The Yiddish Policemen's Union—Review by Carole

A Jewish state settled in the wilds of Alaska? The atomic bomb dropped on Berlin in 1946? Hints like these help you to realize that the world Michael Chabon gives us is not the actual world that we live in. This alternate history presented in The Yiddish Policemen's Union provides the context and setting for an unusual who-done-it mystery. Speaking of unusual, this book has one of the most intriguing graphic designs for a book cover that I have seen in a long time. The jacket and text illustrations were provided by Will Staeble — I'll have to keep an eye out for his work.

Meyer Landsman is a down-and-out police detective, and his drinking and generally self-destructive behaviors have led to the failure of his marriage. Despite being surrounded by loyal friends and family, he seems to be in a downward spiral that can’t end well. So far has he fallen that he now resides in a hotel of questionable reputation.

To add insult to injury, a murder takes place in the hotel. Guilt motivates Landsman to take a personal interest in the case — he feels guilty that a crime was committed essentially in his house, and he feels even worse that he never knew the man. They lived in the same place, and he can’t remember if they had even nodded at one another in the elevator.

Looking for clues, Landsman notices a chess game in progress on the nightstand along with a book of chess strategies. We learn that Landsman’s father was a chess prodigy. Landsman bears emotional scars from his chess-playing days with his father, and he has a deep loathing for the game. Yet it is the chess board that intrigues him most about this case. So, he begins to investigate.

What complicates matters is that his ex-wife is now his boss; his cousin/partner is rapidly running out of patience for Landsman’s excesses; and the Jewish state is going to revert to Alaska in two months' time.

The looming reversion affects all citizens of the Jewish community, and uncertainty is woven through all of the interactions and moods of its citizens. No one acts like themselves. Their way of life is ending, and there are few guarantees to what lies ahead for any of them.

Landsman is told to not make trouble and to solve all of his open cases any way he can. He knows that’s what he should do, but is compelled to find out who really killed the man in his hotel.

What follows is an intriguing tale of faith, expectations, disappointments, redemption, and messiahs. You find yourself drawn into Landsman’s world, and you want him to get to the bottom of things. In the process you find yourself pulling for him to snap out of the despair that has taken control of his life.

This was not a fast read for me — Chabon expects you to really absorb what he is telling you and to think about what it means. That’s a lot more than most mystery writers ask of their readers. But if you do what is asked of you, you’re rewarded with an intriguing, satisfying tale.


Heart-Shaped Box — Review by Chris

When I was a kid, I read as many scary books as I could get my hands on. I knew the word "poltergeist" before I knew how to pronounce it. I read about demons, haunted people and property, werewolves, Satan, black arts and magic, vampires, ghosts and unexplained phenomenon. I wore a cross for six months in junior high after reading Salem's Lot. I feared torrents of unexplained blood. So when I say I know scary, trust me: I know scary.

And Heart-Shaped Box is scary.

Jude Coyne, an aging rock star, has a penchant for the macabre. When he is offered a chance to purchase a ghost, he goes for it without a second thought. After all, most of his trophies are harmless (to him, at least): a snuff film, a hangman's noose, a cannibal's cookbook. His girlfriend is very young (at least half his age) and very Goth. He sings about death and Hell in his heavy metal songs.

One could suppose he's on a first-name basis with the Devil, based on his stage persona and his interest in the macabre and death. Only Jude is pretty much an ordinary guy with ordinary hang-ups and baggage: a divorce, alienation from his family, loss of his longtime friends to death and caution toward forging new relationships due to his fame and money.

Then comes the invitation: for a mere $1,000, Jude can purchase a suit that comes with the ghost of its previous owner. Is he interested?

Absolutely, and his assistant purchases it tout suite. Within days, he is owner of a heart-shaped box containing a dead man's suit (and, he hopes, a ghost). From the time he opens his UPS package, you know this is no lightweight story: it draws blood from the start and it keeps going for the jugular.

You see, the ghost is no ordinary ghost. This is not a harmless spectre, someone or something that cries "Ooooooo!" and uselessly and impotently floats around. It's the relative of someone from Jude's past, someone whose family has a bone to pick with him, so to speak. This is a ghost with presence — and power (not to mention the scariest eyes in modern fiction). No one is immune, no one is safe.

