Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review - The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

Synopsis: Laurel Gray Hawthorne wasn't seen a ghost in the thirteen years she and her husband have lived in their beautiful gated community. Then, in the dog days of a Florida August, she wakes to find Molly, her duaghter's best friend, standing by her bed, who then leads her to her own small body floating lifelessly in the Hawthornes' pool. Laurel's carefully constructed existence cracks, and the past seeps through ...

Laurel and her sister, Thalia, grew up in what looked like a typical blue-collar home. But the Grays have been hiding a skeleton in their closet. While Laurel built her "perfect" life, Thalia became an actress with a capital A, a woman who doesn't fit in Laurel's tidy world. Now Molly can't rest until someone learns her secrets. Laurel turns to her sister, and together they begin a journey that will unearth their family's history, the true state of Laurel's marriage, and what really happened to the girl who stopped swimming.

First Line: "Until the drowned girl came to Laurel's bedroom, ghosts had never walked in Victorianna,"

Random Quote: "They had left behind America, even the disposable Wal-Mart culture of regular American poverty. In DeLop, nothing was disposable, because nothing was ever replaced. Everything was saved and stored and kept in decaying heaps."

Review: This is not a book I would normally have picked up, but I got a copy to review on my blog from Hatchette Group publishers so I read it & I'm glad I did.

Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper. Hale Cou...Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

This was a really fun read! The story of the two sisters trying to come to terms with their pasts & their differences amidst a murder mystery that came floating up to the more conventional sister's door is compelling, funny, & very human.

The author has said that this is a book about poverty &, although only the last quarter of the book is spent in DeLop, AL, the grandmother's hometown & the site of bone-crushing phyical poverty, there is poverty of one kind or another throughout this book - poverty of language, poverty of understanding, poverty of attention & caring.

So many of us live shut off in gated communities going from cookie cutter house to picture perfect office rarely truly seeing a world around us that doesn't look just like us. By the same token, an equal number of us go from our groovy lofts to our political meeting to the alternative art space run by our friend's lover's hairdresser & we tend to hold others in contempt, as well. In the end, perhaps a reconciliation is in order between all of us - that & a bit more tolerance might just make the world turn a little more peacefully.

Don't forget to visit my giveaway for a chance to win this book! I have 5 copies to give & you have until 5/13 to enter!

What can I do to help? Here are some organizations fighting poverty:

Feeding America - the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity, with network members supplying food to more than 25 million Americans each year. Their network of more than 200 food banks serves all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.The Feeding America network secures and distributes more than 2 billion pounds of donated food and grocery products annually.

Kiva - Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty. Kiva is the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world.

The Meals on Wheels Association of America - The Meals On Wheels Association of America (MOWAA) is the oldest and largest organization in the United States representing those who provide meal services to people in need. MOWAA’s mission is to provide visionary leadership and professional training and to develop partnerships that will ensure the provision of quality nutrition services to seniors in need.
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Book Review - The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Synopsis: The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel (P.S.) is a story told by the wife four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family & mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it - from garden seeds to Scripture - is calamitously transformed on African soil. The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledging African nation of its autonomy.

First Line: "Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened."

Random Quote: "The death of something living is the price of our own survival, and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born & bound to keep."

Review: This was a very difficult read for me & not because of the politics. I already knew the history & already shared the author's view of the impact of Western "civilization" on Africa. I found much of the writing in this book to be lyrical & beautiful - so much so tha

Stamp Belgian Congo 1894 50cImage via Wikipedia

t the large portions of the book that were frankly pretty pedestrian were incredibly disappointing.

I appreciated that Kingsolver was able to write such distinctive female characters & disappointed that she seemed to blow past both of her story's antagonists - the father & the CIA pilot. Where her female characters had real life both of these characters were essentially caricatures & that blunted the force of some of her arguments as well as the dynamic in her storytelling.

I also think this book deserved an edit. I was about 200 or so pages in before I got interested. The final bit of the book - a sort of freeflowing "Where Are They Now?" thing - seemed tacked on - as if Kingsolver couldn't decide what to do once she'd reached the denouement that pushed everyone out of the African village one way or the other.

It's also unclear to me why the mother in the story gets almost no opportunity to speak when the bits that are written in her voice are among the most fleshed out. She's certainly a more "real" character (even in her silence) than is Rachel, the older sister who is prone to malaprorisms of one kind or another. I really wish that piece of gimmickry had been left out - without it Rachel would've been another interesting voice, but the visible technique of the device (like seeing the man behind the curtain) took me out of the story every time.

