Monthly Archives: October 2011

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

1995. Harper. Paperback. 519 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

This is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (real name: Elphaba) from her infancy to her fateful meeting with Dorothy.


It took me a little time to get into the book Wicked. After the prologue, the book starts with Elphaba’s parents and follows their perspective as they regard their literally green, ferocious infant. Her parents are short-sighted and not very likable. In addition, the world that Maguire created in his book Wicked is very dark. Murder, exploitation, and overall callousness rule the day.

The world remains dark throughout Wicked, but my enjoyment of the book increased while reading Elphaba’s story when she is a college student at Shiz University. It is there that she meets Galinda (known later as Glinda) as well as some other pivotal characters. The section that takes place at the university was definitely my favorite part of the book. I was the most invested in the book at that point, as the characters navigate customs, and strike up unusual friendships, and debate the issues of their world. Also, several students engage in stealth research.

The university section of the book is also where Wicked shines most strongly in its depictions of its female characters. It made me think of what is popularly known as the Alison Bechdel test (which was actually created by Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace) which is primarily applied to tv shows and films, looking for those where 1. there are at least two female characters 2. who talk to each other 3. about something besides a man. So I thought of this test as I read the female characters in Wicked talking about theology and other matters to each other.

After a fateful journey to Oz to see the Wizard, Elphaba’s path diverges from the university and her family and her friends, and sees her to far-off corners of the land. It gets pretty bleak and there’s a part about a boy in a well that was like the epitome of the bleakness for me, although there were other moments in contention. It made me nostalgic for the university section, which was by no means rosy.

I didn’t quite buy into the intensity of Elphaba’s desire for her sister’s ruby slippers which unfortunately is the driving force of Elphaba’s story in the last act.

Still, I plan on reading more in the series to discover what else is in store for the remaining characters, as a lot was left unresolved in the broader story of Wicked. Also, Gregory Maguire’s world-buildingwas excellent and I’d like to see where he’s going with it. I’ve never seen the Broadway show, though I occasionally asked my roommate who has seen it, if such-and-such was in the musical or not. I’ve heard the ending is really different.

Excerpts from other reviews:

amused, bemused and confused –  “I found the politics clumsy, the dialogue long winded, the characters uninteresting.  It tries to be deep and meaningful satire and social commentary, but fails.”

Stella Matutina – “We can’t take anything for granted. We can’t assume that we’re in the Oz we all know. By casting this familiar story in a new way, he forces us to read actively. We’re decoding as much as reading.”

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On – Wicked does something genius. Gregory Maguire takes a character that’s come to represent pure evil in our culture and makes us question that.


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

  2009. McSweeney’s. Hardcover. 342 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

In this non-fiction book that reads like a novel, Eggers tells the story of the Zeitoun family’s ordeal in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun run a painting contracting business in New Orleans. Abdulrahman (known as Zeitoun), was originally from Syria, had married Kathy, an American convert to Islam, and settled down in New Orleans in 1994. When Hurricane Katrina is forecast to hit the city, Kathy takes their kids away to stay with her family elsewhere in the state. But Zeitoun stays behind to look after their home and rental properties.


Zeitoun started off gradually, introducing the reader to the family at its center. Eggers continued to intersperse backstory throughout the progression of the hurricane narrative. I enjoyed reading the stories of Zeitoun’s life. His family lived by the sea in Syria; his brother Mohamed was a champion long-distance ocean swimmer, a hero for Syria, but who died young in a car accident. Zeitoun took jobs on ships that took him all over the world until he finally fetched up in New Orleans. There he was introduced to and married Kathy, an American who had converted to Islam to the bewilderment of her family. She had one son from a previous marriage, and she and Zeitoun had four more. They knew people all over their city through their respected and successful business.

