Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bel Canto

Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto was originally published in 2001 and won a Pen/Faulkner Award. My paperback copy released by Perennial has 318 pages. From here "bel canto" is "Italian for 'beautiful singing.' In a bel canto style opera, the beauty of singing is more important than the plot or the words." Beautiful singing plays a major role in this novel.

The plot is seemingly very simple and actually dissuaded me from reading this book for years. A famous opera singer, Roxanne Coss, is hired to sing in an unnamed South American country at a birthday party held for a wealthy Japanese businessman, Katsumi Hosokawa . The party is held at the vice president's home and attended by many international business people and diplomats. During her performance 18 armed terrorists enter the residence, planning to take the president hostage. The problem is that at the last minute, the president of this country had decided to stay home to watch his soap opera. This sets the stage for the terrorists to make the fateful decision to keep some of these esteemed guests as hostages.

While reading Bel Canto you are lulled into a feeling of peaceful co-existence between the terrorists and hostages. Some of them form an incomprehensible bond with each other. They form a sort of society, with Gen Watanabe, Mr. Hosokawa's translator, playing a major part in helping everyone understand the languages of others. As the weeks turn into months of captivity, everyone seems numb to the fact that this one action that started their cohabitation, taking hostages, is going to have to end, and will likely end badly. The actual end of the book was quite unexpected for me.

It was mentioned in a review at Amazon that Bel Canto is written in the manner of "magic realism", as is One Hundred Years of Solitude (which I did not enjoy). Magic realism is defined here as, "A narrative technique that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. It is characterized by an equal acceptance of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Magic realism fuses (1) lyrical and, at times, fantastic writing with (2) an examination of the character of human existence and (3) an implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite." I'm not sure I would put Bel Canto in this category, although some parts of the definition could fit.

Ann Patchett's writing is incredible. Previously I had read Patron Saint of Liars and also enjoyed that novel, but in comparison, Bel Canto is better, in my opinion. This book is highly recommended.

"Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God's own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up to her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven. It was a miracle and he wept for the gift of bearing witness."

"The kind of love that offers its life so easily, so stupidly, is always the love that is not returned."

"Death was already sucking air from the bottom of their lungs. It left them weak and listless."

"It was too much work to remember things you might not have again, and so, one by one they opened up their hands and let them go."

Friday, August 24, 2007


Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2003 for his novel Middlesex. My paperback edition is 529 pages. This is another Pulitzer Prize winner that was on my to-be-read list. It is a beautifully written family saga. You will be tempted at times to think it is a real autobiography. I highly recommend Middlesex.

Much like Atwood's The Blind Assasin, you start out knowing vital information about the plot of Middlesex. The first sentence says, "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." Yes, it is about a hermaphrodite, eventually, but it is really the history of the Stephanides family from 1922, before his grandparents Lefty and Desdemona fled Greece, to the present. It follows this family and the recessive gene that eventually is present in our narrator, Calliope, or Cal.

I really kept feeling that I was reading an extremely well written autobiography because the characters were so real and the time and place were so clearly defined for each era. Eugenides has a real gift. Whether he is capturing the feeling of Prohibition-era Detroit, or life on Middlesex Boulevard in Grosse Pointe, MI, you feel as if he is describing a very real place. In another display of talent, Eugenides very easily and believably goes from the voice of Cal or Calliope. You never feel it's a gimic or contrived. He tells the stroy of a Greek family living in America with wit, humor, and sadness. If you enjoy reading family sagas, Middlesex fits that description.

"Desdemona became what she'd remain for the rest of her life: a sick person imprisioned in a healthy body."

"Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first the workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we've all inherited it to some degee, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds.
But in 1922 it was still a new thing to be a machine."

"In support of my personal belief that real life doesn't live up to writing about it, the members of my family seem to have spent most of their time that year engaged in correspondence."

"I hadn't gotten old enough yet to realize that living sends a person not into the future, but back into the past, to childhood and before birth, finally, to commune with the dead.... In this life we grow backwards. It's always the gray-haired tourists on Italian buses who can tell you something about the Etruscans."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

cell phones part 2

We had to trade in our old cell phones for different ones this week because the previous provider wasn't exactly providing stellar cell phone service. In other words: they was very bad. This has been traumatic for me since I was finally starting to accept and make peace with the old cell phone. The new one is different, with different buttons and gizmos. Have you ever seen a grown woman start to cry at the cell phone store? I was tearing up at the pressure involved in switching service. The sales woman wasn't making it any easier.

