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This book seemed like it would not be poppy, but in the end it was poppy. There was a lot of good information in it, but I had the sense that Sullivan’s reach was exceeding his grasp. The premise is straightforward: author spends time in a NYC alleyway to study rats. And then, in that good trusty NPR format, he waxes poetic about things like Thoreau, the history of New York and the idea of scavengers generally. I enjoyed the book but I found that the diversions seemed to be trying to hard and the vocabulary was a bit too rich for what was essentially a fun, not particularly revealing experiment (rats live in alleys, eat garbage, act like rats). I think I would have liked this book better if it was longer, and had more rat information and less pontificating by the author. A lot of the conclusions he was drawing “many of us have never seen a rat up close before” didn’tring at all true to country bumpkin old me who has had to trap them in her own house. Light reading for yuppies.

The Life I Really Lived

I know just enough about Jessamyn West to know that some of this novel mirrors some of her real life, but nowhere near enough to know where the line is. I do know that West moved from the plains to California, that she wrote a book that was turned into a movie and that she got to meet the movie star and spend some time with him. In this book, some similar stuff happens. The main character is a quirky loner writer with a preacher brother who gets into some trouble. She dates the movie star but then loses him in a very awkward situation. She writes sixteen books and becomes well known and famous. In the book her brother has TB and eventually dies from it. In real life West had TB and lived another 60 years.

In any case, West’s clear direct writing style, her interesting and multi-faceted female characters and her astute observations on the nature of human behavior make this book a great read, even decades after it was written. Many quotations attributed to West come from this book and it was surpising to be so familiar with the aphorisms it held while being totally unaware of the entire plot and characters.


I love these spookyweird books with mysterious families and oddball children who live in these left-behind towns. This book is right up there with We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the “haunted isolated families” section. One of the things I liked about both books is that unlike what I perceive to be the general vibe of today, these families don’t all kill or rape each other. There’s no gore or sensationalism, just an unfolding set-apartness that seems to imbue the entire narrative. It’s a matter of fact retelling which occasionally drops little chestnuts like the parlor being floor-to-ceiling full of newspapers and cans. The narrator, the younger daughter is so matter of fact that these little revelations almost seem like an afterthought and you’re left thinking “gee, if I lived with thirten cats, I might have mentioned it sooner” and the odd feeling continues.

This book is about a few generations of odd women and a grandfather who dies in the water, and his daughter who follows suit. it mostly follows the awkward path of the two daughters as they return to the town to be raised by their quirky transient aunt in the house their grandfather built which is in the town that he died in, a town called Fingerbone. The tale unfolds like a fever dream as the sisters choose different paths and each tries to move forward in her own way.

The Zenith Angle

I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a Bruce Sterling book I hadn’t read yet. I like his writing and this book I liked even more than usual. Sterling is one of a very short list of authors who can write books that are some level of “cyber” and I will buy their story and not pick nits with their tech. This says more about most authors than it does about my l337ne$$, but I like tech fiction books and I don’t read enough of them. This novel surrounds September 11th. The short premise is “what do the super smart cyberwarriors do when the playing field changes?” It’s loosely about one super smart techie guy who starts out working for a big tech firm doing somethingorother and quickly gets enlisted into the war on terror, with surprising results. The guy is a likeable and believable techie character and the wholeplot has a real feel to it, even as it plots out a future that is somewhat dystopian and bleak. Sterling knows his stuff and tells a good story while at the same time not populating it with cardboard cutout characters.


This is one of the Carlotta Carlyle mystery series. I liked it just fine but at the same time every time I put it down I wasn’t sure I would pick it up again. My sister gave it to me because it takes place in Boston. I enjoyed that as well as the spunky female detective protagonist. However, this story of intrigue in a cabbie company wound up with a high body count and a fairly confusing story line that didn’t always keep me hooked and curious for more.

Science’s Most Wanted

This book is sort of a science Book of Lists, lite. I’ll say right off that I don’t know that much about science, so there was a lot of good information in these pithy lists of poisonous plants, noted feuds and invasive animals. However, if read from start to finish, this book gives you the same names over and over again. It’s clear that the standard reference works that created this reference work were heavier in, say European scientists and stronger in chem and bio then, say, technology. The book skews pretty heavily in that direction which is only a shame because I suspect that the real world if science, which includes western and non-western people and dates that fall outside the 1600’s-now realm. The authors have done a great job making sure that women are equally represented, I’d just lilke to see that same careful selection applied to non-European science.

The Last Treasure

This was a YA novel that a pal of mine sent me. I like to read good YA fiction and I really enjoyed this book. It’s loosely another book that falls into the “weird isolated family” genre. There is a family that lives in a small weird town. They have nine identical houses that are all arranged around a small park. The threee houses on the south end are “treasure houses” which have, in the past, been the location of mysteries and, ultimately, riches. When the family finds itself down on its luck with the remaining members old and feuding, two teenagers -- one stuck spending the summer there and one who comes of his own volition -- decide to untabgle the mystery of the last house. The kids are interesting. The story-line is believable and yet just a wee bit fantastic, and the ups and downs of being one person in a huge crazy family are reflected upon. This is one of the best YA books I’ve read this year and a good fun mystery book, even for pretty little kids.

The Lincoln Lawyer

[review pending]

Bringing Down the House : The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions

This is an odd story which is told like some sort of hollywood movie, yet it involves real people committing some very real crimes. The author has a connection with one of the people involved in part of the story and the rest of the story is told through this possibly disgruntled person’s eyes. It’s all about a ring of smart MIT students who used a system to play blackjack with teams and break the bank, or at least always win, at Vegas casinos. The whole time they were on this team, they were “run” by some shady underworld figures that no one really knew very well. Towards the end they start getting figured out and things get desperate, some people decide to stick it out in the risker business of evading tighter and tighter scrutiny and some got out. This book describes it all in detail. The system, the steps they took to avoid getting caught, the steps the casinos took to shut them down. It’s an interesting wacky caper story with the “criminal masterminds” just being some average suburban kids with a good head for math. Good reading, drops off a bit towards the end and definitely an early book by an author whose better writing is probably ahead of him.

