Thursday, August 30, 2007

Housekeeping vs. The Dirt by Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby quotes his good friend Sarah Vowell from Take the Cannoli, "Asked by a magazine to review a Tom Waits album, she concludes that she 'quite likes the ballads,' and writes that down; now all she needs is another eight-hundred odd words restating this one blinding apercu." And now here I am, quite liking the essays and needing to do the same thing.

Nick Hornby's collection of articles written for Believer magazine on his struggle between the books he brings into his house and the ones he's actually able to read is so relatable that it made me believe that I too could be a wildly successful pop novelist if not for the lack of talent, time, and friends in high places. In endeavoring to write these reviews for the TBR blog I resolved that I would only read and review books I've accumulated (and not yet read) through BookMooch and PaperbackSwap. The number of books coming in vs. the number being read has gotten to a point that my wife has demanded I stop requesting books altogether. I've agreed to stop adding books to my wishlist.

"Housekeeping vs. The Dirt" is the second volume of these collected articles following "The Polysyllabic Spree." The running theme through the essays month after month is a choice that all of us readers must make every time we decide to crack open a book and resolve to finish it: meaningful, difficult, classic literature or pop, easy, pulp fiction. He says in the preface, "One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they're hard work, they're not doing us any good." I relate. I love his honesty and ability to drop his guard that we'll think he's lacking depth. In fact, I believe his depth is quite evident when he actually begins writing the essays.

He eventually happens upon "Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson which he describes as "this extraordinary, yearning mystical work…" At this point, November 2005, the collection of essays take a turn, and he heaps unprecedented praise on Marilynne Robinson including calling her "one of America's greatest living writers." At the risk of contradicting much of what he's built his thesis around with this collection he says, "I have always prized the accessible over the obscure, but after reading 'Housekeeping' I can see that in some ways the easy, accessible novel is working at a disadvantage…" Oh Nick, say it isn't so. He goes on to equate how long it took him to read the book as one of these advantages: "If you are so gripped by a book that you want to read it in the mythical single sitting, what chance has it got of making it all the way through the long march to your soul?" In the space of two pages he flips his hypothesis on its ear and convinces me in the same breath.

I've never read any of Nick Hornby's fiction or purchased Believer magazine, but this collection of essays has made my own quest to read the avalanche of books crashing into my home feel noble in its own way. To find meaning in my life and connection between books simply because of where they sit on the shelf or the juxtaposition of two books being read simultaneously is all part of the wonderful experience of reading.

I'll leave you with another great quote that we can all remember when we're just not up for reading that classic behemoth and just want our best-selling, genre novel to sit on the beach with:

"…here's something… no one will ever tell you: if you don't read classics, or the novel that won this year's Booker Prize, then nothing bad will happen to you; more importantly, nothing good will happen to you if you do." Thanks for the reassurance Nick.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Talking With Serial Killers, by Christopher Berry-Dee

Christopher Berry-Dee researches serious crime: specifically, in this book, serial killers. He's apparently spent a lot of time corresponding with them, and for each of the killers he profiles in this book, has interviewed them in prison. The book is set up with a chapter per serial killer (or serial killing team, as a couple operated in pairs), and attempts to cover the killer's history (childhood, etc), crimes, capture, and possible motivations.

To be honest, I was disappointed with this book. I'm not quite sure what I was looking for from it - I don't normally read true crime - but whatever it was, I didn't find it. There's no real insight here - all Berry-Dee manages is to recount (badly) some fairly horrific crimes, and push a couple of pop-psychology buttons. If any of those years of letters and interviews have told him anything about these people, it's not evident here. There are a handful of excerpts from them, but they're the exception, rather the rule. In a book subtitled 'The Most Evil People in the World Tell Their Own Stories", this is definitely a disappointment.

The writing itself is uninspired, and could use a good editor - one who knows how not to abuse commas would have been a plus. The chapters themselves are either too ambitious or not ambitious enough - he either glosses over details, or goes into so much detail he manages to turn what should be shocking into merely tedious.