It was fascinating to read a sustained first-person account of staying through the hurricane and the flooding of the city. Mostly I had read only snippets and quotes from New Orleans citizens that were included in articles about the storm. At first everything was surreal but hopeful: Zeitoun assisted stranded neighbors and fed trapped pets, paddling his canoe among the watery streets.  But while he was using the phone at one of his rental properties, a boat full of armed men showed up and from then on the story became very harrowing. (I’ll give more detail on what happens later in the review, so if you like your nonfiction to be as unspoiled as your fiction, you might want to check out at this point.)

When I watched the news footage of Hurricane Katrina as it happened back in 2005, it was the angriest I had ever been in my life about something not personally happening to me. I usually cannot sustain a high level of anger for long, but I was furious for days over this.

Zeitoun brought me right back to that level, especially because I hadn’t really known about stories like Zeitoun’s. He and three other men were picked up at his rental property by armed police and National Guardsmen as suspected looters and taken to a makeshift outside prison at the Greyhound station. Zeitoun was almost immediately treated like he was a terrorist. He was repeatedly denied a phone call and medical attention, and was humiliated, taunted, and mistreated. The other men were also subjected to this treatment (along with hundreds more who were held in Camp Greyhound). Zeitoun was held for almost a month, and for most of that time his wife Kathy had no idea what had happened to him and feared that he was dead.

I couldn’t bear to put Zeitoun down as I raced toward the end, staying up later than I should have to finish it. I think I didn’t quite register the epilogue part of the book, because I was still reeling from the injustice of Zeitoun’s ordeal. My roommate vicariously experienced the book as I vented to her that night about the story and about Hurricane Katrina in general. I woke up the next morning still thinking about it.

I mentioned in my recap of the National Book Festival a quote from Gregory Maguire where he said we have a “moral need to take our time to decide who is good and who is bad.” That is exactly what did not happen for Zeitoun and for others held at Camp Greyhound. On the basis of one officer’s mistaken identification of him as a looter, Zeitoun was branded as “bad” and handed off to other authorities, who carried that assumption further, and handed him off to different authorities who were so far divorced from the original circumstances of his arrest that they just fell into the simplistic equation of incarcerated = bad, Muslim = terrorist and wouldn’t hear of anything otherwise.

I admire Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun for letting their story be told by Dave Eggers. They opened up their lives to us, the readers, and that is a brave thing to do.

Writing this review, I’m reminded of another couple’s story from the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Scott and Kimberly Rivers Roberts. Their story was told in the documentary Trouble the Water and if you watch it, I recommend watching their Q&A with film audiences in the special features.

I’m so glad I read Zeitoun, but I had to make a pledge after reading this book not to read another nonfiction book about upsetting subjects for the rest of the year. I have read several emotional heavy-hitters this year: And the Band Played On (AIDS), Safe Area Goradze (”ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia), We Wish to Inform You… (Rwandan genocide). After reading Zeitoun, I realized that I do have an emotional limit when it comes to my reading material, and that I need to take a break for a while.

Excerpts from other reviews:

Life with Books – “Although Eggers tells this non-fiction story in narrative form, he is careful to relate things as simply and straightforwardly as possible. I’m sure it is a structure that has been criticized as blurring the line between fact and fiction, but I think Eggers manages to pull off a rather tricky balancing act.”

Literate Housewife – “While reading the book I felt like the Zeitoun family were close friends, I was at all times fully engrossed in their story.”

Ready When You Are, C.B. – “I’ve no reason to suspect their account, in fact I believe they are telling the truth from start to finish, but it would have benefited the reader if Mr. Eggers had built collaborating evidence into the book, instead of adding it on at the end in a few pages.”


Filed under Non-Fiction

Baltimore Blues by Laura Lippman

1997. Avon Books. Paperback. 290 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation found at: Beth Fish Reads

In a nutshell:

This is the first novel in Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series. Tess Monaghan used to be a reporter, before the Baltimore paper she worked for went under. Unemployed, she works part-time at her aunt’s bookstore and keeps up a rowing routine in the morning. When a rowing buddy offers to pay her to follow his fiancee, who has been acting weird, Tess accepts. But when the fiancee’s boss, a lawyer with the reputation of defending the worst criminals, turns up dead, Tess finds herself out of her depth.


