A. Reader

Monday, October 31, 2005

One Soldier's Story by Robert J. Dole

Regardless of your politics, this book is very readable. Dole talks about his family and how they, and a lot of other people, rallied around after he came home from the war so badly wounded. Most of the book is inspirational in character, discussing the changes from his former dreams to be a top athlete, to more realistic dreams. There are only a few places that seemed repetitious. I was reading this as one of the finalists for next year's United We Read so I thought I would just skip through, but I found myself intrigued by the story and settled in for the whole book.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

THE PRACTICE OF DECEIT by Elizabeth Benedict (2005)

This is a psychological thriller--about a psychologist. When therapist Eric Lavender meets glamorous divorce attorney Colleen O'Brien Golden, bachelorhood begins to lose some of its appeal. Never mind that Eric feels a bit compelled to pop the question due to Colleen's unplanned pregnancy--he positively revels in married life and fatherhood. Eventually, matters start to unravel when Eric and Colleen share a client and the conflict-of-interest question leads to all sorts of tacky revelations, beginning with the circumstances surrounding that momentous pregnancy...

THE ENGLISH TEACHER by Lily King (2005)

This is anything but a typical inspirational-teacher story. Vida Avery is one of those award-winning teachers who has become a school legend at a relatively young age. To add to the glamour of her giftedness, she is a single parent with a teenaged son who attends her school and a husband whom no one on the private school faculty (or in town) has ever met. Because Vida appears to relate more naturally to her beloved literature than to actual humans, the puzzle of her son's father seems part and parcel of her own private mystique. Then, Vida surprisingly accepts a proposal of marriage from a local "catch." This lifestyle change forces some long-hidden secrets out into the open. King is a talented narrator who manages to reveal enough of Vida's character to at times cause readers to wonder why they are so fascinated with such an unsympathetic character--but fascinated they will be.

ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith (2005)

I side with the critics who rate this one higher than Smith's White Teeth, which caused such a sensation a few years back. Some of the same elements are successfully exploited here: biracial marriages with the consequent offspring who have their own issues, sexual politics, class distinctions, and culture clashes. Smith's clever dialogue (sometimes a bit too clever and lengthy) and insidiously funny narration move the many subplots along nicely for the most part. Howard Belsey, an English art history professor in a snug American college community, finds himself deservedly losing his grip on his 30-year marriage, his three nearly grown children, and his career. To add to his woes, his academic arch-rival from across the pond is invited over for a guest lectureship at Howard's school. Adding delightful texture to all of this activity is the addition of a modern-day Howard's End scenario. As with White Teeth, edgy dialogue and situations would disqualify this from the "gentle reads" list.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Taming the Barbarinan by Lois Greiman

Fleurette is a young widow in Regency times, who has purchased a carriage making business and is still received in all the best circles. She first meets Killian while he is a statue of an ancient Scottish warrior in France. When the statue is mysteriously transported to Fleurette's garden, and then Killian starts interferring in her affairs, things go from bad to worse, sort of indictive of this novel. Throw in Killian's friend, the Irish werewolf, and a lot of bad Gaelic accents, and you have the makings of the equivilent of a deep cup of coffee (and if you know my opinion of coffee, you know where I stand on this silly book).

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Castles in the Air: The restoration adventures of two young optimists and a crumbling old mansion by Judy Corbett

If I won the lottery today, one of the first things I would do is book a stay at the bed and breakfast at Gwydir Castle in Wales. Corbett and her significant other (they marry before book's end) search everywhere before finding THE castle, a near-ruin. They scrounge the money to buy the place and begin the never-ending process of restoration. This book is full of wonderful descriptions of the Welsh countryside and the quirky neighbors who come to help return the castle to something close to a livable state. Corbett does a marvelous job of marrying the history of the estate with their contemporary adventures trying to make it a home. There are ghost stories too, and they're believable. I stumbled just a bit over some of the words - this doesn't appear to have been intended for an audience across the pond. But it's a great travel piece. You can peek at the what they've done with the place by visiting their web site. (A night in the King's Room will set you back only about $141.)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Curse of the Narrows by Laura M. MacDonald

In December 1917 World War I was raging and the harbor at Halifax, Nova Scotia was an important and busy port. A munitions ship entering the harbor on the morning of December 6 collided with another ship, setting off a series of explosions and a tsunami that wiped out a large portion of the waterfront. That was only the beginning of the disaster--that night there was a blizzard that slowed rescue attempts. The city of Boston, MA, did send a train of rescuers that made a heroic effort to get to the scene. If you are fascinated by the generosity of the human spirit as a result of disaster, you will enjoy this book, written by a native of Halifax.

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jenny Uglow

In the middle and late 1700s, scientists as such did not exist so anyone could develope an interest in anything that excited their fancy. A man could research the use of oxygen, the tensile strength of steel, and the intensity level of paints all at the same time without feeling out of his field as a lawyer. The five friends of the title (and their friends) met once a month to talk about their many interests. We know most of the names and some of their accomplishments, but Uglow introduces us to the families and friends of James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, and Joseph Priestley. Together these men helped get the Industrial Revolution underway and, as a result, made our lives today more interesting. This is book is one of a number of books out now exploring the explosion of ideas in the Eighteenth Century. I recommend it.

