Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The story, of Liesel, a young German girl during world war II, is told by Death. And Death has an odd way of speaking. It’s a combination of sly, often grim, humor in the storytelling, and interjections of bold-face explanations, sometimes translations of words, sometimes descriptions of a character’s thinking process. For example,

He didn’t go into battle that day

Often the inserts are simply definitions. Emphasizing them in this way draws attention:

Luftwaffe Sondereinbeit
Air Raid Special Unit

The language is often in the passive voice, as

When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then,which were a corroded brown color and peeling, like old paint. In desperate need of redoing.

The story is also told, in part, with staccato, telegraph-like bursts. As:

“Mixed candy again?” She schmunzeled, to which they nodded. The money splashed the counter and Frau Diller’s smile fell slightly ajar.

“Yes, Frau Diller,” they said in unison. “Mixed candy, please.”

The framed Fuhrer looked proud of them.

Triumph before the storm.

“Figurative language,” they call it. Initially I found the style so irritating that I wasn’t sure I’d get through it. It felt like I was being bludgeoned with fact after fact, metaphor after metaphor. But I thought there may be gold here somewhere so I kept on and found that I was better able to ignore the style as I moved through it.

I also notice that the book is categorized as “young adult”, which initially surprised me, but which may help explain why I found its constant obvious explanations annoying. Perhaps they are not so annoying to younger adults? Or people who think like younger adults?

The story of Liesel, a nine-year-old girl when she is thrown into a foster home, is a story of words. From her first book theft to her efforts to read to story-reading in an air raid shelter to the spreading of words in her own hand, she is acutely aware of the power of words. More than once the story slips into a comparison of her use of words with that of Hitler, who used them as weapons to kill. Her theft of the written word is a metaphor, as I see it, for her theft of power from the more common story told among Germans to themselves.

To me, the value in this story is the insight it offers into a poor German neighborhood during World War II. While non-Jewish Germans obviously did not suffer the same way Jews did, the truly poor were usually the first to be forced into service and to accept sacrifices not required of wealthier Germans. They were also the least powerful, essentially unable to effect any change in the political climate. The story brings home that simplistic notions of what went on in Germany during that war need to be revised.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Cloud of Unknowing, by Thomas H. Cook

The Cloud of Unknowing was a book written in the 14th century, a "spiritual guide". It urges a young monk not to search for knowledge about God but to know God through love (I simplify, of course). There is nothing in this book, the one by Thomas Cook, that makes direct reference to the earlier work, except the way of knowing, of getting through that cloud, getting there through love.

We begin in the office of Detective Petrie. We begin with confusion: one death, two, three, four? And a promise to tell the whole story. This chapter is written in the second person, as if an unseen person is telling your story for you. The "you" in this case is David Sears.

The office conversation - or interrogation if you want to call it that - is intertwined with the story told in the first person by David Sears. The short detective chapters simply keep us in place, bring us back to the present.

Through this means Cook leads us gradually into the family of David, his sister Diana, and their father. He takes us through the drowning death of Diana's son Nathan, a child who was full of fear and who seemed to have inherited some kind of mental illness. The path then leads back to David's father, whose own struggle with what was diagnosed as "paranoid schizophrenia" escalated in later years.

I use the quotation marks only because my own knowledge of this condition tells me that there are no physical tests for it and there is, further, no proof of genetic descendency, however long such assumptions persist. Nevertheless, we have to assume in this book that, genetic or not, this family is somehow afflicted. That affliction may come as much from the cruel emotional cuts inflicted by David's father as by any kind of real illness.

We learn that Diana is not "getting over" her son's death. More, we learn that she is suspicious of the means of his death, yet her avenues of investigation defy normal categories. Instead of looking for physical or even circumstantial evidence, she looks backward thousands of years to ancient deaths, ancient myths, as well as more current stories. She tries to draw in her brother, his daughter, others.

Yet oddly nothing is every really overt. Nowhere do we have the direct conversation where people learn from each other. More, we see accusations and assumptions and an unwillingness to move in different directions. And thus I found myself at times frustrated, wondering why David does not consider other options, why Diana is not more specific. Yet isn't it often true that family members do not hear each other?

In the end we do have deaths, each one questionable - what made it happen? We don't have all the answers. We do have siblings torn by deaths but with a true loyalty to each other that survives the worst kinds of visions. Certainly this is less about the underlying mystery than it is about David and Diana and the bonds of childhood.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Kept, by D. J. Taylor

First, what this book is not:

* A romantic novel. The cover and name might suggest that it is one of those dark romantic novels involving a maiden subject to the whims of her master. Not so. Even though there is a young woman locked up.

* A journey into an England that never was. Mr. Taylor takes great pains to create an England that really was, in fact, although the main characters did not exist. He relies on a great deal of research and even includes excerpts from actual journals from the time.

And what it is:

It's fundamentally the story of a woman who, after losing a baby in childbirth, appears to become depressed and unhinged. After her husband's sudden death she is moved to the house of a friend of her husband's where she is, in fact, "kept". Her removal is for some reason not advertised so family members and friends do not know where she is. A few of them choose to find out and to find out why it is a secret.

This story, though, is blended with the stories of others, intertwined and woven with these others. We get to meet each character in turn and to watch how he or she progresses and eventually how each is connected to the widow Isabel Ireland. Most particularly we are presented with the unsavory character of Mr. Pardew. We occasionally see the world from his point of view; more often we see him go about his business as he might have been seen by some fictitious observer ("An onlooker...would perhaps have noted..."), a literary device frequently used in Victorian writing.

The novel is, in fact, written in much the style of England in the 1800s, but references and comparisons often have an ironic or humorous bent that likely would not have been seen in such literary works.

Mr. Pardew becomes a major character by way of his indulgences in various nefarious schemes that bring him money and others grief. He even goes so far as to develop a plan to rob a great deal of money from a train - a robbery that did, in fact, take place and with similar details (The Great Train Robbery of 1855).

Richly peopled with interesting characters, this novel is one to be savored, one that can be enjoyed bit by bit over several days. Better this way, I think, than read quickly in one long sitting.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

American Detective, by Loren D. Estleman

Hard-boiled detective Amos Walker of Detroit takes on a seemingly simple case: pay the suitor of an heir to walk away. The case quickly goes wrong, however, and Walker instead finds himself working for himself.

In his quest he comes across a former baseball hero, a suspicious land owner, a mob-style union organizer, and several other unsavory, interesting, and less-than-savory characters. The threads to the mystery seem to keep diverging and Walker can't just walk away. He has to tie them together, even if it means his life.

Walker doesn't believe there is much to his life anyway. His closest friend is a police detective with whom he trades unkind barbs and who has taken away his illegal gun more than once. He has no love life, no close family, not even a cat. What he does have is his skill and determination. That, along with his skill with words, is what keeps the story moving.

The dialogue at times is priceless. In fact, it was the rapid-fire verbal intercourse that held me most. The story hangs together well. The escapades are unbelievable, but we want to believe anyway.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Songs of Innocence, by Richard Aleas

I had not heard of this series until the day I bought this book. I was looking specifically for this one and could not find it under the author's name. Fortunately, a Borders employee recognized it as one of this series and he found it on another shelf.

"Hard Case Crime" publishes old and new pulp mysteries, in low-cost editions. Many current mystery writers have written for the series, taking on a type of mystery that they might not usually do, the kind of hard-boiled detective genre. The covers feature original art created for the story. When I saw the painting on the cover I realized first that it resembled the pulp fiction covers of old and second that most modern-day cover art comes from sources like Getty Images and is not created for the specific work.

Songs of Innocence features a detective who also featured in Aleas's first novel, Little Girl Lost. In that episode, detective John Blake was indirectly responsible for the death of one woman and the near-death of another. His guilt has now led him to leave detective work altogether and take up working as an assistant at Columbia University (one of the places I wanted to attend as a young'un, by the way) and to take some writing classes.

He meets the gorgeous but sad Dorothy Burke, called Dorrie, in a class, and one thing leads to another. In this case it isn't just sex that follows but a mutual support arrangement, given that both are prone to depression and thoughts of suicide. They even make a pact that one will not off herself without first calling the other.

So when Dorrie turns up dead in her bathtub, apparently a suicide, Blake is skeptical. But generally keeps his thoughts and his investigation to himself.

