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The Lost World

This book is the last in the “books I read on the plane” series and, as such, I wasn’t expecting much from it. After one book where the mystery is revealed about how there are still dinosaurs [or, there are new genetically engineered dinosaurs] living on a remote Costa Rican island, it’s hard to keep the secret much longer. Accordingly the storyline, which is thin to begin with, makes us take some serious leaps of faith as to why everyone doesn’t know about these dinos yet. They go back to the island, some people get eaten, some do not, and at the end of it all, there’s always room for another sequel.

The other major indicator that this book is merely going through the motions is the addition of two young kids -- sort of proteges of one of the scientists who is now reduced to teaching classes at the local high school -- who aren’t much to read about but probably look good on screen. They predictably stow away in one of the research containers and then become both liabilities and assets in the dino-eat-dino Lost World. I like Crichton’s writing and there’s usually enough science to keep me interested in otherwise thin plots, but this book really went over the edge and looks more like a fleshed out treatment for a movie and not a novel at all.

The Testament

It’s been more fun reading Grisham books on airplanes and vaction ever since he seemed to develop some sort of a conscience. His characters are still more often than not moneyed status- and brand-conscious high end pedigreed folk, but often there’s someone around who is not as well off. Often, also, this person turns out to be the moral conscience and sometimes their outlook is catching. In this way Grisham gets the best of both worlds. He still gets to talk money like it was going out of style -- what brands people wear, what high end cars, they drive, what private school they send their lids too -- but he can also eschew the value of such trappings by having positive characters who don’t care at all about that stuff. This book is, otherwise, a lot like his other ones. Rich guy dies leaving complicated will. Former fuckup lawyer gets saddled with picking up the pieces, learns a lesson, etc. No huge surprises, but a good read and it made my plane trip go much more quickly.


Another okay read from the “things to read on the plane” list. This one concerns antibiotic resitant bacterial infections, corrupt drug companies, and a do-gooder doctor who is trying to save patients in South Central Los Angeles, including his own daughter. This book is obviously well-researched and has a good point to make, namely that as drug companies don’t take responsibility for how their products are used, the drugs become misused leading to bad health problems and drug-resistant bacteria. However, too much of this message is explained in the form of mini-soliloquies by various characters and a lot of their exposition reads more like a term paper than any real way someone would talk. Add to that too many killings, too much inner city dialogue that rings false and not enough of a real plot and this book that was actually quite okay ceases to be better than that.

The Reader

This was a short but complicated book about a boy who falls in love with a much older woman who leaves his life only to reappear under very different circumstances when he is older. I usually avoid Oprah’s book club books like the plague but picked this one up because it was about reading. I was not disappointed. The book is quite short but packs a real punch. It manages to convey a lot of the strange and heady emotions involved with young love and also shows the main character growing and learning. This book was translated from the German and there is definitely something European to it, a different way of interacting between the characters, and some subtleties of language, to say nothing of the lack of general outfreakage about a 15 year old boy being seduced by an older woman.

Hell West and Crooked

This was my on-the-plane-over book which I wound up reading most of when I was actually in Australia. It’s a tale of a kid who decided to head out to the Australian Outback and become a cowboy of sorts and details just exactly what that entails. Along the way Tom Cole becomes a rancher, a hordebreaker, a cook and a buffalo hunter. He moves casually from job to job and often spends his pay at the bar and hotel and outfitters before his next job starts. It’s a fascinating look at what life was like when the Outback really was a rural frontier [this was in the 20’s and 30’s mainly] and there were no phones, or airplanes, or women practically. Many people escaped here and many others died through bad choices or plain old bad luck.

Some of the passages that Cole has written down from his journals can get a little dry at times, narrating how many cow they had, what they had for dinner, or who they saw on the trail, but it gives you an idea of the actual monotony that they faced out there. It’s hard to read about his racist treatment of the Indigenous people, his disregard for women and his general colonial approach to the resources of the Outback, the buffalo in particular which he slaughters mercilessly, takes the skins and often leaves the meat behind. On the other hand, his voice does come across as authentic, and he’s making no apologies for his behavior, just telling it more or less like it was. I don’t know how this book, which appeared to be printed in Melbourne, made its way into my bookbag here in the states, but I’m glad it did.

The Corrections

My sister has an ex-boyfriend who says Jonathan Franzen is a dick, but I don’t care. He’s an amazing writer. This semi-autobiographical novel about a guy with aging parents dealing with his own aimlessness and his father’s degenerative disease is rich with pathos, fine language and more nuance than you would expect. It resonated very strongly with me for another reason: Franzen’s Mom is my Mom. I had suspected this when I read his book of essays but I am even more sure now. This isn’t necessarily the most flattering thing to say about either of them, but it was uncanny. So much so that I kept wanting to put down the book and write Franzen a postcard and say “How did you know she does that?!” I read this book in basically one sitting on a cross-continental plane trip which was sort of a good way to keep up with all the characters. I don’t recommend that approach for just anyone, but worked well for me.

Everyone in the book is a little bit broken and a little bit redeeming which is really my favorite kind of set-up. It’s so easy to just have an evil character that drives all the negative energy towards them but all these people have on and off issues with all the other people which, at the end of it all, aren’t even resolved. Life is complicated and so are the stories and words in this book. Worth delving in to.

In A Sunburned Country

I rarely laugh out loud when I read, but this book had me giggling on public transportation. It was my first introduction to Bill Bryson and I carried the hardcover book all the way to Australia and back even though it was a library book. This book recounts a trip Bryson took to Australia before the Sydney Olympics. As he travels over on the plane it occurs to him that he has no idea of the Prime Minister’s name and uses this as a metaphor throughout the book about all the things we don’t know about Australia. That, and how many things here can kill you.

A lot of the things we don’t know about Australia, according to Bryson, are weird trivia bits. Australia has the only wild herd of single humped camels in the world. It also has penguins. An Australian Prime Minister once disappeared off the coast while swimming. His body was never found. Bryson goes overland to many places that many short-term visitors to Australia will only dream about. He drives out to Uluru and back in a day because he forgot to make hotel reservations in advance. He takes long drives into the desert and relates what he is seeing out the window at the same time as he is telling stories of people who wandered out into the Outback and died there. He talks about wildlife, sports, drinking with the locals and the weird little attractions that just barely make the pages of the tour guides. I felt, after reading this book, that I was coming to Australia with at least some advance knowledge of where I was going, and why people were there, which was very helpful.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Everyone likes this book and I was no exception. It’s short enough to read in a weekend, or even a long afternoon and it’s so different from other books you’ve read, it stands alone in its class. The general outline is: the narrator is a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning autistic, and he is keeping notes on the strange thing that happened at his neighbor’s house, the murder of her dog. He is a strange boy and tends to freak people out with his flat affect and lack of cluefulness about normal social cues. As he is writing, we, the readers, get an idea of the actual story, the one that only someone with a fully functioning emotional range would pick up. The backstory, involving his mother and father and some cross-country travel, is also quite good. I’m not sure if everyone read this book the same way I did -- identifying much more with the narrator than anyone else in the book -- but I suspeect some did. Despite the fact that normal Aspergers kids don’t normally communicate like this one does [writing a book is really not something common] this book makes it easy for readers to make that leap of faith and get inside the head of the author, inasmuch as there is a head to get inside. The book is curious and stands alone as a quirky kind of tale.

Split-Level Dykes to Watch Out For

It’s fun to read these all totally out of order. This one is back when everyone was moving around, when Clarice has a crush on Gonger, when Mo met Sindney, when the bookstore was just starting to sell sex toys, when sometimes you could glimpse a nipple in these comics. Bechdel delivers. All these books are just great.

A Book of Bees

Very strangely, I finished this book a day before I received a gift of some home-made honey from a friend of mine who was raising bees in his backyard in Seattle. This book is a seasonally-outlined narration of the life of a beekeeper. Hubbell owns 300 hives in the Ozarks and lives in relative solitude tending to them. She describes the work she does with the bees, the interactions she has with the local folks, and the things she has learned as a solitary lady beekeeper. It’s a very meditative short book that is rich with natural imagery and observations about flora and fauna. Hubbell truly cares for her bees as their steward and so her approach to them is not just as her cash cow, but as pars of the natural world that she symbiotically relates to. Lots of practical bee advice fills this book in addition to more personal reflections. In an odd twist at the end, the author reveals that her bee work is just a part of the life she has been living and that she has a new partner and is paring down her bee business -- that she so feverently extolls the virtues of -- to spend more time with her man. I don’t expect every woman naturist to be a hermit, but having the last line in your book about bees be “I like loving a man and I like being loved by him” just makes it seem in a way to minimize all the positive things she said about her previous monastic-style existence.

The Anarchist in the Library

Since it’s November I think I can safely put this book on the 2004 top ten list. I read it on the plane on the way to a workshop on The Information Commons which was somewhat less interesting than this book. Siva is only sort of flirting when he talks about anarchism since his conclusion basically says “we don’t want anarchy, but we need something better than this” He’s a scholar but one who uses the tools he discusses. That, combined with a very readable style and a good sense of humor make this book a must read.

He goes deep into the models for sharing information and explains how our previous pathways to free and open sources of information are being shut down by people who want to be able to charge us for it. Not only that, they have been re-framing the debate, so that wanting to access this information in an easy and user-friendly way gets us branded as criminals ["anarchists"] by the powers that be. They basically make the argument that they’re keeping us safe by adding all these levels of copy protection and legislation when in reality they’re just protecting their own private proerty model and revenue stream that comes from that model.This is, of course, a horribly brief synopsis of a complex and wonderful book. If you’d like more from Siva, feel free to read the FAQ about this book, or just start reading his blog.

The Flame Tree

I got this book in the mail by someone who reads my site. I didn’t know anything about it except that it was as story of a teenaged boy and it tackled some tricky issues about faith and religion in these confusing times. The book is a bit more intense than that. It tracks an American boy who lives with his parents at the Christian missionary hospital they live and work at in Indonesia. The hospital is controversial in the town because local Muslims believe that the health care they offer is just a bribe to encourage people to accept Christ and convert to Christianity. The boy Isaac is not too wrapped up in religious issues except that he knows that when a local fundamentalist starts rising to power he can no longer hang out with his Muslim friend from town. Things go from bad to worse when the World Trade Center is attacked in the US and the climate in the town goes from grudging acceptance to outright hostility. The medical personnel are airlifted out of town except for Issac’s parents who decide to stay behind and Isaac who evacuates a crashing helicopter while suffering from malaria. He is found and held captive by Muslims who try to teach convert him to Islam and, at one point, frustrated with his unwillingness to convert voluntarily, forcibly circumcise him. While the book is listed as a young adult novel and the first person narrator is twelve years old, the graphic violence and hatred [on both sides] make this book a difficult recommendation for teens.

A large part of Isaac’s captivity involves his former teacher from the hospital school teaching him the Quur’ran and how the teachings of Allah do not differ in many ways from the teachings of Christ. For someone with a background in either one of these religions there may have been more to glean from the conversations about the Quur’ran but to my uneducated eye, the general upshot was: Christians are annoying prostyletizers and so are Muslims. While the Muslims are seen in this book as having more of the “bad apple” elements who step over the guidelines of their religion in order to wreak vengeance or retributions, the Christians are also seen as somewhat naive and oppressive in their attempts to convert the local people who already have their own religion that they are quite happy with. There are good and bad people on both sides of the equation and while Isaac does eventually get reunited with his parents and learns to forgive his captors the story does not end on a particularly happy note indicating that there is still much work to be done in support for Christian/Muslim tolerance and understanding.