Nothing, no one, will stop this ghost from achieving his goal: Jude's total and utter destruction.

What can a ghost do? Oh, you'd be surprised. I was. With every chapter, Joe Hill came up with some fabulously scary stuff. Nothing is as it seems, whether it's the radio, the "muscle" car renovated for the love of it, faithful dogs, family history, Denny's — not even a person's past, and certainly not a person's future.

Hill is a great writer. His first collection of stories, 20th Century Ghosts, won awards and recognition from his peers and readers (including the Bram Stoker Award, the British Fantasy Award,and the International Horror Guild Award). Only as his novel was about to hit the street did he admit to his representatives the truth: he is the son of Stephen and Tabitha King.

This news did not win him points in my book. Instead, I wanted him to make his bones with me. I read his dad's good stuff. I also read enough of his dad's not-as-good stuff to know that not everything King is gold. I needed proof that I could trust this author to scare me.

And he earned that trust. (However, every time I walked past the book, I sang the first verse of "Joe Hill.")

David and I read a chapter a night aloud, and it was very suspenseful and scary. More often than not, I would clutch David's arm as I read because the story or the images in the story were too creepy. I would not, could not, read ahead — for a number of reasons: chiefly because I was too scared to read it alone.

I am not the only one. My friend Lois told me she stopped reading at page 57 — and when we got there, I understood why. Without my Reading Buddy, I would have stopped before then.

I strongly recommend Heart-Shaped Box, but do not risk it without your Reading Buddy. This fabulous book is not to be read alone.


The Library is Open! Hurray!

After two long, grueling months without a library down the street, I have been rewarded.

My library has opened again — to the acclaim of all. The library had a party, and literally hundreds of people showed up.

In the age of Mega-Bookstore-Cafes and Internet saturation, I worry about the humble library. It's a municipal institution, and most people think "municipal" is not sexy. And while going to other libraries to get my book fix, I saw that to be true in older edifices: low ceilings, close bookshelves, fluorescent lighting, few chairs, even fewer tables. And no coffee or cookies for sale — not that our lard-fanny society should miss a Starbucks (or hundred)....

However, if my newly opened library is any indication, modern libraries are evolving. Now you can bring coffee in if it's in a sealed cup. There are easy chairs, wingback chairs, high ceilings, pleasant lighting and ambiance. There are DVDs of the latest movies, CDs of the latest books, new lending strategies for popular books, expanded hours and a selection that should make even the heartiest bibliophile salivate.

The problem is that we pour money into Borders without a second thought, but we cringe at the idea of doing the same to our libraries. Think about it: in these economic times, when the R-word is being bandied about and politicians are trying to think of way to "save" the economy, think about what gets cut first in government budgets. Libraries often are on the cutting block. We expect librarians and library staff to work longer hours and provide expanded service and product but somehow expect less, while we keep expecting more.

I'm not saying there should be a "tip jar" at the checkout counter of every library. (I hate those things.) What I am saying is that when budget time comes around for your municipality — which is just about now for those with a July 1 fiscal year start date — make sure government leaders know what you support. More importantly, make sure you know how the government is spending your money. Get a copy of the city or county budget and read it cover to cover. Find how how much (or how little) the state and feds provide. Talk to your elected representatives and your municipal leaders. Know what the government values, and make sure it matches the values of your community.

From what I have seen today, when hundreds of people thumbed through magazines, sat on the floor with their children to listen to the flute duo or stood in line to check out books, libraries are very highly valued. Make sure your government agrees with you. After all, it's your community.

Now go check out a book and celebrate the public lending library. I will see you there.


The Glass Castle — Review by Carole

Jeanette Walls’ memoir evokes many emotions, not the least of which is anger. Anger at her parents for the way they treated and raised their children; anger at the extended family for their lack of intervention; and anger at a society that managed to always turn a blind eye to a situation that could not have been easy to ignore.

Oddly, though, Walls doesn’t write with anger. Her love for her parents resonates throughout the book. She credits them with giving her a love for literature and art, for being resilient, and for being able to take care of herself.

In The Glass Castle, Jeanette, her sisters, and her brother grow up in a truly extraordinary way. And I use the word extraordinary deliberately. The book starts off describing one of Walls’ earliest memories—boiling a hot dog at the age of 3 and having her dress catch on fire. You know right then and there that her childhood memories are going to be quite different from my own.

