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Cruel & Unusual

Anotehr Kay Scarpetta mystery. Likable but not terribly gripping. I have a hard time remembering which of Cornwell’s books I’ve read because they all have these sort of flat titles that say very little about what the books are about. Thanks to our library catalog, I remembered that this one was about a killer on death row whose fingerprints kept showing up at murder sites when he was locked up and even after he was dead. Scarpetta is on the scene, also celebrating the holidays with her niece Lucy a “computer hacker” of sorts. Good for the airplane and not too gruesome, I enjoyed this, though found it forgettable.

Courting Trouble

Scottoline always writes books with good plots and unlikable characters. I’m not sure if it’s just because I have different feelings about the legal profession or the law in general, or if we’re just diferent people, her and I. In any case, this book was no different. The plot was a somewhat interesting legal thriller. A lawyer’s stalker escpaes from prison and that same week the woman who she has housesitting for her gets killed in her house. The lady lawyer puts two and two together and goes underground -- since everyone thinks she’s dead -- to find the killer. The lady lawyer is, throughout the entire book, a complete pain in the ass. She ignores advice from friends, she obsesses about her footwear, she drives like a maniac and, of course, she comes out on top in the end. I spent too much time getting annoyed at the main character -- how many times was she told to stay put when she snuck out? -- to enjoy the rest of this book. Scottoline is a good writer but I am looking forward to her writing some better charactedrs.


I almost never write a review for books I don’t finish but I have this to say: the reason I haven’t read another book in three weeks is because I have been trying, and failing, to finish reading this book. I got bogged down in the history, I didn’t care about the characters and it always felt like heavy lifting to even pick the damned thing up after a while. When it was due at the library I returned it unfinished. I’m aware that after Cryptonomicon the bar may have been set unreasonably high, but this book just wasn’t any good to read.

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland

Started reading this as the temperatures dipped into the teens here in Vermont and the windows weren’t plasticked and it felt damned cold. Then I read about these month long subsistence-hunting dogsled trips and I warmed right up thinking “well, at least I can feel my toes.” Ehrlich has a love affair with Greenland and some medical issue having to do with her heart that I couldn’t quite suss out was responsible for her going there once and then returning over and over for a period of seven years. This book is a collection of travelogues of that time.

Greenland is different from the US, and in fact different from most “civilized” places. People live more marginally, have very different social customs as a result and deal with strangers differently. Certain things that I know that I take for granted like private ownership of land, private property in general, and a cash economy are not givens there. Ehrlich discusses these issues in a very happenstance way, not in an “oh look how weird these people are” but also not in a “oh look how noble these people are” Her language is poetic and her observations are compelling. She intersperses her travelogues with those of Knud Rasmussen who had some of the earliest Western interactions with many of the indigenous peoples in the area. Like Rasmussen, Ehrlich respects and honors the cultures she interacts with while also knowing herself to be at some level not of their culture. This book will make you chilly to read it.

Through the Glass Wall: Journeys Into the Closed-Off Worlds of the Autistic

Buten has worked with autistic children for most of his adult life. He believes he somewhat inderstands them; in some cases he seems to want to be someone with autism. This book is a short look at his work with autistics and an attempt to get inside the mind of someone with severe autism.

Buten employs the device of describing what it might be like as someone with autism to deal with the sensory imact and overload of a normal day to day life. He posits these experiences -- such as getting into a bed and having to have the covers all arranged just so -- as first person experiences and then follows up by saying “of course this isn’t how I see it, but how I might see it....” which can get somewhat confusing. He discusses his work in various centers for children with autism, trying to deal with children who have extreme difficulty even being in the same room with other people, much less interacting with them. Buten seems to see himself as the person who “gets it” who can help these children where others fail. While I found his anecdotes inspiring and his tone cheerful and readable, I wondered if other people shared this same high opinion of him. Not that it matters terribly, it’s an interesting read, but definitely a one-sided one.

Still Lives: Narratives of Spinal Cord Injury

Cole is a doctor in the UK who works with people with paraplegia [called tetraplegia in the UK]. In his attempts to understand how to assist people with disabilities he started talking to them about what their day to day lives were like, how they coped with the daily living issues we all face such as work, relationships and occupying free time. He talks to a wide range of people most of whom can’t move practically anything below their necks or shoulders. All the people he talked to were injured in some way, none were born disabled or became disabled as a result of MS or other diseases.

As with any cross-section of 12 people, some were upbeat and some were not. Some were coping well and some were not. Some had whole new post-accident lives carved out for themselves and some did not. They all talk pretty matter-of-factly about such touchy issues as bowel evacuation, sex and relationships, their time spent in hospitals and in rehabilitative therapy, and getting on with their families. Some of the people he talks to are more high profile -- have written their own books about their experiences or have been in the media for attempts to utilize technology to assist them in gaining more movement control -- and these people seem to offer the more polished interviews. Others are not having an easy time of it and their words reflect the “sometimes it’s good, sometimes it sucks” reality of living with a disability.

Cole is also interested in pain. His idea is that many disabled people live in some sense with near-constant pain that they attempt to put a more positive face on in the interests of being able to move about in “politie society” and not be seen as a burden or a downer. Cole specifically talks to each of the people he interviews about the pain they experience, how they cope with it and how it affects their ability to interact with the larger world. The candid looks at the lives of these people is well-done, with just enough of Cole’s personal thoughts and research interjected to give it the feel of a linear narrative.

Ultimate Prizes

What a strange book this was. I pulled it off of the booksale shelf at the library because it was a hefty paperback that sounded as if it would be a good story. It turned out to be a story about an archdeacon living in the UK who was going through a series of emotional crisises that required the assistance of other members of the church to help him sort it out. While not totally my cup of tea -- I find the workings of the church mystifying and not super compelling -- I did read it all the way to the end if only to find out what happened. The main character does a lot of soul-searching, visiting with memebrs of his family he has practically abandoned, and tries to get some perspective on his life which by all accounts he has made a shambles of. He’s not a very likable character, but his unraveling of his strange set of rationalizations and justifications about how he lives his life makes for interesting reading. Apparently there is a whole series of these books about religious life in England called the Starwatch series. While I probably won’t pick up another one of them, this one was an okay read.

Blood and guts : a short history of medicine

I had a weird problem with this book... The author was a charming looking man, with a big goofy grin and a lovely face. His author bio mentioned that he had recently died, or rather referred to him as “the late Roy Porter” every time I picked up this book, I got sad thinking that the world was missing such a great writing talent who must have died fairly young. It was weird and inexplicable, I’m not like that usually.

So, it took me a while to finish the book which is a fascinating history of medicine, including such subjects as surgery, hospitals and medical treatments. Each chapter is digestable and interesting in their own rights and when put together they are a really intriguing look at the medical establishment. The very last section, on medical insurance, is the only one where you get a peek at Porter’s populist tendencies where he briefly bemoans the lack of quality medical care available to people who can’t afford it and also the corporatization of something as human as caring for the sick.

Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them

Al Franken in on a par with Thomas Frank for writing hard-hitting political critique that is not completely painful to read. This book which outlines the lies told by popular right-wing media pundits and not-as-popular right wing government officials is researched within an inch of its life. Or at least I think it is. Franken spends a lot of time discussing how he hates liars and how he has done the research on topic that windbags like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity talk out their ass about. I think he’s right and I agree with his analysis, but I find myself wondering how much I’d agree with his research if I didn’t already agree with his conclusions.

In any case, it’s good to see intelligent well-respected Democrats standing up for what they believe in and taking the Right to task for a lot of their egregious lying, playing with the truth and misrepresentation about things that actually happened. Franken discusses a wide range of issues ranging from teen abstinence programs [they don’t work, conservatives say they do], Paul Wellstone’s memorial [the right says it was staged, Franken knows it wasn’t] and Ann Coulter [she says she tells the truth, Franken points out where she lies throughout her book]. Many times the subjects of Franken’s analysis will refute his claims that they are liars and he goes after these claims as well. The man is merciless and gives no quarter when pursuing the truth. This makes for an interesting spectator sport when he is skewering Fox’s Billl O’Reilly, but it’s really uncomfortable when he discusses the huige amount of money Dick Cheney’s Halliburton has made with questionable contracts with the federal government. I spent a lot of time thinking “But hey, isn’t that ILLEGAL?”

At the same time Franken does a pretty good job of not absolving himself of all culpability. He mentions that his kids go to private schools, he attends showy press and government functions and he spoke at a ClearChannel pro-war rally before he changed his mind about the war. He admits when jokes of his don’t go over well and definitely tries to play the reasonable man and not some practical joker who just does this sort of thing for fun. This works well because his main point is “hey, anyone with a Lexis-Nexis account can discover the truth about these people!” Also, did I mention he’s just really funny?

The Dewey Decimal System of Love

Little fluffy romance about a librarian in love with a married man, his weird wife, and some symphony works. The librarian in question is 40, unmarried and for all intents and purposes a virgin, though she is not actually a virgin. She is often dressed sensibly by her brand-conscious mother [I sort of skimmed the paragraphs outlining what she wore] and likes her job and likes her life. While not a super-positive role model in the world of men, she as a character has a lot to like about her as a librarian and a professional. A quick book but not at all unpleasant.

