Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sex On The Moon: The Amazing Story Behind The Most Audacious Heist In History / by Ben Mezirch

Thad Roberts was the quintessential brainy guy with not a lot of moral intelligence. Born in Utah to a devout Mormon family, he soon followed a different path--he was actually kicked out of the house in his teen years for engaging in premarital sex. Though certainly smart enough, endowed with the natural gifts to excel academically, he could never quite get past the juvenile hijinks of his formative years and wound up in his early twenties aimless, jobless and unhappily married. Somehow Roberts managed to gain entry into a course of study at the University of Utah where he demonstrated enough prowess to ultimately earn a coveted summer internship with NASA in Houston. He spent three summers doing the rounds at the Johnson Space Center, working with the spacehab and biology personnel during the day and living it up in his off hours, supervising recreational activities and partying at the local hotspots (it's not hard to recognize a lot of familiar haunts) with his fellow interns.

In 2002, out of little more than a desire to impress a girl (not his former wife), Roberts stumbled upon a seemingly inane, though obviously appealing enough plan to steal some of the original moon rocks obtained during the Apollo missions from a loosely secured safe at the JSC main site. That he got away with it wasn't such a big deal--he and his girlfriend actually drove the 600 ib. safe off the site in their Jeep Cherokee--until he tried selling the rocks on the black market, a move inevitably garnering attention from a curious precious metals dealer who, upon verification of the rocks' authenticity, alerted the FBI. It wasn't long before Roberts and his girlfriend as well as a third party were arrested, tried and convicted. Roberts got 8 years in a federal prison while his accomplices got off with relatively lighter sentences, doing probation and forbidden from any type of government employment.

Writer Ben Mezrich does an nice job of rallying interest in the space program even having missed the boat by a few decades and he well-captures Roberts mindless enthusiasm though that's a bit of a problem in itself; Roberts is kind of a mixed bag that we never quite nail down. If the bulk of the narrative is to be believed, he's a bonafide life-of-the-party type A personality with a bent towards self-destructive choices and a penchant for hustling naive women. Yet you have to wonder at the sheer lunacy of some of his decision-making--stealing the rocks is one thing but exposing himself by trying to sell them is exceedingly stupid--as well as the inner-dynamics of his flighty relationships and a spotty academic background prior to NASA, all things the book doesn't quite cover well enough. This isn't the author's best outing (it may have been something the publisher pushed for). The Accidental Billionaires, in which the movie The Social Network was loosely based on, was a better read with more pertinent content and a far more credible story to apply his sensationalized style to. (364.1628552 MEZRICH)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Middle Place / by Kelly Corrigan

Growing up, Kelly Corrigan was always a daddy's girl, the youngest child in a happy, well-balanced Maryland family that cherished togetherness and bonding. Her father, an ad man and high school lacrosse coach, was the quintessential paterfamilias, a caring, compassionate man whose emotional support helped Kelly through many sad and troubling times. It may have helped things that she was the youngest, the only girl with two older brothers who got a lot of the defacto attention. So when the 36-year-old happily married mother of two young girls found a lump in her left breast which soon translated into cancer, among the first persons she called was her father. Then she found out that her father George also had the disease, his a form of prostate cancer which later also spread to his bladder. Their struggle, equally shared through grueling chemotherapy and false hope, helped bring about a greater bond between them and a new understanding of life in "the middle" for Corrigan.

Corrigan, a freelance magazine editorialist, pens a readable memoir of about a common subject which affects about a third of the population. The parallel journey traveled by both she and her father adds something to the mix, even as they lived on opposite ends of the country--Kelly in California, George back at the family home in Maryland. And while the book's not terribly original, the author manages to blend the issues involving her emotionally rigorous time dealing with her own fate and that of her father well enough to keep the interest of the reader. Interspersed between her present battle with the disease are segments she recalls from her childhood, charming incidents from middle school through college which do a good job of fleshing out Kelly's character and perspective. On the other hand, how many of these types of books can there be, seriously? (362.196 CORRIGAN)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Best Books of 2011

With 2011 coming to a close, everyone's making their "best of" lists of which books are included. Along with the usual outlets like Publisher's Weekly and the New York Times, the Houston Chronicle has made a list of its favorites as well as NPR which has several selection sets including best novels. The Guardian's books page is another great site to check out for their extensive evaluation.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

