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.


Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores

61hydRrcQnL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_  When a friend suggested I read Jen Campbell’s Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores, I remembered my experience as a volunteer at the information kiosk across from Waikiki Beach.  Sadly, the kiosk is no longer there – abolished by a new mayor – but I still remember laughing at some of the questions from oblivious tourists.

From a woman in four inch heels: “Is there an elevator to the top of the Diamond Head trail?”

“Is there a good place around here to swim?” (The kiosk faced the ocean.)

“Are the fish in the ocean real?” (from someone with too much Disney?)

I should have written them down as Jen Campbell did in her hilarious book.  My favorites include those with “literary references:”

Customer to book salesman: “Have you read Jane Eyre?”  …. “Oh great, can you tell me all about it – I have to write a paper on it tomorrow.”

“Where are your books with words?”

“Do you have Flowers for Arugula?”

“My kid needs The Count of Monte Crisco for Honors English.”

Campbell organized the book around ten topics, from “literary pursuits” to “out of print.” You’ll find something to laugh about in each section, and, maybe, you’ll recognize having heard something just as ridiculous.

Favorite Authors

When I read Kristin Hannah’s list of favorite authors in this Sunday’s New York Times “By the Book,”  I could relate to some of her picks.  I too look for books by Carlos Ruiz Zafron, Donna Tartt, Haruki Murakami, Anne Tyler, Amor Towles, and Yaa Gyasi, but I would add Ann Patchett, Anita Shreve, and Carol Goodman, with children’a authors Natalie Babbitt, Lois Lowry, and Kate DiCamillo for good measure.

If you are looking for a good book try one of these:  (click the title for my review)


Another author I am exploring and reading now:

0062250876   Bernard Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals  (the story of the first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – as related by William Shakespeare’s estranged younger brother)


A Powerful Love Story for Valentine’s Day

51qBJz71b6L._AC_US218_51zpXTOlenL._AC_US218_Last week I accidentally found the movie The United Kingdom and was immersed in the historical fiction based on Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar: The True Story of a Love That Shook an Empire.  Based on the lives of Prince Seretse Khama (who would later become the first President of Botswana) and white English-born Ruth Williams who met and fell in love in 1940s Britain, the story is a powerful statement of overcoming racism and persevering for independence, but it is also a poignant love story across cultural, racial, and political lines.

I was reminded of the movie when Book Browse featured the book as one of its “five great book club books that are now movies.”

“…they were met with overt racism by the people and governments of both Britain and southern Africa; but with great dignity and extraordinary tenancity they, and the Bangwato people, overcame prejudice in their fight for justice–which, ultimately, led to independence for the country of Botswana…”

Although I am only half through the book, the movie seems to have been accurate in depicting the series of trials overcome by the couple, including the efforts of British government officials, family friends and church figures trying to prevent the marriage. After the marriage Britain attempted to separate the couple by luring him to London and then banning his return.

South Africa, which borders Bechuanaland, and was in the throes of apartheid, imposed economic pressure on Britain, adding to the political turmoil.  Britain’s secret Harragin special inquiry was to decide whether Seretse was fit to discharge his duties as his country’s Chief.  (The report reminded me of today’s secret political papers which later expose ulterior government motives).  The inquiry found in his favor but argued that South Africa’s opposition to his marriage, and therefore his chieftainship, constituted enough reason to bar Khama from returning to his country.  After seven years in exile, and with the help of friends in high places, the shameful report finally was released and Pariament acceded to Botswana’s right to mineral rights – both actions insuring the leadership and prosperous future of an independent country.

After his return home, Seretse Khama was elected first democratic head of the newly created nation state of Botswana, which he ruled for over 20 years before his death in 1980. Ruth took her place as the mother of the nation during Seretse’s life and after, and their son is now the fourth President of Botswana.

Whether you read the book (only available as a ebook) or watch the movie, this is a story worth finding, not only for its historical significance but also for its powerful message of love and redemption against insidious politics and arrogant men.

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.