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April 2011 Book Reviews:



Unfamiliar Fishes

by Sarah Vowell

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Vowell continues her wry examinations of American history, this time revealing the story of Hawaii from the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1820s to its official annexation by the United States in 1898. This allows Vowell to weave together two of her obsessions:  “churchy” New Englanders and American imperialism. Working from numerous contemporary accounts, including autobiographies by the missionaries and the Hawaiian royal families, she paints a portrait of a time and place that is far from the simple paradise of cruise ship commercials. The missionaries paved the way for whaling ships that eventually brought devastating disease, but they also worked with the natives in developing the first written Hawaiian language. This was initially in order to translate the Bible, but it soon turned Hawaii into a center of mass literacy. The first newspaper and public school west of the Rocky Mountains were started in Hawaii. As Hawaiians converted, the battles over morals and eventually material goods played out not so much as Sophisticated White Men vs. Simple Natives, as the new power base vs. Hawaii’s ancient, established power base. The archipelago’s kings hadn’t been running things for centuries without picking up a few tricks—even if they did fall into the destructive, European habit of inbreeding. Nor was the annexation a simple invasion by U.S. troops looking to secure a strategic base. Hawaiian-born sugar barons asked for it as a way to sell their product in the U.S. at a more competitive price. President Grover Cleveland opposed it, but passed on the request to Congress . . . who approved. Anything was better than another monarchy in America’s new navy-powered sphere of influence.




The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan

by Bradford Martin

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



The 1980s are remembered as The Reagan Years, a time of prosperity and the return of American confidence after the debacles of Vietnam and Watergate:  “Morning in America." But, as Bruce Springsteen said during his concerts at the time, “It's not morning in Pittsburgh. It's not morning above 125th Street in New York.” Alongside this rising tide of optimism, there was a parallel culture of protest. Not as confrontational as their forebears from the 1960s, '80s activists and artists worked from within the system to change rather than topple. Where Rambo was “Vietnam the way it should have been,” Platoon was Vietnam the way it really was. Reagan himself didn't mention AIDS for the first six years of his administration, but ACT UP (which also staged 1960s style “die-ins”) created public art such as the “Silence = Death” pink triangle that became ubiquitous on posters, bumper stickers, and buttons. Anti-apartheid protestors built shantytowns on the lawns of college campuses in order to shame them into divesting their holdings in South Africa. The lessons of subversion were not lost on Reagan. He managed to steal the nuclear freeze's thunder by initiating his Strategic Defense Initiative. There was no need to freeze when “Star Wars” would make missiles obsolete (though, of course, both sides continued to build them, no matter how “obsolete”).







Let's Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone By

by Lesley M. Blume

reviewed by A.B. Mead



You don't have to be an old fogey to enjoy this brief guide celebrating nostalgia for things we have largely given up for the sake of convenience. Running from Acquaintance (we use the word “friend” too easily) to Zinc bars (the places Hemingway drank in Paris were topped with that snazzy metal), Blume reminds us of “the pleasures of ornamentation and ceremony.” Here are words, foods, and ideas that could use resurgence. It's not likely that anyone is going to actually bring back the Concorde jet, nor the late costume designer Edith Head, but at least some of the latter's fashion advice is timeless:  “Your dresses should be tight enough to show you're a woman and loose enough to prove you’re a lady.” And, even if you can't find a town crier (“the original Google alert”), at least the classic comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland has been reprinted, and you can watch The Carol Burnett Show on DVD. There are guest commentaries as well, including Kate Spade on needlepoint belts and Ted Koppel on something that truly does need to be brought back, outdoor childhoods. There are recipes for figgy pudding, mint juleps, and the original Girl Scout cookies—kids used to make these themselves and sell them for 25 cents a dozen. Though Blume champions one-piece swimsuits (“Bikinis are grand, but it's hard to live up to their expectations”) and manually operated eggbeaters (“They look like good exercise”), of all the items in this collection, the one I'd most like to bring back is the exclamation “Well, I never.” It's so much classier than “Shut up!” or “No way!.” And think of the internet abbreviation:  WIN!







The Sixth Man

by David Baldacci

reviewed by Jon Land


The man hunched over the cold metal table, his body curled tight, eyes screwed shut, his voice cracking. 

Such openings have helped define thrillers since the genre’s birth.  With David Baldacci, though, you actually get more than meets the eye, not less as is so often the case.  And his latest book, The Sixth Man, smoothly combines the more politically savvy Baldacci from the Absolute Power era with the Baldacci who has moved more into the action form as of late. 

The Sixth Man actually starts out in a creepy fashion akin to Dennis Lehane’s brilliant Shutter Island.  That’s because notorious, Hannibal Lecter-like serial killer Edgar Roy is murdered inside an isolated ultra-high security prison before he can stand trial, and his defense attorneys, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, want to know by whom and, especially, why.  The implications that their client may, in fact, have been innocent all of a sudden seem very real, which means his murder was all about silencing the truth. 

Baldacci had always defined his thrillers as a search for that elusive truth and his latest is no exception, as King and Maxwell embark on a journey into Roy’s past even as more bodies tumble around them.  Twists and turns of the highest order abound, another Baldacci staple he takes to a whole new level here. The Sixth Man is a masterpiece of misdirection, wonderfully played out by a storyteller at the absolute top of his game.




The Enterprise of Death

by Jesse Bullington

reviewed by Neal Swain



This book is not for the squeamish. Possibly, it is not even advisable for people who know someone squeamish: this book is violent, gross, dirty, and very hard to stop talking about, which means that people possessed of entirely reasonable sensitivities might be accidentally afflicted and never regard the reader in the same way again. But with that warning, The Enterprise of Death is one of the best gross books you can pick up this spring.

