Sunday, December 28, 2008
Boomsday, Christopher Buckley - I decided to give his fiction a try after hearing him talk about endorsing Obama. I also really liked the movie "Thank You For Smoking." I tried to find that book at the library, but it was checked out, so I settled for this one. I'm generally not the biggest fan of modern fiction, but I loved this book. The plot was kind of silly, and like Hiaason, whom he quotes, he has too many characters, but the story zipped right along. Best of all, Buckley can write! I usually read books and grimace at errors or awkward sentence structure, but not this time. It was a pleasure to read such good writing.
Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean - I like Orlean's articles in The New Yorker, and I really liked this book, upon which the movie "Adaptation" is based. I was particularly interested in the history of orchid collecting. Victorian orchid hunters wiped out entire species of orchids by collecting every specimen they could find to take back to England with them. I only wish the book had pictures of the orchids Orleans describes.
Kingdom by the Sea, Paul Theroux - This is the third travel book of Theroux's that I've read, and it's the first that has made me want to take a similar trip. The book is an account of Theroux's trip, clockwise, around the coast of England, Wales, Norther Ireland, and Scotland. He walks much of the trip, travelling on paths that connect seaside villages. When there aren't paths, he takes buses or branch-line trains. The trip sounds just lovely, especially in Scotland. My goal is to someday visit England and walk some of the paths.
When You Lunch with the Emperor, Ludwig Bemelmans - Yes, that Ludwig Bemelmans of the Madeline books. It's a somewhat fictitious account of his life, from his childhood in a small German town to his life working at the Hotel Splendide (really the Ritz-Carlton) in New York to his travels, often with his young daughter in tow. The books is one of the most charming I've read in a long time, and Bemelmans' little illustrations only add to the charm.
The Migraine Brain, Carolyn Bernstein, M.D. - My mom sent it to me, and I started reading it with a grain of salt. I was diagnosed with migraines 13 years ago and have done lots of reading and research about triggers and treatments, so I figured there wasn't much more I could learn. But once I got past all the self affirmation-style writing - "Migraines are real!" "Migraines aren't your fault." "You can improve your life." - I did learn a fair amount. I think I took away some tips that will help me - like staying hydrated and getting enough sleep and other food triggers to watch out for. The book also gave me some questions that I can ask my doctor on my next visit. I highly recommend the book for anyone who gets migraines. I'll be sending it along to my sister next.
To Have and to Kill, John Glatt - I'm a sucker for true-life crime stories like those on 20/20 and by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly. I picked this book up when trolling the aisles of the drug store waiting for a prescription for B after one of his neck surgeries. The book is about the murder of William McGuire, whose body was found floating in Chesapeake Bay in three waterlogged suitcases. The writing is terrible, and the storyline is sometimes confusing, but I couldn't put the book down. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I read the thing.
Free-Range Knitter, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee - Mom sent me the book after she had finished it, and it's a charming little thing. Definitely only for knitters.
Wow - seven books. That's more than I thought I had read. Right now I'm reading a book about the first climber to explore the Alps and a book about Marco Polo. Plus there's this week's New Yorker, which looks like one I'll read cover-to-cover.
She was the leader of both the fashionable and political world in London for decades. She was involved in politics at a time when women weren't supposed to be involved in such things, and she drew lots of scorn and derision for her campaigning on behalf of candidates for Parliament.
I was surprised by both the book and the woman.
Friday, December 26, 2008
The story is told by a young woman living in the Texas/Arkansas/Oklahoma area of the wild west. She comes into contact with Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, and the Earp brothers, among others during her lifetime.
It's a quick, entertaining read.
The book thoroughly explores FDR and his relationships with women, from his mother to his wife Eleanor to his several mistresses. Specifically it looks at his long-term relationship with Lucy Rutherfurd, whom he met when she worked as a social secretary for Eleanor.
When Eleanor discovered evidence of FDR's relationship with Rutherfurd, she offered him a divorce, but Sara Delano, FDR's mother, threatened to cut off her financial support, which was significant, if FDR left his wife. Eleanor made FDR promise to not see or contact Rutherfurd again, but he didn't honor his word. Lucy visited FDR at the White House when Eleanor was away, and she was his frequent guest at Warm Springs. She was even there the day FDR died. Her presence was kept from the press and from Eleanor, but she eventually found out that Lucy and FDR had been seeing each other, often with the help of Anna Roosevelt, FDR and Eleanor's daughter.
The book is a fascinating look at the private side of FDR, one that most people never knew existed.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
And then I read the book and was a bit disappointed. There's something missing - it's pretty heavy and a bit dreary. There aren't any of her roadtrips, like in AV, and her attempts to tie the Puritan Era to our modern era are a bit of a stretch. I can't quite put my finger on what I think it needs - maybe a bit more levity.