The Book on the Book Shelf

So delightful! I languished over this book for weeks and weeks because I couldn’t really stand to be done with it. The book is a detailed history of shelving, or the ways we have stored our books since before there were books. Petroski starts with papyrus and gets all the way to ebooks before wrapping it up. Not only is this book interesting to read, but it is also fun to look at because there are many many illustrations of the various shelving apparati that the author describes. In many cases there is simply not much known about the book storage devices of the time and so Petroski paints a word picture of how he thinks the devices would work. Lovely illustrations of chain libraries, Saint Jerome, big old libraries and books galore. The author is certainly a lover of books and yet this book strives to answer the question “how do we decide how to store these books for use, not just for looks?” The conclusions he comes up with -- and the appendix listing the various orderings ones book collection could be put into is a delight -- are practical, well-reasoned and entertaining.

Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers

I had mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, it’s yet another astute critique of the mega-rich, everyone’s obsession with branding, and the icky way corporations are marketing to younger and younger people. On the other hand, hasn’t this been done before? Additionally, I always feel a bit queasy when attempts to take a hard look at brand culture actually manage to do the same name-dropping [albeit in a slightly different arena] as the ones they are critiquing. Maybe I’m just feeling holier-than-thou because I don’t even recognize most of the teen fashion brands the author discusses. On the other, I don’t get some of the more subtle messages the author is putting out there because I don’t even know the subtext of brand language.

The author herself is a great writer, really on par with the best cultural critics out there, and she wisely waits until late in the book to reveal her own youthful obsessions with branding, weight and good schools. And yet, she speaks the language of brands which betrays a certain attention level and knowledge that means she’s just not on the outside looking in. The book also is sort of all over the map in terms of topics: school advertising, pro-anorexia websites, lipstick marketed to grade schoolers, obsession with good schools and trainers. Some of these sections are stronger than others and they don’t quite coalesce into one overall message, at least not a strong one. When this book is at its best it’s discussing the massive business of marketing and selling brands to those too young to get into a PG-13 movie, at it’s worst it’s a boring look at the super rich and how they spend too much money getting their bland children into top schools. If this is an area you’re into, you’ll like this book. Otherwise, read Thomas Frank instead.

She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders

This story goes beyond the normal transgendered narrative to include more of the feelings and impressions of those around the subject. James Boylan, a Colby professor, became Jenny Boylan, a Colby professor, at the late age of 41. She already had a wife, two kids, a close friendship with writer Richard Russo, and a whole life history as a man. Jenny relates why she came to her decision to actually have surgery to become physically female, and how it affected those around her. She is lucky to have not only a strong writing ability, but friends who share her skills. Sections of this book are just email conversations between her [then him] and Richard Russo, talking about some of the more complex issues of the transgendered transformation -- while Jenny felt that she was becoming what she always had been on the inside, her friends and her wife were having a tougher time saying goodbye to Jim.

A good deal of this book is also wrapped up in describing Jenny’s childhood as James, what his sexual and gender identity was like, what his family was like, how he grew up. Notably missing is his sister who was hostile to his transformation and she does not appear in the book except towards the end as someone who was not supportive and with whom Jenny had broken off contact. In retrospect, her absence from Jenny’s childhood is somewhat palpable. At the time you don’t notice it. The book contains many lively anecdotes and a small amount of female brand fetishization [who cares what brand of makeup you wear? girls do, I guess] which reads as more ironic than annoying.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Krakauer always teeters on the edge of writing stuff I don’t want to read. Not because of his subject matter -- which is often somewhat issue-laden -- but because of the depth to which he pokes at the little ugly bits of his stories. This book is about Mormons, fundamentalists, and the ugly things that can happen when people get overzealous about their faith. Krakauer’s underlying premise is that Mormonism -- the most homegrown of all American religions -- is at some level a breeding ground for irrational hotheads, even if the fundamentalist sects have very little in common on the surface with their more traditional bretheren.

The ugly bits in this case are a lot of rapes of teenagers, described in more detail than I needed it, and the graphic murder of two Mormons, a mother and child, described by their killers. I just kept feeling that it would be awful to have known these people and learned the details of their deaths from the unrepentant people who killed them. In any case, the book is about much more than pedophilia and murder. It recounts the history of Mormonism, from its unlikely beginnings in Vermont 150 years ago, to the present-day where it is the fastest growing world religion. At the same time, many people see it as some sort of cult. Krakauer doesn’t really tip his hand about his own leanings, and tries to be respectful towards the people who practice the faith, but the patriarchiality of it gets to him, as do the young brides and the insular nature of the faithful. While the book isn’t an out and out condemnation of the Latter Day Saints, it’s definitely more anti- than pro-. Great reading, as always, but a bit more puerile than sometimes seemed necessary.


Ate this book up. If you like Chuck P. you won’t be disappointed unless you are really into the queasy edge of intestinal ailements. There’s not as much bowel trouble here. Also, many of the characters -- within the little Stepford Wives set-up, granted -- seem moderately sane. The story is fascinating as always. Poor little artist girl meets handsome rich and troubled island man who immediately knocks her up and marrries her and moves her home. They get embroiled in a major island drama which may or may not have played itself out several times before. He goes nuts, she goes nuts. Kids hate parents, people do weird stuff. Lots of interesting things to say about art. Not as many interesting factoids as usual and this book, unlike many of his others, had an obvious plot device and path from the first couple pages. It’s a diary whose conundrum is revealed somewhat early and we know that what we want to figure out is at the very end. The book is a scant 240 pages or so, so waiting until then is not difficult.

I feel that I enjoy Chuck’s writing so much [even as I can not trust myself to spell his last name correctly] that I am always happy when a book comes out, but then I read it immediately, and then I am sad that there is not another one. I am waiting for him to get like Stephen King and really write a magnum opus. This book was enjoyable to read, but opus it is not.

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium

With all the hubub surrounding the millenium here a few years back, little attention was given to the last millenium. Or rather, some was, but not much. Very few people know much about what life was like a thousand years ago. For one thing, there are few records that exist, for another, the Dark Ages seem to make everything that preceded them also seem doomed to darkeness. Lacey and his co-author Danziger, using a calandar from the year 996 as a starting point, explore the things that were important to people living in what is now England in 996.

And what was important? Well, living through the winter for one. With no refrigeration and much less advanced husbandry and crop-rearing, every year was sort of a crapshoot in terms of whether the harvest would yield enough for the coming winter. Religion also played a large part. Christianity was a much newer religion and was still practiced with many pagan trappings. And of course, war and strife were still present. This book takes on much more of a tone of “a day in the life of...” than a dry historical text, even though the information is presented with much factual research backing it up. It’s a short book and not super-memorable. but it answers a question that many of us doen’t even know we had.... what did the world used to be like; or, where did we come from?

Brotherhood of the Rose & The Fraternity of the Stone

I decided to review these two books with “The X of the Y” titles together, even though both were good and memorable enough to stand separately. Morrell is better known as the writer of First Blood, the Rambo story. He’s also a good suspense and spy writer in the tradition that includes all the training sequences as part of the story

One of these books has to do with an assassin/agent who leaves the trade and lives in a monastery with no human contact for six years. Then the bad guys find him and all hell breaks loose. The other story has to do with two brother agent/assassins who get a series of bad assignments, decide to leave the craft, get tracked down by the bad guys and all hell breaks loose. They sound a bit formulaic but they’re really not. There are compelling characters, interesting though infrequent female characters, and enough plot twists to keep you involved in the book though not so many you get nauseated.

It’s hard to get over the cheesy covers and the somewhat gimmicky historical vignettes that open these books, but worth delving in to if you can get beyond that.

How Would You Move Mount Fuji

People are going to just skip ahead to the puzzle part of this book but it’s worth reading the whole thing. Microsoft, and other tech companies specifically, have interview processes that are decidedly non-standard. Instead of asking the normal questions, which will generally elicit the standard answers, they ask the applicants to think and demonstrate their thinking.

Since Microsoft [and other tech companies, but really it’s mostly about MS] need smart creative thinkers they try to give applicants ways to show off their abilities and intelligence. So, they give them puzzles to solve, complicated variants of the Fox, Goose and Corn puzzle, and the like. Of course, over time, this unorthodox means of interviewing got out, got publicized, and now it’s so well known that people compile lists of puzzles that applicants can crib from. Poundstone, who writes the Big Secrets books among other things, compiled a bunch of them -- with answers -- in to this book. He thinks Microsoft is a bit cooler than I do [and I emphatically disagree with some of his assertions like the one that says MS doesn’t recruit from “top schools” they just want good talent, nonsense!] but the puzzles are fun, and his investigation into the interview techniques is pretty riveting.

At the end, he gives some advice for interviewers and interviewees which takes some of the negative examples he uses -- people asking trick questions or devising untrue scenarios for applicants and new hires -- and encourages a more humane system of interviewing where the puzzles may still be a part of it, but not the entire goal of getting new people no board. A fun quick read.

Thinking in Pictures

Temple Grandin is autistic. She is also one of the foremost designers of animal handling facilities in the US. She is high-functioning enough that she is good at her job and able to communicate how her mind works. This makes for fascinating reading for people interested in an insider’s view of autism.

