Posted by: istop4books | March 23, 2011

In Praise of the Stepmother, Martin Vargas Llosa

This short novella centers around 4 characters who live in a large home in Lima, Peru, Rigoberto, a widow recently remarried to Lucrecia, Alfonso (Foncho) his prepubescent son, and Justiniana, the maid.

As the book opens, we learn of the erotic and sexual lives of Rigoberto and Lucrecia, much of which is driven by Rigoberto’s fantasies formulated from paintings. Through the use of exquisite colored plates, 4 nudes and 2 abstracts, Rigoberto weaves erotic fantasies, and colors his love life with Lucrecia in a world more imaginary than real, of what he wishes she were than what she really is. He showers her with affection but the reader is left wondering if he truly knows her, or if he has created an illusion of her. (Reading the book requires detained observation of these plates.)

Parallel to this, we learn of the obsessive rituals that Don Rigoberto performs on a nightly basis, each day of the week concentrating on a different part of his body. This is one area where he feels wholly and completely in control. “His iron will to control the unpleasant arbitrary acts of his body, forcing it to exist within certain aesthetic rules, never going beyond limits fixed by his sovereign taste – and, to a certain extent, Lucrecia’s – thanks to techniques of extirpation, trimming, expulsion, irrigation, friction, tonsure, polishing, et cetera, which he had finally mastered, as an excellent workman masters his craft, isolated him from the rest of humanity and produced in him that miraculous sensation – which would reach its apogee when he joined his wife in the darkness of the bedroom – of having escaped from time.” The writing is fascinating and held me in its grip even as I read, with a degree of astonishment, the incredibly detailed account of, among other ablutions, the evacuation of his bowels. Three page’s worth of intricate descriptions of this task. It blows my mind to think that anyone could include this in a short book and make it work. Vargas Llosa does just that.

So far so good. Enter the uncomfortable, controversial, creepy arena of the novel. Very quickly we learn of the intense relation erupting between Lucrecia and her prepubescent, cherubic, angelic looking, innocent stepson. His age is not specified, however, at one point Lucrecia has to kneel so that their heads are at equal levels. 10, 11 years old? Alfonso spies on his stepmother during her nightly bath and manipulates a situation through hugs, kisses and threats – a bit of a stretch for me – until achieving his purpose. OK – this made me horrificably uncomfortable having brought up 3 boys of my own. On the other hand, Lucrecia, who has recently turned 40 (and from experience I totally understand how traumatic that birthday can indeed be), has vowed to never grow old and ugly – to remain beautiful at any cost. It is in this frame of mind that Lucrecia alters reality to justify her needs, throws caution to the wind, comes up with a moral justification to the behavior that she knows to be immoral. In doing so, she reinforces her perception of youth, and perceives Foncho’s cherubic, innocent face as validation that what she was doing was justifiable. After all how can anyone so beautiful be diabolic? Impossible.

And so it is that the surreal world created by Rigoberto and Lucrecia cracked.

Posted by: istop4books | March 22, 2011

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

I just finished this one and rather enjoyed the book. It was a quick read and a page turner which I was glad of because lately my reading has consisted of sloggers. I knew the book had mixed reviews so I was a little cautious, but it grabbed me quickly.  Having said this, I don’t think it was particularly memorable or enlightening or thoughtful, which is why it only gets 3 stars for its entertainment value and the fact that it got me out of a reading funk.

The premise of the book is a wealthy man in 1907 northern Wisconsin puts an ad in the paper for a Reliable Wife. The woman who answers is anything but.  Both have hidden agendas and a laundry list of hangups which come from their miserable childhoods and plenty of baggage which they bring to the mix.

I’m always interested in the power of parents to screw up the lives of their children. Dead or alive, parents have this huge influence on kids which seems to last forever. (and as the mother of 3 grown boys, that thought is scary!) So Catherine, Antonio and Ralph were each the product of horrific childhoods and they each coped with their lives in different ways. Sex, either giving it, selling it or wanting it was another big theme throughout the book and sort of an underlying erotic theme even when it wasn’t being blatantly described. In parts it left me wanting for more depth into the characters, especially Ralph and Antonio.

I never did wrap my head around Ralph – without spoilers – I just didn’t understand his lack of character. He was supposed to be this very strong businessman, but yet the book starts as Ralphs cowers in the train station, hoping the townsfolk of northern Wisconsin won’t talk about him? And further on in the book, I just wanted to wring his neck and breathe some life into him.