More Jawing Over Larsson's 'Millenium' Trilogy

Not everyone's happy about the Americanization of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy (FIC LARSSON). When merchandising agents and unlicensed publicity began capitalizing on the new David Fincher film, a project with its predominately Anglo/American cast talking in Swedish-accented English, it's taking things too far for Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson's former mistress, who this week claimed that Larsson would never have endorsed such a spectacle. She says the deceased author would've used the spotlight to promote his rigid stance against mysogyny, discrimination and violence against women. Even though she doesn't actually own the rights to any of the books (the author's immediate family does, though that's another matter), Gabrielsson said she and Larsson "would have never sold any rights for merchandizing," adding that, "It has nothing to do with the books." Some people may not have gotten the message. Rooney Mara, the American actress playing Lisbeth Salander, said that her character's neither a feminist nor an advocate of any such group or movement, a gesture to which a disbelieving Gabrielsson replied "Does she know what film she has been in? Has she read the books? Has she not had any coaching?" Gabrielsson may have a point here; the literal translation of Larsson's first title is actually "Men Who Hate Women". Oh well. Maybe Mara only read the American translation. To hear more of what Eva Gabrielsson thinks, be sure to check out her own, recently published memoir, "There Are Things I Want You To Know" About Stieg Larsson and Me (839.738 GABRIELS).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

I'm Not Scared / by Niccolo Ammaniti; trans. from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt

In the sweltering Italian summer of 1978, residents of the sparse hamlet of Aquo Traverse do their best to keep cool and comfortable. Adults mainly stay inside, dissuaded from their normal tasks and irritable to be around, while children are left to explore on their own, largely unsupervised as they roam the surrounding countryside. On one outing, 9-year-old Michele Amitrano accepts a dare to enter an abandoned farmhouse alone. What he finds there, lying in a hollowed-out portion of the foundation, is what he presumes to be a corpse, that of a boy around his own age though he doesn't tell his friends or let on about anything out of the ordinary. Someone must be told though as news of this sort is obviously noteworthy and, soon afterwards, Michele discloses the situation to his father only to have the elder Amitrano mysteriously brush him off, actually telling him to forget the whole thing and indicating (in aggressive fashion) that this is the last he wants to hear about it. A confused Michele, too curious to stay away, ultimately returns to the scene and discovers that the boy in question is in fact not dead, only deathly weak, disoriented and mostly unable to account for his presence. In the following days, with aid from the food and water Michele brings him, a pieced-together story of kidnapping, ransom and cover-up involving every adult, Michele's parents included, in the small village is recounted. The evidence of the abducted boy, what he's able to recall and the mutual conspiracy by practically every grown-up he's ever known are largely out of Michele's reach. From his limited perspective, the situation's not only unfathomable but contradictory. And yet he knows something must be done. At a moral as well as developmental crossroads, Michele decides to act. Will it be the right move?

There are lots of coming of age novels. There are lots of growing older novels. There are lots of recollective, anecdotal stories written by grown-ups of early youth and confronting reality. But there are precious few truly great 'books about childhood written for adults'. This is one of them. Not a thriller, not suspense. Not nostalgia, not YA, not an abuse testimonial and probably not even a kid-centered horror tale à la Stephen King's It or "The Body" (those had relatively happy endings) though similar elements are involved. I'm Not Scared is something different, something inadvertently real and starkly rendered, not too far removed from Italian Neorealism itself in which self-consciousness in storytelling is intentionally absent. It's incredible how convincing Ammaniti is in writing the mindfulness of a nine-year-old. Michele's a character with not a lot of maturity but not a lot of despair, possessing plausible fears and believable errors. He's curious and at times impetuous without the foresight to know different and always, always in the moment. At no point is he looking at things with adult goggles. Ammaniti has been on the radar as a celebrated Italian novelist since the mid-nineties and this book clearly defines why. It's not one to miss. (FIC AMMANITI)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

This is MacLeod’s first novel, published 13 years ago, when he was 62. A writer and long-time teacher, he uses his childhood and young adult experiences in Nova Scotia to craft his fiction. Familiar with the land and the sea, knowing the lives of fishermen and miners, his novel and short story collections present people whose lives are bound to the natural world and to their family history.

The narrator of the story, Alexander, lived and was brought up on Cape Breton, an island in Nova Scotia which was settled by many French and Scottish people. The narrator’s family is a Scottish clan, from the northern highlands of Scotland. These are the people who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie against England, and who later were cleared off their land so that sheep could be raised there. In the book, Calum MacDonald, Alexander’s ancestor, emigrates in the late 1700’s to Canada. One of the great stories in the book is about their faithful family dog trying to swim after their boat as they are embarking from Scotland. And how Calum first inveighs against the dog, swearing at her to go back. When she persists, he starts to call encouragement, realizing she will drown if she cannot reach them. Stories and moments like these are what make up the book, about being faithful, and not giving up. MacLeod is not reaching for sentiment – he simply lets you hear the telling, and the retelling.

The book is made up of a series of flashbacks that follow his ancestor Calum’s story and tell us his own upbringing. Visiting his older brother who is a down and out alcoholic living in a seedy Toronto rooming house, Alexander has occasion to remember their childhood and early adulthood. We also catch glimpses of visits with his sister in her present life as the wife of a mining executive, living in affluence in western Canada, far from the robust and natural childhood they experienced on Cape Breton.

