An Uncapped Pen

October 19, 2009

Breathing Water: A Bangkok Thriller by Timothy Hallinan

Filed under: Reading — cindylv @ 10:58 pm
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Bangkok. Where the bad guys are evil and the good guys drink Johnny Walker Black.

Breathing Water

Breathing Water, A Bangkok Thriller
By Timothy Hallinan, published by William Morrow, 2009

Slipping between the covers of one of Tim Hallinan’s Bangkok thrillers into the world of Poke Rafferty is like climbing into bed with an exotic, forbidden stranger. You find yourself horrified and intrigued, anxious and compelled, twitchy and reluctant. But you can’t help yourself. You keep turning the pages.

Once you’re in, Poke leads you to a place you don’t want to go, and you can’t wait to get there. He drags you into a filthy river of corruption, sex, lies and snakes. An unseen current tugs you along, pulling you under. You thrash and flounder, sputtering, until you realize you’re breathing water.

And you keep turning the pages.

You have no choice but to flail along with Poke, cursing the twists and turns, aching to finish, and knowing you’re gonna hurt in the morning. You pray desperately hoping that no one finds out what you’re doing, and at the same time, you can’t wait to tell everyone you know. You send up an apology to your mother, and you keep turning the pages.

Hallinan paints a vivid picture of the political scene currently unfolding on the streets of Bangkok. A place, as Hallinan says, where children are sold by the pound. You may ask why would you want to read a story about political corruption in some strange country thousands of miles away. Hallinan answers that question easily: Rose, Miaow, Arthit and Noi. He deftly interweaves multiple complicated storylines centered around the lives of these familiar characters. Longtime fans will cheer the return of Boo, aka: Superman. The introduction of two new characters, Da and Peep, will wrench your heart and leave you reaching for the tissues as you keep turning the pages.

As usual, his masterful writing disappears behind the story, peeking out on occasion to delight the reader with gems such as “Dr. Ravi’s knock, so feathery it wouldn’t wrinkle linen, is answered by something that sounds like a sea lion nailed to a rock.”

One of Hallinan’s greatest skills as a writer is his ability to wring emotion from your heart. You don’t merely read that Poke struggles to comfort his friend Arthit, your heart bleeds for your friend.

When you finally turn the last page, and sit weeping beside Arthit as he opens the envelope, you gasp, breathing air once again.


January 22, 2009

Appreciating Beauty in Unexpected Places

Filed under: About Me,Reading — cindylv @ 12:41 am
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I received this email today, and checked SNOPES. They gave it a green light.


A man stood in a metro train station in Washington D.C., and started to play the violin. It was early, on a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes into his playing, a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the case without stopping, as she walked on.

A few minutes later, a man leaned against the wall to listen to him, but then he looked at his watch, and quickly continued on his way. He seemed to be late for his destination.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy. His mother tugged him along hurriedly, but the boy stopped to watch the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head, keeping his eyes on the violinist until he was lost from sight. This fascination and interest was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for awhile. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence returned, no one seemed to notice. No one applauded….there was no recognition.

What none of the scurrying people knew is that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his street concert in the subway station, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston, where seats averaged $100 apiece.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities: In a commonplace environment at an atypical hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, on a exquisitely crafted instrument, how many other things are we missing?


I admit that I am guilty of the same inattention.  A few months ago, I made a commitment to expand my world.  I make it a point to drive different routes and actually look out the window at the world as it passes by.  I talk to strangers and sometimes even smile at them.  I’ve been exploring my own city and neighborhood streets with a different eye than I have for the last forty something years.  All these changes — and yet almost every day I find a new area of my life to break open and explore my old limits.

This email made me think about my own limiting behaviors with regard to reading.    I love to read.  The problem is that I know exactly what I like and what I don’t like.  I own hundreds of novels and read constantly.  I reluctantly admit that this attitude severely limits my exposure to great writing.  If I focus on reading works that fit my pre-conceived narrow definition of “LIKE IT”, I’m missing 99% of the world’s great writing.  Just like those busy commuters rushing right past Joshua Bell in the Metro station, I rush right past thousands of wonderful books to get to the stacks I already know I’ll love.