So while I still love Sarah Vowell, I don't think I'll be reading this one again.
Friday, November 21, 2008
In the meantime, I checked out FDR and Lucy, which is also about FDR and Lucy Rutherford. FDR met Lucy when she came to work for Eleanor Roosevelt as her social secretary. When Eleanor started to suspect that Lucy and FDR were having an affair, she let her go, but FDR promptly hired her on at the Navy Department, where he was assistant secretary at the time.
Eleanor offered to give FDR a divorce so that he could be with Lucy, but Sarah Delano, FDR's formidable mother, threatened to cut off her financial support. Instead of a divorce, FDR had to promise never to have contact with Lucy again.
Turns out he didn't keep that promise, and his daughter and secretaries enabled his meetings with Lucy through the years. Lucy was even with FDR when he died; she was whisked away before Eleanor arrived and her presence was kept out of the press for decades.
I'm still going to read Frankling and Lucy. From what my mother said, it goes into more detail about more people in FDR's life, including Eleanor.
The files detail Mary Todd's deteriorating emotional state, including her conviction that her son was on death's doorstep even though he was just fine and her hallucinations of Chicago being on fire. It also gives detail on her spending sprees - buying trunkloads of curtains for houses she didn't own, boxes and boxes of gloves that were never worn. Today, she would probably be diagnosed as having bi-polar disorder.
Over the years, Robert Todd was blamed for his mother's institutionalization, unfairly. This book goes a long way toward proving that Mary Todd was ill and needed help.
Insanity Files does a good job of detailing the mental health system of the late 1900s - which was basically non-existent. People deemed insane were confined to state hospitals, which were nothing more than holding pens. The lucky, and the wealthy, could opt for private institutions, which is where Mary Todd ended up, but they were basically nice holding pens.
Mary Todd's story is such a heartbreaking one - losing three sons and a husband. I still want to find a good biography of her.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Dear Norton Juster,
I really liked The Phantom Tollbooth. My friend M and I both have read the book. I really think that you are a good auther. M and I have wanted to ask you to write another book of Phantom Tollbooth. Some of my favrite chapters were 3, 9, 17, 18, 2, 19, 14 and 15. On the map you can follow along ware you are. M and I want to be Rhyme and Reason for Holween next year. I thoght that in point of view was funny how people grow down. I never really thoght about ware numbers, word, and colors come from until now. I wonder how did you get the idea for Phanton Tollboth?
I was very concerned last night that perhaps Mr. Juster was no longer alive and that I'd have to break the news to Ella, who would be crushed. Fortunately, according to his publisher, he's still alive, and he published a book in 2005. I'll look it up when I'm at the library today. I still need to find an address to send the letter to.
I think I'm going to leave my Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie books where Ella can find them next.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Her name is Elizabeth Anne, and she was born on October 5, five weeks early. She spent a week in NICU, but she's home now and doing very well. I, however, am exhausted. By the time I make it to bed each night, I only manage to read a page or two before falling asleep. Some day I'll finish the books stacked up next to the bed, but for now, I need the sleep more than I need to read.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
This biography is about the Lincolns' marriage - not about the presidency or politics - and it was very interesting, if a little flowery at times. Daniel Mark Epstein likes to imagine the Lincolns walking in the moonlight together, and I think he put a little too much thought into just when each of the Lincoln children was conceived.
But I learned so much, like that their marriage really was a love match. They married despite her family's objection to Lincoln; she came from a wealthy and prominent Kentucky family, and he really was a backwoods attorney trying to make it in the big city of Springfield. What amazed me most was that Mary Todd Lincoln knew from the get go that Lincoln was destined to be president, and she was willing to put up with a lot to get him there.
Of course, Lincoln had to put up with a lot himself, including Mary Todd's instability and abuse. There are accounts of her hitting him in the face with a log of firewood because Lincoln wasn't paying enough attention to her.
Mary Todd got worse during Lincoln's presidency. The pressure of living in the fishbowl of the White House, with reporters following her on errands took a toll, as did the death of her son Willie, who died of typhus. She had already lost one son to illness, and losing a second really pushed her over the edge. She also suffered a pretty severe head wound in a carriage accident, and her son Robert Todd Lincoln claimed that she never really recovered from the injury, mentally or physically.
Mary Todd really did spend too much money, money that she was afraid to tell her husband about. She ended up causing problems by promising favors to people in exchange for wiping out debts or extending further credit. Of course, Lincoln didn't help matters much by being completely uninterested in money. One of his secretaries recounted how Lincoln would have six or seven of his presidential paychecks stashed in desk drawers and in his pockets.
The final chapter of the book is hard to read. Things seemed to be turning the corner for the Lincolns - the war was ending, the country was celebrating, Lincoln was popular among the Union loyalists. Lincoln's last night was supposed to be a celebration.
