Devil in a Blue Dress — Book Discussion Summary by Carole

Over Thanksgiving weekend, David, Chris, Steve, and I had the chance to discuss our second book — Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. This conversation was completely different from our discussion of The Last Templar. For one thing, we all liked this book.

The first in the Easy Rawlins series, this book introduces memorable characters, such as Easy and Mouse. Played by Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle respectively in the movie, these characters really come to life with Mosley's deft hand. Using his words like brushstrokes in a painting, Mosley creates characters we can see and picture for ourselves. David and Chris had not seen the movie when they read the book, but David said he could really picture this story as a movie. Steve and I saw the movie years ago and again recently, so it was difficult for us to picture the characters looking like anyone other than Washington and Cheadle. Not that there is anything wrong with that!

Cheadle's portrayal of the pathological Mouse is summed up beautifully in one scene in the movie:

Easy: Mouse, why did you kill him?
Mouse: If you didn't want him dead, why did you leave him with me?

In the book, however, we hear about Mouse long before we see him, but more about that in a bit.

A Houston transplant, Easy lives in Los Angeles in a community that is populated by many other people who have moved from Houston to LA. Set in post-World War II, Easy Rawlins takes great pride in the fact that he owns a home. Mosley gives us little snippets of insight into Easy's life growing up, and Easy says he "loves that house more than any woman he's ever known." The house is almost a character in itself; Easy is willing to go to great lengths to protect it and not lose it.

The story begins with Easy losing his job because he won't apologize to his boss. Easy won't do it because he doesn't believe he is wrong. A veteran of the war, Easy knows how to stand up for himself and what he is capable of. David made the point that Easy isn't always consistent in this--he often doesn't stand up for himself and suffers physically as a result; at other times, he exercises great restraint by not using violence to get himself out of trouble.

Easy's unemployment makes him vulnerable to losing what he values most, so he gets involved in a situation that he knows is going to lead him to trouble. From there, he meets the Devil in a Blue Dress and his troubles get much, much worse.

We all felt that Easy's feelings for the girl and her feelings for him were quite different. We all thought that she was merely using him to get what she wants, despite her protestations to the contrary. Easy, on the other hand, goes to great lengths for her, but we readers felt that the emotions didn't seem deep enough for him to do all that he does. In other words, we "didn't feel the love." Steve did point out that his name is Easy for a reason! Easy definitely does not play hard to get.

As Easy's back gets pressed harder and harder up against the figurative wall, he needs help. He writes to Mouse but is stunned when he actually shows up. You know from several conversations he has with those around him that Mouse is someone that is not easy to be around. Steve pointed out that Mosley somehow makes us like a true sociopath--not an easy feat!

Mouse shows up at a most opportune time, and you can't help but wonder if Mouse is always there to watch Easy's back throughout the series.

Until we read the book, I didn't realize that Mosley had written an entire series with Easy Rawlins as the main character. Chris wishes that Mosley's use of dialect was more consistent, particularly because he makes a point of saying that Easy communicates his true feelings better speaking as he did growing up rather than in proper English as he learned to do to get ahead in life.

Chris and I were very distracted by the Easy Rawlins' short story at the beginning of the book called The Crimson Stain. I started to read it because I thought it would set the context for the book, but I was not happy to discover that the story actually takes place some time much later than Devil in a Blue Dress and reveals certain facts about the characters that we should not have been privy to. If Devil in a Blue Dress is the introduction to the series, why include a short story that is, in many ways, completely disconnected from this story? If included at all, it should have been at the end of the book, not at the beginning.

The consensus was that the book was a successful read for couples. We aren't sure what our next attempt will be, but we'll keep you posted!


The Perilous Art of Book Recommendations

Carole points to a very touchy subject, one that many readers have had to face: to whom do you recommend a book? And to whom do you not?

With Carole, I will recommend anything that has print in it. If I haven't read it, I usually extend my hand clutching the book with these words: "I haven't read this one, but it looks good...." or the summary was intriguing, or the cover caught my eye. I don't always work with my brain when it comes to choosing books — sometimes it's instinct.