Grandin’s book goes back and forth between describing her autism and the different kinds of autism that others have, and talking about her job. She is very matter of fact and readers hoping for an analysis of the moral issues inherent in animal slaughter will come away displeased. Grandin takes as a foregone conclusion that slaughtering facilities will exisit and posits that they should be made as humane as possible: that is the primary focus of her life’s work.

One of the things that becomes immediately apparent when reading this book is that there is obviously a wide range of differing kinds of autism and Grandin is very high-functioning. It is also made clear that she probably has more in common with low-functioning autistics than with non-autistic adults. Her ability to give the reader a look inside her own ultra-literal and ultra-visual mental space really differentiates this book from other non first person non-fiction books about autism. The book is readable when it’s personal and readable when it’s not, getting to see a very different mind at work is a very interesting thing.

Living at the Edge of the World: How I Survived in the Tunnels of Grand Central Station

In the version of this book that I read, the cover said “by Tina S. with Jamie Pastor Bolnick” I notice that the paperback copy has Bolnick’s name in much larger type and a larger picture of Tina S. not looking her best. Tina was a street kid living mostly in Grand Central Station. She got her life together, more or less and co-wrote this book describing her experiences. Like a lot of books written by people on the fringes of society, this book does a lot of explaining away past behaviors as well as telling the author’s side of what is a complicated story involving a ot of bad behavior. Tina is an engaging narrator mainly because she doesn’t try to portay herself as in control, or as someone who just got a bad deal out of life. Her stories often describe her as complicit in her own downfall, or backsliding and don’t pull punches when discussing some of the seamier sides of her life in the tunnels.

This book is also good at exploring the question “how do those kids get homeless?” With Tina it was a combination of Mom’s new jerky boyfriend, lack of a familial and social safety net, a crush on a street kid [who later dies a really untidy death] and a lack of better options. To a poor inner city kid, the social networks of the tunnels give them a place to really attain stature and make friendships with people who, while they may be nutty addicts, don’t cop attitudes or wrinkle their noses. Tina’s description of her life, both in and out of the tunnels and general homelessness are a rich exploration of not just the gritty reality of poverty, but the implications and long-term effects of a society with a lack of better options for people like Tina.

The Brothers K

First off, I have no idea how closely this book has anything to do with The Brothers Karamazov. My second biggest impression was that this sort of book was what I always hoped Sometimes a Great Notion had been like when my old boyfriend said it was his favorite book ever and then I read it and was unimpressed.

This is one of those epic family stories that watches the characters grow up, change, learn to forgive, get along, fight, get along again, and so forth. I am a sucker for those sorts of books. The family has six kids and this is narrated by kid number four. His Mom is deeply attached to the church, his Dad is a minor league pitcher who suffered a hand injury and now works at the mill. One of the best things about the book is that you watch the style of the narration changing as you watch the narrator age and mature. The book opens up basically being told to you by a child and when it ends, the child is now in his twenties. Duncan does an amazing job of creating believable voices and conflicts that cover a wide range of life experience. No one is truly evil and no one is truly right. The family comes apart and comes back together in many different ways. Most of the story is set in rural Oregon and so its strength as a Pacific Northwest novel is also impressive.

Sex Education and the Intellectually Handicapped

You just don’t see these books in bookstores in the US. For some reason it’s really hard to get materials on sex and disability around here. This book is Australian, if I remember correctly, and strives to help parents and caregivers deal appropriately and sensitively with the sexuality of their developmentally disabled children as they grow into adults. The author is aware that this isn’t the easiest topic to discuss and spends a lot of time exploring the repercussions of not discussing sex with their kids [same as with everyone... they will find out anyways] and outlining a good timeline for sharing information about sexuality. The author allows many developmentally disabled adults to share their own stories about sex and relationships, helping the readers get a grasp on how these issues can seem to people with an intellectual handicap.

The book is full of practical advice: dealing with birth control, menstruation, sexual experimentation, masturbation, homosexuality, etc and the author gives parents small scripts that may help them broach these subjects with their children. The overall tone is one of respect and guidance. While adults shouldn’t be making decisions about their children’s sexuality, they may need to be more closely involved than they might expect in their kids' and adult children’s sex lives than they might have thought: McCarthy relates one story of a couple who goes on a honeymoon and takes the bride’s mother along as a chaperone, resulting in some amusing wedding night anecdotes. This book isn’t necessarily light reading for those who have no need to avail themselves of its contents, but it does a good chapter by chapter overview of the issues involved with the sexual maturation of the disabled and how to best approach it as a supportive and helpful guide.

Q is for Quarry, P is for Peril, O is for Outlaw

For some reason -- I think it was the end of the 4th of July festivities and travelling and working -- I found myself needing to relax and plow through a good mystery novel. This was a good mystery novel. I don’t think I’ve read any of this series since back around D or F or something, but it was pretty easy to pick up where I left off. Grafton has really mastered the art of sequence. Her stories stand alone well yet, like X-Files episodes, they each add a little to the overall picture, if you’re into that sort of thing. Her female detective is likable, fallible and not anyone’s bad stereotype of what a lady detective should be. By the time I’d read through three of them in a week or so, their plots ran together a bit, but I wanted to give a shout-out to the genre and to Grafton as a consumate master of it.

Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife

The flying baby on the cover grabbed my attention but the writing inside the book kept me going. Peggy Vincent is a Midwestern woman who, through a series of plans and accidents, finds herself as a midwife in Berkeley California in the Sixties. She aspires towards the hippie-crunchy lifestyle she sees there and finds herself among a good group of teachers and clients and moves from working in an obstetrics ward to running her own practice, until a bad situation with a client causes her license to be revoked and she goes back to hospital obstetrics.

Vincent is chatty and conversational and you get the feeling she would be a fun person to have a cup of coffee with. Her Midwesterner-in-California personality makes a lot of the things she says when advocating midwifery seem to have more balance than if she were just a homegrown hippie gal who had known nothing else. The book is split into chapters which loosely take us through Vincent’s schooling at the rate of about one birth a chapter. Since most non-fiction birth stories usually are from the point of view of the birther, we rarely see giving birth in such a wide range of types, styles and opinions. Vincent is good at telling it how she sees it, offering advice but generally being supportive of most of the women and their individual choices in how to bear their babies. Since she is a midwife, she obviously leans towards this avenue as a preferred means of having control over ones own birthing situation, but does not get polemical or strident. She lets the stories speak for themselves, and she’s good at telling them.

Museum of Hoaxes

It’s tough to make a book with a website companion and have one of the two not suck. Not only is Boese’s book about famous hoaxes through the centuries engaging, well-illustrated and engaging, but he has a website to go along with it that is equally fun to look at. The website contains further reading on topics in the book as well as containing a frequently-updated weblog of hoaxish information and pictures.

I’m pretty up on hoaxes, it’s one of my family’s little pet trivia issues. We know all about the Cardiff Giant, PT Barnum, Virginia Woolf dressing up as an Arab, all those stories. Even so Boese adds little bits to all of these stories that make them worth reading again. he also imposes a chronology of sorts on the evolution of the hoax -- going up to modern day and Internet hoaxes -- that forms a really useful framing of many of the stoeis he tells. I expected to find nothing new in this book, I was completely and pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

My family has always had a predilection for weird medical stories, so it’s no surprise that I got this in an envelope from my Mom with a note saying “send this on to your sister when you’re done.” It was sort of a sure thing that I would like this book -- Roach is a good and accomplished writer and the topic is just endlessly fascinating. My only beef with it, and it’s a small one, is why does it also have to be funny?

Roach tackles this topic in picaresque fashion, going from one dead-guy topic to another with only the vaguest of segues or chronological patterns. She talks to people who set-up stiffs for car crashes, who leave them in the field to see how they deompose, who harvest their organs, make up their faces, or sometimes even dig up their corpses. It’s captivating, it couldn’t not be. Roach interjects herself and her little asides [often for the expense of jokey bon mots] more than seemingly necessary. At the end of the day you’re well aware that she goes back to her word processor but a lot of these people work with dead folks day after day. She tries to get some philosophical assesment from many of them but often their responses range from “hey, it’s a job” to “I like to do what I’m good at” She seems like she’s bugging people by being a bit too morbidly fascinated with their jobs, and yet the book works because most readers will also share her fascination.

This seems like a dorky wrap-up, but if you’re already pretty well-versed in the life of corpses, this book will not cast terribly much new light on them. With the exception of the crash-test dummy chapter and the plastic surgery chapter, I was already pretty familiar with most of the scenarios related by Roach and while it’s worth digging in just to see her personal take on them, or to read her well-crafted sentences, most of the information is not super new.

Fail Safe

This book appeared on the table one day and I read it in an afternoon. I had never heard of it before, but appreantly its legend. It is a story, verging on parable, of the spectre of “accidental war” what can happen when the machines we have created to keep us safe wind up endangering us instead. This story is a hypothetical -- though not too far off, the authors tell us in the preface -- scenario of what could go wrong, and what the disastrous consequences could be.