I daresay that they are probably quite different even from someone who had a stereotypical bad childhood, such as coming from a broken home or living with an abusive parent. In Walls’ story, the family is very much intact—they are simply quite insanely dysfunctional.

As I mentioned in my I Dreamed of Africa review, memoirs are revealing for what they tell us, but also for what they omit. For instance, although she writes this as a look-how-well-we-turned-out-despite-our-horrific-upbringing story, you get the sense that the younger sister has truly been lost in all of this. She didn't have the strength of the group to draw from as Jeanette, her brother, and her other sister did. Also, her older sister did not seem to give this book her blessing--even though her mother seemed to be okay with it!

This book made me realize how much we take for granted--to always be fed and warm as a child. (Thank you, Mom and Dad!) It reminded me of Angela's Ashes in that way. Their upbringing has to have had unbelievable lasting effects on each of those children. I noticed that Jeanette and her sister do not have children and the brother just has a daughter.

After reading the book and imagining all of the times that those children unnecessarily went hungry, a quote from the grown brother comes back to me. He says, “You know, it’s not that hard to put food on the table, if that’s what you set your mind to do.”

I was enthralled by this book from the very beginning. I was going to re-read this for one of my book clubs, and I found that I didn’t need to. The memories shared in the book haunt me still.

For more of Jeanette Walls' perspective on her childhood, check out this Gothamist interview.


Geraldine Brooks and People of the Book in Rockville

For Geraldine Brooks, books are more than a passing interest, or even a hobby. They are a passion — so writing about a legendary book was not a stretch by any means for this Australian author. If anything, People of the Book was like a homecoming.

In a recent reading in Rockville, Md., Brooks revealed that as she was growing up, her family considered books as necessary as the roof over their heads and the food they ate. No matter how little might have been available, she noted, “there was always money for books.” At age 9, she purchased her first collection of books and, as they were lined up in her living room, she said she felt something she would "rediscover" when she was 15: lust.

So it is no surprise that a story about a book would be of particular interest to her. While in Sarajevo in 1989 for the Wall Street Journal, she and her fellow journalists learned that an ancient manuscript, a Haggadah written in the 1350s, had disappeared from the Sarajevo museum. They speculated as to its whereabouts, but it wasn’t until after finishing her first novel, Year of Wonders, that she could return to the story in earnest.

The story goes, she said, that in 1989, a Muslim librarian approached some Bosnian soldiers in Sarajevo to ask for their help retrieving a manuscript from the museum, which was pretty much the front line of battle. When they refused, the librarian mused aloud that it would be embarrassing when the public learned a librarian would go where the soldiers were too frightened to go. It worked. The soldiers accompanied the librarian. The rescue of the priceless manuscript was the thing of adventure stories: as water poured over them from overhead broken pipes, they cracked the safe and retrieved the book. The librarian kept it safe for the remainder of the war.

How did the magnificent and rare manuscript wind up in the hands of a Muslim librarian in Sarajevo nearly 700 years after it was created?

That was Brooks’ labor and joy: to give the manuscript a story. Unfortunately, she said, little was known about the document, so “fiction was the only way” to tell its story. The “connective tissue” would be the conservators, the protectors, she decided, and the story would go backward, to “save the surprises.”

“It’s a mystery story and a quest story,” she explained. “I had tremendous fun making it up."

She said she has three “guiding lights” to writing fiction:
  • "Until I hear the voice, I feel like I can’t write anything…. The voice is important.” The modern voice was lost to her, she said, until a “devil on my shoulder [suggested] I use a voice I didn’t have to research… one you could hear.” Hence the modern voice is Australian, rich with Aussie slang.
  • “We can’t have an apartheid of imagination,” she said. “We have to be able to write people who are different than us.” In addition to the characters she created for her latest book, Brooks has written about an English town in 1666, a diverse menagerie of Americans before and during the American Civil War and women in the Middle East under Islam, in addition to writing her own personal story.
  • The importance of story is paramount, she said, adding that you can’t have a story without a story.
Her novels identify people in times of crisis, she agreed with an audience member, then mused, “Does it take you to be your best self or your worst self?”

She also noted that researchers “took her under their wing” and helped immeasurably with the writing of People of the Book.

