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Diary of Books

--the Bookwoman
[Who is the Bookwoman?]

Ed's Note

The Bookwoman has taken 2004 off in attempt to complete her screenplay and get her act together. She will return to these pages as time permits.

January, 2004

December, 2003

November, 2003

August through October, 2003
I've been doing a lot of light reading over the last couple of months. Here's an incomplete list...

  • Slow Dollar by Margaret Maron: Unfortunately, I think I've read all the books in the Deborah Knott series. This one has some really interesting details about carnival culture and the judge finally gets into bed with the Deputy Sheriff (woohoo) but the mystery wasn't very good and it was overpowered by the family, neighbor and personal stories that are normally a warm and witty complement to solid mystery plots in Maron's books.
  • A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie: Re-reading a couple of Miss Marple mysteries. 10-15 years after the first reading, I didn't remember who done it so it was great fun to figure them out all over again.
  • The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
  • Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale: I've read and reviewed another book by this author, The Bottoms, which was far superior. This one had likable characters and a good sense of place but it didn't quite ring true on a lot of levels - a bit too preachy. Lansdale was preaching to the choir when he should have been concentrating on crafting a believable story.
  • Last Lesson of Summer by Margaret Maron
  • In Big Trouble by Laura Lippman
  • Film Strip by Nancy Bartholomew: Okay, I gave this author two chances because the book covers are fluorescent (signaling sexy/funny/female-oriented) but these Sierra Lavotini mysteries just don't hold up.
  • Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin: A little bit difficult to get into. I think this book must have been very late in a series that I've never read before. I always think that I want to read the mysteries set in contemporary U.K. but I can't ever seem to get comfortable with them.
  • Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland
  • The Naked Detective by Lawrence Shames: This one kind of fizzled but it started out strong and there were some nice touches that were a cut above the rest. Since it is set in Key West, Florida and doesn't take itself too seriously, you have to compare it to something by Carl Hiassen but I think Shames' book has more smarts than anything I've read by Hiassen.
  • Banker by Dick Francis: Stress Relief.
  • Proof by Dick Francis: Stress Relief.
  • Flying Finish by Dick Francis: Stress Relief.
  • Straight by Dick Francis: Stress Relief.
  • High Stakes by Dick Francis: Stress Relief.
  • Killer Market by Margaret Maron
  • Back Spin by Harlan Coben
  • Drag Strip by Nancy Bartholomew
  • Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard: Recommended by my sister...not as bad as I expected.
  • Kill and Tell by Linda Howard
  • Now You See Her by Linda Howard