Despite these criticisms, this is a book worth reading, if only for the very last chapter which is in the voice of my favorite character, Ruth May. That along with many moments of beautiful physical description scattered throughout the book make it a worthwhile read, if one that is sometimes incredibly frustrating.
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Teaser Tuesdays

This is a weekly bookish meme hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
My Teaser

"Church is the place for it," said Tata Ndu. "Ici, maintenant, we have making a vote for Jesus Christ in the office of personal God, Kilanaga village."

- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Monday, April 27, 2009

Book Giveaway - The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

Synopsis: Lauren Gray Hawthorne needs to make things pretty, whether she's helping her mother keep family skeletons in the closet or sewing her acclaimed art quilts. Her estranged sister, Thalia, is her opposite, an impoverished actress who prides herself on exposing the lurid truths lurking behind middle class niceties.

While Laurel's life seems neatly on track-- a passionate marriage, a treasured daughter, a lovely suburban home-- everything she holds dear is threatened the night she is visited by the ghost of her 13-year-old neighbor Molly. The ghost leads Laurel to the real Molly, floating lifelessly in the Hawthorne's backyard pool. Molly's death is an unseemly mystery that no one in her whitewashed neighborhood is up to solving. Laurel enlists Thalia's help, even though she knows it comes with a high price tag.

Together, they set out on a life-altering journey that triggers startling revelations about their family's haunted past, the true state of Laurel's marriage, and the girl who stopped swimming.

Visit the author's website to learn more!

Thanks to Valerie at Hachette I am giving away 5 copies of this book. I'm planning to review this book in the coming weeks.

  • Leave a comment on this blog with your email address to receive one entry.
  • Follow me on this blog to receive another entry.
  • Follow me via Networked blogs on Facebook for yet another entry.
  • Blog about this giveaway & I'll add 5 more entries to your total - just leave me a link in my comments field.
  • Books will be delivered directly from the publisher so the giveaway is only for residents of the US & Canada. No PO boxes, please.
Winners will be announced 5/13/2009 - Random Drawing.

Good luck & keep reading!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Book Lists

My mother is a librarian. She's retired now having been director of 3 different library systems. She's a big part of why I love to read so much, although my father reads voraciously, as well.

In any event, when I was younger she was a children's librarian - Coordinator of Children's Services for Memphis Public Library. I spent a lot of time in the Children's Room at the library. It was within walking distance from my elementary school as was my father's work at Memphis Academy of Arts (now Memphis College of Art). About half the time I would walk over the Academy after school & do my homework in the cafeteria & wait for my dad to get out of class so we could go home or go get my mom. The other half of the time I'd walk to the library & read & do homework & wait for my dad to come pick up my mom & me.

My mother was very active in the American Library Association (ALA) which puts out lots of lists of various kinds, including a list of books for the college-bound. I remember that they used to put these out as little printed pamphlets. The one for the college-bound and the Newberry Award winners lists are the ones I remember most. I used to love to work my way down these lists & because of them I read a lot of good literature. The downside was how much of what I was supposed to read in high school honors English & college Literature classes I had already read.

In any event, I recently found the Lists of Bests website where there are many many different kinds of lists, including various "definitive" lists of books. I'm always looking to expand my reading - it's so easy to just grab the latest thriller & forget to read beyond that. In addition, while I'm well read in American & British literature & don't have too many holes where plays or poetry are concerned, I'm less well read in international literature beyond some obvious folks like Garcia Marquez & Kafka & I'd like to change that.

So, I picked out some lists & am picking random books off of them to add to my "to be read" shelf. The Poisonwood Bible, which I'm currently reading, came off of the 1001 Books Y

Memphis Public LibraryImage by Ryan Guill via Flickr

ou Must Read Before You Die list (for 2006 & 2008, I believe). I'm 26% & 20% completed with those two respectively.

It's a fun activity & reminds me of all that time I spent wandering around in the stacks at the library when I was growing up - looking through books & picking new ones off the list or just new ones in general. I still love the library & am a regular patron at the main library here in San Leandro. Libraries are beacons of freedom, light & change in an otherwise often dark universe.

