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 June 2009 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

 

The Food of a Younger Land


by Mark Kurlansky

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

 

During the Great Depression the Federal Writers' Project make work for unemployed writers. America Eats was supposed to be a guide to the nation's cuisines, but it was abandoned when we entered World War II. Kurlansky has edited a selection from the manuscript that gives us a flavor (so to speak) of, as the book's subtitle tells us, a time “before frozen food, when the nation's food was seasonal, regional and traditional.” You can read about the Lobster Newburg at the fabled Delmonico's restaurant in Manhattan, and learn five pages worth of soda-luncheonette slang (“Arkansas chicken” is salt pork, and “nervous pudding” is gelatin). Join Vermont maple farmers in a “sugaring-off (the first step in syrup making), and find out more than anyone would ever want to know about clams and their chowders. Eudura Welty provides some Mississippi recipes (Lye Hominy contains ½ quart oak ashes), and you will need four squirrels and 3 or 4 pods of okra for a proper squirrel mulligan. There are a handful of different mint julep recipes, and extensive notes on Sioux and Chippewa food. The famous California grunion make their run up the shore in time for a yummy fry. Under “Some Things the Spanish-Americans Eat,” the delights of  chiles rellenos (called by epicureans “angel's dreams”) and tortillas are detailed. Hard to believe now, but at the time, most Americans had never heard of them. Kurlansky's volume is occasionally mouth-watering and thoroughly fascinating.

 

 

 

 

         
 

Just Doing My Job: Stories of Service From World War II


Edited by Jonna Doolittle Hoppes

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

We are still talking about The Greatest Generation. There was Ken Burns documentary about World War II. Movies are still set during the 1940s. It's possible to have WWII burn-out. Fortunately there is this volume, guaranteed to cure Second World War fatigue. Doolittle Hoppes has assembled a collection of first-person narratives representing the many faces of The War, each more compelling than the last. These true-life adventures show not only the heroism of everyday people thrown into extraordinary circumstances, but also the variety of experiences that made up the war years. Not everyone was a solider, but everyone has a story worth hearing. 

Jack Hammett and Elmer Troxcil recall the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and we are there amidst the smoke, confusion, and noise. Only four months later, Doolittle's Raiders, a squadron of American bombers, attacked military targets in Japan. Robert Hite, a gunner on a B-25, was part of that operation and was shot down over Japanese-occupied China. His tale of life as POW is absorbing. Wes Coss, shot down over France, owes his life to the French Resistance, to whom he first had to prove he was not a Nazi infiltrator. Robert Johnson had been classified 4-F and stumbled into engineering school. When his designs for new helicopter propellers were a little too close to those of a top secret military project, he found himself in deep trouble. We all know Rosie the Riveter, but real-life Bonnie Gwaltney tells is like it really was. Carmelita Pope was an aspiring actress who found herself part of USO show touring Europe. Claude Davis, Tuskegee Airman, took part in small anti-segregation protests that led to the eventual integration of the army. Thomas Griffin served time in Stalag Luft II, a German POW camp right out of The Great Escape or a deadly-serious version of Hogan's Heroes, complete with escape tunnels and hidden radio equipment mailed to POWs by the U.S. Government under the guise of “Aunt Tillie.” Dick Hamada is a Japanese-American who worked for the precursor to the CIA, the OSS, where he ended up in Burma leading guerilla fighters and being harassed by man-eating tigers.

 

 

 
         
 

The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (Or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)


by Carol Fisher Saller

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

 

Carol Fisher Saller is a senior manuscript editor for the University of Chicago Press and answers the questions sent to the Chicago Manual of Style website. Anyone familiar with that helpful and irreverent Q&A web page (and all writers should be) will happily recognize the same tone throughout this book. This is a stylebook only indirectly, however. The Subversive Copy Editor is about the craft and art of editing, whether dayjobbing for a publisher or working freelance, and a surprising amount of subjects are covered in this slim, readable volume. As the subtitle indicates, the book covers the people skills needed to work within the collaborative environment of publishing—office politics, difficult authors, and giving yourself a break are all covered. Relevant (and frequently amusing) real-life examples from Saller and her colleagues illuminate the best and the worst of the profession. The pros and cons of technology and the changes it has brought to publishing and editing is also touched upon, along with ways to avoid and, if necessary, deal with, some of the most common technical difficulties. Not all of these topics are covered in depth, nor was it necessary to do so. Instead Saller provides clear, succinct pointers for editors, drawing on her years of experience. Highly recommended for all editors, writers, and any reader interested in what goes on behind the scenes between manuscript and published book. This editor will be keeping it in my cubicle, shelved right alongside the Chicago Manual of Style.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting


