It Happened in Monterey

I miss chatting with bookstore owners who are avid readers. With only one independent bookstore on the island (BookEnds in Kailua) and a perfunctory Barnes and Noble at the mall, the pickings are slim in Hawaii. On a recent trip to the Monterey Peninsula, I found four independent bookstores within a five mile radius, and with booksellers happy to share their favorites. Of course, I could not get out of a store without buying a book or two.  img_4298

At Bookworks in Pacific Grove, I found two books: an older (2012) Donna Leon mystery I had not read, with my favorite sleuth, Commissario Guido Brunetti – “Beastly Things,” and Joanna Trollope’s “Sense and Sensibility” (2013), her modernized version of the Jane Austen classic.

At Old Capitol Books in Monterey, I found myself scanning the stacks of old used books, some rare editions, checking off those I had read. Looking for favorite authors, I found an Amy Bloom book I had not read (at least I don’t remember reading it) – “Lucky Us.”

In Pilgrim’s Way, the charming bookstore connected to a garden in Carmel, I decided on “The Green Thoreau” and Scottish author Beatrice Colin’s “To Capture What We Cannot Keep.”

Chatting with the proprietor led me to another independent bookstore not far away – River House Books. There I found the first of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache books – “Still Life” – recommended by a good friend, and Amy Bloom’s new book – “White Houses.” The bookseller commisserated about “Manhattan Beach” – like me, she had not been able to finish it – but I plan to try again. And her recommendation for the best page-turner she had read recently – “The Dry” – went to the top of my to-read list.

With this stack, Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” on my iPhone and Navin’s “Only Child” on audible, I am ready for a long flight – unless, of course, the movie selection has an Oscar nominee to distract me.


The Maze at Windermere

61mZtWszWnL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_   Gregory Blake Smith successfully plays on the mystique of déjà vu in The Maze at Windermere,  by following five timelines across centuries in one place – Newport, Rhode Island. As each of the five stories unravels, from colonial shipping village to present day, Smith follows the politics and loves of a cast of characters with different yet similar prospects and problems, stepping through time in the same place.  I confess I have a tendency to get lost, and this maze had me baffled and uncomfortably disconnected in its puzzling play of changing times and people, but eventually I made it to the center – and it was worth the trouble and confusion.

The five time lines could easily stand on their own, and probably would have been easier to follow in sequential order, but Smith keeps the reader off balance by jumping from one time frame to another.  Thankfully his clear identification of the year as well as his adaptation of the language and idiosyncrasies of the time help clarify where the reader is, and who is in charge. Nevertheless, it takes a while to feel comfortable

The five time zones include colonial Prudence, a fifteen year old Quaker orphaned by the death of her mother and father in 1692, and left to care for her toddler sister with the help of her slave; Ballard in 1778 who pursues a Jewish merchant’s daughter, Judith, while investigating her father’s political leanings; the not yet famous Henry James who meets Alice in 1863 and makes a life decision about his future lifestyle and writing; Franklin, a closeted gay man in 1896, at a time when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, courts a wealthy widow and hopes to marry as his cover; and finally, Sandy, a handsome tennis pro (ranked 46th) in 2011 who falls in love with the disabled heiress of Windermere, another Alice, after he has secretly  slept with her sister-in-law and her best friend from college. Is he really in love or after her money?

Not until later in the novel, after the characters morph into substance, is it possible to navigate the maze of intersecting plots.  Prudence is under pressure to marry an older man from the Friends Assembly but she yearns to make a life with her childhood friend closer to her own age.  Her slave girl has a plan for her own freedom but must maneuver a contract between her black lover and Prudence to make it happen.  In 2011, the heiress’s best friend, Aisha, a black artist, is planning her own maneuvers to banish Sandy and gain the estate for herself.

Franklin and Ballard seem to be selfish and sometimes despicable lotharios, with dubious intentions toward the women they pursue; at times, Sandy seems so too.  Henry James, the observer of the human condition who eventually uses his experiences and notes to write a famous novel about the woman who awakens him, has something in common with Sandy too in his calculating approach.

Although Smith seems to point to lives forever repeating the historical loop, he also clearly digresses within each hero and heroine to demonstrate their differences in temperament and prejudices, and their reactions to the pressures of their times. The ending offers a reasonable solution to some, while others are left hanging – leaving it to the reader to decide how their lives will evolve.

A complicated novel with so many more nuances and plot twists than can be briefly noted here, The Maze at Windermere is a challenge to read, but, if you take on the game, be prepared to keep thinking about the consequences and alternatives after you finish.

I need to read this book again, now that I have a feel for the twists and interconnectedness in the puzzle.



41qcSMwuA5L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_  After experiencing Hawaii’s near-miss apocalypse with the mistaken incoming ballistic missile  warning, the beginning of Ali Smith’s Winter was not as disconcerting as it might have been – her story starts with a floating head. Stranger things have happened. When the line on page 51 stared back with “…are we at the mercy of technology or is technology at the mercy of us?” – the fake alarm prompting phone alerts seemed timely.