On the Wing: To the Edge of the Earth with the Peregrine Falcon by Alan Tennant

Tennant tracks the tundra falcons from the Texas barrier islands to their summer grounds in the Arctic and then back through Mexico and Belize to the Caribbean for their winter stay. The birds were fitted with radio tracking devices and Tennant and his seventy-year old pilot followed in a beat up Cessna. There are the natural perils of flying into large flocks of birds and the man-made perils of political instability and drug trafficking. If the thought of raptors excites you, you'll enjoy this book.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Devil's Teeth by Susan Casey

What a great armchair adventure! This book will sound a little off beat (it is) but it's been getting great reviews and sparked my curiosity. Casey is a journalist writing about the scientists of the Farallon islands, a tiny, isolated and desloate outpost just 20 miles from San Francisco. The islands are a nesting and denning habitat for birds and seals, contributing to an ideal environment for great white sharks. Very little has been known of these sharks because they are so elusive and difficult to study in the wild. Their arrival at the Farralons for several months each year makes this unforgiving and harsh landscape a mecca for shark scientists, who watch the water round the clock for signs of a "kill," then launch their vulnerable small boats to get close to the action with cameras and notepads. The scientists have been discovering some intriguing new facts about these creatures (the largest they've encountered is over 20 feet long), facts that contradict what we thought we knew. Casey is as fascintated with the human inhabitants of the Farralons as she is with the the awesome sea creatures on and around the islands. What kind of person actually seeks out time on a deserted island for months at a time, a place stinking of the amonia from the droppings of thousands of sea birds, battered by wind, waves and violent weather, with only occasional shipments of supplies? Casey's lively writing and unquencable curiousity are put to good use in describing the island terrain and bazaar history and the cold, creaking house even the scientists agree is haunted. Her time spent moored off shore in a derelict yacht is funny in spite of heart stopping danger. A very enjoyable read. I also listened to a bid of the CD, and can recommend it also.

When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden: What the government should be telling us to help fight the war on terrorism, by Bill Maher

Audio. During World War II, the federal government asked Americans for sacrifices to help the war effort. Gas and sugar were rationed, families planted Victory Gardens and bought war bonds. Bill Maher asks why our government doesn’t have the same expectations as we wage a war on terrorism. He wonders if Americans would still be willing to make those sacrifices. Maher, who wrote this book shortly after his remarks about Sept. 11 earned him a pink slip from ABC, notes that the current administration has encouraged Americans to support the war not by giving up a few gallons of gas or pounds of sugar, but to support the war by shopping, traveling and burning petroleum. While we may say everything changed on Sept. 11, the way we live hasn't changed at all. Maher displays the same dry humor that carried him from cable to network TV as he wonders why we search grandmothers at airports instead of young Arabs, pay those on the frontlines of homeland security – police and firefighters – a pittance while CEOs make millions, and plead for a safer nation but are unwilling to pay for it. RT

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli--YA

When Stargirl transfers to Leo's high school, she immediately stands out with her long skirts and ukelele. She's nice, she's different, she's unusual, and students don't know what to make of her. Whether loved or hated, Stargirl has a profound effect on Leo and the school community. She reminds me a bit of The Little Prince. A good book for the Queen Bee middle school crowd about fitting in.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I Was a Non-Blonde Cheerleader by Kieran Scott

Annisa moved from New Jersey to Blondesville Florida--she seems to be the only brunette in the whole school. Discinplinary action to two members of the cheerleading squad, so Annisa tries out and much to the dismay of many squad members she makes the team. The squad must learn to work together in order to make the top level of competition. In some ways this is a typical teen book, but I loved the "mini-Goth" humor of this one.

The Order of Things by Barbara Ann Kipfer

Subtitled How Everything in the World Is Organized into Hierarchies, Structures, and Pecking Orders, this book lists but not explain things ranging from Computer language cateories to the hierarchy of angels, the atmospheric levels to the AA Twelve Steps. There are lots of lists for everything from science to religion to sports to literature. This is not a reading book (unless you are compulsive) but it is fun to dip into and browse.

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Flush was the little dog owned by Elizabeth Browning nee Barrett. This is a semi-cutesy fictional biography of said dog. I think I had this confused with The Barretts of Wimpole Street or something. Pretty light-hearted Woolf.

Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air by Gregory Dicum

Have you ever been on a plane and wondered exactly what you were seeing from the window? Dicum discusses the geography and some of the manmade features seen over the USA and Canada. He doesn't pretend to go into great depth, and if you fly out of Kansas City you get especially short shrift (there is nothing between St. Louis/Chicago and Denver). Still. you can learn alot about what to look for, even if there are no specifics about your exact route.

I Am a Pencil by Sam Swope

An author by trade, Swope adopted a third grade class in Queens to teach creative writing over a period of three years. This is his story of his and his students successes and failures, both at writing and at growing and living. I enjoyed this book alot although I wondered at some of the educational aspects of it. Still, every child should have teachers as passionate about their subject as Swope was.

