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« April, 2003 »
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.