Thursday, March 29, 2012

'Objects of My Affection'

It seems as if more and more taboos are being aired like dirty laundry.  Television, books, even the internet, have exposed secrets that most of us prefer to keep hidden.  Hoarding, the current taboo, has its own television series.  Whenever I'm channel surfing and come across the show, I shudder.  I know people who hoard.  It isn't a pleasant sight.  It's private; it's something that the public doesn't need to see.  It's a problem that should be handled with discretion, and only between families, friends, and mental health experts.  Sure, it's great to have a conversation about it, but to see the actual hoarding leaves me feeling embarrassed.

I've found a few books that deal with the subject of hoarding:  'Stuff', by Randy Frost and Gail Stekelee, and 'Dirty Secret', by Jessie Sholl.  Both are very informative, but leave the reader feeling a bit uncomfortable, which, I suspect, is the aim.

And so it is with the new novel, 'Objects of My Affection', by Jill Smolinski.  However, I didn't feel uncomfortable about the hoarding itself; it was the way the characters dealt with their personal problems.  One builds a 'wall' of objects; the other gets rid of her own objects in order to justify her choices.  The novel is quite engaging and humorous, yet the hoarding obsession lingers in your mind...and that is what drives the story.

Lucy Bloom has sacrificed everything for her drug-addicted son; she has lost the man she loves, and she sells her home in order to send her son to rehab.  The author of a book about home organizing, Lucy is offered a job to help declutter the home of famous artist, Marva Meier Rios.  Although it is Marva's son, Will, who hires Lucy, it is Marva who wants the job done...on a deadline.  Lucy rolls up her sleeves and dives in to rid the home of the clutter, but she finds that her greatest challenge is dealing with Marva, a formidable woman who has a strong attachment to most of the objects and finds it hard to let go of them.  Lucy soon learns that in order to stand up to Marva, she must find her backbone, and in the process, stand up to not only her son, but her own mistakes.

While some people would write this novel off as 'Chick Lit', I found it very appealing and eye-opening.  I loved the chemistry between Lucy and Marva.  Of course, there's Nico, the physical laborer who provides great sexual tension, but it is Daniel, Lucy's ex-boyfriend, who seems so real.  He tried to make Lucy see the truth, but was pushed away, instead.

We all sacrifice something; either for our children, our friends, our families.  But, first and foremost, we need to think about ourselves and what is best for our lives.  Once we remove the clutter and gain the strength to face our fears, we can see what's really important.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

'The Skeleton Box'

Bryan Gruley, who is a reporter-at-large for the Bloomberg News, has been one of my favorite mystery writers ever since I read his first book, 'Starvation Lake'.  Set in the small, hockey-playing town of Starvation Lake, Michigan, his first two books, including 'The Hanging Tree', revolve around Gus Carpenter, formerly a news reporter from Detroit who, in disgrace, returns home and becomes the editor-in-chief of the town's newspaper.  Small communities harbor big secrets, and it is Gus' job to sort out the truth from lies and get his story in print before someone beats him to it.

When I finished the first two novels (which, by the way, I couldn't set down), Mr. Gruley had found a new fan. So, when his new book, 'The Skeleton Box', landed on my desk, I was ready to dive into another engrossing read.

And, yes, another mystery.  A great mystery, in fact.

When a series of break-ins occur at the homes of Starvation Lake's elderly residents and ends in murder, it is up to Gus to investigate and report on the most difficult story of his life.  During his search for the truth, Gus not only discovers secrets and lies regarding the long-buried mystery of a missing nun, but learns that his mother knows more than she is willing to admit.

I have grown to love the odd residents of Starvation Lake.  Darlene, the cop, and Gus' childhood love.  Mrs. B., mother of Darlene, and Gus' mother's best friend.  Even Dingus, the sheriff, is vivid in my mind.  All of Gus' hockey buddies either make me laugh, cry, or reach for a beer.  Mr. Gruley has brought to life a series of engaging characters, most who have earned this reader's sympathy and, sometimes, antipathy.

By the time you finish the first two books, and then open the third, you will feel as if you are coming home to a little town full of murder, mystery, mayhem...and hockey.

 Just like Gus.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


As much as I have been trying to add a bit of variety to my book selection, I find it very difficult to look past the mystery genre.  It seems as if a new one is published every day, jumping up and down for my attention.  I try to turn my head away, but the recent batch is hard to ignore.  So, here was my dilemma: Should I read a gritty, contemporary mystery?  Or select one set in the past? And if the past, what period?  Victorian England?  Ancient Rome?  The Renaissance? There are so many...

This time,  I chose wisely.  I devoted my time to 'Sacrilege', by S.J. Parris, a fantastic mystery set in the reign of Elizabeth I.  And I can almost guarantee you won't put it down.