Of course his investigation does not stay secret. It invites inquiry by a wide range of bad guys and Blake is at times beaten up to prove it. His investigation also ferrets out ugly secrets from others Blake had not included on his list of possibles. In the end, it becomes too much, far too much.

I was a bit uncertain about the "notable book" status of this book as I was reading it, although it certainly does have an edge of reality and depth you would not normally find in a pulp novel. The end, though, explains it all.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Shadow Catcher: A Novel, by Marianne Wiggins

When I read a book like this I wonder how did she do it? How did she come up with the idea, the words? How did she escape sentimentality and embrace such beauty?

The Shadow Catcher is the intertwining of the story of Edward S. Curtis, famed American Indian photographer, and the story of Marianne Wiggins' own hunt for how her own father lived and died. Both the story of Curtis and the story of Wiggins are fictionalized, blending the truth with the maybe-truth, the alternative truth, what might have been, what could have been.

The story of Curtis is certainly about the man who was less a hero of the west than a gifted fame-seeker. It is more, I think, though, about his wife Clara, whose own children abandoned her when she divorced their larger-than-life yet always absent father. The story of Clara is one that so tugged at my heart that I had to stop to catch my breath.

The story of Wiggins' father ultimately becomes the story of the man who refused his own identity and took on another's. Is every story really about someone else?

Toward the end of the book Wiggins answers the question, "what did he do with his life?" by saying he did what all of us do. I'll leave the answer for you to read.

This is book 16 of the 20 I pledged I would read this year from several "notable books" lists. In this case, the book was on the Christian Science Monitor's and Publisher's Weekly lists of best books of 2007. If I had not pledged that I would read twenty I wonder if I would have gotten to this one eventually.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Person of Interest, by Theresa Schwegel

More a story of a man and a woman than a mystery of deaths in Chinatown, this novel is in that select category of mysteries that go beyond the genre.

Craig, a police detective, is working undercover to capture the gangs in Chinatown responsible for a slew of deaths from illegal drugs. His obsession with the case takes him beyond the limits of the department and into his own savings. He spends nights and days gambling, trying to pick up the leads he needs, and often sleeps in a sleazy motel.

Meanwhile, his wife Leslie struggles with their teenage daughter Ivy, who is increasingly going out of control. She feels she has not been part of a real couple for a long time and feels the pull of attraction to, of all people, her daughter's boyfriend Niko.

Each of them observes and draws conclusions, usually wrong, about the other. Their destructive tendency to keep their observations to themselves threatens to destroy the family.

Craig's efforts undercover finally yield what appears to be the perfect lead. He pushes his superior to follow through, to be ready for a big bust. Craig's obsession with the case does appear to be as unhealthy as his superior officer says it is, even though we can sympathize with his desire to end the deaths.

Gradually, Leslie is drawn unknowingly into Craig's world and even her life is threatened.

The characters of Craig and Leslie are beautifully drawn, the emotions, the drives well explicated. I wanted desperately for the two to find each other again.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Possible Side Effects, by Augusten Burroughs

Burroughs reads his own book in this CD edition.

I think listening to the author affects my perception of the work, and that perception is not, perhaps, as good as it might otherwise be.

Burroughs is an experienced reader, yet his technique is odd. His phrasing is out of sync with the meaning of the sentences, as he breaks where one would not normally break, emphasizes words probably not emphasized in speech. It is as if he is reading someone else's work, and for the first time.

The other book of his that I listened to was Wolf at the Table, and there is a significant difference between the two, both in the way the stories are told and in the way they are read. Wolf is the unadorned truth. No humor in it at all. It is the story of Burroughs' relationship with his father, who was a man who liked to play games with his son's head and who had little regard for the feelings or sensitivities of others. His father was a monster, and that book makes that very clear.

By contrast, Possible Side Effects is a series of stories of Burroughs' life, taken out of sequence and at times embellished as needed for comedic effect. There certainly is overlap, as they are both based on his own memories, but Side Effects is humor, even though at times a bit edgy humor.

Burroughs' reading of Wolf at the Table is unrelentingly somber, dark, and so meticulously spoken that it is as if Burroughs cannot let go of a single word without clinging to it first. I found his reading hard to take. His reading of Side Effects is lighter, even though it clearly comes from the same place. It is easier to take because he does not seem to dwell on words the same way, doesn't stretch them out until they nearly spring back. Yet the phrasing is similar, the stopping in odd places, the overall almost flat tone. In both cases he takes on the voices of other characters at times and his speech patterns and accents are very much alike in these cases, in the two books. It struck me, though, that in the case of Side Effects he does not actually speak the way these characters would have. It's disconcerting.

The stories range from all-out funny to near-yucky to creepy, frankly, and reveal inner torments underneath the humor. In these stories Burroughs talks frankly about his own physical ailments as well as mental aberrations. The stories tend to be about excess, about going too far. The times Burroughs strikes out against his parents or grandparents he does so in ways we associate with out of control juveniles. He throws the worst epithets at his hated grandmother. He single-handedly covers his childhood kitchen in flour, pots, pans, butter, meat from the freezer, and heaven knows what else. The very excess of it all is perhaps what makes it funny - as well as edgy. And it makes us wonder what it's like to be inside that head. Maybe that's why I keep coming back for more.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Peppered Moth, by Margaret Drabble

Long ago I happened upon a couple of books by Margaret Drabble at a used book store. I read them and loved them and compared this Margaret to another: Margaret Atwood. So of course I had to have this book.

Those earlier books were lovely stories about women, thoughtfully written and deeply absorbing. This one, written so many years later, has a grace and beauty that only years of writing can possibly create.

Drabble admits in an Afterword that the book is really about her own mother. Not exact, of course, but her mother and where she lived is deeply imprinted on Drabble and in this book. This admission helps me understand it a bit better.

It is a generational story. It begins and is permeated by the life of Bessie Bawtry, raised in a small industrial town in northern England, a town of coal mines and dirt and cancers. Bessie is intelligent and her parents encourage her pursuit of the intellectual. Their encouragement is supplemented by that of an exceptional teacher, and ultimately Bessie wins a scholarship to Cambridge. It's her ticket out. But she doesn't really take it.

Why she throws away what she could have become and instead becomes a bitter, angry woman is not entirely clear, and Drabble the author and daughter tries to come to terms with it and to be objective and as fair as possible. The title, referring to a controversial discourse about natural selection - the peppered moth was believed to develop its darker self in response to the coal-mining darkness of northern England, suggests that we adapt to our environment and that wherever we may move we cannot shake off that earlier adaptation, that response to our early environment. Drabble may be onto something here in how she portrays Bessie as someone who does not adapt to a foreign world particularly well, in spite of gifts that seem to give her a chance.

Throughout the book we can't help but be aware of the author, for that matter, as she tells the story, sometimes breaking in to explain what she doesn't know how to explain. She works her way from Bessie to Chrissie to Faro, three generations, with additional hints going farther back, farther and farther. Her narrative style is to jump forward and backward as skillfully as a dancer, for we never lose the step.

How did this person get from here to there? she asks, again and again, and she tries to ferret it out. More, how did this family, this line, this gene, get from way way back there to here, or how is it that it got no further than this? Good questions, good fodder, terrific book.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

I'm frankly a little mystified by my own reaction to this book. I am a citizen of the USA who is not blinded to the faults of this country's leaders nor to the ignorance of so many of its citizens. I am awake and aware. So it would seem natural that I would understand how a highly-educated, ambitious Pakistani, living in the U.S., might gradually renounce his country of residence and go to the dark side. I do understand, I believe, why many in the middle east feel anger toward the U.S. Yet my reaction to the tone of this particular narrator was unexpected.

The story is a first-person narrative, in the form of half of a conversation. The narrator is Changez, Pakistani by birth, educated at Princeton and a former Wall Street analyst - who worked for a firm that "values" companies. In other words, a company that decides how much a company is worth and how much it could be worth with some changes.

Changez approaches an apparent American in a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan, and joins him at his table. Changez proceeds to tell his own story, whether his companion is interested or not. We learn very little of this American through the book, as it appears Changez is not all that interested in him.

Changez tells how he acquired a scholarship to Princeton and landed a highly-sought job in an esteemed firm in New York City. He is an excellent analyst, able to pull together the pieces that are needed to value a company, and he enjoys the full focus he is able to put on his work and the ease with which it is possible to evaluate how good he is. He is guided through various jobs by his mentor Jim, who recognizes a hunger and an outsideness in Changez that is familiar to him.