David Chelsea in Love

David Chelsea is a man who is looking for a woman, and he finds her, or thinks he does, but she turns out to be crazy. This graphic novel outlines the back and forth that he and the crazy lady have before he finally settles down with someone he likes. Actually, the woman David is in love with initially isn’t crazy but just has such differing ideas of what she wants from a relationship that she might as well be from David’s perspective. They get together and break up, they sleep with other people, they fight, they make up,etc etc. The story seem to exist a bit more to be some sort of post-relationship catharsis than as an actual good story, but the illustrations are great, the narrative moves forward and since David Chelsea doesn’t find Jesus at the end of it, it beats all the other graphic novels I’ve read recently

The Cat’s Pajamas

I have enjoyed Ray Bradbury’s books since I pulled an old copy of October Country out of one of the boxes of books my parents kept in the attic. I have always enjoyed his ability to be sentimental without [usually] being schmaltzy and his way with words. He also is one of the few writers who consistently employs nature themes in his story writing. The wind, leaves, trees and seasons are all often characters in his books along with the human and non-human people. This book is a collection of mostly shorter pieces that span a real range of Bradbury’s career. All but two are unpublished and I hadn’t read any of them before. Bradbury writes in the introduction that after the death of his wife he wasn’t sure that he’d ever be able or inspired to write again. Some of these stories are new and many of them are older ones that a friend of his helped find in boxes of his papers in the garage. The collection also has an introduction that gives some insight into the inspirations behind some of the stories which is a welcome addition and tool for accessing Bradbury.

My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable

I’m more familiar with Rees through his more political Get Your War On comics which have delighted me since he started making them. The technique is the same: take some ugly office clip art, mix in a liberal dose of swearing and indignation at insane BS and lies you are supposed to swallow and you have a very funny comic. It’s like Dilbert, only not safe for work. This book is a pretty low-tech collection of these comics basically printed and bound with a construction paper cover and not much else. Not really archival quality, and I wonder how long our copy is going to last at our library. It’s funny as hell and Rees is worth supporting but many of the comics [all?] are also available online so at the very least read them and get indignant and then maybe, I don’t know, go out and try to change things?

The Fact Checker’s Bible

This book makes me sort of nostalgic, as a librarian, for a time when checking facts was considered an essential part of journalism. Smith has had several fact checking jobs at illustrious publications and wrote this slim volume between two of those jobs. She outlines what a fact checker does, why it is important and goes over some of the central conflicts that come up in her job. For example: you have a quotation that someone has cheated on his wife. You can verify that he said it, but can you verify the quote? To call the wife would be considered hurtful, to call the mistress quite likely impossible. What do you do? Smith covers those and other dilemmas in a chatty and engaging discussion of journalism and the ethics surrounding veracity.

Silly Daddy

I have now decided there is some sort of graphic novel genre that I have loosely titled “guy finds Christ on last page.” I read one of these books recently and this is the second. Chiapetta [is that his real name?] is a capable artist, but his work, which is a compilation of his comics, starts out really amateurish. By the time he has gotten to be a good drawer and storyboarder, he has started getting a bit surreal. This is probably easier to understand if you read the stories in comic form, noting where one ends and one begins. It’s confusing as hell in the novelized version. And, at the end, the vegan longhair with the neat little daughter and penchant for sticking it to authority finds Jesus, gets married, gets baptized, and has a son, all on the last page. It’s sort of a happy ending, unless you got familiar with the character all the way through who seems to have died to give this little tale its happy ending.


“Hi, I’m a hermaphrodite, but wait, I want to tell you about the story of my family....” If Eugenides were any less of a capable writer, this tactic would have driven me to distraction as it has in lesser books. Instead, his stories about grandparents growing up in Greece, fleeing the invaders, moving to Detroit and raising a family, becomes such a delightful diversion [and, in fact, the bulk of the story] that you can almost forget that you’ve been tantalized by a really juicy bit of information. It’s tough to not write a tawdry tale when you’re talking about sex and gender issues. The questions in the reader’s minds such as “What does his/her THING look like?” or “How does he/she have sex?” must be addressed in some fashion but they need not be the focal point of an otherwise engrossing story.

In fact, the bomb drops for most people before they even pick up this book. It’s popular enough that most people know it’s got a hermaphrodite character even before they pick it up. For some, this keeps them from picking up the book at all, as in the case of my landlady’s elderly friend who said flat out “I don’t like reading books about sex” and would not be persuaded to pick it up. It’s really a story about family, and a story about identity and how you know who you are. This is repeated over and over, when people move from one country to another, from one family alignment to another, from one social class to another or from one gender to another. While the narrator is, at the present time, a man in his 40’s, most of the story revolves around that tricky time when he went from being a girl, to being a teenaged.... teenager. Gender issues are only part of the problem with growing older, the story seems to say to us, and with lovely language Eugenides spells out many of the other problems.

The Chamber

There’s nothing like a good Grisham book when you are flat on your back with a cold and able to do pretty much nothing but read. Grisham used to write these stories of ultrarich lawyers trapped in impossible scenarios with well-funded teams of attack lawyers after them. Age seems to have softened him and the last two books of his that I have read were this one and one where the high-paid lawyer gave it all up to do poverty law.

This book is mainly about the death penalty. The main character has been sentenced to death for a crime he was at least an accomplice in committing. His grandson who has never met him decided to take on his case pro bono to try to get him off. There’s not even much more plot thatn that. No big suprises, no suspenseful cliffhangers. The absolute routinized process of state-sponsored killings are given a lot of pages. Grisham is clearly against the dealth penalty and many of the characters in this book trot out somehwat timeworn cliches about why the death penalty is a bad idea. If you love the death penalty, you might not enjoy this book, but if you liked movies like The Green Mile and other “day in the life of death row” type narratives, this one is as good as they come.

How to Survive Without a Salary

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. Long isn’t suggesting that you never work again, he is just suggesting that you don’t have to have a 9-5 salaryman type of job in order to be able to survive and live somewhat comfortably. And he backs up this assertion with evidence from his own life. Long is one of those people living by what he calls “Conserver” values where you don’t take anything for granted where you try to pay as little as possible on things that are neccesary and you find ways to live without thing you might formerly have thought of as luxuries. It works for him. It clearly wouldn’t work for everyone but that’s why his laundry list approach to conserving can be useful. Even if you have a 9-5 job -- and if you like it, more power to you -- you can still take advantage of his advice on investing, or growing your own vegetables, or shopping cheaply for furniture, or how to buy items at auctions. While this book isn’t the most attractive treatise on frugal living [Amy Dacyczyn’s books take the cake in that regard] it’s helpful and Long’s earnest “I can do it so can you!” approach is easy to read and inspiring if you’re already inclined towards that sort of lifestyle. He may not win any converts from the moneyed classes, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

The Parrot’s Lament: And Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity

Some people think animals communicate and have higher-order thinking and some do not. The author does. This book is full of different anecdotes and explanations about why he thinks this is so. Regardless of your opinions, the book is well written and an interesting look into the lives of animals by people who work closely with them. However, as someone who is skeptical about animals' intellectual capacities, I found that I did just what the author said I might, I lumped a lot of the behaviors that he was showing as evidence of higher order thinking and said “well, that’s just coincidence, that’s not scientific, there are other explanations for that behavior...” It’s not that I don’t think that animals are as valid organisms as humans, or that they don’t have their own thoughts and ideas in their heads, it’s just that we have no way of knowing or even testing what those thoughts are.

Linden has a compelling assortment of stories of animal tool usage, animal problem solving, animal “sensing” of human feelings or motivations and plain old animal ingenuity. None of these stories tell us anything about the animals' inner thoughts. This is where Linden would like to believe that they think more like we do and I like to believe that I don’t know how they think, though I wouldn’t quibble that they use tools, solve problems and relate well to humans. I guess at the end of the day I’m not sure what the point is, or why it’s important to Linden that we see animals as language users or as rational thinkers. The book is interesting, there are a lot of funny stories and he might change your mind about how you look at the way animals think, though he didn’t change mine. z

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

Two early problems with this book: the author admits early on that he changed some of the identifying details and all the character names in this book to protect the anonymity of the people involved, and, it was written in 1992 even though it was published just recently. As a result, this tale of an academic intellectual going “back to the land” to see what life is like without the intrusion of technology reads a little like a fairy tale [who are these people? how much did he change?] and a little quaint [1992 was before most of us had a constant mainline in to the Internet, how would this be different now?]

Like many people who are or were drawn into the back to the land movement, Brende has trouble with the frenetic pace of the American society that he lives in. He enters a graduate program at MIT and discovers, surprise!, that his professors don’t share his skepticism about the wonders of technology. The reader may wonder if brende would have gotten a more favorable reception at some institution of higher learning that didn’t have the word Technology in its title.

In any case, a chance meeting with an Amishlike man at a bus stop leads into an 18 month sojourn at the man’s community. Brende takes care to say this this man and his community are NOT Amish or Mennonite, but seem to be a gathering of folks that live in line with similar low- or no-technology teachings and a very strong church. Brende quickly marries his girlfriend and away they go to live without technology....

Many of the realizations that the author has throughout this book are not really that astonishing if you have spent any time at all living in a rural area. Work isn’t as hard if you have a lot of people doing it as a community. Life has a slower pace without technology. Cars interfere withe the way we interact with the natural world. When you don’t use electric lighting you are more keenly aware of the changing of the seasons. Along the way Brende and his wife make friends in the community, have a child and buy a house intending to stay when all of the sudden the discover that his wife is allergic to horses and so they need to leave which they quickly do. In the course of writing up his observations, Brende also tries to start some sort of a project at the house they bought with students as a simple living experiment and it seems to not go anywhere. They eventually sell the house and move to a small community in St. Louis where they run a small B&B, and he works as a soapmaker and a rickshaw driver to support their growing family. They now live a partial back to the land lifestyle and the author’s blurb is clear to state that the author only has an email account at the behest of his publisher.

This book is a fun read but it irked me. I think I have some sort of trouble with the back to the land movement’s converts' seeming superiority over people who live a life full of technological interactions and car driving. Maybe I’m just sensitive because that’s the way I live and I still feel that I have an appreciation for nature and a healthy distrust for labor saving tools. This book seems to be written for people who live lives sadly entangled with technology and who see now way out. Brende is a role model and explains the choices he makes in a “this isn’t crazy” way which I think is helpful. He’s also an anti-tech zealot and can’t help tossing in the occasional barb or righteous poke at people who use telephones, watch TV, drive cars [even though they have one they use on occasion] or use email. It’s the best of both worlds because he’s smart enough to be able to justify his usage of these technologies [how was the book printed?] while at the same time ranting against them. The people in the community he visited are still there, and still making do without, not just dipping their toes in in the subculture tourism way that Brende seems to.

The Codex

Not to be confused with the book Codex, this action mystery is gripping enough to hold your attention, while not so challenging or cloying that you grow to hate it saying “just tell me how it ends already!” The story surrounds a gruff but likeable Dad who gets his three sons together ostensibly because he is dying. When they get to his home, they find that he’s left and taken all the fine art and other pieces that he had collected after a lifetime of grave robbing and other less-than-honorable collecting. The sons, who don’t often buddy around together, need to team up to find the Dad and the Dad’s loot. It reads like a screenplay and in fact the writer has written other books that became successful films. The search for the loot takes the three sons on a grueling trip through dense Central American jungles and rivers and is fun to read for the scenery alone. Light reading but really much better than a lot of the trade paperbacks out there.

Prying Eyes

This book was on the new shelf at the library. When I read that the author had worked for some sort of data security agency, I thought “Oh no, now he’ll try to make us afriad so he can sell us something...” but it wasn’t like that at all. This book is a very thorough guide to privacy for lay people. It covers all sorts of privacy from how to stop unwanted telephone calls to how the USA PATRIOT Act changes traditional ideas of what is and is not safe from government intrusion.