As we were about to enter the cell phone place,  we started to discuss a family cell phone plan with the gross, nasty... err, um... cordiality challenged sales woman and it all turned mean. She was pushing for ME to make the cell phone decisions. She was trying to sell ME accessories we didn't need. She was ready to just set us up with phones in under 5 minutes and I was feeling that deer-in-the-headlights panic hitting me full on as I kept looking around. I kept telling her, "I'm not the one who is making these decisions. I'm the last one here that you should be asking these questions to, but she pressed on. She had actually grabbed 4 standard phones and was going to set us up with numbers while telling me how much it was going to cost to activate each phone.

We finally managed to get away from her.  Just me had specific requirements for the phone she wanted. My son and I didn't care. We talked to an older sales man who was likely the manager. He dropped some activation fees. He didn't force anything on us. He was... ok, for a cell phone guy. We came out of there with new phones, again, and this experience reinforced any and all of my negative feelings toward cell phones and the people who sell them. We're back at square one with me and cell phones. I look at it with mistrust and a tad bit of loathing. It demands to be charged.

My younger brother is helping me learn how to use the new cell phone. He's a great guy. Here is his sage advice:

"Ok Ok, I know I can help! The first step is to never answer the phone when you are located at a bank. The second step would be not to answer when driving. The next steps are to just let the kids answer it at home. Good luck with your endeavors! If you have a flip phone remember when it is ringing, vibrating, or flashing, open it and say, "Hello". To make a call always dial the number and push the green button. With these tools you should have a 95% success rate. Never give up. Remember to set your goals low and you will never be disappointed. Oh, one thing, do you think I can bring my phones over so you can reprogram all the new numbers I have to replace?"

readers are rare

This news item shocked me:

Poll: Fewer adults reading books

August 22, 2007

"...One in four adults reads no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday. Of those who did read, women and older people were most avid, and religious works and popular fiction were the top choices.

The survey reveals a nation whose book readers, on the whole, can hardly be called ravenous. The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year — half read more and half read fewer. Excluding those who hadn’t read any, the usual number read was seven...."

I don't even know what to say... a "typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year ..." I'd be embarrassed to say I had only read 4 books in the last year. I'm even a little embarrassed at how little I've read the past 2 months.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Road

Cormac McCarthy deserved the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction with his novel The Road. I'm glad I waited to read The Road until now so I could fully appreciate the writing as well as the story. Originally published in 2006, my paperback copy is 287 pages long. As I am sure others have done, I stayed up too late to finish this book last night.

*Disclaimer before the review: As a friend mentioned in her review, I would also like to make it clear that The Road was on my to-be-read list long before Oprah put it on her list. This will also apply to the next book I am starting. They were on my list because they are Pulitzer Prize winning novels, not because Oprah told people to read them.
On to the review; there may be spoilers.

The Road is set in post-apocalyptic America after a nuclear exchange or an extinction event. McCarthy has set in writing what a nuclear winter or huge asteroid strike will likely encompass, although he has purposefully left what catastrophic event actually happened unnamed. The land, sky, and water are all gray, ashen, dead. It is a hopeless, lifeless environment where all of the remaining survivors are starving and many are cannibals. In The Road we are traveling toward the sea with a man and his son (who was born shortly after the known world ended) on what remains of the highway system. The man and his son are "the good guys"; the ones who don't eat people.

The driving force of this novel is not the journey on the road, but the love the father has for his son. The only reason the father has to survive is to ensure his son's survival. He proves he will do anything to protect his son, to keep his son alive while death seems to be their traveling companion. The father knows what he has lost, what the world was before.

While the father's sole concern is his son's survival, even while witnessing horrific scenes since his birth and with an understanding on some level that it could threaten their survival, the boy, amazingly, seems to have a compassion for other people. This dead world is all he has ever known. At the end, when it seems that all hope is gone, we are left with a small kernel of faith that goodness has indeed continued to find the boy.

McCarthy's writing style in The Road is restrained and minimalistic. It suits the book. The lack of some punctuation didn't bother me at all. All the sentences are finely crafted. There is no extra information, only the bare minimum you need to follow the journey and their efforts to survive.

I highly recommend The Road.


"He thought that in the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime but he took small comfort from it."

"Once in those early years he'd awakened in a barren wood and lay listening to flocks of migratory birds overhead in that bitter dark. Their half muted crankings miles above where they circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl. He wished them godspeed till they were gone. He never heard them again."

"So be it. Evoke the forms. When you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them."

"He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He'd had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever."

"Some part of him always wished it to be over."

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Cheez Waffies

The old package from Here.