While in Princeton, Changez meets a young woman, Erica, and he is deeply attracted to her. She is beautiful and seems to need company yet stays some distance from others. She accepts Changez into her life on a limited basis and the friendship deepens.

While Changez is working his way through an analysis and seeing Erica occasionally, the attacks on Sept 11, 2001 happen. Changez himself experiences some suspicion by others because of his middle-eastern appearance but no overt physical attacks. Erica says maybe we should meet less often - but it is not clear if this is because of her own inner torments or because she does not want to be seen with someone of Changez's complexion. It appears rather to be the former.

We follow Changez through his conversation with this stranger, during which he orders tea, then dinner, then dessert, then picks up the bill. The hours pass slowly and occasionally there are hints that the American is trying to figure Changez out. More, though, the American is suspicious of a large waiter who seems too attentive.

As he tells it, Changez gradually awoke to his complicity with the ugliness of the American way of life - more particularly with the actions of the American government - and finally, in his way, rejected it. What I sensed from his actual words and from between the lines is a condescension toward his companion, and a willingness to generalize about all Americans (in spite of his continuing infatuation with Erica and his positive relationship with his mentor Jim), to equate the deeds of the state with the living flesh of one American.

As I read Changez's account of his work I was reminded of Confessions of an Economic Hit man. Both men were seduced by careers that involved the destruction of others' careers, but that are not directly connected to those they hurt. It is a certain type of person who is going to be attracted to such careers - a person who loves the perks and the compensations for his work, who likes to exhibit his own wealth to others, and who is capable of justifying his own actions because "if I don't do it someone else will".

There is no doubt this type person is just asking to be hated, and there is no doubt that it would be tempting for a middle-easterner to paint a large segment of the American population with the same brush, to connect (for it is inescapable; there is a connection) the Wall Street analyst with the self-satisfied powerful U.S. government.

There is certainly no doubt that as individuals, in our ignorance and pursuit of our own material wealth, we help solidify this image. So yes, I can see how Changez could develop a deep hatred of our country. And yet I am torn by the image he presents in this book. And I am suspicious that in a way the view is not at all sympathetic to Changez but instead an attempt to explain how it happens, how a promising young Pakistani might pledge to give his own life to make some mark against America. And in that sense, Changez too is a victim of generalization, of a kind of bigotry, by the author - himself a Pakistani graduate of Princeton.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman

It felt like cheating in a way to read this book for the notable book challenge. Although I read a lot I do find that "notable" books tend to take longer to read than the genre books I read just for pleasure. This book fit into both categories so it was like a special treat, a guilty pleasure.

Two young sisters, 11 and 15, disappear from the mall in Baltimore on Easter weekend 1975. After intense investigation the case goes cold. No leads. Thirty years later a woman has an accident near the home of the girls and from her hospital bed she confesses to being one of the sisters.

Enter detective Kevin Infante, social worker Kay Sullivan, eccentric lawyer Gloria Bustamante, and the girls' parents. Strangely, though, the woman does not come out and say where she has been all these years. In fact, she refuses to tell anyone the name she uses now.

The woman, who claims to be Heather Bethany, the younger sister, is not just uncooperative. She is cold, withdrawn, even manipulative. She uses the system, the lawyer, and especially the social worker, to avoid going to jail and to draw out her story. She dribbles it out bit by bit, none of it offering much hope of substantiation.

Her behavior and personality frustrate the investigators and make it difficult for the lawyer and social worker to help her. Her odd self-centeredness and refusal to reveal her present name make them all, to different degrees, suspicious. Is she really Heather? If so, why doesn't she tell all? If not, what does she hope to gain?

I was immediately taken by the circumstances and by this woman's unusual personality and story of her kidnapping. The lack of clear details made me want to scream at times. I was by turns a total believer and as suspicious as the detective. The personalities of the other characters are just as interesting, and I regret not being able to follow their lives further - perhaps in other novels?

I was disturbed by the type of police work that was done. I felt a more methodical approach at the very beginning would have unearthed more information than was found (information that was revealed later), and it seemed more could have been done to discover "Heather"'s identity by way of fingerprints, for example. My familiarity with police techniques from crime shows and murder mysteries has made me especially aware of the many leads that can logically be followed. It seems, though, that this novel is more psychological than crime.

An odd bit: throughout the book the word "police" is used as a term for an individual police officer or a synonym. For example, the detective introduces himself as "a police". I have never seen or heard this use of the word before. Is this something Baltimorean, perhaps?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

What a surprising, lovely book! I was entranced from the very beginning and carried through on a wave of delight all the way to the end.

A powerful businessman from Japan, Mr. Hosokawa, is given a birthday party in a South American country. The country's leaders are hoping to persuade Mr. Hosokawa to open a factory there. To persuade him to come to the party they dangle the perfect gift: the presence of Roxanne Coss, a shining star in opera, considered by many to be the best soprano in the world. Mr. Hosakawa, an opera lover since he was a small child, cannot resist. Even though he knows he will never build a factory there.

The party, though, is overtaken by terrorists who seek to kidnap the country's president, who was expected to be there. But he wasn't. The terrorists, who had no backup plan, kidnap the entire party instead and hold them hostage in the mansion of the vice-president.

The group, which is winnowed down some in the first days, lives in the mansion for months. Over these months roles change and relationships develop. The terrorist group lets down its guard but continues to make demands.

We get to follow the intertwining of these lives, the gentle acceptance of one by the other, the blossoming of love in different parts, the celebration of small (and not so small) wonders. More, we get to experience music in a way most people have never experienced it. Although we don't hear a note we can understand how it transports both hostages and hostage-takers alike. I doubt I have ever read such a beautiful homage to the power of music.

The story is simply told, almost like a fable. It is structured elegantly and purely. A beautiful book.

Run, by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett has a distinctive style of writing and a distinctive approach to her stories, if my reading of just two is an indication.

Like Bel Campo, Run is written cleanly, at a slight distance, simply. The narrator does not get in the way yet there is a kind of warmth to it.

At the end of this book is a conversation with Patchett, in which she says she likes to explore what happens when strangers meet. Clearly she means when they meet in circumstances that demand that they develop some kind of relationship with each other, unusual circumstances.

The circumstances in this case are that two young men, accompanying their adoptive father to yet another political lecture, meet their real mother literally by accident. The accident sends one of the young men, Tip, along with his mother, Tennessee, to the hospital. Tip is easily patched up but returns home on crutches. Tennessee has suffered greater damage. Because Tennessee has to remain in the hospital Tip's family takes her young daughter Kenya home with them.

Kenya loves to run. She aches to run, cannot go a day without a run. So while waiting for her mother to come out of surgery she accompanies Tip to his lab and then to an indoor running track. This time together forms a bond between the two. Kenya's running also helps her manage her day to day challenges.

But the story is more than a simple bonding story. It explores Tip's two brothers - one not adopted - and his father, and it looks into how Tennessee happened to be on that same street at the same time. It asks us how much blood matters. And it is no fairy story, despite the gentle telling.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

A long, complex story of war, deceit, and occasional honor in Vietnam and beyond. The tale features William "Skip" Sands, who joins the CIA and comes under the wing of his uncle, known far and wide simply as "the Colonel". Skip is assigned to work on a massive number of index cards, cataloging intelligence from "everywhere". This reasonably safe task leads to his involvement in the murder of a priest and to the periphery of a program dubbed "Tree of Smoke" by his uncle. The Colonel, with the help of an aide, wrote an article about the way intelligence is used - how raw intelligence is modified as it goes up the chain of command and modified further on its way down, in the form of directives, for political purposes. The article is considered traitorous and the Colonel becomes a target.

The story also involves two brothers, Bill and James, from Arizona, both of whom enlist and have very different experiences. The two both find, however, that truth is the first casualty in war, and that any soldier may be sacrificed for the sake of appearances, essentially for political reasons.

Skip, Bill, and James all encounter others in that dark jungle, Skip most importantly, perhaps, meeting and falling in love with the wife of the dead priest. The layers of intrigue, lies, and deceit change Skip from a young man wanting to do the right thing to a seasoned middle-aged man who believes he lost his core years ago.