If you already know the stories of the serial killers he covers here, there's nothing new added. If you don't and are interested in such things, Berry-Dee does cover the basics. That's about *all* he does, and he doesn't remain unbiased - he clearly thinks two of them are innocent (of the particular serial killings they're accused of) and framed by police, and he spends the last few pages of the chapter on Aileen Lee Wournos attempting to make excuses for her - but if you want a short and unimaginative rundown of a dozen or so serial killers and one mass-murderer, this is the book for you.

Talking with Serial Killers is currently available for mooch here: Note the condition notes. ETA: now mooched

Friday, August 24, 2007

Saucer - Stephen Coonts

From the Back of the Book:
A relic from the past. A bridge to the future.

After 140,000 Years?
Seismic Surveyor Rip Cantrell has made an exhilarating discovery-a flying saucer embedded in the Sahara sandstone. Buried for eons, it's not the invention of modern man. Computer-equipped, it can't belong to ancient man. Rip's betting his life on the only alternative. If the ship's memory bank holds the proof he needs, it's going to rock civilization, and make Rip a very famous man.

Its Time Has Come.
Once the secret's out, Rip's outwitted by an enterprising billionaire set to steal the saucer's profitable technology-and outnumbered by the Libyan army looking to lay claim to history. But it's in a skeptical UFO investigation team that Rip finds an unlikely ally: test-pilot Charlotte Pine. Together, they come up with a plan to protect the saucer's secrets.

But Where In The World Is It Going?
Under a hail of bullets, in an exhaust of white fire, Rip and Charlotte are off. Accelerating on a fantastic journey across continents and oceans, they're about to experience the mystery of what once was, and explore the possibilities of what could be, on an adventure 140,000 years in the making.

MY REVIEW: What would you do if you were lucky enough to find a flying saucer in flying condition and had several armed forces chasing you all over the world for possession of it? Why, buzz a baseball game for the fun of it of course! I found this book to be one absorbing story. Reality would just slip away as I was reading it. The story was written in a serious tone highlighted with humor throughout and a smattering of romance. There was not a whole lot of character development in a deep inner sight sense. The book was like a excellent action flick. Once event leading to the next in a loud beautiful bang... I enjoyed the book so much, that I have put all of Coont's books on my TBR list, he's that good.

BM Link:

Reviewed by Tesse aka blissful2beme

Monday, August 20, 2007

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Jacob Jankowski is ninety, or maybe he is ninety-three, he can’t remember for sure. What he does remember in vivid detail is his life the year after his parents died and he missed his final exam in veterinary medicine at Cornell. He walked out of town, leaving everything behind him and jumped the first train that passed by. This one just happened to belong to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. His life in the circus was hard work, little or no pay, and a political structure that rivals any college campus. He falls in love with Marlena, who is married to the abusive animal trainer. He also falls in love with Rosie the elephant whounderstands Polish and is often the target of Marlena’s husband’s torturous abuse. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. I did not like the ending, but what I mean by ending is the very last paragraph. I did not like the very last paragraph. It made no sense, but the rest of the book was awesome! I listened to the unabridged audiobook. It was 11 ½ hours on 10 CDs. It was read by David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The dead all lived together in one city. They stayed as long as one person left living remembered them. Luka was one of the dead. He printed a newspaper and passed it out among the other dead that grouped together at the coffee shop. Soon, there are less and less dead. More and more were going to that "other place", the place you went when no one living remembers you. A virus has spread and was killing off millions of people. It was a rapid virus, people died within the day the symptoms started. Fewer people were remembered and more and more were going to the other place. Laura Byrd was alone and trapped in Antarctica. She had been working on an exploration team for Coca Cola. The radio had broken. Her two team mates had taken one of the sledges to see if they could make it to the main camp. They had been gone three weeks, far longer than it should have taken them to get there and back. The cabin’s heating was failing. It was getting colder. She finally takes the remaining sledge and makes it to the camp only to find it deserted and twenty burial mounds in back. Where had her team mates gone? What had happened to the team that was stationed here? Back in the city, more and more people were disappearing. How long before they all disappear?