And as long as I’m confessing my tendency to be narrow minded and a little prejudiced, I will add that I am incurably lazy.  When I find talented, intelligent writers who are willing to share their recommendations for reading, I jump at the chance to benefit from their research.  Many thanks to Tim Hallinan, Lisa Kenney, and many other generous bloggers who post their monthly reading list on their site!

September 9, 2008

It’s a Sin . . .

Filed under: About Me,Reading — cindylv @ 8:04 pm
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I’ve always been a smart girl.  I graduated near the top of my class in High School (in rural Wisconsin).  I graduated from college with a respectable 3.87 (or so) GPA.  I’m smart, but quite lazy.  My mother used to say I emerged from her womb with a book in hand and asked Doctor Bolinek to kindly get out of my light.  I read for pleasure.  I consume books. I read in bed, at the table, on the patio, in the tub and while sitting on the . . . well, you know.  

I read in restaurants, in waiting rooms, standing in lines.  On lunch breaks in the park, in the parking lot before church, and at the movie theater before lights out.  I firmly believe that I am capable of reading while driving, but I hear that’s an expensive ticket.

But as I said, I’m lazy.  I like exactly what I like and know exactly what I don’t.  I find myself cringing when a loved one says, “I’ve got a great book for you.  I know you’re just gonna just LOVE it!”  I feel like I’ve been guilted into reading their treasure.  Usually it’s something I’d never even consider if left to my own devices.  Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised that I’m able to overcome the burden of the guilt and enjoy the book (Thank you, Laurie).  Sometimes I find myself skimming, unable to admit that a particular gem just doesn’t work for me.

I hate to read books that “everyone” is reading.  I rarely pick up a book from the displays at the front tables at bookstores, arrayed like diamonds in the jewelry store.  I prefer to dig through the stacks for the unusual–mining for molybdenum or barite instead of diamonds.  

But I’m lazy.  Maybe I don’t like to “work” at reading. I want the story to flow through me.  I don’t want to have to paddle and steer and bail and clean the deck, too.  I’m lazy.  And maybe I’m a little embarrassed.  I’m working on building up some courage here.  I am resisting the urge to continue hiding behind this mask of “smart” and reveal another huge character flaw, in addition to the previously confessed sins of wrath, envy, and of course, sloth. I’m talking about, I mean, confessing to, the sin of pride — undeserved pride.  

NOTE:  In case you’re counting sins, I’m not particularly greedy or gluttonous.  And my lust level will remain undisclosed, for now. 

As a prideful reader, I hereby confess to not having . . . um . . . read The Classics.  Significant Literature. Those gilt-edged, leather-bound dusty volumes that “everyone” has read.  Should read.

Well, in my defense, I haven’t avoided ALL of them. I’ve read The Adventures of Beowulf (see I even knew it was spelled “wulf”), The Canterbury Tales, and King Lear.  A few other that come to mind include The Last of the Mohicans, Kipling’s story about Nag the Snake and the Mongoose, Grapes of Wrath, Crime and Punishment, The Moveable Feast, A Christmas Carol, Love in the Time of Cholera, and a slew of Flannery O’Connor short stories.  And maybe some Faulkner, but I can’t remember any titles right now.  

I endured several chapters of Pride and Prejudice before dropping it on my nose during a nap attack. This summer (actually it may have been last summer) I made it through a few hundred pages of Madame Bovary.  I’m not willing to admit defeat on that one yet, as the end is near.  I know it’s considered to be a masterpiece, but . . . Hey, it’s still on the nightstand.  Same with A Tale of Two Cities, except I’m only as far as the wine spilling in the street. 100 Years of Solitude —  Um, actually, I don’t think I started that one yet. Anna Karenina either. Or  War and Peace.

