It’s an entertaining, suspenseful story that starts out giving off every expectation of being a fairly standard historical romance, but defies expectaIt’s an entertaining, suspenseful story that starts out giving off every expectation of being a fairly standard historical romance, but defies expectations just enough to keep you turning pages. There’s a surprising amount of sex, murder, madness, and mayhem lurking behind what at first seems to be an off-the-shelf rural-farmer-seeks-mail-order-bride plot, and it turns out to be as much a meditation on sex and passion (carnal and otherwise), and on how obsessions and fixations can drive people to extremes.
The author excels in creating environments. His powerful descriptions of the Wisconsin winter put you in the middle of a frigid, barren landscape with snow in every direction. And the depiction of turn of the (20th) century St. Louis, or at least of its seedy sides, is evocative and unexpected, startling you into considering the underside of worlds we usually only imagine as sepia photographs of upstanding citizens strolling down busy mercantile streets.
It won’t make my top-ten list, but it was certainly a decent way to spend a weekend....more
I’ve been doing some heavy non-fiction reading lately -- most recently, the kind of historical/political stuff about US misdeeds that usually has me wI’ve been doing some heavy non-fiction reading lately -- most recently, the kind of historical/political stuff about US misdeeds that usually has me wanting to set something on fire. At times like these I find some light fiction helps leaven things out, and among my first go-tos in that column is Lisa Scottoline.
I recently finished one of the novels in her Rosato & Associates series which I gave pretty high marks, more because I enjoyed the plot idea than because of the quality of the writing. Daddy’s Girl, on the other hand, registers at a higher level altogether. The plot is more compelling, the writing is tighter and better crafted, and the whole tone is more serious. Which is not to say the book is flawless, but the flaws are mostly those of the genre -- mainly, some unlikely behavior and some unlikely coincidences. Having said that, the story includes a couple of excellent plot twists, including one I absolutely did not see coming.
My only real complaint is about the main character herself. For at least the first half of the book, Natalie (Nat) is such a doormat -- especially in the presence of her family. (view spoiler)[I spent so much of the book just wishing she’d tell her family to piss off that I was actually a bit disappointed that she more or less reunites with them in the end. (hide spoiler)] But she does seem to grow over the course of the book, and her relationships do improve for the better before it’s all over, so it’s all good, in the end. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Finally, I discovered that to really understand the story, you have to go to James M. Cain’s original novel. It’s only in the book that you can really get inside Mildred’s head and understand what motivates her. I finished the novel feeling even more admiration for Mildred’s character and drive than I previously had, but also more aware of the flaws and weaknesses that contribute to her discordant relationship with her daughter.
Let me pause for a quick overview for anyone not familiar with the plot: Mildred Pierce is a housewife in 1930s Glendale, California, who starts the story right on the precipice of a major change in her life. Before the first chapter is even over, she’s sent her husband Bert packing, into the arms of his “other woman”, finally having had enough of pretending Bert hasn’t been cheating on her while she has been providing the family’s income with her homemade cakes and pies, after a series of business failures on Bert’s part. Now she’s effectively a single mother, with no job history, few skills, two children to provide for, and a house to maintain, all in the middle of the Great Depression. After some initial struggles, Mildred turns a lowly waitressing job into more pie business on the side, which spins off into a restaurant -- and eventually a chain of restaurants -- of her own. Along the way, she also finds love with a man straight from the society pages. Her daughter Veda has always been pretentious and snobbish, and Mildred’s new financial success allows her to provide Veda with all the trappings of the life she’s always dreamed of. Things slowly sour, though, as the money and things Mildred can now provide only make Veda more insufferable, and Mildred’s new love comes to resent her when his fortune collapses just as her star -- and income -- is rising. Without revealing too much, setbacks, misfortunes, bad decisions, and betrayals ensue, and Mildred has to fight her way through it and somehow come out on the other side.
In both cinematic treatments, Mildred is a sympathetic character, and it’s easy to root for her as she discovers her own resiliency and reserves of determination that help her not only survive difficulty but even come out ahead. On that level, she is a character that earns our respect. Her one blind spot is her daughter Veda -- a kid who is so rotten, that, in the films, at least, it is incomprehensible how Mildred continues to indulge her. However, in the novel, it becomes clear that Mildred’s feelings and actions toward Veda come out of her own (far more restrained) sense of superiority. To a certain degree, she doesn’t see anything amiss with Veda desiring something better. Certainly she sees nothing wrong with wanting more for her child than she was able to have for herself, and takes pleasure in being able to provide it. But Mildred has managed to balance her own aspirations for higher social regard with her satisfaction in her own life and her pride in her accomplishments. Veda, on the other hand, possesses no higher qualities to counterbalance her snobbishness and social ambition, and she doesn’t merely aspire for something higher, she demands it -- and has little but contempt for her mother for her lack of status and pretension. For her part, Mildred sometimes acts as if Veda were an extension of herself, and her obsessiveness about Veda is also a way of trying to keep control over her daughter’s life. In the end, though, the absence of the qualities that humanize Mildred make Veda all villain, and the only question is whether Mildred will be able to come to terms with it.