I’ve had Laura Lippman’s Baltimore-set mysteries on my radar for some time, but knowing she would be at the National Book Festival, I pushed the first book of her Tess Monaghan series to the top of my reading list.

Although Baltimore is not far away from me, I have not visited it often, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Lippman’s depiction. But the setting is a huge part of this mystery, and I do have a penchant for mysteries that thoroughly burrow into their surroundings.

When I first started reading the book, I was wary of some of the details included. For instance, I didn’t like that Tess’ aunt had a quirky bookstore, because I doubted its ability to stay solvent, and also why can’t characters and their relatives have more run-of-the-mill establishments? Why must they always be quirky and successful? I digress.

I also didn’t like that the rowing buddy’s fiancee was a flawlessly beautiful, put-together bitchy woman in a high-status job, a character made even more stereotyped by being contrasted with our more grubby, down-on-her-luck protagonist.

But the book did start winning me over with the story nonetheless. Lippman definitely was good with misdirections and red herrings, and mysteries that may be linked to other mysteries.

I also liked that Tess showed how new she was to the game of investigating. She makes messes, says the wrong things, gets chastised by others for the previous. She has to try and figure out the right thing to do in gray situations.

There have been a number of mystery/thriller series that I have started but never proceeded further. I think that I will be more active in seeking out the second of this series, because – based partly on Lippman’s talk at the Book Festival – I think Tess will continue to evolve as an interesting character, and I think Lippman will serve up some nice, twisty mysteries for Tess to investigate.

Excerpts from other reviews:

Beth Fish Reads – “In the end, the pieces combine to build a logical solution; Lippman did not have to rely on magic tricks to tie up the crime.”

RhapsodyinBooks – “Tess herself is a little too much of a naïve risk-taker, and suffers from low self-esteem, but the first quality seems to be a sine qua non for female detectives, and the second humanizes Tess and draws us to her side.”

S. Krishna’s Books – “I loved the process of self-discovery in this novel as well as how Tess comes to terms with her life and the person she wants to be.”


Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers

Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild

Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves

2005. Houghton Mifflin. Hardcover. 467 pages.

(366 pages if you don’t count the appendix, bibliography and the index.)

What this book is about, in Hochschild’s own words in the introduction:

 “Never doubt,” said Margaret Mead, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This book is about one such group. Their story is not a simple one, but a ragged and untidy epic that did not unfold in the orderly way they hoped for. It would sprawl across decades and continents . . . It would become interwoven with great historical currents which . . . no one foresaw: above all the dreams of equality unleashed by the French Revolution, and a series of ever-larger slave revolts that shook the British Empire and made clear that if the slaves were not emancipated they might well free themselves. The stage on which British slavery lived and at last died was a vast one.

p. 7-8


Bury the Chains is an ambitious history of the British anti-slave trade and anti-slavery movement (I separate because it was first the one and then the other.) Hochschild does an excellent job of making sure that readers see the big picture while including the kinds of detailed primary-source tidbits that make history come alive.

If this history could be said to have a central figure, it is that of Thomas Clarkson. While a University student, Clarkson won an award for his Latin essay in response to the question: is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will? The horrors he uncovered while researching the question changed him irreversibly. As Clarkson wrote later, “a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end” (qtd. on p. 89). And so throughout his life, Clarkson agitated against the slave trade and against slavery, riding throughout the country to gather testimonies of the horror, and to gather support.

I was a little familiar with Thomas Clarkson as he was played by Rufus Sewell in the film Amazing Grace, but Hochshild’s book has placed him into ‘hero’ category for me now. He spends his whole life fighting for the cause. There’s a detail about Clarkson’s funeral that was extremely touching and there might have been some tears from me at that point.

