Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Last of the Amazons" - Steven Pressfield


As a gawky teen, one of my many nicknames was "Amazon." If only I had known that it was a backward compliment. OK, no it wasn't because that was high school, but for all of you Amazon women out there, know that it is praise.

King Theseus of legend, the one who slayed the minotaur, fights the Amazons and returns with Antiope as his war bride. However, this story tells of the war, as well as details of the Amazonian (or tal Kyrte) life.

Pressfield knows how to write war scenes. At one point, his description of how a tal Kyrte warrior draws her axe as a weapon was so beautiful that I couldn't believe this hadn't been made into a movie. Vivid and detailed, yet full of wonder. My biggest complaints are that the relationships between the women (as triads and as lovers) are ignored, while he repeats a lot of information (like "ippe" meant "horse"). The language is more romantic British (with thees and thines), and he combined Greek and Latin to create his own words.

Still, it's very similar to the story I'm writing, so I learned a lot. For others, though, I'd recommend some of his newer novels.

3.75 out of 5.0 Ambrosias.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Pale Horse, Pale Rider" - Katherine Porter


NPR said I should read this book. Now, I don't normally listen to radio signals (neither do I wear tinfoil hats), but I thought I'd give this book of three novellas a shot.

The title's novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, is about Miranda, a young woman from another novella, who is working at a Denver newspaper during the World War I influenza outbreak. While the balance between life and death is overwrought, it was the dialogue that killed the mood for me. Paraphrasing, one man says, "I must go to war or I could not live with myself." I've seen or read or heard that in multiple television shows, movies, and books. I read to escape that kind of mediocre drama.

Of the three, Noon Wine was the most interesting. A dairy farm is taken over and revitalized by an escapee of a lunatic asylum. Still, I would not put this on a must-read list. Read short stories by Updike or Eggers or Hempel. Read to learn something about yourself.

1.75 out of 5.0 Bay Horses.

Ma Jian/BEIJING COMA

Ma Jian is one of China's most notable contemporary authors; and, like most of China's notable authors, he's been living overseas for many years because his books displease the Chinese government. The reasons for this displeasure can seem a little baffling, since the early books that got him into trouble - a collection of Gorkyesque short stories about life in Tibet called Stick Out Your Tongue, and the travelogue Red Dust, often dubbed China's On The Road (both books that I enjoyed) - seem pretty innocuous to a foreigner. I saw him speak at a foreign bookstore in Beijing a couple of years ago, although he didn't leave any very vivid impression on me. I fear I won't now have the chance to see him in China again, because with this latest novel he's really gone all out to press all of the Communist Party's hot buttons at once.

The protagonist here, a young Beijinger called Dai Wei, was a graduate student at Peking University (one of the only institutions that still uses the older romanization of the capital's name) in the late '80s, and became caught up in the 1989 student protest movement which led to the 'Tiananmen Square massacre' of June 4th (the Chinese invariably prefer the euphemism 'military crackdown'; and the conventional Western description of the event tends to mislead, since most of the killings did not happen on the Square itself, but did continue for some days after the night of June 3rd/4th and did encompass other protests in many other parts of China, as well as several different venues across Beijing). Though a diffident young man, who does not have the urge for power that characterizes the other student leaders, Dai Wei, through his friendship with some of the key figures in the movement, becomes a major player himself and assumes the role of 'Director of Security', organising the teams of student marshals who attempt to keep order amongst the vast crowds gathering on the Square. When the People's Liberation Army sweeps into the city to break up the protests, Dai Wei becomes one of its victims, receiving a bullet wound in the head that leaves him in a coma.

Although apparently reduced to a permanent vegetative state, Dai Wei remains fully conscious of his surroundings, and indeed develops a heightened awareness of sound and smell (a rather terrifying possibility, though I have never heard of such a thing, and suspect that, if it happens at all, it is an extremely rare phenomenon). While trapped in the prison of his decaying body like this year after year, he endlessly reviews his memories. Thus, the main part of the book comprises his life story up until the moment he is shot. This account alternates with passages about what he experiences in the 'present', during his coma state, and these are mainly concerned with his mother's struggles to care for him and to try to find a 'cure', although they do also encompass occasional visits and phone calls from his old student activist friends which keep us updated on their lives and on China's development during the 1990s. These two strands are regularly interspersed - though not usefully separated - by frequent single-sentence or short-paragraph epigrams, metaphors, and jumbled quotations from Dai Wei's favourite book, a classic ancient anthology of Chinese myths called The Book Of Seas And Mountains; these seem to represent Dai Wei's more disordered thoughts as he lapses into fever or slides closer to death.

I really wanted to like this book: it's an important subject that hasn't, to my knowledge, really been dealt with before (although you can find on the Internet a novel about the events of 1989 by a Matt Donath - still unpublished, I assume - called A Few Flies Get In; I read several excerpts from it during one of the brief periods when the links to it were not blocked by the Chinese censors, but it's now lost to me again). And, as I said above, I have quite liked some of Ma Jian's earlier writing.

Unfortunately, there are two major problems here: the book is a sprawling, undisciplined mess; and the writing is just abysmal.

Beijing Coma is nearly 600 pages long. OK, this is a large format paperback, so there aren't that many words per page - but it is still way, way too long. It could, with advantage, be trimmed by at least 30-40%, perhaps even 60%. You really need a lot of passion for the subject to plough through this much empty verbiage; and for anyone who's curious but daunted, I would recommend omitting the first half of the book completely and skimming the second half, just reading those sections about events in the Square in May and June.

I find that this is a fairly common problem with Chinese writers (and perhaps with many writers translated from other languages - I don't know). It seems they are treated with too much reverence by their publishers, or that the mediation of the translator frees them from the strict control of an editor. It probably doesn't help here that Ma's translator is his wife, Flora Drew. Somebody really needed to tell him that this novel was massively self-indulgent and needed to be radically trimmed. There is no need at all to tell the whole of Dai Wei's life story (I suspect that Ma just had a lot of autobiographical sketches lying around that he wanted to get published somehow); in particular, the long account of his major undergraduate love affair and his frequent reminiscences about it during the Tiananmen days are tedious and pointless. The coma sections of the book could at least be drastically pruned (many of the accounts of the different treatments his mother tries out for him are rather repetitive, and seem to jumble the timeline). And the endless 'epigrams' - often seemingly just an excuse for the author to show off the arcane medical knowledge he has gleaned from his research, as he crafts obscure metaphors around bodily function at the cellular level - are just excruciatingly crass. And there are so many of them: really, there's one - sometimes more than one - on almost every page, so there are some hundreds of them in total.