In London during the Summer of 1584, philosopher, ex-monk, and spy, Giordano Bruno, suspects that he is being followed.  When he discovers that his pursuer is Sophia, a woman with whom he was once in love, she tells him that she has been accused of the murder of her husband and pleads with Bruno to help her find the real murderer.  Together, they journey to Canterbury, where Bruno uncovers various plots, including one to restore the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket.  Murders abound, Bruno is accused, and intrigue is ripe.  But as he is trying to uncover a deadly conspiracy, Bruno's feelings for Sophia grow more intense and perplexing.

Although the story seems complicated and the characters many, Parris has a knack for bringing her atmospheric novel to life.  I could not keep from turning pages and reading well into the night; the crypt scenes were genuinely creepy.  I have enjoyed the previous Bruno novels ('Heresy' and 'Prophecy'), and I'm glad that he's back.

And, I suspect, he will return in the not-so-distant future.  Read 'Sacrilege'; trust me on this one.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

'The Widow's Daughter'

War is a fertile ground for most novelists, especially those who have lived it.  Joseph Heller was a prime example with his brilliant, satirical novel, 'Catch 22'.  What is it about bloody conflict that brings out the creativity in certain individuals?

'The Widow's Daughter', by Nicholas Edlin, is the story of Peter Sokol, a sixty-something artist residing in San Diego, who shares a quiet life with Missy, his companion.  But when he learns about a novel written by a man with whom he served in New Zealand during World War 2, his past comes rushing back, and he soon finds himself on a journey to perhaps reestablish contact with the author.  As he drives the long road to the lecture in UCLA (where, along the way, he meets a young man who is conflicted about serving in Vietnam), Peter remembers his time as a Marine surgeon stationed in Auckland, where the American forces were met with distrust and skepticism.  Serving with him is his nemesis, an officer with whom he trained in medical school.  It is there where they meet a mysterious English family, and both men fight for the affections of  Emily, the beautiful, enigmatic daughter.  When her brother is discovered murdered, Peter must fight to prove his innocence, and soon discovers that the woman he loves is not who she claims to be.

Mr. Edlin's research is impeccable, but it was the solid mystery that kept me turning the pages.  The characters, which are so fully fleshed out, stayed bright in my mind until the very last page.

'The Widow's Daughter' has earned it's place on my shelf, right next to 'Atonement', 'A Bell for Adano', 'The Book Thief', and 'Catch 22', all classics in WW2 literature.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


If you could change any point in history, what would it be?

In his new masterpiece of time travel, '11/22/63', Stephen King chose JFK's assassination.

Jake Epping is an English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine.  While teaching a GED class, he asks his students to write an essay about an event that changed their lives.  The essay that blows Jake's mind is about the night when his student's father arrived home with a sledgehammer, and killed his wife, daughter, and one of his sons.  Jake realizes that life turns on a dime, and the essay comes to haunt him.  Not much later, Jake's friend, Al, who owns the local diner, confesses a secret:  There is a 'wormhole' in his storeroom; a portal to the past.  Al begs Jake to go back to 1958 and prevent the assassination of President Kennedy.  But Jake has other business to attend to, first.  Along the way, Jake (who has taken the alias 'George Amberson') travels to Derry, Maine (the town made famous in 'It'), where he changes the incident he first learned about in the unforgettable essay.  Learning to live in a world of Ike, JFK, big American cars, and cigarette smoke becomes second nature, but as he begins to set his friend's plan into action, Jake falls in love...which could become his undoing.

When I see a new, big book by King, I wonder if it will be filled with long-winded passages; perhaps even rants.  However, '11/22/63' is anything but.  Although it runs over 800 pages, I found it almost impossible to put down.  The passages where Jake finds love and an almost normal life in Texas were charming, but they didn't lack some of King's trademark terrifying moments.  But when Jake finalizes his plans to fulfill his original purpose, the tale finally reveals its dark twists-and-turns.

What Jake discovers when he finally returns to 2011 is almost impossible to believe (in the realm of fiction), yet seems quite plausible.

But I'm not saying a word.  That is something you must discover on your own.

King had almost dedicated his novel to the great fantasy writer, Jack Finney, author of the classic 'Time and Again', but the appearance of King's new granddaughter, Zelda, took the spot. 

On a final note, I do have this to say:  I love the wonderful note at the end of each and every book that King writes.  He gives his faithful readers a little peek into his life; what makes him tick, what passions fuel his writing fire.  But, most of all, he never fails to thank his 'first reader', his wife, Tabitha.      

