Monthly Archives: February 2010

Snowmageddon

Here are a couple of pictures I took on Saturday afternoon during Snowmageddon:

The apartment balcony

My car.  I had the pleasure of excavating it yesterday.

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Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson

2008. 277 pages (hardcover).

From: the public library

For the challenge: Thriller and Suspense 2010

In a nutshell:

This ‘medieval noir’ takes place in London 1384.  Crispin Guest, disgraced and disenfranchised knight, makes his trade as a ‘tracker,’ chasing down lost items, and other investigative work.  A wealthy merchant hires Guest to find out if his wife is being unfaithful.  When Guest returns to the merchant with his findings, he finds the man murdered.  The resulting investigation is complicated by false identities, holy relics, and lots of villains all too willing to commit violence against Guest and others.

Review:

After abandoning another historical mystery, Francine Mathews’ The Alibi Club, I restlessly chose Veil of Lies from my library stash as a replacement read.  It took me a little while to get into it, but in the end, it was worth the time.

I wasn’t enamored by Crispin Guest himself.  He’s kind of broody.  Also, maybe I’m tired of heroes in historical novels who are uncommonly humane for their time.  The other characters mentioned numerous times how unusual he is in that respect.  However, Guest isn’t entirely anachronistic, for which I was grateful.  Class matters much to him, though he is no longer in a position where it should.  He threw in his lot with a misguided cause and that led to his past downfall.  It is a fine line for the author to walk: to make the protagonist likable without being unrealistic to the time period.

My favorite character was Jack, Crispin’s young scrappy servant, who is paid with food and shelter.  I hope to see more of him in the next book.

The story is a potpourri of locked-room murder mystery, political intrigue, and romance, with some light supernatural shading.  I’m not sure it all worked together smoothly, but it definitely made for some surprising twists.

I’m not a connoisseur of noir mysteries, but my immediate standard for comparison was Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, which are set in Nazi Germany.  (Excellent, but very dark, series.)  Kerr had the rat-a-tat, aloof noir-speak down pat, complete with the wry figurative language.  Westerson’s book doesn’t quite have that same sensibility, which is too bad.  The noir label doesn’t quite fit in my mind as a result.

Still, the medieval setting and characters are of enough interest that I will probably check out the next book in the series.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Mysteries & Thrillers

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

2009. 304 pages. (Hardcover)

From: The public library

For the challenge: Memorable Memoir Challenge

Recommendation found at: Sophisticated Dorkiness

In a nutshell:

In 1986, recent Brown university graduates Susie Gilman and Claire Van Houten decide to travel around the world, starting with China.  China only recently had become open to independent backpackers.  They start their journey with naive over-confidence but as their weeks in China progress, cultural disorientation, illness and Claire’s erratic behavior plunge the two women into nightmarish scenarios.

Review:

With time made available by the snowstorm in my area, I started and finished this book in one day.  Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a gobsmacker of a travel tale, managing to be funny, awe-inspiring and scary all at once.

From the standpoint of nearly twenty years later, Gilman writes with unflinching honesty about the trip.  She does not cover up her younger self’s failures and naivete.  This is not to say that young Susie Gilman is unlikeable in the novel: I enjoyed seeing her discover wells of resourcefulness she didn’t know she had.  Still, I appreciated that Gilman didn’t airbrush out some of the stupid things she said and did during that time.  This perspective can come only with time.

Gilman’s writing is superb, conveying both the sights and sounds and smells of China as well as the inner confused swirl of her emotions and thoughts.  Here’s an excerpt:

Elbowing through the gawking spitters, smokers and farmhands, I ran down the dank hallway after Claire, shouting, “Someone, please. Ni shou ying wen ma?”  My voice broke then; tears dripped down my cheeks.  I couldn’t find Claire; she’d been taken from me.  This was far too much, way out of my league.  “STOP” I yelled hoarsely down the empty corridor to no one, my voice dissolving into the damp vegetable air.  “STOP!”

Despite incidents like that described above, Gilman also writes beautifully of the country’s grandeur, and particularly how she is humbled by the Chinese people’s generosity and kindness.  The helpfulness of strangers – from both Chinese people and from fellow backpackers – is astounding.

Though I never had travel experiences as extreme as Gilman’s, I could identify with some of her struggles.  I once had a travel companion who started feeling inexplicable pain in her knee.  We decided to visit a hospital, where our basic French barely sufficed.  That friend and I also had some interpersonal conflict that reared its ugly head during the trip.  It is a strange thing to feel furious anger while standing at the top of a chateau in the Loire Valley.  (Surprisingly, we actually became better friends after all that.)  The problems between Claire and Susie were much more serious, but at a certain level I understood the conflicting emotions Susie felt toward Claire.

If you are put off by the weird cover (the more common red cover – not the one I have used here) or by the title, don’t be.  The red cover is all wrong for the book.  Also, the title does not refer to some desecrating act at a Chinese landmark as I feared, but rather is a reference to a feverish dream recounted by Gilman.  There is some mild sexual content and strong language, but it’s not as provocative as the book’s packaging suggests.

I hope that my review has stirred up your interest, because this book is an incredible read.  Many thanks to Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness whose review made me want to run right out and read it.

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The Grail Bird by Tim Gallagher

The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

by Tim Gallagher

2005. 250 pages. (Hardcover)

From: the public library

For the challenges: The Colorful Reading Challenge, 2010 Biodiversity Challenge

In a nutshell:

In my National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, purchased in 2000, the entry on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker says the following:

Thought now to be extinct in North America . . . Unconfirmed sightings in recent decades in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas undoubtedly have been smaller Pileated Woodpecker.