With others, though, it might be different. Alicia doesn't read much (perish the thought!) but responds well to very captivating books, or books that have been movies we've watched together. Lynn wants to be an avid reader but fears a bad book, so she gets books I loveloveloveloved (and Carole has loveloveloveloved); for her, there is no "Oops, my bad — how about this one?" Kathy and I find ourselves often reading the same books, unbeknown to each other.

But virtual strangers, or new friends, or casual co-workers, or even friends of friends, get entirely different treatment. The books you recommend to people who know you only slightly are books that define you to those people — not bad, but what message is your first recommendation going to bring?

For Carole, The Ha-Ha had scenes that she wasn't sure would go over well with this group. She knew what they had read recently, but nothing was like The Ha-Ha. Carole chose a different book for her first recommendation (which works to my advantage because now I get The Ha-Ha! Ha ha!). (Oh, like I could resist!) This new group will not be new soon, and at that time she can better judge when to offer The Ha-Ha. (Read her blog on this very thing — I'm sure I do it little justice.)

Parents are an entirely different category altogether. Do you really want your mom to read some of the steamy stuff in Dead and Loving It? And what do you do when you find out she did read it? And loved it? (That's Carole's story to tell.) Mine was a very successful sharing of The Red Tent with my mom, which will be blogged about soon.

One of these days, I'll tell you about The Book of Lost Things and Collin's birthday.

Even with friends, I worry. It was my idea for Carole, Steve, David and I to read The Last Templar, and I will forever apologize aloud for that. (Hey, the synopsis sounded good.) I had read Watership Down and had no problem handing over an unread copy of The Plague Dogs, which Carole found so difficult and sad a story I did something with my (thankfully unread) copy I never thought I'd do: I recycled it.

Sometimes I'm right-on: Lynn carried Angels and Demons with her everywhere while she was reading it and kept eying the book as it sat next to her in the car (and she was driving!). Alicia loved Stardust. Carole loved Jemima J enough to blog about it. After reading the first page of The DaVinci Code when it was first released, I handed Carole a copy in the bookstore and told her we had to read it right away before attending the author's reading a couple of weeks later.

And sometimes it's just not the right moment. I couldn't get into The Rule of Four or The Dante Club, both of which came highly recommended by Carole and Steve, so I will try again later. Carole couldn't bear Life of Pi when she read it, but because I loveloveloved it, she will try again in the future.

In short, there's a strange responsibility when one suggests a book. Each recipient must be judged completely differently and on her/his own merits. New friends get the "good stuff" only after they become more familiar, and old friends (so to speak) get the good stuff before you even read it.

So enjoy that book in your hands — but ask yourself: to whom would you recommend it? And to whom would you not?


The Ha-Ha — Review by Carole

I joined a new book club recently, and I was told that I could choose the next book. No pressure there, right? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time picking a book to recommend unless I’ve already read it.

So, I pored over books at the store trying to find something that would appeal to a fairly large group that wasn’t already standard book club fare. I skipped over such worthy titles as Glass Castles, Secret Lives of Bees, and The Red Tent in search of something not as well known.

I came across The Ha-Ha by Dave King and was immediately captivated by the title and the narrator. Living where we do affords us frequent opportunities to visit Mount Vernon. (Having someone in the family working there doesn’t hurt, either). Mount Vernon has a haha wall, and the name and idea of it always appealed to my kids when they were younger. A haha wall is "a retaining wall built into a ditch. It physically separates the lawn/garden area from the pasture/park, allowing the animals to appear as part of the landscape but keeping them off the lawn without having a fence." The haha part comes in when people don’t know it’s there and topple unsuspectingly into the ditch, causing onlookers to go “ha ha.” I’m not sure that would be my response, but one woman’s "Ha Ha" is another woman’s "Oh my God, are you all right?” But I digress.

The book’s unique narrator intrigued me from the start. Howard is a Vietnam veteran who suffered a horrific head injury that left him unable to speak in anything other than basic guttural noises that are unintelligible even to those close to him. Despite the fact that his recovery is deemed a success story, Howard is also unable to read or write. It is through Howard that The Ha-Ha story is told. A capable, intelligent man aware of the many ironies that his particular situation creates, Howard relates to us how he has come to be where he is now.

