Monthly Archives: December 2009

Review Round-up: Memoirs and Personal Essays

This is the last of my review round-ups for 2009!

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005, 288p, paperback)

I loved, loved, loved The Glass Castle.  The book opens memorably with a snapshot story of Walls as an adult.  She is going to a party in New York City, sees a homeless woman digging through a dumpster and realizes it’s her mother.  From that ‘wow’ start, Walls takes the reader through her childhood. She and her brother and sisters are neglectfully raised by her parents as they constantly move their brood from town to town and state to state: Arizona, California, and finally in West Virginia.  This is a past that Walls has been ashamed to tell for years and she finally gets it all down in this heartbreaking, but rallying, memoir.  I love the fierce loyalty between Walls and her siblings.

Jeannette Walls spoke at the National Book Festival in D.C. and she was my favorite speaker by far.  She seems a very warm and down-to-earth person.  Walls described the various reactions she’s received to the memoir.  A privileged teenage girl came up to Walls, having read The Glass Castle while on vacation in the Caribbean.  The girl said to Jeannette, “There is this girl at my school and we make fun of her because she is poor.  You know, I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore.”  Walls described her internal reaction to this girl’s resolution as, “Well, the Lord can now strike me dead!  My mission on earth is accomplished!”

Walls also related a story a teacher from the South told her about a student’s reaction to the book.  This teacher observed a boy who never read books, carrying around The Glass Castle.  The teacher said to him, “I thought you didn’t like books.”  The boy said, “I don’t.”  The teacher said, “Well why do you like this book then?”  The boy said, “That there is a fine white trash story.”

Ditched by Dr. Right: And Other Distress Signals from the Edge of Polite Society by Elizabeth Warner (2005, 256p, paperback)

I heard about this book through Entertainment Weekly some years ago, and had to interlibrary loan it for reading this year.  Elizabeth Warner is a New York City-based writer and this collection of essays tells stories of her life in New York as a copywriter and other ventures, a stint in L.A., as well as growing up in an upper middle class Philadelphian suburb.

I find it odd that Warner portrays her upbringing as something very strange and almost exotic.  I suppose we all think that way though at times.  As children, we typically do not think our world is weird.  It is only when we grow up and move into wider circles and hear of others’ backgrounds that we begin to see our backgrounds in a new light, through others’ eyes.  And then we see the weirdness.

Warner is a decent enough writer.  I read aloud parts or even whole essays to my friend and we laughed out loud in moments.  My favorite story was one from Warner’s childhood when she and her siblings inadvertently lead to a big police bust of some local sports players.  Her essay about L.A. was also rather amusing.  However, there is nothing must-read about this collection, unfortunately.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (2004, 252p, hardcover)

Sedaris’ book was in danger of over-hype from the get-go.  I hadn’t read anything of his before, but I had heard his name spoken or written with great adoration and awe.  So I finally checked out this book from the library and was unsurprisingly, underwhelmed.  The book was certainly had wit and humor and poignancy, but it didn’t really have the ‘wow’ for me that it does for others.  I suspect it is because Sedaris is best taken in audio rather than written format, so I think that the next time I check out his work it will be for listening.  My favorite story from this book has to be the one about his sister and how his writing about the family, including her, has affected their relationship.  I’d like to listen to him read that essay because I would think it would be even more powerful then.

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Review Round-up: Non-fiction

In my non-fiction choices, I dabbled in a variety of topics this year.

Linguistics

I read John McWhorter’s Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (2001, 352p, paperback).  If the title subject sounds daunting or dry, be assured that it definitely is not in McWhorter’s hands.  He has an accessible style with great analogies and humorous notes.  He’s not a snob about language, both in the way he explains it and in his understanding of it.  He delights in how languages change and that delight rubbed off on me.  Lots of cool facts and interesting language stories are contained within its pages.

Ecology / Environment

Okay, so I technically did not finish Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall (2005, 295p hardcover), which was a Christmas gift from an uncle.  However, it wasn’t because I didn’t like it, because I read most of it, and it did cause me to alter my food-buying to some degree.  I’m not intending to be vegetarian like the author, but I want to make better choices on what I eat and where that food comes from.  And Goodall provides suggestions for eating animal products more responsibly.  For instance, I like buying shrimp for stir-fry dinners and thanks to reading the book, I don’t buy the shrimp farmed in Thailand but rather I track down shrimp that have been caught in the U.S.  The shrimp farms in Thailand damage the environment.

