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2003 Book Reviews
And Then They Were Nuns, Susan J. Leonardi

Highly unusual nuns at that, neo-environmental-vegetarian-lesbians secluded for contemplation in the Sierra foothills. Mostly humorous, gently understating the bigger questions of spirituality and the individual's role in a community. I'd recommend it as a light-hearted read, something you might take with you in a bubble bath. In other words, a chick book, but this in no way is dismissive. Just not my thing.

The Known World, Edward P. Jones

Premise: Freed black or former slaves who own slaves themselves in pre-Civil War Virginia. Potentially inflammatory given this little-known and if known, then (deliberately?) overlooked for trenchant and uncomfortable questions about the nature of slavery, race guilt, and contemporary race relations. Unfortunately, Jones doesn't delve deeply into the moral quandary of slave ownership, instead focusing on a series of days-in-the-life-of beautifully evocative characters. Pay close attention to Mildred's words, resonating then and now: Don't go back to Egypt after God done took you outa there

Grass for His Pillow - Book II of Tales of the Otori, Lian Hearn

A sequel, second of three, a casual, luxurious read, a guilty pleasure. Fine literature, no, but enjoyable and sensuous in its details. Am I a nascent fantasy fan? Or just now realizing that I've liked the genre for some time? I'm thinking Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, Tolkein, Lewis, and others paved the way for the Tales of the Otori trilogy. I don't mind; I enjoyed the mental break, the pleasure in reading for fun.

The Book of Hard Things, Adrian Sue Halpern

This one is the likely contender for Jason's Best of 2003. What else to say?

Godspeed, Lynn Breedlove

There is a certain beauty in Godspeed but I can't describe it adequately. Quite the education about the San Francisco bike-messenger junkie scene, drugs, slang, lesbians, transgender-folks, house-squatting, love, betrayal, and sex - lots of sex. What remains after reading are two questions: One, what does "maing" mean? Is it pronounced "mayng-ya" and what is its purpose? Second, how fictional - if at all - is Godspeed?

Life and Death in Shanghai, Nien Cheng

An autobiography my grandmother urged me to read and when she inquires how did you like it? I'll respond the only way one can to a grandmother: Loved it, grandma and won't feel guilty for stretching the truth. As a one-time wannabe Sinologist (when I was in fifth grade), and a fan of history, I found the Cultural Revolution material engaging, though I'm simply too much an un-fan of biographies and autobiographies to say much more.

Summer Blonde, Adrian Tomine

My first foray into the graphic novel, if I discount the adult comic book my friend Scott stole from his father's desk drawer, the one I pored over for hours as an 11-year old. Summer Blonde encompasses what are three very short stories amid a bunch of pictures, and I feel utterly unqualified to offer an overall summation but I chance my lack of art training or appreciation in this unkown genre to say bad stories, bad artwork, ergo, avoid. A caveat: Intrigued enough with the genre that I purchased Thompson's Blankets so I'm not rolling my eyes. Yet.

Into the Forest, Jean Heglund

Better than I hoped, disappointing in its conclusion, engaging enough that when the woman seated next to me on the airplane inquired, good book? I pretended to be Deaf. Heglund's prose is incredible - supple comes to mind. Just as I became annoyed by the cowishness of the characters in a post-apocalyptic Northern California, the plot gathered steam and satisfied me. Bothered however by the author's device upon which the women's salvation (if you read it that way) hinged upon men in a predictable, conventional manner. I'd recommend it. Two point seven-five stars, or something analagous.

Absolutely American, David Lipsky

If you've followed Lipsky's bread-and-butter work (Rolling Stone), you'd know that his articles are unfailingly intriguing and worth reading to the very end. When I saw he had written a book about West Point from an insider's advantage, I was curious. Then I saw the book hit the New York Times bestseller list and quickly dismissed the thought, figuring if the imbecilic minions are snapping up copies, it was an indication of the book's overall worth because - you know. What do I have in common with most people, especially when it comes to reading material? The curiosity, that disguised voyeurism I keep under wraps prevailed and Absolutely American wound up in my hands. As a non-fiction not-quite-exposé-insider's-glimpse, it's rather quite enjoyable if you're into that kind of thing that's always a mystery to me - how normal people operate, namely. I rooted for George all the way, though on a critical standpoint, there was little else to engage me.