by Kitty Burns Florey

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

Handwriting, penmanship, cursive. . . for most of us it ended in fourth grade. Today, aside from signing checks, our “writing” is done on keyboards. But Florey's unexpectedly fascinating and amusing history of penmanship, illustrated with hundreds of examples of handwriting and typefaces, just might bring back the loops and swirls. She moves quickly from Sumerian pictograms in clay to illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells. In the 1800’s, Platt Spencer created the “Spencerian hand” that was the mark of proper business and personal writing for over half a century. It lives on today only in the Coca-Cola logo. Like so many things, the curlicues of fine handwriting were left behind by the practicality of business. From the early twentieth century on, time was money. Spencer was replaced by the handwriting most of us were taught, the Palmer Method. Not the tool of feminine “pen artists,” this was designed for quick business letters. Graphology, the study of personality through penmanship, had many adherents. Handwriting was so linked to personality that many believed you could alter your character by altering your penmanship. People could be “transformed from self-destructive maniacs into solid citizens when they started forming their lower-case g's differently.” Although discredited in America, graphology is still considered valid in parts of Europe. In Israel, be prepared to provide a handwriting sample to your potential employer, landlord, or matchmaker. Flory's appreciation is infectious, yet avoids the preachy didacticism of, say, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. She doesn't just speak to the converted, she makes you a convert.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University


by Kevin Roose

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

 

Roose, a relatively secular college journalist with a Quaker upbringing, is an undergrad at liberal Brown University. He decides to see how the other half lives by attending Jerry Falwell’s evangelical Liberty University for a semester. Roose struggles with classes that presuppose a depth of biblical knowledge he doesn’t have and has to bite his tongue in classes that teach how Noah got all the animals on the ark, all the while presenting himself as an evangelical to his fellow students so that he can experience the unvarnished reality of “Bible Boot Camp.” He worries about the ethical ramifications of his deception as he makes friends with true believers who don’t know who he really is. What makes this book so engaging is Roose’s fairness to his classmates even though their beliefs are often so far from his own. And Roose is honest about how this immersion in deep religious belief affects his own faith. The result is an unvarnished but balanced window into the lives of evangelical students, their faith, their doubts, their occasional flashes of intolerance, and their struggle to follow “The Liberty Way,” the forty-six page rulebook that guides their behavior. No R-rated movies, nothing beyond hand-holding, hair and skirts of proper length, and so on and so on. Reprimands are given for any infractions and, as is to be expected, some of the students amass a large number of reprimands. Roose writes it all with good humor and understanding. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

Of Bees and Mist


Erick Setiwan

reviewed by Paige Byerly

 

 

There comes a time when every trendy literary genre reaches its apex and is pushed beyond its sell-by date by rapacious publishers, and in this capacity Of Bees and Mist serves as a harbinger of doom for fans of Magical-Realism-from-Other-Cultures. It’s not a terrible book, but it does come across as a novel made to sell rather than endure, from its buzzword title (Bees! So hot right now), to its author’s fairy-tale back story (young software engineer quits job, pursues dream), to the fact that it’s one of Simon & Schuster’s lead titles for the summer. Of Bees and Mist tells the story of Meridia, a spitfire young woman who grows up in a house shrouded in mysteries and, you guessed it, mist. Or mists, really, ivory, yellow and blue ones, which escort Meridia’s philandering father up and down the street at designated times of day and were the source of much (presumably) unintended hilarity. Meridia meets and weds the great love of her life and moves into his family home, which unfortunately also harbors many secrets, proving Meridia most unlucky in domestic arrangements. Many trials and travails follow, and while I must admit that I was eventually sucked into the story, it wasn’t until mid-book, and I didn’t feel good about it.  