Posted by: istop4books | March 20, 2011


I love Isabel Allende – I knew her when I was a kid living in Chile; she wrote a column in a ladies magazine called Paula. It was on the last page of the magazine and  was the first thing I’d read.   Always funny, witty and right.

Over the years, 32 to be exact, of living in the States, I’ve navigated away from reading in Spanish and stuck to English. My eyes travel English words at warp speed; they also travel Spanish words at warp speed but my brain lags far behind, meaning that when I read in Spanish it takes a concentrated effort to slow down and I often have to reread passages for comprehension.  All that to say that I read this book in English and wish I had been patient enough to read it in Spanish.  Actually, first I tried to listen to it on audio, and had to quit because my mind wandered far too much.  So I obtained the hardcover copy and set out to read the translated version and HATED the translation. I don’t know how it could have been worse. The translation took me away from the story which was good and different and had so many layers of people and places and historical events, well written and well researched.

I loved getting to know Zarite (Tété), Valmoran, Violette, Maurice and the entire cast of characters. This could easily have been a trilogy, as she had so many wonderful characters in her book.  Allende brought the reader to Haiti and allowed us to live in 18th century Saint Domingue on a sugar plantation and feel chills at the treatment of the slaves, cheer them on in their uprising and hope for safe passage for Tété. It is a place where the price of slaves was so cheap, that it was costworthy to work them to death in a few years and replace them. They were a commodity to be used and abused at will, and through Tété, we learn their fate with the owner, Valmorain with whom she bears two children, and the overseer Cambray, from whom she tries to steer clear. During the 1804 uprising of the slaves, all non-slaves were either chased out of Haiti or slaughtered, whites and those of mixed race. Tété, Valmorain and the children escape first to Cuba and then onto New Orleans. In New Orleans the pace of the story picks up with the children and their relationships and the reading becomes somewhat easier and quicker.

This is a story masterfully told, as Allende weaves in just enough history to understand the context of the story, but not so much that my eyes glazed over. Her characterizations of powerful women – whether they knew how powerful they were or not – were superb. The differences between Mulattos, Africans, Cocottes, quadroons as well as their hierarchy and interrelationships were well explained and well integrated into the narrative.

However, the translation totally distracted me.  I recognize it may not bother anyone else on the planet, but it bugged the hell out of me.  A few examples follow, they seem to have come straight out of google translate:

Often in the book I would read: “the little black walked down the street” or “the black wondered” or whatever. In Spanish, we say “Negrita” which means LITTLE BLACK GIRL, “Negrito” means LITTLE BLACK BOY – the translation made me uncomfortable.

Page 207 reads: “He seemed to be a man of no great intelligence, with the mentality of a functionary and without ambition.” I’m fairly sure although I haven’t checked a Spanish volume, that in Spanish this reads: “con mentalidad de funcionario y sin ambicion.” Typical Spanish phrase “con mentalidad de funcionario” but not so typical in English. Possibilities would be”with a bureaucratic mentality and lack of ambition” or “with the mentality of a bureaucrat and lacking ambition.” Either of those phrases would have helped in the sentence structure in English.

Same page: “You sin from modesty.” I know exactly what was said in Spanish – “pecas de modestia” it’s a colloquialism which doesn’t translate as smoothly into English. Something less stultified needed to be added. “You commit the sin of modesty” doesn’t quite cut it – but it’s better than the original translation.

Page 233 reads: “… but a blond, well dressed boy, cowed and weeping in the street, could not pass unnoticed.” No podia pasar desapercibido is what she must have written in Spanish. In English it should read ” he wouldn’t go unnoticed.”

Page 234 reads: “…dragged Tete to the calaboose…” who the heck (other than English majors) knows what a calaboose is? In Spanish it is the much used word for dungeon. I know the word Calabosa very well as it is often used and by deduction I understood calaboose – but unless your goal is to use obscure language in your writing (and there’s nothing wrong with that), then words should be translated into like words – a seldom used word in the original language can and should be translated into something similar; but a very familiar word in the original language should translate easily so the words flow nicely along the original idea of the writer.

Page 253 reads: “because in the country he ate and took the sun…” tomaba sol in Spanish means to bask in the sun, receive the sun’s rays, enjoy sunshine – anything other than taking sun.

Page 271 reads: “A cupid fell off the sky of the bed” off the roof of the bed? Off the canopy of the bed? In Spanish cielo can mean ceiling or sky, but in this case, I can’t believe that Allende meant sky.