Easter Island, Jennifer Vanderbes

Oh, I liked this one from the onset. History, mysteries, lost love, and tiny islands in the middle of nowhere are engaging topics for me. I particularly found the character development advanced and deep, wholly imaginable and realistic. Lyrical prose, with all the sub-plots crafted together neatly and without effort, it seems, to influence a satisfying conclusion. Must admit, my plans for a one-day visit to Easter Island have merged with Machu Picchu, and that says much.

Clan of the Cave Bear / The Valley of Horses / The Mammoth Hunters, Jean Auel

Ah, who knew the first book in Auel's "Earth's Children" series would grab me as it did? Pre-history, language, cognition, social and cultural studies, and a plot - no Laodicean reader was I! Unfortunately, the quality of the series dimishes into the romance genre and I couldn't bear to read any more about Ayla the Original Wonder Woman and her Super Hung And Skilled Lover Jondalar getting it on. Perhaps more poignant to me because of the parallels between the subsumation of my own culture by another, but if you're looking for a compelling read, I heartily recommend Clan of the Cave Bear and if inclined to narratives featuring in one mighty thrust he pushed his engorged member deep . . . then I recommend the other two as well.

The Locusts Have No King, Dawn Powell

Cautious to underestimate or diminish this one to a publishing-world inside joke, but throughout I didn't connect with the sub-text, the same impression I have when mingling with people in situ so who knows? Apparently Dawn Powell is being rediscovered and I wonder, By whom? Ah, yes, those resurgent Ph.D. candidates in American Literature looking to break out with something new and original, like a phasic study of infidelity in marginalized novels by women authors published in the 1940s and forgotten ever since . . . perhaps for good reason.

Deep in the Shade of Paradise, John DuFresne

Lost. Lost plot, lost time, lost money, lost interest. Beware.

The Dive From Clausen's Pier, Ann Packer

Quickly someone - you - get this book so I can talk to you about it. Plot and characters aside, each word in The Dive is eloquent, strong yet sparse, satisfying though leaving you with want. My only criticism is the conclusion, though that perhaps is intended. Damn it, I want to discuss this one.

The Book of Illusions, Paul Auster

I did not enjoy The Book of Illusions at all though not for the usual critical assortment: Not because of the language, plot, round vs. flat characters. As a night-time, pre-bedtime reader, Paul Auster put me to sleep page by page. Excruciatingly slow moving and I would not have thought I, too, have been infected by the immediate-gratification virus that fattens our children and diminishes the intellectual aspirations of our collective society, but I am guilty. I simply could not stay awake more than two pages in a row. What saddens me most is that I know I've overlooked everything of substance, and this means I must one day re-read this story of loss and love and silent film stars. But I won't re-read soon and in a year or two I'll pretend it's the first time I've picked it up. Insomniac reader? The Book of Illusions is for you.

Officer Friendly & Other Stories, Lewis Robinson

Ever since I learned to read from the Disney classics no more than 20 pages long, one sentence per, I take pleasure in the short story. I take less pleasure in multiple short stories bundled together like a pearl in a manure bag. For good or bad, Robinson's short stories - gothic inspired, all - are pretty decent though honestly, they seem like variations on themes completed long ago by Flannery O'Connor or even Hawthorne. If you read before going to sleep and desire something that won't strike you as wholly original or absorb you too much that you stay up later than you can, pick up a copy of Officer Friendly. I recommend Seeing the World, The Edge of the Forest & the Edge of the Ocean, and Fighting at Night.

Hell at the Breech, Tom Franklin

A fun read, neither asking too much reflection nor commitment, a story of revenge, posses, and the ways of the Old South in the Old South, pre-1900. I'm torn on who garners the title of hero, but like I said, there's little need to think too much; there's simply no need. An enjoyable read, though overall I'm ambivalent. Of particular note is Franklin's impressive narrative and descriptive skills.

Waylaid, Ed Lin

So much packed into a tiny novel where do I begin? A fantastic read and gritty the way I like them, and I'm calling Derrida to say deconstruction does indeed have an end and it's a mobius strip with Kristeva on one side and Ed Lin on the other. Highly recommended.

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, mark haddon

My Great Find for 2003, it has supplanted The Wasp Factory for the You must read this recommendation. Wholly original and compelling in a stark, simple, yet thoroughly mesmerizing and profound way, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time is something you won't forget. Get it today!