A number of the ideas presented in the book I had heard before, but it was good to see it laid out and explained in detail.  I want to use farmer’s markets more frequently, buy local produce and meats.  Goodall had the great suggestion of visiting farmer’s markets while traveling, to see what the local region has to offer.  This year, I had the chance to go visit the Heritage Farms of Seed Savers’ Exchange, which works to preserve biodiversity by saving seeds of heritage plants and animals.

History

A History of the Middle East: Second Edition by Peter Mansfield (448p, paperback)

This book was first published in 1991 and then re-issued in 2004 with an update chapter written by Nicolas Pelham.  I was looking for a comprehensive book on Middle East History because I wanted more context for understanding what is happening in current events.  It took some serious determination to finish this history because it is written in such a dry manner.  However, the book met my criteria of being comprehensive as it swept from Mesopotamia to almost the present day.

I will say of Mansfield that he is restrained in showing any bias in his history.  Any bias is of the scholarly sort: I wasn’t surprised at finding out that he had written other books about Egypt because A History of the Middle East became most lively when Egypt was involved. Pelham was considerably more opinionated which was jarring and not entirely welcome.

This book was sometimes a chore to read, but it did pay off.  I do feel more informed about Middle East history and will use this foundational knowledge to delve into more detailed accounts about segments of this history and region.  Already, several of my fiction choices have been influenced by reading this book, including The Hakawati which I hope to review tomorrow.

Technology

The Big Switch: Our New Digital Destiny by Nicholas Carr (2008, 224p, hardcover)

This was one of Newsweek’s 50 Best Books for Our Time that was published earlier this year.  I was particularly interested because it involved ‘cloud computing’, a term I had encountered a number of times but never felt like I fully understood.  If you haven’t encountered that term, don’t worry.  If you know enough technology to be reading this blog, you’ll be able to understand and appreciate this book. At the risk of over-simplifying, The Big Switch is talking about computing as utility, kind of like how electricity became a utility (though there are limits to that analogy that Carr points out.)  Carr illuminates both the possibilities and the danger of where we’re headed with the internet.  I feel like I’ve done an inadequate job of summing up here, but maybe I can make up for that by giving you a quote from the book itself:

[The Internet] stresses immediacy, simultaneity, contingency, subjectivity, disposability, and above all, speed.  The Net provides no incentive to stop and think deeply about anything…It’s easier, as Kelly says, “to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves.”

Medicine

The Lonely Patient: How We Experience Illness by Michael Stein (2007, 240p, hardcover)

Stein describes four feelings experienced by ill people: betrayal, terror, loneliness and loss.  He uses case stories from his own experience as a doctor and also includes the story of his brother-in-law who died of cancer.  It was an interesting book for me, and Stein has such a compassionate voice.  However, I think it is a book really meant for a specific audience, for those who are dealing with illness, whether as a doctor, patient or caregiver.  I feel that more could have been said on how best to reach out to someone in ill health, but I think the book explains why it is so difficult to do so.  Illness is such a lonely state of being.  When one is in pain, you can’t imagine being healthy.  When one is healthy, one cannot truly imagine pain.

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Review Round-up: Mystery / Thriller

I might have mentioned before that I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers this year.  I’ve already reviewed a few of the standouts – the P.J. Tracy books and P.T. Deutermann’s Cam Richter books, #1 and #2.  Here’s a quick run through the rest (all of which came from the library):

Let There Be Blood (1997, 196pages, paperback)

The Egyptian Coffin (1998, 263 pages, paperback)

The Fool’s Gold (1999, 248 pages, paperback)

by Jane Jakeman

I came across this trilogy when seeking books set in Egypt, but not in Ancient Egypt.  The second book was in that category, and I grabbed the whole trilogy off the shelves.  They read quite fast.  I was done with the first by the time I was picked up from arrivals at the airport.  The main character, Ambrose Malfine is a half-Greek, war-scarred recluse who is a lord of an estate in 1830’s England.  In each book, Malfine becomes (sometimes reluctantly) involved in a mystery.  A book blurb describes Malfine as a blend between Mr. Rochester and Byron, and as the narrator, he is guarded, and unapologetic for his standoffish manner and lifestyle.