It's a strange sort of morality play, and one that I did not fully comprehend on my way through it. I listened to the tale on my car CD player and occasionally was distracted from it and missed important connections. If I had instead read the book I could have gone back to check those passages. However, it is unlikely I would have read a book about Vietnam, a large book, any time soon. I think I would have put it down again and again and it would have been 2010 before I finished it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

The bridge of sighs is a bridge in Venice that prisoners cross to get to the prison. The name came from the suggestion that a prisoner would sigh when looking through the windows in the covered bridge, knowing it was their last look at the city before being taken to their cells.

Louis C. Lynch crossed his own bridge of sighs as a young boy, and from then on one might surmise that he was in a sense imprisoned. It was, for him, a comfortable prison, the town of Thomaston, where he was loved by his parents (and adored his father), where he knew the rules and tried to do the right thing. In his 60th year, Louis takes a look back by writing his story.

Louis's reminiscences are supplemented by third-person chapters on friends and family, chapters that suggest that they find him big in stature and in his heart, unwilling to take risks, with a tendency to look back nostalgically even on times that were far from wonderful. We sense a kind of frustration as well as deep affection for him, a sense that he will never really "get it".

Chief among the other characters are Bobby Marconi and his father, who were the Lynch's neighbors part of the time, Sarah Berg and her father, both of whom play large roles in Louis' life, and Gabriel Mock III and his father. The story is as much about fathers as it is about Louis.

Growing up in Thomaston, a small town in upstate New York that is provincial and blue-collar and economically stressed, Louis is a quiet, awkward child in the 1950s, who is a natural victim for rougher children. The first indication that he does not control his life comes when in kindergarten he is given the nickname "Lucy" (from Lou C.) and the name sticks, even when he changes schools. He finds protection in a neighbor, Bobby Marconi, who seems fearless and whose presence alone protects Lou from harm. Bobby and Lou form a friendship that is more on Lou's side than Bobby's, yet over the years Bobby develops an attraction to the Lynch family as a whole.

Lou resembles his father, an optimistic, kindhearted rather simple man, and he resents his mother, who seems too negative. Louis is unadventurous, happy to stay where he is and who he is but he admires the courage of Bobby and later Lou's girlfriend Sarah.

Louis's childhood was defined in large part by an incident when Louis was not under Bobby's protection and was forced across a railroad trestle and into a crate by other boys, threatened with being cut in half, and finally left for hours. The incident left Louis with an odd kind of disability - times when he would fade out, would become still and enter some other land, sometimes just for a few minutes, other times for hours.

I shared some of the feelings that Louis' mother and friends have about Louis. At times I wanted more. I wanted him to have epiphanies, to wake up from his dreamlike state and see the possibilities. I wanted him to love others with more of a passion and less of a simple acceptance and gratefulness. A protagonist of this sort can be a challenge. A large part of that challenge is our wish to see the character embraced wholeheartedly by others. Yet perhaps these challenges are the point of the book. There are many characters in the book who do not, in one way or another, "fit in". Louis stands for all of them. He senses the "otherness" in these others even while he may not consciously note it. He is susceptible to bigotry and prejudice just as they are.

When Louis is faced with discrimination, even against himself, he tends to walk around it when possible. He makes a case for his own differences in his narrative, however, that reveals a frustration that he is not seen for who he really is. But who is he really? Will he finally break out of his comfortable and comforting mold?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta

Something of an old story in new drag. Ruth teaches sex education in a school district that has recently seen the growth of a couple of fundamentalist Christian churches. The school board, influenced by these new neighbors, votes to require the teaching of abstinence-only sex education, which Ruth abhors but nevertheless chooses to do, in hopes that some enlightenment will eventually make it to the board, where it can change the course.

Ruth is divorced and has a young daughter who plays soccer very well. She has made it to the A-team, where she is coached by a volunteer named Tim. Tim has taken on coaching as a way to connect to his own daughter from his former marriage, and has found he has a knack for it. He also has a knack for making bad decisions with the best of intentions. He recently joined a fundamentalist church because its pastor had helped him fight his addictions and he wants to stay clean and go straight. He continues to make questionable decisions but fights his own tendencies, sometimes with the pastor's help.

Tim and Ruth knock heads over an incident after a game that Ruth watched. After his team makes an amazing win, Tim spontaneously makes a circle with his team and says a prayer of thanks with them. Ruth sees this and confronts Tim. In spite of their differences, there is an attraction between them that neither acknowledges at the time.

There are glimpses into the world of the fundamentalist church that ring true. I sensed that Perrotta tried to be careful, to represent the members as flesh-and-blood, whole human beings. I didn't sense any exaggeration even though at times the situations were darkly funny. There are also glimpses into Ruth's world, a world where she lives alone and often enjoys the company of a gay couple, her best friends.

Although she is a grown-up woman with confidence in her work, Ruth hungers for more. Specifically, she's lonely. Specifically, she craves a man in her bed. This is a common theme in chick-lit and I had hoped not to find it here, and it colored my reaction to this story. Throughout the book I kept looking for the real theme, and in the end it was simply an updated romance, where gay guys are okay and people are not perfect, Christian or not. The characters are certainly more interesting than those in the pulpier novels but I felt the story lacked real direction beyond the romance.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cheating at Canasta, by William Trevor

A collection of short stories revealing both the dark and the brilliant sides of different lives. The subjects range from death - unintended murder, death by illness, death of a dog - to love - lost, regained, lost again - to just somehow living. The stories all reveal the innermost feelings of a mind, the regrets, the nagging doubts, the guilt, and more than once I asked myself "would I have acted in the same way?" I worried that I might.

Thus they are searching stories. They dig in and don't make it easy for us. Yet they are compelling and eternally human.

Friday, September 12, 2008

My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

The theme is an interesting and important one. Kate, a very young child, suffers from a rare, aggressive cancer. Her best hope is to get cord blood and possibly a bone marrow transplant from a matched donor. Her parents go through in-vitro fertilization with a fertilized egg that matches the sick child's in the important aspects. Anna is born to save Kate.

Anna's body is used several times over the years, requiring Anna to enter the hospital for minor to more major operations. When she is thirteen and asked to offer a kidney to her sister, Anna rebels. Her form of rebellion involves engaging a lawyer to obtain "medical emancipation" so she can make her own decisions about how her body is used.

The chief issue is one of consent. Through the years Anna's parents, and particularly her mother, have simply assumed Anna is willing to offer what she can to save her sister's life. Understandably, Anna has come to think of herself in some respects as invisible.

Anna is a strong character but she doesn't always express herself well. Through much of the book others speak for her, spelling out her need for the freedom to choose. It grated on me that she did not make these arguments particularly well, or at all, herself.

Anna's lawyer is an interesting character as well. He has a service dog with him but is always giving clearly false reasons for the dog: I'm color-blind so he lets me know when the light is green. I'm deaf in one ear so he alerts me when I need to hear something on that side. Some of the reasons are funny, others lame. I had difficulty understanding why he took Anna's case, however, with such flimsy reasoning from Anna herself. Further, as the case proceeds, Anna waffles back and forth yet he does not throw up his hands and say never mind. I can't grasp why he is so interested in the case or why he stays with it when his client does not really seem clear on her own motives.

The court hearing on Anna's medical emancipation didn't read quite feel real to me. The court procedures seemed pretty casual and the lawyers did not prepare their witnesses. It seemed more than strange to me that they did not go over testimony ahead of time but just assumed.

Although I found the story interesting and at times informative I also felt at times that circumstances and conversations were bordering on trite and predictable. These moments did not take it into the land of chick lit or worse, however. They merely assured me that it's a good but not a great book.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Gathering, by Anne Enright

One reviewer called this book "stunning". While such adjectives are overused this one certainly applies in this case. This unassuming book packs a surprising punch.

Veronica is one of several children, somewhere in the middle of the group, who grow up, with a mother who is almost invisible and a father who dispassionately hits when people are in his way, near Dublin. The story centers around the suicide death of her brother Liam when Veronica is 39 years old. Veronica tells the story in the first person, dipping into and out of memory, slipping backward and forward in time. Her memories, though, are not exact. She has to guess most of the time and in some cases she embroiders deliberately, creating images she would like to have happened but knows probably did not. It is this aspect of the story that rang especially true for me, given that I am not at all sure of my own memories and I have an idea how memory works.

Eventually, as Veronica explores her own thoughts and memories a picture comes to her, a real memory. Although the place may not be correct she knows the incident is, and it is only as an older adult that she recognizes what the incident really meant for her brother and her family. The memory shocks her and she continues to search her memories and even to search her mother's house for some verification of what she actually knows.