Across the Nightingale Floor, Lian Hearn

An occasional jaunt into the fantasy section of a bookstore pays off, as it did with Shari Tepper, David Eddings, and now, Lian Hearn. Medieval Asian culture, warlords, politicl machinations, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon moves and martial arts, and failed love converge in a surprising fast-paced yet luxurious tale. Across the Nightingale Floor is not fine literature overflowing with leitmotifs and well-turned metaphors or plot devices but is a tale of revenge and loyalty entertaining to the end. The first in a planned trilogy, I can't wait for the second installment.

Snow Island, Katherine Towler

Don't even glance at this one. I've lost faith in the person who recommended it to me. Enough said.

The Hesperides Tree, Nicholas Mosley

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, my first Mosley but not the last. Renable, that's what The Hesperides Tree is, offering a particularly deep character, the foil to those who get their identity from being part of a special crowd. Sublime. Immensely soothing, thought-provoking, humorous, and melancholic simultaneously. My kind of book!

Getting Mother's Body, Suzan-Lori Parks

A cast of clowns seeking redemption and a plot that doesn't quite soar, Getting Mother's Body is an updated As I Lay Dying best described as okay. I particularly enjoyed Parks' ability to endow subtle and dry eloquence from even the most marginalized of characters. As you recall, I've never been a fan of novels featuring multiple narrators and Getting Mother's Body features twelve - yes, 12 - and I felt schizophrenic and stymied when wanting to delve deeper into each character only to have him or her disappear. Multi-tasking/multi-reading is too much to ask from me. My favorite character was the venerable Roosevelt Beede (get the allusion?) and his insight into living: The life of a Negro gal is cheap. The life of a Negro gal with a baby in her belly and no ring on her finger is cheaper, and Roosevelt's final confrontation with his bitter past was particularly inspiring. A quick, nice read, neither disappointing nor memorable.

At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O'Neill

Either I'm becoming a sop and cry much too easily nowadays or this one, like other books read recently, is outstanding. The qualities of greatness abound: Humor, love, tragedy, war, feisty aunts, illicit love, misty evenings, death, the hardening of spirit. I haven't read much gay-themed literature but I'm curious, is it always tragedy? The story of Doyler and Jim, "all love does ever rightly show humanity our tenderness" set in 1916 Ireland is both love story and social-political commentary, didacticism ennobled by Jamie O'Neill's captivating eloquence as a writer. Pederast MacMurrough is an unlikely beacon:

Help these boys build a nation their own. Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder the literatures for words they can speak. And should you encounter an ancient tribe whose customs, however dimly, cast light on their hearts, tell them that tale; and you shall name the unspeakable names of your kind, and in that naming, in each such telling, they will falter a step to the light.
It wasn't the history I loved, it was the story of two men, two best friends, who swim to an island all their own.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling

Disappointing, hundreds of extraneous pages, sobs Fifth down, two remaining. Has Rowling tired of Harry Potter or is marriage a detriment to writing? While I'm disappointed in the overall lack of substance in The Order of the Phoenix, it's not enough to turn me off from Harry Potter. Unfortunately, I find Rowling resorted to unpolished plot devices - especially with The Death which turns out to be rather inconsequential unless one makes parallels between Harry Potter and Anakin Skywalker in that other fantasy series and if that's the case, then I'm even more disappointed. While I avidly consumed Harry Potter #5, it didn't absorb me the way Books 1 - 4 did, as if I've grown weary of the injustices perpetrated by the adult world onto children, though overall I couldn't put the book down. Not because of exceptional story-telling, but simply because I wanted to finish it rather than live in it. Understand the difference? And because of this difference, I give it only three stars - half more than it deserves. I'm loyal that way.

Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer

If I recall correctly, humor is often used by marginalized groups to invert the social structure of stigma and oppression, a collective as-long-as-we-laugh-we're-alive strategy. Everything is Illuminated is non-stop comedy yet retains an overwhelming poignance in a rare and thoroughly successul balance. Dry wit, sarcasm, tragedy, all the things I enjoy most had me laughing until it was time to sober up, and then it was back to the comedy. A favorite passage from the humor department:

For an example, I exhibited him a smutty magazine three days yore, so that he should be appraised of the many positions in which I am carnal. "This is the sixty-nine," I told hm, presenting the magazine in front of him. I put my fingers - two of them - on the action, so that he would not overlook it. "Why is it dubbed sixty-nine?" he asked, because he is a person hot on fire with curiosity. "It was invented in 1969. My friend Gregory knows a friend of the nephew of the inventor." "What did people do before 1969?" "Merely blowjobs and masticating box, but never in chorus." ... The women I know who are taller than me are lesbians, for whom 1969 was a very momentous year . . .
A rare accomplishment and one wholly entertaining, but don't be fooled: The sub-text creeps out when you least expect it.