Here is another place to see men and their Cheez Waffies.

Alas, the Waffies are no longer sold in this area.
Apparently Wise Foods has limited their distribution to the East coast. Why the rest of the country deserves this cruel and inhuman treatment is beyond comprehension.

The new package from Here

We may have to ask relatives on the East coast to have pity on us and send us Cheez Waffies. We'll pay.... oh how we'll pay....

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Judas Strain

The Judas Strain by James Rollins was a good action adventure read. It was originally published in July 2007 and is 464 pages long. I picked this book up just before our move. Rollins has gotten his books down to a formula, but it's a formula that works. It's not great literature but Rollins is very good at what he sets out to do, entertain. My husband has started reading Rollins and he's racing through them. His one complaint is that Rollins doesn't know his guns. That doesn't bother me because I don't know guns either, but those of you who know your weaponry might want to take note of that fact.

From Amazon:
The special-ops trained scientists of Sigma Force battle the criminals of the shadowy Guild in bestseller Rollins's lively third Sigma Force thriller (after Black Order). An ancient and deadly plague, the Judas Strain (which afflicted Marco Polo), has suddenly re-emerged. Gray Pierce, a Sigma operative, and Seichan, a Guild defector, pursue clues to the nature of the plague to the Vatican, Istanbul (with a fine shootout in the Hagia Sophia mosque), Marco Polo's tomb and, finally, Cambodia's Angkor Wat. Meanwhile, Guild members hijack a cruise ship full of plague victims (to provide experimental subjects for the weaponizing of the plague), and Gray's parents are taken hostage (though the senior Grays prove feistier than their kidnappers reckon). Sophisticated the plot isn't, but Rollins includes more than enough action and suspense to keep readers turning pages. 8-city author tour. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist
The crack, ultrasecret Sigma Force team returns in another adventure that, as usual, unfolds at breakneck speed. Sigma Force, made up of former Special Forces officers trained as experts in various scientific fields ("killer scientists," one of their number calls them), scours the world for technologies that could help or threaten the U.S. This time the group's mission involves a devastating bacteriological plague, a mysterious cryptogram that may predate humanity, and the deadly truth about what happened after Marco Polo's expedition to China. After a handful of Sigma Force novels, Rollins has fine-tuned the formula to precision: characters rendered in broad strokes, punchy dialogue, short paragraphs that propel us headlong through the story. The novels are like prose versions of comic books, or lightly fleshed out movie treatments. But this is not a criticism, at least not completely. The books' style perfectly matches their subject matter, and it's impossible not to be swept up by their energy and excitement. Action/adventure fans unfamiliar with Rollins' work should be emphatically urged to read this series. David Pitt

Thursday, August 16, 2007

cell phone

I answered my cell phone while driving this week.

OK, OK, you all are saying, "No big deal. What's WRONG with you?"
As previously mentioned, I have cell phone issues so this was a big deal to me. When it has rang before when I've been driving I've made whoever was a passenger at the time answer it. This week I had no passenger and had to answer my own phone. I always swore I'd never be one of those people driving while talking on the phone. I was very close to my destination, though, and we aren't talking city traffic here, so it was a good first experience.
Guess who it was?

If you guessed my brother, you are correct. It was my brother. My brother seems to have this sixth sense that tells him when I'm at the bank (he's called twice when I've been IN the bank and I've only been inside 3 times) or out driving. When I've been driving in the past, I've had a passenger answer the phone. He finally caught me alone, driving, with the cell phone. I answered it while driving. I turned into a parking lot and parked the car while on the phone. I walked into the store, while on the phone. As I maneuvered the cart into the aisle, the first two people I saw were on their cell phones in the store.

I am now part of the "in" crowd. I'm up-to-speed. I'm on top of it. I'm a cell phone user. I didn't even giggle this time. And, I even tried to put a couple cucumbers into a bag while on the phone. - OK, THAT looked a little freaky 'cus I was having trouble getting the bag open and looked, as my family likes to call it, "special".

(The tag "special" became common usage for us when a hair stylist wanted to know if my son was "special" because he was having a difficult time saying how he wanted his hair cut and kept looking at me. The only problem was he was14 at the time and certainly old enough to tell her how he wanted his hair cut. Some of you will remember the story. He had been going to a barber before that and at the barbers you get to say "Give me the usual." or "I need a hair cut." and he cuts the hair without asking tricky questions.)

Monday, August 13, 2007


Haven Kimmel, author, wrote:
"It's been my experience that people who grew up in other parts of the United States (not the Midwest) find it almost impossible to see the beauty there. I mean they literally cannot see it."

