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Larry L. Looney (Austin, Texas USA)

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The Seal Wife: A Novel
The Seal Wife: A Novel
by Kathryn Harrison
Edition: Hardcover
30 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars EXTREMITIES AS DEFINING FORCES..., Oct. 15 2002
This review is from: The Seal Wife: A Novel (Hardcover)
Extremities define - they map out the boundaries of continents and nations, of worlds, and of our bodies. There are several extremities at work in Kathryn Harrison's novel - and the unforgiving Alaskan weather is one of them. The central character, a meteorologist named Bigelow, is sent to Anchorage in 1915 in order to begin recording weather data for the US government. He is at first excited by the prospect - both by its frontier location and by his potentially pioneering work - but he soon falls prey to forces beyond his control, both in his heart and in his physical environment.
Bigelow finds himself both physically and emotionally hammered by the isolation enforced upon him by his surroundings. He thinks he is prepared for the time-toppling 20-hour winter nights and the seemingly endless days of the summer months - he soon finds that he is sinking deeper and deeper into loneliness. He finds a bit of solace in the company of a native woman - known simply as the Aleut woman, her name never being revealed to either the reader or Bigelow - and he becomes more and more obsessed with her silence. She never speaks a word to him - the only noises he ever hears from her are her quiet moans during sex. Rather than being driven away by this, he is drawn more and more to her because of it. When she suddenly disappears - without an explanation of where she's going or when or if she'll return - his life is thrown into chaos.
He soon finds another woman with whom he becomes infatuated - she sings, accompanying the silent films that are shown periodically in a tent, projected onto a sheet. She is as mysterious as the Aleut woman - it takes quite a bit of detective work on Bigelow's part for him to discover her name and where she lives. When he does manage to meet her, he is struck by a strange parallel to the Aleut woman - this girl is also silent, except for her songs. She communicates with him by way of a pencil and paper, and lets him know that she can't speak - she can sing, but only the words written by others. She cannot even use song to communicate her own thoughts.
... I think that Harrison has endowed both of them with a lot of character and, in their own ways, a lot of things to say. This is particularly true of the Aleut woman - for a character that never utters a word (none of her thoughts are ever presented, either), this reader came away with a deep sense of her personality. She is a uniquely strong character - she lives her life as she chooses, and no one (especially Bigelow) is going to dictate what she should or shouldn't do. The method he finally finds of communicating with her, of touching her on a deeper level, is a memorable one - I'll leave it for the potential reader to discover what that is.
Bigelow himself is a less-than-admirable character, albeit a sympathetic one - meaning that I didn't necessarily like him as a person, or approve of his methods of dealing with those around him, but that I could understand how extenuating circumstances (as well as what was revealed of his upbringing) had formed him into the person depicted here on these pages.
Overall, I found the book to be compelling and entertaining - and I thought the style with which Harrison composed the novel was perfect for the story and setting. The author has a great gift for images: 'God exhaling clouds of geese' (p.224); and 'Like a key, the thought of her eluding him turns in his flesh' (p. 29). This is great writing.

Thalaba The Destroyer
Thalaba The Destroyer
5 used & new from CDN$ 11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A NON-EXPERT BUT FIRMLY-HELD OPINION..., Oct. 14 2002
This review is from: Thalaba The Destroyer (Audio CD)
First of all, I want to thank the folks at Hyperion, along with Vernon Handley and all of the musicians involved, for providing such an amazing array of recordings to serve as an introduction, for me, to the work of this composer. I have only two of the discs so far, but it's my goal to acquire most of them, based on the beauty I've found here -- both in the compositions themselves and in the performances. As I've mentioned above, I would NEVER claim to be an expert on classical music -- I have my favorite composers that I enjoy, but the depth of my knowledge and experience is far outclassed by more others than I would care to imagine.
That being said, I was struck by the evocative qualities of Bantock's compositions as much as by their sheer beauty. I've found a certain sweet naivete in the works of several British composers -- and this is something I find honest and charming, not something I see as a detraction, or amateurish in any way whatsoever. The fascination that Bantock obviously felt for 'things Eastern' is evident in the two excerpts from his 'Omar Khayyam' work found here, as well as in the lengthy title piece. The composer integrates middle-eastern themes into his work in a way that displays his genuine respect and affection for them -- as well as the more romantic, exotic attraction that pulled on him.
When I first listened to this disc, I was struck by what I felt was an extremely low volume level. As the disc played on, however, I found that this was necessary to accommodate the amazingly wide dynamic range of the performance. Now when I insert this disc into my player, I know to 'turn it right up' --and the results are stunning. Hyperion has a richly deserved fine reputation for their recording quality -- and this disc displays that nicely.
I can't begin to claim to hear Tchaikovsky's influence here, or another composer's influence there, in any of these works -- I don't doubt for a moment that they're there, but the enjoyment I receive every time I listen to this disc (or to my other Bantock cd, on Hyperion as well, with the Hebridean & Celtic Symphonies) is of such a level that it really doesn't matter to me. Every composer that has ever set pen to a blank score has been influenced by the great artists that he or she admired during their formative years (and throughout their careers as well, no doubt) -- those influences are absorbed and re-made by the best of them, and even with them 'on board', some incredibly creative works have been produced throughout musical history. This is true in any genre, not just in classical music.
The enjoyment of the listener -- the extent to which they are moved, and their lives enriched by the experience -- that's the yardstick.
This is an amazing recording ?I've been listening to it repeatedly for several months now, and I'm nowhere near tired of it yet.