I'm Not Scared, Niccolo Ammaniti

Disturbing and breathtaking, best articulated as sublime. Spellbinding narrative, a dark juxtapositioning of the worlds of children and adults, an emotional tour de force. The contrast between child and man cannot be rendered more stark than through the eyes of a child quickly leaving youth behind, a transition navigated not by choice but via profound horror. Ammaniti's I'm Not Scared scared me and if you have one-quarter of a conscience or heart, you'll be scared as well.

The Scapegoat, Daphne du Maurier

I believe the three weeks I spent on The Scapegoat to be the longest amount of time ever spent reading a single novel. Between picking up the du Maurier and its completion, I read other books, suddenly found interest in returning to my bathroom remodel project, organized and alphabetized my canned goods. I found it difficult to dive into the 1950s in both style and setting, finally telling myself to view du Maurier as an example - not the finest - of the literary stodginess of her era and the last such example I'll read for a very long time. A cross between Twain's The Prince & the Pauper and beguiling prescience regarding a dysfunctional chateau-bound family resembling a Down Home With Jerry Springer episode, The Scapegoat was too much Three's Company, Golden Girls, and Cosby Show for my taste. The story of an Englishman who assumes the identity of a rascally Frenchman for a week and sets all to right - or does he? - amidst financial shadiness, an affair with the younger brother's wife, a morphine-addicted mother, a disturbingly saintly daughter, and a pregnant wife who commits suicide, a sister who has refuses to speak to her brother (the rascal) for 15 years, house servants as oppressed as ever, and a priest that's around far too often for anybody's tastes all converge into a would-be investigation into ethics and honor and love and choices made in the absence of responsibility. Unfortunately for those who collect royalties on behalf of Daphne du Maureir's estate, The Scapegoat is the first and undoubtedly the last novel bearing her name that will be a) purchased and b) read by yours truly.

Three Junes, Julia Glass

Any other nascent author would have fallen into the pit of mawkishness in writing of love, death, and the unknown triumphs and losses that line the path, but not Julia Glass. Her Three Junes is an extraordinarily moving investigation into the Penates and lar familiaris of Fenno McLeod. I urge you to pick up a copy and save it for a solitary evening and a glass of wine. I can't wait for Julia Glass' sophomore effort and am certain you'll find as much pleasure in Three Junes as I did, period.

Parts Unknown, Kevin Brennan

I've never been an avid fan of novels in which chapters feature a succession of narrators each building on the previous, delving deeper on preceding revelations and laying the groundwork for subsequent discoveries. Kevin Brennan's Parts Unknown has not drastically altered my unenthusiastic regard of the format, but I will own up to having gained an appreciation for the narrative structure. The story of homecoming and the Prodigal Son / Father is poignant and all the more touching because unlike many, there is no trite reunion inner or outer, a perspective Brennan explores with searing depth and percipience. I'd like to think despite appearances Parts Unknown celebrates a happy ending, the best possible outcome for all. If you think differently, let's talk.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, Brady Udall

On my second attempt at reading the novel, I again could not get into it wholeheartedly. Specific cause? Unknown. A decent plot, memorable characters, average prose, a flair for description more Bronte-ish than Bulwer-Lytton. As an insomniac the late night / early morning hours are my prime reading periods and each night without fail, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint put me to sleep within 15 minutes. I suspect that I've missed something worthwhile that would redeem Brady Udall, so if you glean some shade of Meaning, let me know.

Fup, Jim Dodge

I love this one without reservation. I'm keeping it to myself.

