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 August 2008 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

 

The Anglo Files


(Click Cover to Buy)

by Sarah Lyall
W.W. Norton, $24.95
256 pages
ISBN
978-0-393-05846-8

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

John Cleese once noted that the British use “sorry” to mean everything from “excuse me” to “shut up” to “please pass the butter.” American Lyall, married to an Englishman and living in London, studies a fortnight’s worth of such British eccentricities for the entertainment and edification of us colonials. Members of Parliament really can call each other “a pig’s bladder on the end of a stick,” provided that they preface it with “the honourable gentleman.” Police really did have to go into a Big Brother house when the occupants became so drunk that they started to brawl. And, when not drunk, the British have raised self-deprecation to the point where it’s self-destructive. (Actual singles ad:  “I wrote this ad to prove I’m not gay.  Man, 29.  Not gay.  Absolutely not.”) Why is cricket so important?  It allows the British to “embrace the joys of delayed gratification;” it’s the sport for people who prefer to endure things rather than enjoy them. Fortunately Lyall does not ignore the more noble aspects of the nation as she paints it in such broad strokes. True, some Brits may turn their houses into dormitories for disabled hedgehogs, and more than one newspaper features a topless beautiful girl on page 3 each day, but the classical British spirit endures. Only a couple days after the 7/7 attacks of 2005 when three subway trains and a bus were blown up by Islamic terrorists (an event which some consider Britain’s 9/11) the British continued to simply “get on with it.” The stiff upper lip endures.

 

 

 
         
 

Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World


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by David Maranisst
Simon & Schuster, $26.95
496 pages
ISBN 978-1416534075

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

While he doesn’t prove the book’s subtitle, Maraniss does paint a portrait of the Olympics that changed the Olympics. The summer games of 1960 brought numerous first instances of what we today take for granted. The first sneaker wars (Puma vs. Adidas).  The death of Danish cyclist Knud Jensen, who had been blood doping, led to the now ubiquitous blood tests. Rome was the first Olympics to appear on American television, with the film flown in from Europe each night, and, just like today’s televised Olympics, Maraniss concentrates on individuals and their story arcs. Despite the supposed international good will engendered by the Olympics, U.S. sprinter David Sime is recruited by the government to try to get a Russian runner to defect as part of Cold War tactics directed from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Young American Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) uses his soon-to-be world famous footwork to defeat Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski for the light-heavyweight boxing gold, and the next morning begins announcing to anyone who will listen, “I am the greatest.” Ethiopia's marathoner Abebe Bikila becomes the first black African (as opposed to the white Afrikaners) to win a gold medal. Along with politics, Maraniss gives us an excellent sense of the time and the place: Italian men flocked to a freeway overpass with binoculars in order to look into the female athlete’s apartments, many of which had no curtains. O tempora O mores.

 

 
 
         
 

The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation


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by Abigail Carter
Health Communications, Incorporated, $19.96
304 pages
ISBN:  978-0757307904

reviewed by Brian Mercer

 

 

Abigail Carter's husband didn't work at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, but he was there for a tradeshow once.  Inexplicably, that day was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.  In her new memoir, The Alchemy of Loss, Carter takes us along with her on her passage through that unforgettable day and the weeks and months that follow.  In it she likens the grieving process to alchemy, the medieval chemical philosophy that sought to transmute lead into gold.  The classic hero's journey is equated with the three steps of alchemic process: The blackening, where lead is broken down to essential elements; the whitening, where the metal is purified; and finally the reddening, that results in a highly enriched form of gold.  The Alchemy of Loss is not the story of 9/11, but that of a young widow and her two small children living through an unthinkable and sometimes very public grieving process.  It's a story about their quest to honor their husband and father's memory while forging a new life. 

Carter's prose has a beautiful cadence that I found at times almost musical.  Admittedly, I felt a little voyeuristic following the author through such an intimate journey.  For those who only saw the images of that tragic day but didn't lose anyone directly, this book answers the question, "How does one go on after something like this?"  While Carter's story is at times shockingly sad, for every instance I felt stunned by her grief there were two other times I laughed out loud at her clever but respectful sense of humor.  Her story is filled with hope, such as her husband's subtle but clear messages from the afterlife letting her know that he is not far away.  The Alchemy of Loss isn't just about how friends and family members grieve after the loss of a loved one, it is ultimately about transformation and the prospect of new beginnings.

