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« February, 2002 »
The Periodic Table

Levi’s autobigraphical collection of tales about his life before during and after WWII uses as its narrative device the periodic table of elements. Chapters are all titled with these elements and Levi -- a chemist by training -- tells stories about himself and his life, loosely linked to the chosen element. A few of the chapters, written in italic type, seem to be purely fiction. One of the final chapters -- post-WWII when he is employed as a chemist in Italy -- recounts how Levi crosses the path of a German man who he met and interacted with when he was a concentration camp prisoner. Levi spends a lot of time reflecting on the difficulties he encountered being a Jew trying to find and keep work in Europe in the WWII era.

The Sofa Surfin Handbook

Since I travel frequently and cheaply, I am always looking for advice on how to save money or be a better houseguest. This collection of essays really tries to distill the essential information you need when spending time at the homes of others. The author seems to be an accomplished surfer herself and her advice rings true to my experience. Some of the other essays are not quite as well put together or interesting and seemto be based more on heresay than actual experience. One notable exception ot this is the chapter on people with AIDS travveling including helpful information such as how to cross borders carrying hundreds of pills and how to stay healthy on the road. This book sort of just missed what I was hoping it would be, but it is a good introduction on taking advantage of free and almost-free hospitality when travelling on the cheap.

Odds Off

Madden has a style like Adrian Tomie which is what first drew me to this graphic novel. It’s a vaguely fantastical story about a couple in a relationship that is winding down and a writer character who has “word lice” and is stuck in a writer’s block. The illustrations are strong and the plot is also interesting. I made short work of this story.

Empress of the World

My friend Sara wrote a book! I have known Sara for a lot of the time she was writing this and it was exciting to finally get to read it. I first settled down just to give it a looksee. When I looked up, several hours later, I had finished the book and gotten to know a lot about her teenaged characters and the trials and tribulations they go through at a summer camp for smart kids where the main [female] character falls for another girl. The relationship is treated seriously yet honestly at a teenage level. The story is interesting enough to be useful and captivating for teens, yet not so graphic that it will freak out more conservative readers. A real accomplishment for challenging subject matter.

Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For

Another great Dykes book by Bechdel, this one covering the birth of Clarice and Toni’s baby and the breakup of Mo and Harriet. Bechdel’s books are always pleasantly busy with characters scooting around all over the place and this one does not disappoint.

Taylor Made -- The Best of Bee Talk

Richard Taylor is a philosopher as well as a columnist for the magazine Bee Culture. This book is a collection of his columns arranged not by date of publication but by relevant season. The result can be a bit discombobulating, as when the chronology of his essays directly contradict the chronology of his adventures in beekeeping [fomerly an extraction honey producer, he is now a comb honey producer only -- the book flip flops back and forth between the two methods]. Taylor is a thoughtful and practical man and his book is half reflections on the nature of beekeeping and half useful advice for the new beekeeper. If you’re not experienced in the world of bees, the vocabulary can be a bit daunting, but Taylor’s writing is so approachable and friendly, this is not much of a hurdle to overcome.

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

Pancake was a young Southern writer who killed himself before he could become a household name. I’d never heard of him until my roomate pressed his book into my hands. It’s a short collection of stories with a foreword and afterword by two of Pancake’s professors who both seem to have not come easily to terms with Pancake’s death. The stories he wrote are gripping and haunting tales of loss, denial and depression, mostly among the lower to middle class folks of Appalachia. Many of them are bleak, some are downright chilling in their absolute absence of hope. And yet, the characters have a three-dimensional quality that makes you care deeply about their petty squabbles and mental defects. Once I picked this book up, I could not put it down.

The Nothing That Is

I got this book looking for a concise history of zero and was disappointed. I think my disappoinment stemmed more from what I was expecting than what this book is. Kaplan guides us through years and years of mathematical development. He gives us a good idea of just how hellish calculations and mathematical relationships must have been before the idea of a null marker as a placeholder. Can you imagine trying to do long division using only roman numerals? Along the way, however, he stops to meander through related ideas or, often, to present his own theories as to how different cultures got to zero from their older systems of measurement. I’m not sure how qualified Kaplan was to present these theories, but they felt like a tangent away from the actual “history” and into idle speculation. A good book, a rich book, but not the book I wanted to read.

Author Unknown

I heard Foster interviewed on the radio and was pleased to find that I could still get his book out of the library. Foster is a pioneer in the field of literary forensics. He uses comparative analysis of texts to try to determine the authors of unknown works. He is the professor who discovered the identity of the writer of Primary Colors and helped nail down the identity of the Unabomber and the man who wrote Twas the Night Before Christmas. He writes in a chatty easy-to-read style about cases he’s worked on and problems he’s had along the way -- Joe Klein, the revealed Anonymous from Primary Colors, denied being the author of the book for six months while Foster sweated it out. I found this book really engaging and a fascinating look at lexical patterns and how they can reflect a personal identity.


This is more of a novella than a novel and really more of a short story than a novella. The story of an officer and his wife who commit suicide together as a result of a political disgrace really gains context through the author’s later high-profile suicide using a similar method. That aside the writing in this book rings with clarity and passion which can be a bitoff-putting considering the story which ends with the meticulously detailed death of both characters. It has been accused of having “major preoccupation with sado-masochistic death ‘beautified’ by an esthetic of blood and sexuality” and this is probably true. Mishima was an exceptionally gifted writer and the kinship he felt with this subject matter gives the story a frank honesty that is glorious.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital

There are many kinds of stories about “the one that got away” and the most poignant, to me, are the tales of deep soulful childhood friendships that got weird and distanced without the author really understanding why. This is a story of an adult woman mostly told in flashbacks of her being a teenager with her best girl friend -- a bit brasher, a bit bolder -- and the things they do for eachother. The narrator also briefly comes back to the present to relate her semi-satisfying relationship with her husband which definitely runs neither as hot nor as cold as her teenaged friendship. The book was good, interesting and compelling but it was very similar to one of the Connie Willis short stories I’d recently read and paled somewhat by comparison.