Dry Well
Dry Well
by Marlin Barton
Edition: Hardcover
18 used & new from CDN$ 13.59

5.0 out of 5 stars MASTERFUL STORYTELLING, Oct. 13 2002
This review is from: Dry Well (Hardcover)
The stories in this volume capture the South at its darkest - yet at the same time they reveal the brightest sparks of the souls of the characters that have been brought to life so vividly here by Marlin Barton. Centered loosely around a single family, they cover a wide span of time - from the Civil War to the present day. Considering the time and place of some of the stories, it's easy to understand that there is some serious ugliness involved - but rather than play it loudly and cheaply, Barton has chosen to be more of a medium than a creator. In his hands, the words become crystalline, allowing the reader to see effortlessly into the lives and times depicted.
The collection begins in (more or less) the present, with 'Jeremiah's road', in which an elderly Black man sees the values to which he has clung for so many years fraying at the edges, most evident in the behavior of members of the family across the road. In this story, as in many here, there is an aching sadness for things that are lost, things that are perceived as vital in order to make a life whole, to make sense of the insensible. There are successes and failures - and all of the grey area in between - represented in these chronicled lives. From 'Jeremiah's road', the title story takes us back to the time of the Civil War - but rather than being just another story of battles and bloodshed, Barton instead delicately paints a poignant portrait of a single soldier, touched by what he has seen and experienced in ways that will change him forever. The stories continue to work their way through time, winding up with 'The cemetery', set, like 'Jeremiah's road', in the present.
Many of the stories here involve struggles between the races - struggles to understand each other, to coexist, to find a way to treat each other with respect, sometimes simply to tolerate. There are no sermons here - right and wrong are presented in turn, and it's not always easy to tell them apart. Hmmm - rather like life. Barton's style is simply an amazing thing to behold. His writing is deceptively well-crafted, allowing its complexity to be shrouded in apparent simplicity - but therein lies his craftsmanship as a wordsmith. I think that 'The minister', 'Fires' and 'The cemetery' moved me the most - but every single one of these stories is an absolute gem. I can't wait to read more by this writer.

Two Brothers
Two Brothers
by Bernardo Atxaga
Edition: Hardcover
13 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars I HAD SOME HIGH EXPECTATIONS..., Oct. 11 2002
This review is from: Two Brothers (Hardcover)
...but this short novel just didn't live up to them - I guess that's one of the problems to be expected with expectations (my apologies to Yogi Berra - that sounds like one of his expressions). I did compel myself to go ahead and read the entire book (not long, at just over 100 pages), hoping that things would come together more to my tastes, but it just didn't happen. There are sometimes problems with a work from another language making the transition into English - but I really don't think that's the case here. I think it had more to do with what Ms. Costa (the translator) had to work with.
The only aspect of the novel that appealed to me was the device the author employed of using birds, squirrels, a snake, a star and a wild goose to relate the events - it's a good way to look at the actions and emotions of the human animal. What was lacking - for me, at least - was any sort of insight on the part of these narrators. There were of course comments made by them that were uniquely from their perspective, but I thought they could have been utilized more effectively.
After finishing the story - which, for my mind, really led nowhere - I read in the author's epilogue that he had actually re-written this novel from his early career. Finding out, at the end of the book, that it was originally the work of an immature writer, makes perfect sense in retrospect. He mentions that when it was published in its original form, it made little impact, and he expresses what seems to be reluctance to see it undergo re-publication and wider distribution - he sees it as a stepping-stone to his later work. Perhaps it should have remained that, in the shadows.