The minute observation of the world around the coma patient is stultifying in its irrelevance and repetition as well. It is almost as though Ma wants his reader to suffer the same tedium of decade-long immobility that his protagonist does. On p. 401 our inert narrator comments, as he overhears yet another (significance-free) fragment of a distant radio or TV show, "I'm fed up with these banal details burrowing their way into my brain." Quite so. After boring his reader to the point of coma for several hours, it's really not a good idea for an author to thus remind him of this. I question whether the conceit of the coma is necessary or useful at all. Yes, it provides an opportunity to survey how China has moved on (or not) since 1989. And I suppose it can be seen as a metaphor for how the fervour for democatic reform has lapsed into dormancy (although this is not an idea that is explicitly explored anywhere in the book). But really, it just detracts from the central focus on the student protest movement. Any useful thematic depth it might provide is surely outweighed by the fact that it makes the book nearly twice as long and almost unreadably stodgy.

If I haven't completely put off everyone already, I would also say that people who don't know much about China are going to have a real struggle to follow what's going on and who's who. If you're not fairly used to Chinese names, it can be very difficult to remember or differentiate them. Even I, a 6-year China resident now, was struggling to keep track of the characters. And the author really doesn't give us any help here. There is no characterization whatsoever. None. Just an endless succession of unmemorable names. The dialogue has no life. The action has no pacing. The descriptions are dull and repetitive. The obsessive attention to rather odd - and unimportant - details (another common failing, it seems to me, in contemporary Chinese literature) hovers somewhere between creepy and ludicrous (just try counting how many times he mentions 'sweat' or 'toes'!).

The only reason I can find for wading through this book is the glimpse it gives us of the events leading up to 4/6/89. But even as history, it frustrates rather. The brief backflap biography of Ma implies that he was in Beijing in 1989, but it doesn't quite say so unequivocally, and it gives no further information as to what role he might have played in the protests. This reads like a first-hand account. Indeed, it seems very much as if might be a roman à clef, with Dai Wei and his associates all probably readily identifiable as actual leaders of the student movement for anyone closely familiar with those events. I would have appreciated a Preface and/or some footnotes outlining how closely Ma is presenting the true facts of these events, and how he came by the information. I can see that he might want to protect his sources (many of the leaders of these protests and their families are still subject to close police supervision and harassment to this day, and that is likely to get worse this year as we approach the 20th anniversary), and perhaps even himself; but I would think that he ought to be able to provide a broad outline of the origins of his story without compromising anybody. And yes, I know novelists are often loathe to play historians, to list their sources and delineate the boundaries between truth and fiction. But for events of this magnitude, and especially for events such as this where a fully detailed account of what happened has never really emerged (the 'massacre' is, if not quite completely denied, very heavily downplayed in China, and discussion of it vigorously suppressed), I think there is an important duty of accuracy - an obligation to let the world know as fully as possible what really happened, and to make it clear that this is what you are doing. I touched on this concern before in my review of Mr Pip, a novel set in the midst of the Papua New Guinea civil war of the 1990s, which similarly failed to provide any commentary on the historical roots of the story.

It also irks me that, for all the welter of unsubstantial detail under which the book suffocates to death, the details of the main historical events are not presented as clearly as I would like. The student protest movement went on over the space of 6 or 7 weeks, and there was a permanent occupation of Tiananmen Square for 3 weeks before the tanks rolled in; but only a handful of dates are specifically mentioned within that period, so the timeline is a little muddy. Moreover, Ma recounts a rumour that Prime Minister Li Peng (widely reviled, then and now, as the leading architect of the 'crackdown') had visited the Square along with General Secretary Zhao Ziyang (a would-be 'reformer' whose career was ruined by his sympathy for the students), and then does nothing to contradict that suggestion. My understanding is that Li Peng flatly refused to go to the Square; in fact, Zhao was accompanied on that famous visit by his assistant, the present-day Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. This odd fudging of a key element in the historical narrative makes one wonder how much else Ma may be changing or omitting, and for what reasons. Obviously, the names of the student leaders have been changed; but what about the more prominent figures, noted academics who also supported the protests? Have they been anonymized, fictionalized - or not?

My gravest misgiving of all concerns the final pages recounting what happened on the night of June 3rd/4th. There still seems to be some uncertainty and controversy over just how the clearing of the Square was accomplished, and whether there were any fatalities there. Dai Wei's recollection seems to suggest that, although there were casualties around the immediate approaches to the Square, the Square itself was cleared without gunfire; although he later also reports a rumour from a student fleeing from the direction of the Square early the next morning that there is a 'massacre' in progress of the handful of protesters still remaining there. This ambiguous massacre/no massacre account is very frustrating for readers hoping to find the truth of these events. It also suggests that perhaps in his 'no massacre' version Ma was following The Tiananmen Papers. This book, supposedly a translation of official Chinese government documents, is a detailed and persuasive narrative; but it is widely suspected that many of these documents were fabricated as part of a covert propaganda exercise to bolster the official Chinese line that Western media reports of the 'massacre' had been greatly exaggerated. Again, I would suggest that you can't incorporate a major historical tragedy like this into your fiction without some discussion of your sources.

Enough. I'm afraid I cannot recommend this book on any literary merit; but for people who are interested to learn more about the Tiananmen events of 1989 it is probably essential reading. But do try to compare it with other more factual accounts. And don't feel ashamed about skipping large chunks of it.

And do also check out A Few Flies Get In, if you can find it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

EDGAR ALLAN POE: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories - Harry Lee Poe

It's an ungainly thing, this Illustrated Companion: hardbound, eleven inches wide by eight-and-a-half tall, 160 heavyweight pages. Awkward to read in bed, say, and in narrow quarters like an airplane seat. It's purple, ye gods, purple! Impossible to read without drawing attention: conspicuous.

And (at least for a certain sort of Poe aficionado) pure pleasure.

Despite the subtitle's implication, the Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories does not include the stories themselves. The pictures, for the most part, illustrate people and scenes from Poe's life; the text is a compressed biography, with brief forays into how the life informed the poetry and fiction (and sometimes vice-versa).

I thought I knew a lot about Poe's life but this book brought a good number of surprises. I didn't know, for instance, that the familiar haunted-mustachioed stereotype was an image which Poe didn't cultivate until the last couple years of his life. (At right, an oval miniature of Poe in his 20s or 30s.)

Of course, all the familiar stuff is here, too: the fractious relationship with his adoptive father, John Allan; the deaths of various beloved women, most often to consumption; his sister, her mind frozen in childhood throughout her long life; his term at West Point and subsequent expulsion for dissipation; his battles with alcohol, his nearly constant desperation over money, and his fights with other authors and editors; and the mean-spirited scheming of his literary executor/executioner, Rufus Griswold, who came close to ensuring that we today would be asking, "Edgar Allan who? Oh, you mean the drunk?"

It's all as sad as it is familiar. The book's author, one-time director of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, is Harry Lee Poe, a distant cousin of Edgar. And except for that minor twist, because it is so familiar you might wonder how he managed to convince a publisher to undertake yet another bio, however "illustrated."