July, 2003

  • Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly
  • A Blind Eye by G.M. Ford
  • Fury by G.M. Ford 
  • To the Nines by Janet Evanovich: These books are always fun (and quick) to read.
  • Black River by G.M. Ford: My friends and I have read and enjoyed all of Ford's Leo Waterman series of humorous mysteries set in and around Seattle and were delighted to discover that he's got a new series with a new protagonist, Frank Corso. I started with the second of the three books, which I now consider to be the best of the three. There is still a nice sense of humor and a good sense of place (still Seattle) but these Corso books are a little more "hard-boiled" as they say. I don't generally crave harder boiling but I appreciate decent writing, intelligent dialogue and a good sense of humor -- these books have all that.
  • The Making of Toro by Mark Sundeen: Last summer, in a bookstore on the main street in Moab, I mistakenly walked into an organized reading with Mark Sundeen as one of the featured local authors. I had read Car Camping and liked it, although not as much as a number of my male acquaintances (including several mainstays of the Goliard creative staff), who quote the book frequently. Anyway, while the other local authors were reading their pieces, I noticed this lanky blond guy in distressed jeans, boots and a worn yellow button-up shirt skulking around by the magazine rack and looking nervous. He turned out to be Mark Sundeen, who subsequently read the first chapter of Toro and was very impressive. The chapter is funny and well-written and Sundeen's faux-shy smirk and his obvious appreciation of his own silly scene were irresistible. So, I was thrilled when the book was finally released and read it quickly, with much enjoyment and appreciation. I'm a sucker for the unreliable narrator, the dramatic irony, the fine sense of humor and the positive, authentic character who shines through all of the embellishments and affectations. Since I'm basically a middle-class gringa at heart with a happy family background and non-divorced parents, my favorite part of the book was toward the end, when the narrator talks about driving home from his grandparents' house with his eyes closed in the "way-back" of the station wagon and recognizing the turns as the family approached their home, and pretending to be asleep so that his dad would carry him inside to bed. My sister and I spent similar time in the "way-back" of our family's station wagon and I vividly remember the feeling as the car turned onto Agricultural Blvd from Liberty then left on Monroe and finally right on Barberry Lane then "Home again, home again, jiggety jig jig."
  • Death in a Mood Indigo by Francine Matthews: A friend brought me this paper-back mystery after a vacation on the New England coast. He had visited the Nantucket island beach where the bones are discovered in the book. I like mysteries with a strong sense of place and I'm trying to cultivate an appreciation for the female authors in the genre but I find myself unable to enthusiastically endorse the "Merry Folger" series of mysteries. The book is fairly well-written but the heroine is sort of annoying (she mentions repeatedly that her ancestors were among the first to settle Nantucket and has a serious case of daddy's girl/grand-daddy's girl syndrome). Plus, her interrogation style is so pompous and aggressive to be ridiculous and not very believable. Also, it was so obvious who the murderer was going to be that I had almost talked myself into believing that the big "twist" was going to be that someone else did it. Alas, the big "twist" revealed what I had already figured out before the book was half-way over, in a wastefully bloody way. So, I'd probably read another one of these books if it was given to me and I'd certainly choose this author over, say, Nevada Barr or J.A. Jance, but I'd prefer a Margaret Maron or (guilty pleasure) Janet Evanovich any day.
  • Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins: I think that Robbins is a very talented writer of lyrical, thought-provoking, wacky books and I would highly recommend Skinny Legs and All, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and most of the rest of his oeuvre. However, Villa Incognito was less than expected. It seemed to be the first rough draft of a Robbins novel.
  • A Conventional Corpse by Joan Hess: Embarrassing.
  • The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes: I would not recommend this book as a little light summer reading or place it into someone's lap at a birthday party (as was done to me a couple of months ago by a well-intentioned friend) but I will acknowledge that the book was well-worth the effort that it most certainly required. It provides a very thorough history of the scientific discoveries and political factors that contributed to the development of the first nuclear weapons, including interesting portraits of some major scientific thinkers of the 20th Century (Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, Enrico Fermi, etc.). It also includes detailed coverage of the massive administrative and engineering effort that was the Manhattan Project. Although I expected it in advance, I was somewhat depressed by the sense of inevitability, the suggestion that if something can be done in science, it will be done so the important thing is to be the first person to do it, the relative lack of ethical reflection among the scientists and engineers, etc. It was a great theoretical and engineering achievement and many of the scientists who worked on the project were mindful of the effects of their work and were convinced of their justification and even responsibility to develop the bomb. But the Germans weren't going to develop the bomb before the Americans or even any time soon and the Allied forces would have accepted a conditional surrender if not for a slip of the tongue and the Japanese would have been willing to surrender conditionally without the destruction of Hiroshima (and they were practically in the act of surrender during the bomb run on Nagasaki) and of course the Russians were going to do whatever they could to balance the power. Everyone seemed to think that the outcome was inevitable because scientists discovered the ability to split the atom and yet it took many years and billions of dollars and many intelligent, responsible people saying "yes, this is what we should do" in order to achieve it. How can that be inevitable?

June, 2003

  • Mary Anne by Daphne Du Maurier: I loved Du Maurier's Rebecca when I was a teenager and I picked this book up for 35 cents at a thrift store. She apparently wrote the book about her own great...?...great grandmother and the story was probably much more interesting to her as a relative than to me as a reader. It reminded me a bit of Defoe's Moll Flanders.
  • Strong Motion by Johnathan Franzen: This one wasn't as carefully constructed as The Corrections, which was itself a bit sprawling and self-indulgent, but there are some really good parts among a lot of parts that lack focus, especially the chapter about "living in the black."
  • The Corrections by Johnathan Franzen: This book has been highly acclaimed by the critics and there are some really wonderful things about it. Many of the descriptions are quite clever and beautifully written and much of the "critique" of late 20th century America, middle America, etc. rings true. As a rule, I don't really care for the lewd academic type characters (O'Toole's Confederacy of Dunces, Dunleavey's Gingerbread Man, etc.) like Chip (I think because it usually seems that the author identifies too much with these characters and tends to overindulge them) and I found nothing to connect with in Gary and his family. However, I responded to Denise's story and (I have no idea whether it is true to life but...) I was particularly interested in the description of the elderly couple and the effect of Parkinson's disease on the husband.
  • Storm Track by Margaret Maron: I'll keep reading the Maron books about Judge Knott whenever I find one at the library or used bookstore. I like their sense of humor, family and place even though the mysteries themselves are pretty lightweight. I'd put her on the shelf somewhere near Paretsky's V.I. Warshawsky books but far above authors such as Nevada Barr, J.A. Jance, Sue Grafton, etc. 

