Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Clearing in the Distance

Even though this book was a biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, I found it as interesting as any work of fiction I've read in a long time. Olmstead, whose most famous projects include Central Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the park system in Buffalo, Mount Royal in Montreal, the grounds of the Chicago World's Fair, and the grounds at the Biltmore Estate, was a fascinating man.

He didn't start designing parks and public spaces until he was in his 30s. Prior to that he owned several farms and studied "scientific farming," travelled throughout the south and sent back articles on the south and slavery, and during the Civil War served as head of the pre-cursor to the Red Cross. He was also ran the Mariposa Gold Mine out in California and sat on the board that went on to form Yosemite National Park. In addition to all of this, he was a publisher and successful author. He was involved in so many projects, big and small, that the book couldn't detail all of them.

It is hard to believe that one man could do so much, and yet he did. His landscape design firm, headed up by his son after Olmstead died, went on to become one of the top firms in the country. Olmstead's influence is seen in parks and colleges and cities around the world.

The Battle of the Labyrinth

This is the fourth in Percy Jackson series, and it was my favorite of the books so far. The characters, especially Percy, seemed a little too precoscious in the first books. But now it's like the characters have caught up with their true ages.

This book has Percy and his friends setting off into the Labyrinth in an effort to stop Kronos and his army from gaining access to Camp Half Blood. The adventures are a lot of fun, and the dangers are written well enough to keep you turning the pages.

Ella and I have one book left in the series, and then we'll probably be moving on to Riordan's next series, which deals with ancient Egypt.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

Ella got the first book for Christmas, and she was completely absorbed in it. I had to pry it out of her hands each night to get her to go to sleep. Once she finished it, I decided to read the book to see what it was all about.

Ella and I have now read the first two books and are waiting for the third to come out in paperback.

With the exception of the Harry Potter series, I think this is probably the best youth fiction series I've read yet. The plots are dense and challenging, and the vocabulary had Ella asking me to define words, which I liked.

The books center around four exceptional children who come from not-normal backgrounds. They go through several challenges at the beginning of the first book, which is how they end up living with the mysterious Mr. Benedict, who immediately sends them off on a mission to save the world. The second book is about the four kids heading off to rescue Mr. Benedict on their own.

The characters are very well written, and the stories are griping. I couldn't put the books down, either.

Ella and I are waiting with baited breath to get our hands on the third volume.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

This is the second of Stieg Larsson's series, and I liked it a lot more than the first, which I really liked. I was glad he spent more time on Salander's backstory and less time of Blumkvist, who just isn't as interesting.

I am looking forward to the third book coming out, so much so that I may splurge for the hardcover edition.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


I read a review of this on, and then I read the story, which the authors of this book spend a lot of time addressing, and decided to splurge on the book. It tells the story of the world's largest diamond heist, which was committed in 2003 in Antwerp, Belgium, the home of the world's diamond market. The heist, pulled off by at least 6 master thieves from Italy, rivals that in any movie for its daring and complexity.

The thieves managed to break into a secure building and into a vault that should have been impregnable and make off with somewhere between $100 and $400 million worth of diamonds, cash, jewelry and pure gold.

The authors, Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell, have written a nearly perfect book. It covers not only the planning of the heist and the theft themselves, but the history of diamond mining and the DeBeers Company, as well as the diamond industry and how it works. Greg Campbell knows his stuff; he also wrote the book Blood Diamonds, which traces the history of conflict diamonds. It's next on my to-read list.

The only way the book could have been better is if the authors had included pictures. Instead, I had to be happy with the shots included in the article, which turns out to be mostly a fabrication created by the ringleader, Leonardo Notarbartolo. I recomend reading the Wired article only after you read the book.

Excellent stuff!

Percy Jackson

I finished the second and third books in the series - The Sea of Monsters and The Titan's Curse - and they were a lot of fun. But as I read them, I kept thinking about how much the youth publishing industry owes to J.K. Rowling. Her books proved that you can write smart books for kids - books with challenging plot lines and topics and with stories that stretch out over a whole series.