A lot of the book is about nostalgia and the good old days. Except in the good old days, people died or were drowned, or went to prison like his older brother, who killed a man in a miners’ brawl. When British General Wolfe’s army scaled the cliff in Quebec to defeat the French, back in 1759, Scottish Highlanders led the treacherous ascent. Wolfe mistrusted them (they had fought on opposite sides in Scotland) and wrote in a letter that if they were lost, it would be “no great mischief”.

These kinds of stark details run like a thread in the narratives. The dog was saved from drowning, but Calum’s wife died at sea. Highlanders were hardy and bold, but their lives could hang by a thread, if they trusted generals or armies or mining companies. There always seems to be a price to pay, and in the end Alexander values his brother Calum just for what he was and what he stands for. Like the sweetness of the spring water spilling out in the salty tide submerging it, there is goodness, but it can’t be held. The most that MacLeod has said about the book is that his characters are not regretting the past - they are only being thoughtful about it.

He leaves it to us, his readers, to realize afresh that this life of the wind and the water and the field is gone for most of us, and will never return. As the writer E.M. Forster put it, seeing the growth of the suburbs around London at the start of this century, “What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?” What good indeed.

Killing Floor (Jack Reacher #1) / Lee Child

Some of my favorite moments come from picking up a book or movie with low to no expectations and finding it far more entertaining than I thought I'd be. There's just something very gratifying about experiences like that, the ones that require little investment and yet yield a high rate of a return. It's what happened to me with the third movie in The Fast and the Furious franchise, Tokyo Drift (DVD FAST — hey, don't knock it 'til you've tried it!) and, more recently, Lee Child's Killing Floor (FIC CHILD).

This book, published in 1997, is the first in the bestselling Jack Reacher series. Reacher, an ex-military cop who drifts from town to town, inevitably finds trouble. These scenarios let us see our imposing, 6-foot 5-inch laconic protagonist at his best by showcasing his skills as both an operator and a detective. It's thrilling to follow a character who certainly knows how to handle himself, and who doesn't shirk from danger or mystery. He doesn't necessarily go looking for either of them — they just seem to find him.

Lee Child, the pen name for British writer Jim Grant, spent nearly 20 years as a writer in the television industry before corporate restructuring left him without a job. Child's reaction? To buy $6 worth of pen and paper and sit down and write a novel. Fourteen years later, he's still at it.

Killing Floor introduces us to the 36-year-old Reacher, who's just six months out of the Army. He's been wandering American's highways and byways as a self-described hobo since then. On a whim, he finds himself in the deceptively picturesque town of Margrave, Ga. From the minute he sits down in the town's lone diner, things go rapidly downhill for him. A murder — extremely rare for these parts — took place the night before, and Reacher's the easy suspect. The authorities welcome him by putting him in cuffs and pulling him in for questioning.
I thought: should I be worried? I was under arrest. In a town where I'd never been before. Apparently for murder. But I knew two things. First, they couldn't prove something had happened if it hadn't happened. And second, I hadn't killed anybody.

Not in their town, and not for a long time anyway.

Unfortunately for Reacher, but lucky for action-junkie readers, Killing Floor ratchets him back into the fray. A swath of bodies follows, some by the bad guys' hands and others by Reacher's as he struggles to stay alive while uncovering the town's secrets.

His motivations rely too much on coincidence but if you're willing to set aside your skepticism, the ride will keep you riveted. Child does a great job of pacing the story in a deliberate way, imbuing it with a sense of urgency by mixing slower scenes with moments of explosive action. The brutality of the violence took me by surprise — we're talking Girl-with-the-Dragon-Tattoo-level graphic brutality, so don't expect this to be a cozy mystery.

Once you get over the bloodshed, however, you'll see that Reacher's a pretty likable guy, deadly efficiency aside. He just wants to be left alone to do his own thing. For a loner, he certainly has surprisingly good people skills. He finds partners in two of the officers of the Margrave P.D. and together, the trio race against the clock to thwart the story's antagonists.

As successful as Child has been with the Jack Reacher series, it's no surprise that the character's been picked up for an impending movie. No. 9, One Shot is in development and slated for release in 2013.

The actor playing Reacher? Tom Cruise. Yikes. For now, I think I'll just stick to the books. Lucky for me, there are 15 more of them.

Mending: New and Selected Stories / by Sallie Bingham

Although a middle-aged woman's life is consumed by doctor's appointments which do little more than offer emotional reassurance, it's the only way she can receive intimacy, and, in effect, the only way to "mend" her damaged soul. Two sisters, the eldest one which escaped the downtrodden family farm years ago and the younger one that didn't, talk about what's to be done with it now that their mother's succumbed to cancer. Ignoring her younger sister Shirley's emotional bond to the plot of land which she's been a part of all her life, the elder Miriam spares no tact in talking up her intentions of selling it all to the realtors, even envisioning her plan for the perfect cottage community. On another dying family farm, a capricious widow, still grieving the loss of her teenage daughter as well as her husband, hires a family of Haitian refugees against the will of her semi-bigoted land manager. Amid obvious discomfiture and through nearly impregnable language and cultural barriers, the more subtle admonitions of each's feelings about the other steadily bridge the communication gap, ultimately augmenting the perpetually tenuous social situation and initiating a serendipitous kind of connection.