Like any stories about war, this one has almost no female characters and as near as I can tell, no female leads at all unless you count the secretary/nursemaid of the President. Also, for readers of Ayn Rand, you will recognize a lot of the jut-jawed strong iconoclastic characters in this book. Everyone’s a self-made ubermensch and as a result, what winds up happening to the world is clearly the result of accidents, not any one person’s lapse in judgment. As a result, this story really seems moralistic, as I believe was its intent. Of course, the same problems that plagued the hypothetical US in this book -- unseen technical glitches that, combined with built in “safety” features, lead to war being declared on the world’s other superpower by accident -- are still with us today, sadly, and the book’s cautionary tale and strong message have a new note of pathos since its clear they fell on deaf ears..

Women Who Marry Houses: Panic and Protest in Agoraphobia

This book had a great title, and a fascinating question: why do women [or anyone really] become agoraphobic? what makes people unable to leave their homes, even in the face of really serious hurdles they have to deal with if they won’t go out? This book, and its conclusions, seem a bit dated It has a lot of case studies of women who became agoraphobic, what their situations were, and what eventually helped them out. The upshot, according to these authors, is that women get this way because we live in a patriarchical society and, like hysterical women of yore, agoraphobia is a woman’s silent protest.

While I don’t doubt that many of the women in this book were having issues along these lines -- being single women with careers and lives and then getting married and suddenly expected to quit their jobs and serve their husbands -- it seems a bit oversimplistic to say that this is the only thing that causes agoraphobia. I enjoyed the book and the research and case studies the authors presented, but didn’t totally buy the premise it was supporting.

The Flanders Panel

Another good mystery from the author of The Club Dumas. When I saw the chess pieces on the cover, I almost balked because I know very little about chess and have very little curiosity to know more. My sister told me that even if I didn’t like chess, I would like this book, and she was right

The plot concerns an art restorer and a painting she is working on that turns out to have a secret inscription beneath layers of paint. The inscription is the first clue to a mystery of a murder that took place 500 years ago and an unlikely assortment of art historians, antique collectors, scalawags, chess players and auctioneers come together in various ways to help muddle out the solution. Along the way, there are chess clues, based on the game of chess that is occuring within the painting. There are some chess-y bits, but nothing too central [as long as you can understand the descriptions, you don’t need to be able to read the notation], this is mainly a compelling novel about interpersonal relationships and the strange world of buying and selling art.

LA Requiem

While still sort of a page-turner thriller crime novel, ths book was a welcome antidote to this terrible book.

The villains are all real human beings, no one is truly two-dimensional, life is portrayed as complicated and none of the violence or conflict is sensationalized or aggrandized. A nice, good cop book, set in LA with a cast of interesting characters. Just about what I was looking for.

Driven to Distraction

Every now and again I feel like I could use some guidance about living with someone with ADD. Since it’s a neurological disorder that some people truly believe in and others think is just a new-psychology term for inattentive, the literature on it is really varied. You get a lot of self-help books, and a lot of “how to” and tips books and a lot of “I’ve been there” books. This one is a very popular book that is one of three or four that my library had. I liked it.

The author is a well known psychologist who has treated many adults with ADD and who had ADD himself. He relates a lot of case studies of treating people, some who knew they had ADD and many who didn’t. Along the way he tries to dispell some of the myths about ADD -- that all ADD kids are hyper, that girls don’t get ADD, that ADD people can’t focus on things -- by relating stories of real people with ADD. Most of the people in his book turn out okay, which is sort of calming if you’re in the middle of some sort of ADD crisis when you read it. Also, most of the people in his book have received some sort of pharmacological intervention.

While Hallowell doesn’t think that all hyper kids should be put on Ritalin, he is an advocate of certain prescription medicines as being very therapeutic for ADD, to the point where he shrugs off anti-ADD-drug advocates as not being very in touch with reality. While this is not much of a problem, anyone tryng to cope with ADD themselves, or in their family, may find this book of limited use.

Dragon Tears

What was I thinking? I think I was thinking I’d like some sort of antidote to the sweetness and light of Harry Potter, or maybe just some violence for violence’s sake instead of all the posturing of good vs evil. However, this book was terrible. It was tawdry and sensationalistic, anti-drug and moralistic. It also was my worst kind of cop book, featuring a cops vs the supernatural theme were basically you have to sit around for the author to let you in on what the otherwise omnipotent supernatural being’s Achilles heel is so you can see how they are going to kill it. It ook most of the book to figure out this data point, which is how I explain even finishing this.

Quiet Journey: Understanding the Rights of Deaf Children

I am not this book’s target audience, for a few reasons. I am a hearnig person, not involved in the education or upbringing of Deaf children. I am, however, fairly knowledgeable about Deaf culture through extensive reading, hence this book. Also, I am not Canadian. Cripps is both Deaf and Canadian and has done an excellent job at assembling resources, anecdotes and tip sheets for helping parents, educators, caregivers and lawmakers understand and advocate for the rights of Deaf children. Some of Cripps’s advice is common sense: a Deaf child in a hearing classroom is not receving the same quality of education as they would in an all-Deaf classroom, even with the aid of an interpreter. Some of it is more intangible: how much do we allow the rights of Deaf people to come up against the rights of the rest of society, for example how does our criminal justice system deal with Deaf criminals?

While I agreed with most of her assertions and suggestions, readers of this book would be well advised that Cripps is staunchly pro-ASL, anti-oralism and anti cochlear implants [though perhaps not as strongly]. While this is a perfectly legitimate position within the Deaf community, people with no knowledge of the technology or systems that Cripps is talking about will not find well-rounded exaplanations here.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I think of reading the Harry Potter books the way many people look at watching television -- I don’t seem to really enjoy it much lately but I do it so that I’ll have reference points to talk to my friends and colleagues.

I’ll have to side with AS Byatt when I wonder why adults don’t seem to be more attracted to stories about people their own age, or why this amount of violence [and dead children and adults] is in some way conscionable for books aimed towards young children. People familiar with my politics will know that I’m not one of those types who bemoans violence and thinks we are breeding a nation of killers, weaned on horrific sensationalist media. Yet, just as I think that Wal-Mart’s discriminatory practices bear special scrutiny since they are the largest employer in the US, so I think we should pay special attention to the almost hysterical popularity of these books with their two-dimensional portrayals of good and evil and a really huge amount of deceit, violence and wanton bad behavior.

It’s easy to arge that Rowling is actually a superb cultural satirist and that the way she describes the totalitarian regimes that take over Hogwarts and threaten the very tenets of the magical world are in fact parodying our own craven governments and media. However, I live that life every day and I read young adult fiction specifically to find something new, refreshing and maybe even positive not to see my own life of conflicts, petty squabbles, and hurts writ large in 800 pages of a story I used to enjoy but now just trudge through searching for a set of characters and stories I used to really enjoy.

The Frozen Water Trade

We all tend to take home refrigeration for granted. I’m vaguely aware that people had iceboxes, and fresh ice delivered daily, but I’m not quite sure how that all took place. I got an old video out of the library here that showed how the various ice farmers would score and cut chunks of ice from the frozen lakes in the area and store them in big icehouses for the winter. The very last of these icemen were filmed in color.

This book is a meticulous look at how people first began to see ice as a product to be marketed rather than as a side effect of winter. It traces the history of the first ice baron, Boston’s Frederic Tudor, through decades of financial peril, emotional wreckage and international travel as he developed a business model, finagled for a business monopoly, and finally after much hard work, began delivering ice to far-off lands such as Calcutta, Cuba and Haiti. The book looks not only at the models of getting the ice, but also of creating a market for it -- how Tudor in cahoots with local businessmen actually created a demand for a product that people didn’t even “know” they wanted -- by offering discounts on iced drinks and introducing ice cream as a high-class leisure confection. The business was a sure thing: the ice was free, and people would pay for it. Weightman’s research is impressive and yet so are his storytelling abilities. As someone who grew up around some of the ponds he describes as early suppliers for Tudor, I found it very interesting.


This story takes place in contemporary Morocco where all the officals are corrupt, except one, and he is curious. This is a slim novel about one man’s attempts to stay clear of corruption while at the same time desiring things he cannot have without tainting himself. In this story, the status quo is that everyone takes money in various forms for doing their jobs. Without this extra money, it’s very hard to earn a living at a government job. The narrator barely gets by but his wife is constantly after him to earn more by being corrupt and many of their freidns seems to think he is somehow mentally defective for not being on the take.

The author spends a lot of time inside his own head questioning his motives and trying to decide if the path he has chosen for himself is justified. When he does take one small bribe in an attempt to both court his mistress and provide needed medical care for his daughter, his world goes into a tailspin from which he spends a long time recovering. The morality of everyone’s situation is shown in many shades of grey and the language itself, translated from French, is lovely to read.

It Takes a Village Idiot

I always swear I am not going to enjoy one more “city dweller moves to country, hilarity ensues” books and yet here I go again. Mullen is a writer for Entertainment Weekly whose wife has developed a fixation for getting a country place. Mullen is hesitant, she is whole hog into it. He grudgingly goes along with her plans and they wind up with a place in upstate NY and travel six hours every weekend to get to and fro.

The scenes are so stereotyped at some level they’re perfunctory and yet Mullen is very funny. he manages to talk about his neighbors and their attemps to orient him to country ways without taking on the snotty tone that so many people do when attemping this sort of writing. He seems to be a man who genuinely likes people and getting to know what makes him tick. I can imagine this makes him a good celebrity writer and it also gives him a good eye for stories like this one.