The death of Liam has a profound effect on Veronica and her family. Her conversations rarely make sense to others. She dwells on the peculiarities of her dysfunctional family. Her mind and her actions wander incessantly. Yet somehow, every strange twist and turn leads to an inevitable finish.

Although the format of the book seems, on the surface, almost chaotic, it makes sense while in it. It is complex yet consistent and utterly real.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

I was in elementary school when this classic was published, several years after Kerouac finished the first draft. That first draft was one long scroll (120 feet long, all one paragraph, all taped together so Kerouac could type without stopping to change paper), which has only recently been printed in its entirety. The version that Kerouac saw in print, though, is what Matt Dillon reads on this CD edition. I had not read it before and I was pleased to find it in time to listen to it on a short road trip of my own.

This official version was edited to remove the more sexually explicit passages, but it still reveals Kerouac's comfort with minorities and subcultures, an unusual position at the time.

On the Road conjures up visions of a free and easy lifestyle, rich in drugs, women, song, and adventure. Many others have gone on the road since Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady, perhaps inspired by his tale. If so, I am not entirely sure why.

Yes, the road trips - there are several of them in this tale - do involve drugs, women, song, adventure. Certainly Kerouac appears to enjoy many of these adventures. But that enjoyment at times seems forced, as if he feels he should paint it all with a broad brush of crazy good times. Leaking through and finding a stronger voice as the trips go on is Jack's real goal: to find a woman to love, to marry, to settle down, to be a responsible adult. What also comes through in spite of some fairly wild exploits is his fundamental humanity, his compassion for others. I couldn't help liking him, in contrast to some of his friends.

It's easy to see how this lengthy confessional journey led to "gonzo journalism", a more personal point of view, and to today's public blogs.

Matt Dillon recorded the tale in a voice that seems to be not impressed with itself. It's almost flat, uninterested, trying to get the story out there and letting it fall where it may. By contrast, whenever Dillon speaks as Cassady ("Dean Moriarty" in this edition) he affects a voice that has years of drinking and playing around in it. While the voice is at times hilarious, I found it difficult to connect that raw voice to a very young man. It seemed at least forty years old to me. At times I wanted more from the Kerouac voice and perhaps a bit less from Cassady's.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Wolf at the Table, by Augusten Burroughs

I bought the CD version of this book because it looked interesting. I had not read anything else by Burroughs, and I understand this is a departure. The book is read by the author, which seemed a good thing.

I am not sure about that last at this point. Burroughs has recorded his other books as well, on CD, in his "normal voice", according to him. In interviews with him and at the end of this edition, he talks about how he wanted this one to be different. He doesn't talk about his voice, but instead about the music interweaved throughout. He asked several contemporary musician friends to read the book and to write something based on it, and they did. So we are treated to original music along with the words. Good music, worth hearing.

To me there isn't anything earthshaking about adding music to an audio book. It is done all the time. Clearly most of the time the music is not written specifically for the book, of course.

What is striking is Burroughs manner of speaking. He speaks carefully, enunciating every word, and he has a habit of reading with this pattern:

[In a low, almost flat, yet intense voice, each word carefully pronounced] He stood [pause] waiting in the doorway [pause] for my eyes [pause] to meet his ["his" emphasized]. For a taste of the reading style, watch and listen to this excerpt on Amazon.

His habit of enunciating every sound, as if every word was precious and could not be let go without a fight, made me, at times, mad with frustration. "Get on with it!" I yelled, flailing my free hand at the CD player in my car. His manner of speaking overpowered the story itself so much that I had trouble deciding if I liked it.

I think I liked it.

It is a memoir about Burroughs's father, a cruel, insidiously cruel man. A man so wrapped up in his own world and so oblivious to the needs of others that he let a horrible disease build up in the family dog, never willing to take it to the vet. A man so frugal he could not abide the purchasing of small treats for his son - or, obviously, the visit to the veterinarian so badly needed. A man who clearly is disgusted by this son who appears more like a girl than a boy. A man capable of subtle threats. A man who plays games.

Listening to it at times made me cringe. At one point I even skipped a small section because the horror was beyond what I wanted to bear.

Perhaps it's a testament to the resilience of children, but I am happy to report that it isn't all smiles at the end. This kind of childhood is going to leave marks. And as is so often the case with abusive parents, the child is left clinging to a need for approval that he will never get.

Worth reading, I suspect, more than listening.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs

A friend made me a copy of the CD version of this book. She thought it was hilarious (as apparently do many others, based on the Amazon ratings). I warned her that I might not enjoy it, given my reaction to Jacobs' first book (The Know-it-all). On the other hand, I am able to overcome preconceptions. I also don't turn down free books, whether or not I think I'll like them.

I listened to it while I was in my car, driving here and there alone. I think books-on-CD are wonderful companions on long rides. And short ones.

I won't keep you in suspense. I didn't like it.

Let's start with the premise: A.J., who somewhat calls himself Jewish, decides to take on the bible, both testaments, plus various side documents, and to live according to the scripture as closely as possible. He admits at the outset that one reason for his quest is to write a book about the experience. He says the other reason is that he has been, at best, agnostic all his life, and he wanted to find out for himself if there is anything in that book that speaks to him. Essentially, he purports to want to become a better person and wonders if the bible might help him in that quest.

To my mind, the "story" about becoming a better, more spiritual person by living by the bible is the plot of the forthcoming book. It is really all about the book. It's clear from the start that he is not about to take any of it seriously, although from time to time he will stop to reflect and try to share his insights with us. Such as they are.

There is a lot of material there to work with, to be sure. Think of the strange commandments (there are a lot more than ten, he finds out right away by poring over the entire book and listing them all), like not wearing anything made of both linen and...what is it again? Cotton? I can't remember. Some kinds of mixed fabrics, anyway. And the requirement to grow a beard but never trim it. How about this one: build a special kind of hut every year and live inside it for a specified period. The bible is truly rich with strange, unexplainable rules, followed by almost nobody.

A few people do follow some of these rules. Different groups of people, different rules, generally. A.J. hunts some of them down and learns from them. What does he learn? Nothing, actually, except that the bible says to do it so you do it. Some tell him there is an explanation for every rule, that all can be explained. Others say no, all cannot be explained, there is no explanation, but that doesn't mean you don't do them. They are still important.

Still others veer to the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Most modern churches are in this camp. Although they would have to admit that they look past some spirits or interpret the hell out of them (literally). There is no doubt that every religion picks and chooses what to follow and what not to follow, regardless of how "literal" the religion is.

Some of the information A.J. finds out, by consulting with his religious advisors and hunting down strange cults and the odd relative, is quite interesting. In every case, though, the story is about A.J. Here I am with this group of crazy dancers and I'm dancing and I feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience. Here I am with this other group of people who are buying chickens and handing them to a chicken-killer to kill, in some kind of effort to save my soul. Here I am dealing with my wife, who is trying to get pregnant, who is going through in-vitro fertilization, and look what a great husband I am, or I am not. Here I am dealing with the death of a neighbor, look at how much I am feeling.

At least one religious guy tells A.J. it isn't about becoming a better person. It's about serving God. That one sets A.J. back a bit. He actually thinks about it. But he's soon back up on that horse because that's the one he rode in on.

This version of the book, the CD version, is read by A.J. himself. If I had any doubts about his sincerity they are smashed to bits just by his tone. That is, if I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt just listening to him speak makes it impossible. I have tried to pinpoint what it is about his voice that puts me on edge. Here's the closest I can come to narrowing it down:

You are in a class. The teacher tells you to read some parts of a book written by someone else. You don't want to appear soft or sentimental so when you get to deeper thoughts or feelings you read them in a tone that is almost mocking. That's what we get here.

It's a book about one person making a silly commitment to follow the bible nearly literally so he can write about it in a somewhat funny way.

Lucky, by Alice Sebold

The story of Alice Sebold's rape, which happened when she was just finishing her first year in college. The rape was brutal, committed by a stranger, and 18-year-old Alice was a virgin.

Unlike many rape victims, Alice did not place blame on herself. She also wanted to talk about it - but often could not. Starting at the police department, where she made her report, she was faced with people who did not want the whole story, did not want the details.

Alice wanted the rapist caught and it did not occur to her to let the case go. Thus she took the stand at his trial and again told all.