A couple of books from supernatural thriller series:

Bone Crossed by Patricia Briggs (2009, 304pages, paperback)- *Love* the Mercy Thompson series and this fourth book is just as good as the previous ones.  Mercy has some interesting (read: scary) interactions with vampires and ghosts.

Poltergeist by Kat Richardson (2007, 352pages, paperback) – Second in the Seattle-based Greywalker series.  I like the main character, private investigator Harper Blaine and this mystery was better than the first of the series, as Harper is more acclimated to her special ability to see and navigate through the supernatural.

In late August and in September, many books I checked out from the library were from authors expected at the National Book Festival in D.C.

I read Eagle Catcher (1995, 186 pages, hardcover), the first of Margaret Coel’s mystery series set on the fictitious Wind River reservation.  The two main characters are Father John O’Malley and Arapaho lawyer Vicki Holden.  In mysteries, I’m intrigued by unusual settings and good characters.  The plot here was okay, but because the book had those two other elements, I’m sure I’ll be reading more in this series.

I also read China Trade (1995, 275 pages, paperback), the first of S. J. Rozan’s series with NYC-based private investigators Lydia Chin and Bill Smith.  I liked it and also will be reading more of this series, especially as Rozan switches perspective with each book.  The first book was from Lydia’s perspective and the second is from Bill’s and so on.

The Hard Way by Lee Child (2006, 384pages, hardcover), number something or other of the Jack Reacher series, was another book I picked up in anticipation of the Book Festival.  I did not care for this one.  I liked that the main character was wrong and thus not infallible, but did not like Jack Reacher overall.  I found him a dull sort of hero.  I also did not care for the writing style, which came across rather clinical and cold, at least in my memory.

Non-book festival related:

North Korea-based A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church (2006, 288p, hardcover) had an excellent main character in Inspector O: he makes a distinct and engaging narrator of the story. There was some cheeky dark humor that made me laugh out loud, but also the book conveys the impossibility of the world our narrator inhabits. My one complaint is that, in the end, the cryptic nature of the book interfered with my enjoyment of the story. I didn’t need to have everything tied up neatly, but I felt rather lost by the end.

Very unique YA-mystery:

Cathy’s Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233 by Jordan Weisman (2006, 144pages, hardcover)

The book is structured as a journal, with hilarious addendums and interesting sketches placed in the margins.  There is even an instant message conversation at one point.  Cathy is a teenager who is far too inquisitive for her own good.  So when her mysterious older boyfriend suddenly ends their relationship, she senses that there is more going on than he said.  The book comes with supplemental clue documents that Cathy finds during the story.  The best element of Cathy’s Book is Cathy’s friendship with Emma, a whip-smart teenager who is Cathy’s voice of better reason.  The plot twist was also unexpected and rather cool.

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Review Round-up: YA Fiction

Here is a set of young adult novels that I read over the summer and fall of this year – these books all came from the library.

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotsen (1981, 400 pages, paperback)

– A young Russian emigrant, part of the aristrocracy in pre-Revolution Russia, works as a maid in an English country manor to earn money.  The protagonist, Anna, is an impossibly good and unbelievably humble person. She is saved from being entirely tepid by some spunkiness, but still she is one example of how this book inhabits cliche-land.  The heir of the home is obviously going to be Anna’s love-interest, but typically, the already-engaged man holds to honor in the face of all reason.  Ibbotsen’s writing strengthens the novel in spots by being unexpectedly funny or apt, so I may try out a different novel as I’ve heard this is one of her weaker works in fact.

Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (2003, 400 pages paperback)

– The Goose Girl fable is an excellent choice for source material.  I always think of that fairy tale as the one where the horse’s head talks to the main character which was a detail kept in the Grimm’s tales that I read as a child.  Hale contextualizes the fable very well.  The princess-turned-goose girl Ani, finds herself in various desperate situations but finds good friends and an inner resourcefulness that carries her through her trials.  I loved the climactic scene where she harnesses her powers to face down the villain – I could easily picture it.  This was a good book to read when I had the flu in October.  I look forward to reading more in this series, the Books of Bayern.