When I was growing up, we didn't have the wealth of fiction that the kids do now. We had the Little House books, which I loved, don't get me wrong, and the Anne of Green Gables series, which I read enough to just about memorize. But there was nothing along the lines of what is in the book stores now.

I'm thrilled that Ella loves reading so much, and I'm looking forward to sharing more of her books. Right now we're fighting over the fourth book in the series.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief

I've been having fun reading the books Ella's been immersed in. She got a stack of new books for Christmas, and I've been borrowing them from her as soon as she finishes them. I grabbed The Lightning Thief off the top of the stack because Ella's been begging to see the movie, and I wanted to see what I was going to be in for if I took her.

It is definitely a fun book, and I can see why the kids like it. Like most kids, including my daughter, I went through a Greek and Roman myth phase, and the Percy Jackson books play right into it. Percy, or Perseus, is the son of one of the Greek Gods, but he find that out until he's 12. Until then, he has a pretty miserable life with a step-father he can't stand, problems in school, and learning disabilities.

But then he finds out who he is and is sent on a quest. It's a classic misplaced kid/adventure story, similar to the Harry Potter series. It's also funny, exciting and, most importantly, well written. I'm part way through the second right now. And I've promised Ella I'll take her to the movie. I'm looking forward to it, too.

The Women

I've been interested in Frank Lloyd Wright ever since reading Loving Frank two years ago. This novel, by TC Boyle, tells the stories of Wright's life with three women - Mamah Cheney, Maude Miriam Noel, and Olgivanna Milanoff. His first wife, the long-suffering Kitty Tobin, appears on the edges of the story, mainly as a bitter, jealous wife who is about to lose her husband to Mamah Cheney. Of the four women portrayed in the book, Kitty gets the worst portrayal.

But none of the women come across as very nice people. Mamah walked out on her husband and children to follow her feminist dreams. Miriam sought Wright out, pretty much stalking him, because she felt she was the only one to understand his genius. And Olgivanna traded one Svengali-like man for another when she took up with Wright.

Of course, this is fiction, told from the point of view of a fictional apprentice who didn't even know all the women. But still - it's an unpleasant cast of characters.

My mother started the book and disliked it so much that she never finished it. I found myself fascinated by it. I'm guessing the accounts of Wright are pretty close to his true character, which made me wonder why any woman would want to be involved with him. He was not a nice man at all.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Well . . . I don't know what to say about this book, mostly because I haven't made up my mind if I liked it. I read it because several people, whose opinion I trust, recommended it. I got a gift certificate for Christmas, so I picked up the book.

One of the things that troubles me is that Larsson includes statistics throughout the book about the numbers of rapes and incidences of violence again women in Sweden, yet he includes several horrifyingly graphic scenes of rape and torture - against a woman. If he was trying to raise awareness of the problem in Swedish society, why then include such vivid descriptions?

At the same time, I couldn't stop reading the book. Lisbeth Salander's character interested me much more than that of Mikael Blomkvist, yet her character plays second fiddle to Blomkvist. I understand why Larsson had to do it in terms of plot, but that doesn't mean I like it.

I also thought the book should have ended after the big mystery was resolved. The whole retribution part of the plot seemed tacked on as an afterthought. I lost interest in the book at about that point.

There's a second book out, called The Girl Who Played with Fire, and I'd like to read it, but not enough to warrant paying full price for the hard cover. I'm going to have to wait for a good sale or for it to come out in paperback.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


The full title of the book is Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. My mother gave it to me for Christmas, and it's a sign of what a grammar geek I am that I was excited about getting this book.

The author, Mark Garvey, is very enthusiastic about his topic, to the point that he gushes a little too much. He needs to heed Strunk's brilliant rule of "Omit needless words" in many places.

Even though I regard Elements as one of my go-to books when I'm editing, I never really knew the history behind it. When Stunk was a professor at Cornell, he self-published a slim little pamphlet filled with writing rules and style suggestions. He thought it would make grading papers easier, because he and other professors could just scribble "see rule #2" in the margins of papers instead of explaining every editing mark again and again.