I heard a story on NPR recently - it was part of the This I Believe series. It was written by a woman from (I think) India who had been a child bride & who talked about how learning to read had changed her life forever. Apparently her chosen husband hadn't wanted her & hadn't taken care of her & she found herself on her own. There was a school across the river from her village where people could go to learn to read, but there was no bridge & if there was too much rain the people in her village couldn't get to the school. She really wanted to go to the school & managed to convince the rest of the village that they should build a bridge across the river so everyone could go to the school. While there she learned to read & through reading she changed her life in some fundamental ways. I don't remember the details & I can't find the essay, but I remember it because I too believe that reading can save your life.

So I'm pulling books off my lists & reading them & checking them off. Mostly, I'm expanding how I see the world & what I see in it. & I'm reading & it's as magical now as it was when I was a little girl.
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Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review - The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming

Synopsis: Six years ago, after working for the British Secret Intelligence Service, Alec Milius got out of the spy game after being drummed out by MI5. His retirement came after unbearably great personal cost, but just because he's walked away from the life doesn't mean that life has walked away from him.

Now living in exile in Madrid, quietly and as far under the radar as possible, Milius keeps a constant eye out for the enemies he made, hoping to avoid any future involvement. Yet when a prominent Basque politician goes missing under suspicious circumstances, Milius soon finds himself embroiled in another international conspiracy.

Review: This is a follow up to A Spy By Nature, which I haven't read & maybe should for bits & pieces of this book to make more sense to me.

Lots of people think this guy is the next Le Carre, but I'm not one of them. There a

Calle de Alcalá (street) in Madrid (Spain). At...Image via Wikipedia

re plenty of twists & turns in this & the writing is clean & effective, but ultimately I couldn't manage to care about the main character & in this book that was a problem for me.

Cumming plots well, keeping the pieces of his puzzle in play quite easily. He write
s fairly vividly of Madrid & of the Basque country, although I wished for a bit more information on ETA & the general conflict. I suspect our hero could have used this information, too & maybe that's the point of not having it.

Our hero seems convinced that he's Philby & the world is out to get him, but comes off as rather self-important so by the time various people DO get him I was rather relieved &, frankly, on their side.
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WINNERS CHOSEN - Book Giveaway - Testimony

This giveaway is now closed for entries - all winners chosen.
Synopsis: At a New England boarding school, a sex scandal is about to
break. Even more shocking than the sexual acts themselves is the fact that they were caught on videotape. A Pandora's box of revelations, the tape triggers a chorus of voices--those of the men, women, teenagers, and parents involved in the scandal--that details the ways in which lives can be derailed or destroyed in one foolish moment.

Writing with a pace and intensity surpassing even her own greatest work, Anita Shreve delivers in TESTIMONY a gripping emotional drama with the impact of a thriller. No one more compellingly explores the dark impulses that sway the lives of seeming innocents, the needs and fears that drive ordinary men and women into intolerable dilemmas, and the ways in which our best intentions can lead to our worst transgressions.

Thanks to Valerie at Hachette I am giving away 5 copies of this book. I'm planning to review this book in the coming weeks.

The following entries win a copy of the book:

  • stateofdenmark
  • wwrk
  • Jess
  • Shannansbooks
  • Ashley

All winners will receive email today with further details!

New winner chosen! Jess already won a copy of the book elsewhere & was kind enough to tell me so the new winner is arrowheadmac!
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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Book Review - Fall by Colin McAdam

Synopsis: Awkward Noel thinks he's been allowed into the inner circle of his elite boarding school when he discovers his senior-year roommate is to be handsome, athletic Julius. Julius, in turn, cares only for fleeting joys -
sneaking out to parties, playing pranks with friends, and spending the night with his girlfriend, Fall. Always an outsider, Noel develops an unhealthy fascination with Julius, and his crush on Fall begins to border on a dangerous obsession. When she disappears close to winter break, the boys are forced to face their own inner desires - a confrontation that will ultimately change the course of their lives.

Review: I got an advanced review copy of this from It's ostensibly a boarding school story. Rich, popular & privileged Julius is dating Fall (short for Fallon) the prettiest girl in the boarding school. Noel, a misfit with violent tendencies, becomes his roommate & is thrilled to be accepted into the inner circle & more & more obsessed with Fall. When Fall disappears, the true nature of these relationships and people are revealed.

On a deeper level this book is an exploration of narrative voice & of how narrative voice shapes story & what we ultimately can & cannot know about it & about others.