She said something that people with her news background understand: being a journalist "makes you very un-precious about writing.” Journalists cannot afford to be sentimental about their writing, and the words are tools. (Those who have worked in newsrooms with editors understand this fact all too well.)

I asked her if she planned to stray from historical fiction, to create something fantastical from her own imagination. No, she said, she didn’t anticipate making that kind of foray.

"I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had writing it," she told her audience, and I do not doubt we all agreed.

Seldom do I find a fellow journalist who not only does something I find fascinating, but also loves books the same way I do (though I hope her love of books doesn't create stacks of books that threaten to crash down on unsuspecting cats — not that I — oh, never mind, there's no use denying it). I enjoyed her presentation and her frank and humorous answers. I have enjoyed her other books, both fiction and non, all of which I have read (except Nine Parts of Desire, which I will remedy this year). I look forward to cracking the pages of People of the Book next month, after the moratorium is ended.

(Oh, don’t get me wrong: I bought the book and had her sign it. I just can’t open the book until February, in honor of the moratorium. I’ve buried it under other books to dull the temptation. So far, so good!)


Fluke — A Review by Carole

Christopher Moore's Fluke, Or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings explores the world of whales and those who study them. At least the world of whales as seen through Moore's eyes and imagination. Those who have read any of Moore's books, such as Lamb, know that Moore's view of the world is quite unique.

Before I read the book, I knew that a fluke was an odd quirk of chance, but I didn't know that it was also the y-shaped fins at the end of a whale's tale. Moore explains this up front, so I figured I would learn a few things as I read this one. When the main character, who studies whales to learn why they sing, encounters one who is getting ready to dive, he can hardly believe his eyes. Clearly written across the whale's fluke are the words "Bite Me."

"Okay," I say to myself, "Maybe I won't learn anything — maybe I'm just in for an interesting ride and read." The book takes off from there with an exploration and explanation of an entire world beneath the sea of which most humans are completely unaware.

Oddly enought, the characters in Fluke seem real whether she is a mermaid-like hottie who mysteriously appears to help with the underfunded whale study in Hawaii or the eccentric benefactress to doesn't go near the water but hears the whales when they speak to her, particularly the one who repeatedly asks her to tell the whale researchers to bring a hot pastrami on rye sandwich with them.

I had enjoyed reading Moore's Lamb (the story of Biff, Christ's childhood pal) so much that I avoided reading Fluke for over a year. I was worried about "author repeatitis," a condition I suffer from. Symptoms include feelings of euphoria after reading a book by an author, and wanting to repeat the "high," strong desire to go out and read other books by the same author only to suffer feelings of crushing disappointment when the story just doesn't measure up to my expectations.

I'm happy to report that I experienced no such symptoms reading Fluke. Moore delivers an original story and creates a world I was happy to inhabit for a brief time.


On Chesil Beach — Review by Chris

On Chesil Beach is a lovely little book that provides a perfect snapshot of a young British couple in the summer of 1962.

This book will have readers ask the question, “Could I ever have been (or could I ever be) that young?”

No matter what we try to tell ourselves, the answer is always “yes.” We would like to think ourselves more mature and sophisticated that that, but that’s like thinking we really do sound like Aretha Franklin in the shower. Ian McEwan presents these characters with such honesty and clarity, we readers will recognize how such a story can take place.

The short, poignant novel is a story about Florence and Edward, both 22-year-old Brits, who marry in 1962. Florence and Edward have lived in their family homes all their lives and experienced the intimacy and inner workings of their families, but they really don’t know how husbands and wives work together. As Charlie Rich crooned, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors — much to the dismay of those who have to walk behind them for the first time.

The tapestry of story is beautiful and compact as it weaves between the immediate present, as the two literally approach the marriage bed on their wedding night, and the experiences that had brought them to that point. They are told from the perspectives of Florence and Edward, and McEwan moves seamlessly between their thoughts.

Reading their story 45 years hence, a reader can appreciate the mores of the time and how (or whether) times have changed since. To date, Florence hadn’t given Edward more than a longing look; once he tried to advance to second base and was soundly thwarted. He laments that it took him weeks to regain ground with Florence, but that is what one expected of a respectable girl.