 
         
 

Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface


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by David Standish
Da Capo Press, $24.95
304 pages
ISBN:  978-0-306-81373-3

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

Featuring nearly equal doses of amusing crackpots and literary excursions, Standish outlines the many incarnations of the hollow earth story that have captivated readers and believers alike for the last four centuries. He presents biographies of the fiction writers, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the proponents, like John Cleves Symmes, who, in the early 1800s, believed that the earth was hollow and that both poles had huge openings into the interior realm. Standish does a fine job of placing both fiction and claimed reality into their historical context, demonstrating that the evolving perceptions of the hollow earth reflected the concerns and hopes of the societies in which they appeared. The book is not without flaws, and sports some surprising factual gaffes. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Alice’s Wonderland are described as “popular underground realms,” although only Wonderland takes place entirely down the rabbit hole; Middle Earth only features some underground locations. The author also carelessly describes a giant pitcher plant in the hollow earth as “best known on the surface as the Venus flytrap,” when these are two distinct species of carnivorous plants. Although the subject matter invites a light-hearted approach, I occasionally found the joking informality of Standish’s writing to be a bit forced—“In chapter 38, Professor Lidenbrock goes a little batso”—like someone who has to nudge you in the ribs when they think something is funny. But these lapses are minor and infrequent. The book is beautifully illustrated and an enjoyable read, inside and out.

 

 
         
 

The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature


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by Jonathan Rosen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24.00
336 pages
ISBN:  978-0374186302

reviewed by Paige Byerly

 

 

The topic of this lovely little book is ostensibly birdwatching—Rosen is an inveterate birder, who claims that “Everyone is a birdwatcher, but there are two types of birdwatchers: those who know what they are, and those who haven’t yet realized it.” His book asserts itself to appeal to both, presenting itself not as a single-minded natural history, but instead as a charmingly meandering look at various aspects that inform and enhance the pastime, from poetry to philosophy to religion to the origins of life itself. The subtitle serves as the book’s crux, and seems at first glimpse to refer to the state of the environment today, where every avian encounter is spiced with the threat of loss, and the literal end of nature seems near. As the book unfolds, however, one realizes that “the end of nature” also refers to the supposed boundary between the natural world and the human world, which Rosen endeavors to eliminate. His favorite birding spot is near a man-made pond in Central Park, much as Walden Pond was less than twelve miles from Boston, and his descriptions of “exotic” birdwatching trips are punctuated with descriptions of fast food restaurants and local characters; the point of Rosen’s work is to assert that “the end of nature” is not a tangible concept. Our worlds overlap more than we may at first perceive, and Rosen clearly feels that birdwatching is an effective and necessary way to traverse the rift that we have ourselves created. With this end he explores the lives of various luminaries who served to help blur this divide, including Audubon, Thoreau, Frost, and Wallace. The Life of the Skies endeavors to explain the attraction of man to bird, and does so in a thoughtful, straightforward, and optimistic style that illuminates the edification.

 

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

The Book of Lies


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by Brad Meltzer
Grand Central Publishing, $25.99
ISBN: 978-0-446-57788-5

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Cal Harper is a young man swept up in the quest for the weapon that Cain used to kill Abel several thousand years ago.  The first clue to its whereabouts, and the mystic powers some think it possesses, is a copy of Action Comics #1, the very first Superman story.  Cal is soon deep in the unsolved murder of the father of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in 1932, and following a series of clues leading to the weapon that Jerry apparently hid in his comic panels. Cal is soon joined by his own father and a handful of suspicious characters, and hunted by an ancient brotherhood who want the weapon for their own purposes. 

You always know what to expect from a Brad Meltzer novel.  There will be a chase, either to someone, some thing, or some place, with the good guys slowly learning the truth as the bad guys dog them.  Although I’ve read all of Meltzer’s novels, I had never really enjoyed the chase—until now.  Meltzer has finally hit upon a combination of elements that appealed to me and kept me flipping the pages,  or perhaps this novel is more tightly written and better-structured than his earlier works.  Thrillers are highly subjective; this book’s denouement is either a copout or a significant statement.