Gertler fills the book with scary anecdotes that illustrate just how badly things can go wrong for people who are sloppy with their personal information, or who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, his general tone is not eye rolling. His perspective is that there are many simple things people can do -- outlined in bullet points at the end of each chapter -- that will do a lot towards making you more secure from data theft and misuse. He explains what identity theft is, and what you can do to prevent it. He also discusses more practical matters like getting access to your credit reports and current legislation that affects what businesses can and can’t do with your personally identifying information. This book is a great toolkit for someone who is concerned about the secureity of their personal data, but also just hobbyists who want a snapshot of the current legal status of the safety of informaiton.

The Elements of E-mail Style

This book borrows the cover style and the title of the original Strunk & White book but none of the panache. Part of the problem is that while the book was re-issued just recently, it was written in 1994. As a result, some of the directives the authors provide seem pretty obvious, while some don’t apply almost at all to the new world of graphical HTML-enabled email. The main problem, however, is that the book is trying to do too many things at once. It’s a guide to e-mail style, it’s a guide to proper grammar and spelling and it’s a guide to email in general. It does none of these things particularly well. Where the elan of Strunk and White was its brevity, this book is too long by half, filled with lists of “instead of using this long phrase, use these short words” which, if the reader cared, they could have gotten from the original style guide. There are some useful short bits like how to extinguish a flame war and basic tips on writing email using _underlines_ and *emphasis* in the old school ways but overall, despite its new reissue date, this book is a relic and not useful for today’s new emailers.

Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience

This author, along with his co-author Henri Broch, has had enough of pseudoscience. He’s also had enough of people telling him that something is true scientifically when he knows that is not the case. This short book sets out to debunk some of the non-scientific things we’ve been led to believe, from the spiritual hype of coal walking to the psychic puffery of bent keys. This book was translated from the original French so the language and just the manner of assertions that Charpak makes can seem stilted at times. The book also has a tendency to be all over the place which can make for amusing reading but perhaps not what you are looking for when you think you’re learning about science. A fun intro to the subject with authors who are clearly supergeniuses but not always completely coherent.

When Raccoons Fall Through your Ceiling

Lopez works for Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Texas, or did, and her word goes when telling people how to deal with sick, injured or abandoned animals. her belief is that we have animals in our homes and yards because we have moved into their yard, and that we should learn to co-exist, not just try to keep all the animals away. To this end she has created this practical book of tips for living with animals, encoungerinag animals and helping animals when you come across one that is hurt or stranded. She dismisses many of the myths about how to treat animals -- that fawn you find alone in the field may be just fine as long as you don’t disturb it, this is normal deer behavior -- and tries to teach people when you can help and when you need to call in the professionals. Her advice ranges from how to keep the bears away, to how large a baby skunk has to be before it can live on its own to the best thing to feet baby birds. She’s practical, respectful of animals and people and has a sense of humor which it seems must be a prerequisite for a job like hers.

The Golem’s Mighty Swing

Sturm is a local guy and I was sad to miss him when he came to speak at my library. This graphic novel came out to great acclaim and it’s taken me a while to get it and see what all the fuss was about. Since I usually read meatier graphic novels, I was a bit surprised by how short this one was. It’s not that it’s short in pages, though it is that, but Sturm’s wonderful spare drawing style means that from frame to frame there’s not a lot happening. This book is about a Jewish baseball team, almost a novelty team, that plays various exhibition type local games in the 1920’s. It’s a short bittersweet story that includes a lot of anti-Semitism, a little bit of comeuppance and not much in the way of happy endings. There is also a lot of baseball so if you’re good with baseball statistics you may enjoy the “he pitches... the swing ... strike” segments more than I did. I enjoyed the narrative of this story which was marred a wee bit by too much baseball. In any case, it’s a lovely book not just the drawings but the cover, packaging, font choices, the whole nine yards. A really great accomplishment, to provide something different in the sometimes too-similar world of graphic novels.

Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns

This book was a fascinating read but I found the author somewhat annoying. Reed is one of those people who constantly wonders about the road not taken. She is married with two adopted children, but always wondered what would have happened if she followed an earlier calling and had taken up religious life. So, she decides to do some in-depth research and visits many religious communities, mostly convent-style communities, and reports on what she finds there. This woman is in love with nuns. The number of times she describes their beatific faces, or reports without skepticism the fortuitous coincidences that happen to them that the nuns attribute to divine intervention, the more she lost me as a reader.

Reed is at her best when she is describing the communities and how they differ: this group is aggressively pro-life, this group gets up at 2 am, this group is cloistered, this group lives in an inner-city house among the people, this groups wears habits, this group admits men, and so on. The sheerr amount of time she has spent with these women and the amount of access she hhas to their lives -- lives which are not often spoke of outside of religious communities -- is impressive. As a total agnostic, I was more interested in the questions that Reed takes for granted: how can you be in love with and marry someone who doesn’t exist? does physical intimacy play a part in the lives of these women at all? what about the nuns who were mean to her, what’s their story? Reed seems to play up the good communities and dismiss the bad communities as dying out relics or people with outdated ideas as opposed to not wanting to basically have reporters get in their business. Reeds reporting is admirably politically neutral in most ways, but I was surprised at her lack of self-awareness at how putting herself into the lives of these women and reporting on them, fundamentally changed what they were and what they were doing. There’s a certain irony in listening to a reporter interview a woman who is mostly hermitted because, of course, when she’s being interviewed, she’s not really being a hermit, is she?

In general, this book is readable, a wealth of good information and a compelling read. I just wanted to know a lot less about Reed and her personal spiritual journey and more about the women whose way of life she was in some way invading for the purposes of her own soul-seeking journey.

Brooklyn Dreams

Another one of those book-length graphic novels, this one outlines the narrator’s growing up and coming of age in Brooklyn. Instead of the author meeting some girls and learning a thing or two about sex and religion like in Blanket, this author slowly and roundaboutly finds religion, but you don’t realize you’re reading a story about someone who found God until the very end. The illustrations by Glenn Barr are a crucial part of this tale, carrying the story along when the plot is less than punchy and giving even more dimension to DeMatteis’s well-outlined characters. The story is told as a series of digressions so by the time it’s really started, it’s pretty well over. This can be a bit hard if you’re actually trying to keep track of the players. I think the next time I read this book I’d try to do it without always thinking “I wonder what is going to wind up happening to whatshisname...?”

Retire on Less Than You Think

Sometimes I just troll the “new” shelves at the library to see what’s been coming in. This book looked like one of those perky little financial self help books so I took it home. When I realized the guy wa a columnist for the Times, I thought “Oh no, more hype about mutual funds and IRAs being the only way to prepare for retirement...” but was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of good advice with a range of options presented depending on what sort of life you want in your retirement. Brock is all about the sane saving and spending of money and refutes the standard investment advisor advice about needing 70-80% of your current income to be able to make it in retirement. He says if you want to keep woring, that’s cool, but he outlines a few ways you can save more money earlier -- driving an older car, moving to a place with a lower tax burden, selling a large house you no longer need -- and then retire earlier. His tone is chatty but his math is solid and his advice isn’t scary it’s useful. I’m not anywhere near looking to retire but even in my situation I learned some tricks about where to put my money now that will benefit me in the future.

Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists

All too often, collections of work by graphic artists is either all art, or all interview with nothing in between. Ted Rall has done a great job combining the two in this collection of cartoonists, some who you may have heard of and some who you may not have. He does interviews with the illustrators on topics such as getting syndicated, getting noticed or not noticed, being weird or not weird and mostly asking them how they do what they do in a world that is not that appreciative of subversive folks of any avocation. He also reproduces pages of their work in big format so that you can read the words, appreciate the artwork, and even see a range of the artists' talents. It was interesting to read the words of Aaron McGruder [Boondocks] Max Cannon [Red Meat] and David Rees [Get Your War On] whose work I was familiar with. It was also great to discover artists who I didn’t know as well, or who I hadn’t heard of at all such as Mikhaela Reid, Emily Flake and Ward Sutton. Some of these folks are political and some are not but overall they care deeply about the work that they do and Rall shows it off to good advantage in these pages.

The Rule of Four

I somehow missed that this book was on the New York Times best seller list when it arrived in my mailbox as a gift from a friend. I read it because it is one of those delightful mysteries about books, with a big mysterious actual book at the center of the conundrum. As mystery books about books go, this one is great, but you sort of start to get used to the pattern. Person who is obsessed with the mystery of some odd old book. Archives are scoured for extra clues. A puzzle or two is discovered, then solved. A friendship hangs in the balance. There is some international travel. While I love all these ingreadients, and liked this book, it did represent a turning point for me -- the place where I started to recognize these sorts of smart literary mysteries as a genre, not as a few dissociated gems in the rough of mystery writing generally.

It’s good news, in my mind, that mysteries are getting more highbrow with books like The Da Vinci Code being both popular and thought provoking. On the other hand, the more authors learn that book like these sell, the more I am concerned that mystery-books-about-books will no longer just be written by passionate literary hobbyists -- as these authors seem to be -- but also by just any old mystery writer with a good research assistant. It’s a snob appeal thing and books like The Rule of Four make me very aware of my fear and concern that something that I enjoy will become popular and ruined. For now, books like this one, and Lev Grossman’s Codex and others by John Dunning, I can still feel are my little secret, NY Times best sellers list be damned.

How to Be Alone

It’s been a long time since I’ve developed a crush on anyone by reading their writing. The last time may have been when I met my current boyfriend. The first thing I can remember thinking about him was “Man, that guy can write” I got that same feeling reading this collection of essays although, apologies to Franzen, my attraction for him will have to remain unrequited. Many of these essays are taken from published magazine sources, so if you frequent Harpers or The New Yorker, you may have read one or two. In the introduction, Franzen takes the extra step of explaining how some of his ideas have changed since he wrote these essays, and he is given the luxury of being able to edit them to reflect how he feels now.

He covers a wide range of topics, from his father’s death from Alzheimers, to his rise to super-stardom as "that guy dropped form Oprah’s book club", to his weird attachment to smoking [and the weird smoking industry] and the odd banality of sex manuals. He’s so earnest, and so conflicted and yet not whiny or otherwise morose for someone this earnest and conflicted. He discusses successes and failures as things that happen, almost as if they happen to other people, and then shares some little emotional impression of it that makes you realize he was right there feeling this all along. His language is beautiful - big words, long sentences, elegant turns of phrase -- but they don’t detract from the various things he has to say, just help to drive the point home. Franzen seems to long for the days when writing was important and writers made a difference. This book, I think, is going to help keep those days in the present.

PC Annoyances

As someone who is pretty good with computers, I have a hard time with computer books because often I feel that they give people only one way of doing something when, depending on how people learn and use their computers, this may not be the best way. I was pleasantly suprised by this book. The author who is a long time writer/editor for PC world is comomfortable with computers but also well aware that many people aren’t. When he talks about dealing with an issue such as Real Player putting shortcuts on his desktop, he’ll offer many solutions that appeal to people with differing levels of skill. He’ll try to explain what causes the problem, why it’s hard/easy to fix, and how to fix it. He’ll even discuss problems that are unfixable but, in explaining why you can’t fix them, informs you about the way your computer works.

Bass does like to use applications to solve problems created by other applications, however, so if you’re not in favor of having a zillion little apps running around, this might not be the book for you. However, thi si his preferred solution to many small PC annoyances, and he’ll try to give you other ways to solve the issue if possible. The book doesn’t come with a CD but it comes with a web site with links to the download sites of all the applications [and Bass uses a URL shortener in the print version of the book so the web addresses are all easy to read and easy to use. Even if you think you’re pretty good with computers or [in my case] even if you don’t have a PC, this book is good at showing helpful ways of explaining computer errors and foibles and providing solutions in a way that even someone at the end of their rope can understand and enjoy.