Forever Free

I really enjoyed this. I like Haldeman’s other book Forever Peace and it took me far too long to get to this one. It’s a little strange. All the characters from the earlier books are long gone and we’re in some far flung future where most people have settled on other planets and a few have stayed nearly as homesteaders on this planet. Then they get restless and decide to explore. I read it a ways ago and so a lot of it isn’t quite clear to me. I do remember the presence of other humanoid people on the planet who were not human, and the fun involved in a future world where people are of varying ages with ranges in the hundreds of years thanks to being in suspended animation during long space travels.

There is a lot of interesting back and forth about whether to stay on the current planet or leave, and Haldeman’s strength lies in the depth of his characters and the complicated nature of their relationships. The last few chapters of the book have a very odd twist to them that didn’t sit totally right with me, but my overall reflection on this book was that I was pleased to have read it.

More Damned Lies and Statistics

More of the same. The author, who is good with math, looks at people who use statistics who are not so good at amth. Along the way he explains why some things that we thought were true about the world are not true and why some things we thought were not true, are. If you liked the first book, this one is almost as good though seems a little scanter on interesting original topics and instead looks at the math behind some standard stats we’ve heard but never really known the backstory on.

The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime

Riveting! This guy works for the Atlantic and the quality of his writing is just terrific. He wrote an article on shipbreakers, the men who beach out of commission ships on Indian beaches and then take them apart using welding rigs and block and tackle systems. This book has several chapters on different similar topics of lawlessness and oceangoing vessels, from ferry wrecks to flags of convenience to the face of modern-day piratry. He explains how the moddern shipping system evolved as a lucrative business for rich people who didn’t ask too many questions about the regulations and standards of their industry as long as the money kept rolling in. This book has a lot of research including inspection of the minutia involved in trying to assign blame and legal responsibility in the case of an Estonian ferry disaster that claimed the lives of 853 people.

Exploring Stone Walls: A Field Guide To Stone Walls

This book is supposed to be a bit of a field guide to Northeastern stone walls. It sort of reaches that goal, but it’s stronger as a rumination of the nature of stone and the interplay between man and nature in New England over the past 400 years. As a field guide, it’s lacking clear photographs of described wall and rock types, and the classification scheme that he has created is great but shoved into an appendix. It may be that I don’t have enough training, but some of his descriptions were not evocative enough for me to get a clear idea of what he was describing, though it was clear that he knows this topic inside and out. My favorite parts were his descriptions of what you could learn by a community or builder by loking at their walls; the anthropological aspect of his work and his enthusiams for the subject shine through on every page. There is an appendix listing some of his favorite walls in New England as well as some that he finds notable for one reason or another.

The Sinnner

The dead naked woman splayed across the cover of this book kept me away from it for a while. I enjoy the medical part of Gerritsen’s medical mysteries but she sometimes crosses the line into too gross and too gory for me. So, I thought that this story about a mudered nun might be icky. And it was, a little. However, it was also a very subtle and engaging whodunit including two strong female characters dealing with their own personal issues as well as the complicated issues of this case. It had more depth and less timeworn mystery cliches than some of her other books and the interplay of characters -- most of whom are interesting, even the minor players -- meant that it was an engaging read from start to finish.

The Meaning of Everything

For anyone who has read The Professor and the Madman and thought “that was a little nice reading, but I would like to know a ton more about this whole project” this is the book for you. Winchester can be a little precious in his vocabulary choices in that “I’m writing about a DICTIONARY” way but this recouting of the eighty year projects that resulted in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is without peer. The stories range from in-depth looks at the personalities who ran the project to little examinations of the thousands of volunteers who sent in scraps of paper with etymologies on them.

And oh the scaps of paper! Just housing them was a project in and of itself, a system that access to computers and digital storage will render forever unecessary. Despite the fact that this project wrapped up the 1930s, the first fascicles came out in the 1890’s and the entire project has this quaint Victorian tinge to all of it, from the old boy network of the men involved to the dearth of ladies anywhere in this story. If you’re a fan of turn of the century engineering type projects, this should go on your “to read” list.

Galactic Pot-Healer

It’s cool that PK Dick’s books are being reissued with cool cover art and nice formatting. Some of his books, however, are stronger than others. This one, for example, is a great story of paranoia and “what the hell is going on?” but it doesn’t cohere as nicely as, say, Ubik or his other more popular books. There is some really excellent humor in it, which I’m not used to getting from his books, but overall there are a lot of weird tedious parts as the characters argue over what the main monster-type character is up to. Good story, good to read anything that Dick has written, really, but not superfantastic.

Naked Pictures of Famous People

Jon Stewart is really funny, but not always a way that is amusing to me personally. This book is a collection of essays and since I didn’t know what it was when I first picked it up -- besides seeing his face all over the front cover -- I was a bit put off by one of the first essays that was some first person discussion of something where the narrator clearly wasn’t Jon Stewart. Some of the things in this book are fairly funny and some of them are not. He is funnier in person, but I did read this book through to the end, so it wasn’t all that bad.

The Explainer

The Explainer Another one of those “tell us how it works” books, though this one is from the folks at Slate and a little less hipster and a little more informative than the one from the mentalfloss folks. Answering questions sent in from readers like “Could Bill Clinton be elected Vice President?” and “Can the President change the oath of office?” and “Why do Supreme Court justices recuse themselves” it’s got a lot of tidbits presented authoritatively enough to be good reading while at the same time somewhat entertaining. And, since the questions are usually linked in some way to something that the Slate team has written about, there’s usually some degree of relevance to whatever’s being talked about. It’s not all politics, it’s sometimes really interesting, and the information is usually cited.

A Girl Like Sugar

This sexy YA book was included in the envelope of a pal who sent me some perfume samples and I wasn’t sure if she included it just to take up space or if she was recommending it. I enjoyed it. It’s the story of a girl called Sugar whose rock star boyfriend had recently died in a suicide/drug overdose sort of way. She has to deal with living independently, meeting new people and the fact that his ghost keeps visiting her and wanting to have sex with her. She has a hippie Mom and a father she knows nothing about, few friends and an okay amount of money. This is a fairly classic and straightforward “girl with new life situation learns to find new voice” but I enjoyed it, liked the main character and found myself wondering what woould happen to her next.