Page 271 reads: “…the two ended by falling in love” This must be a translation of “terminaron por enamorarse” which is a typical expression in Spanish, but in English we say ended up falling in love, or wound up falling in love – not ended by… This is something found throughout the book.

Page 284: a sum in way of a loan – would sound so much better as “a sum by way of a loan”

Page 311 reads: (and in several other places): “…who had a horror of the army..” In Spanish it probably reads “le tenia horror al ejercito” very common and typical. The typical sentence structure in English then would read: “was horrified of the army…”

Page 332 reads: “…separate the violent..” separar a los violentos” in Spanish sounds fine, but in English violent is not a noun. So, separate the violent ones, the violent people, the violent prisoners

Pages 331 reads: “he never forgot to console the punished in the stocks…” Same deal. Punished is not a noun. Punished prisoners, the condemned, or some other choice would work much better.

There are many other examples, this is by no means a comprehensive list. But after reading many of Allende’s books in English – the translation really gets on my nerves and for me, as a Chilean American spoils the smoothness of the lecture.

Posted by: istop4books | February 28, 2011

Rabbit Tartar

Sunday morning we allowed Cheyenne to run loose around the yard; she loves to play in the snow and the cold doesn’t bother her.  Around noon, I noticed she was coming up from the ravine with something in her mouth.

What is in Cheyenne's mouth?

I grabbed the little camera I keep in the kitchen and took this picture from the back door.

Please tell me it's not what I think it is

Lunch, Cheyenne style ...

She kept dropping it and re-accommodating it in her mouth and looking at me, maybe she wanted my approval?  Like “Look ma!  You don’t have to make me lunch today!”

Doesn't she look proud of her catch?

But, as much as she loves Boomer, she wasn’t about to share and Boomer didn’t as much as try to snatch a piece of the bunny.

Yup, she ate that entire thing and then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening sleeping it off.

I bought this book with high hopes of understanding human nature and, while I clearly have to give the author credit for his remarkable studies, I found the book sorely lacking in a heavy-handed editing effort. Most of the book reads like the straight transcript of notes. This happened on such a date and such a time in such a way – for more than 200 pages of relentless minutiae of the Stanford Prison Experiment, with a bit of explanation thrown in here and there (which was the only thing which kept me going). In the end, between the prison experiment and Abu Ghraib, I STILL don’t understand why people change their behaviors, lose their values, endanger the very moral thread of their bodies. I understand that this is widespread, that good people do so, but not really why – or what makes some people succumb to evil behavior and others totally circumvent it.

Posted by: istop4books | February 27, 2011

The Virgin’s Knot by Holly Payne

I’m not sure how I made it all the way through this book. Stubbornness I suppose. It was poorly written, I hated the style of not wrapping conversations in quotes and letting the reader know who the heck is talking. I found it annoying. The plot doesn’t get going until the middle of the book and I found the cultural background uninspiring and underwhelming, and the end of the book just absolutely awful.

Nurdane is a young Turkish lady who lives in the remote hills with her father. She contracted polio as a girl and as a result, her leg movements are very limited. But she can weave a mean rug. Her ability is legendary and rumor has it that this virgin’s rugs, given to brides as part of a dowry, will guarantee happiness and the birth of a first son. Ironically, as beautiful as she is, with her crippling defect, Nurdane doesn’t have a chance in heck of being one of the brides lucky enough to receive a rug, yet she spends her days weaving and designing these coveted carpets. At the same time, she looks to Allah for guidance, as Allah took away her ability to walk and gave her the magical gift of weaving.


Nurdane’s character is well developed and easily likeable and parts of the story were quite good, however, the author just about totally missed her mark. Her writing was atrocious, the language she used was confusing and made it difficult to understand where Nurdane was coming from or what she actually felt or thought. It reminded me of how easy it is to read a well-written book and to lose myself in good writing – and how hard it is to write well.


I loved the idea of reading about Turkey, a country I have always wanted to visit, and about Turkish rugs – which I’ve always wanted to own. This just wasn’t the book to take me vicariously there.


Posted by: istop4books | February 10, 2011

The Sewing Circles of Herat, Christina Lamb

Let me preface this by saying that I read this in 2011 and I didn’t read it cover to cover. The book was published in 2002 and would have been way better had I read it then. It’s not a “readable” book, as it’s packed with historic notes, dates, supplemental anecdotes and other bits that bog it down. In the first 150 pages or so, there is no mention whatsoever of any sewing circles, it was mostly background information on how the author got to be in Herat and her experience with the Mujaheddin to that point. 