I had never paid attention to the source material of the film Mildred Pierce, so I have to admit I was surprised to discover it was written by the author of two other novels which became film noir classics, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. I was particularly impressed with Cain’s ability to write an appealingly complex female protagonist, and as a male writer in the 1940s, at that -- far better than I would have expected. Whether or not the book is your first introduction to the story, Cain’s novel is a worthy read. In addition to the nuanced human story he tells, the book also provides a valuable look at a particular place and time in history. It’s wonderful to get a sense of, for example, everyday life under Prohibition, or to get a view of now well-known and hugely developed California towns, in a far different era. And above all, the central story endures. ...more
OK, I won’t make any claims about this being Serious Literary Fiction, but I have yet to find another writer that can make a lightweight read as redeeOK, I won’t make any claims about this being Serious Literary Fiction, but I have yet to find another writer that can make a lightweight read as redeeming as Lisa Scottoline. As a fan for several years, I’ve been working my way through the back catalog -- if I’ve counted right, this is the 14th Lisa Scottoline novel I’ve read so far -- and Killer Smile comes out as one of my top faves.
Scottoline pulls off a neat little trick here. Killer Smile is as easy-reading a page turner as any of her other books, but there’s a very respectable degree of substance in there, too. Sure, there’s all the usual peril elements of a Scottoline mystery, but in this case, the central whodunit cannot be unraveled without an extended trip into the history of US WWII internment camps. While this is not the first of Scottoline’s novels to bring in some serious real world history (see, e.g., The Vendetta Defense, where the plot reaches back into Mussolini-era Italy; and Dirty Blonde, which surely was the first time most readers had heard of the Centralia, PA, coal seam fire) it may be the most poignant, with some of the details drawn from the real personal history of Scottoline’s own grandparents.
In addition, all of the familiar elements I’ve come to expect from Scottoline are there: a female-centric narrative, warmly drawn characters, and lots of local Philadelphia references. And although Scottoline’s law-firm-setting novels rarely go heavy on the legal points, the resolution of the plot here even relies on some clever lawyering -- bonus!
But actually, I think the biggest surprise of this book is that it’s provided me with my new favorite quote, delivered by Mrs. Nyquist, in Montana, over huckleberry pie:
If you can’t be brave, be determined. And you’ll end up in the same place.
Enrique Morones is a long-standing activist and advocate for the rights of Latino migrants. He has worked in coalition with many other activists and oEnrique Morones is a long-standing activist and advocate for the rights of Latino migrants. He has worked in coalition with many other activists and organizations, and is the founder of Border Angels, an immigrant advocacy organization probably best known for its work maintaining water stations (and warm clothing stations in winter) in areas of the desert where countless numbers of migrants have died attempting the dangerous crossing from Mexico to the US. In The Power of One Morones tells an abbreviated history of his life and work, liberally interspersed with stories of the difficulties faced by undocumented immigrants in the border areas of the US.
In my Goodreads reviews, I've been known from time to time to subtract a star from an otherwise good book, for example when bad writing detracts from a good story, or when I feel a writer has missed an opportunity to make an meaningful social justice point. In this review, however, I'm flipping the script. The writing here is uneven at best, with some repetition and oversimplification that could easily have been edited away with minimal effort -- but the story Morones tells is so important, so necessary, that these flaws are easily forgiven.
As much as you think you know about how bad the situation is for migrants at the Mexico-US border, the stories contained even in this slim volume are a cold reality check. It doesn't take much of a close look at the US immigration policy to know it is seriously broken, but what is too quickly overlooked is the profoundly serious consequences this has on individual lives -- most poignantly illustrated by a 22-page, full-width, single-spaced appendix listing the names of hundreds of migrants known to have died on the border. (And these are only the some of the names that are known. Countless hundreds more have died nameless and unidentified). Exploitation, degradation, and death are constant on the border, and it is the powerless migrants and their families that are left to bear the burden of a policy that no one in the US has the political will to reform. Businesses will keep making money off of illegal labor, politicians will continue to score back and forth political points off their opponents, and still the migrants will be struggling and losing in the background.