In 1989, I slogged through 1150 pages of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich because my father gave it to me and would call to discuss major points.  My copy had approximately 200 pages duplicated in the middle and it took me a few weeks to realize I was re-reading some stuff.  I still have that book, next to Mein Kampf (not read).

AND I just finished To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, voted by Librarians as the best book of the Twentieth Century (Ooh, didn’t that sound prideful!)

Alrighty, then. I’ve said it.  Confession is good for the soul. And now, I’m off to lunch and the bookstore.


WAIT!   I just remembered.  The Kipling story was called Rikki-Tikki Tavi.

September 3, 2008

Annoying Words and Phrases

Filed under: Reading,Writing Exercises — cindylv @ 5:46 pm
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Here is a sample from my list of annoying words and phrases What, doesn’t everyone keep a list?  I admit that I must have exposed nerves in my ears (and in my eyes).  


That said, … (or having said that, …) followed by a contradictory opinion

Adumbrate – a dumb vertebrate?

Alacrity – This word sounds sharp and piercing, and clacky.

Awesome! – Enough already!

Banal – Bathroomy sounding.  Must be from the Spanish word for “bathroom.”

Begs the question – Just ask the question!

Brio – I prefer vim.  Or vigor.  (Or Viggo.  Or Brie.)

Cachet – Cashhay.  Just bothers me.

Caustic – Ouch!

Chagrin – Usually preceded by “much to his/her …”

Chthonic –  May I please buy a vowel?

Colloquial – Looks knobby.  Doesn’t roll well.

Desultory – Sounds like a sad word.

Elegiac – Would you like to buy a vowel?  I have a few extras.

Eponymous – Sounds like a high-falutin’ horse.

Eschew – Too spitty.

Extended riff on [name the subject] – Little riffs aren’t good enough?

Fantabulous! (or Transplendant!) – Seems redundant.  Like the exclamation point is built-in.

Frisson – A real French word that sounds like a fake French word.  I prefer “shiver.”

Hackneyed – Knobby.

Ineffable – Makes me wonder what happened to “effable.”  But that sounds like you’re trying not to use a bad word (F-able).

Irregardless – Look it up.  “Commonly used by ignorant people.”  Actually, MW says, “…avoided by careful users of the English language.”  Same thing.

Limn – How do you make the sound of an M followed by an N?

Mordant – Isn’t that a group of beings in The Lord of the Rings?

Myopic – Actually, I like this word.  It reminds me of Mr. MaGoo.

Nuanced – Too subtle.

Oeuvre – Looks like it sounds like Eeeewwwww – VAH – RE.

Palimpsest – Plump or fat.

Pepper and Mayonnaise – ???  I’ve heard this phrase twice.  Why is this a bad combination?

Pithy – Icky strings of fiber inside an orange come to mind.

Polemic – Mean, yet anemic.

Scintillating – If you cut yourself with your electric knife, it would feel shocking and sharp — scintillating.

Saucy – This will drip on the tablecloth and leave a stain irregardless of how much SHOUT I use.

So and So meets Such and Such – This story is “Bourne Identity” meets “Dumbo.”

Syzygy – Vowels, please.

Taut – Too nipply.

The thing about it is, is – My co-worker starts 90% of his conversations with this bit-o-brilliance.  The other 10% start with either “Basically…” or “Whelp…” and a neck scratch.  I give myself extra credit for not swinging for the fences when a conversation begins, “Whelp.”  Neck scratch.  “The thing about it is, is…basically…”

Tome – Dirge-y.

Trenchant – Weapon-y.  (FYI:  It’s the present participle of Trenchier.)

Turgid –  Purple prosey.

Trope – Sounds like dope.

Winsome – Reminds me of Kate Winslet in Titanic.  Also, I often wonder if this is a tricky word like “fulsome.”  A negative that sounds positive, but isn’t.

With a nod to – We, at Pretension Incorporated, applaud your pretension.