Most of the material has, since 2002, been hashed and rehashed. Many of the main characters have been killed in the war and have become relevant to the history, but not to what is happening now.

I felt that the book lacked thoughtful insight, personalization and was too broad. It touched on the horrors that the Afghan’s have endured, but didn’t follow up on them. She didn’t make it personal imho.  However, as background  and historical data,  this book is packed with useful information.

Posted by: istop4books | February 6, 2011

The Clothes They Stood Up In, Alan Bennett

The Clothes They Stood Up In is a novella about a old curmudgeonly British couple, very stead in their stale ways, who come home from a night at the opera to find the contents of their apartment have vanished. Books, bills, pots, pans, furniture and toilet paper. The apartment had been wiped clean.  They were literally left with the clothes they stood up in…. and with themselves.  Wiped of all the kitsch they accumulated over the years they had a moment to look around and see themselves in a different light. While one of them took advantage of this, the other one did not.  The ending is unusual, and while the writing is humorous, the theme is a bit sad.

The author lays out the story, doesn’t pontificate or elaborate, there are no musings or thoughts – just a quick, fast, wittily written story.

Posted by: istop4books | February 2, 2011


I read a couple of reviews on goodreads for this book and had to laugh at some of those who felt the book was whiney and written by a rich guy who could afford a super farmhouse with a pool no less! One review said that Mayle went back to England to live. Well – those reviews smack of small minded jealousy. Right now a farmhouse in France can be bought for as little as US$250,000.00; back in 1989 before this became trendy, property values were even more reasonable, especially coming from England where everything was/is expensive. It was kind of like selling your million dollar house in San Francisco and moving to Iowa – you could buy the entire town for the price of your modest house in California. I don’t think Mayle whined about the repairs to his house – in fact, he took it lightly and with a clear dose of patience and humor. Kudos to the Mayles to manage their money well enough to be able to enjoy the lifestyle which I don’t believe it was at all over the top.

Anyhow – I just had to say that.

Now for the book. I loved this book. I curled up with a glass of wine (Chilean, sorry) and read this in a couple of evenings. I laughed and laughed and commiserated with the Mayles. The writing is witty and the pace is excellent. It’s a romp through Provence over the course of a year. Peter and his wife have left behind their lives in England to move to Provence, buy a farmhouse and settle in to a slower pace of life. The story starts with the formidable paperwork process in buying a house, and reminded me of the process my son has gone through to rent a simple apartment in Brazil. Frustrating to the point of being funny. Mayle goes on to beautifully describe the climate, which is so different from common knowledge (again, very similar to our Brazilian experience); the absolutely mouthwatering gastronomic descriptions, locals, tourists, and then the never ending quest to fix the house. This part in particular reminded me of the time we bought a “fixer-upper” right on the beach in a beautiful town in Chile, and went through so many similar situations with repairmen and guests. At the time it drove us crazy, but now we look back at those times with a bit more fondness. In any case, Mayle brings the area to life, and does so in a light engaging way.


Posted by: istop4books | January 27, 2011


I have no idea who recommended this book to me or why, but the bottom line is that it caught my attention. I have always loved pianos, enjoy piano music and have been close enough to Burma to feel a certain affiliation to some of the themes in the book.

The basic premise is that there is a British army doctor living in a remote village in Burma in late 1800’s.  He’s eccentric but vital to the peacekeeping efforts.  He requests an Erard piano which is delivered (hand-carried) through the jungle, but then he needs a piano tuner.  To this effect, Edgar Drake, of London is pretty much mandated to leave his wife and to travel to Burma to tune this piano and therefore serve the Crown by helping the army doctor in his peacekeeping mission.

The first part of the book is a gorgeous recount of Drake’s trip, this thoughts and perceptions of the people he meets while traveling.  Once he arrives in Burma, the story shifts.  The details and descriptions of Burma are breathtaking, the characterizations, however, fall short.  As Drake ponders his stay in this remote village and questions his own motives, I think the reader also wonders what this is all about.

There are lengthy, overly long IMHO, descriptions of the piano, its history, and piano tuning as well as the history of Burma cleverly intertwined, but pages and pages too long for the casual reader.

Somehow, and without spoilers, the book fell short as I never really understood the outcome, or more so, the motives of the outcome, and so I leave the book as though leaving a movie 10 minutes before the end and wondering why this or that happened.  Not a fulfilling feeling.

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