I don't know the route he took to publication, but I know what makes reading -- handling -- his book an exceptional experience. Take a look:


Scattered throughout the book, five translucent envelopes. In each envelope, facsimiles -- "copies" doesn't do them justice -- of archival Poe materials. For instance:
  • In envelope #1, the "marriage bond" -- a certificate of payment -- for the marriage in 1806 of David Poe, Jr., to the widow of Charles D. Hopkins. (Little Edgar would come along three years later.)
  • In the second envelope, a four-page letter from Edgar to John Allan, dated 1831, tearing into his "father" for ensuring yet again that he'd fail at something (in this case, West Point). (Allan had sent him off to West Point with just enough money to enter, but despite Poe's pleading didn't provide enough to continue.) The letter ends, "From the time of this writing I shall neglect my studies and duties at the institution -- if I do not receive your answer in 10 days -- I will leave the point without -- for otherwise I should subject myself to dismission." Scrawled along one tiny side of the folded letter is a note from John Allan:
    I recd this on the 10th and did not from it [sic] conclusion deem it necessary to reply... I do not think the Boy has one good quality. He may do or act as he pleases, tho I wd. have saved him but on his own terms & conditions since I cannot believe a word he writes.
    Poe did indeed leave "the point" shortly thereafter -- broken in spirit as well as in funds.
  • An entire page, folded, of the New York Daily Tribune from October 9, 1849. All of column 3 and most of 4 is taken up by an item which begins, "Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it." This "scathing obituary," as the book's text refers to it, bears the pseudonymous byline LUDWIG; the author's real name: Rufus Griswold. (That's RG over at the right.)
The contents of these documents fascinate. And if all you care about is those contents, you can satisfy yourself with their transcriptions -- in what looks to be sub-8-point type in the back of the book. Yet it's not what they say, but their presentation, which really sets them apart.

The pages have ragged edges. Stains blot their surfaces. Folds and creases are worn, as though from many months' abrasion against pocket or purse. In spots, some of the documents even have holes in them, where the aged, brittle paper has simply fallen away. (Below, Poe's 1829 army enlistment. Note that at the time he was calling himself Edgar A. Perry. Click for a larger version.)


Now, from their description here as aged, brittle, and so on, do not assume these inserts are really aged (etc.). No, the paper on which they're reproduced is just as new and strong as that on which the text itself appears. The edges are truly ragged, you can (if you want) put your finger through the holes, but the pages are simply reproduced to appear as old as the originals, in the same sizes, even with the same folds.

(Like many gadget geeks, I look forward to my first e-book reader, an Amazon Kindle or whatever. The experience of reading the Poe Illustrated Companion, though, is the sort which no e-book reader anywhere on the horizon will be able to duplicate. On the other hand, its shelf life in a busy public library is probably a matter of months, if that long. And you might want to reconsider if you're thinking of buying a used copy!)

Not interested at all in Poe? Bored by his stories, confused by his poems, confounded by his criticism, and maybe feeling -- with Griswold -- that, honestly, the world is a better place for having lost Poe at age 40? You might want to give this one a pass.

But if:
  • you've an open mind about Poe's work, his life, his reputation, or
  • you like handling books as well as reading them, or
  • you're even remotely curious about how people (especially authors) lived and interacted with others 200+ years ago
-- in any of those cases, you will love it.

Note: All images in this review are taken from the Illustrated Companion.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

EDINBURGH - Alexander Chee


This is a novel that is breathless in its cruelty, yet thrilling in its beauty. It has been a while since I have read slowly, nibbling instead of devouring. These words have the sweetness of raw cane.

However, some can't get past the bitterness at the core of the novel. Fee, a twelve-year-old soprano for the local choir, is molested by his choir teacher. Due to the sequence of events, like dominoes, he becomes a ceramics teacher who wishes to be dead every day.

All right, detractors, I'll admit that the story is overwrought with red herrings and similarities and oh-no-way coincidences. But the writing. Oh, the writing is like listening to Yo Yo Ma or tapping the burnt crust of a perfect creme brulee. Like The Road, you have to read through the pain.

4.1 out of 5.0 Kisses in the Dark.

Cross Country- James Patterson

Cross Country Cross Country by James Patterson


My review


rating: 2 of 5 stars
The basic plot- there have been a series of brutal murders of entire families in DC. Alex Cross, detective, follows the killer to Africa and gets in a mess of trouble. Turns out there are a lot of twists and conspiracies and whatever. He lives, the book ends.

So, this may be blasphemous, but I thought this book was pretty lame. I have to admit, I don't normally read thrillers or mysteries and this is my first Patterson book, but honestly, I don't think it lives up to the hype. Granted, I read the book in two days, but not because the storyline was particularly compelling. It was more because the chapters are so short that I just had to keep going. Patterson does a good job of ending each chapter with a question or cliffhanger, but overall it wasn't well written and wasn't well developed. The novel is very forgettable. The storyline was mildly interesting, but then got rather convoluted and difficult to follow. There were almost too many twists. I didn't get a sense of the characters either and really didn't care about them, which made reading difficult. Now, if I had read the rest of the series, it might have been better, but I didn't and I was told that each book stands on its own. At any rate... I'd go pick up J.A. Konrath instead.


View all my reviews.

Neil Gaiman//THE GRAVEYARD BOOK


I read The Graveyard Book for a future bookchat on Evil Editor's blog.


Summary: The man named Jack kills a family, but a toddler wanders out of his crib and the murderous scene at just the right moment. He makes it up a hill, to the town's graveyard. There, the community of ghosts vow to protect him.


The boy is without a name -so he is called Nobody. Nobody grows up in the graveyard, and at one level, the book is literally a metaphor for growing up. Nobody is supposed to stay within the bounds of the graveyard to be safe from the man named Jack. He doesn't. He gets into trouble.


There is a witch. There are ghouls. There are ghosts and wolves and secret orders. While I didn't feel the emotional tug I usually feel in my favorite reads, there was an under-the-surface tension that kept me turning the pages. I felt like having a seance after closing the book. :-)


This is THE perfect campfire story. I loved this book. It's the first Gaiman book I've read (though Cindy Pon--YOO HOO!!--gave me The Anansi Boys when I met her in the summer. Now I will read it!).


Sorry for the quickie review, but I wanted to get something up and see if others have read this book.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Chuck Palahniuk/CHOKE

A book that begins with "If you're going to read this, don't bother" seems likely to be a book with attitude, and CHOKE delivers on that promise.

Victor Mancini isn't really a sex addict, but he goes to sex addict meetings for tips and to pick up women. While he works at a colonial theme park during the day, his real living comes from pretending to choke at a different restaurant every night, from the 'heroes' he creates who send him money after they've 'saved his life'. The book swings from scenes of Victor's (dreadful) childhood to his (bleak) present-day life.

There's so much going on in this novel, and so much of it was a surprise, that I don't want to give away any more of the plot. (If you're interested in this book, I'd suggest not reading any other review before you read the book, as some reviewers give away even the tiniest and most interesting details.)