May, 2003

  • In Search of J.D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton: I started the book irritated with the author for tormenting a talented writer who obviously wanted to be left alone (and using an "alter ego" as a device in the narration) but I ended the book quite sad to have my illusions shattered about Salinger's gentle, sensitive and brilliant soul. 
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig: I firmly believed that I read this book when I was about 15 but upon re-reading discovered that only the first couple of chapters were vaguely familiar. I'm afraid that my teenage self may have claimed credit for a book that she didn't actually finish. Anyway, this was the first of many re-evaluations that I had to make when reading the book.
  • Billy Phelan's Greatest Game by William Kennedy: Although I liked this book, it definitely wasn't as effective as Ironweed.
  • Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger: I'm going to be quite daring and list my favorites in descending order - The Laughing Man, For Esme..., De Daumier-Smith's..., ...Bananafish, Teddy, Pretty Mouth..., Uncle Wiggily..., ...Dinghy, ...Eskimos. While I'm out on the literary limb, I'll express some musings on the conclusion to "Teddy." I think that Teddy's sister accidentally pushed him into the empty pool and screamed when she realized what she had done. The walls of the swimming pool room would probably be tile and reverberate in the same way that the pool would. Also, I don't think she would have time for a "sustained scream" if she were falling into the pool herself. I don't think that Teddy would have purposely let his sister die in his place, even at the last minute. And I think that it was clear to that reader and Mr. Nicholson (whoever he is) that Teddy dispassionately expected to move onto his next life that morning. Okay, since I'm still out here, how about "...Bananafish?" I don't understand how the Seymour Glass from "Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters" could have shot himself on the twin bed directly across from where his wife was taking a nap. That's an aggressive and mean-spirited act, which seems to be directed at Muriel more than himself. He knew what Muriel was when he married her and he had no right to attack her in this manner. If he felt trapped in a banana hole, there are other ways, much more worthy of that most sensitive of souls, that he could have self-destructed. Of course, I didn't understand how the Seymour of "...Carpenters" could have thrown the rock at his childhood friend so maybe I'm missing the same thing in both stories... 

April, 2003

  • Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger: I liked a lot of things about these stories but they were a bit tedious and self-indulgent. I had read this book before but didn't remember many of the details. However, I had the idea that people think there were incestuous undercurrents in the story. Perhaps my radar detector for incest "vibes" is not very strong but I didn't get that at all?! I'll have to do some research to get to the bottom of this.
  • Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by J.D. Salinger: I thought that "Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters" was a beautiful story. It was beautifully written and funny, with truly interesting characters and a wonderful "aura." I can't help but grin at the thought of the narrator's affinity for the little deaf-mute gentleman in the back seat. I didn't always enjoy reading the "Seymour: An Introduction" story but I respect the effort and think that it deserves a more careful re-reading when I'm in the mood to be scholarly. 
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: Since the back cover of the Borderliners (I know I shouldn't read those) quoted someone who compared Hoeg's book to Salinger's, I was inspired to read this classic again. It really does deserve all of the praise that it receives. Just for fun, I looked up the poem by Robert Burns that inspires the book's title. It appears to be about a girl who has a sexual experience (or many) out in a field. I guess that I can understand how it would be significant that Holden would impose his unrealistic dream of an eternal childhood with this poem of sexual maturity but I definitely don't understand why this poem would have been a hymn that people sang in Sunday school?! More opportunity for research... 
  • Borderliners by Peter Hoeg: This book was well-written and the author did a good job of establishing a sort of tamely sinister atmosphere. I was quite interested in the "philosophical" examination of time, the portrayal of the orphanage/reform school system in Denmark and the impact on a boy who went through the system. However, the "mystery" about the "experimentation" on the students in the school didn't make much sense to me.  
  • The Murder Book by Jonathan Kellerman: Another book chosen to get me through a plane trip. My mother used to buy these books in the checkout line and, since I used to read all of her paperbacks when she finished them, I read quite a few of the early books in this series. I remembered Alex Delaware as a relatively intelligent and interesting "detective" character but I thought that this book was fairly lame. Could be because it was about the 20th in the series. Also, the author photo on the inside of the back cover is pretty creepy...
  • Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver: I really liked this book and have really liked everything that I've read by this author. I like her sense of humor and her compassion and her strong female characters. This one was set in a fictional Arizona town and has a fine sense of place.
  • All That Remains by Patricia Cornwell: A Kay Scarpeta mystery, for reading on the plane on the way to Boston. I was interested in the mystery but the denouement was pretty disappointing. I think that mystery authors should figure out the end first and then go from there because this is the worst part of most of these paperback mysteries -- the author can never seem to figure out a satisfying (or even logical, sometimes) conclusion.
  • The Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway: I'll concur with everyone who praises the descriptions but also with everyone who criticizes the subject, big game hunting, and pities the author's preoccupation with alcohol. I remember that I once really enjoyed a short story about hills and white elephants and liked another story about a husband and wife on a safari (someone gets hurt, though, and I think that the characters were actually characters and not Hemingway). I guess I thought that this book was going to be one of those. Oh well.