The problem with Of Bees and Mist isn’t that it’s a silly novel; silly novels are the backbone of summertime, after all, and have their place in the pantheon of fiction, if not literature. No, the problem, really, is that it is being touted as a serious work, groundbreaking, even. Setiwan, who comes from a multi-cultural, chiefly Asian, background, sets his book in a mythical and timeless realm both everyone’s and no one’s, or so he claims, where he can truly explore the complex relationships between women outside of a cultural context. In point of fact, this netherworld is pretty much completely Marquez’s Columbia, with a touch of Allende’s Chile; in trying to write beyond his own culture, Setiwan seems to have totally ignored it, instead heading for the fertile (and well-trodden) grounds of South America, circa early 20th century.  The plot, too, with its themes of the solidarity of women, is straight up Allende, sans only her finesse. The novel’s climax in particular, a Bluebeard-like scene in which Merida’s pregnant sister-in-law stumbles upon evidence of her husband’s sexual perversions, is almost entirely lifted from a scene in The House of Spirits. Meanwhile, the magical realism scenes unsuccessfully ape Marquez--the swarms of bees that choke Meridia’s mother-in-law’s poisonous speech, for example, assuredly originated from the yellow butterflies that swarm the lovelorn Mauricio Babilonia in A Hundred Years of Solitude. As I said, Of Bees and Mist is not an awful book, but with so much of its essence appropriated from other, greater, works of fiction, it seems wrong to reward its unoriginality with attention.

 

 

 

         
 

Alexandria


by Lyndsey Davis

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Marcus Didius Falco, ancient Rome's fabulous, freelance “informer” (investigator) has been all over the Roman Empire in the previous 18 volumes of this series. Now, he and his wife Helena, accompanied by other family members, are visiting Egypt's Alexandria, home of the Lighthouse and the Library. When the Librarian turns up dead in a locked room, Falco is recruited to investigate. As always with Davis, you are there:  smelling the lotuses, visiting the tourist sites related to Antony and Cleopatra (“We found a giant sphinx, against whose lion paw we could lean . . . until guards chased us off.”), and learning everything you always wanted to know about crocodiles but were afraid to ask. At the heart of the action is the Museion, a huge complex for academic research that includes not only the Library, but a zoo, and—in a scene that conjures up thoughts of a CSI: 77 A.D. series—a theater for the emerging, though banned, science of post-mortem forensics. You'd think that by now Davis would have run out of aspects of the ancient world to detail, but no. Alexandria gives her the opportunity to explore Egypt, tourism (nothing has changed in 2,000 years:  even then the natives were rude, the food terrible, and the sanitation non-existent), the academic lifestyle (not much has changed there either; contemporary librarians, teachers, and students will find themselves and their colleagues in this novel). As with every volume of this excellent series, Falco's first-person narration is witty, captivating, and informative. Newcomers will have no problem diving right in.

 

 


 

 
         
 

Roadside Crosses


by Jeffrey Deaver

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

Jeffrey Deaver’s work has always been cutting edge.  But in Roadside Crosses that edge is sharp enough to send us searching for band-aids to mend our sliced fingers. 

His latest thriller to feature “kinesics analyst” Kathryn Dance takes us into the Internet’s increasingly pervasive underbelly of gaming and cyber-bullying.  That’s what happens when hapless, outcast teen gamer Travis is blamed for the deaths of two popular high school coeds and finds himself targeted not only in person, but also on a vicious blog masquerading as social conscience.  The Chilton Report basically provides posters with the freedom to say anything they want with an impunity known only on the Web.  But then someone begins targeting the bloggers terrorizing Travis, nailing in place a particular roadside cross in advance of each vengeful strike.  

Beset by her own personal crises, Dance sets out to use her expertise in analyzing body language to sort through the morass of teen angst unleashed in this new world of texting, sexting, and super blogs.  As if the already raging adolescent id needed another vehicle. 

Roadside Crosses is not without its problems, the writing a bit stodgy at times and the pace definitely down a gear from Deaver’s brilliant Lincoln Rhyme series.  All told, though, this is a bracing, cautionary tale complete with a message that cuts like a knife.