This was a really heavy book and one of the ones that stuck with me the most of all the books I read this year. The premise is very basic: people start losing their sight for no reason whatsoever. A class system develops where the sighted quarantine the blind. The blind are left to live like animals in an institutional setting. Things degrade. One man’s wife is taken away with the blind, however she is sighted. She is the one who observes what is going on.

Saramago really spells it all out and this story is tough to read. There’s lots of weird sex and shitting in hallways and bad behavior all around. His writing is beautiful which is in stark contrast to the ugliness that is the human behavior in this story.

What’s the Difference?

This book capitalizes on the hipster love for trivia while at the same time trying to get its barbs in. So, while it helpfully and humorously explains the difference between crack cocaine and regular cocaine, it also talks about meth user’s bad breath. Is this a snarky aside or is it true (and yes, I know about “meth mouth” but does that equal bad breath?) and how do I tell the difference between jokey pretend information and real information. I enjoyed flipping through the pages of this book; I’m pretty much their target audience, raised on bar trivia and That’s Incredible. On the other hand, as a librarian I felt that it was a little too light to be truly useful, and yet a little too earnest to be just a Big Book o' Snark. Fun, light, eh.

Robbing the Bees

One of the many delightful books about honey that I’ve read over the past decade or so. This is more of a hobbyist approach -- a woman who has started beekeeping spends a year on and off with a serious professional beekeeper. It has the tone of The Orchid Thief. Well-off woman from up north comes down to Florida and finds everything remarkable including every odd little habit of the older man she’s hanging out with. Bishop does manage to tell us something about herself, the trials she went through in her early beekeeping days, which are actually quite interesting.

Her description of the noble beekeeper borders on the hagiographic sometimes and she’s clearly put her education to good use with her rich and full and sometimes tiresome use of adjectives. Most of them I began to gloss over after a while, but as she was describing her beekeeper friend cooking up some freshly caught fish as a piscine delight (or something similar) I just started to go “Ugh!” The rest of the book is really worth it if you like bees at all. A lot of good history and some fun images and stories. Maybe a little too much idle pontificating. This book is at its best when it’s telling you facts, somewhat less when it’s telling you stories.

The Drowned and the Saved

[review pending]

The Bookseller of Kabul

The librarian has been pushign this book into my hands for months and I’ve been resisting. This is a really serious reading week so I relented. I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a story -- a non-fiction account but written in a literary style -- of what it’s like to be a middle class family in post-War Afghanistan, specifically Kabul. And you know what it’s like? It’s sucks. It’s lousy. It’s pretty easy to be sort of value-relative about all this and discuss the ideas that you can’t really compare cultures. However, the woman who wrote this book, who lived with the bookseller’s family for some time, doesn’t say “this is good” or “this is bad” she just describes.

She describes how women are basically the property of their fathers and then, once they’re married off, the property of their husbands who they have barely met before their wedding night. She describes the culture of illiteracy, how many people can’t read and this means that they are less likely to be able to critically approach the ideas foisted on them from the religious fundamentalists like the Taliban. She describes how even the middle class families live in dirt houses with no furniture and often no electricity or running water in a city that has been largely destroyed through a combination of Taliban repression combined with the destruction wrought by American forces post-9/11. She talks abotu how Afghanistan was not always such a beaten down country and explains a little bit about the political upheavals that signalled a return to extremely traditional cultural practices that were unusual even for Afghanistan.

It’s a hard book to read. The women are simply wretched in many cases, beaten down by lifetimes of doing other people’s laundry, cooking and domestic work and husbands who take multiple wives. The outlook for everyone is bleak. It’s so hard to raise enough money to change your status that even the future looks grim. Even given this, Seierstad manages to find some high points, some stories of almost-romance, or strong-willled women, or something that worked, for once. However these are the exceptions in the overarching culture that has been destroyed by poverty and fundamentalism and what has been essentially a total infrastructure collapse.

Turning Angel

Iles always walks the line between stuff that is a bit too icky for me to read and stuff that is compelling and intriguing. This book straddles that line. It’s a story about a murdered girl who had been having a relationship with her doctor. Apparently she has also been having various types of relationships with other people as well. Since the dead girl was seventeen, this has a lot of repercussions, legally and socially, for those around her as the criminal investigation proceeds.

I’m not averse to reading about the weird world of teenage sex, but Iles saves a super graphic and disturbing rape scene for the very very end of this book, the last few pages really, tacked on to what was otherwise a sexy but not violently sexy (mostly) story. I found this hard to stomach and it made me much less likely to pick up another one of his books until I can get it vetted for sexual sadism. This is just my own personal preference as fasr as reading thriller/mysteries goes, but unlike some of his other stories which I felt were more cerebral, this one achieves a lot of its impact through beingtruly shocking, which was of less inteerst to me.

Firebirds Rising

It’s really unusual to get a book that is a collection of short stories by various authors and have the collection be uniformly good. There was, towards the end, one story that I didn’t like as well as the others, but this collection is basically uniformly excellent. I’m sure this is because Sharyn November, who is a friend of mine, is a genius. However, it may also be because she’s especially clever at choosing fiction and cultivating authors to write what they might not otherwise have written. This book has the added bonus of little blurbs by the authors at the end of every story which include web addresses for easy lookup if you’d like to find more by them. It also has the authors describing why they wrote the stories, what inspired them and what they were thinking about. Some of the pieces in this collection are clearly parts of larger works which was good news if I really liked the story/characters but bad news if I felt that I was coming in to a story partway through. People who read YA or just enjoy a good compliation of fantasy/scifi are sure to enjoy this thick book of good stories.

The Single Girl’s Manifesta: Living in a Stupendously Superior Single State of Mind

This will likely be the last book I read about how to be awesomely single. Since I’m newly single, I was sort of curious if the world of “single and loving it” had changed significantly since the last time I’d checked in. The answer is mostly not. The author of this book is a previously-married single gal in her mid-forties. She has a lot of energy and seems to be one of those people who the adjective vivacious fits to a T. She’s been single since her marriage broke up and enjoys it, a lot. She has plenty of advice which is a combination of “You go girl” tips to stay in the game as well as ways to be comfortable with yourself out of the construct of being a couple. She includes lots of anecdotes about other middle-aged singles and keeps a steady upbeat attitude throughout. You really can’t help but like her.