Hush: An Irish Princess’ Tale by Donna Jo Napoli (2007, 320 pages hardcover)

– This is a dark, melancholy tale about the Irish princess Melkorka, kidnapped by slavers along with her plucky younger sister.  It is based on a story found in Icelandic sagas.  The story is treated as a historical, rather than as a fantastical, story.  Melkorka doesn’t say a word during her captivity aboard the slave ships – at first an almost accidental decision – but a decision that ends up being the one way of protecting herself.  I definitely was drawn in and found myself pondering the story for long afterward.

Uglies and Pretties by Scott Westerfield

– I already reviewed Specials earlier in this blog, and I won’t say much here except that Tally Youngblood was one of my favorite characters that I encountered this year in my reading.

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Review Round-Up: Fiction

As the end of the year draws near, I thought I should wrap up the ‘year-in-review’ I had started with quick reviews of the remaining books read in 2009.  All of the books reviewed in this post came from the library.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice (2005, 368pages hardcover)

– Set in 1950’s London, this winning tale is narrated by a young woman named Penelope, who is the sort of friendly character you wish was real so that you could hang out with her (and yay! for her being a tall girl as well).  She lives with her mother and brother in a grand home they can no longer afford to maintain.  Their lives take an upward turn when Penelope is absconded on a train trip by the charming Charlotte.  Good sense of place and a lovely set of characters made this one of my favorite books read this year.

Midnight Champagne by A. Manette Ansay (1999, 225 pages hardcover)

– Meh.  This novel tells of a winter wedding as viewed from the perspective of many characters.  Each perspective illuminates on complicated interrelationships and personal histories.   I liked that one of the characters was the ghost of a recently dead woman.  That part was interesting, considering this was definitely literary fiction and not the supernatural genre.  Overall, though, it felt like a successful writing experiment as opposed to a whole and complete story.

American Cream by Catherine Tudish (2007, 320 pages hardcover)

– I absolutely loved Tudish’s short story collection, Tenney’s Landing.  The novel takes place in the same fictional rural Pennsylvanian town of Tenney’s Landing.  The main character, Virginia, returns to this, her hometown, to help at her father’s farm as he recovers from an injury.  This homecoming of course prompts her reevaluate her life choices and to wonder if she actually belongs at the farm.  This is complicated by her teenage son’s attachment to a troubled teenaged girl who lives in the neighborhood, as well as Virginia’s awkward reconnection with her high school sweetheart, now that both are married.  American Cream kept me interested throughout but Tudish’s short story collection was much, much better.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007, 340 pages, hardcover)

– In anticipation of Diaz speaking at the National Book Festival in D.C., I powered through The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in the days prior to the event.  It’s a well-known book at this point, so I’ll leave off summarizing.  Simply put, the writing is amazing, thick with sci-fi and fantasy references, Dominican history, and character and cultural insight.  I loved hearing Diaz speak at the Festival.  He had some great words to say on the writing craft and on reading.

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The Cat Dancers and Spider Mountain by P.T. Deutermann

The Cat Dancers and Spider Mountain

by P.T. Deutermann

2005. 352pages (Hardcover)

2006. 320pages (Hardcover)

The Cat Dancers was one of the many library books I stuffed into my travel bags when I went on vacation this August.  I read Spider Mountain in September.   Just as I liked the fact that the P.J. Tracy thrillers were set in the off-beat location of Minnesota, I loved that Deutermann’s books were set in North Carolina.  Deutermann’s books are darker than the other pair of thrillers though.  Also, content warning, for those who wish to know: there is a lot of profanity and some violence in The Cat Dancers and Spider Mountain.

These two books are #1 and #2 of the Deutermann’s Cam Richter series, and the first I’d read of Deutermann at all.  In The Cat Dancers, Lieutenant Cam Richter is part of an investigation into a heinous crime: two guys sticking up a gas station end up killing a bunch of bystanders when the robbery goes wrong.  The perpetrators are caught but then are let go on a technicality during the trial.  When one of the perpetrators is killed and a video of his execution is sent to Richter’s email, vigilante justice seems to be afoot.  As events spiral out of control, Richter himself is implicated and things get dicey from there.

One of the reasons I consider this thriller to be a success is because, even though I knew the book was first in a series, I was furiously turning pages wondering how Richter was going to get out alive and clear.  Deutermann knows how to make a situation look desperate.

