Saturday, April 21, 2007

I'm a Stranger Here Myself

I’M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF: Bill Bryson: Broadway Books: Nonfiction

After living in England for 20 years, Bill Bryson returned home to America with his family. I’m a Stranger Here Myself is a collection of pieces about modern American life that he wrote for a British newspaper after returning to the States. While I always find Bill Bryson amusing, the articles in this book were written in the late 1990s, so they felt a little dated. Pieces on the difficulty of programming a VCR or the looming Y2K problem are hard to really find interesting when VCRs are becoming obsolete and Y2K has come and gone without incident. Chapters on more universal issues were a good read, though.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Among Wild Horses

AMONG WILD HORSES: A PORTRAIT OF THE PRYOR MOUNTAIN MUSTANGS: Rhonda Massingham: Storey Publishing: 2006: Nonfiction: 134 pages

"They are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West," so says Congress when discussing one of this nation's symbols of freedom, the wild mustangs. Lynne Pomeranz spent two years photographing the incredibly beautiful wild mustangs of the Pryor Mountains located between Wyoming and Montana. This 134 page extremely easy read is absolutely worth a look, EVEN by those who are non-horse lovers. Pomeranz's ability to capture these mustangs and extraordinary diversity of the land they call home, is remarkable. If you only look at the photos you will close the book thinking, 'those are some great pictures'. If you look at the photos AND read the book, you will feel as if you had the opportunity to get to know up close and personal, some of America's proudest symbols of freedom. In any case, no one will be able to get through the entire book without at least one smile or ahhhh.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Piano: the Making of a Steinway Concert Grand

PIANO: THE MAKING OF A STEINWAY CONCERT GRAND: James Barron: Times Books (2006): nonfiction: 265 pages

This book is the biography of one piano – K0862, the 565,700th Steinway manufactured piano – made in New York City at the Steinway and Sons factory during 11 months of 2003 and 2004. Following the creation of this beautiful instrument gives the author a chance to review the painstaking handwork required to make a piano as well as the history of the Steinway Company.

This is a very interesting book if you love pianos and piano music. The manufacture of a piano is a complex process requiring painstaking precision. It’s fascinating to follow the life of a piano from raw wood to the concert hall. This handcrafted, $100,000 instrument now spends each concert season in the concert hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If you’ve never looked inside a piano and have no idea how they work (it takes 4,752 moving parts for all the notes on a Steinway concert grand piano) it’s possible you will find the book too detailed. But the history of the piano and of the Steinway Company is a fascinating story, too, that is skillfully woven through the chapters of the book.


The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for a Perfect Garden


It’s the time of year when we imagine the wonderful garden we could have if we just…. well, had enough time, money, energy, and know how. William Alexander had sufficient of all of those to plant and maintain an immense vegetable garden and a number of fruit trees on his property in the Hudson Valley in New York. Alexander is an avid, perhaps obsessed, gardener who stakes himself against deer, purslane, moles, and his own larger than life gardening propensities. This humorous book is full of interesting trivia about gardening. The book is quick and fun to read but also gives a realistic view of the effort required in a day to day struggle to impose our own will on nature. I highly recommend this book but if you're seriously dreaming about this year's garden you might want to save the book until the end of the growing season!


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Bastard of Istanbul

THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL; Elif Shafak; Viking; 2007; Fiction; 368pp.
Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul is as rich a piece of fiction as I have encountered in recent memory. Asya Kazanci, who has narrowly avoided being aborted in order to live to a cynical young adulthood, lives in Istanbul in a household of "aunties," one of whom is her mother, Zeliha. Having no notion who her father is, she abandons herself to creating a personal code of nihilism, since her life can have no meaning without knowing where she came from. Zeliha's only brother Mustafa has moved to America to avoid the Kazanci curse--no man lives past the age of forty-one. When Mustafa's Armenian stepdaughter goes to Istanbul to confront the Turkish oppressors of her forebears, the two families are reunited in unexpected ways.
Shafak's narrative is redolent of Turkish and Armenian culture, including mouthwatering recipes. Her characters are delightfully rendered: Petite-Ma, the birdlike grandmother whose Alzheimer's occasionally gives way to a startling musicality; the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist whose irreverent drawings of government officials land him in jail; and Auntie Banu, a late-life clairvoyant who is aided in her decision-making by bitter and sweet djinni on either shoulder.
Such a blackly humorous and altogether lovely book!


Tuesday, April 17, 2007


PEEPS: Scott Westerfeld: Penguin Group: Young Adult: 312 pages

Nineteen-year-old Cal, a Texas transplant, lost his virginity–and a lot more–when he first arrived in New York City. He became a parasite-positive, or peep–he prefers not to use the v-word. Now he works for the Night Watch, a secret branch of city government dedicated to tracking others of his kind. Unlike the rare natural carriers like Cal, who has acquired night vision, superhuman strength, and a craving for lots of protein, most peeps are insane cannibals lurking in darkness. But now the teen has found the young woman who infected him–and learns that something worse than peeps is threatening the city, and he is on the front lines.

One of my friends recommended that I read this book. I had read other books by this author and had just finished Twilight, so I was ready for another vampire book. I liked how Scott Westerfeld addressed vampires in this book and that it was a little more scientific. I would recommend this book to boys because it is a fast read and it is a little bit disgusting since it discusses parasites and worms.