Julius' voice is handled conversationally. He appears to us through snippets of dialogue

ETON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 17:  The 'Collegers' ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

between himself & others & between himself & himself. There's nothing earth-shattering about Julius. He's your basic 17-year-old boy - in love for the first time, experiencing sex for the first time, trying to find out what life is all about. He's not Holden Caulfield - preternaturally intellectual & self-aware - he's something much simpler & much more real.

Noel writes from the perspective of a 30-year-old looking back on events. His parts of the story are much more a complete & polished narrative. Noel is also a sociopath, as we discover throughout the course of the novel, & his reflections communicate that sense of close observation, of taking mental notes on how others act & react so as to perform the role of human being with realism.

In the end, Fall is a cipher. She is given no voice of her own & exists only in the ways she is observed & discussed by Julius & Noel. She mirrors our experience of the beautiful young girl who disappears & is probably murdered - reported on endlessly, discussed around water coolers, & always little more than a set of pictures on the news.

I liked this book. Colin McAdam can write. There are ways in which this is perhaps more of a writing exercise than a novel with a compelling story, but for me the writing was pleasurable in & of itself & now I'm curious to go back & read his first book.
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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Book Review: A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines by Anthony Bourdain

Synopsis: In A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines, Anthony Bourdain crisscrosses the world sampling local delicacies from the sublime to the bizarre. In Japan, he eats traditional Fugu, a poisonous blowfish that can be prepared only by specially licensed chefs. He travels to Cambodia, up the mine-studded road to Pailin into autonomous Khmer Rouge territory and to Phnom Penh's Gun Club, where local fare is served up alongside a menu of available firearms. In Saigon, he's treated to a sustaining meal of live cobra heart before moving on to snack with the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta. Further west, an entire Portugese village has been fattening a pig for months in anticipation of his arrival. Kitchen Confidential fans will recognize the Gironde of Tony's youth in a moving personal journey to France - with his brother, he revisits the tiny fishing village where he sampled his first oyster forty years ago. To Moscow and London, the Sahara and Mexico, to the lochs of Scotland and back home again, Bourdain's itinerary touches every corner of the globe.

Review: This was good, but I didn't enjoy it as much as Kitchen Confidential. I've been trying to decide why & I think it's because ultimately this isn't so much a food book as it is a travel book. That's okay, but the notion of hunting down the perfect meal has an appeal to me & led me to expect something different.

Having said all of that, I enjoyed the book. It's hard not to love someone who

Chợ nổi Cái Răng, the most famous floating mar...Image via Wikipedia

hits the jackpot with a best seller & says to themselves, "Hmmm ... I think I'll see if I can get someone to pay for me to travel around the world eating cool stuff & looking at cool & interesting places." That someone actually did agree to pay for this & that it was the Food Network makes it all the more amusing since he spends much of Kitchen Confidential slagging it & many of its chefs.

If you've seen No Reservations you know the schtick - Tony visits exotic locale, meets interesting people, talks a lot, & eats cool food. Often there is is drunkenness & there is the occasional oblilgatory inspired by the producers moment of Eat-This-Weird-Thing-While-We-Film-You-It'll-Be-Great-Remember-We're-Paying. I like that Bourdain gets that great food doesn't all happen at 5-star restaurants. It can, but it doesn't happen only there. Great food also happens at people's houses, from street vendors, down at the local.

It was fun to read about his meal at The French Laundry, but I'm not dropping $400-$500 on a meal anytime soon & I much more enjoyed his writing about his adventures in Mexico with the families of some of his cooks from his New York restaurant. All in all I think that this kind of thing works better as a TV series. Ultimately with travel I want to actually see the place, the food, the people. What works as voiceover makes for okay reading, but just okay.
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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Book Review - Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Synopsis: Most diners believe that their sublime sliver of seared foie gras, topped with an ethereal buckwheat blini and a drizzle of piquant huckleberry sauce, was created by a culinary artist of the highest order, a sensitive, highly refined executive chef. The truth is more brutal. More likely, writes Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, that elegant three-star concoction is the collaborative effort of a team of"wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths," in all likelihood pierced or tattooed and incapable of uttering a sentence without an expletive or a foreign phrase.