Wry – A contraction of the words “dry” and “wrung.”

Zeitgeist – My tongue will not bend that way.

August 26, 2008

Flesh and Bone by Jefferson Bass

Filed under: Reading — cindylv @ 5:51 pm
Tags: , , ,

Flesh and Blood, A Body Farm Novel

Published by William Morrow, January 2007

When I bought this book at a drug store enroute to the airport last month, I wasn’t thrilled with the selection available.  I’d looked at all the other books on the shelf and nothing else jumped out at me.  So, just  like when the Wintergreen Lifesavers box is empty and I have to satisfice with Peppermint, I picked it up.  The cover text promised that this work would thrill the fans of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. Hmmmm……  

Jefferson Bass is a pen name for the writing team of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson.  Bass, founder of University of Tennessee’s Body Farm, and Jefferson, a seasoned journalist, combine their expertise in murder, mayhem and small town politics to produce a story about a forensic anthropologist, Dr. Bill Brockton, who works with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Medical Examiner, Dr. Jess Carter, to solve murders and put the bad guys in jail.

Now I read and enjoy almost all types of fiction (except science fiction).  Sometimes I like a snack–a la Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money, sometimes I need a meal–like Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.   Flesh and Bone, however, is more like the jar of pickled okra in the back of my pantry leftover from the gourmet basket I received as a housewarming gift from my contractor twelve years ago.

I have to admit that I did not realize this book was the second in a series.  Perhaps some of my frustration with the first few chapters might have been mitigated, had I read the first book.  Before my plane took off, I was getting itchy to throw the book in the trash and start Sky Mall shopping.  I had read/skimmed over the first 10-15 pages before I even realized the first person narrator, the main character, was male.  I decided to go back to the beginning and re-read what I had missed.  The narrative didn’t improve the second time around.  I gave up completely when the stewardess offered headphones for the in-flight movie.  A few days ago, I came across this book in a stack and picked it up again.  I refused to re-read the beginning, so I just jumped in at the dogearred page and gutted my way through to the end.  

The plot is credible, but predictable.  The main character, Dr. Bill Brockton, is mildly sarcastic, likeable in a Sad Sack sort of way, enduring the absurdities and humiliations of life in eastern Tennessee.  The supporting characters had potential, but remained underdeveloped–almost limp.

The narrative, like Dr. Brockton, wanders aimlessly through the streets of Knoxville for no apparent reason — venial sins such as these I can almost forgive. However, clunky dialogue (“As you know, Bill…”) and useless info dumps of research material make me reach for my red Sharpie.  

In the most glaring example of awkwardness, we find Dr. Brockton, the forensic anthropologist who knows enough about the science of forensics to imagine that the murder victim found hanging in a tree might have shed a “glove” of skin from his hand.  So he returns to the crime scene long after the cops and the CSI techs have finished and gone home.  He crawls on his hands and knees searching the scene for the discarded skin “glove”.  And when he finds it, he knows enough to preserve it in a solution of water and fabric softener, and transport it to his friend for analysis.  A friend he says, who just happens to be ‘the one guy in the state’ who could recover fingerprints from it and identify the victim.  But then Brockton requires a lecture on the absolute basics of fingerprint analysis down to the level of “fingerprints are made up of whorls, arches, and loops?  He’s worked with the police for years, investigating murders, studying evidence.  He even jokes with his attorney about the effect the television show, CSI, has had on modern juries.  No, thank you.

At this point, I forced myself to continue reading as an academic exercise.  Ms. Reichs, Ms. Cornwell, you ladies have nothing to fear.  Team Jefferson Bass offers no threat in your genre of forensic thriller.

When I turned the last page, I still had a few bubbles left in my bath and a few sips of wine in my glass.  I glanced at the preview chapter of the next book, The Devil’s Bones and read a wonderful line of dialogue that could just about make me forgive the two authors for all of the above inelegance and read their next book.  Dr. Brockton responds to some banal comment about the weather with the quip:

“It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity.”

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