March, 2003

  • The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer by Tom Dardis: I read the introduction and the chapter on Hemingway. Dardis makes the case that Hemingway was an alcoholic, although he never acknowledged it, and that it had a negative impact on his later works. His point seems to be that, contrary to popular opinion, use of alcohol does not make one a better writer but instead erodes the abilities of talented artists.
  • Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway: Some parts of this book were enjoyable but it lacks focus and cohesiveness. I'm fascinated by the main character, alcohol, and wonder whether the people around Hemingway were actually so persistent in urging him to drink as the characters around the protagonist Thomas Hudson were. Or is this some kind of distortion produced by the alcoholism? Although it is terribly indulgent to try to discover the character of the author in his/her works of fiction, given the obvious parallels between the author and protagonist in this book, it is impossible to resist. So, I'm also interested in why the three sons in the book die very young when Hemingway's three sons in real life did not...
  • A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway: I enjoyed this book and am inspired to read more by and about Hemingway.
  • On Night's Shore by Randall Silvis: This mystery is set in New York City in the 1840s, with Edgar Allen Poe in the role of "detective." The narrator, Little Augie Dubbins, is appealing and the portrayal of Poe is sympathetic, although the mystery is a little thin. I like this genre (historical, literary, mystery) and think that this book was better than many of the mysteries that are currently published. I'd say it was much better than the books with Mark Twain as the protagonist but not as good as The Alienist by Caleb Carr, with Teddy Roosevelt et al.

February, 2003

  • Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood: I generally like Atwood's books but I much preferred Cat's Eye and The Handmaid's Tale to this book. I was really irritated by the clumsy ploy of starting each chapter with the date of the events/thoughts depicted (e.g. February 14, 1976). It seemed to serve no purpose except to allow Atwood to insert a couple of episodes that happened before the time covered by the narrative into the middle of the book. However, by the time those episodes were inserted, I had long since stopped reading the dates and was therefore a little confused and a lot irritated by the flashback.
  • Failure Modes and Effects Analysis by Paul Palady: Perhaps it would be best to just let you wonder about this one. ;-)
  • City of Bones by Michael Connelly: I still think that Michael Connelly is one of the best Mystery authors writing now but this book was not nearly as good as some of his previous books. The "twist" that Connelly usually does so well seemed to be uninspired this time..
  • Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan: Although it is not the defining characteristic of this book, I continue to be baffled by this technique of describing very specific details to an almost obsessive degree. Such as, (and I'm making these sentences up as an example) "she pulled into the McDonald's drive-thru and ordered a cheeseburger, a Big Mac, French fries and two orange sodas then she squeezed the ketchup packet onto the paper wrapper so that the kids could dip their fries" or "she looked into her purse and saw a tube of lipstick (rose frost), a crumpled up receipt from the bookstore, a comb, four dimes and three pennies." I understand that this is probably an attempt to elucidate the character by describing the "stuff" that surrounds him/her but it can be a really clumsy and irritating "technique." This book is almost a "time capsule" describing life in Phoenix for upper-middle class, educated black women in the early 1990s who are looking for relationships with similar black men.
  • The Death of an Irish Sinner by Bartholomew Gill: I've given this author plenty of chances and I just can't get enthusiastic about these books. The plots are uninteresting and the characters are unengaging. The books also seem to have a "dark side" that is entirely out of place. I am enthusiastic about reading a mystery set in Ireland but I am unenthused by this particular series.