He actually is in the house he grew up in, but his parents are now gone, and he has a diverse group of roommates. He works for nuns at a convent doing their landscaping, including mowing their ha-ha wall (see earlier comment about ironies — should nuns ever have a ha-ha wall?). Also significant in his life is his former girlfriend, Sylvia. They were sweethearts when he went off to Vietnam, and she has remained a constant in his life, but her life is a mess. A single mother with a substance abuse problem, Sylvia relies on Howard to do things for her with the unwavering certainty that he will do it.

The plot of the book revolves around Howard caring for Sylvia’s son, Ryan, while Sylvia at last seeks treatment for her addiction. Ryan is not at all keen on this arrangement; Howard’s roommates are equally reluctant for many reasons; and Howard is pretty terrified and unsure of how he’ll cope with the challenges of communicating with this young boy.

Throughout the book, I found myself cringing at the prospect of Howard being hurt. He has already endured great suffering, and you just want him to be happy. You know that more pain is coming his way, and you want him to be spared. Howard shares some disturbing memories that give you some insight into what his life’s journey has been like, and you can’t help but feel that he deserves some measure of happiness.

Finding out if he gets what he deserves is what keeps you turning the pages. Emotions run the gamut as you read along—anger at Sylvia’s selfishness, protectiveness toward Howard at other’s lack of understanding, wistfulness at opportunities not taken. Poignant scenes between many of the characters stay with you long after finishing the book.

I found myself comparing The Ha-Ha to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time on more than one occasion as I read the book. Perhaps because both narrators are challenged in their own ways; perhaps because the action taking place sometimes tells you more than the narrator does about what is really happening; and perhaps because you find yourself rooting for their happiness even if you can’t readily identify what will make them happy.

I devoured the book, but I ultimately did NOT choose it for this book club’s selection (I went for The Time Traveler’s Wife instead). I just didn’t know if some of the book’s graphic scenes were what this book club would be expecting. I know, I know, The Time Traveler’s Wife has graphic scenes too, but read The Ha-Ha and see what you think. Maybe once I get to know the tastes of this book club’s members a bit better, I’ll put it up for discussion. But to you, reader of book blogs, I recommend this book.


Stardust — Review by Chris

The edition of the book I read was the fairy tale by Neil Gaiman illustrated beautifully by Charles Vess. I suppose you could read this book without Vess’ illustrations — but why?

The story is charming, the illustrations very rich and the combination made for a great read.

Dunstan Thorn lives in an English town called Wall that exists next to Faerie, the land of faeries — a land that is dangerous and fraught with peril. Two men from the village guard the gate at all times.

The only time anyone is allowed to cross to Faerie through the break in the Wall is on Fair Day, when the fairy folk bring their wares to sell in the neighboring faerie meadow.

On one such day, Dunstan meets a woman with whom he is smitten. She makes a date to meet him that evening.

A year later, she leaves a baby at the Wall with a note identifying the child as Dunstan’s. He could not deny his child, and his new wife raises the child as her own.

In 18 years’ time, the young man Tristran Thorn becomes enthralled with Victoria Forester, the town beauty and daughter of his employer. One autumn evening when he sees a shooting star fall on the other side of the Wall, he impulsively promises to bring the star back to Victoria if she will marry him. She agrees — after all, no one is allowed beyond the Wall.

But young men smitten with pretty girls do ill-advised things, and Tristran is no different. His father, understanding his son’s nature, persuades the Wall guards to let the young man through to follow his dream.

Tristran is not the only one who saw the star fall. The eldest sister of a group of old witches must have the heart of the fallen star to regain her youth. She takes a potion to re-create herself for the road and goes off in search of this fallen star.

The star, however, is the topaz of the Lord of Stormhold, who on his death bed throws his kingdom’s jewel as a test for his remaining sons. The one who can find this jewel will rule the kingdom. This collection of men is joined by a collection of dead brothers. Each has killed the other as part of his effort to obtain the throne for himself. Let’s just say death does not take the late brothers out of the story.