A few of my favourite lines:
  • About an old woman: "Her face, the powdery crushed velvet mess of her skin, is a hundred wrinkles that all run into her mouth"
  • When a friend is bringing multiples of an object (don't want to say what!) into Victor's house: "'Dude, the place is filling up,' I say. 'It feels like we're living in the bottom half of an hourglass.' Like somehow we're running out of time."
  • About dealing with senile people at a nursing home: "This is less teaching than it is damage control. You might as well try to paint a house that's on fire."
This is my first Palahniuk book, but it won't be my last. I will need a bit of a break, though, before I read the next one: the dark and depressing world that Palahniuk makes so vivid isn't a comfortable place to be.

Yi Shen Ellis/101 STORIES FOR FOREIGNERS TO UNDERSTAND CHINESE PEOPLE

First, a brief apology to Moonrat and other BookBook contributors for slacking rather over the past four or five months. I think it's now over two months since I posted on here at all - very remiss of me! Back at the start of October, a building site appeared outside my window. Consequently, I have found it very hard to get enough sleep, or to enjoy any 'quiet' activities - such as reading - in my apartment since then. And I have been ridiculously busy during this period, too. I have not abandoned reading altogether, but I have perhaps spread myself rather too thin, dipping into several books at once but not giving myself wholeheartedly and purposefully to any one of them (and they have not been the kind of books I would generally review on here: a couple of short story anthologies, some poetry, a poetry-writing primer...). Because of all this, I'm afraid I rather lost momentum on my 'main read', a worthy but rather overlong Chinese novel which I had planned to be my next review on here.

Anyway, to get back into the BookBook habit, I thought I'd offer a few comments on this frivolous little book which I bought myself as a Christmas present this year. (Published by the Liaoning Education Press, it's probably not widely available outside of China - but you're really not missing all that much.)

Yi Shen Ellis is an American Chinese who moved to Shanghai with her American husband Bryan a few years ago, and has been raising her two young children there. Bryan gets a co-author credit for contributing a few reminiscences of his experiences of working in China and agreeing to be the butt of a few jokes, but it would seem that Yi Shen did all the writing. It's a simple collection of short anecdotes illustrating various aspects of Chinese culture that Westerners tend to find curious or confusing when they first come here.

Most of the stories cover more than one item of culture, so you end up with some hundreds of nuggets of information - and I confess that there were just a few of them that were still new to me. However, it is on the whole very basic stuff, and you wonder whether the chosen number of chapters wasn't intended to be significant: this is very much 'Chinese Culture - 101', the kind of thing that keen observers would mostly pick up within a few months of living here, or even from conversations with Chinese friends back home. Nevertheless, it does cover more of these topics in a short space than any other book I've found, and it's a brief and very accessible read - not more than an hour or two from cover to cover. It might be a useful primer for people contemplating a move to China, or for recent arrivals here. For the established expat, I'm afraid, it's a bit of a yawn.

Well, there are two talking points that emerge, I find, for us grizzled China veterans.

One is the language. I would imagine that Yi Shen - Chinese-born, but having lived most of her life in the States - would have faultless native speaker English, but there are many curious hints of 'Chinglish' in this book (conspicuously in the title itself: that clunking use of the not-terribly-polite label 'foreigners'; the adjectival clause hanging awkwardly on a purposive 'for' rather than a more natural 'to help'). Is it the uniquely powerful 'first language interference' of Mandarin overwhelming even 20 years or more of English language immersion? Is it just sloppy editing? Or is it wilfully bad or politically motivated editing, to give the book a more acceptably 'Chinese' flavour?

A second, related point of interest is the degree of propagandizing behind this. Nothing gets published in China without an agenda, and this book is huffing and puffing just a bit too obviously to try to understand, defend, and even extol some of the weirder, less attractive, or less useful aspects of Chinese culture. Yi Shen tells us, for example, she's had some very good experiences with Chinese herbalists; and even the prevalent superstition that you'll die if you don't wear socks all the time she claims to find not without merit.

Occasionally these attempts to be 'culturally understanding' become so absurd that you wonder if she isn't slyly sending up the book's conceit. Intimate public touching between members of the same sex, she tells us, should never be taken as evidence of homosexuality, and, on the contrary, tends to be practised "especially by the most manly men". Yeah, right. We're not just talking about a slap on the back or an arm around the shoulder here; we're talking about protracted stroking.... of cheeks.... necks.... butts.... thighs.... groins. And it is - sometimes - very sexual indeed! She also puts forward the suggestion that Chinese noisiness while eating is a reasonable response to the hotness of their soup, which is so much hotter than Western soups, and perhaps makes a telling parallel with the way Westerners slurp coffee. Where do I start? I very seldom hear Westerners, or anyone else, slurp coffee; we cool it by blowing on it first, and drink it cautiously in small sips; we don't hoover it down in great mouthfuls, the way the Chinese consume most of their foods. Chinese soups are not served "piping hot", as Yi Shen says; they're usually little more than lukewarm; and they're certainly not consumed hot, because they're usually much thinner than Western soups and thus don't hold their heat for any length of time at all; most Western soups are much hotter. And funnily enough, soups tend to be the one thing that, in my experience, the Chinese don't eat particularly noisily; almost every other kind of food they make a tremendous open-mouthed din over, but soups....

Yes, I really wonder whether this last example was made so deliberately fatuous as to send up the entire project.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife" - Mary Roach



What happens after we die? Do we have souls (OK, do you normal people have souls)? Is this - reading a book review blog - *it*?

Mary Roach is the perfect person to tackle the scientific side of life after death. As she states in the foreword, "This is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith. It's a giggly, random, utterly earthbound assault on our most ponderous unanswered question. It's spirituality treated like crop science."

She does not disappoint.

Exploring everything from historical scientific data to modern experiments (for example, a laptop computer that faces the ceiling has the picture of an umbrella, so if a patient has an out-of-body experience after "dying," the doctor can test him or her), Roach approaches the subject with glee. Though it is obvious that she isn't a religious right-winger, she does not bash religion. She just wants answers, and her religion is science-based.

The stories are both hilarious and stunning. I finished the book with a greater appreciation for the everyday world, knowing that I am the only one who holds the key to the afterlife answer. OK, fine, Mary Roach and I still don't know what happens, but what a fun ride.

Speaking of fun rides, I'm reading her science and sex book, Bonk, next.

4.0 out of 5.0 Shots from Hell.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Debbie Macomber/THE SHOP ON BLOSSOM STREET

I recently read, and surprised myself by how much I disliked, Kate Jacobs' FRIDAY NIGHT KNITTING CLUB. As a result, I was afraid to try Debbie Macomber's book, since the subject matter was similar. Once I started reading, though, I realized that while the subject matter is in fact nearly identical, Macomber's book is a solid read.

Lydia Hoffman, a two-time survivor of brain cancer, opens a knitting store as what she calls her affirmation of life. The store is in a formerly bad area of town which is gradually being 'gentrified'. She quickly has three students in her first knitting class: an uptight older woman whose husband is responsible for the rebuilding projects on Blossom Street, a young purple-haired angry woman who lives in one of the buildings that will be demolished during the rebuilding, and a third woman who is desperate to have a baby and down to her last medical procedure to make it happen.