January, 2003

  • La Casa en Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: Read slowly, in Spanish!
  • The Glucose Revolution Life Plan by Jennie Brand-Miller et al: The information on the effect that specific foods have on blood sugar was helpful but there were very few surprises. The best tip that I learned was to incorporate acidic food (such as a vinegar-based salad dressing) with meals as a way neutralize the effect of the carbohydrates in the meal.
  • Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham: January was an unsatisfying literary month for me and I don't know whether the Maugham, Bellow and Waugh books were responsible for the lull or whether my attitude toward these books was colored by a dissatisfaction that stemmed from other causes. In any case, I wasn't particularly engaged by this book but I was interested in the information about what medical school was like in the late 1800s.
  • The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow: I couldn't finish this one. Again, the dissatisfaction could be attributed to other factors than the quality of this book. Bad books don't usually come as highly recommended as this one did so it was probably me...
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh: Another book that just didn't strike a chord with me this month -- probably my fault.
  • The New Glucose Revolution by Jennie Brand-Miller, et al.

December, 2002

  • Ironweed by William Kennedy: This was a beautiful book.
  • I, Claudius by Robert Graves: Although I completed a "Minor" in Classical Studies during college, most of those studies covered the Greeks and Romans up to the time of Augustus and did not deal with the Roman Emperors after Augustus. This was an ugly period in history but I'm glad to have learned a little more about it.
  • Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster: This was my least favorite of the Forster books that I've been reading lately. 

November, 2002

  • Bootlegger's Daughter by Margaret Maron: In general, I like this series of books about a strong female lawyer and the small southern town where she lives.
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: I chose to read this book before I heard about the movie, The Hours. There were definitely some things to like about this book -- I personally like the "stream of consciousness" style of letting the reader figure out what has led up to the thoughts/events described and I think that many of the descriptions are quite beautiful. However, I have never really been able to appreciate Woolf to the degree that she probably deserves and I was really turned off by the suicidal poor man who thinks too much and is unable to cope with the modern situation. I didn't like Leonard Bast in the Forster book either. 
  • How to Be Good by Nick Hornby: I have enjoyed all of Hornby's books and this one had some very good elements but it seemed to be more cynical and pessimistic than his other books and wasn't nearly as much fun.
  • Slab Rat by Ted Heller: This book is far from perfect but I enjoyed it. There are some joyfully absurd characters and scenes that remind you of the author's father, Joseph Heller.
  • The Death of an Irish Lover by Bartholemew Gill: Nothing special.
  • Mr. White's Confession by Robert Clark: The protagonist has some sort of strange condition that prevents him from remembering what he has done unless he keeps careful track of his actions via diaries and scrapbooks. He's an odd little guy and I was initially intrigued by the narration. Ultimately, though, the book didn't live up to my expectations although it wasn't a waste of time. The movie Memento was more successful at building from the idea of memory loss. 
  • A Room With a View by E.M. Forrester: I am really enjoying these gentle, mellifluous books by E.M. Forrester and I plan to finish his entire oeuvre in the weeks to come.

October, 2002

September, 2002

  • Six Easy Pieces by Richard P. Feynman: In progress...
  • Death on the Mississippi by Peter J. Heck: Another light mystery set in the late 1800s on a riverboat cruise that doubles as a moneymaking lecture tour for the bankrupt Samuel Clemens. No surprises but Mark Twain is an engaging character and I'm a sucker for the mysteries that are narrated by an imminently respectable but nevertheless clueless companion (Poirot and Hastings, Holmes and Watson, etc.)--in this case, Yale football man and member of the eminent Cabot clan, William "Wentworth" Cabot. Apparently, there are other books in the series with titles such as "Tom's Lawyer," and "The Mysterious Strangler" and, argh, "A Connecticut Yankee in Criminal Court."
  • The Day the Music Died by Ed Gorman: A light mystery set in Iowa in right after Buddy Holly died in 1959. No surprises but the Richie Cunningham-style protagonist/narrator provides a somewhat soothing reading experience.
  • Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe: The "first novel of social criticism in the history of English literature."
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontė: I had to read this again, after reading Wide Sargasso Sea. I can certainly understand why Rhys felt such pity for the first Mrs. Rochester but what I can't understand is why I considered this book to be romantic when I first read it in my early teens. I suppose that someone has already written a paper about these books where the mousy little women are able to be on "equal footing" with their dashing older husbands after the men have been devastated by terrible fires caused directly or indirectly by their more flamboyant first wives. Did Du Maurier read Brontė or vice versa? [I've since learned that Jane Eyre greatly precedes Rebecca and that I'm not the first, of course, to draw the comparison.]  Actually, I wasn't going to finish re-reading this book until I came across the description of Rochester's dog Pilot -- "a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head: it passed me, however, quietly enough; not staying to look up, with strange pretercanine eyes, in my face, as I half expected it would." A Newfoundland, of course! I own two myself and love the beasts. Alas, Pilot did not figure prominently in the rest of the book...
  • Howard's End by E.M. Forster. I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to. I think that I may have read it once in the past but it was all mixed up for me with the other Anthony Hopkins/Emma Thompson movies that came out around the same time several years ago. This is the one where the modern, practical, business-oriented Mr. Wilcox falls in love with the sensitive, humanistic Meg Schlegel and the struggling clerk Leonard Bast, trying to move above his station, falls under the bookcase and expires, from heart attack.