Now, though, the vicar gave them permission to share their bodies with each other, and McEwan allows readers into the minds of Florence and Edward, which ring with great clarity and honesty.

It is clear why Edward wants and expects his bride to respond to his advances, and his interpretations of her actions are completely understandable and truly heartbreaking.

It is also clear why Florence reacts as she does as she tries to approach her marital duties, and readers can truly sympathize with her bravery in the face of her fear: in the span of a 20-minute church ceremony, she is expected to go from virgin to sexual being without preparation of body or mind.

The true beauty of the compact novel is in its unfolding of the story. Whether you like the story’s resolution, you will be glad you read it. I highly recommend this book.

I Dreamed of Africa — Review by Carole

I confess—I read I Dreamed of Africa thinking I wasn’t going to like it. It had a picture of Kim Basinger on the cover, and I don’t especially like her. It’s about Africa, and I usually find those stories so overwhelmingly depressing that I can’t stand to read them. So, this did not bode well for my reading experience. To counter all of that, though, I had Chris’ recommendation, who found the book so beautiful “I cannot bear to see [it] on celluloid.” Wow! That’s a pretty ringing endorsement. That plus the fact that Chris does not often steer me wrong outweighed my initial reservations. But I still went into it thinking that I wouldn’t like it.

With that said, I didn’t like the book, but not for the reasons listed above. I didn’t like Kuki Gallman’s memoir because I often became so angry at the narrator that I wanted to throw the book across the room (FYI — if you Google “throw the book across the room,” you’ll find that this is actually a fairly common description used by book bloggers to describe their purely visceral reaction to a book, often prompted by its ending.)

Kuki Gallman’s story begins in Italy, where, as a young woman, she dreams of Africa. I grant you that she does have a compelling writing style and her imagery throughout the memoir is beautiful. But like any memoir, she only shares the parts of her life that she chooses. I always find myself wondering about the stories not told. I had the same experience reading The Glass Castle, which I’ll be writing about later in the week.

Back to Kuki’s story: when her life’s journey does, in fact, take her to Africa, she knows she is home. But before she gets there, she suffers a horrific accident that leaves her nearly crippled. Amazingly enough, a wonderful surgeon eventually is able to literally set her straight again.

When she suffers this accident, she has a very young son. Her recovery from the accident requires an 8-month stay in the hospital. During this time, her son stays with Kuki’s mother. When she gets out of the hospital, she and her new husband move with her son to Africa. So, let me get this straight: She takes a little boy, whom she has been away from since he’s had much long-term memory and moves him somewhere he has never been. Sure, why not?

In this early instance, she struck me as a selfish person who acts first and thinks of consequences later. This is reinforced throughout the book, and annoyingly enough, she often points out that she had great foreboding at certain times, but she, except for one instance, doesn’t listen to that voice in her head. Of course, she is writing about these events after the fact, so perhaps ascribing certain feelings of dread adds to the drama.

I don’t mean to disparage the tragedies she suffered. I felt her sense of loss keenly throughout the book, and in fact, it is through her loss that she sets her life on the path she pursues to this day. What I also felt throughout the book is that she was quite spoiled, used to getting her own way, rich enough to pursue whatever path she felt like following, and self-absorbed. I told myself to keep in mind the time period in which the book is set. Kuki was essentially a hippie determined to find herself. In her efforts to find herself, however, it is amazing what and who she lost along the way. I was repeatedly struck by the great carelessness with which she lived her life.

She writes quite poignantly about those around her and the tragedies they’ve suffered and endured. She uses this as a context for the harsh life they live in Africa. But it struck me that they should then value life even higher, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. She writes about life-threatening situations that her children find themselves in and what all of those events meant, but all I could do is ask, “Where were you? Why didn’t you know these things were going on in your children’s lives?”

The noble path that she ultimately takes is to establish the Gallman African Conservancy/Gallman Memorial Foundation. She does this in memory of those she’s lost. Throughout the book, she writes that she feels that she has to earn the right to live where she does. So why didn’t she pursue this sooner? Where was her passion for this cause before? She had the same connections, same abilities, but it takes tragedy in her life before she actually stops and looks around and pays attention to more than herself.