Born and raised on a farm in Kentucky, literature professor, author, poet and playwright Sallie Bingham has spent much of her life in New York City, amid frequent trips to New Mexico, and has been married three times. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Southwest Review and been featured in several anthologies and collections like this one which includes 5 new stories as well as sampling of her earlier work. Perhaps classified as a mildly feminist author with a realistic voice similar to Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood, Bingham also has something of Chekhov in her prose, a steady, astute in-the-moment type of voice, economically deconstructing the scene in any given situation and presenting a masterfully dissected arrangement of people and feelings. With striking swiftness, the reader gets to know the principal characters--who they are, where they've been and (to some degree) what they'll do next--in a manner that's at once abrupt and palpable. It's a fun experience, worthy of its praise. (FIC BINGHAM)

The Neighbor / by Lisa Gardner

The last thing Detective Sergeant D.D. Warren needs is a media frenzy surrounding her current investigation. Jason Jones is husband to Sandra Jones, a woman who disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving her purse, car keys and 4-year-old daughter behind without a trace. Jason's also the kind of hunky face that TV cameras love. Ditto for his young, blond wife who's not only stunningly photogenic, but has the kind of shady reputation--possible infidelity--which D.D. can't seem to get a firm angle on and which will inevitably beget numerous conspiracies if information is leaked and things linger. Regardless of the evidence (or lack thereof), the case has all the makings of another Nancy Grace-led TV news cacophony. Throw in a paranoid, possibly culpable sex offender living right around the corner and a plethora of other questionable neighbors in this regentrified south Boston neighborhood and D.D. has to be extra sharp and ultra fast to get to the bottom of this caper. Initially, at least, there's no direct information that would indicate a homicide, that is until D.D. discovers the 4.5 million dollars sitting untouched in the couple's bank account, evidently an inheritance left them some time ago. Why would a young couple work two full-time jobs--he a reporter, she a middle school teacher--and live a comparatively modest lifestyle while leaving a hefty nest egg just sitting idle? And why is Jason so worried about this sex offender guy who, despite his obvious history, seems to have nothing to do with anything? It's not the only thing that doesn't add up, nor is it the last little surprise to sneak up on D.D. in her quest to find out what happened as the story unfolds.

Suspense author Lisa Gardner hits it big in this highly entertaining bestseller which does well to balance an enthralling story with the charming nuances of a sympathetic protagonist. There's kind of a lot going on so it might seem like a hefty amount for the reader to process, but Gardner lays it out nicely, narrating the plot through four feature characters and giving her heroine the proper scope and incentive to face the challenge. D.D.'s not going to apologize for her faults, and she's not without them--falling for Jason's good looks, snap judgments on certain "neighbor" suspects, flawed interrogation tactics--but she's equally ready to confront any conflict and backtrack through her mistakes to remedy any errors. The author definitely knows her high profile news cases, referencing several of the more recent, over-sensationalized kidnapping/murder stories (Scott Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, Natalee Holloway, etc.) which have gotten a lot of run in the last few years. (MYS GARDNER)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Smilla's Sense of Snow / by Peter Hoeg

37-year-old Smilla Jasperson is a loner by choice. Though she'd rather not get into reasons why, it has to do with being the product of a Danish physician father and an Greenlandic Inuit mother, the cultural implications of which haven't exactly helped her thrive in a homogenous Denmark. After spending much of her childhood in her mother's home country surrounded by a frozen wasteland of snow and ice, Smilla moved with her father back to Copenhagen following her mother's death where making friends didn't come easily. Snow is actually something she's more comfortable with, having developed a comprehensive, almost intuitive knowledge about the different types of snow and its characteristics, even working sporadically in the field of cryopediology (study of snow and ice) as a consultant. When she returns home one day to find that a neighbor boy, Isaiah, has died after falling from the roof of their apartment building, the sense of security in Smilla's life and the truth about her very origins begin to unravel at a disturbing rate.

For one thing, she's sure the fall was no accident. After looking at the boy's footprints in the snow leading to the roof's edge, it's clear he didn't just get too close to the edge--he was afraid of heights for one thing--and fall off. For another, Isaiah, like Smilla, is an Inuit, a full-blooded Greenland native who moved with his mother to Denmark after his father was killed in a mysterious mining accident. Normally not one to reach out to people, Smilla had originally only befriended Isaiah because of his hideous domestic arrangement--his mother is a raging alcoholic who beats him--and undertook to tutor him after he'd inevitably fallen behind his schoolwork. The real tragedy now that he's dead is not knowing what (or who?) happened to him on the rooftop. The indentations in the snow from Isaiah's footprints clearly indicate running away from something, but who? It's tough going at first without any real leads or help until a clue in the form of a single cassette tape emerges, shedding light not only on Isaiah's furtive habits--he had a lot of hiding places--and fearful disposition, but also on a decades old conspiracy concerning Denmark's ties to Greenland and a startling conspiracy no one could have imagined. 