For dog-lovers out there: Cam Richter’s German Shepherds, Frick and Frack, are almost constant companions and truly the only ones that Richter can trust at certain times.  I’ve never even owned a dog and I think they’re made of awesome.

Spider Mountain has Richter going almost solo to investigate some strange and disturbing occurrences in western North Carolina.  It starts with the brutal assault of a young park ranger, and gets much creepier from there.

There are many suspenseful scenes in both novels that take place in the wilderness and this reminds me of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series, which I love.  There’s this extra edge of suspense when the main characters are out of civilization’s reach – nature can both be a help and a hindrance to the protagonist.

These are gritty novels where the danger seems almost omnipresent.  I liked them a lot.

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The Best American Travel Writing 2009

The Best American Travel Writing 2009

Editor: Simon Winchester

Published 2009.  340pages.

I don’t read magazines often, so I’m grateful for anthologies such as The Best American Travel Writing, which endeavor to deliver to us the cream of the crop in one package.  In this collection, essays are gathered from such publications as National Geographic, Slate.com, and Harper’s Review.

Jason Wilson, the Best American series editor, opens with a foreward where  he defends travel writing as a literary form.  He includes a humorous anecdote about an argument with a (now-ex) girlfriend who compared travel writing to video games.  The book’s editor, Simon Winchester, is British and provides an interesting hypothesis on why it is that British travel more, but Americans have all the best travel writing.

I won’t describe all of the book’s 25 essays here, but I will highlight the best of the lot.  Strangely, it seemed to me that the best essays were located in the first half of the collection.

Not so surprisingly, the very best essay, Patrick Symmes’ “The Generals in Their Labyrinth” is the first one.  Even Winchester remarks in the introduction that Symmes’ essay “is destined to be ranked among all-time great magazine essays.”

In “The Generals in Their Labyrinth,”  Symmes visits the country of Myanmar (Burma) in April 2008.  From the beginning of the essay, I was hooked and I’ll show you why:

There never was a man on the ferry to Pakokku, and he didn’t say what he said.  I didn’t meet Western diplomats from three nations.  Not for coffee.  Not for drinks.  Not in the official residence, with rain and palm fronds pelting down, just hours before the storm hit.

I didn’t talk with the country’s most distinguished astrologer or its worst comedians.  Nobody from any NGO’s helped me, either.  If I had tea with a prominent intellectual or lunch with a noted businessman, nothing happened.  I was just in Burma – sorry, I mean Myanmar – to play golf and look at the ruins.

The boy monks never cried and begged me to conceal their names.  At the monastery in Pakokku, they never told me anything at all.

I wasn’t there when the storm hit.  There was no cyclone.  I didn’t see anything.

Whew.  How could I resist such an opening?  The rest of the essay details Symmes’ observations of the repressive Burmese regime, and includes his visit to their newly built capital city, Naypyidaw.

One of my other favorite essays was Jay Kirk’s “Hotels Rwanda.”  An excellent blend of humor and compassion flavors his writing.  I also loved that he had, and wrote about, his travel companions – people who had previously been strangers.  Here is a small excerpt from the essay about the group’s first sighting of giraffes, a part that made me laugh out loud:

With their black-and-yellow fur, their stubby horns like eye stalks, and the way they move, lurching almost aquatically, they look like gigantic, yet infinitely graceful banana slugs … They are so strange-looking.  Despite their apparent benevolence, it is not a stretch to imagine laser rays shooting from their eyes, scorching everything in sight.

Other notable essays include:

“Intimacy” by Andre Aciman (Rome)

“Who is America?” by Chuck Klosterman (Germany)

“A Dip in the Cold” by Lynne Cox (various Arctic locations)

“Mississippi Drift” by Matthew Power (the Mississippi)

“The Deeds” by Tom Sleigh (Lebanon)

“You Do Not Represent the Government of the United States of America” by Daniel Alarcon (Syria)

EDIT: I searched online and “The Generals in their Labyrinth” is on Outside’s website (Outside magazine was the first place it was published): http://outside.away.com/outside/destinations/200808/burma-cyclone-nargis-1.html

The others may be findable as well online, depending on their magazine’s policy on publishing online content.

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