Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: "My Father is Joyful"

Those who know Hebrew will recognize that the title of this post is my daughter's name! She is a senior in high school, the Captain of her school's Dance Team, a member of the National Model UN, a graduate of the National Young Leaders' Academy and one of the funniest people I have ever met. (Of course, I promise I am not at all biased!) This is her graduation photo. I cannot believe she will be leaving us next year, but applaud the adventurous spirit that urges her on to other places!

No matter what I do in life, she and her sister will be my greatest achievements, so I wanted to share this photo with my friends in the book blog world.

Book Review: Faith L. Justice's Selene of Alexandria

Have you ever gotten to the end of a book and been so wrapped up in the main character’s world that you ran immediately to the computer to order the sequel – only to be crushed because no sequel exists? Then you have a pretty good idea of how I felt when I finished Faith L. Justice’s Selene of Alexandria.

I can’t say that I’d ever thought much about Rome’s Eastern Empire – and what eventually became the Orthodox Church – until I read SusieBookworm’s review of Selene of Alexandria. (I focused mostly on Medieval Europe during my undergraduate career, so I guess what happened in Constantinople stayed in Constantinople, if you know what I mean.)

So I was amazed to be so immediately taken in by Selene and her 5th century Egyptian Christian world. Justice blends historical characters with fictional ones seamlessly, pinning her story to historical events. The female philosopher Hypatia lived in 5th century Alexandria and ran the last Platonic academy there. So the placement of Selene, a young noblewoman who longs to become a physician, doesn’t seem as anachronistic as it might have. Selene’s family is impoverished by the Roman system of landowner fees, so she could improve her family’s fortunes with a good match. But her kind-hearted father sees her potential, and allows her to study medicine, which (predictably) leads to a host of complications.

The complications are the most interesting part of the book, actually, because Justice uses them to illustrate 5th century Egyptian society: the factionalism, the anti-Semitism, the tension between civil and religious authority. It was fascinating how Justice chronicles the rise of the Church as a form of class warfare, through which those born outside of the nobility could achieve power – and wealth. Bishop Cyril gives Cardinal Richelieu a run for his money as the pre-Machiavellian heavy, complete with a holy army of club-wielding monks to attack pagans. I was shocked to realize the cold, calculating character drawn by Justice actually goes on to become a Father of the Church, and a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions. It’s a sobering thought, but it certainly added to my interest in the book.

The love stories didn’t work as well for me as other parts of the book, however. I found it difficult to see what Selene saw in Orestes, the Roman prefect – he seemed too self-centered and crafty for someone with her altruistic impulses. The secondary love story, between her brother Phillip and the family’s Jewish maid, Rebecca, wasn’t developed well enough for me to understand the drastic decisions made at the end of the book. All in all, I felt like I was left with a bunch of cliffhangers, romance-wise – and no chance to resolve them.

Still, I loved learning about Selene’s world, and would welcome a chance to go back! So if anyone hears about a sequel to this one, let me know, okay?

Monday, September 26, 2011

TLC Book Tour Review: Michael Alenyikov’s Ivan and Misha

Michael Alenyikov’s Ivan and Misha is a novel told in short stories, each from a different perspective, knit loosely to form a tale of family and lies and loss. The stories are joined by the fraternal twins of the title, Russian immigrants living in New York City. The book is raw and intense, and the writing is beautiful and sparse, which makes the disjointed narrative feel more like a series of conversations you’re having, slowly revealing the realities of Ivan and Misha’s lives, as well as that of their adoring father, Louie.

The first story, from which the novel takes its name, is from Misha’s first-person perspective. He is the blond-haired apple of his father’s eye, an aspiring novelist who works as a gofer for a film crew. His boyfriend is Smith, a young and haunted man from Michigan. But the real love of his life is his small and troubled family: Ivan, who suffers from manic depression and Louie, whose health is failing following a stroke.