Red Poppies, Alai

My volume of Alai’s Red Poppies is marked ADVANCE READING COPY – NOT FOR RESALE which leads me to suspect that this book has not yet been released and all plans for its distribution have thankfully been dropped. Can we say partisan? Or how about butt-licking, currying-favor-with-Comrade-Beijing or worst of all, A monumental waste of Jason’s time? You know what I was thinking while I read this book? That I was reading an anthology of the Worst of Diaryland; that and no wonder it became a bestseller in China given it’s harsh anti-Tibetan propaganda. Essentially, it’s a story – story? It’s a mess plot-wise, unorganized suspense-wise, a tome of flat, easy-to-forget characters – that valorizes the Chinese takeover of Tibet by denigrating the Tibetan culture, people, and history. And I’m being gracious. Frankly, I don’t understand the point, if any, this book serves other than suspecting the author (himself a Tibetan-from-Sichuan) is a fan of both didacticism and the Chinese Communist Party and Red Poppies was borne out of a severe need to boot-lick, which it does. When annoyed by lousy books, I count words and I lost track of the references to the lamas, culture, religion, and people preceded by backwards, pathetic, unintelligent, superstitious, dirty, foul, heinous, sinister, wicked, stinky, vengeful, arrogant, bloodthirsty, barbarian, abhorrent, sickening, nauseating, deceitful, fraudulent, treacherous, sinister, disobedient, faithless, defiant, deranged in a never-abating litany of perjoratives that frankly, detracted from the mini-plot and went far beyond establishing a scene. I’m a fan of causes, but don’t make me read mindless propaganda, especially not 382 pages' worth.

The Grasshopper King, Jordan Ellenberg

Witty, self-deprecating, and replete with clever potshots at those who inhabit the liberal arts portion of the ivory tower, The Grasshopper King is an amusing locus classicus of academia, an avatar of graduate study. Throughout, I couldn’t discern whether Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at Princeton, was spoofing the Humanities and Liberal Arts, the qualities evidenced by would-be scholars like Grasshopper’s protagonist Samuel Grapearbor - “graduate school was certainly the first refuge of the directionless” - or the entire ivory tower’s obsession with minutiae and the self-import of studying trivial and insignificant topics to distinguish one’s academic career. I suspect I stumbled into Jordan Ellenberg’s clutches because I’m spending far too much thinking about what, if any, role/significance/symbolism the grasshoppers play alongside Higgs, the silent checkers-playing scholar. If you’re intelligent enough to meta-reflect and enjoy a dimensional story full of humor and cautionary fables against marriage and copulating with farm animals, you’ll greatly enjoy the tongue-in-cheek that is The Grasshopper King. If you’re not, I assume you’re still in community college and there’s little hope for you. The next time my grandmother or a student asks, “What’s graduate school like?” I’ll assume the talmudic role and answer a question by asking a new one, “Have you read The Grasshopper King?

Evensong, Gail Godwin

This novel, published in 1999, was the author's attempt at reconciling the spirit during the milennial penumbric period, an opportunity to reflect and gather oneself to face the emotional and spiritual challenges of the new era. Unfortunately, Gail Godwin's Evensong turned out like so many expectations of the new Milennium: Disappointing and like London's Milennium Dome, simply unnecessary and lacking any redeeming features. The story of a depressed chaplain and his pastor wife in idyllic High Basalm Falls where everybody speaks in lucid prose - even the furnace repairman - plods on for 405 pages. I could be mistaken, but I do not think Gail Godwin purposefully made Evensong plod along at the same rate Christ surely walked with his burden of the Cross. Brief illuminations on relationships, spirituality, and hope do not save the Milennial Musing That Bombed. Spare yourself.

The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks

Quickly, now, obtain this book. Were I teaching literature, this would be required reading; amend: Were I teaching any course I would find a way to place The Wasp Factory on the syllabus. [Note: Think deep, Jason, and relate it to cognitive science by June.] Mesmerizing, disturbing, an emotional-social-psychological parallax that grabs you by the throat and demands reflection. A mere read Iain Banks is not; as I read a novel, I use colored sitcky-arrows to highlight especially provocative, emotive, and thoughtful bits and pieces and with The Wasp Factory I exhausted my supply, then dog-eared, then took up a pen. Rich, asteistic prose about castrated Frank caught in the penumbric shift between childhood and adulthood where nothing is as it seems and Madness and its companion Terror occupy each page towards the inevitable crescendo where catharsis is denied the reader. Frank is mad, Eric is mad, the father is mad and the limn is stark because the doesn't simply acknowledge the pressure or invite the reader to observe, akin to Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Easton's American Psycho, but instead subsumes the reader into Frank's own heart of darkness, his Wasp Factory. This one is a winner and I am turning back to Page 1 to begin again right now.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

I don't want to end up like Sammy, boarding the train 12 years too late. A phantasmagoric ride on the uncertainties and illusions of the American dream, but one immensely fulfilling. I'm still digesting this one à la vache. I ached while reading, ache knowing I've finished the novel.