Epstein ends the book with Lincoln's assassination, adding only a note that he won't address the rest of Mary Todd's life because the book is about their marriage. He does say that the rest of her life was tragic - another son, Tad, died, and Robert Todd ended up becoming estranged from her because of her behavior. As sad as it may have been, I think I'm going to go in search of a good biography of Mary Todd. She fascinates me.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
I picked the book up Friday morning and finished it last night; I simply couldn't put it down. Iwas fascinated by his quest to live for a year according to the rules in the Bible, both old and new testaments. Actually, did you know that Jews call the "old" testament the "Hebrew Bible" because they don't recognize the new testament. I didn't.
I'm not a religious person, nor did I grow up in a religious household (don't ever get my dad started on organized religion unless you want a half-hour discourse on what's wrong with it), so I actually learned a lot about both Judaism and Christianity from the book.
What seemed to start out as an excuse to write a book turned into a true spiratual quest for Jacobs, who calls himself an atheist. He ends up taking the commandments from the bible very seriously, and living by them affects every aspect of his life. He attends prayer groups and religious conferences. He spends the weekend on an Amish farm and travels to Israel, where he meets one of the few remaining Samaritans. He visits the Creationism Museum and Jerry Falwell's mega-church.
In the end, he remains an atheist, but he refers to himself as a "reverent atheist," which is a term I like. He doesn't believe in a god who intervenes in elections and football games, but he does see the wonder and grace and miracles that exist around us. It's an apt description of how I view the world and religion.
Next, I'm going to order Jacobs's book "Know it All," which chronicles his year of reading the encyclopedia.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
So on the advice of my former boss and frequent book swapping partner, I decided to try one of Theroux's travel books. Dark Star Safari is an account of Theroux's trip from Cairo to Cape Town, the entire length of Africa. He travels by train, bus, taxi, private car, boat - basically every mode of transport except an airplane.
His descriptions of the countries and the people he meets are fascinating, if a bit depressing. The cities in certain countries seem to be deteriorating rapidly. And according to many of the people Theroux meets, foreign aid money isn't helping things. Many African countries have become so dependent on handouts that they have lost any incentive to build their own industries. Or else the corrupt government officials take all the money, leaving the citizens in misery.
I did get rather tired of Theroux's holier-than-thou attitude about his trip compared to the safaris and trips tourists take. He mentions over and over again how rich people coming in for safari don't get the real feel of Africa - well after reading his descriptions of the real Africa, I'm not sure I'd want to get a real feel for it.
While I'm not sure I'll read any of his fiction again, I'll look for another of Theroux's travel books the next time I'm at the library. Odds are I won't be visiting any of the places he does, so I can at least read about them.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
In The Call of the Weird Theroux goes back to revisit some of his documentary subjects to see what's going on with their lives. He finds some interesting things. The porn actor he profiled has left the industry and moved away from Los Angles, but isn't really happy with his life. The surviving members of Heaven's Gate still speak fondly of their leader and their days in the cult. The pimp is still a pimp even though he's married with a child. The Survivalists' camp in Idaho has mostly broken apart. Apparently the non event of Y2K put a dent in their apocalyptic theories.
For anyone who saw any of Theroux's shows, I highly recommend the book. Heck, I recommend it even if you didn't see the shows. He gives enough of a background on each subject that having seen the show isn't a necessity. This is Theroux's first book, and I hope it's not his last. His father has an impressive list of books to his credit, and I hope Louis follows in his footsteps.
Friday, August 22, 2008
I did re-read Custom of the Country, which is my favorite of Wharton's novels, aside from Age of Innocence. Undine Spragg is such a great character, going after exactly what she wants, consequences be damned.
My beach reading books were The Reef and Sanctuary, and I didn't really love either of them. I remember reading both ages ago but didn't remember much about them. Now I know why. The characters are overly introspective and annoying.
When Ella and I went to the library to provision for the beach trip, I also picked up a collection of Wharton's novellas, which is next on my list. I think after I read that, though, I'll be taking a long break from anything Wharton related.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
But like the Yarn Harlot, I have learned that knitting teaches you patience. Knitting is the only thing in my life right now that makes me sit still and be calm. I've knitted myself out of looming panic attacks and survived interminable waits at airports thanks to knitting. I'm glad I got started on it again, and at this point, I don't see myself giving it up any time soon.
The book covers the sensational murder of Mary Rogers, a girl who had worked at a cigar emporium in New York City. She was famous throughout the city for her beauty and modesty, and many credit the cigar store's success with her presence. Men would go to the store just to catch a glimpse of her.
A year or so after quitting her job at the store to help her mother run their boarding house, Rogers was found dead, floating in the Hudson River, her corpse showing signs of horrible trauma. The case was a media sensation, with the papers competing to scoop each other with new details.