However, there were a few things that I didn’t like about the book. First off, the book is pink, shockingly pink. While I’ll be the first to admit that the girly girl approach to topics like this (lots of chocolate and shopping suggestions on how to ease the worried mind) isn’t my first take, this book was so pink it was hard to read. The chatty tone is great, but there are stretches where you actually want to settle in and read. However, the main text is so consistently split up by sidebars, tips, helpful hints and other ancillary content that it’s hard to start reading and stay reading. After all, the book is a handbook, not a novel. Lastly, Stewart is clearly a fun interesting woman with a stable fulfilling well-paying career. She also reveals in the book that she has a regular lover who is available to her pretty much whenever she picks up the phone. I’m sure many women in her situation would also have no qualms about being single, which sometimes makes her advice less than helpful. This is a great inspirational book for the fun-loving urban single woman who is not concerned about her own looks, status or future, others might not get as much out of it.

The earth, my butt, and other big round things

You can sort of guess what this book is like. It’s another one of those weird kid YA stories, but I love them all just the same. In this version, our protagonist is an overweight smart girl who lives in New York City and her best friend has moved across the country. She’s stuck starting school with the dreaded Lunchroom Problem. To add to this, her sister has left to join the Peace Corps and her superstar older brother -- to whom she is often unfavorably compared -- has gone away to college where he seems to be continuing to be awesome as she wallows miserably in high school. She’s also been spending some time making out with another nerdish high school guy and makes a set of rules for herself as to how fat girls are supposed to behave when shown attention from the opposite sex. The book actually opens with a racy scene that is nto at alll indicative of the tone of the rest of the book.

Even though our heroine is a bit on the mopey side, her family is irritating enough that you read a lot of the book thinking “wow, kid, I feel your pain” She has a Mom who constantly pressures her and, as a child psychologist, thinks she has her all figured out. She has a Dad who talks about her weight all the time. Her brother eventually has a fall from grace and her sister turns out to be fairly supportive albeit far away. It wraps up a bit neatly compared to some of the other gloom and doom YA titles but the whole thing is an interesting romp with a likeable character whose high school trials ring true.

The Green Glass Sea

I read this as a prepub bound galley. The book is based on a short story written by Klages a few years ago. It’s a YA novel about a nerdy young girl and the weird situation she finds herself in when her Dad goes towork at Los Alamos. It’s a fascinating read, just to learn about what day to day life was like there, all the secrecy involved and how hard it must have been just to be a kid there, with all the other tough parts of being a kid. Klages has a real ear for kid dialogue and all the characters have some sort of redeeming quality except for possibly the two-dimensional girl bully we meet early on.

There’s a hint of historical fiction in this book which I found to be a bit of a distraction. Once Oppenheimer was mentioned, I started to wonder which other characters were based on real ones (the author mentions this and answers this question in the back) and it distracted from the idea of the characters to me and felt a bit name-droppy. However, that was a really minor blip in an otherwise strong first novel.

Lincoln’s Dreams

It’s clear from reading this book that some of the events in it are experiements with some of the theme’s in Willis' book Passage. It’s a book about dreams, the dreams of the past and their effect on the reality of the future. However, where I was really interested in the people who were dreaming about the Titanic -- something about large scale disasters perhaps -- I cared much less about dreams about the prosaic events surrounding the Civil War. perhaps it’s just me. The dreams seem to be the richest part of this story with the characters in the present day not quite as fleshed out or understandable. While I generally enjoy Willis' writing, this book was on the low end of her overall body of work.

Future Imperfect

Connie Willis is a master at genre mixing, She can write science fiction as something else entirely. This collection of three stories has a sci-fi humor/romance piece, a sci-fi period piece of a sort and a sci-fi comedy. Each is a novella in its own right but combined the collection shows Willis' flair for voice and setting and her ability to move seamlessly among many different sorts of them.

Strong Motion

Oh Jonathan Franzen, I wish you could have told me that as I was reading this book, my own relationship was slowly falling apart. You seem to have such a good knack for describing dysfunction and yet I wound up burying myself in your own version of it and using it to obliquely communicate with my soon-to-be-ex boyfriend who was already sort of halfway out the door. This is made even more poignant by the fact that your book takes place where my family lives and so it was so familiar, so real life, and yet it was nothing like my life at all, with its semi-happy ending and its ENDING. In any case, I enjoyed this story, I love your characters and I appreciated the chance to get into their heads while I was having trouble understanding what was in my own.

Mutants : On Genetic Variety and the Human Body

One of the very few books I’ve purchased this year at close to [used] store prices. I was initially attracted to it both because my friend had read it, or at least heard of it, and because of the legless man on the cover. I’ve always been interested in freaks and grew up in a family where this sort of interest wasn’t aggressively discouraged. My parents would make up bedtime stories for meabout “the girl with no mouth” or other infirmities.

This book is not just another freak book -- though it does have a good set of pictures of genetic anomalies I had never sen before -- rather it is based on this premise: by looking at nature’s “mistakes” what can be learned about natures plans? The author looks at examples such as conjoined twins, looking at what varieties of conjoining do happen and which do NOT and then goes into the science behind this sort of creation, asking and answering “what goes on with the developing fetus that results in conjoined twins?” He goes through the same steps with albinos, armless and legless folks and a host of others. The book is short enough so that it doesn’t devolve into lengthy and dull scientific treatises, but long enough so that it’s not just a “look at the freaks” book.

The Piano Tuner

A booksale find, and apparently New York Times bestseller, this book takes place in 19th century Burma under colonial rule. A crazy but brilliant British military man has a piano delivered into the jungle. That’s not the main purpose of this book, however. Next it goes out of tune and a paino tuner is called for. The piano tuner is an unassuming man who hasn’t spent much of any time abroad and after lenghty travel time arrives at the remote camp and is quickly enchanted. If you’re familiar with this sort of story, you’ll know how it ends. If you’re familiar with the colonialist themes you’ll know that there’s a hot Burmese woman who the protagonist is confused by a whole lot of confusion generally. The writing is great, the plot is a little predictable and I learned a whole lot more about pianos.