I really liked this book. It was very well written and all the elements of the story tied together in surprising ways.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Welcome to the Ark by Stephanie Tolan

Imagine if you would, being so smart you are totally misunderstood and feel completely alone. Imagine if you would how you would perceive the world and the world would perceive you. This is the story of 4 children who were labeled geniuses by society and how they struggled to fit in only to find that they couldn't and self destruct in the process. This is the story on how they unraveled and how they were selected for a unique group home project, where they are brought together to heal and discover that there is really a place for them in this world. And perhaps through healing themselves they might be able to heal the world.

I found this story to be a quick read and found the ideas presented in the book to be thought provoking on many levels. It addresses a lot of social issues and is on the verge of being an apocalyptic tale but just doesn't really follow through. When I read the final chapter a part of me thought "Oh, only if that really could happen in real life".Though I did feel the ending was rushed. On a scale 1-5, I would give it a 3-4 rating. I am sure a teenager would like it better than I since it is written for a youthful audience.

Review by Tesse(blissful2beme)

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way has received a lot of good press, and it was short-listed for the IMPAC award administered by Dublin City Libraries this year. So I picked it up not sure what to expect, since I tend to find literary book award nominees to be either excellent reads or excellent sleep aids, and it's pretty much a complete coin toss as to which road any given book takes.

A Long Long Way is an excellent sleep aid. Unfortunately, I was trying to read it on the bus, where falling asleep just makes you miss your stop, rather than in bed, where falling asleep gets you a good night's rest.

This book is the story of young Willie Dunne, born in the closing years of the 19th century, son of a Dublin policeman. We get the story of his childhood in a few short pages at the start of the book; then we jump straight into Willie's volunteering to go and fight in the British trenches in 1914. He then proceeds to spend an interminable number of pages (and years) sitting in trenches scratching lice and seeing fellow Irish die. This appears to be interspersed with randomly spaced visits home, where he argues with his father over the events in Ireland at the time - the Easter Rising, and all the political tension both leading up to and arising from the British screwups handling it. Although to be honest, I'm not entirely sure how that impacts the storyline, because by the time it showed up, I was skipping fifteen to twenty pages at a time, skimming through to try and pick up any threads of storyline that might actually be worth reading through the intervening pages for. I didn't find any.

If you're looking for a good read, don't pick up this book. If you're looking for a cure for insomnia - might as well try it, it's surely not good for much else.

I'd put it up for mooch, but I got it out of the library.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

No spoilers!

In my opinion, J. K. Rowling is the best thing that has happened to children's literature since Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott and Frank Baum.

And Rowling finished up the Harry Potter series in fine form. After beginning to lose her way as her books got longer-- No. 6 was veering toward the leaden -- No. 7 is as good as it gets. We meet many of our old friends, the adventure rattles right along, and all is revealed in the end.

Thank you, Ms. Rowling.

Fun Run and Other Oxymorons by Joe Bennett

Bennett is an expat-Brit, living in New Zealand where he writes a newspaper column and teaches English. Both occupations are evident in this collection of essays. He has a love for language, words and grammar, that make you savour his writing, especially if you're a person who thinks there is no one left in the world who knows an adjective from an adverb.

But that isn't to say that this is a heavy read. He is a funny and observant man and many of the columns made me laugh out loud. It is evident however, after the first couple of essays that they have been written as newspaper columns, and, like a year's subscription to the newspaper, are not meant to read at one sitting. They quickly become like being assaulted with a series of one-liners. Small doses are better, so it has taken me a couple of months to read a very light book, which I highly recommend.