August, 2002

  • The Commitments by Roddy Doyle: This was a lightning-quick read but quite enjoyable. The Dublin-speak was wonderfully entertaining. It might interest you to know that the idea to have Jimmy interview himself in the mirror was an innovation within the movie...at least it was interesting to me. Although it doesn't appear in the book, it is true to character and exactly the right choice to help tell the story. Now to watch that movie again... 
  • Trial Run by Dick Francis: Typical D.F. mystery. This one was written in the late 1970s and set in the Soviet Union. 
  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking: This book was easy to read and quite interesting. I feel that I have an update on my understanding of modern physics (from the Capra books of the late 1970s) but I'm still out of date. Although the cosmology and physics were interesting, of course, on a more personal level, I was charmed by the scholarly asides that Hawking often placed in parentheses.
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: This book tells the story of Antoinette Cosway Mason, who married Edward Rochester, became known as "Bertha" and ended up in the attic of Charlotte Brontė's Jane Eyre. Rhys' conception of Rochester and his first bride is much different than C.B.'s!

July, 2002

  • Protect and Defend by Richard North Patterson: Legal/political paperback; okay for a plane ride unless you are a member of the Christian Coalition and/or have ever picketed an abortion clinic, in which case, you will probably think that RNP is going to hell. A woman at the used book store was following me around trying to sell me "trade credit" for cash and telling me about her daughter who died camping in a national park and was a "Jane Doe" for five months. I had to buy this book...with her trade credit...just so I could get out of there. 
  • Caesar's Women by Colleen McCullough: Historical novel about ancient Rome, the time of Julius Caesar's rise. I read a bunch of these books when I was in college about Marius and Sulla and the Senate before the arrival of Caesar. I didn't like this one as much as I remembered liking the others but I still thought the book was worth my time and I definitely appreciate the time that the author must have put in for research.
  • The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare: Okay, okay. I was inspired to re-read this play because of another teen movie adaptation. Perhaps I wasn't in the mood but this may have been my least favorite of Shakespeare's comedies.
  • The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale: Excellent Edgar Award winning mystery, which sort of had the feel of To Kill a Mockingbird. The story is told from the perspective of a poor young boy in the south, who has a tomboy little sister, a father he looks up to (although unlike Atticus Finch, this father is flawed) and friends among the blacks and the whites. The characters and the sense of time and place were good and the mystery was engaging as well. I am quite partial to feisty grandmother characters these days and the narrator and his sister have a good one.
  • The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans: Ugh. I picked this up for 35 cents at the thrift store and thought it was a book about horses. I can only repeat, ugh, ugh, ugh.
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: I re-read this book every couple of years and I never get tired of it. It's smart and funny of course, but it also contains some incredibly poignant scenes and characters -- Major Major Major attempting to play basketball in disguise; A.T. Tappman, group chaplain; Snowden's death from stomach wounds while Yossarian patches his leg... 

