Saturday, September 29, 2007

Crisis, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe


The author grew up in the 50's in a seemingly normal family. His parents met in Europe during World War II, and his father brought his mother back to America and started a family. You soon realize that they are anything but normal, and that there is a huge black cloud hanging over their lives. Just as the family would get settled in one place and begin to live comfortably, their father would force them to flee. These late night escapes over the border to Mexico forced the children to leave behind friends, pets, possessions and any stability they may have felt. This is a fascinating story of the author's quest to uncover his parents secrets and piece together their story long after they had both passed away.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Now and Forever

NOW AND FOREVER; Ray Bradbury; New York: William Morrow, 2007; Fiction; 209 pp.
"Somewhere a Band is Playing," and "Leviathan '99" are the two novellas which make up Bradbury's latest. "Somewhere a Band is Playing" is vintage Bradbury--a young man fetches up in an isolated Western town for reasons unknown even to himself, where he finds a group of friendly but enigmatic people. He soon discovers that Summerton has no children and a purely cosmetic graveyard filled with empty graves. What he later learns, and who he becomes are different than anything ". . . dreamt of in [our] philosophy." "Leviathan '99" is a failed radio play made into a long short story meant as a space-age homage to Moby-Dick. Alas, it fails as a novella as well. Bradbury's Ahab is chasing a comet and the sterility of a computer-filled space ship in the cosmic void plays out as though it were on an empty sound stage. In short, read the first, give the second a miss.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations

ANT FARM: AND OTHER DESPERATE SITUATIONS: Simon Rich: Random House: Nonfiction: 139 pages

Rich has written a collection of short, humorous pieces, many of which appeared previously in the Harvard Lampoon. Favorites for me included the crayon namer whose divorce is affecting his work, resulting in colors like “Sad Blue,” “Sad Red,” and “Sad Green”; the Sultan of Brunei who orders his wife back into her “fortress of rubies”; and a half page example of what the legal system would be like if life were like middle school. This is a fast, funny, often irreverent read.


THE MAYTREES: Annie Dillard: Harper Collins: 2007: Adult: 224

THE MAYTREES: Annie Dillard: Harper Collins: 2007: Adult: 224

The narrative of this book follows sturdy and simple Lou who lives at the edge of the sea with her carpenter husband Maytree. Maytree is easily distracted and after 14 years of marriage moves away to Maine with longtime friend, Deary. The two return 20 years later when Deary is dying and needs hospice that only Lou can offer.

Simple, and seemingly callous in its plot, Dillard's "Maytrees" is anything but. Maybe it’s about the courage it requires to live a life of commitment, or the nuances of forgiveness...I'm not even sure. Either way, the language Dillard uses to describe the sea and this small cast of tragic characters is fresh and truly haunting. This is the first book I've read that was really too much for me: too beautiful, too sad, too poignant, and too otherworldly. It was unreal - in a good way.


Here if you Need Me: A True Story

HERE IF YOU NEED ME: A TRUE STORY; Kate Braestrup; New York: Little, Brown, 2007;
Non-Fiction; 2007.

When Kate's husband Drew, a Maine state trooper, was killed in a car crash, she took up the life he had wanted for himself. After completing her studies at the Bangor Theological Seminary, she became a chaplain for the Maine Fish and Game Warden Service, her job to comfort the loved ones of those lost in the woods. Interspersed with her stories of love, loss, and fearsome tragedy is her own story of her husband's death, and her own beautifully expressed spiritual belief. As befits her ministerial calling, Kate Braestrup writes like an angel--Here if you Need Me is funny, tender, and enlightening by turns, and all at once. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, she believes in a more amorphous expression of deity than some might hope for, but this book still shines with faith and a good heart.


Monday, September 24, 2007

The World Without Us

THE WORLD WITHOUT US: Alan Weisman: St. Martin’s Press (2007): nonfiction: 324 pages.

If all humans disappeared overnight, what environmental time bombs would we leave behind; how long would it take for our cities to become archaeological digs; what would become of the domestic and wild animals on our planet; how long before a nuclear power plant experienced a meltdown? This is a book about the environment with a different and almost morbidly fascinating twist. It is unlikely that all of us will disappear overnight, but whether we are here or not, someone will have to deal with our legacy. The imaginative thesis of this book is compelling and sustained by solid scientific writing and vivid descriptions. I highly recommend this book.