I’ll also have to admit, I saw myself [with me and my boyfriend trying to beat the other young couple to the Yellow Store on Sunday to get the last copy of the Times] more than a few times, so I felt a special warm spot for what he and his wife were up against and also how rewarding their time in the country was.

Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic

Where to begin? I couldn’t stand this book. It may be the first book in this list that I couldn’t even finish. Harris discusses consumer’s weird predilections for oddness in their buying preferences at the same time as he seems to gasp “but we just can’t help ourselves!” His annoying use of the word We in this sentence is just one of my many gripes with this book, along with its snobbery, anecdotes passing as reference, and just general disdain for everything. Harris seems to think that nothing is authentic and so derides consumer things for pretending authenticity, as opposed to the people who own those things. Pomo dreck. Skip it.

One Market Under God

Two quick observations that I was thinking about before I start. One, when I saw Tom Frank speak at Left Bank Books when the Conquest of Cool came out, he freaked me out by wearing a very tweedy jacket with elbow patches which I thought was an odd outfit to wear to speak to a bunch of anarchists. Second, I bet the fact that this book has the word “Extreme” in the subtitle [which is"Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy"] sold more than a few copies.

Okay, I drove my boyfriend completely crazy by reading out loud from this book every five seconds. Frank is the most readable kind of historian, he is equally facile quoting from TV commercials or from Hume. He’s educated, yet not in a rub-your-face-in-it way. On the other hand, his conclusions are so well backed up, so rooted in real Things that Happened and Were Documented, that he’s very very persuasive. Not that I needed to be persuaded that America is tossing away real political democracy in favor of this BS “democracy of the market” tripe that we see in the media, on the TV and in the management styles that invade our workplaces even as they fire more and more people. Frank calls this phenomena “market populism” and he hates it. But he doesn’t just hate it in a [this is bad] way but he sneers at it; he is incredulous that we as a society have been duped into giving up democratic control of our institutions and handing it over to people to use for profit.

More specifically, he covers the weird stock market boom of the late nineties when anyone with a TV or newspaper was sure that everyone was investing in the market, everyone was getting rich and no one was being harmed by this newfound wealth surplus America was experiencing. Or, as my Dad put it “The market creates wealth, it’s not taking money from one person and giving it to another” [with the hidden caveat that this is what you government is doing any maybe that’s not so great...]. Frank debunks this myth with lots and lots of hard-to-argue with facts that illustrate why the superrich have a solidly vested interest in making you believe that you control your own econonmic destiny while at the same time trying to influence and strongarm you into giving them more money in the form of mutual fun and stock investing and more and more consumer spending.

It’s a rare history book that I could read a second time, but this could be the one.

The State of Stony Lonesome

This book was published the year that Jessamyn West died, and it appears that it was printed posthumously. As a result, a bittersweet tale of life in rural California becomes even more bittersweet because there are no Jessamyn West books after this one. There may be one or two I haven’t completely finished, and some stories I haven’t ferreted out, But I think this was the last JW novel I hadn’t yet even started

The story reads a bit like South of the Angels -- a small rural farming town, a bunch of interesting characters, not all good, not all bad -- and some thigns that happen to them. it all sounds quite prosaic and perhaps in a lesser writer’s hands it would be but West manages to really wring depth and character out of even the most dull-seeming individuals: the postmistress, the local toughs, the little brother character. Some of these people seem modelled on West’s own family and seem more like archetypes from many of her stories instead of just single characters in a single story.

Darwin’s Children

This book is a sequel to Darwin’s Radio the semi-dystopian novel that imagines a future in which evolution isn’t gradual, it’s sudden and a new species of human is born that are sort of human, but not quite. The US government, predictably, freaks out and these new children become outcasts and their parents become criminals. In this book, it’s ten years later, there are camps for the children set up all over the US and the remaining ones are being hunted by bounty hunters. The US is in a state of emergency because no one quite understands what is causing these children to be born or whether they are in some way harmful or dangerous. Of course, they also have new “features” such as communicating via scent and patterns of colored freckles on their faces.

Bear is a capable enough storyteller so this doesn’t just turn into a bad government versus the good families tale. It’s also now a brave new world where people all get along utopian piece either. All the characters, save a few, have nuances of personality that make them not all good and not all bad. While this book is readable without reading the first one, it’s a quick enough read that it’s worth the extra context you get from reading the first one first.

The RE/search Guide to Bodily Fluids

It goes without saying that if you are squeamish, do not read this book. That said, I am not grossed out by discussions of toilet habits, menstrual rituals, farting or snot. In fact, it’s interesting to get to read a book about the things that it’s tough to converse about in polite company. Spinrad approaches the topic of the things that come out of our bodies with a detached yet not clinical approach. He is clearly interested in the topic, so his discussions are germane and his commentary is detailed and researched. On the other hand, he is not fetishistic so while the book spends a fair amount of time on people’s wiping habits when they take a dump, it does not venture into coprophilia, at least not that I remembered.

Spinrad collected much of the data for his book from usenet queries and as a result his sample set may be skewed towards the online crowd, but I really wonder if they wipe their butts differently from anyone else. While the book’s design and layout were less nifty than I have come to expect from REsearch books [the sidebars were just black and white images of what I must assume were intestines, colons and rectums] the text was compelling and I learned a lot from this book.

The Basque History of the World

Kurlansky has a strange niche for himself as the chronicler of the underdog. He writes about Jews, fishermen, salt farmers and, in this book, the Basque people. Strangely, all of these stories intersect in odd ways which you only discover once you have read them all. This book is likemany of his others, he describes the thing by writing short, readable chapters about its composite parts and somehow winds up describing a whole. This is a difficult task in this book because the Basque people can be described so many ways and have such a rich and complicated history. Their culture predates the nations in which they live and while they have lent much of their business and industrial talents, they seem to have gotten very little in return.

Kurlanky goes to Basque country and meets people and describes what he finds. He goes back in time to many of the turning points in Basque history, from the early whalers in the 1500’s to Guernica during World War Two. He descibes rituals and politics and while it is clear which side he is usually on -- as the champoin of the underdog, natch -- he manages to give the appearance of a balanced presentation. The facts are rich, the citations varied and the overall effect is one of actually getting to know a people, not simply reading a history book about them.

The King in the Tree

I would read his laundry list. Millhauser has some of those excellent qualities you hope you find in a writer whose work you really enjoy: recurring themes, likable characters, and fresh material. After reading Martin Dressler, I was a little worried that all of Millhauser’s books would include a whimsical multi-layered and yet ultimately hopeless theme park. This book -- which is actually a collection of three novellas only loosely thematically linked -- revisits that theme but in a completely new way, bringing in some of the automaton history that I was delighted with in some of Kurzweil’s works.

All of Millhauser’s plots contain very straighforward and easily stated plots: jilted wife shows house to dead husband’s lover, Don Juan actually falls in love, King suspects and does not suspect Queen of cheating, over and over. This leaves him more time for description, which is his forte, and subtlety, which is his secret skill. All these novellas stand alone equally well and yet gain a certain amount of depth by being juxtaposed with one another. If you have been waiting for this nwe book, you will not be disappointed.


Even though this book was written in 1961, the English translation didn’t show up until the seventies. It got major distribution in the eighties and was finally made into a “major motion picture” last year. The cover of my book has George Clooney on it, guh.

I haven’t read any Lem since college when I read many of the books in his Pirx the Pilot series. Each of these involved a sort of everyman space traveller and the strange worlds he would encounter. It was more like Calvino than Star Trek, this spaceman was no conqueror. This book seems like a more fleshed out version of one of those stories: an astronaut/scientist comes to a space station to continue some research on a planet that consists almost entirely of a sentient ocean being and finds that things have gone wrong. Really wrong.

Lem can be vague to the point of sometimes beign obscure and I always feel a little dumb reading his books as if I were supposed to infer more about the plot than I actually did. This does tend to up the creep factor of his books a lot, since you never quite know what is happening, you also have no way of knowing what is going to happen next. In this book I also felt that I did not know quite what had happened when I got to the last page, so I put it down feeling a little confused. Lem is sci fo for people who love literature. Skip the movie and read the book.


Political spin is the central character of this novel, even though the ostensible main character is a political spin-meister named Oscar. Oscar seems just a little bit quicker and sharper than nearly everyone around him -- this may be the fault of his odd, even transhuman genetics. He constanly uses this to his advantage, and usually that of others, by manipulating situations, running candidates for office, choosing his mates based on their political relevance, and almost never sleeping. He seems like he would be tiring to be around and yet in Sterling’s capable hands he becomes the man to watch. The book gains depth because the reader is aware earlier than the other characters, just how much of Oscar’s character is made up of controlling his environment and manipulating to advantage.

The book is set in the not-too-distant future where the US has become a much less imposing player in the world arena and seems to spend a lot of its time trying to assuage emergency after emergency situation as the 12 major political parties vie for strength and position. With food nearly free thanks to industry and no one minding the store due to rampant chaos, a culture of nomads has arisen who eat pre-fab food and manufacture laptops and cell phones from the detritus of industrialized society and the junk culture of technology. They’re fun to watch but ultimately as crazy as everyone else within the bounds of the continental US. This book is no more deep than any of Sterling’s others, and fans of his more cyber books may regret not seeing more nomads and less political wonks, but the book does deliver and keep you moving through it wondering who is going to outsmart who next.