Such is the muscular view of the culinary trenches from one who's been groveling in them, with obvious sadomasochistic pleasure, for more than 20 years. CIA-trained Bourdain, currently the executive chef of the celebrated Brasserie Les Halles, wrote two culinary mysteries before his first (and infamous) New Yorker essay launched this frank confessional about the lusty and larcenous real lives of cooks and restaurateurs. He is obscenely eloquent, unapologetically opinionated, and a damn fine storyteller--a Jack Kerouac of the kitchen. Those without the stomach for this kind of joyride should note his opening caveat: "There will be horror stories. Heavy drinking, drugs, screwing in the dry-goods area, unappetizing industry-wide practices. Talking about why you probably shouldn't order fish on a Monday, why those who favor well-done get the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, and why seafood frittata is not a wise brunch selection.... But I'm simply not going to deceive anybody about the life as I've seen it."

Review: I love Anthony Bourdain. He's cynical & intelligent & loves food & cooking & being alive. He's a pleasure seeker of the first order. He's honest & knows when he's been bad, self-destructive, or boorish. He knows how to laugh at himself. He likes The Sex Pistols & Television & The Cramps. He rocks!

This book is well-written and often hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud wh

New York CityImage by DragonFlyEye via Flickr

ile reading & then having to say, "Honey, hold up, you gotta hear this." My sweetie, having spent many years on the line in everything from Mexican to Italian to 5-star French kept laughing, then shuddering, then saying things like, "I've had that day." This was followed by more shudders & general cringing and the tale of the drunken Belgian pastry check who burnt his puff pastries & threw an industrial-sized tray hot from the oven at the dishwasher's head. The dishwasher escaped decapitation and 3rd degree burns because he knew how to duck.

Bourdain is honest & brutally funny & combines his personal experience in & of kitchens with historical tidbits and other analysis. Anyone who is dreaming of opening a restaurant should his chapter, "A Day in the Life." It'll make whatever desk job you're currently doing look pretty damned good.

Food has always been a central part of my life. I come from a long line of cooks - my father & his mother, his sister, my cousin, my mother the baker - the list goes on. In my family food is everything. We're either talking about what we're eating now or about what we're going to eat next. The preparing and eating of food are transcendent pleasures so far as I'm concerned. I remember the first times I've eaten all kinds of things & I will eat just about anything that doesn't try to eat me back.

I get this same sense from Anthony Bourdain about his love of food - it's ritual, it's sacrament, it's play, it's essential. Read this book.
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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Remembrance of Things Past

One of the best presents I got this past Christmas was a rice cooker that my parents sent. Having a rice cooker makes everything about your life easier in ways you won't really know until you've started using one.

I've made all kinds of things from rice with lemon, dill, mint & whatever sausage & various veggies I had in the fridge - sometimes with some cheese (feta or whatever else), sometimes not.

I got brave this weekend & made rice pudding. Nothing fancy - just plain old rice pudding with milk & egg & a bit of sugar. I was out of vanilla, but oh well.

In the end I decided to throw in about a teaspoon of powdered cardamom. I stirred it in & let things cool down & had a bite & wow - it was really good. & it took me back, although I couldn't figure out where. So I had another bite & then it hit me - snow ice cream!

Winter Midtown TwilightImage by gatesofmemphis via Flickr

I grew up in Memphis, so it didn't snow very often, but when it did my dad would always make me snow ice cream. It's pretty simple - snow, some milk or cream, a dash of vanilla, & most people put in a dash of cinnamon. Once I ate my rice pudding, I realized that my dad always put in cardamom cuz there I was - just like Proust with his madeline - standing in the kitchen in my white gogo boots covered in melting snow eating snow ice cream with my dad.
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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Book Review - Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry

Summary: The cozy little town of Pine Deep buried the horrors of its past a long time ago. Thirty years have gone by since the darkness descended and the Black Harvest began, a time when a serial killer sheared a bloody swath through the quiet Pennsylvania village. The evil that once coursed through Pine Deep has been replaced by cheerful tourists getting ready to enjoy the country's largest Halloween celebration in what is now called "The Spookiest Town in America." But then--a month before Halloween--it begins. Unspeakably desecrated bodies. Inexplicable insanity. And an ancient evil walking the streets, drawing in those who would fall to their own demons and seeking to shred the very soul of this rapidly fracturing community. Yes, the residents of Pine Deep have drawn together and faced a killer before. But this time, evil has many faces--and the lust and will to rule the earth. This struggle will be epic.

Review: I really like horror, but only when it's well done. Sadly it isn't often & this book is no exception. It's my understanding that this is part one of a trilogy. I suspect that if Mr. Maberry had done a lot more editing he might've gotten one good horror book. As it stands, he's got three pretty mediocre ones.