The book also covers Poe's life, which was just such a tragic one. I had never read any biographies of Poe, and I didn't know much other than he was found in a gutter in Baltimore, incoherent and close to death.
Poe had such great potential, and came so close so many times to achieving success, but he really was his own worst enemy. It turns out he had a great talent for publishing and successfully ran several magazines in Baltimore, New York and Richmond. But he always ended up fighting with the owners and either getting fired or leaving under bad terms.
He published all of his poems and stories during his lifetime, but he never managed to make any money of them. He earned a whopping $9 for "The Raven," which was greeted with huge critical acclaim.
Poe ended up using the murder of Mary Rogers as the framework for a short story that was to be a follow-up to his successful "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," featuring the same sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin. In the first installment of the story, Poe promised that Dupin would solve the murder using nothing but "rationization" and the accounts published in the papers.
Ultimately, the murder was never solved and the case slowly faded from the press, and Poe ended up tweaking his fictional account of the murder when he re-published it in a collection of his work. He died shortly afterwards.
I loved this book and am going to have a hard time giving it back to ETB. I may also search out other biographies of Poe and pick up a collection of his works. I love when books I read make me want to read other books on the same topic.
Borthwick and Wright met when he designed a new house for her and her husband, the upright and staid Edwin Cheney. Wright and Borthwick's affair started during the planning for the garage addition to the house and continued for years afterwards.
I had a very hard time working up any sympathy for Borthwick. While I know women in 1910 had few options in terms of career and life choices, and I know she was desperate to be more than just a housewife and mother in Oak Park, Illinois, I can't justify her choice to abandon her children. She tiptoed out before dawn one morning, leaving her children sleeping at the home of a long-time friend, so that she could join Wright on a trip to Europe. She ended up staying in Europe for more than two years, not seeing her children once during that time.
According to the book, their affair caused quite the scandal for years - both when it was discovered and when they moved in together at Taliesin, the home Wright built in Wisconsin. Wright lost contracts and clients because of their relationship. The families on both sides, his and hers, were devastated by the furore.
Basically, you get the impression from this book that Wright was not the nicest of men. He refused to pay workers, telling them they should be honored to contribute to his genius. He wanted students to skip formal training and instead work in his studio, for no pay, just for the opportunity to study at his feet. Borthwick gave up her family to be with him and to pursue a career as a translator for a European women's rights writer. They were both just so selfish, and I had a hard time with that.
I ruined the ending for myself accidentally. I went to the Taliesin Web site to see what the house looked like and then went to Wikipedia hoping for more pictures. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia entry gave away a very surprising ending. If you don't already know what happened and intend to read the book, DON'T do any research.
Even though I knew what was going to happen, the ending left me gasping and devastated. And that's all I'll say.
It's about the murder of a young boy inside his locked him. From the outset, it's pretty obvious who committed the murder, and I won't give it away here. The interesting parts of the book are the details of the investigation and the look inside Victorian-era middle class life in England.
Detective work as we know it today was in its infancy at the time. Scotland Yard had just been formed, with just a few detectives on the staff. There were few scientific methods of detection available, and the detectives and investigators relied mostly on their instincts and hunches.
When assigned to this case, Mr. Wicher was something of the shining star of the detective force. He'd been profiled by Charles Dickens and used as a model for several characters in the burgeoning detective fiction genre.
Unfortunately, his conclusions about this case, while absolutely correct, weren't believed by the public, which followed the case closely, and some of his superiors. He ended up resigning shortly after the first trial. He was later redeemed by the murder's confession, but I'm sure that was small consolation to him.
The book wasn't quite engaging as I had hoped, mostly because there really isn't much mystery about who committed the murder, but I still enjoyed reading it for the historical aspects.
Monday, July 14, 2008
I picked up this book last week because I couldn't find the book I really wanted. The trip to the bookstore was unplanned, so I didn't have my usual reading wish list with me. I also wanted to pick up Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country, but the store didn't have it in stock.
I am so glad I grabbed The Monster of Florence. I stayed up way too late two nights in a row because I couldn't stop reading.
The first half of the book deals with a series of gruesome murders in the hills around Florence. The killer stalked and killed couples "parking" in the hills, shooting the man and mutilating the woman in each case. To this day, the murders have not officially been solved.
The second half deals with the botched investigations and trials and the eventual involvement of the authors in the cases. They were both investigated as part of a grand plot initiated by a secret sect of devil worshippers. One of the authors, Mario Spezi, ended up in prison for a time because the judge in the case was convinced he was actually the murderer.
While the murders have never officially been solved, the authors leave little doubt as to who they think is responsible, and given the evidence they present, I'd have to agree.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
So I had been eagerly awaiting this new book. But I was a tiny bit disappointed. Me Talk Pretty One Day is still my favorite of all his collections of essays. I do like this book better than his last, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.