Object of Virtue

Yet another one of those antique mystery books. A mysterious object shows up and along with it a larger mystery. In this case the object is a Faberge style little figurine that may or may not have belonged to the royal family that was deposed from Russia. The family’s descendant now works for a tony auction house in New York City. The object appears on the market, drama ensues. I enjoyed this book even though it had a bit too much of a “lifestyles of the mega-rich” gloss to it with a bit too many brand names and other name-dropping. On the other hand, the mystery parts of it and the history involved when the protagonist goes back to Russia to try to untangle some of the loose ends of this story, are engaging and the book is well-written [and short] enough to bring it all together.

Time Traveler’s Wife

It hadn’t occured to me until I was watching a bit of TV today that this book is like the Terminator story. Except instead of the Terminator you have a time travelling librarian, and instead of the buff whatshername you have a lovely rich artist lady. The only way you can sneak a love story on to my reading list is if there’s a librarian in it. This story includes a time travelling librarian who falls in love and then goes back to be a part of his wife’s childhood, over and over again. Most of his time travel is accidental and inadvertent, and he always arrives at his new place/time naked and often vomiting. Time travel this becomes very taxing and he’ll often show back up in the “current” time all beaten up and, once again, naked.

Unlike other superpower stories, many people know that Henry is a time traveler and many people endeavor to help him along the way. Clare, his bride, bride to be, or widow depending when you come in to the story, is in the unenviable position of living a life with someone who at some level has already seen it happening. There are a few breadcrumbs dropped along the way so that the reader will pick up danger signs, notice a little warning bell, or pick up a clue, but the narrative, while not exactly linear, is at least cohesive.

The love and life these characters have together is achingly poignant in the level to which they can attain intimacy and the extent to which there will be some things that they can never share. It’s hard to discuss it at all without giving away plot points that are better left to discover by the reader. Don’t wait, read this book.

The Code Book

Simon Singh writes wonderfully understandable books about complicated topics. This basic treatment of a history of codes, codebreaking and code breakers is at once both easy to understand and yet rich in nuance and explanation. It’s one of those great books with lots of extra appendices where you can go for more information but don’t need to be bored with it if you don’t. Singh is also British so this exposition talks a lot about the simultaneous work going on in code creation and breaking in the UK as well as in the US. Apparently, public key cryptography, according to recently declassified information, was created by British intelligence at about the same time as it was discovered in the US, but national security kept the Brits' discovery under wraps until just recently. This book is full of little tidbits like that, codes cracked, problems created and solved and the obsessed and single minded folks who make codes their lives.

Reversible Errors

Another great crime and courtroom drama by Scott Turow. This one hinges on the innocence of a man about to be executed, one with a fairly low IQ and a very bad alibi accused of murdering three people a long time ago. A public defender assigned to the case discovers that the case is much more complicated than it seems. No surprise there. The book follows two different couples whose lives are wrapped up in this case and shows how the crime that was committed over a decade ago is still messing with their lives. If you like Turow, you’ll like this.

Birdwatching in Vermont

Regional bird books are great. Not only can they tell you what a bird looks like and where you’re likely to see one, but in this book’s case, they even have a frequency map for all the 250+ birds that spend time in Vermont, showing how many of them are likely to be in the state in a given month. There’s an amazing amount of data in this book, including the aformentioned frequency maps, but also maps to the best birdwatching regiuons in the state, tips for buying binoculars and other birdwatching apparatus, and a lot of local bird stories such as the huge tower [or 'kettle'] of hawks that sometimes shows up over Mount Philo. The book is not a field guide, it’s a companion, meant to be read at home or consulted later, but it’s a great introduction to local birdwatching which is written in a very accessible and even humorous style.

The Heir Hunter

Thriller mystery story about a guy who tracks down heirs of the recently deceased for a living -- and a share of the profits. This tale involves a very rich man who dies with no obvious inheritors. Heir hunter Nick Merchant commits some small-time bribery to get access to the guy’s files and learns that the case may be much more complicated than it seems. There is a shadowy government involvement and the high money competition of more established heir hunting firms. The bulk of this novel is not about merchat finding the heirs, but trying to figure out who is hunting him. Fun, read it at the beach or over some other lazy afternoon. The author is apprently an actual heir hunter and I’d love to hear more non-fiction accounts of that profession someother time.

Beg the Question

This is one of my favorite types of graphic novels: the big chunky book. Fingerman’s sort of autobiographical story about an illustrator, his girlfriend and their friends just hanging out and doing stuff and eventually getting married in New York city. It’s more sexed-up than your average graphic novel but definitely toned-down from flat out raunchy porn. The illustrations are rich, quirky and thorough, keeping you from quickly thumbing through just looking for the next sex scene or the resolution to whatever the current plot momentum point is

Like many graphic novels of this genre, it was put together -- with some added illustration technique and a few more panels -- from a series of smaller comic books so there is a cadence to the stories that will become familiar. It will be hard for any thirty-something hipster to not read this and recognize at least one character that reminds them of themselves or someone they are close to.

The Full Cupboard of Life

A lot of tidy endings in this fifth installment in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Every bit as charming as all the other ones.

Eastern Standard Tribe

My library bought this book so I didn’t have to go through the effort of downloading it for free, though you certainly can. In fact, you should. In an inspired bit of zen, the downloading of the book for free will get you that much closer to the zeitgeist of this book which is, at some bizarre level, about sharing.

But back to me for a sec. One of the things that is toughest for me now that I live in rural Vermont is that many of the people that I consider social kin or tribespeople, don’t live here. My ways are weird and foreign to the people who want to make this place geographically their home and I get a few raised eyebrows just by digging out my laptop in a coffee shop, or asking someone for their email address when they say we should stay in touch. Books like this one help me stay connected to the tech world without having to do that keep-up-with-the-joneses technolust thing that would make me broke.

Back to the book, it’s short and jargon filled and flip-floppy in a way that keeps you paying attention. There’s only a few major plot points: guy meets girl, guy winds up in hostpital, guy may or may not be getting screwed by his friends. Ultimately the protagonist tells us, the story is about whether it is better to be smart or happy. The rest of the book is an object lesson in to one of those, but it’s hard to tell which. There is a lot of gadgetry, a couple of long paragraphs that are clearly Doctorow Getting His Point Across, and a whirlwind bunch of escapades that span a few continents, some time zones, and not even much of a credibility gap. This technology and these people are all around you, the book says , wouldn’t you like to know what they are up to? Read it.


I love Stirling’s history but I don’t like his politics. He writes masterful stories that all seem to share the plot point of going back in time, and then he explains how humans manage to live then. His older novel Islands in the Sea of Time was really great until the war of all against all part. Stirling is a good writer, but not an amazing one, so he can’t make battle scenes zip to life. He’s clearly enamored of the tactical precision of battle, but spends too much time saying “and then this guy went over here, then those other guys went over there, the first guy shouldered his rifle and aimed at those other guys...” etc. Actually, he writes better than that, but the tedium of the battle scenes was what drove me away from the sequel to Islands.

This book has a slightly different premise: guy discovers a portal in his basement -- the author doesn’t bother with details which is fine with me -- where he can walk from his San Francisco basement into a California where white men never settled. Of course, once he makes this discovery white men do settle, with a vengeance. The portal into the alternative California becomes a fiercely guarded secret and a few get very very rich protecting it. Along the way we learn some inteesting things about the early history of California, the native plants, animals and people that lived there, and Stirling’s own opinions about what would make the world a better place. Of course, these opinions are supposedly coming from characters in the novel, but there are some really obvious set-up lines that serve pretty much to only demonstrate how one philosophy is clearly morally superior toanother and you think “what is that doing in this book?” In any case, the story itself is a good read, the battle scenes overlong and some of the moralizing tiresome, but for history buffs, Stirling can really create a convincing world and populate it with interesting folks, worth a read.

Stranger Than Fiction

Sex, drugs, wrestling and messiness all grace this book of essays by Palahniuk. Fascinating stuff. People who like the things he writes won’t be disappointed. There’s interesting interviews like the one with Marilyn Manson, dull ones like the one with Juliette Lewis, and a lot of stories about Palahniuk being places or talking to people and being like a fish out of water. Exactly like you would expect him to be. He paints himself into his stories the same way he writes a lot of his characters: slightly out of step with odd desires or concerns that are his alone. It’s great reading and the pieces are shorter than the ones I’m used, so you get a great overview of the way his mind works. Lots of anecdotes about Fight Club, and meeting famous people, and doing dorky things. Not a lot of hubris, or bragadoccio. He discusses his Dad’s murder but doesn’t dwell on it. He makes himself seem like you or I. Only famous, now anyways.

The most capitavting part of this book is about what isn’t in it. The intro and all other supporting material scream “these are true stories, this is how it IS” and yet never once in the entire book does Palahniuk mention that he’s gay. Has been for years. Lives with a guy. He makes an offhanded mention about pals of his that work out and use steroids, but also talks about ogling women and has a few frank discussions about sex. This, of course, makes a lot of his straight-talking seem like so much artifice. On the other hand, that just makes it all the more brilliant, to me. You’re so sure he’s being straight with you, and he is, mostly, but really he’s just telling you another story, only this time it’s “true.”


A group of people I know from online were listing books they had enjoyed that involved time travel. Many people recommended this one, but almost all of them added “the first part is great, the second part really sucks” That was not my impression, overall, I liked it.

The first part is the part where you learn all about the quantum physics that makes time travel possible, and the driven-and-high-paid company in New Mexico that is actually making time travel a reality. Cut to England where a team of decicated historians and anthropologists [yes, everyone is in some way “dedicated” in this book] are digging up the ruins of a castle... It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that they will be going back to the time when that castle was still standing [1300’s or so] and get involved in joustings, battles and all manner of Middle Ages intrigue. The book is a fun quick read, the science is over myhead but, as with all time travel books, made just accessible enough so that you’re not saying “Hey wait a second!” and, of course, there’s a big fight in it. Think Jurassic park with time travel and jousting instead of dinosaurs.

Complete & Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres and Total Flops

I have no idea where this book came from. It’s a fun, not-super-heavy reflection on the nature of failure with some careful inspections of some specific failures: all the kids that lose the spelling bee, the guy who also invented the telephone but got his patent in later than Bell, Scott getting to the Pole second, products that bombed and bombed badly. The book waffles between really analyzing some specific failure examples, and discussing failure in a more general sense. The author never fails to come up with an anecdote where he dwells on his own personal failures [the girl that got away, the job he didn’t get] and doesn’t just play them for laughs but actually tries to understand what makes them abject failures instead of just another thing going wrong. He concludes more or less that it’s our raw naked desire for success that paints failure in such a bad light. The more we want it, the more wretched we feel when we didn’t get it, especially when whatever “it” is is also something desired by many other people. Not a terribly challenging read but well-researched and well-intentioned and worth picking up.

My Husband Betty

The great thing about being a somewhat butch woman is that society doesn’t really give you a hard time. I can wear jeans, fix my car, lift heavy objects and swear in public and while it’s not always the most acceptable behavior, it generally won’t get me beat up. Crossdressers have a harder time of it. Not only do many people not even really understand what crossdressing is or what crossdressers do, but the community itself is fractured on many of these questions. This book is written by the wife of a crossdresser discussing not only the CD community, but also the community of partners of crossdressers.