The book has a nice setting - a small Pennsylvania town where something evil once

FORT MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 09:  A repossession ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

happened that has cashed in on its haunted history. I like rural horror & this one was setting up to be a decent example of this one & then in walked every other kind of complication the author could think of - serial killers fleeing from a drug deal gone bad, out of town cops on the hunt, the town Tow Truck Driver & crazy, the evil stepfather, the weirded out mayor - it goes on & on & on until at some point I just stopped caring.

There's a nugget of a good story in here, but it's buried very deep. I'm also really not too fond of horror defined as the very most blood and gore that can be crammed onto one page (or in one scene in a film, etc.). At some point the loving detail of ultraviolence becomes pornographic & not in a good way.

I won't be looking for the rest of the trilogy. I think I'll wait for the next one by Joe Hill who wrote Heart-Shaped Box. He's a great writer who knows how to tell a great horror story without succumbing to too many cliches.
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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Book Review - Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in East LA by Luis Rodriguez

Summary: By age twelve, Luis Rodriguez was a veteran of East L.A. gang warfare. Lured by a seemingly invincible gang culture, he witnessed countless shootings, beatings, and arrests, then watched with increasing fear as drugs, murder, suicide, and senseless acts of street crime claimed friends and family members.

Before long, Rodriguez saw a way out of the barrio through education and the power of words and successfully broke free from years of violence and desperation. Achieving success as an award-winning Chicano poet, he was sure the streets would haunt him no more -- until his son joined a gang. Rodriguez fought for his child by telling his own story in this memoir that explores the motivations of gang life and cautions against the death and destruction that inevitably claim its participants.

East LA in Woodland HillsImage by Fire Monkey Fish via Flickr

Review: This book is on the ALA's list of 100 most frequently banned books of 1990 through 2000.

This is a memoir of gang life & of growing up poor and Chicano in East LA in the '60's & 70's. It's also about learning who you are and finding ways out - through writing, through painting, & through social activism.

Rodriguez is primarily a poet and writer of short stories & it shows in this collection of snap shots of moments from his past. For those wanting a standard tale with a classical throughline and neat conclusions, this book will disappoint.

I enjoyed the author's imagery and the ways he plays with the genre of memoir. What is memory? What do we remember? How do we remember it? For me so much of my memory is just what he provides - little snapshots of moments in time.

From a political/social perspective, this book does a good job of elucidating the reasons kids join gangs and the possible paths out. He talks about gangs as a kind of mass suicide & that's an idea that stuck with me - all these kids looking for family & hating themselves.

In one of those funny moments where influences collide that can happen while reading, I kept thinking of another gang memoir that I read when I was younger. I remembered that it was written by a Puerto Rican guy that grew up in Spanish Harlem & was also about all of the ways that books saved him, but I couldn't remember the name of the book. It was right there on the tip of my tongue. I could remember that the author was named Piri, but that was all. Then I turned a page & there it was - Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas - turns out Luis Rodriguez read that one, too.

This book is also full of shades of Sandra Cisneros - a Chicana writer & poet whose work I've read off & on since her first book - The House on Mango Street. Like Cisneros, Rodriguez' work is full of rhythm & bright color.

I liked this book a great deal, although I don't think it offers any long-term solutions to these problems. Like The Corner, David Simon's killer tome on life on a Baltimore drug corner, this book illustrates the condition. Perhaps education really is the only way out, but to get there we're going to have to spend some money & stop using our educational system to ghettoize people based on class, race, income level, & the phase of the moon on Fridays when the cat's too tired to sing.

The world is a complex & beautiful place & in the end maybe only words can save us.
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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Book Review - The Virgin Queen's Daughter by Ella March Chase

Summary: Tudor intrigue inspires yet another historical romance in this story of a willful girl who discovers she is the Virgin Queen's illegitimate daughter. Five-year-old Elinor (Nell) de Lacey is the apple of her scholarly father's eye, and while the two are visiting the Tower of London, Nell makes a childish attempt to rescue Princess Elizabeth. By the time Nell turns 16, Elizabeth is queen,

Coronation portrait of Elizabeth I of England....Image via Wikipedia

Nell's father is dead and Nell, over her mother's objections, heads to court. In short order, she's exposed to the court's conspiring and cajoling, seducing and betraying, plotting and protecting. A symbol of that world, Lady Jane Grey, haunts Nell as she uncovers the truth about her birth while trying to resist the charms of Sir Gabriel Wyatt. When Nell arouses Elizabeth's suspicions and possibly her wrath, Baroness de Lacey, once a lady-in-waiting herself, returns to court to prove the power of a mother's love.