The best hope for change is the deep commitment offered by advocates such as Morones, demonstrating throughout his work and that of the many volunteers he works with that, in the words of poet June Jordan, we are the ones we have been waiting for. The Power of One tells the stories of dozens of actions, large and small, that advocates have been taking to push back against anti-immigrant movements, to provide safety and security to vulnerable migrants, to engage lawmakers in immigration reform, to offer support to people in need on both sides of the border, and to inspire many, many more ordinary people to join in the struggle in whatever way they can....more
Picked this one up rather at random off a library shelf, while searching for some beach/summer reading. It's an unusual mystery story, interweaving thPicked this one up rather at random off a library shelf, while searching for some beach/summer reading. It's an unusual mystery story, interweaving the kidnapping of a child in the late 90s in St. Paul, MN, with recollections of the Lindbergh kidnapping in the 1930s. It's at least the 2nd novel written by this author involving the same characters, so I read it out of order and can only judge it on its own merits, and not as part of the series.
Overall it's entertaining, and mostly held my attention, though despite the precipitating crime occurring with in the first couple chapters, it felt slow to get off the ground. It only gets a 2-star "I'ts OK" rating from me, though, because even though the premise is creative, the present-day sections are uneven, overdone in some places -- overdramatized and overwrought -- and underdone in others, where characters and events are underdeveloped and too much is taken for granted. However, I found the sections dealing with the 1930s crime mystery to be much better written and much more interesting -- the primary villain of those sections is deliciously fiendish, and the primary hero appealing and relateable, with all his flaws. I'm sure it would have been a better book without the whole present-day connection, actually.
Still, it was an OK read and a nice change of pace from my standard go-to paperback mysteries, and I'll be interested in reading Thayer's other books at some point as well.
In the summer of 2014, my partner and I took what ended up being a 2 and a half month road trip through the US, starting in PhiladelphiaRoad Trip USA
In the summer of 2014, my partner and I took what ended up being a 2 and a half month road trip through the US, starting in Philadelphia and heading down to Atlanta, west through the deep South and Southwest to California then up the coast and winding around the Mountain West before working our way back East to Philadelphia. I hadn’t bothered to look at any guidebooks, figuring I would be able to find whatever information I needed online along the way. While that was somewhat true -- there’s no beating the internet for lodging reservations and the most up-to-date restaurant information -- I felt completely at a loss as we were driving across states and through cities, with no real easy way to get a quick, definitive overview of where we were and what there was to see there.
In hopes of finding something like the guidebooks that have been my talismans on previous trips abroad, we stopped off at a big chain bookstore in Houston, where, alas, I didn’t really find what I was looking for, but did stumble across this one, which proved to be an absolutely invaluable resource for local knowledge and finding offbeat gems in the places it covers. While it is not a general guidebook -- it only covers 11 select routes either East-to-West or North-to-South across the U.S. -- if your itinerary covers any part of those roads, Road Trip USA is an especially useful source to have at hand.
We used it most for the old Route 66, and the information it provided on the history and the current state of towns and sites along the route was always interesting and often helpful in encouraging us to spend more time off the beaten path. Without this book, for example, we would have missed quirky Jerome, Arizona, with its soaring mountainside views just beyond Sedona, and the incomparable Oatman, Arizona, a dusty three-block or so stretch of faded personality at the peak of a treacherous switchback road outside Kingman.
We also relied on it for the Pacific Coast Highway, thanks to which we took a tiny side hike to a view of an amazing waterfall we would otherwise have missed altogether. Unfortunately our timeline kept us from going too far off the boring old interstate for other parts of our trip (leaving me regretting the Bavarian-style hamlet we missed in Washington State, for instance) but I’m certain this book will be the source of more than one mini road trip in years to come. ...more
Well, this is one I should have read years ago. Clear, direct, to-the-point presentation of fundamentals of usability that can improve any website. AnWell, this is one I should have read years ago. Clear, direct, to-the-point presentation of fundamentals of usability that can improve any website. And it doesn't hurt that the book itself demonstrates the principles it aims to teach. I read an old edition that I picked up at a used book store this spring, but apart from a few outdated examples (and the fact that it predates mobile web browsing), the key elements are such essential building-blocks of design and usability, that it is all still critical reading for anyone doing any kind of web development work. Plus, it reads like an absolute breeze. ...more