E.B. White, author of the children's classics Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web among others, and long-time writer for "The New Yorker" magazine, had Strunk as a professor when he was at Cornell. He and Strunk kept in touch through the years, and long after Strunk's death, White wrote an essay for "The New Yorker" about Strunk and his little pamphlet. The rest is writing history.

Garvey was given access by Cornell and by the Strunk and White families to letters between the two authors and letters to and from the publishers and fans/critics of the book. And, really, those were the best part of this little book. In the letters you can see the affection that both authors had for each other and for the English language.

After I finished this book, I pulled out my well-worn copy of Elements and thumbed through it again. Reading White's introduction and Strunk's rules of usage really makes me want to be a better writer. As White contends, in order to be a good writer, you have to understand the rules, even if only to break them. Too many "writers" today don't have a grasp of the basics of language and usage. They should all be given copies of the little book.

A side note - in my life before kids I worked as an editor for the Texas Attorney General's Office. I reviewed all publications the agency produced and other documents on demand. One day, an attorney asked me to take a few moments to review a letter he was getting ready to send to members of the state legislature. I made a few edits and handed the letter back. He disagreed with one of my edits and questioned me on it. I informed him of the rule I was following, and he asked to see proof that it was really a rule. So I brought out my Elements and showed him the relevant entry. This is the conversation we had at that point:

Him: What year was that published?
Me: 1979 (the third edition)
Him: Well, the book is out of date.
Me: Grammar rules don't go out of date.
Him: I went to Harvard Law School.
Me: Congratulations, but you're still wrong on this.
Him: Well, I'm doing it my way.
Me: Fine. It's your name on the letter, not mine.

I found out later he complained about me to my boss, who told him that I was correct in my edit and to stop asking me to review his letters if he wasn't going to take my advice. Ha - score one for the grammar geeks!

love stories in this town

my friend gave me this book, by amanda eyre ward, for my birthday. it's received a lot of press here because ward lives in austin.

i've never really been a fan of the short story as a whole, and this book didn't do much to change that. the stories, most of which are set just after 9/11 revolved around the loss of loved ones and coping with life and love in the wake of the attacks.

perhaps it was the frame of mind i was in when i read the stories several months ago, but i found them too sad for my liking. ward is an excellent writer, but i felt worse after reading the collection. ward has published several other books, and i liked her writing enough that i may give those a look, just to see if the stories are less sad.

*i'm writing in lower case because my keyboard is broken. the shift key is on the fritz.

switch bitch*

i've read most of roald dahl's children's lit, both when i was a child and with my kids, but i've never read any of his adult fiction before this book. and i don't think i will ever again. switch bitch contains four novellas that revolve mostly around sex, and they're fairly disturbing at that.

dahl's fantastical worlds and great imagination work well in children's lit, but in these works he seems to trying to be whimsical for the sake of being whimsical, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

i'm going to stick to his children's books.

*i'm typing in lower case because the shift key on my keyboard is broken.

bleak house*

several books i've read in the past year referenced bleak house, so i figured it was the universe's way of telling me it was time to tackle it.

for the most part i enjoyed the story. you can definitely tell that dickens was writing this book for serialization because there are chapters that do nothing to move the plot forward and characters who really don't serve any purpose - like the caddy jellyby and everything about her.

i'm in the process of watching the masterpiece theater mini-series of the book, which is excellent, and the producers have done an excellent job of whittling the story without losing any major plot points.

i do have a love-hate relationship with dickens, though. i had to read several of his books in college and grad school, and i was always bothered by how he treated women in the novels. bleak house is no different. without giving anything away, i really don't like what dickens did with esther summerson and lady dedlock at the end.

but it was still worth the read, and i may revisit some others of his, like our mutual friend and a tale of two cities.

*i'm writing in lowercase because my keyboard is fried and my shift key doesn't work.