Fun Run has been added to my inventory.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited

Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited by Elyse Schein, writer & film maker & Paula Bernstein, freelance writer, is both an interesting and provocative memoir. These twins, separated as infants and raised in different homes, were unaware of each other's existence as were their adoptive families until their mid-thirties when Elyse contacts the prestigious Jewish adoption agency Louise Wise Services, that handled her initial placement, in an attempt to find her biological mother. The news is stunning to both women and while Elyse is eager for this reunion, Paula is unsettled and ambivalent about having her life turned upside down just when everything was going so well. Hearing of their similarities is engaging, as is the idea of meeting your doppelgänger but what is really fascinating and never quite resolved is how and why this separation happened to both of these women and to other twins placed by the same agency. We learn that Dr. Viola Bernard a psychiatric consultant for the agency believed that it was best for twins to be reared apart, a lone voice in the psychiatric literature of the time. We also learn that Dr. Peter Neubauer a prominent psychoanalyst and director of the Freud archives at the time, took advantage of this belief and conducted a 'twins study' funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health. If twins and triplets were going to be separated, then this study would follow their development, all the while without full disclosure to the prospective adoptive families. Elyse and Paula and other affected twins, did make an unsuccessful attempt to view their records from this study, which now belong to the Yale archives and will remain sealed until the year 2066. While none of this was strictly illegal at the time, the monstrous scientific license these doctors took with both the children's and the adoptive families lives is in my opinion unconscionable.
Note: this review is based on the Advance Reader's Edition of the memoir.

Mary Jones

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

This is an historical novel set in 1665-1666 in a small village in England. Based on fact, it tells the story of the Black Plague coming to this village, possibly carried by fleas in fabric which has been shipped to the village tailor. As the members of the village start to die horrible deaths from the bubonic plague, the village’s rector makes a bold and frightening, but altruistic, proposal that the village quarantine itself, so that no one leaves and no one enters. This way, the plague will not spread beyond the village’s borders, and once it has struck whoever it is to strike, it may end there. Most of the people agree to this plan, and a system is put into place to receive necessary supplies from outside the village without the risk of spreading the disease.

The main characters are the Rector and his wife, along with their maid, Anna—whom the author learned from historical documents survived the plague, as did some of the villagers, though I won’t give away too much here! What happens to our human nature when we are “trapped” with fatally ill, contagious people? What happens when your beloved family and friends are suffering and dying all around you, and you are helpless to cure them?

I thought this was a fascinating account of the period. They lived a very difficult life in those days, and we have no right to complain about our easy lives in comparison! As a warning to the very squeamish, some of the details are quite gruesome. Toward the end, it got a bit like a “romance novel” to me, of which I’m not a big fan, but I enjoyed the novel nonetheless.

Cage of Stars by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Jacquelyn Mitchard is most famous for her first novel and Oprah’s first pick, “The Deep End of the Ocean.” She lives in my home state (Wisconsin) and writes a newspaper column, of which I’ve been a fan. But I’ve never read any of her novels, until now.

Cage of Stars is about a Mormon family who suffers a terrible tragedy. A schizophrenic man wanders onto their small farm in Utah, and kills the two youngest girls. Their 12-year-old sister, Ronnie, is there when it happens, and the rest of the novel deals with her and her parents’ grief, guilt, and subsequent attempts at healing from this awful event.

The parents eventually decide, for their own emotional well-being, to forgive the murderer. This decision shocks and horrifies Ronnie, who develops a very different plan of her own for dealing with him, which will keep you in suspense until the end.

I learned a lot about Mormon life (beyond the stereotypes), and felt compassion for not only this lovely family torn apart by this tragedy, but also for the murderer and his family. Sometimes the dialogue between Ronnie and her parents and friends doesn’t ring true—everyone is too mature and articulate about their emotions. But it was an interesting and different novel.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

Quoting from . . . “This life-affirming fable ironically opens at the end of the life of a seemingly ordinary man. Known as ‘Eddie Maintenance’ to those he works with at Ruby Pier, Eddie led what he saw as a disappointing life working as head of maintenance at a seaside amusement park. Upon his death, he learns that heaven is a place to make sense of his time on earth and that he will meet five people from his life who will help him understand its greatest lessons.”