Stuck Rubber Baby

This graphic novel is a combination coming of age in the south and coming out story. Told as an extensive flashback, it traces the fight for integration in a fictional town in the South while it also explores the narrator’s sexual and political awakening. Cruse is a well known and respected illustrator and storyteller and the way he interweaves both threads of the narration make this a capitvating read.

The story is full of all kinds of intrique, both political and sexual. While it rarely ventures into super-graphic territory [it’s strictly a PG tale except for some language, and maybe a breast or two] it does manage to highlight an entire culture’s worth of stumbling points and conflicts both inside and outside of the movement. No one is perfect, and some people deal with this better than others. Some of the characters, most notably the most “out” white male in the story -- the starting role model for the narrator -- undergo rapid and not always understandable personality changes. the story, like many political fables, can be heavy-handed at times, but Cruses' knack for keeping the plot central to everything keeps it flowing smoothly. The sheer number of supporting characters that this novel has and their complex interrelationships help you understand why Stuck Rubber Baby was four years in the making.

10th Grade

When my good friend moved to NYC I was allowed the cherrypick the books he was getting rid of and take a few home for myself. I grabbed this one because of the cover, and because I have always enjoyed the bildungsroman genre.

This book is solidly in the middle of the books I have read in that vein. It lacks the true voice of Adrian Mole, and yet the main character does not have any final comeuppance as in Lord of the Barnyard. Basically he’s an okay kid, not a total nerd, whose parents are weird and not awful who gets along with one sister but not the other. It’s not the “geek gets a life” tale that many of these books are. The kids grows up some, not much, he does fine. He stays in touch with some friends and loses others. Nothing super deep happens. In short, it’s a lot like high school. And, since I lived through it, reading about someone else’s high school adventures is slightly dull. Weisman does a good job at capturing a good teen voice, but then he drops the ball by including teen punctuation which can make parts of this book tough to read. I never totally buy the teen narrator, but you don’t have to in order to enjoy this story.

The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2000

If you regularly read magazines like Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Outside magazine, a lot of these “best of” compilations will likely contain material you have read before. This book in particular contained three essays that I had read, two of which I had read once they became parts of longer books. This of course begs the question as to whether a small group of publications really always publishes the best writing, or whether these publications are assumed to have the best writing, and so are always tapped to be in these sorts of collections.

In any case, these articles run the gamut from small reflections on natural events, to the nuances of camel insemination, to conspiracy theories about the AIDS virus to the social evolutionary role of sexual activity in humans. My favorite article of the bunch was a really fascinating article on smallpox, closely followed by a thoughtful and philosophical Wendell Berry essay. Very readable, very interesting, a bit on the predictable side, as many of these collections tend to be.

The Case of the Frozen Addicts

Medical detective stories always please me. This one is a little odder because it was co-written with Jon Palfreman and despite the fact that Langston plays a central role in most of the story, it’s written in the third person. This was hard for me to get over even though the story -- a collection of heroin addicts in California who develop severe Parkinson’s like symptoms after injecting some bad drugs -- is pretty interesting.

While Oliver Sacks -- who is the sort of the superstar of this topic for me, though I also enjoy Berton Rouche when I find his stuff -- seems to remain pretty objective, Langston seemed to have some scores to settle. The book seemed to be a way of rehashing old professional conflicts in his own terms and explaining away decisions he might have made. This was all secondary to the major plot and detective work of figuring out what happened to these addicts and how to fix it, but it remained a pretty present subplot throughout the book. I was always aware that the main character and the writer were the same person and when choices were made over who to agree with and who to disagree with, I found myself questioning his motives. This is all pretty petty compared to the scientific information presented about fetal stem cell transplants and Parkinson’s disease and whatnot, but kept the book from being another favorite in this genre.

Sento at Sixth and Main

This books feels good in your hands and is fun for a short glance or engrossing enought for a long read. It traces the history of Japanese Americans on the West Coast specifically during the Interwar period before they got sent to internment camps. The book makes a claim for National Landmark status for several buildings important to Japanese Americans. It explores the history of Japanese in this country -- Issei and Nissei -- through the descriptions of their bathhouses, their theaters, their temples and their schools. I did not believe it could be possible to feel even more indignant and angry about the internment process and sheer extralegality of what was done to many Japanese Americans in the name of national security, but looking at the pictures of what is in some ways a lost culture evokes a poignancy that is almost surprising.

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer

Millhauser is delicious. He’s ooky like Palanhiuk but not liable to gross you out. The worst Millhauser can do is bore you to death with lists upon lists of elegantly woven description, a la David Foster Wallace, only more interesting. This book gave me a sense of deja vu in that the main plot point was also the subject of one of his short stories “paradise Park” which I had read a few years back as part of The Knife Thrower

The subject of both the novel and the short story are a man who is an incessant developer; he must build newer and greater spectacles. Mostly, his desire to build the newest and the most elegant is rewarded, but like all capitalist endeavors, his creations eventually collapse under their own weight. Millhauser weaves a collection of characters who are almost Randian in their devotion to ethics and virtue and also, regrettably in their two-dimensionality. But, I rarely go to his books for the characters but for his knack for deep rich description which seems almost unparalleled in contemporary fiction in books under 500 pages. Martin Dressler is a slender novel which makes it much easier to savor every page.

The Gold Bug Variations

If I had a way to put a book into a Top Ten, this book would fit it. Pressed upon me by years and years of frirends, this book finally rose to the top of the hold list at SPL and came into my hands. I liked it so much that it was overdue and you know how I feel about that.....

The narrator here is a librarian. She meets some odd characters, they engage in a series of intellectual adventures. There are two love stories that take place about 25 years apart. The ending is both happy and sad. Every sentence in this book is a pure delight. I re-read pages of this book just so I could revisit some of the turns of phrase. Powers is one of those rare writers -- like Kurzweil -- whose prose is at once florid and inviting. It’s a smart book but a worthwhile challenge to a smart reader. Gold Bug made me feel the way I always felt I was supposed to feel about Gravity’s Rainbow, but never did.

To describe this book too much is to nail too much of it down, and I still have some of the finer parts of it running around in my head untethered, nearly a week after completing it. Do yourself a favor: hole up with some PowerBars, a pot or six of coffee and a warm blanket and lose yourself in this book for as long as you can.

The Pianist

I decided not to see this movie, even though I like Adrian Brody, because I was afraid it would be too creepily violent and would haunt my dreams. I realize that I am lucky even to be able to attain such distance from the horrible things that happened to Poland during WWII.

Szpilman was a Jew in Warsaw during the time when nearly the entire Jewish poplulation of Warsaw was killed or removed to concentration camps, or fled. He remained behind, starving and hiding and lived to tell the story of his time there. He was no hero, just mostly lucky, and did what he needed to do to survive. His descriptions of coming out of his hiding place to find that he was one of the only people still living in Warsaw as it was being bombed into oblivion is one of the more evocative partsof this book.

This book, reprinted from the version that was released in Germany a few years earlier, also contains a small bio of the German soldier who did not report him and in fact brought him food while he was hiding in a Warsaw attic. That soldier was tortured and killed later in thew war, but his family contributed a photo and a small bio bringing just a bit more depth and nuance to the overall collection of stories that make up the Shoah.


I’m glad I read some other Baker books before I got to this one, a cast-off from someone else that wound up on my “to read” shelf. Baker’s attention to detail is what makes me like his more convetional writing, however this level of detail brought to sex fantasies and deconstructing the minutae of desire and attraction verges on the pathological. Or perhaps that’s the point... I didn’t like either of these characters or their awkward attempts to understand each other well enough so that could have a mutually satisfying orgasm together over the phone. I found them weird and uptight and disliked their usage of odd euphemisms for sex terms [the male character always says “frans” instead of 'breasts" every time he does this I think "oh god, what a dork!"]. The book was well written however, but now every time I think of Baker I’m going to wonder if any part of this masturbating male character and his obsession with pulling his genitalia through one leg hole of his underpants is in any way auto-biographical.

Quiet Rumors: An Anarcha-Feminist Reader

As the nation’s largest private employer suffers a class action lawsuit for systematically underpaying their female employees, people dare to ask if feminism is still “relevant.” Radical organizations utilize mainly male spokespeople, and so-called revolutionary groups from SNCC to the Direct Action Network suffer from what many anarcha-feminists call Manarchy.

Radical feminism has a long and proud tradition and AK Press and the Dark Star Collective have pulled together many important anarcha-feminist essays, manifestoes and writings from historical radicals such as Voltairine deCleyre to more contemporary activists like the Bolivian group Mujeres Creando. Many of the works are reprinted from pamphlets and limited print-run publications. Some of these pieces are polished and engaging and others serve a more historical purpose. The articles don’t even all agree with each other, so we see the classic “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” juxtaposed with a response article “The Tyranny of Tyranny.” The book espouses no particular strategy or game plan, but does a superb job outlining the issues involved and the complexities inherent in the movement.

Quiet Rumors is only 120 pages, but is printed in a tiny font making some of the pages tough to read at over 900 words. The book is attractively illustrated with a series of woodcuts. Readers who are new to anarcha-feminism may find the absence of additional bibliographic information a bit daunting.