Jesse Bullington does a spectacular job capturing the medieval psyche. If Chaucer wrote about necromancy and witchcraft, it would be very similar to this; that is, raunchy, grotesque, and sometimes horrifying. Unlike his first book, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, the cast of The Enterprise of Death endeavors to be sympathetic: they are mostly well-intentioned people trying to live in the midst of the Reformation, witch-hunts, and ongoing wars. Bullington envisions a world with a distinct lack of sanitary anachronisms; his characters sweat, drink, bleed, fart, lead complicated love lives, die regularly and occasionally summon the undead from churchyards to do their bidding - all the while trying to do the right thing, at least when they can (with mixed results). This is an extremely fresh take on medieval fantasy.




Save Me

by Lisa Scottoline

reviewed by Jon Land


Rose McKenna stood against the wall in the noisy cafeteria, having volunteered as lunch mom, which is like a security guard with eyeliner. 

That simple opening belies an emotionally complex tale I call a thriller because it had me on the edge of my seat for totally different reasons than the typical Lisa Scottoline tale.  With Save Me, Scottoline has beautifully bridged the gap between the seminal angst-ridden books of Judith Guest and Jodi Picoult with the taut, twisty mysteries she and others like Linda Fairstein and Karin Slaughter have mastered. 

Save Me isn’t about bodies, or blood splatter, or crazed serial killers; it’s about bullying, a sickening scourge among youth today magnified all the more by social media providing more venues to inflict pain on the tormented.  But Scottoline’s setting is an elementary school of all places, and the focus is on the ultimately tragic steps Rose takes to protect her daughter Molly from bullying by a particularly nasty classmate named Amanda.  For her efforts, Rose sees her own life unravel, as she becomes the victim of her own actions and, perhaps, excesses. 

Scottoline provides no easy answers here to a problem that defies such.  Instead she paints a painful, gut-wrenching portrait of extremes on both sides. Guns, knives and bombs—staple weapons of the thriller genre—are nothing compared to cruelty.  Save Me is a book as brilliant as it is cautionary and one that defines everything a great novel is supposed to be.




Young Adult




by Lili Wilkinson

reviewed by Hayden Bass


When I first told my parents I was a lesbian, they threw me a coming-out party.  Seriously.  We had champagne and everything.  It was the most embarrassing thing that'd ever happened to me. 

Sixteen-year-old Ava is tired of being the best student at her crummy public school.  She’s tired of wearing all black all the time, and even of being a lesbian.  She wants to go somewhere new, and forge a new, exciting, girlier identity.  So she's asked her parents to let her attend a fancy private school, and she has secretly purchased a very feminine pink cashmere sweater.  Her liberal, intellectual parents and her sophisticated girlfriend are not sure what to make of all this.  The biggest secret of all: Ava is hoping to date boys.

Pink does a good job of accounting for the fluidity of sexuality and sexual orientation without writing teen homosexuality off as "a phase" or "experimenting.”  It also has a few genuinely funny moments.  Though some of the characters are a bit flat, teen readers who are questioning their own orientation will likely find much to relate to.




Small Persons with Wings

by Ellen Booraem

reviewed by A.B. Mead


When Mellie Turpin was very young, a tiny person with wings (they hate to be called fairies) lived in her room and would perform minor feats of magic for her entertainment. Then he moved away. Now a teenager, Mellie has almost convinced herself that it was all in her imagination, when she and her parents inherit a rustic country inn from her grandfather. Her parents plan to fix it up, “flip” it and retire, but the family didn't count on the Legacy (or “curse” as her mother puts it) of the Turpins. The family is honor-bound to provide a home for any and all Parvi Pennati (Latin for “Small Persons with Wings”), and Mellie's late grandfather had been doing just that. Now the Turpins are responsible for about 500 of the creatures who are living in their inn. These parvi have a proposition:  if the Turpins will return the magical Gemmaluna (moon stone) that their ancestor received as payment for hosting the parvi, they'll pack up and leave. But grandfather Turpin never told anyone where he hid it. The book is light-hearted and sweet, and Mellie's mixture of angst and wit makes her very likable. She becomes friends with one of the parvi who has suffered the small-person equivalent of some of her own teen-aged embarrassments. Mellie is obsessed with artists, and her frequent references to specific works by Degas, Watteau, da Vinci, and others just might send readers to the library (ok, the web) to look at some of their masterpieces.





My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor



Chad Emerson gathered a select group of Disney experts and asked them to write essays on Disney World to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Four Decades of Magic: Celebrating the First Forty Years of Disney World (Ayefour Publishing, $19.95).  Even the Disney fan and theme park aficionado will discover never-heard-before stories.






If you have an iPhone, you might sometimes wonder why a particular word appears when you are using its autocorrect feature.  Jillian Madison has compiled a book of extremely funny text messages gone horribly wrong in Damn You, Autocorrect! (Hyperion, $13.99).  Here is an example from their website that is also available in the book and isn’t too adult. 






Another hilarious book is 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (and Other Useful Guides).  (Andrews McMeel, $14.99).  These series of cartoons that convey helpful advice come from the mind of madman Matthew Inman, who runs the site The Oatmeal.  An example from the book.







Not only is physicist Michio Kaku one of the top scientists in the world, but he also has the ability to take complex science and break it down for the neophyte.  His latest book, Physics of the Future (Doubleday, $28.95) takes modern science and divines what our world might be like in the year 2100.  With the help of top scientists in their respective fields, Kaku foresees every aspect of our lives changing for the better, of course, as our life spans increase, major diseases are cured, and people are wired even more to the a global network.  A fascinating journey into our probable future as science fiction one day might become science fact.




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