Danish crime writing sensation Peter Hoeg debuted this enthralling mystery back in 1992 when the Nordic crime fiction boom was just hitting the mainstream. He's sense written several others despite his extremely reclusive behavior--2006 novel The Quiet Girl was actually penned in 1996, remaining unpublished for over a decade. Speculation has it that this may be due to his extreme sensitivity to critical reviews, but it's largely unfounded. 'Smilla' is likely his best effort, a taught page-turner with an engrossing character who, incidentally, isn't all that dissimilar to Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander. Each of them certainly make a lot of enemies while trying their darndest to go it alone. Of course they can't help but win a lot of admirers and at least a few genuine friends in the process or sorting out their personal matters while battling conspiracy and corruption with their unique skill sets. Smilla's a little more mainstream than Salander--no tattoos or piercings--and isn't quite as, er, bohemian(?). But fans of the Millenium trilogy are almost certain to take a liking to it. (MYS HOEG)

Voyager / by Srikanth Reddy

In one of the more creative concepts for a book ever (even poetry), author Srikanth Reddy explores the realms of material consciousness even as the object of his examination probes the physical boundaries of creation itself. In Voyager, the very concepts of life and matter are embodied, reawakened in a spiritual and figurative catharsis involving past transgressions, present distortions and a clever amalgamation of time and 'space'. The original source of his content, a print message and memoir authored by former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, is currently (at this moment) traveling on an interplanetary journey out of Earth's solar system aboard the Voyager I satellite. The spacecraft, launched back in 1977, is now the furthest man-made object from Earth. The irony of the situation is that, post-1977, Waldheim was indicted and partially proven guilty of Nazi war crimes--as an SS Intelligence Officer, evidence showed he at least knew about certain intricate aspects of the Final Solution--and was party to further anti-Semitic political maneuverings during his tenure as the Austrian president. Reddy literally dissects, inter-cuts, rearranges and subliminally alters Waldheim's own words to reflect the paradoxical truth of an object intended to confront phenomenon beyond our terrestrial means, but which conceals crucial truths, explicit and otherwise, about our own world underneath its veneer.

Without knowing the context, it might be hard not to judge Reddy's carefully crafted, abstract exposition as too dense. The quirky alliteration ("Is is./The self is a suffering form./War is a failure of form") intro's the three part book in sparse, minimalistic fashion before the middle section segues into more direct territory ("This is the universal journey/the gravest proclaimed/in a universal language."). At times the narration overtly renders the author himself as the speaker, an individual with only a conceptual knowledge of his subject ("In my office a globe was set up/less a world than a history of imperialism and corruption"). Other portions speak in another voice, projections of a seemingly nebulous entity, which grasp out at the very substance of consciousness ("creation and fall,/I found fences/all laid down in blood.") Reddy, a literature professor at the University of Chicago, certainly has a gift for nuance and his range in wordplay is unquestionably superior. This is only his second published work of poetry. (811.6 REDDY)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

All About Lulu / by Jonathan Evison

Born in California in 1968 but raised in rural Washington state, Jonathan Evison left home as soon as he could. He drifted to San Francisco he tried reliving the city's bygone hippie era with "all the other alcoholic misfits" before realizing it was a losing effort. Ultimately he engendered himself to the burgeoning punk rock scene in Seattle where he helped found the band "March of Crimes", a group which headlined several future members of bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Getting out of the music business in the late nineties, Evison worked several odd jobs before taking up writing fiction, gigs which including disc jockey and telemarketer among other things. A fervent devotee to social networking during it's earliest days, Evison was among the first to credit the online tool--Myspace in particular--as a key component of his literary success--he "cold-clicked" several hundred people whose profiles had James Joyce as their favorite author. His first novel All About Lulu, though a largely different story altogether, vaguely rehashes his own coming of age experiences through the eyes of a young dilettante.

In the wake of his mother's death from cancer in the early 1970's, young Will Miller must find a way to cope with his grief. His father and younger twin brothers already have their outlet--bodybuilding. Will's father, Big Bill, is actually on the professional circuit and a regular at their local Southern California hotspot, "Muscle Beach". And while Big Bill's good enough to place high in the rankings, he's not quite stellar enough to win first prize, always losing out to more pedigreed competitors like Arnold Schwartzenegger. Will's no bodybuilder, not even much of an athlete at all. In fact by the age of 12, he's become a vegetarian and is more interested in music than muscles. When Big Bill remarries, Will gets a new mom, Willow, a stepsister named Lulu and the first love of his life. Lulu's not only smart and beautiful, she likes Will for who he is and by the end of their first year of high school, the pair are dating. But after a summer spent in Vermont with relatives, Lulu comes back different. Isolated and moody, she starts to push Will away, begins dating other guys and ultimately leaves the family altogether to live in Seattle. These circumstances may have ended the relationship but not Will's fixation. For him, Lulu, even though she's just a friend now a thousand miles away, is the only reason to breathe. Slogging his way through the rest of high school as a mediocre student and fast food employee, he ultimately turns to philosophy for consolation, developing a taste for the works of Descartes, Kant, Hume and Kierkegaard as he begins a haphazard path to higher education at the local community college. The years pass by but Will's compulsion towards his life's only love never wains.