Between ruthless brothers, a youth-hungry hag and a besotted young man, the star has little chance to remain undiscovered.

Tristran sees a great transformation in himself. He loses the shirt off his back, literally, and must make friends along the way to survive. He also evolves into a new and different person who has talents unknown and undeveloped in the other world, and he finds a confidence he did not have.

The sons vying for the lordship of Stormhold also undergo transformations, but of a more permanent kind.

The hag herself evolves during this search in sad and scary ways, encountering friend and foe, and using her magic for her own end.

I enjoy Gaiman’s work on its own, but I highly recommend finding the illustrated version for this read. You will not be disappointed. It is truly a Faerie Tale worth reading more than once.

(By the way, I hear the movie is a fantastic treat for the eyes. I hope it's because they paid attention to Vess' artwork.)


My Library is Closing

What do you do when your library is closing for a couple of months and any book you check out is not due back until it reopens?

You go shopping!

Well, that's what I did. (Twice. So far.) I made a list of all of the books I wanted to read, all of the books that had great reviews, all the books that look interesting. I started taking them off the shelves with great aplomb, my arms filling quickly. I took as many as I could drag to the car and promised a return trip.

And I also placed books on reserve like mad, anything I wanted to study this winter. Miraculously, every one of those books also came in this week.

I will be reviewing my wish lists on Amazon.com and Half.com to see what other faves the library might have in stock for me. I also will walk through the shelves, both fiction and non-fiction, plucking what looks ripe.

I can't remember if there's a limit to how many books I can keep: 24, 36, something like that. Maybe, if due dates are all cattywhompus, maybe "book limits" are, too.

It's almost like Christmas came early — which is what I usually feel when I walk through the doors of the library. But this time, I don't have to worry about overdue fines, my one Achilles heel. At times, I simply buy the book from the bookstore because I'll wind up paying that much in fines.

But not this time.

This time, I have a chance to actually finish the books before they're due. If there's a reason to look forward to winter this year, this would be it: dozens of books piled high around the living room. (Wait, that's the status of my living room on a regular day.) (Not to mention the bedroom and the den....)

I checked out a book on decorating the house with books. Maybe I'll get some good ideas.

I'll see you in February, when my library re-opens and I come back up for air.


"Potty" Books, or Finding the Time to Read

The next time you want to get that book read but swear you have no time in the world to read it, put it in the bathroom.

At the risk of being a little crude, everyone has to go to the bathroom, and your list of possible activities in that room is just a tad limited. Put the book in there and read a page or two (or five) in the time you have.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that one has to devote large chunks of time to an important endeavor. War and Peace doesn’t have to be finished in a single sitting, so to speak, but it can be finished in time.

For those who don’t use the bathroom (or who think it’s gross to put reading material in there), apply this idea to the area of your life where you have a few minutes to yourself.

If you find yourself waiting for the kids to get out of band practice, put the book in the car and read a couple of pages before the car loads up with teenagers.

If you have a commute that puts you on the train or bus, read it then. (And yes, you can train yourself to read on the train because I did just that myself as a commuter.)

Even if the gym puts a television screen on your elliptical machine, turn it off or prop a book against the blank monitor.

At the office, get to the parking garage five minutes early in the morning, or let the parking lot or lobby empty out before you enter the fray at the end of the day. You also can use a few moments of the lunch hour to slip into that book.

Skip the 11 o’clock news and read a few pages before you go to bed. Whatever you’re afraid to miss at that hour will be rebroadcast on some media the next morning, and a good book will give you better dreams than anything you see on television.

Or try audio books, the unabridged kind, and see if you like them. I’ve tried them on long lonely drives down I-95, and they beat the heck out of late night radio (except for 98.9 Liberty, WWLB-FM 98.9, the rock station in Richmond that will “play anything”).

I have had conversations like this with people who argue with me. “No, I don’t have a second to myself,” they insist. That might be true. The care of a newborn is constant and exhausting. A new job is consuming. There are periods in which life is unrelenting. However, like I said, everyone goes to the bathroom — so find your “bathroom” or moment of peace and launch the reading of that book you’ve promised yourself.