 

 


 

 
         
 

Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson


by Lyndsay Faye

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

In a Sherlock Holmes pastiche the “voice” of Watson as narrator is just as important as the plot, and, in a world flooded with new Holmes tales, there are too many bad imitations out there. Fortunately, Faye is pitch-perfect in her tone, and her novel will transport even the most jaded Sherlockian back to that cozy study at 221B Baker Street where it’s always 1895. In Doyle’s original stories, Holmes never fought the most famous real villain of his time, Jack the Ripper. He has in other, more recent novels and films, including one by Michael Dibdin in which Holmes himself was shown to be the Ripper—a theory that gets some play in this novel as well. Holmes and Watson are joined by a streetwalker, Mary Ann Monk, who is a footnote to the real case, but whom Faye has made a major character, replacing Holmes' usual troop of street urchin/spies, the Baker Street Irregulars (gruesome murder is not a sight for young eyes). Mary Ann complements, but never overshadows (unlike Mary Russell in Laurie King's novels), our intrepid duo as they assist Inspector Lestrade and Scotland Yard in a London gripped by fear. While still maintaining the Watson idiom, Faye drops a few more details and historical references to create more vivid settings than Doyle provided—all the better to re-create for readers Victorian London (A drinking establishment's atmosphere is filled with “tallow smoke and careless splashes of gin.” Perfect.). With its blend of fact and fiction, and twists and turns leading to a thoroughly logical and satisfactory conclusion, Faye has written easily the best Holmes pastiche I have read in years.

 


 

 
         
 

B is for Beer


by Tom Robbins

reviewed by Tajuan LaBee

 

 

Tom’s Robbins’ latest book B is for Beer, is meant to be a children’s book about beer, but adults can also enjoy it. In it, Gracie Perkel, a curious little Seattle kindergartener, meets the beer fairy. Able to travel through the space between time and dimensions, the beer fairy takes Gracie on a magical journey and shows her the many aspects of beer. Exploring the history and creation of it, to the various effects it has on human beings, Robbins’ uses Gracie’s journey to provide both a light and in depth lesson on beer in a language that is easy for a young person to understand. The tongue in cheek narrator’s subversive descriptions of Gracie’s world and the mature actions occurring around her makes this book a engaging read for adults as well. 

At a New York book signing inside the Brooklyn Brewery (where else?) Tom Robbins said that the inspiration for this book came from a New Yorker cartoon. In it two men are sitting on bar stools with a caption that read: “I doubt that a children’s book about beer would sell.” Whether or not Robbins has successfully met that challenge is arguable. While the illustrations, bold type, and short length may make this a nice undertaking for a young reader, some parents may have a qualm with their young child going on a virtual tag along with a young protagonist that steals a beer, gets drunk from it, dances until she’s sick, and is rewarded with a fun visit from a fairy, not to mention learning what the word “smart-ass” means. 

A lot may consider this rather light compared to Robbins’ previous works but you still get a good tale and a comprehensive crash course on the alcoholic beverage that Benjamin Franklin called “…proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

 

 

 
         
 

Sag Harbor


by Colson Whitehead

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

It's 1985, and 15-year-old Benji Cooper and his younger brother Reggie are “out”: spending the summer in their family's beach cottage in Sag Harbor, the part of the Hamptons frequented by upper-middle-class blacks. When their parents decide to only come out on the weekends, the brothers are left to their own devices, assisted only by a charge account at the grocery store. They spend their time with their friends, cruising in cars or on bikes, exploring the limits of their world. Through Benji, Whitehead studies the world like an African-American Jean Shepherd for the 21st century. He details nuances both linguistic (“True masters of the style sometimes attached the nonsensical 'with your monkey ass' as a kicker, to convey sincerity and depth of feeling.”) and kinesthetic (“Yes, the new handshakes were out, shaming me with their permutations and slippery routines . . . Devised in the underground soul laboratories of Harlem . . .”). The novel is peppered with 80s cultural references (Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, cable t.v.), but never seems “pop.” Similarly, when it is wise, it is profound, but never heavy. True, not a whole lot happens—Benji works at an ice cream parlor when not goofing off with his friends—but Whitehead's style is supremely amusing and captivating. Benji's revelry over finding a stash of original Coca-Cola during the New Coke era is an instant classic (“There were others like me. Those who had been disappointed in life, but who did what they could to beat back chaos.). Though the protagonists are young, this is not a YA novel.  It will be most enjoyed by us aging Gen-Xers who appreciate how Whitehead sometimes channels Melville, and sometimes Ray Bradbury, in his historic and lyrical depictions of the time and place. So far, this is my favorite novel of the year.