 

         
 

Sharp Teeth


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by Toby Barlow
Harper, $22.95
320 Pages
ISBN: 978-0061430220

reviewed by Jen Baker

 

 

When does a horror story turn into a love story? When Toby Barlow reveals the werewolves hunting, fighting and longing for love in Los Angeles, writing about them in free verse. I have to say, I didn’t want to read this book: I don’t like experimental fiction, don’t care much for ungainly poetry that reads like random thoughts clumped together in stanzas, and am under-enthused about werewolves–guys who can’t prevent themselves from turning into monsters and ravaging fair maidens and other unsuspecting innocents. But the first page sucked me in, and  the staccato verse and lack of connecting articles and other grammarly parts of speech propelled me into the mindset of a different kind of being living in a different yet oddly familiar world. Okay, they are werewolves. By day they are normal-seeming humans with jobs, like Lark, who’s a lawyer in his human form and in his lycanthropic form, a pack leader.  This is a smart guy in love with a beautiful woman/bitch, with a mind of her own. Enter loser dogcatcher, Anthony, whose fascination with and love for Lark’s woman bodes ill. In this oddly realistic urban noir setting, the old ways give way to a frighteningly new society as a cop learns with whom/what he’s dealing when people disappear without a trace (no blood, no bones, no hanks of hair) and a lovelorn man contemplates a major life change… Don’t miss it!

 

 

 
         
 

Black Ships


(Click Cover to Buy)

by Jo Graham
Orbit, $14.99
448 Pages
ISBN: 978-0316068000

reviewed by Jen Baker

 

 

Gull, an acolyte in the Lady’s temple, experiences her first vision shortly before the ships arrive. In her vision she witnesses the arrival of black ships on the horizon, and the man who will come to save the refugees of fallen Wilusa (Troy). When Aeneas arrives with his fleet, she agrees to become the Sibyl for the people as they sail across the Mediterranean Sea in search of a place to rebuild their lives. Gull’s decision to join him brings her into a quest that for her represents new possibilities: the chance at love and children, despite her maimed body, and the hope of a new way of life. Aeneas, the King, follows the Sibyl’s lead as she guides him toward his destiny into Egypt, under Vesuvius and into the Underworld. Graham adeptly weaves Virgil’s epic tale with her fictional characters, bringing a refreshing vitality to what has for centuries been a somewhat inaccessible myth. Readers don’t need to be familiar with Virgil to come under the spell of this ancient adventure tale and love story.

 

 

 
         
 

Someone Knows My Name


(Click Cover to Buy)

by Lawrence Hill
W.W. Norton, $24.95
512 pages
ISBN:
978-0393065787

reviewed by Jen Baker

 

 

Over the years since the slave ships arrived in America slave narratives and historical novels have detailed the harrowing experiences of a diverse and proud people exploited for the sake of colonial economics and rich landowners’ greed. Why then, after three hundred years, are authors still writing about slavery and finding a readership for stories that literally leave us weeping and drained? Perhaps we hope the answers to questions like, “How could this happen?” and “Who is to blame?” lie in the seemingly endless perspectives on individual lives, fictional and real, brought out by perceptive American writers such as Toni Morrison, James McBride and now Canadian author Lawrence Hill.

His new novel begins with an elderly black woman in London, penning the story of her life for abolition’s cause. Aminata’s narrative grabs readers by the ears:  the tale of a bright 11-year-old Muslim girl in 1902, brutally taken from a village in West Africa, shackled and shipped across the Middle Passage to be enslaved and humiliated in a foreign New World. Hill’s old-fashioned storytelling style never falters as Amanita, a lovely, educated and skilled midwife, survives slavery in all its ugly forms, falls in love, loses everyone she cares about and eventually escapes to start a new life in Nova Scotia. The cold climate and harsh living conditions there compel her to take advantage of the British Zionists’ offer to help settle an all-African community in Sierra Leone.

After decades away from Africa, Aminata Diallo discovers that once stolen from home, she can never revisit or recreate that home, finally leaving Africa once again. In her senior years she decides to help eradicate slavery by telling her story. Reminiscent of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines, this is a powerful and historically accurate outline of a shameful time in Western history, but it’s also a paean to the strength of black women who bore the unbearable with dignity and hope.

 

 
         
 

Murder on the Eiffel Tower


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by Claude Izner, Translated by Isabel Reid
St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95
304 pages
ISBN:  978-0-312-38374-9

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

Half-owner of one of Paris’ best bookstores, Victor Legris is being courted to write for a new tabloid newspaper. And why not? It’s 1889 and the City of Lights is filled with new ideas and new possibilities. The Eiffel Tower has opened and people flock by the thousands to ascend it. Victor is there when a young woman dies after receiving a sharp sting to her neck. Over the next few days, people in other parts of Paris die from stings. Is it bees, as is reported by the authorities, or do the deaths have something to do with the arrival of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show? Victor finds himself investigating the matter on his own, and suddenly all those around him, from his Japanese business partner and oldest friend Kenji to Tasha the femme fatal artist for the tabloid, are suspects. Chocked full of period detail, we see the sights surrounding the World Exposition (actors in a Cro-Magnon Man tableau, exotic foods available for the first time from France’s various colonies) and all of Paris (luxuriant boudoirs, squalid garrets). But the murders are no mere excuse for a tour. The mystery is complex, and it’s a pleasure to see Victor truly using his mind to analyze the multiple facets of the case.