The Third Witch: A Novel
The Third Witch: A Novel
by Rebecca Reisert
Edition: Hardcover
29 used & new from CDN$ 0.75

5.0 out of 5 stars A FAMILIAR STORY FROM A DIFFERENT POINT OF VIEW, Oct. 10 2002
Rebecca Reisert's retelling of the story of Macbeth from the point of view of one of the three witches is an interesting approach to this familiar tale - and one that breathes quite a bit of life into a story that many readers, having it thrust upon them as 'required reading' in Shakespeare's version, should find refreshing. The author, in her note at the end of the novel, mentions that she realized early on in her research that she could either be faithful to history or to Shakespeare, but not to both. She chose the playwright as her touchstone, and her writing skills have drawn nicely upon the Bard's immortal sense of drama to produce a very entertaining, readable and absorbing book.
The 'third witch' of the title is a young girl named Gilly - raised as a foundling by two older women who live in a hut in the forest. They have a great knowledge of nature - of the animals that live in the forest, as well as the medicinal (and other) uses of the herbs and plants that grow there - and are viewed with more than a little suspicion by the peasants who live nearby. Suspected witches are not tolerated well in mediæval Scotland - and for their own safety, they keep a low profile - but from time to time the villagers, desperate to care for or to cure their loved ones, seek them out for assistance.
Gilly narrates the novel - and her burning need for revenge against 'Him' is made known to the reader right away, and often. 'He' turns out to be Lord Macbeth himself - and her reasons for the deep hatred that fills her and drives her on what she sees as her life's mission to bring about not only his downfall, but his death, are revealed deftly, and in due course. I won't spoil anything for any potential readers by going into them here. Suffice to say that she is determined and dedicated to such an extent that it frightens the two other women with whom she dwells.
Her adventures in attempting to accomplish this end make up the bulk of the book - and the author's writing skills, as well as her research, make the experience a very involving one for the reader. Gilly is of an age that is a difficult time for any young person to bear - and the burden of her quest doesn't make it any easier for her to grow from a child into a young woman. She disguises herself as a boy for much of the story - and without becoming a feminist treatise, the novel subtly allows her to make some very relevant discoveries about the treatment of women in her society. She also comes to discover many things about herself - the rejection that she has felt for emotion (especially that of love for others, which she considers a hindrance) comes to be seen by her in a very different manner by the story's end.
The concept of the novel interested me when I first read about it - and I'll admit that I was a little leery of how well it could be done - but I have to say that I was thoroughly entertained and pleased with the work.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
by Sijie Dai
Edition: Hardcover
40 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

Dai Sijie's little novel is a masterpiece of subtlety, history, and the resilience of the human mind and spirit. His characters are caught up in one of the most horrifying events of the modern era - the Chinese Cultural Revolution - and are challenged not only to survive in the physical sense, but in the intellectual sense as well. They hang on desperately to their lives, their intellect and their friendship - and their story is both moving and inspiring, and not without some healthy humor. The love story that makes up part of the plot is both a familiar and a singular one - and very touching in many ways, without being maudlin. I read the book in a single sitting, in a couple of hours - but I plan to re-read it, taking more time with it, in order to savor the language and emotions a little further.
The story told here is one that is uniquely Chinese, but one that is universal at the same time. Despite (or perhaps because of) all of the attention given to the Cultural Revolution by the media and by governments in the West, little is really known outside of China of what it was actually like to pass through this time. This book is an invaluable look at a huge event that changed the lives of millions of people forever - a look at how grand plans made by leaders (no matter how well-intentioned) can go horribly wrong when put into action.
There's a mention on the jacket of this novel that it's being made into a film - after reading it, I can easily imagine it. The writing is extremely visual - I could picture the characters and the action with little effort. In the hands of the right director and writer, it could be done with timeless results. I hope that the author is involved in the process - the gentle power and beauty of his language should be retained as much as possible.