This story is not just the story of the rape, of course. It is about Alice, about her family, about her life before and after. Her story is often funny in an offhand way and Alice comes across not only as a strong young woman but an interesting, perceptive one with various chips on her shoulder. The perfect person to write the story, in fact.

Her best-selling novel, The Lovely Bones, was written after Lucky but was started before. The two are dissimilar in style and one rape does not resemble the other. Nevertheless, the essence of rape lies in each. Both tell us something about what it does to many lives when one person is raped.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

The lives of a small family living in Manhattan after Sept 11, 2001. More particularly, the life of Keith, who stumbled out of the first tower clutching someone else's briefcase. Who then stumbles into another version of his life.

We first meet him as he tries to figure out where and what he is and where he is going. His thinking is confused and he finds himself at the door of his estranged wife, Lianne. She lets him in, and she's grateful for the chance. She needs him then.

Little by little, the couple and their son Justin face the changes in their lives since the attack on the twin towers. They go about their daily activities, but differently. Keith and Lianne tend to sway back and forth toward and away from each other, yet always with kindness. Justin asserts his personhood with odd speech patterns, perhaps as much as anything to grab some attention.

As they go from place to place we are treated to a wash of feelings and thoughts, at times seeming disjointed, apart from the person. We also meet "Falling man", a performance artist who shows up unannounced, dropping from high places, wearing just a simple harness. Always he assumes the same "falling" pose, apparently copying how one or more of the persons who jumped from the towers looked on their way down. He is always in a business suit, as were the others. This odd character turns up throughout the book, reminding us of what was perhaps the most horrifying image from the attack.

We also get to meet one of the hijackers, but only in a couple of short passages. These passages repeat some of the commonly-held versions of the hijackers. A man obsessed with his martyr's death and what it will hold for him and his family. Some glimpses at others who are not as devout as he, who are taking advantage of their time in this country to behave less religiously. I felt these sketches were better left out as they did nothing to illuminate the event and much to promulgate the usual simplistic version of Islam.

For me, the book missed somewhere. I do not know if it is because I did not read it carefully enough or for some other reason. I tried to figure out some things DeLillo does - like referring to Justin as "the kid" and not even giving us Keith's last name until nearly the end of the book - and I came up with the idea that it may not be about these three people but instead about all of us. Yet I know that not to be true.

The flights of visions and thought and confusion were, for me, often just as confusing as they might have been for the subjects, because I couldn't always identify who was thinking at the time. It reminded me of some books translated from Spanish, where I could not distinguish among pronouns to figure out who was speaking. And ultimately I didn't have anything to take from it except my own sense that I missed something.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Obesity Myth, by Paul Campos

“I have a glandular problem,” sneers the unattractive, heavy, odoriferous mother of a serial killer in the television series Bones.

Here you have a rather typical, if overdone, version of a fat person as shown on television or in the movies. If she's fat there is something fundamentally wrong with her. She's unlikeable, she smells, she blames a condition or others for her fat. She's morally bankrupt.

A more sympathetic version is Bridget Jones as played by Renee Zellweger in the movie Bridget Jones's Diary. She's a little “thick”. I don't think “heavy” or “fat” apply here. In fact, the actress gained weight to play the part but she is still an average weight in this movie – just fat in comparison to other movie actresses. But the story here is a cinderella one in which the glam guy goes for her even though she's fat. Which she isn't, really, but let's play along.

Fat people don't get the title roles except in unusual circumstances, like Cracker (British version, with Robbie Coltrane, incredible actor) and Murder One (another terrific show in which the lead, the charismatic Daniel Benzali, is a mite chubby (and bald)). Fat people don't get asked on dates, except by so-called BBW-lovers. Fat people don't get promoted. And fat people are the butt of major jokes, some of which are full-length movies.

The cultural disgust with large persons is grounded in myths about what large people represent. The disgust isn't because thin people are concerned that fat people are unhealthy. However, the medical community has jumped wholeheartedly on that bandwagon. A day doesn't go by when we don't see an article somewhere that points out the “fact” that because they are fatter, this generation is going to die sooner than their parents.

In the Obesity Myth, Paul Campos sets the record straight. And does so with a passion often absent from medical nonfiction, along with a healthy dose of humor.

Early on, though, he makes a note in passing that he was fat and now he's not, and he'll explain later. He makes the comment to underline the fact that he knows what it is to be fat. I appreciate that but at the same time I found myself wondering as I made my way through, just what will he reveal about himself later? Is he going to reveal some sort of super diet after all??

Fortunately, he does redeem himself later, through his honesty and insight into himself. He can write passionately about the pain and frustration with the diet industry because he is, as much as any of the rest of us who obsess about weight, a victim. Even knowing the facts does not change what we want for ourselves. It turns out that this personal section, for me, is the best part of the book, because it brings it home.

But first, what are those facts? Campos tells us more than once (and a good thing, too; some facts bear repeating):

* It is healthier (from a mortality standpoint) to be 75 pounds overweight than 5 pounds underweight, if you are moderately active. Moderately active translates to four or five brisk 1/2-hour walks per week. I have read elsewhere that the difference is two hours of moderate exercise per week, which is comparable.
* Two persons of the same weight and height can respond to the same food in entirely different ways. In one experiment, 16 persons were “overfed” by 1,000 calories per day, six days a week, for eight weeks. Their activities and food intake were strictly controlled. Their caloric burning capacity was measured. The experimenters discovered a huge range in energy expenditure: from 0 calories to 692. In other words, some subjects burned 692 more calories per day than others, while engaging in similar physical activities and eating the same amount and type of food.
* Dieting is the problem, not the solution. Persons who go on calorie-restricted diets lose weight, then regain it, and gain more. The more often they diet the more they ultimately gain. There are few exceptions. (The exceptions are interesting and a little scary; read more about them in this book.) Although many feel virtuous when dieting, feeling hungry is not good for your body.
* There is no difference in mortality between persons of average weight and persons of higher weight in terms of overall health, when you control for levels of activity and type of food they eat. Shockingly, even the standard claims that fat persons are more likely to develop heart disease and type 2 diabetes are not supported by the facts. The association between fat and heart disease actually is a connection between those who have gone on calorie-restricted diets and heart problems. Those at the same weights who never dieted do not exhibit these heart problems.

Weight itself is not a problem for mortality. If there is no “healthy weight”, then (thin persons can be unhealthier than fat ones, for instance), there can be no “overweight”. The only time weight is a factor is when it is so extreme that it makes the person essentially immobile.

Why then do so many of us believe fat people are unhealthy? We can all point to relatives who lived long and satisfied lives in spite of being large. We all know many thin persons who are unhealthy. It is true that being fat usually limits our ability to move as well as we'd like, take part in some activities we might otherwise enjoy. Why – admit it – are you thinking right now that I am making excuses for myself??

I struggle with that last. As a vegan I know that I am seen as an example of a group of people who eat differently than most other Americans. I feel an obligation to be seen as healthy and well, and I know that to many I do not appear to be, mainly because I'm fat.

Campos phrases it differently. He answers the charge, “You are giving people permission to be fat” with the countercharge: “As opposed to what: not giving people permission to be fat?” and then points out just how well that approach has worked in the last 100 years. It is just that approach that has taken us here, ironically. Stigmatize, attack, accuse people of being lazy, immoral, dirty, ignorant, lacking in willpower, and what happens? Eventually they believe it. In spite of evidence to the contrary, often evidence anyone can see. And it is incredibly difficult to change the way you think about yourself when you've had so much help over the years.

There are no absolute answers here, no roadmap to a brighter future. The forces that have brought us to this place are larger than we are. Campos does help us see beyond “common knowledge” and suggests that we replace myth with reality. We need more books of this caliber on this subject.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Gravedigger's Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates

The gravedigger's daughter takes on several names over her lifetime in her attempts to escape her past. The effort is a strain that she is willing to bear until near the end, when she tries to recover a bit of what was lost.

Rebecca Schwart grows up in a cemetery, the daughter of a European immigrant who had to escape Germany to save his family's life. Rebecca is born on the ship in the New York harbor, the first of the family to become an American citizen. The event brings additional hardship to the small family, however, as her father Jacob can only find work digging graves for miserly wages. His employers give him a run-down stone house on the cemetery grounds to live in and seem to believe they are doing him a favor.