Though the level of writing would deem it worthy of adult literature, All About Lulu reads like a lot of YA books, even bearing a striking resemblance to one or two notable ones. It's a work which well characterizes the big events in the lives of young people which can remain just that, a big deal, long after adolescence, denoting that there are just some things in life, first loves among them, which don't diminish with age. Stories like these come with a lot of heavy-hearted delineations and morbid self-analysis, consequently there's a lot of irritating narcissistic qualities about the protagonist. Much like the archetypal love-scarred male adolescent, see Goethe's 18th century novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (FIC GOETHE), Will's emotional reach may touch others (his father, brothers, friends, etc.) but most of him is simply incapable of empathizing with much beyond his own afflicted feelings. This isn't a major fault but it does kind of limit the scope of the book and lend a distorted view to the other characters. In an odd way, especially seen in retrospect, Lulu herself seems to accommodate Will's passionate longing, and while not exactly reciprocating his advances, she's at least tolerable of them in amiable, even affectionate fashion--maybe not a typical reaction but you could argue that it keeps the story moving. Evison followed up this award-winning effort with West of Here, currently a bestseller about the history and heritage of Washington's Olympic peninsula. (FIC EVISON)

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

If you’re looking for a story with characters who happen to live in a time of war and who take the circumstances as they come, trying to make the best of it, I would recommend this 1950 book by Nevil Shute, which was voted a place on the BBC’s 2003’s list of “the nation’s 100 best-loved novels”. Although the heroine is British and her story concerns British colonialism in the Asian country of Malaysia, the hero is Australian and his life in the wilds of Australia can be likened to our own history of pioneer settlement.

Shute writes in a detailed quiet fashion, using as his principal narrator an interested observer, lawyer Noel Strachan. This device helps support the narrative by giving us the interest of Noel, the older man, hearing of the heroine Jean Piaget’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner in Malaysia, and of her meeting with the Australian rancher Joe Harmon, also a prisoner.

The amount of brutality in the book appears less in comparison to narratives of current crime fiction, or compared to stories of rape and murder in Darfur. However, Shute based his novel on true experiences of women and men who were Japanese prisoners in World War II. While the brutality may have been less horrific, more than 16,000 men died building the Burma railway for the Japanese, through sickness and exhaustion and malnutrition. And the experience of the women prisoners in the novel also happened, although in Sumatra, not Malaysia. Shute shows their suffering and how they died quietly one by one.

The love story is a good one, with their meeting by chance, then slowly making their way back to each other. Just when one obstacle is dealt with, another comes along to keep things interesting. The book presents the racial setting of Australia as it was in 1950, with native people considered as being below the white settlers. Interestingly enough, Jean notices a rancher married to a native woman, sees his intelligent face and wonders at his choice. But she herself is in love with Joe, a rancher who has had no real education and whose family emigrated to Australia out of the slums of London.

In the end, it is Shute’s essential humanity that resonates in his fiction and keeps your interest, even when the characters have the prejudices of an earlier era. That’s how he keeps them alive. When they come to a crossroads, they do everything they can – like when Joe sees Jean being beaten, and when Jean sees the world pushing Joe away from her. We want them to act, and we also want to act as they do, knowing our limitations but still risking everything for the things that count.

Salon asks writers their favorite books of the year

Looking for a good read? Why not take a cue form some of the best writers working today? Salon had over 50 writers tell them their favorite books of the year.  The staggering list includes multiple award winners like Jeffrey Eugenides, Ann Patchett plus 50 more author.

Find out who responded, what moved them most this year, and start piling books up for holiday reading.

Check out the full list here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

NPR interviews P.D. James about her Jane Austen Mystery

P.D. James is best known for her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, but her newest book is a far cry from Scotland Yard. In Death Comes to Pemberly James  looks at what happens after Pride and Prejudice and it turns out its murder!

Listen to the NPR interview here to find out what inspired James to pen an Austen sequel (and no, it's definitely not Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.).