Bag Men

This book was great. Then again, I had no expectations. My sister knew a guy who knew the guy who wrote it. She lent it to my boyfriend to read who then lent it to me. I enjoyed it. It’s a gritty cop story from Boston in the 50s and 60s, so while I recognized some of the settings, I didn’t recognize the culture at all. In fact, a major plot point revolves around the fact that Boston is NOT San Francisco and things that are obvious to any teenager now were unknown to cops even back then. The plot is straightforward cop story, and had a feel to it much like The Wire with a bunch of characters coming in and out of it at various points. For a short novel, a lot happens.


Better than her last novel but not as good as the first novel of hers I read, which I fear may have been her best book. This novel explores a potential seamy underbelly of organ donation politicking without resorting to tired cliches of poor people waking up in bathtubs of ice without their kidneys. The plot moves along. The main character is Abby DiMatteo the doctor we will continue to see in more of Gerritsen’s medical thrillers. In this book she is an internist asked to serve on the prestigious transplant squad whose medical reputation is too good to be true, almost.... You can sort of see where the book is going as soon as it opens up with scenes of children being removed from an orphanage in Eastern Europe, but again Gerritsen manages to make it a human drama, not filled with overwrought cliches.

Trunk Music

I’ve been reading these in stupid order instead of the order they were written in, so this book shows the main protagoinist meeting the woman that I know he later has a tempestuous relationship with. This book was less compelling than the newer ones. I think Connelly has really improved his writing plot-wise over the past decade or so.


Gladwell’s last book which grew out of a New Yorker article read like an overlong New Yorker article. This one does now. The loose premise is that many people make decisions much more quickly than they feel that they do, and that they rely on much less information to make them. Gladwell argues that, counter to our preceptions about quick decision-making, these decisions can often be fairly sound and useful ones. He guides us through a few examples of this process in action and discusses the idea of “thin slicing” whereby smaller and smaller amounts of information are being accessed (quick glimpses of people, small snatches of sounds) and yet the decisions people make ("do I know that song?" "does this person like the other person?") are often just as valid, sometimes more valid, as if they had more time to think it over.

Gladwell discusses the upside as well as the downside of this phenomena, discussing how people’s preconceptions of things like race may effect their snap judgments in ways they aren’t even aware of. He uses as an example the Implicit Association Test which tests people’s reaction times when they have to group positive and negative words with images of white or black people. Gladwell, who is half-Jamaican himself, was suprised to note that even he had a tendency to group negative words with images of black people, not consciously, but subconsciously. This book has the interestingness and research of Gladwell’s other writing along with the length and breadth of other books describing how we know what we know.


Levitt is supposedly an economical genius. I know that because I read the article in the New York Times magazine about him. This book is written by the same guy. Or, rather, it’s co-written by that guy and Levitt himself. It’s like a longer version of the newspaper article. It has a lot of inteersting economics examples giving you real numbers behind some of the things we take for granted about the way money works. Think drug dealers make a lot of money? Think again. Levitt has access to some of the numbers and shows how drug dealers, except for the highest eschelon, aren’t pulling in too much money and by and large live with their families. Then again the hope that you’ll make it big as a drug dealer seems slightly more realistic than the hope that you’ll eventually be president, so the slog is worth it.

My only exposure to Levitt and his ideas has been via this writer who is obviously fond of him. This book can seem a bit haigiographic at times. I’m sure the guy is really smart. I’m sure his ideas are novel and interesting, the way he looks at social problems through a lens of pure money. On the other hand, they don’t seem that out there. Once you realize that there was a drop in the crime rate when abortions became legalized -- or rather when the generation of children whose mothers had access to abortions grew up -- the question for me is “Then what?” If it’s true, can’t you use that bit of information to affect social change? Maybe? Levitt is also the only economist I’ve read who says that Head Start programs don’t really work. He calibratesHead Start attendance with childrens' future test scores. This really goes against conventional wisdom about Head Start (mainly of the “Head Start works!” variety) and I’d like to hear more about it. In short, the book brings up a lot of good ideas and good research by Levitt, but the answers he discovers aren’t as useful in the pure science-y air of economics as they would be being put to good use outside of academia. After reading this book, I’d like to know more.

Hippo Eats Dwarf

This arrived in my mailbox as a gift one day. I had really enjoyed the author’s book Museum of Hoaxes so it was a fair bet I’d enjoy this one too. And I did, sort of. This book tracks, instead of cultural hoaxes in the pre-Internet days, 'net hoaxes. As someone who spends a lot of time online, this book seemed to be the work of someone who spends less time online. No big issue that, but while I was impressed with the research that went into his last book, this one seemed to be mostly the result of a lot of Google searching and a few telephone calls. Actual “hoaxes” if you can call them that, are interspersed with gags, gaffes and just weird stuff on the web. The combination of the lax selection policy plus a book design that offers us pull-quotes in brown and green and sometimes a combination of the two meant that this was definitely my less-favorite of Boese’s two books. It was nowhere near as entertaining, not as well-researched and seeemd to favor the sensational story over one with real online-hoax cred. I was less surprised reading this book and the hassle involved in reading its edgy layout wasn’t as worth it in the end.


I like these medical mysteries. This one is by the same woman who wrote the medical space mystery that I enjoyed last month. This one is similar in some ways. Something is making the teens in a small Maine exceptionally murderously angry. A new doctor just moved to town to help her own teenaged son with his anger and behavioral problems afte the death of her husband, his dad. She finds the typical New England smalltown stuff a little hard to handle -- unfriendliness, reticence -- and this gets worse when she believes that there is something biological behind the temper outbreak.

There is a little too much weird medical dialogue that doesn’t add to the story, in both this and the other Gerritsen book I read -- seems to be a way for the author to establish bona fides early on -- but once you get beyond that (in this case an admittance to an emergency room where the doctors yell drug directives at each other for a few pages and you’re left thinking "huh?") and the story starts to unfold you appreciate that the author can also describe characters and not just diseases.

Big Mouth and Ugly Girl

Joyce Carol Oates does YA! I liked this book a lot. The YA-ness of it made me pretty certain that it wasn’t going to be as over-the-top creepy as some of Oates' other stuff, and I’ve been on a YA kick lately. The loose story outline is about a loudmouth kid who gets in trouble (or set up) for “threatening to blow up the school.” The resident weirdo jock girl comes to his aid. They deal with a lot of crap from school and parents. Things somewhat resolve the way things in high school always sort of do, meaning not really and not definitively.