Boyd [a pseudonym, maybe so she could go next to Jennfier Boylan on the shelves?] not trying to make friends here, she’s trying to tell it like it is. While she’s not hostile to her husband’s crossdressing, it’s also not the easiest thing in the world for her. She has interacted with other support groups for partners of straight crossdressers and has had difficulty finding simpatico with other CD’s wives. She discusses many of the problems couples can have when one of them is a crossdresser [odd sex lives, telling the family, deciding “who is the woman” in many situations] and maintains that there is no “normal” crossdressing scenario, that they are all different. One of the more interesting observations she has, about her husband and the CD community in general, is how she feels that crossdressers [similar to drag queens] often do not want to be women, they want to embody some sort of Platonic womanness they see in society. Instead of doing this --as the author wryly suggests -- by taking a pay cut and helping her clean the kitchen -- they prefer to act out stereotypical gender roles [hair, makeup, shoes, femininity] which can be aggravating to a real female who has to take the whole package and parcel every day.

Boyd clearly loves her husband and loves the CD community. Even so, many of her words have an edge to them. She has been frustrated trying to express her opinions that go against the normative CD ideals that are represented by national support groups like Tri-Ess who believe that all, or mostly all, crossdressers are straight. If this is true, counters Boyd, then what is with the prevalence of “forced feminization” porn among CDs, and why does my stright monogamous husband flirt with me? This book will ask as many questions as it answers, but it’s a rollicking good read and worthwhile for anyone even remotely interested in gender issues.

The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability

This is actually an excellent ultimate guide to sex in general, with particular emphasis on people with disabilities or other temporary or permanent infirmaries. Written by a sex-shop owner, a therapist, and a disability activist, this book really approaches sex from all sort of different angles, but all of them positive. The basic assumption is that disabled people have sex and are curious about sex just like everyone else. However, the sex information that is available to “everyone else” may not apply to them... at all. This book fills in the blanks.

Unlike other books about sex and disability that can be more for caregivers [how to explain sex to your developmentally disabled kid, for example, or as a side note in other books about disabilities in general] this one is for the disabled themselves. It covers tricky topics like how to talk to your personal care attendant about putting on your condom, how to use flagellation devices if you have very little upper body strength, and what sexual positions are best for people with lower body spasms. The authors are straightforward when it’s needed but also have a light tone. Their basic perspective is that sex is fun, and it’s more fun if you sort of know what you’re doing, and so they aim to help. The authors did many many interviews with disabled people and their partners and these narratives are interwoven with the text of the book itself. As a result, you don’t have to take their word for it about orgasms and quadraplegia, you can read about it from an actual quad. Interviewees don’t pull punches and some of the stories they tell about the ups and downs of their sex lives can be inspiring, poigant, and sometimes just hilarious. The authors also don’t assume that the reader has much prior knowledge of sex or even how their own body works [or how others' bodies work] and there are some early chapter devoted to that. As you might expect, it’s not at all hetero-centric and while the authors present sex as a positive thing, they also respect a person’s choice not to have sex, so it’s not all “Rah rah you must have sex!” all the time.

This book is mainly geared towards people with physical handicaps -- which will apply to anyone who is disabled, aging, tired or just temporarily out of commission in some way or another. It does talk somewhat about people with emotional and metal disabilities as well, though not in as much depth. The text itself has many accompanying photos, is well footnoted, and has some cheerful illustrations of sex positions with people of all body types, genders and races.

The Bookman’s Promise

John Dunning is a reporter turned bookstore owner/author who has written a series of myseries about Cliff Janeway, a cop turned bookstore owner. Like many other retired-cop novels, the protagonist gets dragged back into the game again when his knowledge of books and bookstores and publishing comes to bear. I have loved this entire series which also includes The Bookman’s Wake and Booked to Die. The book titles are cheesy but the books are not. Each mystery is about some aspect of rare book collecting and Dunning is as informative as he is interesting. This latest novel concerns a lost notebook of Richard Burton’s and a larger mystery concerning what happened to an old collection of rare books. Janeway travels from his native Denver to the East Coast in order to track down the answer.

Had Enough?: A Handbook for Fighting Back

If you know my political leanings than you probably know that I enjoyed this book. Carville is an admitted smartass, but he’s not afraid to make fun of himself as well as all the truly horrible people that make up the uber-right in American politics today. He has a sense of political history and doesn’t just spread his disdain along party lines. He’ll tell you who on the Republican team is worth a damn, and why, as well as which Democrats haven’t really been holding up their end of the deal. This book is short but packed full of political analysis that basically points out that George W Bush isn’t just not “our” kind of president, he’s actually one of the worst presidents in recent memory. Carville cites stats such as job creation, the deficit and health care and education figures to outline how the Bush administration has been systematically talking up social programs while essentially implementing policies that benefit only the rich and the super rich and give the finger to the poor and middle class. While he’s telling you all this he’s also making a lot of wisecracks, tossing in a bayou recipe or two, and giving you tips for how to win an argument with an ultraconsrvative as well as how to channel all the anger you probably feel into doing something constructive. Worthwhile reading for the election season.

Yossel : April 19, 1943 : a story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

This graphic novel really hit home after my tour through the American Holocaust Memorial Museum and library. It’s a first person account of not just the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, but also some of the politics and policies that led to the ghetto situation in the first place. The history is shown through the eyes of a teenaged boy -- sort of an alternative universe version of Kubert whose parents emigrated to the US in the 30’s -- who has a skill with drawing that makes him a favorite of the Nazi guards in the ghetto. Kubert is a wonderful artist and his decision to leave his illustrations in pencil sketch format rather than inked in gives the drawings a rawness and immediacy that really helps move the story along. Not an easy story to read, but a very well done one.

Wild, Weird, and Wonderful : The American circus 1901-1927

Big book of circus photos. F.W. Glasier was a photographer who took pictures of the circuses as they came through town in Brockton MA. This was back in the days of the big top and freak shows and the pictures are interesting from a purely historical perspective as well as because they have a lot of candid shots of circus life. Glasier took pictures to run in advertising and promotions but some of the photos are shown here in their uncropped format. Sloan’s commentary is good reading but some of his captions appear thin if you already have a pretty solid background in circus performers and history.

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

Still a good series. More interpersonal stuff and fewer mysteries. Exceptionally happy ending in this one.

The Secret Life of Men

I pickied up this book thinking it was going to tell me some of the secrets of men, not wrap me up in some sort of “all men are wounded souls” new age talk. I’m sure that’s fine for some people. I honestly didn’t know this was a self-help book when I picked it up. The author is a well known psychologist from down under who is into the “men need to learn what it is to be a man” thing, along with Robert Bly and others I can’t remember now. This book is a quickie intro to that idea. It’s a bit on the touchie-feely side, has a lot of anecdotes about men getting in touch with themselves and bemoans our modern-day society for being a tough place for men to be men. It’s a bit on the simpering side and just was not my bag, but it sure was quick to read.

The Call of the Mall

Underhill works with malls for a living. His company, Envirosell, helps stores become better sellers. To this end they conduct extensive research [outlined in his last book Why We Buy]. This book is about the Mall. Underhill spends a day at the mall -- or several days with different people on different quests -- and uses these outings to elucidate some of the fundamental truths about our relationship to our malls.

Underhill isn’t coming at this, then, as a mall-hater. Then again, he doesn’t truly love the mall. He sees them as necessary evils, and spends many pages describing why this is so. In the course of his job he has observed people in malls for years and years and sees the frustrations and missed opportunities as well as the good sells and innovative ideas. His central premise is this: malls are real estate ventures created by real estate people, not agoras created by merchants. This is one of the reasons they don’t work as well as they can. While each individual store is a selling venture, the overall combination of stores is a real estate venture. That’s why mall bathrooms are so crappy, they don’t make any money. Shopkeepers don’t own the mall, they are governed by the mall.

A corollary to this is another of his major points: many of the big stores in malls have their design decisions made by some guy at Mission Control who has never been to this mall, doesn’t know these people, and doesn’t much care as long as the money comes in. As a result you get a “sprayed out of a hose” look to a lot of mall stores that, with a little more tweaking, could really appeal to customers and potentially increase sales. He asks a lot of questions of mall salespeople and questions in general like “why is dressing room lighting so terrible?” "why can I never find the main entrance to the mall?" “why are some mall stores so confusing... or even foreboding?”

Underhill has one chapter where he discusses mall-equivalents in other countries which is one of the more interesting parts of this book. Otherwise while he may be a little bit of a mall cynic, his livelihood is the shopping industry. That said, even a cynic of shopping or capitalism in general can find a lot to like with Underhill’s mall narration. He’s not expecting you to agree with him, he’s just trying to tell you what is going on.

How Things Don’t Work

Since I left The Big City, I’ve thought less and less about design: the design of buildings, the design of books, and the design of things. This book is about things, and how things are designed. Specifically Papanek, who was a noted designer concerned with social responsibility, notes how consumer products have become designed for easier manufacturing and distribution, NOT for ease of use by consumers. This is mystifying if what we’re being told about our market economy is true: that we are the customer, and we know what we want, and we are always right. Papanek goes through list of commonplace items and explains that while their design may be useful for mass production [being able to be made cheaply, transported easily, installed quickly] they are not enjoyed by users. They may be hard to use, dangerous to use, time-consuming to use, or just plain old not appealing.

Papanek’s rants about objects like the sliding shower door enclosure, or the instant-on TV are amusing, and fun to read, but there is also a lot of truth in what he is saying. Papanek spent a lot of his life trying to design products for the disabled, the full range of society’s people [very heavy people, elderly people, the very tall and the very short] and people in developing countries. He tries to create products that people will want to use that can be made on a budget and used without requiring expensive maintenance or repair. The products he and his team of students come up with are often more interesting than whatever it is we are using in their place [toilets, for example] because they have been designed, not made by committee with the lowest cost materials in the simplest way. The book is easy to read, contains lots of illustrations and asks a lot of useful questions that are still relevant today, such as “why, if the tallest building in town is two stories, do we still need a fire truck with a six story ladder?” A great read, worth trying to track down.

A Round-Heeled Woman

A woman my Mom’s age [in her sixties] decides she’s in need of a change and spends 130 dollars putting a brief personal ad in the New York Review of Books stating that before she turns 67 she would like to have a lot of sex with a man she likes. What is interesting about this late-stage coming of age book is that the narrator is at the same time quite sophisticated and quiet naive. She shares her thoughts and experiences with us in a way that borders almost on “too much information” and yet since the topic at hand -- old people and their sex lives -- is so mysterious, or even taboo, it’s gripping reading, even with the sometimes uneven writing.

Juska grew up in Ohio, moved to Berkeley, had an early failed marriage and teaches high school. She is in love with her analyst, a bit too hung up on “literature", and has had I believe three sexual partners in her lifetime before embarking on this adventure. She doubles that number in a year. Despite having -- as she tells us repeatedly "very little money” -- she manages to flit out to New York for long sexy weekends with erudite men who pique her interest. None of the interludes go quite right. One man is too old and does not desire her, one is in a long term long distance relationship already, one uses his fling with her to give him the momentum back into his primary relationship, one won’t kiss enough. All men with problems and Juska keeps a mostly stiff upper lip and slogs on. The books ends as you think it might with her meeting a man who is a good fit for her and seems to like her as much as she likes him. They do not walk off into the sunset together but seem to have worked a good thing out. He is younger than me.

What’s interesting for me in reading this book is realizing how much sex information and advice and assistance I had at my disposal during my teens and twenties. I never was confused over the difference between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm as Juska is [and values one over the other as women and men of her generation tended to] and I knew how to talk to men, how to negotiate in intimate relationships and how not to get in over my head. Juska must learn a lot of this stuff on the fly, with necessarily short-term relationships primarily, and not always from the best of teachers. It’s fascinating reading watching her go through all this, but sometimes you want to shake her and say “You seem like you’d like a longer term thing, this is not the way to go about it.” Required reading for people who are interested in staying sexually active into their senior years and worthwhile reading for most other people as well.

