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« April, 2004 »
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.