While a clear admirer of Thomas Clarkson, Hochschild is definitely a warts-and-all writer of history. Clarkson is pretty much made of awesome, but even he has his blind spots. Even the venerable William Wilberforce suffers a little under close scrutiny. For example, Wilberforce was disgruntled with the women’s antislavery societies because he thought their behavior was stepping outside the bounds of the biblical role for women. Paternalism was another frequent folly of the white abolitionists.

I loved that Hochschild does not assume a person’s importance to the cause can be determined by how much was written about them at the time. When Hochschild mentions a female leader of a Barbados revolt, Nanny Grigg, he points out that “as both slave and woman, Nanny Grigg is doubly written out of history, and we know nothing else about her except that she was carried on the inventory of the Simmons plantation at the exceptionally high value of 130 pounds” (p. 319). Similarly, one prominent leader in the “end slavery now” movement was a Quaker convert, Elizabeth Heyrick, an active anti-slavery writer and campaigner. Little is known about her personal life, but Hochschild makes sure to give her credit for keeping the cause alive.

While England may have been one central node of the movement, the Caribbean was the other. Hochschild describes the brutality of sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean with anecdotes and startling statistics:

One final set of grim numbers underlines the way slaves on sugar plantations like Codrington were systematically worked to an early death. When slavery ended in the United States, some 400,000 slaves imported over the centuries had grown to a population of nearly four million. When it ended in the British West Indies, total slave imports of two million left a surviving slave population of only about 670,000. The tiny French island of Martinique took in more slave imports over the years than all thirteen North American colonies, later states, put together. The Caribbean was a slaughterhouse.

p. 67

With slaves constantly being imported from Africa, plantation owners felt little compulsion to treat their slaves well:

An Antigua planter who bought some slaves from John Newton told him that his policy was “with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless, and unable to do service; and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places.”

p. 67

Little wonder that when rumors of freedom reached the ears of Caribbean slaves, revolts soon broke out over the Caribbean in both British and French colonies. I’ll admit that I knew of the slave revolts before reading Bury the Chains, but little about them. Hochschild covers Touissant L’Ouverture’s leadership of the Haitian Revolution, and how the high cost of suppressing slave revolts – British soldiers dying of both disease and battle – was a major factor for emancipation. (It’s galling however, that part of the emancipation bill included hefty compensation to the plantation owners for the loss of their “property”.)

I could go on and on about this book, sharing anecdotes and facts, but I really hope my review will encourage others to read it for themselves. It will definitely be one of my favorite books of the year.

It also is quite resonant with today’s times, when “preserving the economy” seems to be given too freely as the ‘ultimate’ justification. That definitely gives food for thought.

Excerpts from other reviews:

The Book Embargo Blog – “Knowing a fair deal about the period and, by the time I returned to the book, about British slave literature, I sometimes felt that the way Hoschschild [sic] presented especially literary sources was imprecise. I found myself going “Yes, that’s true, but on you should also say…” – but I guess this is how all popular history works, and true by necessity of any work this wide in scope.”

Just One More Page – “Reading the non-fiction portrayal of the events that occurred, I found it to be really exciting and involving in the whole process: the secret meetings of the Quakers (and others) who supported the neophyte cause, the writing of the anti-slavery pamphlets, the development of political supporters, and even the Sugar protest whereby more then 300,000 Britons refused to eat (or buy) sugar as it was a slave-supportive product.”

Karin’s World of Travelling – “In his introduction he writes that he doesn’t really bring any new information about this subject and that might not be so, but he most certainly brings the information and research that is done out there – to the people reading his book. Not only bringing us this information – he also shows us how we get deceived by history (and how WE want to understand the past).”