Review: A pleasant little historical confection working from the premise that Queen Elizabeth I had a daughter.

Court intrigue, romance, torture - a nice, fluffy read.

As historical fiction goes I prefer Sharon Kay Penman, but the Tudors are always fun & this one kept me occupied on BART.
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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Book Review - Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical by Anthony Bourdain

Summary: In 1906, at a prosperous Long Island summer home, a family falls ill and typhoid is diagnosed. When Dr George Soper is called in to find the source of the contagion, he notices that the household cook has gone missing. She is Mary Mallon, the woman who would become known as Typhoid Mary. Soper, sanitary engineer turned sleuth, sees Mary as his Moriarty. He finds there has been an outbreak of typhoid fever in every household she has worked in over the past decade. Mary is a 'carrier', a seemingly healthy individual who passes on her dangerous germs, sometimes with fatal consequences. Now Soper must hunt the cook down before she can infect more unsuspecting victims. A poor Irish immigrant, Mary refuses to believe that she can harbour typhoid in her strong and healthy body, and she doesn't intend to go quietly.

Review: Typhoid Mary was a cook.

That's the lens through which Anthony Bourdain filters his telling of her story. This is a bit longer than an essay & a bit shorter than an actual book, but a fun read. I especially enjoyed

Mary Mallon (left bed) in a hospital bed durin...Image via Wikipedia

the parts where he talked about cooks & cooking & about the Irish women who immigrated to America during the potato famine. Also enjoyed reading about the foodies at the time.

I like Anthony Bourdain. He's smart & funny & passionate about food. He writes well, too.

I'm positive there are more in-depth academic tomes about Typhoid Mary with oodles of footnotes & citations & 10 or 12 different theoretical perspectives, but this one was just fine.
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Monday, April 06, 2009

Book Review - The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

Summary: On December 9, 1979, smallpox, the most deadly human virus, ceased to exist in nature. After eradication, it was confined to freezers located in just two places on earth: the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Maximum Containment Laboratory in Siberia. But these final samples were not destroyed at that time, and now secret stockpiles of smallpox surely exist. For example, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent end of its biological weapons program, a sizeable amount of the former Soviet Union's smallpox stockpile remains unaccounted for, leading to fears that the virus has fallen into the hands of nations or terrorist groups willing to use it as a weapon. Scarier yet, some may even be trying to develop a strain that is resistant to vaccines. This disturbing reality is the focus of this fascinating, terrifying, and important book.

Review: Another book that will give you some serious nightmares. Really cool & interesting stuff on how smallpox was eradicated by a huge team of people all over the world. At some point it was thought that the only smallpox left in the world was at the CDC in Atlanta & at a Russian virology facility.

Then came the 1980's & pretty good evidence that the Russians were conducting research on weaponizing smallpox. Meanwhile, US eradicated its supply of vaccine (to save money) - leaving us with about 1 vaccine for every 12,000 people. Then the Soviet Union fell

Roosevelt Island Smallpox HospitalImage by Amit Gupta via Flickr

apart & who knows where all those stores of weaponized smallpox went. Just yikes.

While the emerging hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola are pretty freakin' scary, they (so far) aren't airborne - transmission is from skin and mucous membrane contact. Ebola also tends to burn through a population very quickly - killing off so many people around it that it runs out of places to jump. This makes it a less than optimal bioterrorism weapon.

Smallpox, however, is unbelievably scary. It's airborne. During the 20th century it was responsible for between 300-500 million deaths. Transmission rates were it to re-emerge today are estimated to be at about an order of 10. That means 1 infected person would infect 10 others who would each infect 10 others, etc.

Preston covers the debate among current scientists around whether or not to continue working with smallpox & testing it. Those against argue that it should all be destroyed. Those for argue that it can't all be destroyed and that with the ever present threat of bioterrorism on the rise, research should continue if only for the purpose of developing better vaccines. There are a number of nasty complications associated with the current vaccine which has been around since 1796.

Preston also talks a bit about the anthrax letters, transmission, and early stages of the investigation into who sent them, but as the book was published in 2002, not much is known at the time he was writing.

This book is definitely worth reading if you're interested in this stuff. It's technical enough, but not so technical you want to pull your eyes out. Quite enjoyable, if scary.
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