The story is told in alternating chapters, third person with Big Mouth and then first person with Ugly Girl. This is not difficult to keep up with and gives the story some depth especially when you’re looking at these kids and thinking “Why did he/she DO that?” it doesn’t have a lot of dangly parts that don’t make any sense. If I had one criticism it would be that all the supporting family for these kids seem a little two-dimensional, first bad, then good, then possibly bad again. This may be due to the fact that we mainly see the family through the eyes of the teenagers, but sometimes it’s tough to see them as fully formed characters the way two main teens are. This is a warts and all YA book that does manage to deal with complicated teen issues without feeling like an issue-oriented book.

Small Steps

A follow-up from the author of Holes. Armpit, the protagonist is back living at home with his parents and trying to get by as a teen with a record. I had thought I rememberred him coming into some money or fame at the end of Holes but it clearly didn’t follow him back to Summer school and back home. Armpit is still a sort of hard luck guy with an okay job doing some summer classes. His main companion is a ten year old neighbor girl who has cerebal palsy. People are not particularly nice to him and he has a hard time figuring out other people. His friend from the work camp elists him in a scheme to resell tickets to a pop star’s rock concert. The pop star is her own character in the story, isolated and lonely as her parents manage her career and misuse her money. It’s another wacky caper book, sort of, not as full of violence as the last one, but still having a lot of little side stories all of which wrap up neatly at the end.


In 1997, the world of “it’s all online” was even futher away than it is now, and Greg Bear did a pretty good job anticipating a lot of it. This story takes place in a future where the US is fractured into many different political regions and the unifying theme for people is their consumption of data feeds called Yox. These are sort of lowest-common-denominator geared entertainment streams or feeds that people on welfare can just barely afford. Through all this something nefarious is happening. People who received therapy -- which itself happens through the addition of internal nanotech that keeps things balanced -- are finding it failing, chaos is sneaking in, things are falling apart. This book follows a set of disparate characters who all play small roles until the big brouhaha at the end of it.

Readers who enjoy Bear will like this, there’s lots of fun science and verbatim quotes from the Yox while ring errily true to how a lot of Internet stuff seems to be going. On the downside, there is no central character and I spent a lot of time in the book keeping track of what seemed to me to be three or four separate stories. All of these stories were fine, none of them was so compelling that I was dying to know what happened next which is how I often feel when reading Bear’s books. This was a lot of balls to keep in the air at once and while I liked all the characters somewhat, I didn’t like any of them enough to really care and worry about what happened to them. As a result, the final scenes where they all come together were a little disjointed and cluttered with a bunch of characters I felt like I barely knew. It’s just a small kvetch though, overall I enjoyed Bear’s new world

Cross Bones

I liked this book okay when I read it, but compared to Reichs' other books it’s not that great. The protagonist is a forensic anthropologist who makes a discovery about some old old bones in Israel. Then the rest of the book goes off on the “Is this Jesus?” angle. Temperance Brennan annoys me. She’s too concerned with her looks and her relationship and for all of her supposed smarts dealing with dead bodies, her attention to criminal procedure and details is always overshadowed by whatever outfreakage she is dealing with. At the outset of this book, Reichs outlines a list of facts -- actual anthropological information about recent digs and discoveries in Israel and Palestine -- which is the basis for this book. It becomes clear at some point that while the story will have titillating aspects as fas as the “Is this Jesus?” direction goes, ultimately the answer would have to be “No.” because she’d wind up alienating all of her Christian readership potentially. For an author whose books rank in the triple and quadruple digits on Amazon.com, this is a point that probably matters. The ending was unsatisfying and way too pat, though I’m not honestly sure what I was expecting.


I used to enjoy reading forensic type mysteries, but lately they’ve all gotten too gorey and there’s always the protracted part of them where the doctor winds up being part of the killer’s nasty crime spree and I just dislike those parts. One of my librarians suggested that I might enjoy medical thrillers and gave me this book to read. It’s a story of a strange organism that is killing astronauts. There is a lot of techie space trivia, a lot of astronaut background, a lot of sleuthing, and no bad guy hiding in the closet of an abandoned house while the doctor walks around in the dead of night. Quite good. Medical mysteries mean you’re usuallly racing against an unknown bacteria or virus, not another person and this gives authors like Gerritsen a much wider range of potential “bad guys” that can have alll sorts of differing characteristics. This puts an end to trying to figure out what terrible, horrible thing could have happened to the bad guy to make him into this wretched killing machine. In short, I enjoyed this new genre of mystery/thriller.

The Dayhiker’s Handbook

I was expecting something different from this book. Despite what its title says this is not really a dayhiker’s guide. The two authors are an adventurer/hiker and an editor for Outside magazine. There is no evidence in this book that they worked together on this book at all. They each write entirely separate sections, do not refer to the other’s sections, and write about entirely different things. John Long is the adventurer and under the guise of writing about different hiking environments, he gets to regale us with tales of his adventures, few of which are dayhikes. He writes with the heavy-adjectival style that is typical for people for whom writing is not a first profession. His prose is readable and his stories are good but they give very little advice on dayhiking and most of them are cuationary tales of what NOT to do. While I appreciate a good warning, I found the preponderance of them tiring and his writing style not at all compelling.

Michael Hodgson is the other writer and writes mainly in the sidebars giving advice in gear, recipes for trail eating and good lists of things to do for preparedness and enjoyment of hiking. His advice is more down to earth and yet you still get lots of information about what sort of sleeping bag to buy for cold weather camping and what sort of backpack to buy for weeklong jungle hikes. It may be that Californians approach the idea of a dayhike much differently than New Englanders, but I found this book so completely out in left field compared to what I was expecting, that I continued to read ahead because I couldn’t believe that it advertised itself as a dayhiking book and was telling me about ice climbing expeditions. As a book of adventure stories and GORP recipes, it’s more than adequate, but I’m still looking for a good dayhiker’s guide.