Crow Lake, Mary Lawson

Generally I place little faith in jacket plaudits but I must agree with the New Yorok Times reviewer who described Mary Lawson as a writer to read and to watch. Her Crow Lake never rose to the occasion but there is substance, lyrical prose, and a fount of potential that surely will be tapped and refined with subsequent writing. I found myself turned off at the end of Chapter 1: Matt sat down beside me, and when Luke and Bo were a long way down the curve of the shore he told me that our parents had been killed when their car was hit by a fully loaded logging truck whose brakes failed as it was coming down Honister Hill. An inauspicious beginning to a tale of . . . not much.

Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling, Ross King

I picked up this book because I had wanted to read Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome but once again, there wasn't a copy in stock. Instead I picked up Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling and thought Why not?. Part biography, art lesson, and Renaissance history lecture, the book takes a systems-orientation approach to the frescoing of the Sistine Chapel and I for one relished the details. I can only hope my next trivia encounter features an "Arts" category. For me, Michelangelo was a treat: I now understand the scenes on the ceiling - the symbolism, the errors, the intentions, the process - and understanding, or simply knowing, appeals. Does it matter that the myths surrounding Michelangelo are mostly fictitious, or that he and Raphael were enemies competing for patronage, or that he was truly innovative in his depictions of God and Adam especially? No, but I like to know what happens behind the curtain when I'm part of the audience. For this reason Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling garners high regard, though I wouldn't recommend it to anybody because frankly, y'all are too hopeless to care or appreciate much of anything.

Observatory Mansions, Edward Carey

I read Carey's Observatory Mansions slower than my norm because I savored each mini narrative-vignette that reminded me of diary entries. I sought to sink into each revelation and found reading too many at one sitting to be counter-productive, and spent more time thinking about each section than it took to read - and that is always welcome. Set in a decrepit mansion cum apartment building housing characters direct from the loony bin - Twenty, the dog woman comes to mind here, as does Francis and his glove fixation, not to mention Peter, Mother, Father, and Anna Tap, the hapless orphan abandoned under a facuet - and how these characters wake up from the reverie into which each fell, a reverie that will claim you and I as well and not only when we capitulate, but when we least expect it. A moving collection of individuals past and present and the falling apart of nothing. Passages throughout Observatory Mansions resonated, perhaps none as much as this:

How strange the people are who, past a certain age, find themselves blocked in every direction, these people who are convinced they will no longer be employed, these people who live alone. And of course they spend their time working out how to get by or thinking about their pasts, but they have only themselves to reminisce with. And how dull that is, how painful it is when it is only, day after day, their own reflection that appears in the mirror. How they long to get away from themselves, not just to get out of their own skins but to get out of their pasts and presents and futures; to leave, in short, everything that has anything to do with them behind forever . . . They are a rare group of individuals, bizarre creatures, who seem to have walked out of strange, dark fairy tales, but they are real enough, they are about, they are to be found amongst cities' Coca-Cola signs, evening paper stands, waiting for the traffic lights to change with the rest of us.
This one is special to me and I will be jealous and not share this with friends.

Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold

I couldn't get enough of Carter Beats the Devil and literally hung onto every last word; I would make deals with myself ("If I finish the paper, I can read another chapter") and then I gave up deal-making. Magic, suspense, murder, politics, history, the Secret Service, theft, a home for unwed mothers, a love story, braille and a blind woman, motorcycles, flappers, and more - and don't forget the elephant and tiger and Indonesian pirate - and you have a stunning tour de force. Gold had me checking facts on the development of television and Houdini and had me spellbound immediately. Zero hyperbole warning: You never know what you will encounter on the next page. Carter Beats the Devil is a must read for everybody. I've decided. So much depth, so many antics, so much gravitas. A wonderful, richly satisfying read.

A Parchment of Leaves, Silas House

A rich text, multilayered and complex, a love story on one hand and a theologica minor on the other, Silas House’s A Parchment of Leaves doesn’t leave the reader wanting. A deft balance between the narratove and the ruminative and Silas House’s descriptive abilities are powerful; Appalachia and the creeks and mountains came alive through a brief glimpse at a Cherokee woman’s life in the hills. A moving book, certainly, though I found myself more taken with the visual images than with the love story, found myself engaged with the characters and their dialect, used the reflections on God to examine my own thoughts. I’m still thinking about the leitmotif of the trees, the whisper of leaves: I wondered if the trees were God. They were like God in many respects: they stood silent, and most people only noticed them when the need arose. Maybe all the secrets to life were written on the surface of leaves, waiting to be translated. If I touched them long enough, I might be given some information that no one else had. Silas House is a young, new writer, and I’ve placed his first book (Clay’s Quilt) on my to-read list, an action I do rarely. A Parchment of Leaves isn’t stylistically perfect, the prose is often bordering on the mawkish, the conclusion too forced, but this was a great read. I recommend it.