I really liked this book, by the author of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” and found myself (embarrassingly) sobbing at the end. It’s a simple tale, and can be read quickly. It’s comparable to “It’s a Wonderful Life” or to “The Christmas Carol” because of its theme of looking back at the life of a man, and seeing moments where his life intersected the lives of others, and what those moments meant in the larger scheme of life.

It would be great if this is how things really happened—you die and meet up with the spirits of select people in heaven, who help you to make sense of your life, so that you can find peace in the afterlife; and then your spirit, in turn, helps others make sense of their lives.

Even if you do not believe in an afterlife or a higher power, it’s worth thinking about how your actions here on earth affect others in ways you may never know, positive or negative.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Do White Whales Sing at the Edge of the World? by Paul Wilson

I admit it: I mooched this book purely for the title. It's a totally awesome title.

But, you know? This is maybe my best mooch to date. That includes a couple of books I've been looking for for a couple of years now, and a few wishlist books I still don't believe I won the race for. Those were great to get; but this... this is the perfect present you didn't know you wanted. I love this book. The writing sucked me in on the very first page; it's beautiful, lyrical and just sings.

So, the story is this: Gabriel Emerson is a resident in a colony for the feeble-minded somewhere on the Cumberland fells. The colony is in its final days; the residents are slowly being shuffled out and reintegrated into the outside world, and only the hardcore cases are left. As the last weeks of the colony draw to a close, Gabriel embarks on an epic journey: in a disused icehouse on the edges of the colony he sets out to re-imagine and re-trace the steps of the doomed - and disputed - discovery of a Northwest Passage by his namesake two centuries earlier.

Intertwined with Gabriel's dream - a dream powerful enough to carry three of his fellow residents through the Arctic ice with him, and be clearly visible to a fourth, watching from above and narrating the story for the rest of us - is Gabriel's story; and that of his family (unorthdox as it was); and the story of the mining town of Laing, that bore and shaped him; and that of four internees bound to the town by the detention acts for foreign nationals during WWII; and of the ways these all rubbed against each other and exloded one night in a tragedy horrifying enough to haunt Gabriel straight into the colony in the first place.

Ultimately, this is a book about dreams. It was a dream that built Laing; it was dreams that kept the internees going; it was the lack of dreams that cursed the town; it was a dream that Gabriel and his fellows followed in the last days of the colony. In Paul Wilson's own words: "But we were men who, like most poor men, fought and fought, and scrapped for life -- for pieces of the stuff in crevices and dreams. Our story is not in the leftover bones of our lives to be found bleached here in a heap on some shelf of ice, but our hearts that brought us here, and the dreams that drew us on."

I really can't recommend this book highly enough. If I ever find any more copies (priced reasonably!), I'll be buying them up to mooch out, because this definitely deserves to be out there - but this one I'm keeping for me :-).

Monday, August 6, 2007

Blood Memory by Greg Iles

In Blood Memory Greg Iles deals with the complex issues of repressed memories and child abuse in an open and insightful manner thet some may find disturbing.Outwardly Cat Ferry is a brilliant woman - a well respected forensic odontologist and a valuable member of an F.B.I. task force investigating a series of grisly murders in New Orleans. But beneath this professional demeanor lies another Cat - an alcoholic manic-depressive with a penchant for affairs with inappropriate and/or married men. To make matters worse she has just discovered she is pregnant with her married lover's child. After a panic attack at the latest crime scene causes her to blackout, she is supended from the task force. Battling to stay sober for the sake of her baby she returns to her Mississippi hometown. When an accidental chemical spill reveals bloody footprints in her childhood bedroom, long repressed memories of the night her father was killed start to resurface. Desperately she delves into her past to save her sanity and ultimately her life. For as determined as she is to learn the truth about that night and her traumatic childhood someone else is equally determined to keep it secret.
Iles weaves two mysteries that seem inexplicably connected though separated by nearly 25 years into a compelling story. Though quite long this book grabs your attention and doesn't let go until the end. Through all the twists and turns of Cat's quest to learn the truth about her family's secrets the suspense builds to an explosive conclusion.