The picture of Ivan and Misha seems complete until we get to the next story, “Barrel of Laughs,” which is narrated by Louie, and fills in details even the boys don’t know. Later, “It Takes All Kinds” redraws Ivan and Misha from Smith’s perspective. And we think we understand Ivan until the focus shifts to him in “Whirling Dervish,” and we see the pain of living on the edge of sanity:

But here, now, this world, this New York, America, did hold together. It was a mystery to Ivan, whose thoughts might begin to race, spin out of control, at any time. He’s a whirling dervish who in some past frenzy had likely spun off pieces of himself that comprised those rings of Saturn’s and who now craved the embrace of Taz, who never hurried, who read him poems, who quieted Ivan’s mind and soul with the touch of his voice. p. 152

And so it goes, every story adding to our understanding of the twins.

I enjoyed the raw emotion of this book. But I was glad for the short story format, which gave me a chance to pause and think about what I'd read -- it really was pretty heavy in places. Alenyikov writes with insight, even when describing the most painful, intimate details of the twins’ lives. It's not a total downer, however -- there's some dark Russian humor as well, from Louie’s little white lies to Misha’s acceptance of Ivan’s grandiose schemes. I have to note that the book is very direct in its sexual content. Still, I never felt that it was gratuitous. I’d say this book is worth seeking out for the power and vividness of Alenyikov’s writing. He’s definitely an author I would seek out.

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion . I hope you’ll look at some of the other reviews here:

Tuesday, September 6th: Take Me Away
Wednesday, September 7th: Unabridged Chick
Thursday, September 8th: A Bookish Affair
Monday, September 12th: Lit Endeavors
Tuesday, September 13th: Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Wednesday, September 14th: Literature and a Lens
Thursday, September 15th: The Reading Life
Monday, September 19th: Wordsmithonia
Tuesday, September 20th: Regular Rumination
Wednesday, September 21st: Dolce Bellezza
Thursday, September 22nd: Bibrary Bookslut
Friday, September 23rd: Ready When You Are, CB
Monday, September 26th: Col Reads
Tuesday, September 27th: Books Are Like Candy Corn
Wednesday, September 28th: The Book Pirate
Thursday, September 29th: Stella Matutina

This book counts for the LGBT Book Challenge. And the Immigrant Stories Challenge. And I think I can count it for the Eastern European Reading Challenge as well. Yeah! I'm so glad to get back on track after a big, semester induced drought! Thanks to Natazz, Colleen and Amy for hosting!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley

Another first for this summer: my first Albert Campion mystery. Margery Allingham’s books have been on my radar screen for a while, but Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge finally put one in my hands.

I decided to start with Campion’s first appearance on the literary scene, The Crime at Black Dudley. The choice here was deliberate, but debatable. Campion is a significant character* in the novel, but he is not the protagonist – some Campion enthusiasts apparently don’t count this as a Campion mystery at all. Still, I reasoned that if his cameo in one novel led to the larger gig, I wanted to see why.

The story revolves around a house party arranged by Wyatt Petrie to entertain his invalid uncle by marriage, Colonel Gordon Coombe, who is living out his last years in the family’s ancient, secluded castle, Black Dudley. Petrie arranges for a lively set of stylish young people to share the country weekend, including his friend George Abbershaw, an eminent young pathologist. The very serious Abbershaw has uncharacteristically wrangled an invitation because he is smitten with Meggie Oliphant, another member of the party. Also along is the affable and outrageous Albert Campion – who everyone assumes is someone else’s guest at the party. In addition, Petrie’s uncle has a few – very surly – friends in attendance.

So the stage is set for the lights to go out.

And right on cue, they do just that! Petrie suggests the group reenact the family ritual of the Black Dudley Dagger, a grown-up game of “Hot Potato” played with a bejeweled blade that is passed throughout the house in the pitch dark. The loser is the one left holding the dagger when the lights come on, so everyone is frantically trying to pass it.** When the lights come on, Petrie’s uncle has been whisked away – it turns out he’s been stabbed. And his surly companions want Abbershaw to sign a phony death certificate.

So who killed the uncle? And why are the surly companions threatening to kill everyone else if they can’t find a lost item? And what’s in the brief case Campion is fighting with the chauffer about? And while we’re at it, who the heck is Albert Campion? I’m not telling, but Allingham does make a very interesting thriller of it.