Friday, September 21, 2007


STARDUST: Neil Gaiman: Harper Perennial: 2000: 250 pages

The village of Wall which is aptly named for the long wall dividing the town from the Faerie lands guards the break in the wall day and night. For no one is allowed through the gap except when the market fair comes to the large meadow beyond the wall every 9 years.

Seventeen year-old Tristan Thorne, who is unknowingly the result of a night of passion between an enslaved faerie and villager, proclaims to his true love that he will travel beyond the wall to retrieve the star they just watched fall, if she will agree to marry him.

Tristan knows nothing about the faerie world. So when he finally finds the star, he is shocked to discover the star is a young woman and that others are searching for her as well. Most notably there is a group of feuding princes and an evil witch.

Neil Gaiman is an excellent storyteller with a great imagination. The story and characters really come alive. This book felt like a traditional fairy tale.


First Among Sequels: A Thursday Next Novel

FIRST AMONG SEQUELS: Jasper Fforde: Viking: 2007: 363 pages.

Delighting readers since publishing his first novel, The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde sets his fifth Thursday Next novel 15 years later. Thursday Next, a former literary detective agent has now settled down with her husband, Landen (who exists again) to raise their children— slacker teen Friday, brilliant mathematician and fourth grader, Tuesday, and the youngest, Jenny.

Thursday claims she is now an ACME carpet installer, but it is really just a front for her SpecOps job in the real world and Jurisfiction job in the book world. While trying to deal with renegade Jurisfiction apprentices, the Goliath Corporation who wants to turn the book world into a tourist trap and deadly cheese curd, Thursday must convince her lazy son Friday to join the ChronoGuard in order to save the future.

If you’ve never read a Thursday Next novel be prepared for far too many subplots that generally go no where, but if you’re a fan of satiric literary humor, you’ll enjoy every one of them.


Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men

New York: Basic Books, 2007; 267pp.

Which of us has not noticed the listlessness of many young men in the rising generation, including a lack of interest in anything much beyond playing video games? In “Boys Adrift: the Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men,” Leonard Sax, a physician and research psychologist, discusses what seems to be wrong and what might be done to repair the damage. The five factors he identifies are 1) Changes in school which make Kindergarten the new First Grade, pushing children, especially boys, into hating school because they are asked to learn things they are not ready to learn. 2) Video games, which satisfy boys’ “will to power” without requiring them to achieve anything, or to learn the most important attributes of adulthood, such as patience. 3) Medications for ADHD which are prescribed to ameliorate many different behaviors which may or may not really be attention deficit disorder. 4) Endocrine disruptors in the environment (this may be news to most of us) that generally come from eating and drinking from plastic receptacles (or sucking on a binky), and which affect boys much more negatively than girls. 5) Loss of the societal rites and rituals of advancing to manhood, and the devaluation of manliness in popular culture. Dr. Sax’s discussion of a subsequent “failure to launch” will ring true for many parents and other concerned adults, and his final chapter on detoxing the modern environment for boys and girls should provoke both thought and action. Though Dr. Sax’s book is written in a conversational tone, his documentation is thorough and impressive. This is an important book, especially for parents and educators, but for anyone who is concerned with the well-being of our society and its young people.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Looking for Alaska

LOOKING FOR ALASKA: John Green: Puffin: 2006: Fiction: 256 pages

This is a compelling young adult novel that follows the lives of a group of high school students sent to live in an exclusive boarding school in Alabama. The narrator is a smart, quiet, and unpopular kid who spends his free time memorizing the last words of famous people. The story is funny and light-hearted as the narrator meets and forms friendships and finds a niche of interesting kids to smoke, drink, study and pull pranks with. Then, an event occurs that forces the students to confront their choices and realize their world can end in an instant. I would not recommend this book to young teens, but, adults and older teens will find that the story inspires them to think about what's really important, and about how our lives and decisions affect each other.

An ALA Printz award winner for excellence in young adult literature.


Kabul Beauty School

KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL: AN AMERICAN WOMAN GOES BEHIND THE VEIL: Deborah Rodriguez: Random House: Nonfiction: 275 pages

Deborah Rodriguez, a hairdresser from Holland, Michigan, joined a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan in 2002. Initially, no one knew how her skills as a hairdresser could benefit a war-torn country, but she soon discovered that the beauty industry was one of the few professions open and empowering to Afghan women. After her initial trip to Afghanistan, Rodriguez returned with the help of corporate sponsors to assist in running a beauty school and became the close friend and confidante of the women in her classes. She tells her own story and the story of Afghan women in this fascinating book.