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Five Red Herrings: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery / by Dorothy Sayers

All Lord Peter Wimsey wanted for his holiday in the highlands was to sleep late, reflect on his misspent youth, catch some trout and possibly fit in a round of golf. The quaint village that he and Bunter take up residence is actually a type of artist colony where an assortment of painters--all a bit odd but talented in their own way--have set down roots. One among them isn't really odd though, he's just mean. Campbell Quick is a barrel-chested, red-bearded Scotsman with a temper to match his drinking habits and a peevishness overshadowing any artistic skill he possesses. "He's a devil when he's drunk and a lout when he's sober", they all say. So when he turns up dead in the river the day following an evening in which he rowed with six of his fellow artists, the question for Lord Peter is to find out which one of them murdered Campbell, a man best characterized by Wimsey's eulogy, "Nothing in his life quite became him like the leaving of it." To do so the gentleman sleuth and his crafty manservant will need to eliminate the five artists,  the "five red herrings", who had the motive and possibly the means but not the opportunity to dispose of the undesirable Campbell.

If you didn't know him, it might be easy to overlook Lord Peter Wimsey as a minor fictional sleuth from the golden age of mystery fiction. The amateur "gentleman detective" is nothing like the big names of the period--Poirot, Maigret, Mason, etc.--who are all 'in the business' so to speak, all detectives by trade with solid credentials and proper training. And though he usually shirks the perception as quickly as it's made, Wimsey can come off as something of a nosy, entitled aristocrat. He doesn't work at job or need money, his butler does everything for him short of clip his toenails and though he's an amateur criminologist of the highest order, he has no real reason other than avid interest to associate himself with crime and murder. But while not featured in the sheer volume of fiction occupied by a Poirot or a Perry Mason, he's aged as well as any of them, his "mind like a razor", discernible eye for detail and inimitable charisma winning over hoards of readers. Always the bon viveur with an incurable optimism and contagious confidence, Wimsey can't help but, well, project 'whimsy' everywhere he goes, winning as much respect as admiration and garnering appeal with his sophisticated charm and personality. It's here where Sayers, with her manifestation of the 'gentleman detective,' really distinguished herself, managing to create an admirable, truly estimable character from someone with a manservant, lots of money and lots of free time--later works would see Wimsey take a seat in the House of Lords but for the most part he's just another member of the idle rich set bouncing around Europe's glamorous hotspots. It's harder than it looks because with a few discrepancies, the svelte, polished protagonist might have easily become a buffoon like Bertie Wooster or even a distancing snob, something like James Bond maybe. But it's nothing like that. When people are difficult, Wimsey is class and composure personified. Where they might feel inferior, he deftly erases social barriers. Where there's a case to be solved, he never oversteps his authority but never capitulates to official crime solvers who sometimes resent the butting-in of a posh member of the nobility. He may not be officially affiliated with law enforcement, but he's amply capable, has a free maneuverability, abundant resources and is never afraid to get his hands dirty--all things which make the books, every one of them, serious fun. (MYS SAYERS)

New York Times announces 100 Notable Books of 2011

Looking for a good book or 100 to read?  Your holidays will be filled with some of the best reading 2011 had to offer after checking out the New York Time's 100 Notable Books of 2011.  The list cover fiction and non-fiction, so readers have a plethora of choice.  Check out the full list here.

Did they miss any Notable titles?  Let us know in the comments!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Didn't You Come For Me? / by Diane Janes

It's been twelve years since her infant daughter Lauren's abduction and Jo Ashton continues to receive photographs of her baby in the mail, the words "I still have her" scribbled across the back. Even though she's remarried and moved with her new husband and stepson to an isolated part of the country, she still gets them. The police insist it's just a cruel joke, a creepy but harmless taunt by someone just wanting to stir things up. But Jo knows it's not just a prank. She knows that whoever sent them has monitored her every move and is at least sincere about letting her know it. And though she can't be sure of who or where the kidnapper is or even if they're telling the truth about Lauren, Jo has a gut feeling that her daughter's out there somewhere, still alive. There's another side to the story though, an even more sinister element reaching further back into Jo's past even before the birth of her daughter to a scarred, repressed childhood marked by horror, abuse and murder. As things in her life start to unravel, Jo's deepest hopes and darkest fears begin converging in ways she could never have foreseen.

Janes was nominated for a CWA (Crime Writer's Association) and Dagger award for her novel Pull of the Moon, a story of long hidden secrets in which a deathbed confession leads the protagonist down a path of intrigue and betrayal. It was a book critically acclaimed by both readers and critics for its psychological suspense and marked Janes as a noteworthy new author in the genre. Why Didn't You Come For Me? is another solid story concept with Janes effortlessly erecting a lurid, creepy tale. The demented premise of a woman being taunted by her child's kidnapper, a sordid past of the protagonist and a wonderfully situated setting all contribute to the book's appeal. The story is so good that the character of Jo doesn't quite measure up to the gravity of her situation. There are times where she seems as much a fish out of water as a heady protagonist and in certain instances, she's largely outweighed by the magnitude of the conflict. (MYS JANES)

Thank a teacher this Thanksgiving holiday

Since 2008, the day after Thanksgiving has been designated as the National Day of Listening. After the turkey's been eaten, it's a great chance to sit down with your loved ones, particularly your older loved ones, to ask them questions about their lives, going beyond the superficial to find out what really has molded them into who they are today and how they feel about their world and what they've seen. It's certainly a nice alternative and respite from the commercial frenzy of Black Friday.