House Under Snow, Jill Bialosky

I've decided it's time to examine closely my willingness to read books based on others' personal recommendations. House Under Snow was simply unbearable and I confess, I could not finish the book. This one is so bad I can't even give it to another, not even via Book Crossing for fear of turning off a fledgling reader. The story of Anna Crane's childhood had zero allure and I was turned off by the the wooden prose, of sentences as bland as "Love to me was always sheer, something you could see right through. I longed for a kind of love that was impenetrable, that was tough and enduring." This one was a hollow, unfulfilling read and that is all the time I will waste. Enough said!

Mystic River, Dennis Lehane

A marginal reaction to Mystic River, a reaction informed by a general bias against so-called psychological thrillers as well as disappointment that Dennis Lehane didn't push or probe further into the mind of the characters and hence the reader. Moments of brilliance abut Mystic River but each instance serves to highlight the overall unengaging prose and left me wanting more, thinking If he can do this, surely there's more ahead and maybe this is the attraction of the thriller genre: You catch glimpses of thought-provoking prose and profound depth between the hills but like the Zen forest and the trees, you wonder if Mystic River would make a sound if dropped on the floor. As much as I enjoyed the read - and do not misunderstand, I don't feel this was a waste of time - I wish he had taken it further, taken the leap into deeper water. The potential is here but subsumed.

Le racisme expliqué à ma fille, Tahar Ben Jelloun

Sans doute, un enfant est curieux. Il pose beaucoup de questions et il attend des réponses précises et convaincantes. On ne triche pas avec les questions d'un enfant. C'est en lui accompagnant à une manifestation contre un projet de loi sur l'immigration que sa fille lui a interrogé sur le racisme. Les enfants sont mieux placés que quiconque pour comprendre qu'on ne naît pas raciste mais qu'on le devient. Ce livre, qui essaie de répondre aux questions de sa fille, s'adresse aux enfants qui n'ont pas encore de préjujés et veulent comprendre. Aux adultes qui le liront, j'espère qu'il les aidera à répondre aux questions, plus embarrassantes qu'on ne le croit, de leurs propres enfants.

What if? 2, ed. Robert Cowley

The subtitle to What if? 2 is Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been and each historian examines a bit of history in lucid, narrative-style prose both engaging and accessible. In counterfactual essays ranging from Socrates dying as an unknown soldier at Delium before meeting and thus influencing Plato, to Lincoln not issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and more, each writer examines the effects of counterhistorical happenings; I found myself enjoying most of the essays (particularly those on military themes) and especially William McNeill's "What if Pizarro Had Not Found Potatoes in Peru?" If you delete the potato from historical context, the histories of much of Europe would be markedly different and while I knew the potato (and tomato) were novel finds for the conquistadors, I didn't realize the reach and impact the tuber had on European societies. This is just the kind of history I love - big in scope, hazy around the eges. In my own counterfactual musing, I wonder where I would be had my first history professor in college not bored me to death and ruined plans for my intended major. A read for those who enjoy history, a bore for those who don't.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon

When disengaged, I count words and between the 297 pages of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh the word cigarette appears 203 times. Disengaged, yes, but also drawn into what is a striking mélange of gripping images and emotions. What can I say? The book bothered me because I saw myself and relived the experience of a first same-sex relationship, pained to acknowledge, as Art does, that "I may fall quite completely in love with a man - kiss, weep, give gifts - I have also discovered the trace a woman leaves... and it is better than a man's" and I wonder how he, how I, would respond to the inquiry, Was it worth it? Like all good books, this one leaves you wondering. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is striking, simply striking.