La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl
La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl
by David Huddle
Edition: Hardcover
18 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars RUNNING, RUNNING..., Oct. 6 2002
LA TOUR DREAMS OF THE WOLF GIRL is my first exposure to the work of David Huddle - and he's a very talented craftsman. The transitions between present-day Vermont (and Appalachia) and 17th century France are seamless - in the hands of a less competent writer they might easily have been clumsy and disruptive to the narrative. Huddle has a discerning eye when it comes to the human psyche and its accompanying emotional baggage, and he lays out his observations for the reader in several ways - direct, subtly oblique, and various 'grey areas' in between the two.
We see La Tour through the eyes of a professor of art history at the University of Vermont, Suzanne Nelson. She is writing a dissertation on the artist, and she focuses her attention - and her imagination - on a particular painting, the last one of LaTour's life. He has chosen as his model a village girl, the daughter of the local shoemaker. We see him strut into the village with his retinue of dogs, knowing full well how the scene will play itself out before him. He will make his offer to the shoemaker, who will at first refuse to allow his daughter to pose in the nude for the artist (despite his advanced age and the unlikelihood of anything improper occurring), then the two will haggle over price and social considerations - and in the end, the deal will be made, and the girl will come to his villa to pose for him. LaTour is assured that everything will happen as he imagines it - and to a point, events unfold as he predicts. It is when the girl arrives for her first sitting, and he finds that she is both more intelligent and self-assured than he could have dreamed, that he discovers that he will indeed paint her - his advanced age and his arthritic pains had convinced him that he was merely luring her into his studio to pose for his eyes. When she disrobes for the first time before him, and he sees that she is marked on her back with a thatch of wolf-like hair, stretching from near her shoulder blade to her spine, he is transfixed - and he is further moved to discover that she knows nothing about this unique trait.
As Vivienne continues to make visits to LaTour's studio, over the course of a few months, the painting progresses. LaTour saves the addition of the wolf-patch until the last, knowing that as soon as she sees it, she will feel violated and betrayed - both by the artist and her parents. Over the course of this time, she has come to be more comfortable in the artist's presence - he has drawn her out into conversations by posing questions to her about her daily life in the village, and she has been surprised to find herself eager to talk to him. She also is amazed to realize, toward the completion of the painting, that she has been in effect lying to LaTour - that the stories she has told have been embellishments of reality, sometimes complete inventions. He has taught he to lie by giving her to opportunity to do so with impunity.
All of this is of course a product of the imaginings of Professor Nelson - as she works on her dissertation, she allows herself to be carried away into LaTour's life and times, constructing out of the facts she knows a more complete picture of a human being, all the way down to his thoughts and motives. All of this is colored by the events of her own life. Her marriage of twelve years is slowly disintegrating - eroded by time and by inattentiveness (on the part of both herself and her husband). The novel follows them from early in their lives, before they meet - the reader is given invaluable glimpses into their pasts and upbringings, allowing the forces that have formed them to be visible. They are drawn together as inexorably as they fall apart.
Unlike many contrived plots wherein spitefulness and meanness - both unfortunately common human traits - play a large part in the path lives take, there is no hard-spirited ugliness at play here. This is simply a story of lives that come together and fall apart. There is a common thread passing through the fabric of all of these characters' lives, however - LaTour and Vivienne included - they are all running from something. Not all of them are conscious of it, but it's there. Suzanne and Jack are both running from the smothering influence of their parents - his are extremely wealthy, hers are from a rural area in the Appalachians. Elly, Suzanne's acquaintance who takes Jack as a lover, is running both from and to herself - streaming away from the life she has had and toward the life she imagines she wants, all of the time actually running away from who she really is. LaTour is running desperately from death - and Vivienne is running (at least in her dreams) from the life she leads in the rural French countryside. Everybody wants something they don't think they have - and a few of them actually come to discover that they had more than they realized all along.
It is these voyages of self-discovery and longing that make this book so appealing - and the fact that Huddle has combined all of these stories into a valid whole makes this an entertaining, compelling read.