The nonprofit Storycorps, which works to preserve the stories of everyday Americans, is the group that started the National Day of Listening. StoryCorps encourages you to sit down for an hour and, when you do that interview, record it for posterity. Share those stories with your family and pass them down for future generations to enjoy. It's a priceless family heirloom.

This year's theme — to thank a teacher who made a difference in your life — doesn't even involve interviews, although you're certainly encouraged to do that if you like. Pay tribute to your teachers by taping your message and uploading it to YouTube or posting it on Facebook or Twitter (@storycorps, #thankateacher). The medium doesn't matter; it's all about message.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Summer Streets 2011: StoryCorps
Photo by the New York City Department of Transportation;
available through a Creative Commons license

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Day After Night by Anita Diamant

In conjunction with a focus on the Jews’ suffering during the Holocaust, a writer or filmmaker often raises the question as to whether hope is still possible after such experiences. It’s not a question that goes away, because since World War II there have been other holocausts, which we now usually call genocides. The writer Anita Diamant was intrigued to learn about Jews “escaping” in 1945 from a camp. But the camp was a detainee camp, not a concentration camp. It was in British occupied Palestine, the land that is now Israel.

The League of Nations had charged Great Britain to make Palestine a home for Jews in 1922, but by the end of World War II, Britain refused the flood of Jewish refugees coming to Palestine from Europe. There were some 250,000 of them who made their way secretly by ship from Europe to Palestine. Many were immediately sent back to Europe, but some were kept in camps on the island of Cyprus. Others were held in Atlit detention camp in Palestine, south of Haifa. It was from this camp that members of the Jewish underground movement against British occupation organized the “breakout” of 208 refugees to a nearby kibbutz. When the British soldiers caught up with them, the kibbutz refused to give them up and local school children and residents came and demonstrated in front of the camp in a gesture of solidarity for the refugees’ plight. In the face of the adverse publicity, the British relented and these refugees were allowed to relocate in Palestine.

There are some ironies in how the British ran Atlit, circumstances that recall the “final solution”. Some were transported from the ship to Atlit in boxcars, the camp had barbed wire and a guard tower, and when they arrived they had to strip and go into the showers for delousing. Diamant shows us how traumatic these conditions could be, and yet how at the same time things like the food, the space between bodies, and lumpy mattresses were welcome.

As in The Red Tent, her novel about Dinah of the Old Testament, Diamant wants to bring to light the role of women in history and to investigate any insight that their female perspective can shed for us on historical events. She has crafted a novel of four main female characters who have come from their separate hells to arrive in Atlit. One was a partisan fighter, one a concentration camp survivor, another was hidden by a Dutch farmer, and the other was taken in by a neighbor in Paris who ran a brothel. They all have their hidden devils and unassuaged grief to carry. As Leonie, the former prostitute, sees it, they each walk balancing their heavy load like a native bearer, keeping it "exquisitely balanced."

I found the book absorbing in its evocation of the camp, of the difference between the new arrivals and the old, between the refugees and the Palestinian Jews there to help them, between the British soldiers and the resistance fighters. There are so many snapshots in the book that it takes some effort to connect the background material that Diamant casually offers to slowly build the past lives of the main characters. While there is renewed hope - in a possible relationship, in helping take care of children, in feeding people on a special occasion - mostly the inhabitants weep or show off to each other. There are parts of them frozen by what they went through and what they witnessed.

The resistance fighter is defeated inside by her almost certain knowledge that her mistakes in the field caused her comrades’ death. The girl in the brothel learned to please her German customers but was brutalized anyway, finally running for help to a nearby convent. You might wonder why she didn’t run before this – she had to be beaten down and stripped of any special consideration that she had won for herself. The camp survivor has vowed never again to praise God, not a God that killed her family and all of her existence. The Dutch girl had been “hidden”, but was used to provide sex for a Dutch farmer and his friends. She finally told his wife and was turned over to the Gestapo the next day. She escaped with others through a hole in a cattle car and returned to Amsterdam, to learn, as she had already guessed, that her entire family was dead.

Diamant calls the book Day after Night, but what she shows us is how the night lingers on. The escape to the kibbutz provides some drama for an ending, but the book doesn’t generate real momentum on its own. None of the women really change, except the camp survivor. She begins to venture out of her shell, by extending sympathy to a young boy.

What the book finally feels like is a crafted concoction, with the politics and realities parceled out in small quantities, to seem like “real life”, because everything is understated. But Diamant shouldn’t be so careful to avoid life head on. The dramas that we live come and confront us, and our changes encompass more than just the weight of remembering them.