Filed under Uncategorized

11th Annual National Book Festival, Washington D.C.: Day Two

I’m back! Since weekends are my main opportunity for writing new posts, and I was in Chicago visiting my sisters this last weekend, it’s been a little while since I posted part one of my Book Festival write-up. And in the meantime, I’ve got six books I’ve read that I’ve yet to review! But to finish what I started, here’s day two of the National Book Festival:

My main draw on the second day was Joel Achenbach, Washington Post staff writer and author of A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, which I reviewed last month on my blog. That book is about the BP Oil Spill of 2010.

At his Festival talk, Achenbach described reading through a handbook of petroleum engineering bit by bit, just to familiarize himself with the terms. Deepwater drilling is a new frontier for our technological society, and what BP was doing before the Deepwater Horizon disaster – temporarily abandoning a deepwater drill – had been done only a few times before.

When reading A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, I had surmised that Achenbach had written the book quickly, given the recency of the events and the April 2011 publication date. At the Festival, Achenbach confirmed that he wrote it in a “mad frenzy” so that it would come out by the anniversary of the Macondo well blowout.

In his talk, Achenbach reiterated the themes from his book, such as the vulnerabilities of our technological society. I liked how pragmatic he was about the oil industry. He said, one thing to keep in mind is that we the public have no idea how big the oil industry really is – it’s bigger than you think. In addition, we should realize that the oil industry is not something the U.S. controls. Achenbach also pointed out that the industry is so big and global, that they are not that perturbed by regulations we pass, as they have the whole world to drill in. As to the question, should we deepwater drill, the answer is “we’re going to.” We’re all complicit in the oil drilling industry if we drive.

As a lover of non-fiction books, I liked when Achenbach said “I think people should be more familiar with the society we live in. Read books. Learn the language.” This is good encouragement for me to read more science and technology books.

I wandered around after Achenbach’s talk, and fetched up at the poetry tent, where poet Terrance Hayes was reading his poems. I especially liked his poem “The Rose Has Teeth” which is kind of a conversation between Hayes and his piano. Hayes was delighted to answer questions from the audience and he had an intriguing take on the old adage of ‘finding your voice.’ He said that in his writing he likes to surprise himself. He said, “See if you can get away from your voice.” In response to another question, he continued in this vein (and this is put together from my hastily written notes): “I think everybody has this limited vault of images, which constitute your vision, your worldview . . . The idea is trying to get around it, looking at ways to resist what you’re given. You can’t outrun your voice, but you can try to. It’s fun to fight against it.”

Describing his process of writing, Hayes said that when he writes a poem, he is writing for the only other person in the room, which is his shadow. It’s in the revision process (a process he likes), that he thinks about the audience, and asks himself would they be able to follow it (while still valuing mystery in the poem.)

I saw Neal Stephenson next. I had looked him up before the Festival, when I was checking out the roster of featured authors. Stephenson writes massive cyberpunk/sci-fi/speculative fiction tomes. I was intrigued by this, although I had never heard of him before. Stephenson read an excerpt from his recent novel, Reamde, which is a 1056-page thriller involving a multi-player online game. At times, the technological detail in the excerpt he read was not compelling to me, but at other times, it was quite funny and spot-on about human relationships with technology. I’m not sure if his books are for me, and their size is definitely daunting.

The last author I saw at the Festival was Siddhartha Mukherjee, who wrote The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which I have not yet read. An assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University as well as a staff cancer physician, Mukherjee spoke with confidence about his topic. He described tracking down the stories of early cancer patients. And he said that “illness becomes a mechanism by which we see the whole world.”

Asked by an audience member about the link between a person’s psyche and their experience with cancer, Mukherjee said, “I get in trouble for saying this but I think it is true: I think there is with cancer the old idea of blaming the victim . . . The psyche is related to healing but I know people with positive attitudes who die and people with negative attitudes who live.”

I was happy when an audience member asked Mukherjee about the authors or books that he admired. He mentioned Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Michael Pollan and Susan Sontag’s Illness is a Metaphor. I own Carson’s book but haven’t read it and I own and have read one of Pollan’s books, but I may have to look into the other two.

So that was my Festival experience!


Filed under Uncategorized