I guess most of my disappointment stems from the fact that I've read or heard him read pretty much every essay in the book. Most of the pieces had already been published in "The New Yorker," to which I subscribe.
The tone of this book is more gentle than that of previous collections. Many of the essays are about his relationship with his boyfriend Hugh, and they are really very sweet. After reading them, you can see why Sedaris has been with Hugh for almost 20 years. Although, I am still baffled about why Hugh is with Sedaris, unless Sedaris doesn't give himself the credit he deserves for his side of the relationship. When I said that to one friend, she suggested that maybe Hugh stayed because of the money. But you find out in these essays that they've been together since before Sedaris was rich and famous. They met back when Sedaris was still working as a housekeeper, back when he was heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol.
My favorite section of the book, though, is the piece with Sedaris's journal entries from the three months he and Hugh spent living in Japan. I laughed out loud at many of the entries.
Now that this book is published, I'll just have to wait for my next favorite author, Sarah Vowell, to publish her book this fall.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
The things I didn't know surprised me.
- Einstein had a very productive few years in his early career when he came up with the theory of relativity and the e=mc2 formula, but he still couldn't get a job as a professor.
- Because of politics on the committee, he didn't win the Nobel for relativity or e=mc2, but rather for one of his other lesser-known theories.
- He was treated like a rock star when he visited the states, with lectures attended by standing-room only audiences. On one trip to the states, he had to disembark his ship onto a tugboat in the harbor to evade the crowds waiting on the docks.
- Even though Einstein developed the e=mc2 formula that led to nuclear fission and the atomic bomb, and even though he was one of the scientists who warned Roosevelt that the Germans might be developing nuclear weapons, Einstein was never involved in the Manhattan Project. He never even received security clearance even though many of his fellow physicists worked on the bomb project.
- The FBI collected a dossier on Einstein that eventually contained thousands of pages of documents, all in an effort to prove he was a communist. However, they never could pin anything on him.
The earlier parts of the book, which are filled with explanations of Einstein's theories were tough going at times. There's a reason I struggled with physicis in high school - I just don't get it. But once I slogged through those sections, the book was really entertaining. Einstein was a fascinating man.
She brought this book, which is about four sisters from Provence, France who all became queens during the 13th Century. One was queen of France, one of England, one of Sicily (mostly a purchased title by her husband), and one of Germany (also a purchased title).
This was without a doubt the most engaging and readable history book I've come across in a long time. The amount of contemporary documentation available to Nancy Goldstone, the author, is incredible, so she is able to provide very complete pictures of the lives of these women.
One of the things that amazed me about the stories of these women is how long kings and queens would leave their countries for. The king and queen of France go on a crusade to the Holy Land, which goes horribly awry, and are away for several years, leaving the country in the hands of the queen mother while they are gone. Could you imagine such a system now?
I also didn't know that there were royal titles essentially up for sale. One of the sisters became queen of Sicily, very briefly before dying, because her husband offered the pope a lot of money and fronted his own army to overthrow the ruler who was already there.
I'd say that example is so different from how things work today, but given our current political system, I'm not so sure that's accurate.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
The one novel that I hadn't read is the one that Wharton didn't actually finish - The Buccaneers. She died before she finished the book, leaving a summary of what she planned to have happen to the characters. A modern author completed the book for publication in the early '90s.
It's immediately apparent when you get to the part where Wharton leaves off and the new author takes over. The voice and pacing and characters change perceptibly.
The story centers around a group of American young women who come from money that is too "new" for New York society, so one family's governess suggests that they all try a season in London. The girls take London by storm and end up marrying various members of the aristocracy and government, not all of them happily. The title of the book comes from one of the British husband, who compares his wife and her American friends to buccaneers taking over London and getting what they want.
Despite the things I didn't like about the book - the noticeable change in authors, the change in tone and style - I really did like the story and was upset when it ended. I wanted to know what happened next.
In The Making of the Tudor Dynasty the authors devote all of two sentences to the murders of King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, while this book is devoted to the events leading up to and after the murders.
I am always amazed, with histories like these, at how much material there is for researchers to use. These events happened centuries ago, yet there are documents still in existence that give amazing detail as to what was going on.
Weir's ultimate conclusion, based on all the evidence she found, is that Richard III really did have his nephews murdered to secure his seizure of the throne of England - don't worry, I didn't just spoil the ending for you.
Still, even though the conclusion is a forgone one, it's still a gripping book. Weir knows how to write a good story.
This book, by two British scholars, leaves out a lot of the extraneous history and focuses solely on the Tudor family and its Welsh origins, which, for the most part, makes it easier to follow than the other history I attempted. At times, however, the writing is too dry and scholarly.
It's definitely true that history is written by the victors. Richard III, who usurped the throne from the young Edward IV, comes across completely as a bad guy, while Henry VII, kept in exile in Brittany for most of his young life, is the hero, coming in to rescue England from its inept ruler.