Still She Haunts Me: A Novel
Still She Haunts Me: A Novel
by Katie Roiphe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 35.95
26 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars AN ASTONISHING, MOVING PIECE OF WRITING..., Oct. 3 2002
Katie Roiphe's novel of the relationship between Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell (for whom he wrote Alice's adventures in Wonderland and Through the looking-glass) is one of the most beautifully-written books I've read in some time. The questions surrounding the relationship are long-standing - was Dodgson's obsession with Alice grounded in innocence or in lust (even if repressed)? How did Alice herself view the relationship, both as it was happening and, as she grew older, in retrospect? There is mention of a reference to Dodgson by Alice, written for a magazine when she was in her 80s, that is warm and sentimental - but even in this reference, she mentions the fact that all of the letters Dodgson wrote to her when she was a child were destroyed by her mother. This novel might not answer these questions completely and thoroughly - how, indeed, could it do that, given the passage of time and the destruction of crucial 'evidence' - but it seems that Roiphe has done her very extensive research with accuracy in mind, and the results make for an extremely readable, compelling and moving story.
Like any relationship that involves even a hint of the possibility of child abuse or pedophilia, there are undercurrents and subtleties swimming just beneath the surface of the more obvious events and emotions. The story of Dodgson and Alice raises questions as questions are answered. The mathematics lecturer met Alice and her family (her father was his dean at Oxford) when the girl was only four years old, and remained close to the Liddells until Alice was eleven, when events caused the tensions which had been simmering for seven years to boil over. There was very obviously some degree of discomfort on the part of Alice - despite her honest affection for Dodgson and his attentions - that was harder and harder for her to contain as she approached adolescence. As she became less and less of a little girl and more of a young woman, she found it difficult not only to reconcile her feelings for and about Dodgson, but to come to grips with the natural changes occurring within her own psyche and body - a transition that's difficult at best, challenging each of us as a rite of passage into adulthood.
Like another reviewer, I had some serious and deep-rooted questions about Alice's mother's ongoing reaction to Dodgson's attentiveness to her middle daughter. She expresses misgivings about it from the beginning, mostly based on 'gut' feelings and motherly instinct. Why in the world would a mother experiencing any misgivings about another adult spending time with one of her children not look into the matter more thoroughly and take action to prevent lasting emotional damage to her child? The answer to this perhaps lies in the age in which the events took place. While pedophilia undoubtedly occurred then as it does now, I'm sure it wasn't given the media attention it receives today, especially considering what was considered 'discussable' in Victorian England - and that's a shame, in hindsight, because we know today that open discussion of this (and other) atrocities in our society can help to prevent their occurrence as well as aid in the healing of those who have been victimized.
In the end, whether Dodgson's obsession was innocent or lustful, what really matters is its effect on the subject - a young girl flattered by the attentions and affections of an adult, led into a relationship that becomes 'curiouser and curiouser', more and more confusing, as it progresses. There are countless cases of children being emotionally scarred for life that began with 'all good intentions'. The novel doesn't paint Dodgson as a monster at all - but the damage done to this little girl (and to numberless others before and since), the results of his actions, is the thing by which he should be judged, not his intentions.
While Roiphe's wonderful novel might not address these questions directly, it certainly makes their presence in the overall scheme of the story known - they are there, just below the surface, moving the characters and story just as if they were characters themselves. This skillful weaving of surface and subliminal plot and action is one of the things that make this such a great piece of writing.

Shamrock Tea
Shamrock Tea
by Ciaran Carson
Edition: Hardcover
15 used & new from CDN$ 0.21

5.0 out of 5 stars QUITE A MIND-BOGGLING BREW..., Sept. 30 2002
This review is from: Shamrock Tea (Hardcover)
...SHAMROCK TEA, the novel, is almost as hallucinogenic as the concoction itself. The book is a wonderful swirl of fiction, art/political/social history, philosophy, religion and Irish culture.
Carson takes the reader on quite a trip, with 1959 as a jumping-off place, centering around three children. As the story unfolds, connections are made between systems of thought as well as points in space and time -- and the idea of parallel universes is not left out, either. In the book, points in the space-time continuum is described as being similar to pages of a book -- separate, but lying very close to each other, distant and adjoined at the same time.
The cast of characters is immense -- besides the children mentioned above, and their guardians and teachers, appearances are made by Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the artist Jan Van Eyck (whose amazing painting THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT plays a huge role of its own in the story), and innumerable saints from throughout the history of the Catholic Church. Everything -- and everyone -- is inter-connected, which is one of the messages of the story itself.
The novel is constructed in 100 chapters, each of only about 3 pages in length, and each named for a color. The boy who narrates the story begins by describing the wallpaper in his room, along with his general sensitivity to colors in his surroundings -- and from this seemingly ordinary starting point, the reader is off on a journey that is by turns frightening and wonderful, but always fascinating.
I'm looking forward to reading Carson's FISHING FOR AMBER -- and, being a fan of Irish traditional music, his LAST NIGHT'S FUN as well.

Three to See the King: A Novel
Three to See the King: A Novel
by Magnus Mills
Edition: Hardcover
24 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars DIDN'T ENGAGE ME..., Sept. 24 2002
After reading THREE TO SEE THE KING, I can see a little of what people seem to like about Magnus Mills -- but this little fable/novel didn't do much to engage my interest, let alone move me on any deeper level. It's basically a re-telling (how many times has THIS been done...?) of the messiah story: people desperate to have someone else enlighten them with a better way of living, follow that someone blindly until they become disillusioned, then turn on him for 'betraying' their trust. I didn't find the narrator (never named) or any of the other characters very likable -- and most of them were downright irritating.
Mills seems to have some pretty capable writing skills -- I'll have to check out some of his other work. I had to force myself to finish this one.

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