I had read one of Gawande’s articles in the New Yorker -- a piece about residents in hospitals getting training to do their first invasive procedures -- and it had always stuck with me. I didn’t even realize that his book was by the same author until I got through the introduction. The rest of the chapters, many of which have also appeared in the New Yorker, met the quality of the first. Gawande is a working surgeon and is also a very interesting, thoughful and experienced medical writer. These essays illustrate many points he has to make about the nature of medicine, and the surgical profession in specific all the while weaving wonderfully written stories in which he features as a character to some degree. He covers such issues as “when doctors go bad [and how to fix them]” and dealing with autopsies and how to request them. He relates a fascinating, if somewhat voyeuristic-seeming story about a diagnosis and treatment of a patient with necrotizing fasciitis [you know, the flesh-eating bacteria]. He treats all of his subjects, even the ones he disagrees with, with respect and honesty. It is easy to say, from reading this book, that Gawande is wasting his time in surgery, that he is an amazing writer who I would love to read more.

The Map of Love

It’s been a long time since I read a book that was at all romance-y that I really enjoyed. This book is so deep and luxurious with details and characters that the romance [or romances actually] become part of the landscape, not the book’s entire reason for being.

Soueif tracks two parallel stories that happen over 100 years apart. Two women come together as a result of a found box of personal papers and their friendship grows as they discover the story of their common ancestor. The story in the present time takes place in Egypt and New York mainly and the story from the past takes place almost entirely in Colonial Egypt where a British woman loses her husband to the fighting and falls for an Egyptian politician. Her story is revealed through her letters and diaries and is written with an intimacy that is not usually found in contemporary fiction. Along the way we learn about Egyptian traditions then and now, Egypt’s position on Israel and Palestine then and now and what the status of women in Egypt is and was. The two main female characters from the present and the one from the past are likable, fully formed but not without foibles. while this story does have a bit of the “forbidden fruit” aspect to it, it’s so well written and complexly mapped that this becomes just one of many plotlines. The family tree in the beginning and the glossary in the back allow the book to use a lot of colloquial Egyptian without completely losing the reader.

Suck: Worst-Case Scenarios in Media, Culture, Advertising and the Internet

It was easy to be cruelly mean to the dotcom hipsters back in 1997 because, well, they were getting rich and were acting weird and snotty in public. At least a lot of them were, so much so that an entire culture grew up out of disliking and sneering at them. However, it’s pretty oversimplified to say that Suck was all about bitter irony and cheap shots at easy targets. Picking up this book again reminded me how insanely good some of the writing, in fact most of the writing, was. The erudition of these Bay Area and beyond cultural pundits [all the while eschewing punditry] is a delight. Sentences that sing, words that send you to the dictionary and turns of phrase that make you jealous pepper this slim volume of middle-of-the-bubble writing about the bubble.

The sucksters never said they weren’t sellouts, and this attempt to market a formerly all-web sensation actually works better than its online counterpart because you can read the essays all the way through without distracting hyperlinks or too much scrolling. More than many books I’ve read, Suck’s collection of essays evokes nostalgia for the early days [or at least my early days] of the web when things were just starting to not look so fresh and new, but at least ironic detachment still hadn’t been done to death.

Pop Goes the Weasel

Formulaic and uninteresting, the metaphor of a killing game has already been done to death. For the record, I am not a big fan of thrillers, esp psycho-sexual ones, but figured I would give this a shot. Patterson’s fans loved this book, I was just not looking for yet-another-thriller

R is for Rocket

Before we had people walking on the moon, but after we knew space travel was possible and in fact likely, science fiction was in a weird place. On the one hand, it was still possible to be weirdly futuristic and completely ignore present-day developments in space travel. On the other hand, it became quite likely that future America was going to have these space rockets integrated in to the very folds of everyday existence. Bradbury, whose scifi has always been very down to earth and personality and character based, has written about a future in which rockets are all around us -- where the family man instead of going to work at the office goes to work in the stars.

Kids in this future world don’t just dream about going to space, some of them actually get to go. Rocket launches are commonplace and the rockets themselves become almost a sideline compared to what they can do. Some of Bradbury’s best stories are in this collection from “Here There be Tygers” to “Uncle Einar.” In light of recent rocket events and disasters, this book induces a wistful sort of nostalgia for a future that never was.


As you probably know by now, I like to read about diseases. Or, more to the point, the people that study diseases and how they spread and how they are cured. This book, like many of Rouche’s, is a study in medical detection. It is an after-the-fact investigation into the great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, what caused it and hopefully how to avoid other similar pendemics in the future. Kolata is an interesting writer and has really done her homework. Not only does she jam many of the facts of this case into an interesting narrative, but she manages to put personal touches on many of the stories of people involved in the flu, either as victims or researchers. She also includes some very interesting tales of digging up corpses in frozen parts of the world to see if live flu cultures can be extracted and studied. Kolota ties in many of the other great pandemics [plague, cholera, swine flu] and explains what all the fuss is about vaccinations. I felt smarter after I read this book.

Fire Watch

Connie Willis is quite simply my favorite female sci fi writer. She has a lot of really good qualities, all of which are emphasized in this collection of short stories. First, she gives all the stories little introductions, not like “this is what I was thinking when I was writing this...” but often little teasers, giving you an idea of what you are getting into without explicitly telling you what is going to happen. Something like “this story did not turn out at all what I epxected it to be like.” or something. As a result, you read with anticipation which makes the stories come to life even more than they already do. Second, she uses many different techniques in different stories. Her stories can be satirical, straight up sci-fi, historical fiction, or a combination of those. Willis is comfortable in all genres, it seems, and seems to delight in her abilities to agilely manipulate the language to suit her plots and characters. Lastly, her stories are complicated, sometimes so much so that I’m not really sure, at the end of them, what exactly happened. This can be maddening if it happens too often, but more often than not it just points out my own sloppy reading styles and then I get to re-read her pieces with more attention to detail.

This book contains stories about the Blitz on London, some of her time travelling students, some biting satire and some really sad characters. You never forget that Willis is a female writer which I also think is one of the strengths of her writing. She tackles many complex societal issues having to do with sex and relationships as a sideline of writing truly readable and captivating stories.

A Box of Matches

Nicholson Baker holds an odd place in the hearts of librarians everywhere because of his book Double Fold which had a lot of choice words for librarians who were getting rid of old and in some cases irreplaceable newspapers. Baker took exception this, librarians took exception to Baker and the rest is history. I haven’t read that book, this may be the first book of his that I have finished [I can’t get through Vox, I just can’t] And you know what? It’s great. It tells a sort of nothing-happens tale of a man living in New England who wakes up and starts the fire every morning, and thinks about stuff, the book is the daily diary of the things he thinks about.

If you’re not from New England, or you don’t have the morning fire routine or don’t live in the country somewhere, you may not relate to this. The main character lives in a country house and has a pet duck, and a cat, and spends a lot of pages in this slim novel talking about those things, the minutae of making coffee. He has a beard and a wife, like Baker, and lives in New England, like Baker. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to call this somewhat autobiographical, but I don’t know Baker much more than that, so it’s of no consequence. The book has a very peaceful vibe and is a quick read. The main characters observations rung true, to me, and so I enjoyed getting to spend a short while inside his head, you may too.


Sometimes, my librarian friends toss me a young adult novel or two, just to keep me in touch with what kids are reading, or maybe should read. Feed is a dystopian sort of cyber-tale about a possible future where all people [actually all people who can afford it] have “feeds” implanted into their heads at birth. These feeds, which basically resemble customized Internet nodes, fill their heads and minds with marketing and hyperspeak while also allowing them to make quick purchases, chat with other feed-enabled people, and look stuff up. Of course, it’s all run and controlled by corporations and of course this has some terrible downsides. Our protagonist is a likable enough guy who meets a girl who didn’t get her feed until she was seven. She is poor, sort of, and speaks a somewhat weird English. As the story progresses, you realize that the feed is literally dumbing people down and making people into even more passive and happy consumers than they aready are. The girl reacts against that and makes a lot of enemies in the process, among the cool kid teens. It doesn’t all turn out okay in the end and the book is a little “message heavy” but very readable and Anderson has managed to write a book about complex teen issues without seeming like he’s prostelytizing or preaching. All the teens have something redeeming and they are all in some ways flawed.


My friend was at a reading recently, to forth graders, where Palahniuk explained that his name rhymes with “suck a dick” Okay, he didn’t say the word “dick” but he said the rest of it. I thought that was hilarious and sort of sums up my feelings about his books. I don’t get the feeling that his novels are gross because he’s trying to shock anyone, or is working out some inner demons, I think they’re gross because those are the things he thinks about and, well, writing is his job. Lucky guy.

This story is about a guy who chokes. Well, that’s what the notes say but it’s really a complicated story of family and abandonment and this character who is just a mess [and many of Palahniuk’s are] and how he deals with it. He raises money for his invalid and somewhat crazy Mom by choking [for real] in restaurants and then letting the people who have saved his life continue to be a part of it, often by sending him money. He works it like a racket. If you read any of Palahniuk’s other books, this will not surprise you. Oh yeah and he’s also a sex addict. And for a short part of the book he thinks he is Jesus Christ. I totally enjoy the seemy underbelly of characters and situations that Palahniuk’s books spell out in gory detail. As with all his books, they are not for everyone.