No More Shaves

Unlike almost every other graphic novel I have read recently, No More Shaves -- which is a collection of Duplex Planet comics -- was probably better in the short-form comics that are collected. Greenberger spent a lot of time working with the elderly who lived in nursing homes. He would talk to them about things [for example “what is gravity?” or "how do you feel about snakes?"] and let them ramble. Then he’d illustrate, or have others illustrate, their stories. Basically he’d omit the fact that the people telling the story were extremely old, in some cases a bit dottering, and just show the story. It’s a grand idea and fun to read along with. However, reading page after page of this in this collection, even though he mixes it up with a lot of other artists who do freaky things with the ideas, get tiring. The stories these men relate are sometimes narrative but more often stream of consciousness. They have absurdist appeal but sometimes are too abstract to usefully follow, for me anyhow. I’ve enjoyed the shorter comics more than I enjoyed reading a whole bunch of them at once.

The Queen of the South

I picked up this book expecting another one of Perez-Reverte’s mindbending semi-mysteries. He’s the one who wrote a fiction book about chess that I not only read, I actually enjoyed. I’m not terribly familiar with his entire oeuvre so it’s possible that more of his books are like this ones, just not the ones I’ve read. Queen of the North is very much a book about place. It follows a poor Mexican girl from a barrio filled with drug dealers, whores and other ne’er do wells. She goes from being the girlfriend of a dealer, to being on the run when he is killed for double-crossing one of the narcos, to setting herself up in Spain, eventually as something of a drug-runner herself.

The writer is telling two stories at once, that of Teresa, the protagonist, and also one of an unnmaed narrator who is trying to write a book about her life and going through the tortuous process of extracting information about the drug underworld from people who know her. Part of the book is in the present tense, and part is leading up to the present tense. So, it tells two stories: her life is outlined, but also her web of connections, people who she helped, people who she harmed, people who she made deals with and people who she severed contact with. All along we are told that she is not particularly attractive or particularly brilliant, but she has a “head for numbers” that makes her good at what she does, and a meticulousness that works to her advantage. She’s not a superhero, she’s just got a lot of integrity and a nose for staying out of trouble. There are sub-themes of independence, love and heroism -- figuring out who is to be trusted, who is to be used, and who is to be avoided. And, of course, there’s the shifting sands of the drug underworld, watching peoepl come and go, watching deals be made and brokenn, watching people make and break allegiances. It’s a messy and dangerous business, and watching a male character go through all this would be like seeing every other Hollywood movie about Columbian druglords, but through the eyes of a woman you get just a slightly different take on a situation you know well. That, combined with Perez-Reverte’s skillful command of language and character makes this book worthwhile and engrossing.

Internal Bleeding : The Truth Behind America’s Terrifying Epidemic of Medical Mistakes

The authors of this book are two experienced doctors who ask the question “Many more people die from medical errors than airline crashes or terrorism; why aren’t we treating medical mistakes as a similar epidemic and responding with equal vigor and alarm?” The answer they decide is manyfold. Patients don’t fully understand medical errors, often aren’t told about them, and are generally in a poor position to respond to them. Doctors are sometimes unaware they’ve made them, don’t feel singularly responsible for them, and already are paying hefty insurance to deal with them.

The authors argue that medical mistakes in this age of advanced medicine are often systemic errors rather than a blatant mistake made by one person To drive this point home they rattle off many horrifying stories where one accidental name switch or lack of final check against a patient record left patients dead, wounded, with the wrong limb amputated, or permanently damaged. They discuss the various kinds of errors that happen, detail what some hospitals have done to try to fix the problems and outline some of their own solutions. Their overarching plan is to split malpractice claims into two schools: gross negligence claims where one person can be proven to be at fault and who gets sued in the same fashion as in the present system, and a no fault type of claim where the “system” is found to be at fault and the patient makes a claim against the more general medical profession which has a pool of money to deal with such lawsuits. The authors claim this will lessen malpractice trials, not cause good doctors to have to stop practicing due to one punitive claim, and remove the lawyers [and their 40% cut of the settlements] from the equation. It’s a compelling argument and one that I don’t feel particularly qualified to critique, but it seemed well thought out and well-supported without all of the regular hand-waving that usually accompanies more histrionic accounts of medical maladies.

The Great Pretenders

Fascinating book for fans of weird old mysteries. I knew about Kaspar Hauser’s story in this book, but not the 5 or so other mysteries of mistaken identity, claimants to family fortunes, and plain old mystery people who no one could identify. Nowadays I think we have a hard time imagining what it must have been like to have to identify someone on the basis of descriptions alone, or perhaps one extant photograph.

This book is all full of stories of people claiming to be people they may or may not be, or having others claim so for them. Some of the stories are well known -- such as Hauser and the lost Dauphin -- while others are much more obscure. Central to all of these mysteries is that, in the absence of solid evidence such as photos, etchings or other identifying information, someone claiming to be the long lost heir to a family fortune [as in the case of the Tichborne claimant] could sue a family for a portion of their estate and essentially it would be their word against his/hers/ In many cases, these people claiming to be of royal lineage would instigate trials which could last months, or even years. Witnesses would swear on both sides of the issue that the person was or was not who they said they were, and the courts were left to muddle out a solution with precious little real evidence.

Bondeson has done a lot of primary source research for this book and tries to follow all the stories not just to their legal conclusions, but to current day events; some of these claims are still hotly disputed even if more substantial evidence has legally settled the issue. He tries to not overly preference your reading of each particular story and includes some of the pictures and other evidence that was available to witnesses at the time. With the advent of modern science, DNA typing and other accurate methods of verification [plus people’s tendency to not vanish for years at a time as a result of overseas trips or other bizarre scandals] these sort of mysteries are generally more the result of deliberate obfuscation than sheer lack of evidence. Really good read, fascinating stuff and Bondeson is a wonderful compiler of historical evidence as well as being a good storyteller.

Downsized but Not Defeated: The Family Guide to Living on Less

This book was ridiculous. Then again, I am not its target audience. I thought it would be a book about living more simply when you have less money and it was ... sort of. In fact it was a book on making tough choices about money, but the people who were writing the book came from a completely different planet than I did with regards to how much money they started with. As a result, sections like how to sell and evaluate furs and jewlery were not helpful. Making tough choices about whether or not private school is a necessity or a luxury, likewise. Whining about selling the Porsche just did not resonate with me. The book was more of a self-help book for dealing with being “common” more than it was a book about actually dealing with spending less. Silly, unhelpful, sometimes amusing.

Odd Jobs: Portraits of Unusual Occupations

We grew up in a house where we would send each other postcards of jackalopes and giant ears of corn. I got a book of postcards when I was a kid called the World’s Worst Postcards or something similar. The image on the cover was of a woman sniffing a man’s armpit. The bad part wasn’t that she was doing this but that she was paid to do it as part of her job as a deoderant tester. The same woman appears on the cover of Schiff’s book. Schiff has photographed many people with quirky, interesting or oddly anachronistic jobs doing whatever it is they do. Some are more normal-seeming than others. Other jobs -- like the man who escorts the ducks at whatever hotel that is in the South -- are clearly throwbacks to a bygpone era when we valued full employment a bit more then we do now. The photos are lovely, the descriptions are brief [boy did I want to know more about the day to day life of the glass eyeball painter, or the person who messed with the old clocks in New York City] and the book all in all isn’t more than an hour’s worth of amusement, but it’s a fun conversation piece and sends you off thinking of other places, just like a good book. [artist’s site]

House of Java I & II

I read these two comics and realized that not only do I not miss Seattle too terribly much, with its coffeehouse dwelling hipsters and its meaningful silences filling in for real content, but I don’t even miss reading about it. I liked these collections a lot. Murphy’s talents in storytelling and illustration are least highlighted in his stories about coffee and appear in much stronger relief in his other pieces that are reminiscent of Clowes while not being uber-creepy. A bit of ennui here, some disaffected youth there. All over, fun to read, fun to think about, well drawn and strongly narrated, these two books together would form one fine bound collection.

Mind Riot

A collection of comics, some great, some okay, detailing what it was like to be a teenager with the general consensus that being a teenager was a pretty raw deal. This book was fun to red but didn’t stick with me after reading it too much. Like many compilation comics, some of the included bits are pure genius and some are just so-so. I only skimmed one. Worth picking up at the library, maybe not worth paying too much for.

Hard Looks

This was the most story-based of all of the graphic novels that I read this week. Vachss is a writer for more mainstream publications and his ability to tell a story really shines through this collection of illustrated pieces, some in graphic novel format and some no more than stories with a few pictures thrown in. All the pieces are adapted by others and illustratred by others. I’m curious to learn more about the process by which the stories were converted to graphic novel format.

Vachss is a bad-ass dude with an eye patch and a long list of difficult jobs behind him [prison director, labor organizer, &c] and the grittiness of the things he’s seen translate into raw and sometimes painful scenarios for the characters he writes. A 15 year old boy makes it big by getting to be a shooter for a drug kingpin, a girl who was abused by her father finds acting work for a phone sex line, a killer continues is work uninterrupted, relying on the racism of the townspeople to keep him safe. With less effective writing or half-assed illustration, these would just be not-too-interesting pulp bits, but under Vachss hand and his collaborators, they jump off the page and right into your brain.

After the Snooter

I didn’t read or see From Hell so I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions of what Eddie Campbell might be like. I got this book out of the library because of the richly designed cover and its place in the graphic novel section. This book is a sort of autobiography, in comic form, of Campbell. He outlines working from home, dealing with kids, other miscellaneous stuff. He talks a bit about some author/conference tours, Neil Gaiman, and what it’s like to run a business out of your home. He interacts with his wife, makes jokes with his kids, and has some particularly amusing interactions with his cat. He and his wife buy a house, they get older...

If you’ve liked Campbell’s other work, or didn’t like From Hell because it was too violent but wanted to see more by him, this book is great. If you don’t know him from a hole in the wall [as I didn’t] it may be a bit dry at times. Campbell’s illustration style is spare and jaggedy and a bit hard to access if you’re not already compelled by the storyline. Great if you’re into his stuff, and still pretty good even if you aren’t.


People tell me that I’m lucky, that I managed to hit all of Bear’s good intellectually stimulating books without running into any of the dogs. I don’t know what the dogs look like, but this book was a great thriller. The basic outline could have come out of the mind of PK Dick. The narrator -- a high level biologist and scientist working on life extension projects -- learns that his brother has been murdered and gets sucked into a bizarre world of intrigue. He lears that there has been a horrific project in the works that has as its eventual goal the mind controllability of the entire planet. At this point it sounds hokey but Bear is masterful with plot, and the amount he lets you know from point to point and the story evolves somewhat naturally, if something like this could be called natural.

The narrator meets a bunch of shady characters and works to try to figure out exactly what is going on before the bad guys get the best of him. Of course in true paranoid fashion it’s nearly impossible to tell who is a bad guy and who is a bad guy so our protagonist is constantly running around not knowing who to trust. The locations for this novel are widely disparate and weird. You could sort of see author Bear trying to figure out how to take a tax write off on a submarine ride or a trip aboard the world’s largest cruise ship. In any case the book does not disappoint and fans of Dick will be pleased to add this psychological thriller to their booklist.


I have never said this before, but this review contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to know an essential plot point before you read it yourself, don’t read it.

Connie Willis is an incredibly capable writer whose sense of what is interesting nearly completely jibes with my own. Her short stories and novels often happen at a somewhat hectic pace with main characters rushing about trying to put out fires, avoid the plague, track down lost colleagues or just try to get some rest. Despite this, the plots have depth and so do her characters. I found this book on the new book shelf at my library despite its age and was really excited to have it during a week when I had a cold.