I give her a great deal of credit for putting her life story out there. It is remarkable for many things, but I just couldn’t get over the fact that, if I were to meet her, I wouldn’t like her. Isn’t that awful? I’m probably not supposed to feel that way about someone who is devoting her life to such a worthwhile cause. I’d really like to hear how wrong I am on this one—someone set me straight.


Family Tree — Review by Chris

The premise of this Barbara Delinsky book was intriguing: a white couple, Dana and Hugh, have a black baby. Hugh's Boston Brahmin family is traced back to the Mayflower and Dana doesn't even know who her father is. How does the new family, the extended family and community react? Most importantly, whose "fault" is it?

Well, I wouldn't bother finding out, if I were you. This banal and superficial book doesn't even skate over the surface of the subject.

Oh, and toss in the white senator fathering a child with a black waitress, the black neighbor with a white ex-wife and child, the grandmother with a secret thrust into the reader's field of vision way too early in the story, Dana's dead mother, a snooty woman who has her own issues and a black nurse who suddenly takes an interest in Dana's child....

And none of them has a true emotion, nor do they hold conversations that ring with any honesty. No one gets mad enough about anything. Worst of all, everything is all resolved, happily or not, in the time most sitcoms take for resolution.

Case in point: Hugh treats his newborn daughter with less affection than he would treat a stranger he meets on the street. Dana isn't mad enough at her husband's actions — instead, she's trying to "get back" to how they were before the baby came, rather than taking him to task for treating their daughter like crap. I don't honestly believe a woman who is supposed to have weathered the ill will of her in-laws with an apparently steely determination would have put up with her husband's behavior. We won't even get into his accusations and solutions to his issues.

In all honesty, I can see how the husband might be worried that his wife cheated on him, and I can see why he would distance himself from his wife and child until the matter is resolved. It's the way Dana acted that annoyed me. I wanted her to champion her child, rather than just suffer his pettiness and cruelty until he was satisfied with his information.

I finished the book because I was curious about who contributed to baby Lizzie's appearance. But even then, I wasn't satisfied with what Delinsky gave readers. I expected something less puzzling; I wonder exactly what the author learned from geneticists about racial characteristics being passed through the generations because she didn't share enough of it here.

Some characters should have been wearing neon signs that read, "Look at me: I obviously will be important later, because I'm too weirdly placed in this story to make sense right now and no editor worth her salt would leave me in unless I served a purpose!"

The ending was very unrewarding. I expected some sort of firm resolution, and I got ambiguity. Central characters did not come to terms with the elements of the story, and others "salvaged" their characters too little, too late. (Maybe I'm just mean and unforgiving.)

I wanted Fluff 'n Trash™, but what I got was pablum. No spice, no interest, no palatable intrigue. Not even a satisfactory resolution. Can you suggest something better Fluff 'n Trash™? Please do!


The Thirteenth Tale — Review by Carole

Do you like creepy, gothic novels? Not out-an-out horror, mind you, but the type of book that gives you goosebumps and keep you up reading WAY past your bedtime. If so, then Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale is for you.

It's got it all — insanity, depravity, misdirection, ghosts, repression, tragedy. Even allusions to Jane Eyre. It all begins when Vida Winters, a world-renowned author, reaches out to lonely biographer, Margaret Lea, to finally tell her story.

"Everyone has a story," Vida explains to Margaret in one of their early meetings. Margaret isn't so sure. Her own story is one she has never told, yet she finds herself compelled to write Winters' story precisely because of her own. Their own remarkable stories of twinness and what that means to each of them makes for a fascinating read.

The tricky thing is that Winters has told her story many times over the years, but she hasn't ever told the truth. The truth, as Lea learns through her research, means so very much to some people, and yet, it has the ability to destroy others.

My sisters-in-law and I read this one for our book club, and it was a rousing hit with everyone. We loved Margaret's father and we want his bookshop to be real.

Setterfield takes you many places with this story — the challenge is to see what is really there. This was a re-read for me, and I have to say that I enjoyed it even more the second time around. I think when you re-read a book, which I don't do often, you get the opportunity to really look at how the author tells the story rather than just the story itself.

This was Setterfield's debut novel, and I look forward to seeing what she come up with next.


Bel Canto — Review by Carole

The bel canto technique in operatic singing focuses on perfect evenness of the voice and has its origins in an ancient vocal method. The late 19th century saw this style of opera reach its height. Bel canto singers of the last century included Maria Callas and Mario Lanza.