Smith’s Winter is not easy to read.  The author has created a mess of madness, with strains of Charles Dickens and Shakespeare weaving through current politics and the state of the world – but perhaps the point is that the world is a mad mess.  References to the British Brexit and the American President Trump’s immigration policies somehow connect to Sophia and her family at Christmas in Cornwall.

The characters include: Sophia, an older woman living alone – except for the floating head who intermittently changes from the innocence of a child to an old man with greens growing out of its ears to a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth; her son Arthur who seems to be looking for the one opportunity to make his mark through his writing (on a blog) while he fastidiously works at a company responsible for identifying copyright infringement; Lux, Arthur’s Croatian substitute girlfriend – he picked her up at a bus stop to pose as his girlfriend when Charlotte unceremoniously dumps him before Christmas; and Iris, Sophia’s sister who in her seventies continues to demonstrate against all the ills of the world – and there are plenty to complain about.

They all meet up at Sophia’s many bedroom house in Cornwall (the floating head is already there).  When Arthur and Lux find Sophia sitting in an overheated kitchen, wrapped in coats and mittens, they promptly send her to bed and send for her estranged sister Iris, who arrives with the groceries.  No one really sleeps and each time the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, Sophia relives a past experience through her memories – Scrooge without the ghosts, revealing stormy protests, funerals, and family history.  When Christmas finally arrives, the family dinner is not pleasant.

Smith punctuates this stream of consciousness with asides pointedly critical of the state of the world, as it has become today:

“And now for our entertainment when we want humiliation we’ve got reality TV…and soon instead of reality TV we’ll have the President of the United States…”

“Me, me, me, Iris says,  It’s all your selfish generation can ever talk about…”

When all seems so despondent and coldly brutal – the title is Winter, after all  – Smith redeems the morase with some hope, but it is a long time coming.  Sophia and Iris are the political polar opposites, arguing with each other without convincing the other.  But, after they, the others, and perhaps the author, exhaust themselves with dire assessments of the world’s condition, they tell stories and reveal secrets. Reminiscing about the past seems to focus the present and provide some possibilities for “to-day” that will not all end miserably.

Unlike Autumn, the first in her series, this book never warms up (unless it is to signify the horrors of global warming), and it takes longer to connect to both the characters and their message.  Winter is a difficult book, and the New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner says – “…it’s slower to rake its themes into a coherent pile. My advice: Read it anyway…”  Maybe – or perhaps wait for the Spring thaw in her next book.

First Night, First Lines

th-1First lines in novels can become more famous than the book.  Charles Schultz’s character Snoopy never got past his first line – “It was a dark and stormy night…”  Charles Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” have been incessantly parodied and misquoted.

In honor of First Night (New Year’s Eve), here are a few more first lines from books I’ve read this year.  Can you identify the book?

“It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.”  Click here for the answer.

“At the end of December 2015 winter had not yet reached Brooklyn.”  Click here for Allende.

“Once upon a time, before the whole world changed, it was possible to run away from home, disguise who you were, and fit into polite society.”  Click here for a little magic.

“History has failed us, but no matter.”  Click here for my nominee of best book of the year.

“I’ve finished the bloody book.”  Click here for the title.

“My dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating, and Roz is three years older and fifty pounds heavier than I am, and people have said that she is generally not as well preserved, and so I thought I would try it even though I avoid going online too much.”  Click here for the answer.

“The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour- and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock – and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New York – until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck,, that the small mound of the city waitingg there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno – and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tierces Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hudred foot of water – and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to Pap: – all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning.”  A story of old New York





In Honor of Poldark’s Aunt Agatha

Unknown-1   Spoiler Alert:  If you have not yet seen the final episode of Poldark, the eighteenth century saga set in Cornwall, you probably want to stop reading now.

Despite the rugged terrain with wild rides along the sea and rivalries among the families, one steady character, reportedly about to celebrate her 100th birthday, challenges the evil doers and maintains her upright moral code despite the corruption around her.  Sadly, Aunt Agatha finally has her heart broken when the cold calculating George Warleggan cancels her birthday party.  Of course, the stalwart Aunt Agatha has her revenge before she takes her last breath.

In the Masterpiece Studio Podcast interview of Catherine Blakiston, the actress playing Aunt Agatha, she mentions she was gifted the tarot cards she often shuffled on scene as she predicted dire consequences for others, and the book Aunt Agatha continually read around the fire – Tristram Shandy.

Hepburn7_logLaurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, with its first of nine volumes published in 1759, begins with its hero about to be born and becomes so sidetracked by digressions that the story ends shortly after his birth, but not before introducing a vivid group of eccentric and farcical characters in a comic tour de force.  Tristram Shandy was a bestseller of its time and Sterne is recognized as one of the forerunners of psychological fiction.

I’ve never read it, so in honor of Aunt Agatha, I’ve downloaded the classic for free from Project Gutenberg – all 760 pages.

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