The overarching theme is pretty straightforward: a doctor doing research on near death experiences [NDEs] meets up with a researcher at her hospital who can actually induce these states in the human brain and they begin to work together. Add to this a nutty doctor who thinks that NDEs are a religious message from beyond, a dying girl who is obsessed with disasters and their victims, and a former high school teacher now deep in the throes of alzheimer’s and you have a lively bunch of characters for practically any setting. The setting in this case is mostly the crazymaking hospital with a dangerous emergency room, a series of winding twisty passages all different, and a nearly constant streasm of pages, phone messages, notes taped to doors and a bunch of missed connections.

What you learn, of course, is that Willis’s hospital is also an elaborate metaphor for the human brain, especially the dying human brain which is also convoluted, hard to map, and filled with a series of urgent messages. We know this because she kills off the main character about 3/5 of the way through the book. As readers we then get to not only read about the NDEs that are induced in the lab, but also one character’s NDE and then subsequent death. This is now the second book I have read in as many weeks that has a first person omniscient dead narrator. As someone who thinks that death is A Big Deal it’s weird to see irt reduced to a plot point, but then again it fits quite well with the rest of the book which is actually quite readable despite the kick-in-the-gut that is the protagonist’s death.

There’s also a quite involved sub-plot about the Titanic which is hard to weave into this review but will make the book extra-interesting if you’re into that sort of thing. Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough, it’s everything youd want from both Connie Willis and her unique brand of semi-speculative fiction.

Sudden & Awful: American Epitaphs and the Finger of God

I found this delightful little book on the Vermont shelf at my local library which is otherwise stuffed full of mysteries and other lite fare that don’t interest me much. It’s a non-scientific collection of tombstone epitaphs from the US, covering roughly 1750-1900. The authors were inspired to write this book when they noticed how often the phrase “sudden and awful” used to appear describing frontier deaths, and how rarely it appears now, despite death likely not being any less awful, or sudden. They split the epitaphs up into categories like “died in transit” "drowning" “in the name of justice” and after brief chapter categories, mostly let the tombstones speak for themselves. There are short bits of commentary where they explain that one of the reasons the murderer’s name no longer appears on gravestones is because of a series of early lawsuits, and how current mass media makes the sensationalizing of deaths via their grave’s inscriptions no longer quite as necessary.

Sudden and awful was the sight
To see the horses take a fright
Thrown from the carriage to the ground
Breathing her last when she was found.

The Lovely Bones

This book is so poignantly sad, it’s hard to read. The twelve year old narrator gets raped and killed in the book’s opening chapter and goes to heaven. Heaven’s okay, she tells us, but it takes getting used to. The remainder of the book is spent with her keeping an eye on her loved ones back home -- seeing how Mom and Dad deal with their grief, watching her younger sister grow up, seeing whatever happened to the first and only boy she ever kissed, following her murderer around. The story lacks any new age edges that would make it schmaltzy, and while the narrator remains attached to her family, she sees her connection to them lessen over the ten or so years during which this story takes place. If you’re at all sentimental -- as I am -- you’ll cry when her dog joins her in heaven, or when she gets to briefly appear before her first crush in an awkward and confusing moment.

Sebold’s vision of heaven -- which we don’t see much of, but the glimpses are memorable -- is a place where you have to know why you want something before you can have it. The narrator’s heaven looks a lot like a high school because that is the place that she believed that she would be popular and happy. The novel in many ways is about letting go. The narrator learns to let go of her family, the family learns to let go of her memory, many different people in the story learn to let go of whatever it is that’s been in their way.

A Man Without Words

I found this book on some book sale shelf at NY Public Library and went for it immediately. Freaks of language interest me and I’ve read a good selection of the “feral children” books that have come out in the last decade or so. I am also a linguistics major and was taught, like many in my classes, that there were very few cases known of people being raised without language. If these people existed, they were often so abused [raised by horrible parents who kept them in closets] that their language learning could not be studied scientifically because there would be so many mitigating factors. Additionally there is a large body of scholarship that suggests that there is a crucial language-learning window for children that is open until children are about five eyars of age, after which they will never be able to have full facility with any language at all. Schaller’s story of a deaf student of hers who was raised without learning English or ASL anecdotally discusses a person she meets without language. Schaller is not a linguist or a scientist, just a concerned ASL translator who noticed a student in an “English for ASL” class who seemed to not be getting it. She befriends him and gradually tries, Annie Sullivan-like, to break through his lack of language and teach him the concept of words as referents and language as a consensual understanding of concepts and words.

Schaller has additional difficulties because her student is anxious to learn English, as well as ASL and is also living in a Spanish-speaking home. The jumble of trials and failures to get the idea across of these multiple languages to a student whose ideas of communication were limited to gestures and pictures is an arduous task. Schaller succeeds to some degree, then leaves to take a job across the country with her then-fiancee [if I recall correctly] and does not meet up with her student until almost a decade later where she happily finds him to be employed, communicative and, best of all, helping teach other people without language how to talk to one another. This story intrigued me, especially with its brief introduction written by Oliver Sacks, and I am curious to know how it was received in the linguistic community since Schaller speaks less than approvingly of her dismissal by at least one academic professor who dismissed her and her work with her student because she was not working on a degree in the field. Her central idea -- that there are many people in the deaf community being raised without language all the time -- is one that is new to me and I wonder how it will resonate within the linguistic field.

Notes from a Defeatist

I’ve read Palestine by Sacco before and been familiar with him for a long time because of an illustrated short he wrote that outlines the demise of the public library in comical and all-too-true fashion. This collection is a little of this and a little of that. Some political stuff, some slice-of-life stuff and some older stuff that defies placement. I like Sacco more when he is talking about himself and things that matter to him than when he is pointing out the foibles of others. This collection is somewhat spotty, a bit text-heavy for me, and sometimes somewhat opaque [who is this band he is travelling with? why is he there?] but it’s a good collection of his work, both good and bad.

I Never Liked You

I remember not liking this little comic very much at all when I read it serialized in Yummy Fur. I like it more now. The drawings are a bit on the scratchy side, but the plot comes through if you have all of the stories to read side by side. This collection’s topic seems to be Brown’s experiences with girls from when he was too young to care much about them until he was older and cared quite a lot about them. In particular, there is one girl who likes him very much, and another girl who he likes very much. He juggles these relationships the way any high school boy might, badly. At the same time, his mother sickens and dies and he grows into what some might call a handsome young man. Brown portrays himself as a disaffected adolescent, so you don’t get as much of a feel for him as a person the way you do with Thompson in Blankets. I’m not sure I would go out of my way to purchase this book, but I am glad I read it.

Blankets: An Illustrated Novel

Man! 580+ pages of graphic novel outlining Thompson’s childhood and first love in a Christian family that borders on abusive and oppressive. Thomson endures sharing a bed with his little brother, inattention from his parents, molester babysitters, and being the butt of everyone’s jokes for being the poor kid at school. He grows into a quiet young man who goes to church camp every Summer, where one year right befgore he graduates, he meets Raina, soon to become his first love and first heartbreak.

Thompson’s autobiographical accounts of these events are sweet and not at all stickily sentimental. He reveals his own failings and worries at the same time as he emerges victorious in at least some of his life’s battles. The account of his young romance is so vivid that it will immediately toss you back into a reverie of your own first loves and losses. The book also deals with other issues like faith, or lack of it, and family, or lack of it. Throughout, the illustrations are rich and compelling while at the same time playing a backseat to the thoughtfully developed plot. One of my favorite reads this year, well worth sticking around for all 500+ pages.

Deception Point

Another Dan Brown novel, better than Digital Fortress, maybe not as good as the other two. The one-day adventure this time takes place in the Arctic where a mystery item is found under the ice at about the same time as a contentious presidential election is happening back in the US. Lots of fun action, interesting science, just under the surface relationship tension and a wild submarine/glacier rescue. A fun romp, beats the heck out of Tom Clancy, though it also has more in common with his books than the later Brown novels.

Blow Fly

I have read almost oll of these books. They go down easily, they have recognizable characters and they used to, more than now, have some interesting forensic information. This may be the last one of hers that I read. Put more bluntly, this may be the time that Cornwell has “jumped the shark.” The book revives a chatacter that everyone thought was dead which involves a lot of retroactive explaining that invalidates many of the previous knowledge you had about the characters or plot points. Suck.

The re-explanation of the plot then becomes the focal point of the novel instead of Scarpetta who is a character I generally like. Her niece Lucy also is on the scene quite a bit, as a much less likable person, laden with gear and hardbody sensibilities. People might enjoy this book if they were curious about a “darker” side to any of the characters, but the book displays a sort of hopelessness that I didn’t personally enjoy.

Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear

It’s been hard for me to find the time to write up this book because it was just so good that it’s tough putting what I liked about it into words. For one, the author is a real pro himself, helping design tricks and illusions for some of the best known magicians out there. Second, he’s a history buff, so he’s dug around to find out some truly interesting magical history. Last, he’s a skilled storyteller. He tells you just enough about how the magicians do their tricks to keep you interested, and not so much that every trick is revealed and all secrets are uncovered. You learn some stuff, and some stuff stays a mystery.

This book traces the lives and intertwining paths of a number of magicians at the intersection of technology and mysticism. As some magicians were wowing audiences with spirirtualism, others were using smoke and mirrors to create wholly new illusions. The field of magic was changing and Steinmeyer explains the evolution of the craft, the odd personalities of the players -- including Houdini along with many other less-known but better-skilled practitioners -- and the basic building block The Trick. He explains some tricks, declines to explain others and the thread going through the book is trying to reverse engineer how Harry Houdini made an elephant disappear at the Hippodrome in NYC at the turn of the century. Fascinating and fun stuff.

Digital Fortress

This was my least favorite of brown’s books but even so it was still okay. The digital fortress is the NSA’s super-duper computer system that can crack any code currently known. When it comes across an unbreakable code, trouble starts. As someone who is into computers, it’s tough for me to read books that seem to be written by people who only sort of understand technology. I’m sure brown has able researchers, but a lot of the little plot hooks in this story didn’t really ring true to me. He is writing about people who spend their lives working with computers and yet they make dumb little mistakes that were tough to reconcile with what we know to be true about the NSA. Over all this was the weakest of Brown’s books and yet still a pretty engaging romp in the same style as the other ones.

The Reading Public

Found this little 29 page gem when I was waiting at Yale in the library for Greg to be done with his conference. It’s a private printing of a short essay written by Jessamyn West on the subject of readers and their writers, or the reverse. It was sent to friends for New Year’s and I’d never heard of it before

Like many private printings, this one is quite attractive, though not too precious. In it, West recounts a talk she went to in which the speaker [identified by her, forgotten by me] extolls the virtues of flowerly, even purple, prose and castigates those who simply write in plain language. West disagrees with this approach and writes the remainder of this short essay explaining why. She posits three rhetorical questions to her audience

  1. Is an unread book a book?
  2. Can a writer exist without a reader?
  3. What is the influence of the reader on the writer?

As part of her answering of these questions, she examines letters from some of her readers, explaining and reading into their letters what they had expected to find in her books and in her writing. The book, or long pamphlet really, is completely delightful and really shows some of West’s amusing and thoughtful critical style of writing in addition to her skill with the English language.

Nobody Nowhere

Donna Williams was either born autistic or became autisitc through relentless abuse and neglect from her family. This book reads more like Sybil than anything Temple Grandin has written as Williams seems to split into multiple personalities inside her head in order to cope with the overwhelming and perplexing world around her. As a first person account of autism, it can seem repetitive and strained from time to time and hearing about the author’s string of failed relationships and bad choices can be somewhat exhausting. Williams gives as much of a look inside her head as you suspect she is able to give, yet because she is not used to or conditioned in ways of relating emotionally to people the events she describes can seem somewhat like a laundry list.