What do I know about opera? I know that my Italian grandfather adored it as did his father before him. They managed to go to the opera even during the Depression when money could have been used for other things, but maybe that was the point.

I know that my favorite Christmas music includes Mario Lanza singing "We Three Kings." That's about the extent of my knowledge of anything to do with bel canto or opera.

So, why would I read Ann Patchett's Bel Canto? I have to admit that the appeal wasn't that strong. I picked it up after Chris gave it to me, and I put it down. I picked it up again and read a few pages — I couldn't get into it. I took it on a trip and only read a couple of chapters. But then it took up residence on my nightstand, amongst many others, and I finally picked it up again. This time, I resolved to finish it. I wanted to finish it before the year was over, and I succeeded.

It wasn't an easy read for me. It took me several days even though the length of the book was such that I should have been able to read it in a couple of sittings. But the pace of the book has an evenness to it that doesn't encourage speed. Maybe the book itself employs a bel canto technique.

Patchett uses one of my favorite literary devices — a group of disparate people, who — under normal circumstances — would never interact, are drawn together in an unusual circumstance. The action and drama ensue from that contact. In this case, Patchett devises a birthday party for an influential Japanese businessman in a South American country, whose people are trying to persuade him to open a factory there. To convince him to come to the party, they have invited his favorite opera singer to perform at the vice president's home. He cannot resist the private performance and he accepts.

The party is for a couple of hundred people, quite an international cast of characters. It is a huge success. But just as Roxane Coss ends her last note, armed gunman invade the residence. The terrorists are there to kidnap the president, but he is not there. With their carefully laid plan thwarted, they take everyone hostage.

The impasse that is reached between the negotiators and the terrorists force a prolonged captivity for all concerned. What follows is the development of the relationships between the terrorists and their hostages. You know that it is not going to end well — Patchett tells you that early on in the story. Who is released, who dies, who comes to care for whom are the reasons you keep on reading.

Patchett unfolds the characters' back stories in a way that reminded me of why I became so engrossed in the television show Lost. Learning who each character is, where they come from, and what role they are going to play in this particular setting kept me turning the pages, albeit slowly.

I could picture these people that Patchett had drawn for me, and I became involved in what happened to them. I wanted to learn how it all turned out. Ultimately, though, I just wasn't satisfied with the ending.

Maybe I just don't understand opera.


Declaring a (gasp!) Moratorium on Book Collection

Carole and I are awash in great books. We have stacks teetering on our nightstands that are calling for us to read them. We also have lots of new books staring at us, books lurking from the shelves, scads of new books stacked on the counters and tables — and after the “Year in Review” and “New in 2008” book lists being published in the past month, there’s more on the horizon.

What’s a reader to do? Well, in self-defense, a reader can call a moratorium on book purchasing. Carole and I have agreed to not collect new books in January.

I can’t say it will be easy for me. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking, looking at and pondering books.

Among my favorite pastimes is perusing the shelves of local thrift stores for that beautiful read-once hardback copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns or Water for Elephants.

I enjoy reading book reviews almost as much as the tomes reviewed and have discovered some incredible books before they hit the radars of book clubs.

I linger at My Borders and learn about what’s on the shelves (and what doesn’t belong there — which is a surprisingly high number, if the sloppiness of editing is as prevalent as cited in a recent New York Times book review article).

I regularly check out the books on assorted pages of Half.com and Amazon.com to see what’s out there: what’s selling, what’s rated by fellow readers, what’s on sale.

I visit my library’s list of award-winning books — and the more I search, the more awards and worthy recipients I discover from around the world.

Now, I did get some of the book-buying out of my system by using my gift certificates yesterday to purchase, among other things, The Vanishing of Esme Lennox.

My single possible stumbling block is People of the Book, which is set to hit the shelves today. I called Carole last week and asked her if she'd agree to allow a single purchase — and darned if she didn't say she could wait to purchase the book until she winnowed down her stack. I am weak.

However, I will try to resist the call of new books for at least a month. Carole and I have a few books we will be reading together and I have at least a half a dozen new novels from last year I haven’t even started. How can I enjoy a new Geraldine Brooks novel under the weight of so many excellent books? At least, that is what I will tell myself.

Wish me luck.