Sticking to a relatively small cast of characters made all the difference for me. Lydia's story touched me from the beginning, and so did the anguish of the childless Carol. The older Jacqueline didn't grow on me as much, since most of her problems stemmed from being too stubborn to look past her own prejudices, but I found tough Alix to be a reasonable portrayal of a woman with serious issues in her past who didn't quite know how to move past them.

The book is a romance and so you expect all the women to find love. While I won't give away the ending, I will say that the outcomes for two of the women did surprise me, which I didn't expect.

I did feel that the book would have benefited from a thorough editing. Lydia's parts were written in first person, which generally is my favourite perspective, but at times she switched between past and present tense for no apparent reason and this jarred me from the story. I also found that whenever someone who'd been mentioned earlier reappeared, Macomber re-introduced them as if it were their first appearance. I don't mind a reminder (and am often grateful for one) but I can, for example, recognize a woman as Jacqueline's maid because she's vacuuming the house without needing a detailed explanation.

Overall, I did enjoy this. I liked being surprised by a book that I had expected to be straightforward, and I found myself caring about the characters and their issues.

Arthur C. Clarke/2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Clarke wrote this novel around the same time he co-wrote (with Kubrick) the screenplay for the movie of the same name. While the movie is very long, slow, and difficult to follow (and, IMO, awesome!) the book is quite short and much more accessible.

2001 is about the quest to discover how a mysterious structure came to be buried under the surface of the moon 4 million years before humans first ventured into space. Even more shocking than the answer to this enigma is what happens to the astronaut who journeys to Saturn to solve it.

This novel is pretty much the epitome of classic science fiction, and Clarke infuses such wonder and suspense into his story that I can't help picturing him writing it on the edge of his seat. While the dialog is sparse, and the pondering about human evolution and technological advancement often takes over, the story is full of mind-blowing turns that are fun to discover.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"World Without End" - Ken Follett


Arrgh. I know why people love Ken Follett's books. He moves the action forward. He sprinkles in just enough sex and power struggles and murder and mayhem. He has a firm grasp of what makes history interesting to people.

But he drives me crazy. I get about 400 pages into it, start to like the characters, then he creates outrageous plot twists and frustrating leaps of logic. Don't even get me started about the use of adverbs. It's annoyingly, obviously, infuriatingly overused.

However, I know many of you love his work. I wish I could get over some things (see the spoilers at the end).

World picks up 200 years after Pillars of Earth in the same cathedral town of Kingsbridge. There are the same fights and manipulations to become prior of the church. Now, the main characters also bear witness to a knight's strange fight in the woods. The knight buries a parcel and swears Medric, a child who later becomes the town builder, to secrecy, then the knight becomes a monk.

Medric, meanwhile, grows up and proposes to his dear-heart, Caris. She is drawn to healing arts and business, running a successful red-dyed cloth business for her father. She doesn't believe she could adapt to marriage, and ends up in a nunnery for most of the book, sharing her healing expertise when the town is hit by the plague numerous times.

SPOILERS:

While the other characters are vital to the plot (and heft) of the novel, there were too many wrong baby-daddys, causing me to roll my eyes until they nearly fell out of their sockets. And, Gwenda... seriously? The entire storyline was too predictable and should have been edited out. The last page made me gag - literally - because Caris was no angel. Sheesh.

If you have hours of time and adore historical romance, go for it. If you are reading it for a book group, rock on - you'll have plenty to talk about. Otherwise, meh. Let the arguments begin.

2.75 out of 5.0 Zwiters.

Sapphire/PUSH

Push, by Sapphire was an uncomfortable, painful reading experience. Claireece “Precious” Jones is an overweight, illiterate black sixteen year old girl who is pregnant with her second child. She delivered her first at twelve and her father is the father of both of her children. Her mother is an abusive, jealous, reclusive figure who offers Precious neither protection nor love and she abuses Precious verbally, sexually and physically. This first novel is by the poet and performance artist, Sapphire. Sapphire spent time teaching literacy in Harlem, which makes this story with all of its broken characters all the more heartbreaking. Through the intervention of her school’s principal, Precious is sent to attend a literacy program and encounters a teacher who finally helps Precious to learn to read and to understand that she has value and a future. When Precious first goes to the alternative school, she’s given a test to determine if she should be in the G.E.D. class, which requires reading at the eighth grade level. She does not qualify.
“For me this nuffin’ new. There has always been something wrong wif the tesses. The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me an’ my muver – my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible. One time I seen us on TV. It was a show of spooky shit, an’ castles, you know shit be all haunted. And the peoples, well some of them was peoples and some of them was vampire peoples. But the real peoples did not know it till it was party time. You know crackers eating roast turkey and champagne and shit. So it’s five of ‘em sitting on the couch; and one of ‘em git up and take a picture. Got it? When picture develop (it’s instamatic) only one person on the couch. The other peoples did not exist. They vampires. They eats, drinks, wear clothes, talks, fucks, and stuff but when you git right down to it they don’t exist. I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am – vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.” I wanna say I am somebody. I wanna say it on subway, TV, movie, LOUD. I see the pink faces in suits look over top of my head. I watch myself disappear in their eyes, their tesses. I talk loud but still I don’t exist.”
Sadly, despite the tremendous progress Precious makes in learning to read and finally being able to leave her mother’s apartment to care for one of her two babies (the first has Downs Sydrome and has been with her grandmother since she was born), Precious begins to “age out” of the system and the social workers involved in her case are more motivated to see her get into the workplace as a home worker, taking care of the elderly than they are in seeing her achieve her G.E.D. or something better. Precious learns that she’s H.I.V. positive, the final legacy from her abusive father. Despite all this, the book ends on a hopeful note. It comes as no surprise that Sapphire became the center of some degree of controversy over the work. As a result of her well-publicized half-million-dollar advance from an "establishment" publisher, there were some subtle political connotations since her work seems to portray the black male, and urban blacks in general, in a negative light. Coincidentally, this book was recommended to me when I expressed an interest in reading Erasure, by Percival Everett. Read Push first and Erasure will make more sense to you. Erasure is about a black writer who writes purely literary fiction touching on themes about art and theology, but he can’t get a break. His would-be publishers complain that the work isn’t “black enough”. From reviewer Bernard W. Bell:
“Because his own most recent experimental novel has been rejected by publishers as not black enough, Monk is outraged at the national success of Juanita Mae Jenkins, an amateur black middle-class writer with little knowledge and less actual experience of living in an urban black community, and at her exploitative first novel in the neo-realistic vernacular tradition of the ghetto pulp fiction of Robert ‘Iceberg Slim’ Beck and Donald Goines, We's Lives in Da Ghetto. With self-righteous indignation, Monk, under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh and with little or no intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical distance between himself and the implied author of Erasure, writes MyPafology, an outrageously scurrilous parody in eye dialects, and its authenticity and authority are acclaimed by white editors and critics as well as a popular black TV talk-show hostess as a commercial and critical prize-winning success. In contrast to Monk's judgment that the parody, whose title Leigh has blatantly insisted that the publishers change to Fuck, is ‘offensive, poorly written, racist and mindless,’ the white judges on the Book Award Committee consider it ‘the truest novel’ that they have ever read. ‘It could only have been written by someone who has done hard time. It's the real thing.’ Ultimately, the huge commercial success of the parody and pseudonymous Stagg R. Leigh, engineered by a multi-million-dollar movie contract and the Book Club of Kenya Dunston, the nationally popular TV talk-show hostess, results in Monk's complicity with the media in the erasure of his integrity and individuality.”
I’ll make no judgment about the quality of the story or the writing as they're both so unconventional I have no basis for comparison. I will say that once I started reading, I couldn't put the book down. At times, the intentionally terrible grammar and spelling were a challenge. From a social consciousness perspective, it brought me to the very crux of the tension that we feel all across the country right now. I’ve pondered the opposing points of view and I believe it comes down to the ideological differences in our answers to the simple question: Am I my brother’s keeper? The protagonist in Push and both of her children, the products of incestuous rape are completely unequipped to function as productive and self-supporting members of society, through no fault of their own. Some of us believe that our society owes something to these children. Some of us don’t. The second thing Push brought to the forefront of my consciousness was the question of what this type of novel says to and about black authors. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Sapphire should muzzle her art because it shows a side of urban life that isn’t flattering to black Americans and that may indeed further perpetuate stereotypes. The story represents the truth of thousands of people of all races. On the other hand, I can understand that the literary writer, who happens to be black would feel frustrated with the publishing business and a seeming unwillingness to publish or promote serious black authors. I can’t say, although I imagine it’s not unlike the struggle any literary writer faces in our market driven economy where popular fiction brings in all the revenue.