The other side to this is, of course, if that’s how it comes off to us, imagine what it’s like to be inside this woman’s head? Williams is Australian and her experience with schooling and travel will be different-seeming to American readers. She wasn’t diagnosed with autism until she was in her twenties and seems to write off some of her worst problems as vitamin and food-allergy related. I was curious when she started discussing these things, if there were other people who have had similar problems. Since Williams is not the most reliable narrator throughout most of the book, many of her conclusions at the book’s end seem a bit suspect. In any case, it’s a remarkable book about overcoming adversity, but a bit rough to read.

Secret Look: Poems

A chance look in the OPAC at Yale found this book lost in the statcks with an incorrect barcode. No one had looked at it in thirty years it seemed. Jessamyn West is better known for her prose, but her command of the language is so strong that seeing what she can do with poetry is worth a look at this book. Many of her poems dwell on traditional themes such as nature, relationships and observations on daily living. A few poems notably depart from this theme including one on war and another one whose name I have forgotten that seems to be a poem explaining why no one calls her Mary anymore.

The poems in general display an impressive lexicon, interesting rhyme variations and reveal the practiced observer that West was. It’s a lovely little book worth tracking down if you’re a fan of her more poetic work.

Morality for Beautiful Girls

More of the same. Charming and fun, lighthearted mysteries with a fat lady detective in Botswana.

Tears of the Giraffe

Another in the series. A fun read, not really worth explicating the plot. More of the same, in a good way.


The next in my continuing attempt to read all the books-about-books that I can while the weather sucks and I am bedridden with distaste for the subzero... The author himself mailed me an advance copy of this book, which happens sometimes. I got a few pages into it and was noting little problems I had [too many adjectives, characters who don’t eat food] which also sometimes happens when I approach books as a copy-editor and not a reader. The next thing I knew it was several hours later and I was sucked in.

The story is one of those ones you’re probably familiar with, book novice uncovers mystery of book that may or may not exist. Search begins. Even if you haven’t read this specific book, the archetypal quest for the thing that may not be real is known to many of us. This particular story involves some rich people from the UK, a young investment banker with some hacker friends in the US, a mousy book historian, and an awesome book collection. The story takes place in the present day and this was what most impressed me about this book... one of the side-themes is this sim-style computer game that our protagonist gets sucked in to. I have read exactly two novels that have computer games as a plot device that don’t suck: this one; and Snowcrash. It’s quite an accomplishment. Grossman even manages to use the word “blog” in a sentence and not sound like a total tool. The man has done his homework, dropping in little words like palimpsest and steganography. While this novel doesn’t approach the depth and multi-layeredness of a book like The Grand Complication -- reamining a bit more plot-driven like Dan Brown’s books -- it was fun and bookish enough that book smarties like me don’t feel like we’re among amateurs.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

It’s like Encyclopedia Borwn for grown-ups! This book is the first in a box set that my landlady got for xmas. She has torn through them and now I think I will as well. The basic premise is that there is a woman whose father died and left her some money and she opens a detective agency. It is set in Africa and for the first few pages I was still getting used to the somewhat formal narration which is more standard in African stories. She is most likely the only lady detective in the country and she has hurdles to overcome as she solves crimes and fends of potential suitors. Common sense and ingenuity help her wokr out solutions to many of the problems she faces both inside and outside the job. The writing style is first person narration and very straightforward. You like the fat lady detective from the start and it’s fun to go touring around Africa with her.

Dykes And Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life-FormsTo Watch Out For

New on the shelf at the library, just as good as the others. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage now because Bechdel’s strips are actually available in my semi-local paper so I had read about half the strips that were included in this book. There’s a short intro by Bechdel reflecting on the fact that it’s been 20 years since she started the strip and how things have changed, both for her and for the world, since then.

Reefer Madness

This book goes into the category of "magazine articles that became books". My general review if such books is that I bet the articles were more interesting and filled with less filler to get up to book-length page counts. Schlosser is a methodical researcher and an ept storyteller, relating three sections of the US’s underground economy to us and sharing some stories of how it goes badly. However, he is only that. I didn’t think I would find a book about sex and drugs boring, but I did. Not badly boring, but a bit on the dry side. And, I think this is Schlosser’s point -- you take these tittilating parts of the black market economy and reduce them to their gritty financial realities [which Schlosser quite interestingly relates] and it’s just about who makes money how.

Schlosser tells us about a porn magnate gone bad who is relentlessly tracked by the FBI, a guy who was a middleman in a drug bust who goes to jail for decades, and a strawberry farmer and his migrant workers. Each of these people tries to run a profit doing something that is illegal in one sense, but totally normal in another. This is the line that Schlosser treads on -- we all know that sex and drugs are part of most American’s realities [otherwise, at some base level, there wouldn’t be any more Americans] and yet most of these economies flourish way underground. And a lot of American legal time is spent trying to eradicate their very existence, unsucessfully. This is more true for drugs now and it was more true for sex in the seventies, and it’s getting more and less true for migrant workers depending on who is in office. Schlosser sounds like the sane guy, the objective narrator who sees the foaming-at-the-mouth crew for what they are and yet you get the feeling that it’s the tawdriness of some of these topics that interests him as well as the newsworthiness, little throwaway lines here and there imply this. And so, if he’s actually interested in these subjects as a person and not just as a reporter, I wish he’d made them more interesting. Schlosser is a very good writer, and an even better researcher, I just wish he put more of his soul into books like this.

Angels & Demons

Having just finished the Da Vinci Code, I went to the library to see what else Dan Brown had written and came home with this. Upon reading it I realized that what had seemed like a shrewd plot in the other book seemed more formulaic in this one. Basically: someone’s Dad gets killed horribly in some ritualistic way, the symbologist is called in the middle of the night, the death, or elements of it, is hidden, Langdon goes to work trying to solve the time-sensitive puzzle with the professional, lovely intelligent daughter of the deceased. If they don’t solve the puzzle then life as we know it will irretrievably alter. Puzzles get solved along the way. Both books take place in a span of under 24 hours, and involve one, of not more last minute plot twistss. Langdon gets busy with the girl, or will soon, by the last five pages of the book. By the second book, Langdon had managed to ditch the girl from the first book, I don’t quite know how. And yet, the books work for me. Brown is clearly an author who enjoys the things he discusses and has researched his subjects intently. One of the most impressive things about his books is the prefatory remarks abotu just how much he is discussing is actually real architecture, real secret groups and real conjecture. If the Da Vinci Code floated your boat, likely this one will too.

Sixpence House

I should have liked this book more. In fact, I did like this book more while I was reading it, it just didn’t stick through past the end, the liking that is. This is a charming tale about an American writer and his wife and son who decide to move to the UK, more specifically to Hay-on-Wye, this little town in the middle of noplace that has recently become known for having a preponderance of booksellers. There’s a nutty old anarchist who lives in part of a ruined castle and the usual folks you meet abroad. Collins has just finished his first book and is awaiting the reports from the proofreader and he and his wife try to find a house to call a home in this wacky little town.

Except they don’t, really. Stay, that is. They seem to be intending to move to the UK with all the changing countries and putting the kid in a new school and leaving their families behind, etc. It seems like a real commitment. However, I was about 2/3 of the way through the book before I realized “Hey, they haven’t even found a place they want to buy yet...” when I realized they weren’t staying, they couldn’t stay. This is a book about people who thought they were going to stay and didn’t. They move back to Oregon in the end.

The book also talks a lot about Hay-on-Wye which I’m sure is charming as all hell and probably an interesting place to visit. The locals were portrayed as just a bit too lovable-eccentric for my tastes, but overall the author is a guy who loves books and likes to be around them and can tell you why. It’s interesting to read his observations, even if in the end he turns out to sort of be a quitter. I read his acknowledgements at the end, saw where he thanked Dave Eggers, and thought “Hmmph, figures.”

All That Remains

This Kay Scarpetta novel was a bit more interesting than some of the others I’ve read lately. Couples are murdered, no one knows by who. Unlike many of Cornwell’s other books, you literally have little or no idea whodunit until the very last pages. The novel is slightly outdated and you think to yourself “Gee a few cell phones would have taken care of a lot of this...” but the story is sharp, the characters are their usual selves and the mystery is fairly interesting of not totally absorbing.

The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine

This book was, to the best of my knowledge, Donald Barthelme’s only book for children. It is also the last one of his books that I got to read in book form since it has been out of print since forever and damned near impossible to find a copy of. I tracked this one down vial inter-library loan so I got to revel in the weird layouts, colors and font faces and sizes, more commonplace now but positively wacky in 1971.

The story, such as it is, concerns a girl who wakes up one day and finds a little Chinese house in her back yard. She enters it and meets a djinn who shows her around the place. When I read the story to some fourth graders a few years back, it sparked a lively discussion about the three wish problem and was it or was it not fair to wish for more wishes. In any case, the book is illustrated in Barthelme style with the characters played by old engravings that he found who knows where. The layout is playful and interesting and the story is lively. It is one of the world’s great sadnesses that this book is so hard to find and is not required reading for children everywhere.

A Case of Need

Crichton theoretically wrote this book under an assumed name the year I was born and I wasn’t aware of it until it turned up in my super-teeny library when I was looking for a paperback to bring on the trip. It’s a medical mystery with a large cast of characters that takes place in Boston. The main character is a doctor whose colleague is arrested for a botched abortion he didn’t commit.This was pre Roe v. Wade and this was a serious offense, especially in super-Catholic Boston. The protagonist tries to clear his friend before he goes on trial for the abortion and subsequent death of the woman involved, which will surely ruin his career if not wind him up in jail. There’s a cast of likely suspects, and a lot of medical clues and trivia. It’s no Andromeda Strain, but it’s definitely an improvement over standard trade paperback mysteries.

Tourist Season

Hiaasen got a write up in Smithsonian magazine basically calling him some sort of an ecomystery writer intent on saving Florida from itself, so I picked up this book at my library. My library seems to have almost all of Hiaasen’s novels which means he must be really popular with the 60-90 year old set who mostly use the library. While Hiaasen is pretty amusing, and it was easy to tease out his personal opinions from the sort of Everglades romp that this book turns into, I just didn’t really like it. I think there’s something crass about “light” murder mysteries and his insistence on having many of the soon-to-be-murdered victims engage in some witty repartee with their killers just made my blood run cold. His other characters are likable and he’s a great writer, but I find the humor-mystery genre to really not be my cup of tea.

The Da Vinci Code

You’d never think there would be a subgenre as specific as religious spy thrillers, or possibly “men of the cloth with guns” but this book follow the time-honored tradition of books like Eco’s Name of the Rose and more popular novels by David Morrell. It also has an intriguing code aspect and a very alluring history aspect. Plus, even more tantalizingly, it includes a very short preface entitled fact which lets you know that a large amount of detail in the book is, in fact, true.

In retrospect, an interesting thing about the story in this book -- which covers topics such as the templars, the Holy grail, the fate of Mary Magdalene and the status of Victor Hugo among other things -- is that the entire central plot of the book takes place over less than 24 hours, starting from the moment the museum curator is shot to the final resolution the next afternoon. Additionally despite the fact that the book is chock full of historical tidbits, it doesn’t feel heavy. The raw facts never overshadow the central characters and the plot moves ahead speedily. Though the book only took a day to read, I could understand what all the fuss was about and I will now return it to the amazingly overlong hold queue at my public library.

From Potter’s Field

Another completely fine book in the Kay Scarpetta series. A bit gorey, a bit mysterious, not super challenging, good forensics. I like these books for travel reading but I honestly can’t remember a thing about them once I’ve put them down, including how to differentiate one from the other. This mystery has Temple Grandin, superevilman, as the central character.