While Jacob is careful to express his gratitude and subservience to his employers, inside he seethes with resentment. In Europe he had held respectable jobs and was able to provide well for his family. He tells his wife Anna that he will get them out of there within a year, that they will save and better themselves. To that end he starts a private savings account and carefully puts away bits of his wages regularly.

Because they are no longer in the "old country" Jacob insists that Anna speak only English. She is embarrassed at her speech and does not make friends easily. As time goes on she becomes more and more insulated from the outside world and cares less and less about her house and her family.

There is one time when she regains her hope and excitement: when her sister's family is expected to arrive from Europe and to live with them. Rebecca joins in the excitement and fantasizes about the "new sister" she hopes will share her bed.

Rebecca determines to learn her way out of the graveyard. She suffers from the verbal and physical abuse of her classmates, who look down on her torn and dirty clothes and laugh at her name.

It is perhaps not surprising that a difficult childhood like this one might make a woman strong, untrusting, and wary of others. Yet yearning for intimacy. And so it does with Rebecca. As an adult she makes her way determinedly out of the shade of her childhood. This determination leads to some decisions that later cause further pain and isolate her even more.

The events in the book take place over many years, and the story is developed by several steps into different periods of Rebecca's life and the life of her son. The characters in this story are beautifully constructed. The voices are true, and reflect almost too well the time and place and circumstances. There is no holding back, no softening of the edges. While we may root for Rebecca we don't always love her. We certainly don't love some of the men in her life. Mostly, though, we can't help but feel her pain in wanting a past she could not have.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell

The title and subtitle are misleading. Although the so-called "China Study" forms the basis for the conclusions in this book, the book goes well beyond that one study. This is also not a diet book. This book is about the connection between food and disease, more specifically about how animal protein affects our health negatively. The subtitle does not overstate the case when it refers to the book's research as having "startling implications".

Campbell has been on the forefront of thought and research about nutrition since the start of his career. His origin in a farm family, where he learned that meat and more meat is good for everyone and where drinking milk was a way of life, makes his position in this book all the more remarkable. In spite of his long-held beliefs in the health value of animal protein he kept his eyes and mind open and discovered and conducted study after study that linked animal-food diets with cancer, heart disease, and a large number of other diseases. When he naively brought his discoveries to the institutions where he worked, hoping for the go-ahead to do more and to get the word out, he was quietly shoved aside.

This book, therefore, goes beyond telling us the results, telling us to eat a plant-based diet to avoid or help stabilize heart disease, diabetes, cancer, auto-immune diseases, and more. In it we learn of many of the specific studies that convinced him that eating primarily animal proteins is bad for your health. Not just bad for heart or diabetes patients, but bad for everyone. He explains the effects of genes, how some diseases (auto-immune) cause the body to attack itself, and even describes the specific mechanism that causes our bodies to use animal proteins in a way that can harm us.

Campbell also explains the political and medical climate. We've heard it before and here it is again: Industry controls government institutions as well as educational and medical institutions. Industry has the money and uses it wisely to change results and recommendations, to water down any suggestion that the standard American diet is not what it should be.

It isn't a weight-loss book, but if you follow it and you have a weight problem your problem could be solved. As I am fat myself I know there are other forces that make it very difficult for us, cravings that are far stronger than unfat people have ever felt. There is no doubt, in any case, that following this "diet" - which is a simple list of what to eat and what not, without any portion sizes (just "eat as much as you want" and "eat less" recommendations) - will make anyone healthier.

The claims made in this book are radical. Make no mistake. If followed, the American diet would make a huge swing and animal agriculture would be on its way out. Yet it isn't nearly as difficult to follow these recommendations as many think. One of the primary reasons doctors don't like to ask their patients to make radical changes is that they believe their patients will give up, that it will be too hard. But based on my own experience as well as some cited in the book, going in the plant direction opens up whole worlds that meat-eaters rarely explore. Instead of reducing our choices, this change increases them. It is also a way to never be hungry again. Diets that make people hungry may seem good for the soul but they aren't good for the body.

For proof of these claims that is as definitive as it is possible to get, read the book. It will probably change your life and it may save it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vegan Fire and Spice, by Robin Robertson

Robin Robertson’s new cookbook, Vegan Fire and Spice, is garnering rave reviews from all over. And with good reason. The dishes are easy to make, use commonly-available fresh ingredients, and offer a splendid array of tastes.

Many of us who have been vegetarian or vegan for a while reach a point when we want to do more than order Indian take-out. We want to make Indian take-out. Not to mention African, Caribbean, South American, and more. We want to shake up our own kitchens by bringing in different techniques and flavors. This book promises to give us the means. The book is a reworking of Robertson’s Some Like it Hot, with all recipes veganized and 25 additional recipes added. It is also the first to be published by Robertson’s new enterprise, Vegan Heritage Press. I recently tested several of the recipes from different parts of the book and all were successful. Some made it to a coveted place on my sure-to-make-again list because they are simply too good.

The cookbook is divided into sections, each section a geographical region that is known for spicy and hot dishes. When you open to that section there is a list of recipes, categorized by “appetizers”, “soups”, and so on. The recipes, then, are not listed in their entirety in one place. The index is complete, however, so if you are looking for a specific recipe and don’t remember where it comes from you will find it there. It makes sense to look within a region for a menu of dishes rather than take a chance on mixing cultures, picking one from Italy and another from China, for example. For this reason I find the arrangement agreeable.

Each recipe is on its own page. No sharing. I prefer this standard, as it’s easier to find the recipe and to follow it.

There are no pictures, other than on the cover. I love pictures but I appreciate the economies of leaving them out. It adds to the adventure, too.

The recipes are easy to make. I admit to being an occasionally ambitious cook, happy at times to create complex dishes that take specialized skills. Most of the time, though, I prefer to put together meals quickly and easily and know they will turn out right even when some parts go wrong or I have to substitute some ingredients. Forgivable recipes, I call them, that’s what I look for.

From my experiments with Fire and Spice, I believe that’s what we have here: forgivable recipes. When I made the Senegalese soup (p. 119) the first time I got distracted and burned the mix of onions and celery. I didn’t want to start over so I scraped out the less-burned parts and dumped them in another pan and continued on. I suspect the soup would have been better if I’d had the full contingent of onion and celery and none of it was burned but it was nonetheless delicious. When I made the vegetable pakoras I didn’t chop the cauliflower enough, and I made the mistake of throwing in the cauliflower before I had the flour and water mixed. But I soldiered on and although the pakoras were not beautiful they were tasty indeed. Way too tasty, considering I made a full batch and there was only the one of me in the house.

Some of the mistakes I made came about because the recipes are not always as specific as they could be. One recipe calls for two Granny Smith Apples, another for a head of cauliflower, another for one or two yams or sweet potatoes. Not all of these recipes specify the size of these vegetables or an alternative measure, like weight or number of cups. In my experience some vegetables and fruits can vary dramatically in size. Sometimes the directions lack a little: the pakora recipe says to mix enough water into the flour mix to “make a batter”. But how thick?

And sometimes the timing is off. When I made the Chickpea and Green Bean Curry (p. 158) I had to make my dinner guest wait because it took much longer for the green beans to cook than estimated. My beans were fresh and cut according to directions and I think they were typical of what you would find in a grocery vegetable section, so I’d suspect my experience would be typical. Most of the time I did find the time estimates within the recipes to be accurate, however. What I would have appreciated, though, would have been estimates of time to make the entire dish.

Minor gripes. Most of the recipes do list ingredients by weight or cups and most of the directions are clear and unmistakable in intent.

The recipes call for fresh vegetables and fruits most of the time. Occasionally they require canned diced tomatoes or canned beans, but most of the ingredients are fresh, as they would be in their native countries. This means you do need to do a little preparation. The good news is that most of this preparation can be done ahead of time, as it would be in a restaurant if you were the sous chef (according to Wikipedia the more correct term may be commis chef, one who prepares vegetables unaided). The better news is that this is basic prep, nothing fancy, nothing beyond you.

Should you be new to kitchen equipment or preparation, though, there is a helpful section at the beginning of the book that tells you all you will need to know. There is also a section on the nature of spices, chiles, and other “exotic” ingredients. I inserted the quotation marks because seitan is about as exotic as they get here, meaning you should be able to find most of the ingredients, or reasonable substitutions, in any well-stocked grocery store, and the few remaining can be obtained at a natural foods store or even online.