 
         
 

Somebody Else’s Daughter


 
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Elizabeth Brundage
Viking Penguin, $24.95
338 pages
ISBN 978-0-670-01900-7

reviewed by Judy Bryant

 

Somebody Else’s Daughter is a reader’s delight.  Rich in language that is evocative and sumptuous, it slows down your reading as you linger over the beautiful prose. This is especially true in the first three-quarters of the book, as we become involved in the lives of the people at the small, prestigious Pioneer School in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Balanced against the wealth and golden, preppy atmosphere of this community are the tangled, claustrophobic and secretive lives of the Headmaster Jack Heath and his wife and daughter; the wealthy Golding family with their adopted daughter Willa; single parent Claire Squire with her troubled son Teddy; and the newly arrived teacher, Nate Gallagher. Unknown to the Golding’s, Nate is the birth father of Willa, taking a job at her school out of some confused combination of curiosity, guilt and love. Elizabeth Brundage is especially good at depicting the conflicting emotions and turmoil that each of her characters is experiencing as they move closer and closer to the explosion of desperate actions and exposed, long repressed secrets. While the first three-quarters of the book moves at a beautiful, slow pace, pulling you in with the striking language, the last quarter of the book hurls you headlong into a thriller/melodrama where all the messy loose ends of life are neatly wrapped up. I adored the first part. The richness of the imagery, the life-like messiness of the emotions was enthralling. But for lovers of the thriller genre, the last part of the book is the payoff. Either way, it’s well worth every page.

 

 

 
         
 Young Adult  
         
 

Hurricane Song


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by Paul Volponi
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
144 pages
ISBN:  0670061603

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Hurricane Song opens by placing the reader in the New Orleans Superdome during Katrina.  It’s the stuff of nightmares:  pitch darkness, suffocating heat, and the overwhelming stench of feces.  Screams and gunshots sounding in the distance, and gangs of thugs roam the stadium, taking whatever they can from New Orleans’ most vulnerable citizens.  For 16-year-old African-American Miles, who has only recently moved to New Orleans to live with his father after his mother’s remarriage, it’s a test of mettle in more ways than one.

Miles’ relationship with his father is on shaky ground; he believes that his father cares more about the jazz music that is his livelihood than he does about his son.  The two of them meet up with Miles’ Uncle Roy to leave the city before the storm hits, but their car breaks down in the traffic jam heading west.  So, l
ike everyone else in New Orleans without means of escape, they are herded into the Superdome. There, it quickly becomes clear that the government is unprepared for the impending disaster, and that not everyone will survive.  

Volponi does not shy away from the horror of the situation, or from the role that race played during Katrina.  The writing is spare but pitch perfect, and Miles is a sympathetic character.  Hurricane Song is an easy, fast-paced read, making it a perfect pick for high school students not reading at grade level, or for anyone looking for a vivid portrayal of the destruction wrought by Katrina.

 

 
         
 

Exodus


(Click Cover to Buy)

by Julie Bertagna
Walker Books for Young Readers
352 pages
ISBN:  978-0802797452

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

If Kevin Costner’s 1995 film Waterworld had not been terrible (a mental stretch, but bear with me), it might have been a lot more like Julie Bertagna’s young adult novel Exodus.  First published in the UK in 2002 to much acclaim, Exodus tells the story of 15-year-old Mara, who lives on a small island somewhere in the North Atlantic.  It’s the year 2099, and the world’s oceans have risen so much that Mara’s island may be the only dry land left anywhere.  But the island is still shrinking, and Mara’s community finally must face the truth:  if they do not strike out in search of higher ground elsewhere, they will soon be flooded out of their homes. 

Through the use of an outdated electronic device, Mara searches an abandoned cyberworld.  There, she finds evidence that new, ultramodern sky cities, built to resist the floods, exist elsewhere in the world.  So she and the other villagers set out on small fishing boats to find these cities.  But tragedy strikes along the way, and when the villagers finally find one of the tower cities, it is not everything they had hoped for. 

The first of a planned trilogy, Exodus gives a fascinating glimpse into three distinct societies—two primitive, one ultramodern—and how they are surviving after an environmental apocalypse.  Mara is a smart, resourceful hero, and there is enough adventure to make the series appealing to boys and girls.  Recommended for fans of Jeanne Duprau’s City of Ember or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, middle school and up.

 

 

 

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