This is such an interesting look at modern life in Afghanistan. I especially enjoyed it because I recently read A Thousand Splendid Suns and recognized a lot of the history and geography Hosseini introduces in the novel. The two books make wonderful companions.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sammy's House

SAMMY’S HOUSE: Kristin Gore: Hyperion: Fiction: 384 pages

In this sequel to Sammy’s Hill, Samantha Joyce is working as a health care advisor for Vice President Gary in an administration that is struggling with outside opposition and internal vice. Meanwhile, Sammy’s boyfriend Charlie, a reporter for the Washington Post, has taken a promotion and moved to New York, creating difficulties for the couple.

I really enjoyed Sammy’s Hill, but Sammy’s House was less interesting to me. The politics seemed to overwhelm the story this time around, and I got bored of the Washington scene and slamming opposing political parties. Sammy Joyce is still an enjoyable character and the ending sets up the story for at least one more book.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007


DIVISADERO: Michael Ondaatje: Alfred A. Knopf: 2007: 273 pages.

Michael Ondaatje’s first novel in six years is unusually structured yet beautifully poetic. It is the story of an unconventional family growing up on a rural farm in 1970s Northern California. Anna, Claire and Coop are siblings of sorts until an incident of violence leaves them scattered and reeling into their adult lives. This is also the story of Lucien Segura, a World War I era French poet and novelist.

It is difficult at first to see how these two stories connect. But Ondaatje’s subtle and graceful imagery coaxes the reader to discover the parallels between Anna’s and Lucien’s experiences.

Although this novel might require a second reading to fully grasp what is teaming just beneath the surface, Ondaatje’s rare gift for language and observation will make it worth every minute.


Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Practically Perfect In Every Way


While watching Oprah one day, Jennifer Niesslein decides she’s not really as happy as she should be and embarks on a self-help journey, reading popular books on relationships, organization, health, and parenting and experimenting with the advice she finds on her family and friends.

This was an interesting read, but, because the book examines lifestyle choices and values, I sometimes strongly disagreed and struggled with the author’s point of view. Niesslein is usually fairly self-aware in her narration (recognizing that her readers might disagree with her take on things and seeing the things that influence her decisions), which is one of the strengths of the book. My head did start to spin, though, during her foray into money management.


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Fame, Glory, and Other Things On My To Do List

FAME, GLORY, AND OTHER THINGS ON MY TO DO LIST: Janette Rallison: Walker Publishing: Young Adult: 186 pages

Jessica, a junior in a small New Mexico town, dreams of Hollywood stardom. She is devastated when a lack of funds threatens cancellation of the school play. Into her life steps Jordan, a new student whose father is a famous actor. Jordan wants to keep this hidden, but Jessica hatches a scheme to save the play by revealing his identity to the drama teacher and promising that he will audition for a role.

This was a quick, enjoyable read. Jordan has a hard time being the son of a famous actor and Jessica doesn’t help the matter, but it all works out in the end. A fun young adult book.

Crashing Through: a True Story of Adventure and the Man Who Dared to See

CRASHING THROUGH: A TRUE STORY OF ADVENTURE AND THE MAN WHO DARED TO SEE: Robert Kurson: Random House (2007): nonfiction: 306 pages.

Crashing Through is a very interesting account of a man blinded at age 3 who has his sight restored through an experimental surgery 45 years later. In case you didn’t know, such a thing is almost unheard of – there have only been about 20 documented cases of a completely blind person having their sight restored. You will gain an enhanced appreciation of how blind people adapt and you will be amazed to learn how difficult it is to see. The book is as gripping as fiction and, like good fiction helps you see life from a new vantage point.


If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period

IF A TREE FALLS AT LUNCH PERIOD; Gennifer Choldenko; NY: Harcourt, 2007; Young Adult; 217pp.
Kirsten McKenna's life is on the skids--she has gained 40 pounds, her best friend Rory has ditched her in favor of popular, bossy Brianna, and her parents are always fighting and may be cruising for a divorce. "Enjoying" only intermittent access to the cruel clique Rory has joined, she makes friends with a black kid, Walk, and a Latino boy named Matteo, both of whom have entered her tony private school on scholarship. Some things about this book are predictable--the evil blond clique girls, the awkward protagonist, the warring parents, and the beleaguered children of color--but Choldenko is such a fine writer, she mostly pulls it off. Walk is the most interesting character here: a brilliant, self-possessed young man, sure of who he is and wants to be at a very early age. The twist at the end is a bit contrived, but young people should be drawn in to this story of trying to fit in at an awkward age.