Unfortunately from my perspective, as clever as it all is, she doesn’t really give the reader a chance to solve the mystery. I think this may be related to the fact that she started off with one hero – Abbershaw – and ended up with two, as Campion played out his quirky, baffling part in the story’s ultimate resolution.

I liked this book, but didn’t love it. My main problem was that I found it disjointed. The members of the weekend party were unevenly developed, giving the mystery a strange slant: you couldn’t focus attention on all of the players, because there wasn’t enough information to go on. I did like the gothic elements though: the secret passages, the strange lady in the attic, the unexplained car in the garage all made for a very atmospheric read. And I definitely liked the Campion character enough to read one of Allingham’s other books.

Okay, that’s my sixth Golden Girls read for the Vintage Mystery Challenge. I’m planning to finish up with Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery, which will make for seven different Golden Girls read in the challenge, six of whom were brand new to me! This has been a lot of fun, so thanks Bev! And since it’s a mystery, I’m also linking to the RIP Challenge, even though this wasn’t one of the two books I was planning. Hmmm. Maybe I can get to four after all… No, no mustn’t overcommit! But we’ll see.

*And believe me, “character” is the right word for Campion in this book. Little wonder he caught the attention of the public – and the publishers.
**This leads to a lot of running around in the dark with sharp objects, something at which all mothers reading this book will doubtless shake their heads, anticipating imminent disaster. They will be correct.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Weekend Cooking: Pizza Sourdough Bread

If you love baking, you’ve probably already seen Farm Girl Fare – it’s a fantastic food blog. I love to poke around there for farmer’s market inspiration! It was Susan’s Fresh Tomato and Basil Sourdough that inspired one of my family’s favorites: Pizza Sourdough Bread. Sounds a little crazy, but a slice of this toasted with cream cheese is a heavenly breakfast. My younger daughter likes to use it for grilled tomato and provolone sandwiches!

Col’s Pizza Sourdough Bread

1 cup sourdough starter*
2 large heirloom tomatoes (no need to peel or remove the seeds)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 tablespoons dried oregano
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
2 ounces shredded Romano cheese
About 2 ½ cups whole wheat flour
About 2 ½ cups bread flour
1 tablespoon salt

Combine the sourdough starter and tomatoes in the bowl of a standing mixer and let sit for a few minutes. With the mixer running, add the olive oil, then the spices and cheese.

Slowly work the flour into the dough, alternating ½ cup whole wheat and ½ cup bread flour, until you have a stiff dough (you many need more or less flour, so I’ve given you a ballpark figure). Knead 10 minutes. (I do this with the dough hook, but if you want to do it by hand, you have my undying respect!) At the end the tomatoes will be pulverized, but your bread will still have lovely red and green flecks.

Place the kneaded dough in an olive-oiled bowl after turning it over once to make sure the top is also covered with oil, cover with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel, and let rise until doubled in size. Then punch down, reknead for about 5 minutes, divide in two and place in two loaf pans. Let rise again until doubled, and score right before placing in a 350 degree F oven until the bread sounds hollow when tapped (about 45 minutes). Remove from loaf pans immediately, and let cool completely on a wire rack.

*You could also start with a sponge of ¾ cup warm water, ¾ cup flour and 1 teaspoon yeast. Let it start to bubble before adding tomatoes.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Looking Forward to a Perilous Fall: Joining the R.I.P. Challenge

The general lameness here at Col Reads over the past two weeks can only mean one thing – the semester has begun! But now that my darling daughters are also back-to-school (that takes an additional week here), I expect to have things back to normal starting next week! Or at least as normal as they get around these parts.

So autumn has arrived, and with it the RIP (that's Readers Imbibing Peril) VI Challenge, for readers of mysteries, suspense, thrillers, dark fantasy, gothic fiction, horror, or supernatural titles. Isn't the button fantastic?

I’m joining at the Peril the Second Level, but I hope to read more than two books – I just don’t want to overcommit.

What? Did I hear laughter? Me? Overcommit?