June, 2002

  • A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss: I've already mentioned how much I liked The Alienist, so you know that I am a sucker for the historical mystery. But even taking into account my predisposition to like this book, I feel comfortable giving it high praise. It is set in London in the early 1700s, with a Jewish boxer (black sheep of a family of "stock jobbers" and tradesmen) as the narrator and "detective." In a reluctant effort to investigate the possible murder of his estranged father, Benjamin Weaver confronts the British financial world at a time when the first (a first?) stock market "bubble" is about to pop. Benjamin also crosses paths with the organized crime, anti-Semitism, degenerate nobility and even the publishing industry of the day. The story is interesting, the characters are engaging and the narrator's manner of speech and sense of humor are quite appealing. My only complaint follows along with my pet peeve this month, which is that books written today about historical time periods sometimes suffer from the obvious imposition of modern day attitudes on historical characters. At times, Benjamin Weaver seems to be a bit too "enlightened" to be truly believable. Still, I liked him, his friends and his adventure. Plus, this was the first time I've read about people being "swived" since John Barth's bawdy Sot-Weed Factor and that tends to be a sign of a fun read. 
  • Hard Eight by Janet Evanovich: Okay, by the seventh installment in Evanovich's Stephanie Plum mystery series, it's true that the novelty had definitely worn off. Nevertheless, I was still sufficiently interested in the Stephanie/Morelli romance that I picked up the eighth book when it came out this month. It was definitely more of the same but it didn't get any worse than the last one and it was an extremely quick read. It's like watching a movie at a $2.00 theater. Even if it is not a great movie, it can be worth the $2.00 to sit in the air conditioning and take your mind off of things for a couple of hours. This book is worth the 4 or 5 hours that it takes to read it.
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn: A scholarly classic. My college education was so full of talk about paradigms that I'm afraid it was difficult to give Kuhn credit for the original idea!
  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant: I attended nine years of Catholic school but my knowledge of the Old Testament is very superficial. I know about Noah and Moses and I even knew the story of Joseph and his brothers but I knew nothing about Dinah and wasn't too sure about the family tree after God stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. It was nice to figure out who was married to whom, at least temporarily, and I was interested to hear how Jacob came to change his name to Isra'El (assuming that Diamant's version is not apocryphal). The book actually reminded me a lot of Clan of the Cave Bear, with a sort of 20th Century influenced-by-feminism view into the life of women that is not reported in the history books....much talk of isolation during menstruation and medicinal herbs! Actually, I don't want to sound too critical. It has been a pretty good read.

May, 2002

  • A mediocre literary month. I was tempted to read Seabiscuit again!
  • Emma by Jane Austen: After watching the movie Clueless on VHS, I felt compelled to re-read Emma for the second or third time. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books and I've read all of Austen's novels at least once. Emma has never been one of my favorites but I was really disappointed with it during this re-reading. Emma is a vain, selfish, snobby character and I found it very difficult to have any affection for her at all. Cher in Clueless is a much more sympathetic character than her literary roll model and even though she takes on many projects similar to Emma's (misguided matchmaking, devotion to daddy, epiphany of her love for an older pseudo family member) she is much more likeable in the process, as are the characters who surround her. I found Emma to be a deeply disappointing experience.
  • Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime by John Dunning: Unfortunately similar to my experiences with Caleb Carr, Dunning's first book (Booked to Die, a mystery about bookscouting) was very enjoyable and the second mystery (Bookman's Wake) was disappointing. The third book showed terrific promise and I quickly read the first half of the book before I started to lose steam. The setting, in a wartime radio station in 1930s New Jersey, was enough to make the book worth reading and the main character was also engaging. However, the plot seemed to be unnecessarily full of holes and Dunning seriously botches the attempt to be mysterious about a non-sinister portion of the plot. When the "mystery" is cleared up and we are supposed to see that there was a perfectly benign explanation for the whole thing, I didn't believe the story and disliked and distrusted a character that I was supposed to sympathize with throughout the rest of the book. Like Kurzweil's Grand Complication, I think that the concept was good, but the execution was weak and I felt cheated that a good book was spoiled.
  • Killing Time by Caleb Carr: The Alienist was extremely enjoyable. The plot was "gripping," the time and place (turn of the century New York City) were interesting and the historical and other characters were extremely enjoyable. The Angel of Darkness was disappointing but it's hard to say whether the dissatisfaction was due entirely to the book's mediocrity or the unfavorable comparison with the first novel. Killing Time was the worst of the three and although many of the characters were engaging (I like the eccentric Jewish brother characters, even though the brothers from the first two books seem to be recycled in the third under new names) and some of the plot was intriguing, the book did not hold together at all. 
  • Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel: When I heard that the long-awaited next book in the series was finally available shortly after I purchased an old paperback of the first for 35 cents from a thrift store, I decided that my spirit totem must have given me a sign. I probably would have liked this book a lot better if I'd read it at age 13 but I still appreciated it for what it was. I wonder how much of the details are based in actual research and how much is entirely romantic imagination?
  • The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture by Fritjof Capra: 1970s social commentary supported by the state-of-the-art (again in the 1970s) of quantum physics. Although the book was repetitive, I actually enjoyed the perspective and have been buying organic foods ever since. I wasn't really surprised but I was depressed to find that most of the serious problems identified in 1981 are still serious problems today (health care, environment, energy, political partisanship). One area that I haven't been too concerned about until recently was the nuclear threat and even that seems to be coming into the fore. 