I imagine the same could be said about the high desert, but, truth be told, I'm finding it beautiful back in the Midwest. It feels like home.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Blind Assassin

I've reread The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood for a reading group. Originally published in 2000, my hardcover copy is 521 pages long. Atwood won a well deserved Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin.

From Amazon:
"The Blind Assassin is a tale of two sisters, one of whom dies under ambiguous circumstances in the opening pages. The survivor, Iris Chase Griffen, initially seems a little cold-blooded about this death in the family. But as Margaret Atwood's most ambitious work unfolds--a tricky process, in fact, with several nested narratives and even an entire novel-within-a-novel--we're reminded of just how complicated the familial game of hide-and-seek can be:
What had she been thinking of as the car sailed off the bridge, then hung suspended in the afternoon sunlight, glinting like a dragonfly, for that one instant of held breath before the plummet? Of Alex, of Richard, of bad faith, of our father and his wreckage; of God, perhaps, and her fatal, triangular bargain.
Meanwhile, Atwood immediately launches into an excerpt from Laura Chase's novel, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published in 1947. In this double-decker concoction, a wealthy woman dabbles in blue-collar passion, even as her lover regales her with a series of science-fictional parables. Complicated? You bet. But the author puts all this variegation to good use, taking expert measure of our capacity for self-delusion and complicity, not to mention desolation. Almost everybody in her sprawling narrative manages to--or prefers to--overlook what's in plain sight. And memory isn't much of a salve either, as Iris points out: "Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead, I've found; but nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them." Yet Atwood never succumbs to postmodern cynicism, or modish contempt for her characters. On the contrary, she's capable of great tenderness, and as we immerse ourselves in Iris's spliced-in memoir, it's clear that this buttoned-up socialite has been anything but blind to the chaos surrounding her."

I know my reading and reviews have been scant these last 2 months. I will eventually pick up the pace, scouts honor.

Friday, August 3, 2007


Before moving, we had discussed with friends the odd people we saw at Wal-mart at night. I've been to the Wal-mart here a couple times after 9 PM and it's nothing like Reno. First, since we're in a big university town, many of the late nighters seem to be college kids or young adults (who are seriously shopping - not just hanging out). Then there seem to be many everyday, normal folks who are just picking up things in the evening. Not one freaky person at all.

We were all sort of freaky in the bank this week though. My son, and I needed accounts opened. We finally settled on what bank and went into a branch office where a nice young college student helped us. FYI: I had just renewed my NV driver's licenses online before moving, sovit has this  renewal sticker on the back. That always seems to throw people for a loop. (I was questioned about that at the airport too.) At the bank she thought at first that 
my driver's license was expired. Then they have these homeland security questions they need to ask. I had to pause and think before answering all of them. Hopefully she chalked that up to old age and assumed I needed extra time to process information.

When it was time for my son to open up his account, he was all indecisive. We had no idea approximately how much money he'd be depositing in a year. He has no job, but may get money back at the end of the college school year from scholarships. He may get a job. We don't know. We knew we were going to be making deposits from our account to his so he could pay for his gas and lunch from his account. We all had to come up with a number. Then, when he had to type in his password for online banking he kept having to retype it because he wasn't able to get it right the second time. We all sat there as he tried repeatedly to get the same code in both boxes until I finally said "Make it simpler." After a couple more tries he got it right. He also got signed up for his first credit card. It's a student card; the bank wisely gave him a $300 limit.

Just before we were done (and I'm sure the young woman was wanting us out of there at this point) I got a phone call. I'm still intimidated by my cell phone, but I had remembered to bring it. The problem was that I didn't recognize that it was MY cell phone ringing. I was looking around to see whose phone was ringing. Once I figured out it was mine, I fumbled to find it in order to answer it. It was my brother. I said hi and told him we were at the bank. Then I started to giggle because answering my cell phone always makes me giggle. I know I need to overcome this reaction, but, alas, I giggled. My brother told us it was hot wings night in town and asked if we wanted to go out for wings... so I asked, as we were still finishing up at the bank, "Do we want to go out for hot wings?" and giggled.

We finally got out the door of the bank, with me still giggling while trying to talk to my brother. "Could we BE any more freaky?"

You know, I'm not sure that we could, but I imagine we'll give it another try sometime...

Thursday, August 2, 2007


5 Minutes for Mom has a contest where they are giving away an Insignia 37" Flat-Panel LCD HDTV, courtesy of Best Buy! It's valued at $799.99. Head on over, read the details and enter today! We love Best Buy at this house!