Using fresh ingredients means the dishes will taste as good as they should. It’s worth using the freshest you can find because you’ll notice the difference.

Even though I see this book as the guide to an adventure the seasoned vegan is going to want to take, a brand new vegan cook can confidently prepare these delicious dishes and be proud.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

Books that focus on the supernatural rarely attract me. Horror stories rarely attract me. Yet now and then I will find myself reading a book that fits in these categories and for some reason will like it.

Such is the case here. Jude Coyne, aqing heavy metal star, is living with "Georgia", a woman almost thirty years younger than he is. He calls her Georgia because that's where she's from. Her real name is Mary Beth. His insistence on giving meaningless names to his lovers is indicative of the distance he prefers to maintain in all relationships.

Jude is hard to shock. In fact, he collects bizarre objects as part of his efforts to build an impression of himself that matches his rock star image. And so it is that he is hooked when he reads of an online auction of a ghost. He jumps to the "buy it now" option, purchasing the suit the ghost comes in for $1,000.

What seemed a bit of a blast turns into a nightmare. The suit really does have a ghost attached, and that ghost is out to get him. Jude, though, is not so easily got. He resists one attack after another, gaining severe injuries in the process, and while he initially tries to send Mary Beth away - to protect her - she insists on hanging in and suffers greatly for that decision.

What kept me going was my attachment to Jude and Mary Beth, as they struggle not only to rid themselves of this evil presence but to discover in each other strengths they did not know they had.

I wouldn't say this book changed my life or changed my view of the world or a part of it, but it is strangely and unsentimentally heartwarming.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Eleni, by Nicholas Gage

An extraordinary blend of investigative reporting and imagination, originally printed in 1983. Nicholas Gage, who emigrated at the age of nine to America from Greece in 1949, was haunted by his mother's death. His mother, Eleni, was tried and executed in his little mountain village in 1948, by communist guerrillas, who controlled the village during the civil war there.

Gage wanted to know who was really responsible for his mother's death. True to his heritage, as an adult he set out to revenge her death, but his background in investigative journalism led him to seek out the truth first.

In this massive tale, over 600 pages in the cheap paperback edition I bought, Gage begins at the beginning and relentlessly takes us on every road, into every conversation, through the relatively good times and into the horrific, that holds a part of his mother. He sketches her early years and marriage, giving us a glimpse of her husband Christo, who sought his fortune in the United States, returning periodically to be with his wife but who believed it better to keep her in Greece, living the "old ways" while he lived the new. From 1940, when the communist and fascist guerrilla groups were gaining ground in Greece, until her death in 1948, Eleni lived a life of increasing hardship. She had come from a family of privilege and her husband had sent her money for her support while he was gone, but in 1940 the mail was cut off and she no longer had any support or any word from him.

Life in the mountain village of Lia was hardly a cakewalk in the best of times. The culture demanded that women follow strict standards of dress and behavior, much as fundamentalist Muslim women do now. Women were raised to obey the men in their lives, to make no decisions on their own.

It was just this fact that eventually led to Eleni's death. When she first had a chance to get out of Lia she did not take it because her husband, in his last letter to her, had said the guerrillas were their friends and they would not hurt her. She could not disobey him. Later, though, she saw that her fate and that of her children demanded that she make a different decision.

She engineered an escape, revealing a raw courage that belied her cultural background. Other women who joined the escape band were less secure, unsure of what to do or how to manage without direct orders from men. Eleni was unable to join the group ultimately, but gave her children directions to avoid detection by guerrillas when they slipped away. The escape shocked the village and the guerrilla government decided somebody had to pay.

Gage doesn't spare many details. His story reads like fiction, with characters, words, and thoughts fleshed out. Intermittently he inserts first-person narratives, reminding us that it isn't fiction. The blend reminds me a bit of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Mailer's The Executioner's Song, but Gage has a more personal relationship with his main character and this relationship is what drives the tale. The quality of the re-creation isn't as literary as the other two works but it's far beyond hackwork.

While the story is clearly about Eleni it also gives us a good picture of life in the mountain villages in Greece at the time. It also helped me to see how a civil war like this one can pit neighbor against neighbor, with horrifying consequences. Yet at the heart of it I was surprised to find that most of the villagers did not succumb to greed when it would have been easy, did not choose to speak against others to gain privileges for themselves. Certainly some did these things, but their characters had been evident before the guerrillas moved in. It is easy to become irritated at the superstitions, the cultural norms, the ignorance at the heart of village life. Yet the innate strength of many of the same people is impressive. Perhaps living in a village where everyone knows everyone else's secrets does make for stronger bonds.

Knowing the end ahead of time made the reading hard-going for me at times. I had nightmares two nights in a row, about executions. I couldn't wait to get through the details, details, details, and past the death itself. When it came it didn't hit me like a fist in my stomach as I had anticipated. I was relieved. An extra treat for me, having made it that far, was the wrapping up, the resolution of Gage's hunt for revenge. Riveting reading, all the way through.

Monday, April 14, 2008

How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman, M.D.

A terrific book. Groopman takes on the task of figuring out how doctors make decisions about treatment. He finds that the majority of medical mistakes come from certain types of thinking patterns that doctors fall into. He offers simple suggestions to both doctor and patient to help the doctors break out of these patterns in particular cases.

Patients and doctors can benefit most by understanding the "three As", as they were termed by one reader:

  • anchoring
  • attribution
  • availability

"Anchoring" is seizing on a set of symptoms, making a snap diagnosis and not looking further

"Attribution" is making assumptions about a patient because of certain patient attributes - old, young, complainer, whatever. In an episode of House the patient was a hugely obese man who insisted that the doctors look past his weight for what was wrong with him. Turns out he was right; the diagnosis was bad but had nothing to do with his weight.

"Availability" is the tendency to remember, in a flash, similar cases and assign the present case to the same group. For example, if the doctor has been treating a number of people with abdominal pains and they all had acid reflux he might jump to that assumption in a similar case because the diagnosis is "available" - frequently used, easy to call on.

I am sure I haven't described these as well as I could. What is critical for patients is to ask some meaningful questions when they feel the diagnosis may not be right for some reason. Here are the questions Dr. Groopman suggests:

"What else could it be?" - this question can break the physician away from a snap diagnosis.

"Could two things be going on at once?" In other words, might there be two problems instead of one?

"Is there anything in my history or the tests that seem to be at odds with the diagnosis?" Sometimes doctors see symptoms that "don't fit" but simply label them "atypical". This question brings those symptoms to the front.

I want to give a copy of this book to the doctor I have seen a few times, the doctor I am starting to consider my primary physician. I think all doctors should read it, and in the case of my doctor I suspect he actually would. It's a great resource, written compassionately and clearly, that does not condemn doctors; instead it can help them be better than they are.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

A memoir about a family living on the edge, deliberately.

Walls is born to parents who are highly intelligent and creative but whose own presumably (and suggested) dark pasts make them both junkies for excitement and change. Thus they live from hand to mouth, rarely staying in one place longer than a couple of months, for the early part of Jeanette's childhood. Jeanette's father is an alcoholic who isn't able to keep a job but who has big dreams as well as big smarts. He manages to keep their various vehicles alive one way or another, devises engineering feats where necessary, teaches his children about the stars, about physics, about math, proudly pushes them (literally) into the water where they must sink or swim.

Her mother wraps herself into her own creative ventures, painting, writing, sketching, and is usually ready when the family has to "skedaddle" in the middle of the night. Neither parent worries about the health of their children, living by the maxim that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. On this front it appears that her mother is the tougher of the two in some respects.

By the time Jeanette and her family move into Welch, Virginia, her father's childhood home, she certainly can take care of herself. She worships her father yet recognizes that he has failed her time and again. All of the children - Lori, Jeanette, Brian, and Maureen - somehow manage to find food, stay clothed, and go to school, and even excel. They don't make friends easily, finding that even in this "okie" territory they are outcasts, dirtier, skinnier, and tougher than the rest.

It's a memoir of a tough life that at times seemed wondrous to Jeanette. Being given a star for her birthday. Sleeping in a cardboard appliance box. Being encouraged to challenge life rather than be challenged by it. Thus it is more than a sad tale of children of an alcoholic, even though those of us who share that distinction are going to recognize some of the responses. It is more a tale of resilience and hope and ultimately simply acceptance.