King's nonfiction book, 'On Writing', has been released in a tenth-anniversary edition.  You will learn more about his life, writing process, and the books he loves.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

'The Girl Who Fell from the Sky'

I love the Multnomah County library system.  Not only are the shelves well-stocked, but the librarians are extremely helpful and knowledgeable (I'm very impressed with their current 'Doctor Who' promotion/contest).  A small branch located close to my neighborhood recently opened, and I'm happy that I don't have to drive so far to satisfy my book hunger.  I'm also proud to say that our library system is the oldest west of the Mississippi.

The library promotes reading all the time, but one of the biggest promotions is the year-long event called 'Everybody Reads'.  Everyone, including our local paper, The Oregonian, participates in this wonderful event.

'The Girl Who Fell from the Sky', written by Portland native Heidi W. Durrow, is this year's choice.  The book, which won the 2008 Bellwether Prize for fiction, addresses social injustice via the eyes of Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I.  The sole survivor of a family tragedy, Rachel is sent to live with her African-American grandmother, a strict and unyielding woman.  While Rachel was taught by her mother to think of herself as white, she is now told she must 'act black'.  

Ms. Durrow's style is easy on the eyes, but tough on the brain.  She makes you think; she makes you care.  And you feel Rachel's grief.  You want to hold her and tell her that she's a human being first, worthy of success.  While Rachel's 'survivor guilt' is overwhelming for such a young girl, it's totally understandable.  

'Everybody Reads' will be sponsoring Heidi Durrow's appearance at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall in Portland, Oregon on March 6, 2012, at 7:30 p.m. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

'Rin Tin Tin: The Life & the Legend'

"Not another animal book!" you might be thinking as you read this.  "Aren't we a bit tired of Book Hog's obsession with animal stories?"

Tough.  When I'm feeling jaded and desensitized by society's little antics, I turn to animal stories.  They are a breath of fresh air, and reestablish my ties to the living world.  And one such book not only made me cry, but filled my head with interesting facts.  We love interesting facts, don't we?

Susan Orlean's latest book, 'Rin Tin Tin: The Life & the Legend' is full of facts about the use of animals in early cinema, and later, television.  I remember watching the t.v. show, 'The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin', when I was a kid.  I loved that dog.  The humans, not-so-much.  My parents had always owned a German Shepherd, so the program really hit home for me and my siblings.  We wondered if our dog was as brave as 'Rinty'.  Would he jump fences?  Would he rescue us from dastardly villains?  Our poor dog was always in the backyard, either sleeping or eating, and didn't seem like a great example of doggy courage.  Those Shepherds came and went; my mother's last Shepherd grew old before our eyes, and her death, as inevitable as it was, still broke my heart.  I expected her to stay with Mom forever.

As so it was with the original Rin Tin Tin.  He was just a puppy when he was found and rescued by Lee Duncan during World War 1 in France.  The new-born pup, his siblings, and mother, were living in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel.  Duncan, who had lived in an orphanage for many years until his mother was able to support him and his sister, found a kindred spirit in the lively puppy.  He brought Rinty back to the United States, and with gentle training, the dog became a star of the silent screen and an international icon.  They were best friends.  They shared a life of devotion and love.  So bonded was Duncan to his dog that his two marriages fell by the wayside.  

The rest of the story concerns the careers of the other 'Rintys'; the grandson, the great-grandson, etc.; eleven generations in all.  Orlean talked to people who either had a hand in the careers of the dogs who carried on the legend, or those who had known of them.  

But it is the life of the original Rin Tin Tin that I felt was the most interesting.  He was a paradox:  He was a fighter, yet a friend.  He was a loner, yet longed to be a member of a pack.  The humans may have rolled the dice for him; sometimes winning, sometimes losing; but it is first and foremost the story of the first Rinty, an orphaned pup who not only captured the heart of the world, but has now captured mine.

Orlean's research is impeccable, and she goes a step beyond, which sets her apart from many other investigative writers.  But one short sentence has clearly touched me more than any other part of her amazing book:

                                    He died on a warm summer day in 1932.

I cried when I first read it, and I cry every time I remember it.  When Orlean visited the final resting place of the original Rinty, she wondered why he was buried in France, when he had died in California. 

So that, dear reader, is why I read animal stories.  Not only for the facts, but also for the renewal of my compassion for animals.  This is a story I will most certainly read again.  It will touch everyone who has ever loved a dog.  Or even a cat, for that matter.

As long as I continue to love and respect the animals in my life, I truly realize that that is what makes my heart soar.  Thank you, Susan Orlean, for adding yet another touching animal biography to my shelves.

Not only has she published many other works, Susan Orlean is also the author of one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction, 'The Orchid Thief', which was made into the Academy Award-winning film, 'Adaptation'.