Monday, April 16, 2007


SOLD: Patricia McCormick: Hyperion: 2006: Young Adult: 272 pages

Not for the faint of heart, Patricia McCormic's "Sold" takes us into the heart of India's Sex Trade through the eyes of 13 year old Lakshmi. The book is told in first person, journal entry type, free verse poems. Lakshmi's story begins in her small country village of Nepal and ends up in a dirty Indian brothel when her father sells her to pay for his extravagant gambling habits. The story is fairly graphic in a couple parts and there is no denying the heaviness of the topic and tone. However, there are points of light as we see Lakshmi seek out friendships that make her world bearable. It is on the one hand a testament to the resiliency of children and on the other a dire warning of the ubiquitous sex trade in India and its surrounding countries. No question this book was mostly a downer and could easily be too intense for many teens. I found it thought provoking and powerful, but to be recommended with caution.


Friday, April 13, 2007

A Short History of Nearly Everything

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING: Bill Bryson: Broadway: 2004: Nonfiction: 560 pages

As the title suggests this book by noted humorist and travel writer Bill Bryson covers a little bit of everything. From evolution to physics to the beginning of the universe; you name it, he covers it. I was daunted by the prospect of reading this large book. Fortunately I was delighted to find that like with all of his other books, this one was indeed interesting and enjoyable. Not an easy task for a science book! I actually came away wanting to know a bit more about some of the subjects. Bryson did an admirable job of introducing the many scientists that we have heard of as well as the theories, laws, and discoveries that we all learned about in school. I found this to be a very readable book that will leave you feeling a little smarter than when you started.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

The March

THE MARCH: E.L. Doctorow: Random House: Fiction: 363 pgs.

The March is a novelization of General Sherman’s march across the South at the end of the Civil War. Doctorow has mixed fact and fiction skillfully to create a realistic and heartbreaking portrait of this historical event. As Sherman’s troops marched through the crumbling Confederacy they left behind them destroyed hopes and took with them an ever-growing entourage of freed slaves, displaced southerners, journalists, criminals and a host of others.

To me, The March can be easily compared to Shaara’s Killer Angels. It bring the Civil War to life in a way that no text book could.


Friday, April 6, 2007

Babylon's Ark

BABYLON'S ARK: THE INCREDIBLE WARTIME RESCUE OF THE BAGHDAD ZOO: Lawrence Anthony: St. Martin's: 2007: Nonfiction: 248 pages

Lawrence Anthony's story of his and other's efforts to save the animals of the Baghdad Zoo after coalition forces toppled the Ba'athist regime in 2003 is fascinating and heartbreaking.
No one had much time to think about what might be happening to the zoo animals during the days of "shock and awe" and immediately following, but when word got out that they were in deep distress, Anthony came from his South African game preserve, and with the help of various surviving zoo employees, sympathetic coalition soldiers, the Provisional Government, and some international wildlife rescue organizations, he saved many animals and brought the zoo back to tenuous life. Anthony's stories of the looting of the zoo, when rare and exotic species were stolen to be sold or eaten, and where clean water and food were non-existent (workers had to buy donkeys off the streets of Baghdad to feed to the lions), are extraordinary. The dangers inherent in any activity in Iraq during that time are also tellingly portrayed--what amounted to a commando operation was required to "liberate" Saddam Hussein's purebred Arabian horses from racetrack stables, and one zoo employee was severely beaten and stabbed because he was working for the "enemy." Babylon's Ark is fascinating reading for anyone interested in animals, the war in Iraq, and what might be accomplished by fearful but determined workers in a good cause.


Wednesday, April 4, 2007


Enthusiasm: Polly Schulman: Putnum: 2006: Young Adult: 198 pages

Julie and Ashleigh live next door to each other and have been best friends since they were small. Though as Julie explains, “there is little more likely to exasperate a person of sense than finding herself tied by affection and habit to an Enthusiast.” Julie never knows what craze Ashleigh will fancy next or how long she will remain obsessed. Julie is much more sensible and is really only enthusiastic about one thing, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. That is until Ashleigh picks up Julie’s copy and becomes very enthusiastic herself. Julie is worried that Ashleigh’s enthusiasm might overshadowed her own, and her fears are well-founded when Ashleigh starts to wear full-length skirts to cover her lower limbs and speak in the dialect of the 18th century. Things definitely turn from bad to worse when Ashleigh schemes to crash the local private boys school’s annual cotillion in search of suitable Mr. Darcys for the two of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. There were many references to Jane Austen’s novels as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This book contains many of the things I love about Pride and Prejudice such as the commentary on social customs and the fun storyline of seeing the good-hearted underdog win her true love. I enjoyed seeing what Austen’s stories might have been like if she were writing in our current day.


Monday, April 2, 2007

Crunch Time

CRUNCH TIME: Mariah Fredericks: Atheneum: Young Adult: 317 pages

Four students from very different backgrounds form an SAT study group and become unlikely friends, but their friendship is threatened when they all become suspects in a cheating scandal.

This is a pretty good read told in the alternating voices of the four main characters. I liked the author's earlier book, Head Games, better than this one. Readers who enjoy this book might also like Cheating Lessons by Nan Willard Cappo.



BAD: Jean Ferris: Farrar, Straus, Giroux: Young Adult: 181

After being caught in the middle of an armed robbery, 16-year-old Dallas is living in a juvenile detention center for girls, where she mixes with a variety of teens--some desperately trying to turn their lives around and others simply waiting to return to their former homes and crimes.

This book is based on the author's interviews with girls in a juvenile detention center in California, and the research is evident in the realism of the different characters. A lot of interesting issues about nature versus nurture and free will are examined as Dallas and the other juvie residents consider how they got where they are and if they can change. This is another book that gives a very good snapshot of a moment in several lives without necessarily coming up with any happy endings or resolutions.