Ravi Howard/LIKE TREES, WALKING

Like Trees, Walking, by Ravi Howard. When the phone rings at the home of Paul and Roy Deacon, sons of the family owned Deacon Memorial Funeral Home in the early morning hours of March 21, 1981 it is not a routine call. Nineteen year old Michael Donald, a close friend of Paul had been found hanging in a tree in downtown Mobile, Alabama. This fictional tale of an actual event that happened in Alabama is a painful journey for two brothers who are otherwise leading a normal teenage life. It has fallen onto Roy, the main character to take over his father’s business. Deacon Memorial Funeral Home has buried the loved ones of Mobile’s black families for over one hundred years and Paul has already rebelled and made his intent clear that he will not be going into the family business. Roy, who has been working with his father since his early teenage years, brings an unusual, intimate perspective to the deaths that are a natural part of life, but Michael Donald’s brutal murder tests Roy’s ability to continue on in the business he doesn’t want to be in, but feels obligated to continue, for his father’s sake. The response to the murder is inept and devastating, the police focusing on the possibility that the lynching was the result of a drug deal that had gone wrong.

“’I assure you, the Mobile Police Department is going to do all we can to figure this out.’ The sad part was that he probably meant it. He stood tall, as though his posture made the assurance that much stronger. It didn’t matter what he said, because the truth of it was playing out behind him, the Mobile police milling about the block in slow and steady chaos. The only crime scenes I’d seen were on the news and on cop shows. There was always a slew of police officers knocking on doors, canvassing the area, and pursuing the guilty parties with prime-time tenacity. Nothing of the like seemed to be happening on Herndon Avenue. The gathered authorities were taking their turns looking at Mobile’s first lynching in sixty years. Before we left Detective Wilcox, my father made one request. ‘Cut that boy down before his mother gets here.’”

There are many poignant passages throughout this novel. Roy and Paul's grandfather, although he'd been retired ten years shows up to help prepare the body of the dead boy:

"My grandfather had been stifled by the shaking in his hands and a memory that sometimes failed him. We worried that he wouldn't be able to live alone much longer, but as he worked around Michael's head, stitching the ruptured skin and reshaping his face, his hands were steady and his memory was sound.

He remembered things we had never known. How to dress rope-burned skin. How to wire a neck, broken and distended, to make the bones straight again. Arrange the high, starched collar and necktie so they hid the marks that makeup could not conceal. I watched him as he worked, cradling Michael's head in his hands. He held it like he held mine in the waters along the bay, on the summer afternoon he tried to teach me to float. I floated for a while, but when I opened my eyes and realized his hands were gone, and what I felt along my neck and back was just a memory of his fingers, I sank like a rock."


The story follows the activity that ensues in the aftermath of the murder and the mark that a tragedy such as this leaves on everyone it touches. It illuminates how much and how little had changed in the American South in 1981 and shows the impossibility of healing when it seems that there will be no justice.

Martha Southgate/THE FALL OF ROME

The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate follows the complex relationship between three characters at an exclusive boys’ school in Connecticut. Jerome Washington, the school’s only Latin teacher and only black teacher is a reserved, complex character. He keeps to himself and his views about society and race are so conservative that I couldn’t help thinking about Clarence Thomas as I read. As the faculty’s only minority, he is called upon to help recruit a more diverse student body, and he does so out of loyalty to the school, but he is clearly uncomfortable in this role. He is not an advocate of anything that resembles affirmative action, and his attitude toward the tiny number of minority students in the school nears contempt. He’s worked hard to get to the respected position he holds and is loathe to see anyone that he views as undeserving getting special treatment. One gets the impression that he’d prefer that the color of his skin would go unnoticed and he appears to resent the young black students who embrace popular black music and culture – as if it reflects negatively on him.

Jana Hansen is a new teacher who has left an urban public school to join the faculty. Middle aged, white and recently divorced, she finds Jerome Washington enigmatic and attractive. Unlike Mr. Washington, she is anxious to help bring a more diverse blend of students to the school.

Rashid is new to the school. A black student from Brooklyn, Rashid has worked hard to gain entrance and earn a scholarship to an elite school as his older brother did before him, but Rashid’s brother is tragically killed just prior to Rashid’s enrollment, and his family is shell shocked. His parents don’t want to call attention to the tragedy and the assumptions people might make about it and they don’t tell the faculty about the senseless killing of their son. Lost in their own grief, they are unable to provide Rashid with emotional support and Rashid is left alone in a challenging academic environment, struggling to keep up and dealing with the loss of his brother in isolation. Rashid finds some companionship in his roommate, who is also black, but who hails from a wealthy, accomplished family and is academically and socially comfortable in the upscale prep school.

Mr. Washington lost a brother too and on the surface, would appear to be an ideal mentor for Rashid; however, Jerome Washington views the death of his brother during the commission of a crime as a source of shame and this emotion extends out to the black scholarship students who he cannot seem to view without painting them with the same brush with which he viewed his brother.