I would have preferred, however, that the authors had carried on a bit with detail of Henry VII's reign instead of ending the book very quickly after the Battle of Bosworth. It seemed like they spent so much time getting to the point of the Tudors coming into power, only to end it with a litany of the men who benefited by their support of Henry VII.
As it turns out, a lot of people explored America, both before and after Columbus, who never actually set foot on North America, and the before the Pilgrims' arrival - mainly Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish explored a large portion of the North American continent, including the Pacific coast, the Grand Canyon and the Oklahoma prairies.
Having grown up in Florida, where the conquistadors are part of local lore, I already knew a lot about them, just like I knew that St. Augustine, FL is the oldest, continuously settled European city in the US.
In the book, Horwitz follows the trails of many of the explorers through the US, looking for signs of their presence. He even travels to the Dominican Republic, where Columbus first landed, hoping to get a glimpse of the supposed remains of the explorer.
It's a fascinating journey, both through our history and our country - one well worth reading.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Anyway, while Chatwin starts out learning about Aboriginal "songlines," the creation stories and maps that are sung of the country, the book turns into something that's much, much more. He includes sections on Darwin and evolution, nomads, migratory birds, and philosophy, to name just a few.
The book peters out in the end, but it's still worth a read.
Chatwin has an amazing talent for meeting people and getting their stories and setting them down in print. Because of his writing, Patagonia is on my list of places to visit before I die. I figure I'll hit it on my way to the South Pole, which is also on my list.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
The book, however, is divine. I've all of McCullough's works, save two, and I've yet to not enjoy one of his books. He is a brilliant researcher and writer, and he does a masterful job with John Adams.
John Adams was an amazing man. He, along with Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington, can rightly claim to be a founding father. Someone said that Jefferson was the writer of the Declaration and Adams was it voice. It's quite possible that the experiment in liberty and democracy that is our country would never have succeeded without Adams's efforts. Reading the book, I realized just how close our country came to not surviving. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
I'm more grateful for what our country has accomplished, and more embarassed at what the current administration has done to undo the efforts of the founding fathers.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
I'm glad I took a second look, though. Instead, the book is a history of humans' bathing habits through the millenia, from the ancient Greeks and Romans, who had elaborate bathing rituals, none of them involving soap, through the Middle Ages when no one bathed, to the present with Americans' hyper-cleanliness.
The reasons for not bathing were the most interesting to me. About the time of the plagues running through Europe in the Middle Ages, "experts" decided that illnesses were caused by the skin letting in vapors or humours, and the way to prevent this from happening was to avoid water at all cost. Bathing, it was thought, opened the pores, allowing bad things into the system. People really went their whole lives without bathing - they'd get water on them when baptised and again when they were buried. Blech.
And while the rest of the world considers Americans to be obsessed with cleanliness - just look at how much we spend per year on soaps and lotions - I'm quite happy with my daily shower. I just can't start the day without it. I don't care that it's not strictly necessary for good hygiene.
Wallace embarks on a year of saying yes to pretty much every question he's asked, including offers in spam e-mails and flyers people hand him on the streets. He buys a car because a guy asks him if he wants to. He goes to Amsterdam because he said yes to one of those Nigerian scam e-mails. He goes on a date with his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend because they invite him. THe catch through all of this is that only one other person knows what he's up to. Many of his friends end up rather puzzled by his behavior.
Good things do happen to Wallace - he gets a new job, he meets a girl, he makes new friends, he travels the world. But saying yes to everything seems to be an extreme way to go about it all.
Monday, March 17, 2008
It was the perfect mindless book to keep me entertained during my four-hour layover at JFK and during the seven-hours I spent on the plane from JFK to Austin.
I think, though, that this officially ends my period of historical fiction set in Tudor and Elizabethan times. I've had it with heaving bodices and beheadings.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
First, I saw somewhere that a movie is being made of it, which is just pointless. The BBC miniseries with Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick, Anthony Andrews, Laurence Olivier and John Geilgud is perfect. The miniseries follows the book, almost verbatim, and really captures the spirit and the mood of it. There is no reason to make a two hour movie to replace a 14-hour miniseries. I don't know how you'd even condense the story to fit without losing critical pieces.
Second, because of my grandmother, who died on Friday. My mom told me that when Nona had been asked about being given last rights, she said yes. None of us have ever known my grandmother to be a church-goer, so it was a bit surprising that she had a priest in at the end. There's a line in Brideshead, which is quoted from something else, about God calling someone back with a "twitch upon the thread." Mom quoted that line when telling me about Nona.
