading based on your buying trends? That’s always amusing when a few different people with varying tastes sharing the same Amazon account. The poor marketing department must think a wildly bi-polar individual lives at my house. How about book awards? Are you influenced by books that have won major awards and make the effort to read them.  Have you ever later scratched your head and really wondered why? I also have a “Book-a-Day” desk calendar, which gives a short review on all kinds of books.  I tear off the ones I like, and add them to an over-stuffed notebook already filled with clippings and lists and reviews.  There are on-line lists that provide more lists…there are a million book review BLOGs…and there are even books which recommend more books, such as the fat tome on my shelf entitled, “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.”  January is here, and we can only read so many in a year. Sigh.

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Row Your Boat

scullI read a review of Deborah Crombie’s “No Mark Upon Her,” and immediately ordered it for my daughter, and then read it myself.  The mystery centers around the murder of an Olympic caliber rower, who is found dead on the Thames after going out one evening in her single scull.  My daughter is a college rower and the “crew culture” is an interesting phenomenon; I was wondering how Crombie would capture it in her work.  The verdict–she did an excellent job not only illustrating the cultish devotion of rowers to the sport and their clubs, in this case the prestigious Leander Club, but also made the world of the small villages where the story is set come alive.  According to the author’s bio, she is a native Texan, who has lived in both England and Scotland…and that surprised me.  The story, set in the area of Henley-on-Thames, seems to be an area with which she is comfortable and very familiar.  Her characters are real and fully formed–none are just place holders necessary to advance the plot.  I especially liked the character Kieran Connolly, an Iraqi war vet with PTSD, who was trying to put his life back together by refurbishing boats and working with his dog, Finn, on a search and rescue team.  The plot is involved and keeps even the most astute mystery reader guessing to the end.  If you like British mysteries, quirky characters, and a setting which makes you want to visit there, Crombie’s work is for you.  My one, tiny criticism is one I have mentioned before: since she has introduced her main characters in previous works and developed a whole back story for them, I was a bit lost and bogged down at the very beginning, because I was unfamiliar with them.  If you feel the same, just keep going, it’s worth it…or, as they say on my daughter’s  crew team: “Keep calm and row on!”

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