“After I returned east and took up my duties at Chelsea, I put Isaiah’s death out of my mind. I never think about it anymore. That is as my mother would have it. That is, I’ve come to believe, how it should be. I can’t bring him back. I couldn’t save him. Neither could she. Why he couldn’t fight harder to save himself, I will never know. That was why I feared Jana’s faith in young Mr. Bryson might be misplaced, save for his talent as a runner. As the season wore on, it was becoming more and more apparent that he was the kind of athlete a coach might see once in a lifetime. He had almost no awareness of his gift, which made it even more impressive. While I was not wholly in agreement with Jana about his chances, I thought we should work to save him if only to encourage that ability. It would only wither and die at some squalid city school. And if, by some happy chance, Jana was right about the rest, that his work could be brought along…well, so much the better. I guess I should say, too, that though I thought it unwise to indicate so, I was somewhat impressed by the way he confronted me about calling on him in class. I had been overlooking him, simply out of my belief that he would not be with us long. I also felt it particularly important that our Negro students realize that the world would give them no quarter. Why should I?”

The intersection of these characters leads ultimately to disgrace and shame for one of them and salvation for another. Martha Southgate is a gifted writer and this novel is an important one. It illustrates how deeply our issues with race go. It’s complex and the issues are not black and white, but extend into shades of gray that reflect generational and socio-economic differences between and within our races. This is a must read for anyone hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the evolving complexities of race in America.

Annie Dillard/THE MAYTREES

I envision each work of fiction as existing on a continuum that runs between craft and art. On impulse, I bought The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard last summer. It was a case of bright shiny object syndrome: it had a “signed first edition” sticker on it. The only Annie Dillard I’d previously read was The Writing Life and my encounter with it came at the worst possible time. It was about three years ago and I’d just started my first attempt at writing a novel. If I’m generous in my assessment, I’d say I was on a stepladder, attempting to climb onto the first part of the continuum. I’d always read quite a bit, but in those days, I wasn’t yet reading like a writer and I wasn’t nearly as selective about what I read as I am now. I couldn’t have found a worse book to begin with. When I should have been reading the equivalent of a pop-up book to learn how to craft a novel, The Writing Life felt like Ulysses. I don’t have a copy of the book (although I’d like to re-read it now), so I can only relate my impressions that I was reading about the pain and difficulty of writing and the need to make the experience and the environment as unpleasant as possible. I knew at the time that what I was reading was over my head. I say all this to explain why it took me so long to open up The Maytrees, a slim volume at 216 pages.

Annie Dillard intimidated me.
The Maytrees is a masterpiece. Annie Dillard writes in what I can only describe as lyrical prose, nearing poetry. She is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She’s best known for her narrative non-fiction, but she has also published poetry, essays, literary criticism, autobiography, and fiction. The Maytrees is her second novel. This excerpt from the International Herald Tribune provides an excellent synopsis of The Maytrees:

“Set in Cape Cod after World War II, her compelling short novel chronicles the lives of Lou and Toby Maytree, bookish bohemians whose marriage seems charmed. Toby is a minor poet with the look of ‘a red-eyed night heron’; he ‘hauled lines of poetry like buried barbed wire with his bare hands.’ His beloved — whose sand-dune days with him are ‘played out before the backdrop of fixed stars’ — is the artistic Lou, a virgin who ‘lacked a woman's sense of doom.’ Of Lou's blissful months as a bride, Dillard writes, ‘She loved Maytree, his restlessness, his asceticism, his, especially, abdomen.’ Though the plot moves smartly, the Maytrees' internal journeys are the main attraction. As in her earlier works, Dillard, a naturalist whose terrain extends to metaphysics, is often looking at the cosmos when she appears to be writing about horseshoe crabs, seals or even feral children. Melding the Maytrees' silent musings about solitude or eternity with their conversations about the small miracle that is their son, Petie, or about the quirks of hognose snakes, she brings the whole together in a sleight of hand that at times has the power of a gut punch. Standing on a dune, gazing at an infinity of stars, Maytree decides that his beloved has given him a clarity of vision that he never had: ‘Watching the sky now, and forever after, doubled his world. He felt he saw through Lou's eyes as an Aztec priest, having flayed an enemy, donned the skin. Or somewhat less so.’ That last scudding bit of course suggests that the Maytrees' marriage will be subject to the laws of nature. All around them their free-spirited friends are coupling and uncoupling, but instead of being salacious or sensational, Dillard's approach to their gamboling is cheerfully anthropological. (She even gives one clan the family name Bonobos, a species of chimpanzee famous for its sexual eclecticism.) Obsessed with matters of the heart, one musty socialite "wears many killing rings" and runs through ‘six husbands like a brochette.’ Another femme fatale sleeps in the dunes; divorced from a painter, a fisherman, an abstract artist and a baseball pitcher, she sweetly collects boyfriends like seashells or sand dollars. And so it is adultery that ultimately divides this couple, not just Maytree's apparently left-field desire for another woman, but his decision that, after 14 years, he has done his duty as a monogamist. Lou remains on the Cape and, surrounded by a community that, like an elephant herd, draws close when death or loss looms, devotes herself to Petie. Only when their son is grown does she see Maytree again; when he returns to her, it's to ask a favor that to some would be unimaginable. Not only does Dillard make his request seem entirely organic, but she allows Lou and Maytree to reclaim each other without sentimentality.”

I didn’t read anything about The Maytrees until after I’d finished it and the (few) criticisms of the work matched my impressions. At times, Dillard dredges up words and terms that are so obscure as to pull the reader out of the fictive dream she’s created, but I tend to feel the shortcoming here is mine and not hers. At other times the metaphors she uses are so abstract that the reader is left to wonder what she’s talking about.
Paragraphs like the following were the type that I read and then re-read, knowing I’d found a perfect sentiment, yet not always sure I’d understood it correctly:

“After they married she learned to feel their skin as double-sided. They felt a pause. Theirs was too much feeling to push through the crack that led down to the dim world of time and stuff. That world was gone. They held themselves alert only in those few million cells where they touched. She learned from those cells his awareness and his courtesy. Love so sprang at her, she honestly thought no one had ever looked into it. Where was it in literature? Someone would have written something. She must not have recognized it. Time to read everything again.”


Dillard says the first draft ran close to 1,400 pages and she cut and revised and trimmed it down to the final 216 pages. I wonder if some of the more puzzling sentences and paragraphs are the result of the reduction of a concept to its final essence, where the original meaning that was once there exists only as an impression.
The narrative follows the internal worlds of the characters and gives new perspective to ideas about love, marriage, friendship, children, life and death. When, after fourteen years of marriage, Maytree leaves Lou for their close friend, Deary, Lou analyzes what it means and learns to move forward:

“Within a month she figured that if she ceded that the world did not center on her, there was no injustice or betrayal. If she believed she was free and out of the tar pit, would she not thereby free herself from the tar pit? What was this to, say, losing Petie? Why take personal offense if two fall in love? She knew they reproached themselves. Maytree was party to fits of enthusiasm. Loving was Deary’s nature. What would any of this matter two hundred years hence? She had many decades more to live. Whether she lived them or not was her call.” Maytree never quite gets over the shame of having left Lou, nor does he ever stop loving her, but he feels an obligation to stay with Deary, even after the initial passion fades: “The lasting love he studied, not mere emotion, might be willful focus of attention. It might be a custody of reactions. He circled this view for years. Love as directed will did not sound like love’s first feeling of cliff-jumping. Call that period eighteen months or seven years – call it anything but infatuation! It must be acknowledged and accounted for. Recently science had nailed down its chemistry: adrenaline. Then what? He had loved Lou for years and years. On and off, mostly very much on. Those loving years, and their persistence, must also be credited. People used to die so young! Maybe lasting love is a rare evolutionary lagniappe. Anthropologists say almost every human culture on earth gives lip service, and lip service only, to monogamy. He was scrupulously loving in mind and body toward Deary in order to make reparations to the moral universe. He was grateful for the chance.”