I decided that two references to the book in one week was a sign that I should read it, and I'm glad I did. In a strange way, it was a comfort to me during this difficult week.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
When my boss sent me an e-mail thanking me for the gift, she mentioned that "Roman Fever," which is in the collection of stories I sent, is her favorite short story ever. I've read it before, but I felt the need to read it again, because it really is such a grand piece of fiction.
It's about two wealthy widows from New York City spending time in Rome while their young daughters are gadding about with their suitors. The women knew each other when they were young women, visiting Rome together. It turns out that they were both in love with the same man at the time. I can't really say anything more without giving away too much. But this story has the best closing line in any book or short story I've ever read - ever.
My mother bought it for my father for Christmas thinking it was about the actual construction of the Canal. She had it shipped here to await their arrival, and I sneaked a peek a few times, then asked my dad if I could borrow it when he was finished. My mom brought it to me when she was here for Lily's birthday, and I dove right in.
Most of the book is about the politics that went on around the building of the canal - those who supported it, those who were against it - and the elections on state and national levels that were affected by the canal. The author also spends a great deal of time on the financial impact the canal had on New York State and the country. The canal spurred a great deal of industrial growth in New York. Towns sprang up along the canal path, along with manufacturing plants. Farmers were able to grow more crops because they could sell them to more people thanks to being able to ship them down to Albany and then on to New York City. People took tourist excursions on the packet boats that travelled the canals, leading to a need for inns and restaurants.
While all the information on the politics and industry was interesting, I would have loved the book to include more about the building of the canal itself. The men building the canal had to learn as they went - there were no structural engineers in the country at the start of the canal's building - and they had the most primitive of tools and explosives available to them. That they accomplished so much with so little is a true testament to what mankind can do when it puts its mind to it. I also would have liked more maps and pictures. I want authors to show me the things they're describing. Plus, I just love maps.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Monday, February 18, 2008
So when I was at the bookstore and saw this book, by Beverly Swerling, I took a look at the blurb on the back cover. The reviewer for The Washington Post gave it a thumb's up, and since it was a historical novel about New York, I bought it.
Well, I'm not sure how accurate the history is. Swerling describes herself as an amateur historian, and she seems to have gotten her hands of a map of New York City from 1814, which is when the book is set, and used that to excess; she talks a lot about the locations of various buildings and homes. A few real people wander through - Jacob Astor, President Madison, Dolley Madison - and a few historical events are included - the sack of Washington by the British, the Battle of Lake Erie. But that's about it.
However, by the time I got disgusted with the lack of real history, I'd been sucked into the story, hook, line and sinker, and I found I couldn't put the book down. I read until after midnight Saturday night because I kept wanting to finish one more chapter.
Swerling has two more books in this "series," dealing with some of the same characters, and I think I may just have to get the books the next time I'm at the bookstore.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Evanovich does a good job writing an entertaining tale, and the characters are funny, but it was just a touch too fluffy for me.
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
What was most disheartening was how people who actually knew what they were doing were frequently replaced by Republican party loyalists, junior staffers from congressional offices, or staff from the Department of Defense - the White House didn't want folks from State Department working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, no matter their level of expertise.
Of the many stories Chandrasekaran relates, two really upset me. The first involved the Iraqi stock market. A former stock broker who had joined the Army was initially tapped to get the stock market back in operation. He talked to the employees and the stock brokers and realized that all they needed to get back in business was a few chalk boards and some cell phones. He pitched the idea to the powers that were and was overruled. Some Republican loyalist was put in charge, and he decided that what Iraq needed was a new, efficient, modern, and non-corrupt stock market. He talked about computer systems and online networks - in a city that gets 12 hours of electricity a day, max - but nothing ever happened. Within a week of the CPA's handing over control of the country, the stock market, which had been closed during the whole occupation, was back in operation, under Iraqi control - using white-erase boards and cell phones. Years were wasted.
The other story was about the medical system. One medic got put in charge of the hospitals. He met with the hospital directors and asked what their critical needs were. They said power and medicines. So the guy managed to get big generators to every major hospital in Iraq. The doctors viewed him as a hero. But then the CPA put another Republican loyalist in charge. This guy was a former health plan administrator. He decided that the country's most crucial need was a new formulary for prescription medicine. Nevermind that most hospitals couldn't even get their hands on any drugs, let alone ones on the new formulary. You have to wonder how many people died while administrators argued about what medicines to include in the new plan.
Chandrasekaran doesn't indict all the men and women who went to Iraq. Most of the people there were doing the best they could under the most difficult of circumstances. He blames the the people in DC who were making the big decisions. They went into the war without any idea of what would happen next, and their lack of preparation showed. So many lives were lost; so much money was wasted. And for what, exactly?
I finished the book even angrier about the war and the current occupant of the White House than I was when I started. This book should be required reading for every person who thinks the war has been a success.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
I was so excited when the book arrived that I dove right in, ignoring my children and reading at the dinner table. It turns out that my excitement was justified. There were some absolutely outstanding essays in the book.