I like Crichton fine, even though I dislike his politics. I skipped Jurassic Park and Disclosure because I had already seen them ruined by Hollywood, but in general he’s a capable storyteller and a smart man. This was one of those stories where something secret is going on at a remote lab in the middle of the desert that has the potential to ruin life as we know it. It reminded me a lot of Greg Bear’s Blood Music except without the truly terrible outcome. Lots of nanotechnology that you know Crichton did some background research on, and a lot of twists and turns on the way to figuring out what the heck is really happening. This book held my interest without keeping me up at night.

The Bad Beginning

I hadn’t read any of these books before so I started at the beginning. This one wasn’t bad. It’s got sort of a cloying narrator, three kids in sorry circumstances, and a lot of people around them who are making those circumstances worse. The illustrations are great, the plots develop, such as they are, and the sher depth of description alone makes these books worthwhile for an adult reader as well as straightforward enough for a younger reader.

And Their Children After Them

This was a hard book to read. Coming on the heels of reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, any shred of hope you had for the dignity of the people portrayed in the book, for them overcoming their situations of desparate poverty and lack of education, is dashed when you read about the next generations. Some people did quite well, a few. Most are sort of middling in the in-between areas, not quite desparate but definitely not someplace where they feel happy and settled. And some people -- most specifically one of the older daughters of one of the tenant farmers, who he took as his wife, confirming decades of bad stereotypes (or possibly starting them) -- are still miserable and wretched, having been passed by, both by advances in technology like plumbing and cost of basic goods, but also by advances in society where there is at least some of a social safety net in place for people who are destitute.

This book is a return to Alabama to see what happened to the 128 descendants of the three tenant families that were portrayed by James Agee and Walker Evans in 1936. We get to learn what they thought of the portrayal of themselves, how being written up in a book affected the lives of their grandparents, parents and themselves. We also get a less dashing view of Agee and Evans, who slickly call themselves spies and instigators in the list of characters in the original book but were really in some ways no more than subculture tourists. Evans spent no more than one or two nigths with the families and seemed to have a distaste for them mostly, while Agee romanticized them in the way writers do where he held them up as noble members of their class, but promptly forgot about them once he left Alabama (though to be fair he was embroiled in his own terrible life at the time).

The most poignant part of the story, though to be sure, there are many poignant parts, is the opening scene of the book where one of the women who was beloved and doted on by Agee when she was a little girl, commits suicide after a long hard life at the age of 54. One could see after reading just this introduction, that new writers nosing around the place might not stir up happy thoughts. It is helpful for people who were interested in the earlier book, to get follow-up on how the people did, what happened to them and how they fared and their childre and children’s children. Ironically Agee himself was the first to die, due to his own set of hard-luck lifestyles and circumstances. For anyone who read and appreciated Let Us Now Praise Famous Men this Pulitzer Prize winning book is necessary follow-up reading.

Library Card

I have been reading some more YA books lately since the weather and the short days are conspiring to give me a very short attention span. This book is actually a collection of short short stories for young teens. They profile a few different situations where kids in tough straits -- living in a car, moving to a new town, watching too much TV, hanging out with tough kids in the city -- find a library card and get some help at the library. The stories have a wee bit of a supernatural edge to them, but for those of us who are pretty convinced of the magicalness of libraries, this does not seem that suprising.

The Revealers

Doug Wilhelm is a local YA author who I used to see in my library all the time. This book has gotten a lot of press because it deals with a hot teen topic: bullying. I haven’t read much of the rest of the books about bullying, so I don’t know how this one compares, but I will say that it was a lively book with some nerdy but redeeming bullying victims and some atrocious but redeeming bullies. The kids who are being tormented group together and find a good solution to dealing with bullies and we learn, as we often do, that a lot of bullies are just people who want to be respected, or understood, or have terrible home lives that they are grappling with. Wilhelm doesn’t serve it all on a platter, some interpretation is left to the reader. This story also has a technological angle where the kids use the local LAN server to chat about tactics and other things. The chat sessions are reprinted verbatim which I guess lends some sort of technorealism to the story, but the transcripts ring false to me -- too many full sentences, too little chatspeak, but that’s a minor quibble. The story doesn’t read like an After-School Special, no one is perfect and even the good guys have their flaws and Achilles heels. The descriptions of the kids in school and their adult teachers and parents ring true without, again, being moralistic about responsibility or behavior. One kid smokes. One adult is a jerk. Some teachers aren’t helpful, you know just like real life.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

It took me a long time to get ready to write a review of this book, mostly because it stayed with me in all sorts of ways, and also because I’m reading a follow-up to it (And Their Children After Them) which has been thought-provoking. In short, in 1936 WPA photographer Walker Evans and NY writer James Agee went to the South to try to find some sharecropper/tenant famers to write about and photograph. They wound up spending the Summer with three separate families. Walker’s photographs are in the book as the first 30 or so pages. And Agee, well Agee sort of goes off, all throughout the book in an almost stream of consciousness style describing both the nature of these people’s lives and his many thoughts about the nature of poverty and oppression in America.

Agee is a big of a fop and anyone who is familiar with the East Village New York style of anthropology of the non-hip will recognize some of this. He’s also a really great writeer and so you actually hang on while he describes in detail the contents of one of the clothing chests at the homes of one off the fmailies. These people have nothing, a point illuminated by Evans' photos and driven home by Agee’s descriptions of their day-to-day lives as cotton farmers on land owned by someone else for which they must pay a heavy rent. It’s appalling to read when Agee gets to specifics, which is not often. Sometimes he is just driving down the road in the hot Alabama Sumemr talking abot how he needs to get laid. He talks a lot about need and hunger and these sorts of ideas, ascribing to the families emotions that are likely too esoteric for them in their quest for survival. It’s a little tough to read, both because of the abject misery these people live in, but also Agee’s bizarre abstraction from it as if he could live among them and not change them, or be changed. There’s a level of naivete that he has as a writer on assigment that makes the story even more poignant than it might otherwise be.

Lost Light

Reading these out of order pretty much ensures that certain surprises will not be too surprising and, I hope, keeps me from getting too droolingly attached to the characters and unfolding plotlines. I like Michael Connelly’s books, but most of them are just a bit too pat for me. The main character, Harry Bosch, is a retired cop who likes solving cold case crimes. This leads to a lot of stonewalling by actual law enforcement and lawyers and the feds when he is digging for information with no actual badge behind his requests. He’s also got a complicated situation with his ex-wife and goes to some extralegal lengths to keep tabs on her. Sometimes I have a hard time telling if a characters is supposed to be unlikable or if I just don’t like them. I don’t like this character much though the tight plots and interesting story lines keep Connelly’s books interesting enough to keep one handy.

Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?

Whenever anyone asked me what I was reading when I had this book with me, I would say “cripple jokes” and that always set the discussion off on the right foot. Callahan is a quadriplegic cartoonist and is syndicated in many major newspapers. He is also controversial because he talks about what he knows, living with quadriplegia, and how society treats the disabled generally. While I wouldn’t say he is an activist per se -- sometimes he just seems to have his mind in the gutter -- his cartoons make you think, even if it’s only thinking “wow, that joke isn’t funny.” or “that joke is totally disgusting.” and then thinking about why it is that maybe you think that.

Included in this book of cartoons are stories about the cartoons and about himself. Callahan waxes poetic about how he used to be able to get laid much more before he turned 40. Callahan talks about meeting Bob Dylan and Robin Williams who had optioned his story to do a movie. He includes some of his more controversy-inspiring cartoons such as the one with the 13 year old Martin Luther King standing shamefully in pj’s in front of his mother, a small puddle in his bed, saying “I had a dream.” Personally I thought it was funny, many many people didn’t. Callahan includes a lot of letters to the various papers that run his comics reacting and responding, often angrily, at his sense of humor. If he or the papers respond to those letters, he does not print the responses. A point the book makes is that other disabled people often seems to find his jokes funnier (he uses the example of the church choir singing “you’ll never walk alone” loudly next door to the Home for the Paralyzed) than the able-bodied people who write in terribly offended. Callahan does seem to be an equal opportunity offender, he makes fun of the disabled, the mentally ill, the elderly, women, men, the pope, his attendant, the government etc. I don’t think everything he does is hilarious, certainly, but enjoyed the chance to see mor of his work and hear more about the man behind the comics.

The Narrows

I found this book in a desk at the B&B I was staying in, when I was desparately searching for a book to read on the flight on the way home. This book fit the bill, your classic thriller without some of the classic elements I hate: passive women getting tortured and held for ransom, slasher sex/violence linkages, dumb plot twists and/or fetishistic creepy killers. Connelly has built a name for himself as a photogenic crime beat reporter turned author and he’s prolific. I don’t think I’ve read any of his books in order but this doesn’t seem to matter too much since he manages to get summaries in without you feeling like he’s rehashing all the books in a series.

I generally don’t do much in the way of plot summaries for genre fiction, but this is one of those smart serial killer stories, not too gorey, not too dull and not so overwhelmingly action-packed that you feel that it’s a bit surreal.

Death du Jour

You know you’re really in trouble when you re-read books by accident. This was on the new-ish shelf at the library and so I assumed that it was a newish book. Apparently I read it back in 2001. To add insult to injury, apparently I didn’t even like it much then. This is the review I wrote then, it’s still pretty apt.

If you’ve ever wondered how you can tell how long a body has been dead by looking at the maggots, this book is for you. If not, you may not have the stomach for it. Reichs is an author that focuses on the medical examiner aspects of crime and mystery. She gets called to the scene after the cops have been there and tries to give them a hand solving the crime, This particular novel is full of cults and freezing cold weather and the inevitable Family Member Who Gets Involved in the Horrible Events. It’s a good quick read but maybe on the sensational side for me personally.

How to Breathe Underwater

This was a book of short stories given to me by a friend on my birthday. I read 90% of it and then it somehow managed to make it to the bottom of a pile from where it did not return until yesterday. These stories are great. There is a sort of emotional feeling that some stories have -- I’ve seen it in other writing but I have a hard time describing it -- where there is just a heat between the characters. Not like sexy and not like angry but sort of that feeling you get when the space behind your ears gets warm, a sort of flushing feeling and a quickening of the pulse. In any case I don’t read stories with that sort of heat in them often and I’m always really excited to find a new story that manages it. The story in this book called The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones [also reprinted in The Best American Non-Required Reading] managed to churn up that sort of heat.

All the stories are good though. Many of them harken back to that time where children are old enough to be running wild away from their parents, but not so far that they can live independently or that they always understand the consequences of their actions. The strongest stories in this book are about young adults getting into some sort of trouble almost under the noses of their parents. Bad things happen and usually aren’t tidily resolved. Young girls are terrible to each other, and kids generaly behave abdly, but no worse than adults can be. Orringer has managed to write about younger people in a way that is both voyeuristic and also very real feeling as someone who was younger once herself.

Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency

I was looking for books to read on Alabama and was attracted to this book because of its cover. It’s a fancy picture book describing the rural studio, an innovative architecture program at Auburn University where students build housing for rural Alabamans, using discarded materials and fancy pants techniques. Many of these people were previously living in shacks and cabins with no running water or electricity. This book documented the process of getting to know the people in Hale County who the students built housing for. There are showy pictures of the new houses and community centers and a lot of sort of arty-speak of how the architects and builders conceived of their projects in a way that will be amiliar to any graduate of a liberal arts college. Missing from the book, to me, was the voices of the people who had new homes built for them. I was most curious how these fancy houses worked for these rural poor folks. They were clearly designed with the residents in mind, and yet there is a certain flash and flair in these buildings that would seem to have to have some effect on the people who lived in them. I’d like to know what it’s like to live in a brand new house that was built tailored to your particular needs and specifications. This is something that most of us never get to experience in a lifetime and while the students seemed very proud of their ability to do this work, I felt like at least some of the projects lacked a sort of closure that resulted in some of these houses feeling a bit like hanging questions.

The Florabama Ladies' Auxiliary & Sewing Circle

This book eked into “liked it” territory just barely. It was a good read, but felt like a lot of books I’d read before. It felt like Toni Morrison for its brand consciousness and concern with the cost of things. It felt like The Secret Life of Bees because it’s got the same general outline -- person who has gone through hardship had to make do in a new and sometimes un-nice environment; eventually she finds comfort in the companionship of women and even though there are problems they are better than the ones she had. It also feels like every other sort of woman-focused book I’ve read lately. If it were a movie it would be a chick flick. That’s not to say that the story isn’t interesting, just that it moves along fairly predictable paths to its eventual unsuprising conclusion