I was fascinated with Lou and Maytree’s choice to live a life of the mind. Their choice to spend their days reading and his to write poetry necessitated a spare, eccentric lifestyle devoid of a car, insurance or a television. They spend much of their year on a beach shack without electricity or indoor plumbing. When members of their bohemian community die, they are wrapped in sailcloth and buried directly in the earth. The book made me ponder those things we now consider necessities. To most of us, it would be unthinkable to contract a terminal illness and not seek medicine, surgery, hospitalization and all medical means of preserving life. What if we just went home to die? As Lou re-establishes her life, without Maytree in it, she cuts out all that she finds surperfluous:


“The one-room ever-sparer dune shack was her chief dwelling from which only hurricane or frost exiled her. Over decades, she had reclaimed what she had forfeited of her own mind, if any. She took pains to keep outside the world’s acceleration. An Athens marketplace amazed Diogenes with ‘How many things there are in the world of which Diogenes hath no need!’ Lou had long since cut out fashion and all radio but the Red Sox. In the past few years, she had let go her ties to people she did not like, to ironing, to dining out in town, and to buying things not necessary and that themselves needed care. She ignored whatever did not interest her. With those blows she opened her days like a piñata. A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail. Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.”


I loved this book. There was not a sentence or an idea I didn’t savor and I will read it again and perhaps again. The Maytrees is near-perfect.

House of Dark Shadows- Robert Liparulo




After teaching middle school for a number of years, I had had my fill of YA lit. This book peaked my interest however. Good thrillers and mysteries are hard to come by in the YA world, so I thought I would give it a shot. And overall, it was pretty good.


Xander King is quite unhappy that his family is moving away from his life in Pasadena for his father's job in a small town in northern California. His two younger siblings, David and Toria (short for Victoria) are less bothered, but the whole family is finally excited for the move when they find an interesting old Victorian house on the outskirts of town. Xander thinks that the house is strange; he gets the feeling that he is being watched and the house plays strange tricks with noises.


As the family begins to settle in Xander and David explore the house. At first they don't find anything interesting, old boxes and lots of junk from the previous family, but then they see a strange figure in the night and following it they find a hidden hallway full of doors. The doors lead to antechambers full of different kinds of gear, for the beach, mountain climbing, hunting, all hanging on pegs with another door leading to who knows where. What Xander and David encounter beyond these doors will forever change their lives and the lives of all of their family.


I thought this book was okay. It had a lot of pop culture references, which felt a little cumbersome at times and when the action got going, I found myself skipping chunks because the description detracted from the action. The storyline was really interesting though and I liked that the father was involved, not the absent from adventure parents that one normally sees in YA lit. I felt like the ending was a definite cliffhanger, which was fine since it's a series. I think that there's a lot still to be written for this plot, but I'm a little afraid that it will be drug on too long. I suppose we'll have to see. Though it was scary/thrilling in parts, I think that younger kids could get into it. Probably great for ages 12 and up. I liked the short chapters too, and think it would also make a good read aloud for a teacher. Overall, it was pretty good. Not fantastic, but interesting and kept me turning the pages.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

"The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You"


OK, while I might be a "medical nightmare" (my husband's words, not mine), I am now an official "hypochondriac." At least, according to the test given at the beginning of this book. There is hope for me, and others like me. Read this book. As Dr. House always says, "It's not lupus." Or bradycardia. Or a multitude of things.

However, the book admits that it could have the opposite reaction with readers, and people may find new reasons why their necks hurt when they turn them all the way around. Still, if you read it with a handful of salt (with its "if you have blank, you might have blank" style), it's a great one to leave out at family functions.

2.75 out of 5.0 Grateful Deads.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards


I actually finished this book quite a while ago, but with the holidays and such I hadn't gotten around to blogging about it. So if this feels quite brief, that's why.

In March of 1964 Norah and David Henry are about to be proud parents. Due to a snowstorm, David, an orthopedist, has to deliver his own child, or children. Norah gives birth to twins. The boy, Paul, is a beautiful, healthy child, but when David delivers the girl, Phoebe, he quickly realizes that she has down syndrome. Trying to spare his wife the pain of an ill child, he makes the hasty decision to send her to an institution. David hands Phoebe off to the assisting nurse, Caroline, and instructs her to institutionalize the child; he then tells Norah that the girl was still born.

After seeing the institution, Caroline cannot bear to leave Phoebe there. Instead she decides to leave Kentucky and moves to Pittsburgh to raise the infant as her own. Each character struggles with his or her own demons: the death of a child, a horrendous secret, the struggles of a mentally challenged child and the feelings of inadequacy.

I don't want to say too much more as this is a very character driven novel and each character's storyline is very interesting, full of the twists and turns of real life. I loved all the back story that made David Henry's reactions understandable. I loved Norah's inability to let go of her 'dead' daughter, and I loved the way Paul grows up knowing that there is something unspoken in his family, but not quite being able to understand it. The Memory Keeper's Daughter was really good. The writing was beautiful and I liked the format of alternating between the two children's lives. The concept is very interesting and raises many questions as you read. It definitely made me think. If I had one complaint it would be that it felt a little sluggish at times, but overall it was definitely worth the time. I'm often hesitant of books that are proclaimed "must reads" by various sources, but this book lived up to all the hype.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

"Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" - Susanna Clarke


This book has been called fantasy, alternate history, and science fiction, but at its heart is the simple story of two English magicians who have very different beliefs in how magic should be conducted in the early 1800s.

Mr. Norrell fosters knowledge, feasting upon thousands of archaic books about magic. He believes all magic can be learned from books, yet he does not share his library with anyone except his servant.

Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, believes that the only way to understand magic is to practice it. As Mr. Norrell's pupil, he becomes frustrated, and eventually leaves to begin binding spells and creating his own incantations. This makes Norrell furious.

Add in a nasty faerie who manipulates both magicians, and the book becomes an 800-plus tome that uses names and places from the time (Lord Byron, for example) and well as footnotes from fictitious sources.

Many critics believe that this is the best fantasy book (geared toward adults - geez, we don't want to piss off the Potter-lovers) to come from England in decades. Perhaps. It's not my specialty. But, as a reader, I would drop this heavy book whenever something new and shiny came within armslength. I could always pick it up again and blend back into the narrative. The first is negative, the second is positive, so I'm reluctant to pick a side. It may be easiest to state that this novel is memorable, yet disposable.

I'm glad I finally finished it after an on and off affair of eight months.

3.5 out of 5.0 Black Magics.