April, 2002

  • A month wasted on Zorba the Greek, but a dramatic turnaround at the end of the month with the wonderful enjoyment of Seabiscuit.
  • Seabiscuit, An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand: A tremendously enjoyable book about the world of horse racing. It was terrific fun to page through the book, wondering what "the Biscuit" and his entourage would do next. I've heard the author interviewed on NPR and a couple of sports talk shows and she is just as enjoyable to listen to as the book is to read. The book gives a vivid picture of the lives of a group of people and horses who were brought together by the career of an unlikely champion racehorse. The stories of the owner, the trainer, the jockey, the horse and his rivals all provide a wonderful look at horse racing and America in the 1930s. Most of all, the descriptions of Seabiscuit are irresistible. That horse was such a stinker! His racing career got off to a rocky start because he was a funny looking horse and pretended to be slow because he was lazy. Once his people figured out how fast he was and he started to race seriously, he was such an intense competitor and so ornery that he would toy with the other horses before he beat them. One horse had to be tricked into believing that Seabiscuit had left the stable before he could ever resume his racing form, because Seabiscuit had humiliated him so thoroughly! Since I'm secretly pleased when my puppy shows the ingenuity to steal a loaf of bread off of the counter, I guess it is safe to say that I'm a girl who has a special place in her heart for ornery animals. Seabiscuit goes right to your heart. 
  • The Screen-writer's Workbook by Syd Field: Practical research for an impractical goal--selling a romantic comedy screenplay to Hollywood.
  • Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis: Perhaps Kazantzakis caught me at a bad time but I have been thoroughly uninterested in this story of the overly intellectual young man interacting with a highly "earthy" older man. It seems that this duality has been explored many times before and the "intellectual" narrator is a serious bore.

March, 2002

February, 2002

  • The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin: This book was hard to put down. It has the same sense of humor as the Tales of the City books but it is not as light and soap-operatic. It is very well crafted with an interesting story, engaging characters and a social conscience (deals with homosexual relationships and living with AIDS in a matter-of-fact and engaging way). There is also a very effective mysterious streak that shoots through the book. There are all sorts of playful elements that mix up reality with the TOTC books with the narrator's life with the books that the narrator has written, with the story the narrator is telling in the current book. I would have enjoyed the book for the characters and storytelling on their own but the mysterious twists were a wonderful bonus.
  • Death Turns a Trick by Julie Smith: Good literature that also lets your mind soar is like expensive dark chocolate. Good fiction that sooths and relaxes is like expensive milk chocolate. Mediocre fiction that provides a temporary distraction is like chocolate from the grocery store checkout line (e.g. peanut butter M&Ms). And so on... This book was like a Jolly Rancher--not really even worth the calories.
  • Dead in the Water by Julie Smith: To borrow a rhetorical device from the Movie Man, this book was all wet.
  • Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game by Daniel Okrent: Although this book was recommended by a trusted source, I was not optimistic about the prospect of 304 pages about the same nine innings of baseball. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find a collection of anecdotes and insights about the inner workings of the game. Okrent brings a light touch to the organization, integrating little bits of information about pitching strategies, batting techniques, player idiosyncrasies, the business of baseball franchises, ownership, the baseball commissioner and other insights into a satisfying whole.
  • Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen: My first Carl Hiassen. It reminded me of a combination of Bill Fitzhugh's "lighthearted" eco-terrorism and Tom Wolfe's "Man in Full" portrayal of the egocentric hyper-masculine southern wheeler-dealer. The book was okay but the theme of violence in support of ecological objectives really left me cold. This "Monkey Wrench Gang"-esque violence to people and property in the name of environmentalism doesn't have any hope of reversing the ecological damage, is invariably carried out by people who do their own damage to the planet in many ways and always seems to be more about the violence than the ecological motive. 

January, 2002

 

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