In 2004, after chasing down credible sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Tim Winchester and his friend Bobby Harrison sight the bird in the swamplands of Arkansas.  The Grail Bird tells the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the quest of Winchester and others to find it, and then what happens after the confirmed sighting in 2004.

Review:

The first chapter of The Grail Bird sets out the story of loss: the path that led the ivory-billed woodpecker to its declared extinction.  One of the saddest parts for me to read was how early ornithologists used their knowledge of birds to kill them for their taxidermy collections.  The rarer the bird, the more sought-after it became.  When a bird neared extinction, one taxidermist urged, “Now is the time to collect.”

After recounting the history of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Gallagher then launches into a description of his project.  A wildlife photographer who works for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Gallagher has traveled widely to study birds around the world.  He decided, along with his friend Bobby Harrison, to follow up on all the credible-sounding sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker and see what they could see.

What I love about the book is that Gallagher’s passion for birds, and particularly the ivory-billed woodpecker, is contagious.  There is an awe associated with it, not just because it was thought to be extinct, but because of its own qualities.  It was a large woodpecker – the size of a crow – and had distinctive white markings.  It flew fast and straight.  The ivory-billed woodpecker was sometimes nicknamed the Lord God Bird because people would say when seeing it “Lord God, what a bird!”

But the book is about so much more than just the ivory-billed woodpecker.  It is also about the people who are bound together by seeing it.  Gallagher writes as warmly about people as he does about the birds and he introduces readers to some passionate, intrepid characters.

Gallagher laments the destruction of the primeval southern forests, which he calls “one of the greatest environmental tragedies in the history of the United States.”  Indeed, reading interviewed people’s accounts of the great forests, and of the disappeared bayou cultures, I felt almost personally stricken by the loss.

The author also speaks reprovingly about how the scientific community reflexively mocked sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, even sightings that were backed by respected ornithologists.  These sightings were treated like those of Bigfoot or Elvis and careers were ruined by the skepticism.

Roughly the last half of the book describes the story of Gallagher’s particular sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker and the team of birders and scientists that seek to further confirm its existence afterward.  It’s a suspenseful account complete with disorienting swampland and cottonmouth snakes – all rewarded by a glimpse here, a fuzzy video there, of the grail bird.

As I’ve probably made clear, I loved this book.  It’s an incredible story well-told and the story is not over yet.  I will conclude with this video I found on youtube that uses Sufjan Steven’s song, “The Lord God Bird” as the background track.

(You can download the song for free via NPR’s website, who commissioned the song from the artist about the bird and the town that got put on the map due to its discovery.)

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Teaser Tuesday: Grail Bird

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

Here’s mine:

To look at them, you would never know why this species was named the ivory-billed woodpecker.  One mounted specimen in a museum case at LSU has had its bill painted with pearly white nail polish to make it more closely resemble a live ivory-bill, but it just looks weird.

p. 126 of The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker by Tim Gallagher

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Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

Trans. Michael Emmerich in 2002

1989. 186 pages (Hardcover)

From: The public library

Recommendation found at:

Fluttering Butterflies

In a nutshell:

Maria and Tsugumi are cousins who have lived near each other for most of their childhood.  Tsugumi’s parents own an inn in a coastal village.  Maria’s mother helps out at the inn.  Maria is a normal, good-natured girl.  Tsugumi is a rude hellion who is afflicted by physical frailty.

When Maria’s father finally gets a long-awaited divorce from his first wife, he brings Maria and her mother to Tokyo, where Maria will start college.  When Maria learns that Tsugumi’s family plan to close the inn to move to the mountains, she returns to the coastal village for one last summer there.

Review:

Though this book recommendation came from Fluttering Butterflies blog, I should also credit Eva from A Striped Armchair for the assist.  I first heard of Banana Yoshimoto from Eva.

Goodbye Tsugumi excellently captures the mood of summer, particularly summer nights.  I think it’s a good book to read when it’s not summer, actually, because the book is written as a recollection.  In these wintry months, I identify with the book’s ode to summer.  I also identify with how Maria misses the ocean once she’s moved the city – how Maria and her mother stop in their tracks when a breeze carries the scent of the sea to Tokyo.  And it is also a book that captures the feelings one may feel when a chapter of life is ending.

The book has a wonderful poetry to it, such as this with this passage:

Everyday life had never really made much of an impression on me before.  I used to live here in this little fishing village.  I would sleep and wake up, have meals.  Sometimes I felt really great; other times I felt a little out of it.  I watched TV, fell in love, went to classes at school, and at the end of every day I always came back here, to this same house.  But when I let my thoughts wander back through the ordinariness of those cycles now, I find that somewhere along the way it has all acquired a touch of warmth – that I’ve been left with something silky and dry and warm, like clean sand.

But I don’t want it to seem like the book is only mood and good writing.  Though not a lot happens in the book, stuff does happen.  Mostly, Tsugumi happens.  The first line of the book is “It’s true: Tsugumi really was an unpleasant young woman.”  She throws fits, laughs at others’ sentiment, and constantly calls everyone names.  And yet, through Maria’s eyes, and also maybe through Tsugumi’s sheer force as a character, I came to like her, just as Maria did.

During this last summer, Tsugumi falls in love with Kyoichi, whose parents are building a new fancy hotel in the village.  This causes him trouble with others in town who see what this new hotel will do to the other inns’ business.

Dogs are also a main part of this book.  Maria sort of ‘bonds’ with Tsugumi while they walk a neighbor’s Akita named Pooch.  They meet Kyoichi when Pooch riles up Kyoichi’s little Pomeranian, Gongoro.

The book is kind of like Gongoro, the Pomeranian – it may not be a big book, but it has a lot of spirit and heart for its size. I will definitely be looking out for more books by this author.

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