 

 

 
   
   
Young Adult

 

 
 

Reality Check


by Peter Abrahams

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

Cody is the king of his small Colorado town:  he’s the high school quarterback, destined for a big college scholarship, and dating Clea, the prettiest, smartest girl in town.  But then Clea’s wealthy, overbearing father sends her to boarding school in Vermont.  Soon after, Cody tears his ACL, and all of his football dreams--and therefore, his college dreams--are at an end.  A few months later, the local paper reports that Clea has disappeared from her boarding school.  Cody packs his car and drives across the country to Vermont to find her.   A likeable hero, Cody probably has an undiagnosed learning disorder.  Through his search for Clea, he eventually discovers that he’s much smarter than he had previously assumed.  However, this theme isn't hammered home the way it would be in a lesser YA novel; Abrahams has more respect for his characters than that.  Though the mystery doesn’t begin until nearly one hundred pages in, the suspense builds to a fever pitch in the final chapters.  Abrahams, author of the excellent Echo Falls mystery series for the middle grades, here offers a compelling mystery for older teens that will appeal to even reluctant readers.

 

 
         
 

Alyzon Whitestarr


by Isobelle Carmody

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

After taking a knock on the head to protect her baby brother from injury, Australian teen Alyzon Whitestarr finds that her senses have expanded, especially her sense of smell.  She can now detect people’s essential scents, some of which are disturbingly rotten.  She and her friends conclude that these unfortunate people have caught a mysterious soul sickness, with symptoms similar to depression.  When they begin to investigate, the teens uncover clues suggesting that there may be plots to infect members of Alyzon’s family.  The idea of expanded senses as a kind of superpower may interest some teens, but the plot is meandering and repetitive, and most of the numerous characters remain flat.  Alyzon herself seems to have the perspective of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, but since some of her friends are adult professionals she is probably intended to be an older high school student.  For a more compelling look at an Australian teen struggling with special powers, try Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier.

 
         
 
My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor
 
 

 

 
 

A party at Camp David ends up a disaster for the First Lady and her family in First Family by David Baldacci (Grand Central, $27.99). It’s up to Sean King and Michelle Maxwell to save the day.  The two leads are compelling and the mystery provides wonderful twists and turns.

 

 

 

 

 
 

Imagine sitting at home watching TV some evening, and then SWAT breaks down the door.  Nick Horrigan has this happen to him, and he’s taken to a nuclear power plant that has been seized by a terrorist.  The reason he’s sent for:  The terrorist asked to meet with Nick personally.  Trust No One by Gregg Hurwitz (St. Martin’s, $24.95) only gets better from that point.  One of the best thrillers of the year.

 

 

 

 

 
 

If short stories are your bag, Thriller 2:Stories You Just Can’t Put Down (Mira, $24.95) will more than fit the bill.  There’s something for everyone here and not only the top thriller writers in the country can be found here, but also newcomers to the genre that more than hold their own.  Many of the stories compelled me to find the author’s novels. I can’t wait for number 3!

 

 

  

 

 
 

There is a murder and the husband is accused.  The brother knows he’s innocent and convinces a psychologist that works for a secret military outfit to help him prove it.  Kill Zone by Vicki Hinze (Medallion, $7.99) combines romantic suspense, military technothrillers, and paranormal elements to great effect.  I was honestly surprised how much I enjoyed the story and the memorable characters.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Jack Reacher gets on a New York subway train at the wrong time in Lee Child’s latest, Gone Tomorrow (Delacorte, $27.00).  Of course, when asked to walk away, he can’t and his curiosity leads him into a deadly trap.  Child continues to not disappoint.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Of course I can’t do a reading log without reflecting on some wonderful comic collections.  My Bad: A Zits Treasury by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman (Andrews McMeel, $16.99) chronicles the life of a couple with a “typical” teenager.  Funny now, I wonder what I’ll think when my kids get older.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

With that in mind, My Space by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott (Andrews McMeel, $12.99) reveals the life of parents with three small children in this collection of Baby Blues strips.  They can find humor from the pitfalls of trying to raise young ones.  Do these guys have cameras in my house?

 

 

 

 

 

 
     
 

See you next month and see the latest Pixar movie, UP.

Jeff

  

 
     

 

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