American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

The book is revolting and I cringed while reading and I am at a loss to render my horror and the allure of American Psycho, far from grateful for the strength of Ellis' ability to evoke sympathy towards a wholly unsympathetic character. Fascinatingly complex and horrific, it can't be absorbed on just one level; whether it's political or social satire, scathing commentary on post-modernism's idols, the pursuit of nothing becoming a goal in itself, the overweening compulsion to salve wounds in Victimized America, the pathology of psychosis, that same pathology both mesmerizing and tiresome, just like it is in real life. Worse than driving past an accident and steeling yourself not to look at the foot peeking out from the shroud but doing so anyways, just to know; American Psycho throws the gratuitous in your face and berates the Look/Don't Look game we play instead of confronting the issue head on and without dodging, challenging the reader to take things for what they are: The reticence to look at ourselves and say This is who I am.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire

I'm a fan of used-book stores and finding treasures like a 1912 edition of Les Romanesques de Rostand given to Vivian Richards of Columbus, Ohio from her grandmother Sarah. Another practical benefit is not having to pay full price and if you are a miser-in-training like I am, then you can understand the relief I have that I did not pay full price for Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Maguire's craft is popular throughout reading group circles, known for his spins on fairy tales - was the Wicked Witch of the West misunderstood? - and Confessions is no different, this time around writing like a one-hit wonder trying to fulfill contractural obligations. Unfortunately I relate, perhaps why I disliked the book. If you value your time, you'll pass; if you have nothing better to do, have little taste, and enjoy bland prose and affect, then pick it up; but don't pay full price because even you will regret it.

An American Summer, Frank Deford

Any book that makes me cry merits outstanding praise, despite biases against overt and nostalgic sentimentality, a quality not lacking: "I was getting to be a devious little kid. But then, that was the style when I was growing up. The idea then wasn't to clash head on; rather, children were taught to test the world by bending the rules rather than defy it by breaking them. We were the generation of the incremental, the oblique, and what we lacked in candor, we gained in civility." An American Summer is Leave it to Beaver Meets Polio, a summer-long encounter between an iron lung and a 14 year old boy finding his place. Deford captures the mono ke aware, the Japanese concept of the transience of all things beautiful, and the challenge one is faced with when those beautiful things come to an end. Not only is An American Summer a must re-read, I've placed it on the same shelf as Les Mis, The Iliad, and Memoirs of a Geisha. Buy it. Read it. Enjoy.

Five Quarters of the Orange, Joanne Harris

Fast Food Nation drew attention to expanding waistlines but has anybody noticed the danger in this genre dialect, a fusion of cookbook and tale? A distracted reader in the kitchen with sharp knives and hot ovens and we’re talking lawsuits. Place Like Water for Chocolate in Nazi-occupied France, add three enfants, a widow, tiny village, and recipes for crêpes, pastries, and wines, and you have Harris’ Five Quarters of the Orange. Neither mawkish nor simpering, Harris layers a coming-of-age plot with nostalgia and a careful balance between omniscience and revelation, ending up with a bittersweet tale of reconciling the self with the past. If you’ve read Chocolat or Blackberry Wine, then you know what awaits; if not, read Chocolat instead of Five Quarters of the Orange and quit the kitchen. I rather enjoyed it, but it won't be a re-read.

Sample reviews from 2002:

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Breathtaking. A boy and a tiger adrift on the Pacific, a psychological, spiritual, emotional tour de force. If it doesn't move you, then you're a cold-hearted scuzz.

The Twilight of American Culture, Morris Berman

Liberal schlock espousing elitism and intellectual monasticism as a means of preserving culture in a society gone amok and flirting with social disaster. Not quite a the sky is falling treatise, it's a thoughtful analysis of current social ills that makes me wonder if he's a closet conservative. He pulled a Clinton by cloaking conservative causes and calls to action in liberal rhetoric-speak, but don't be fooled: If you're a liberal liberal, you'll be dismayed by the book. If you're an open-minded liberal, it may be engaging. If you're conservative, it'll remind you that yes, some liberals have common sense. Not many, but some.

La Peste, Camus

If my mother's milk tasted as good as Camus' French, I wouldn't be weaned. Read it aloud to yourself by candelight. An old favorite.

The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

For the record, I read this before she was discovered by The New York Times. Was planning this for a Christmas gift to everybody on my list before it became a Book of the Month Club book and was reviewed by Newsweek and Time. No joke, it made me cry under the covers.

Singing Boy, Dennis McFarland

Boy witnesses father's murder; has bad dreams; mother traverses own dark woods; boy becomes Beatrice; all is well. Moving prose, moving story, but I anticipate a Lifetime Television for Women adaptation where the little boy runs into his mama's arms and the violins play.

 

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