Who Got Einstein’s Office?

I’m one of those people who is not super smart about science, but like to learn more all the time. And, since I have a pretty bad memory, I can learn parts of it over and over again, for the rest of my life. Regis goes inside the Priceton Institute for Advanced Study and tries to make the really high-end science they were working on there understandable to a science fan like myself. He starts from the humble beginnings of the institute and explores the ins and outs of the workings of the place until the present day. Since the IAS has been so secretive about its own history, some of the stories Regis tells [like the mental instability of Kurt Goedel] seem a little bit like gossip, but overall he tries to make the science interesting, the people fascinating and the secrets not-so-secret.

The Mapmakers

It is hard for me to imagine a time when I did not know what the outlines of the states looked like, or the outlines of any states, in other countries. I have always been familiar with what the surface of the moon looks like, both through my own observations as well as pictures in books that have been available to me since I was young. It’s hard, then, to imagine a time when the way the world looked was not known, when in fact there was still uncharted territory, where maps ended.

Wilford has created a wonderful though somewhat dense history of mapmaking. Along with it, he has also created a history of knowledge, or a history of “what we know and what we need to know.” He starts off with the earliest maps -- the TO format where the earth was represented as a circle split by two large rivers into three sections -- and continues until he is describing the satellite mapping of the surface of Mars. Along the way he explains and illustrates not only what is going on, but what is driving these people forward. He discusses projections [with great illustrations] and longitude and minute technological advancements that drove more and more people to try to determine what was “out there.” Since the book is so well researched, and Wilford obviously delights in his topic, it can be a bit slow going; I think I have been reading this book on and off for the better part of six weeks. However, once you reach the end where surveying is done with handheld GPS units and the last rivers and icebergs on the face of the planet have been put in their proper places, you definitely have not only a sense of accomplishment but a feeling of being well-versed in an entire body of knowledge, which is a good feeling to have.

The Forbidden Experiment: The story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron

The forbidden experiment this title refers to concerns experiments that would lend a great deal of understanding to the world of science but for moral and ethical reasons are unperformable. Raising children in closets to see what happens to their language learning ability is one of those experiments. However, every once in a great while, a child comes into the limelight who has been raised in some completely non-standard [or unknown] way as to make them a tabula rasa of sorts. Then, of course, the scientists come flocking.

This book concerns one such child, a boy who was captured living seemingly wildly in the woods of France in 1800. He was shuffled around a bit but came under intense scrutiny by one particular scientist who made it a part of his life’s work to teach this “savage” to talk and perhaps even to read. His detailed notebooks have been translated and commented on by the author and make for very fascinating reading. The experiment ultimately failed, in some respects, but the insights gained both by the professor at the time, and the author of this book in the present, are worth the read. Concepts explored include the nature of wildness, people’s fascination with the “natural state” the learnign and teaching profess, the appropriateness of differing levels of closeness in the student/teacher relationship, etc. Shattuck is able to take an event that happened over 200 years ago and make it still entertaining but also thought provoking and somehow poignant. Many of the questions that the wild boy’s teacher sought to answer remain unknown and in this new age of improved communication and information, the liklihood of discovering any future “wild boys” that are not also victims of some sort of terrible abuse seems very remote indeed.

The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New

Rosenberg and her husband Bern Marcowitz started out their relationship with books as booksellers, but not just any booksellers; they had a bookstore in Manhattan that only sold dog books. New books and many old books, which became the subject of this book. The bookstore is now closed but they still deal books over the Internet and as such, still have occasion to find and repair old books. This book is a handy manual for people who are concerned with books' appearances for resale purposes, or who just want to know how best to clean their own old books. The advice is sensible and the authors do not shy away from telling you “you need to have this part done by a professional” if more major work needs to be done. The dog metaphor can be a bit overstated if you are not a crazy dog fan yourself [I am, so it’s fine with me] and the authors sometimes take on a “gentle reader...” tone that can obscure their actual message soemtimes but overall this was a worthwhile book that would have probably benefitted fom a few more pictures in some of the more complicated “how to” sections.

Zen for Beginners

I find Zen interesting because it is a religion that doesn’t require the worship of a higher power. It’s also interesting, though maddening, to have people try to explain it to you. Every now and then I try to read a book that explains Zen to dorks like me, and every time I feel lke there is some little pixie with a wry smile saying “Oh I couldn’t possibly explain it to you...” and then they try. This book really does give the old college try to making sense of the centuries of Buddhist teaching and subsequent Zen lineage. It has lots of graphics and short punchy paragraphs like all of the “for beginners” books. However, a lot of the supplemental text is in this all-caps calligraphy style which is very hard to read and some of the artwork [clip arty stuff mainly] is really not that nice to look at. So, while I think I do have a deeper understanding of what goes into Zen Buddhism and how it may relate to me, reading this book just wasn’t that much fun.

Fast Food Nation

Big suprise, I liked this book. Since came to it late in the game, I had gotten a lot of feedback, mostly from people who either found it “too tough to read” or hadn’t read it because they were afraid it would be too awful. My take on it was that I didn’t think the book went far enough. This is not necessarily a criticism since if your book reads like a PETA advertisement, no one will even turn a page of it. On the other hand, there was definitely a slightly positive flavor to some of it that was not what I was expecting. Schlosser talks about big successful fast food moguls and kids who enjoy their fast food jobs at the same time as he is telling scary slaughterhouse stories and really creepy facts about the industry [like McDonalds makes more money on real estate than they do on food. read that again, they are NOT in the food business. surprising, huh?]

If you’ve never thought too critically about fast food, this book will be a big eye opener. If you’re constantly critiquing capitalism and GMOs and meat eating, then there will not be as much new information. Schlosser seems to sum it all up by implying that Republicans are the reason that we have all this terribly corporate food culture in this country though I think it is really more complicated than that. While Republicans are responsible for some of the more egregious legal loopholes that allow the fast food industry to flourish, a pro-business atmosphere in this country [supported by both Democrats and Republicans] is really more to blame. Add to that the laziness of the average American, the decline in numbers of people who cook at home [or even think they have time to] and the stupid “we have to earn money for our sharegolders or they can sue” US mentality of American capitalism and the mess we’ve made for ourselves should come as a suprise to nobody.

Forever Peace

I didn’t read Haldeman’s book on the subject of war which came out before this one. I’m not sure if I’d need to. This book posits a future dystopia where the superpower that the US has become is involved in relentless war against underpowered and undertrained rebel insurgents from other countries [sound familiar?]. The new twist is that much of the war games take place remotely. American soldiers sit in cages safely underground and manipulate “soldierboys” far away while they blow away the locals. There are groups of ten linked together via brain jacks that give the collective ewar team a group mind of a sort. There is a slight paranoiac undercurrent when word gets to the soldiers that many of the roles they are slated to play may be much more for the purpose of show than actual conflict. The rich folks have nano-technology that basically reduces everyone in the society to the leisure class. The poor still have nothing. Then the leisure elite figures out a way to maybe make it all change.

I am amazed that I have not managed to read Haldeman before. He is a skilled writer and plotsman and his interweaving of the subtle secondary plot of race relations in the semi-totalitarian future is graceful and masterful. The book has a tough intro 20 pages or so where you are sure it’s going to be one long shootemup, but perseverance is worthwhile and the book really delivers.

Magic and Madness in the Library

This book was one of those rare finds and exciting also because it was newly printed. It is an attractive letterpressed book from a small press of excerpts of library stories. If that weren’t enough, it is illustrated by custom woodcuts by Frank Eckmair. Some of the excerpts are already well-known to the library community, such as Borges' library story and Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Others are just small excerpts from other well-known texts like a few paragraphs from Don Quixote or Voltaire. The overall result is a book about books and reading that is in and of itself wonderful to read and look at. A tour de force!

A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry

This book was one of the slowest books I’ve read in a long time. Not because the book itself was in any way hard, or even uninteresting, but because the subject matter is so thick and laden with emotion and packed tightly fact pressed against fact. The book has a straightforward thesis: we know a lot about what happened to Jews during World War II, but we know very little about what happened to them afterwards, this is an exploration into the lives of European Jews, decade by decade. Kurlansky follows some characters through the times and anecdotally notes others. He avoids going too much into the lives of Jews in Israel, or Jews who moved to the United States. He tells a few concentration camp stories, or his characters do, but not many.

Kurlansky is himself Jewish [which I learned by reading the semi-annoying reader’s guide at the back of the book afterwards] and this informs his writing which is always sympathetic to though not always in agreement with,the characters he discusses. The upshot was: things were tough for the Jews before, during, and after the war. In some cities, people were so embarassed by the returning gaunt hollow-eyed Jews that they basically ignored them. Some countries decided that reparations would be made to “all victims of the war” which meant that Jews who had been sent to concentration camps by Germans in cahoots with local authorities had no more rights to get back their stuff and reclaim theirlives than someone who had had a bomb fall ontheir house. Jews rebuilt their communities, moved on with their lives and fell into two very different camps: those who would not talk about the Holocaust and those who could not stop. This book talks about both kinds and particularly explores the changes in attitudes towards Jewishness and Judaism over generations of European Jews.