My favorites were Malcolm Gladwell's on the theory of Six-Degrees of Separation, Dan Savage's on his attempt to reform the Seattle Republican Party from within, Susan Orlean's on an averge 10-year-old boy, and some writer whose name I can't remember at the moment on her life as a hostess at a hot New York nightclub.
Other essays were so-so, like the one on how people remember World War II. It had some interesting bits, but it dragged on way too long. Another was on the author's adventures at the World Series of Poker. I don't know enough about poker to really grasp the full impact of the story.
I completely skipped the essay by David Foster Wallace. I attempted to read The Infinite Jest when it was published and was showing up on all the Best Of lists that year. But when I got 3/4 of the way through and still had no idea what was going on, I gave up. I had begun to suspect that the jest in the title was really on the reader, that I'd get to the end and still not have a clue. A friend who managed to get through it confirmed my suspicion, so I'm glad I didn't struggle through.
But back to the book - I'd highly recommend ordering it. Make sure you order it from the TAL site so that they get the credit for the sale.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
I've resisted picking up The Tipping Point or Freakonomics by Malcolm Gladwell because I figured they were both probably filled with dry statistic and economic lessons. I don't know why I thought that given the books' popularity with people who have read them. One friend, a freelance business writer, raved about both to me. But I tend to be stubborn and not do things lots of people tell me to do. I still haven't seen Ghost or Indecent Proposal or The English Patient precisely because I had too many people tell me they were the BEST MOVIES EVER!
But I think I'm about to reverse my position on Gladwell. He has an essay in The New Kings of Nonfiction about the six-degrees-of-separation phenomenon that was completely entertaining and fascinating. When I was finished I actually understood the principle.
And then I just saw a repeat of The Colbert Report with Malcolm Gladwell and I loved it. First, he's not the stereotypical dry economist or academic. He's youngish, with wild fuzzy hair. The show ended with Gladwell, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a gospel choir and Colbert singing "Let My People Go." It was great. Enough to make me want to buy and read his books.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
The art of the familiar essay is to write about something you love, say coffee, but to include bits of history on coffee, quotations from other coffee lovers, anecdotes of your personal history with coffee, and to make it all entertaining. Fadiman pulls it off in style. I smiled through the whole book.
Fadiman has another book I love called Ex Libris, which is a whole book about books. Each time I'm feeling a little down or overwhelmed, I'll pull out this book and read an essay or two. It's a treat to spend time with someone who loves books as much as I. My favorites are her essays on her family's compulsive need to catch typos and misspellings in menus and on her struggle to combine her book collection with her husband's - two areas with which I am all too familiar.
Fadiman has a third book, called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which I haven't read yet. After reading At Large, I may have to pick it up the next time I'm at the store.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
I think all of my eye rolling may have made my migraine worse, but I was too stubborn to put the book down. I'll say this for Crichton, he knows how to write a gripping story. But he has the same problem as Hiaason - too many dang characters.
The plot centers around genetic engineering and unscrupulous biogenetics lab stealing genes from unsuspecting patients and around transgenetic animals, specifically a half chimp/half man and a half parrot/half man. The parrot looks like a parrot, but he has a personality and can think and speak on his own.
I rolled my eyes a lot while reading the book because Crichton likes to fill his stories with lots of "facts" and explanations that are meant to alarm the reader. After reading this book, one might think that scientists are on the verge of really stealing genes from people and of creating human/animal hybrids. Crichton includes a long bibliography and recommended reading list at the end of the book, like the reader is supposed to do further research.
I've enjoyed a lot of Crichton's books - Jurassic Park is a fun read, and the Great Train Robbery was a pretty amazing novel - but I can't say I'd recommend this one.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
My complaint with this book is the same I have with most of Hiaason's others - there are too many characters.
This book has a good basic story - a slightly loony woman named Honey decides to take revenge on a telemarketer named Boyd who calls her during dinner and then insults her. It's a cause I can get behind, and her plan for Boyd is pretty ingenious. But then Honey's son Fry and her ex-husband Perry get dragged in. As does Boyd's mistress and his wife and the private dective Boyd's wife hires to get proof that Boyd is cheating on her. Then there's a half-Seminole Indian who calls himself Thlocko who's taking refuge in the Everglades because a man died on his airboat tour. And an FSU co-ed who becomes the Seminole's willing hostage. All these folks end up on the same island in the middle of the glades, which is just stretching belief a little too much. Oh wait, there's also Honey's lecherous ex-boss who is stalking her. And a group of religious nuts who think Boyd is the Saviour, born again and delivered from the sea.
I think Hiaason needs a new editor, one who is willing to overlook Hiaason's success and able to get him to trim a bit.
Skinny Dip is still my favorite of all his books, although this one is in the top three.