Heavy Words Lightly Thrown by Chris Roberts

Subtitled The Reason Behind the Rhyme, this British book purports to tell the seamy and quirky stories behind favorite nursery rhymes. This is a little misleading, to say the least. Roberts has taken a smattering of knowledge and smeared it liberally with jam, or at least his own interpretations. He inserts modern meanings and events into old nursery rhymes and subverts them for his own amusements. It is catchy and clever, but not scholarship.

The Shroud of the Thwacker by Chris Elliott

Chris Elliott is both author and character in this major spoof of The Da Vinci Code-- and of the Jack the Ripper research a la Patricia Cornwell. Set in New York City, the plot involves a serial killer and a number of famous people, mostly from the 1890s. Throw in a little time travel, a lot of anachronisms, and a ton of bad word play and you have the Thwacker. It is sort of Terry Pratchett's Disc World to a factor of three. As far as I'm concerned, a little of this goes way to far.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Howard Belsey is an Englishman living in New England with his family--an African American wife and three teenage children-- in a state of some dysfunction. In a fit of rebellion his oldest son moves to England and gets a job with a rival of Howard's. The writing is so good--the story is so slow.

The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe

This is a Regency romance with shape-shifting characters. A rogue shape-shifter is stealing jewelry from members of the London ton and the more law abidding from the group are out to stop it. Romance carries the day. This looks like it may have a sequel, since Kit and Clarrisa still haven't uncovered several mysteries of some of the minor characters. Okay for killing time, but not essential reading.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon (audiobook)

Christopher is a 15-year old autistic boy living in England. When he discovers that a neighbor's dog has been killed with a pitch fork, he decides to investigate the mysterious incident. Along the way he uncovers several secrets which shake up his safe, regimented life.

1776 by David McCullough

McCullough recounts the first year of the Revolutionary War, primarily focusing on George Washington and his command of the troops. There is lots of detail about the strategy and tactics of the Americans and British. After reading this book, I find it amazing that we won the war.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty

After losing both of his parents in a car accident, Smithson Ide, a lonely, overweight, hard-drinking, chain-smoking 43-year-old, takes off on a cross-country journey on his old boyhood bicycle. I wanted to like this book but... I found the writing to be distractingly bad at times, the dialogue stiff, and the characters unconvincing. Apparently, Stephen King loved this book and was largely responsible for getting it published. I kept wondering what I was missing. (Fiction)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005) by Lisa See

Readers who've enjoyed Amy Tan's work, Memoirs of a Geisha, or Empress Orchid will not want to miss this absorbing story. Lily, a farmer's daughter, and Snow Flower, from a prosperous household in a neighboring Chinese village, are selected to become laotang--lifelong friends bound by a contract of loyalty. Through the life passages of footbinding, death of a mutual friend, marriage, changing fortunes, and political upheaval, the women maintain contact by means of nu shu, a form of secret calligraphy used for centuries by women in their province. Descriptions of the domestic life of women--particularly the footbinding--are rendered in vivid detail.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

If you enjoy your fiction with a florid, over-the-top style and lots of footnotes to obscure Roman sources, you'll probably love this early (1834) Victorian novel. There seems to be nothing Victorians enjoyed more than wallowing in catastrophe and what can be more catastrophic than destruction of life as you know it--and a volcano can certainly provide that. This doesn't start out with a dark and stormy night, but it certainly moves into that later.

Art Kills by Eric Van Lustbader

Tess Chase is an art authenticator, who stumbles onto a crime involving an hitherto unknown painting by Raphael and the two children of crime boss Rocco Bravanno. She, being an expert at both the fine and martial arts tries to rescue both the painting and Bravanno's very unhappy daughter. Let's see, we have museums, mansions, martial arts--and, oops, I left out the lesbian angle. For a book of less than 100 pages, there is not much left out--except for a good story.

Shadows at the Spring Show by Lea Wait

Another Maggie Summer mystery! Maggie owns a shop selling antique prints so she spends a lot of time at shows, where most of the action takes place. This time she is in charge of organizing a show to raise funds for an adoption agency Our World, Our Children. She's thinking about becoming an adoptive parent herself, so she talks to lots of people. It takes a long time to get to the murder here and too much time is spent preaching about interracial and intercultural adoption so that the mystery really gets lost in the process. It's not a bad book, just overly preachy. Too bad, because ordinarily I like her books.

An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton

You probably know a group of lions is called a pride, and a group of geese is a gaggle (as long as they are in the water--if they are flying, they're a skein and if they are walking they're a herd), but did you know apes come in shrewdnesses and frogs in a knot? Lipton has not only researched most of the old terms for group names, but has some new ones. I'm especially partial to a tree of genealogists--although a small group is a branch! Most people won't want to just sit down and read this straight through, but it's fun to dip into.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Enlightened by Zhou Long (Music)

Saturday night we went to the Kansas City Symphony concert and had a delightful time. Because it was the start of a new season with a new musical director (Michael Stern), they plied us beforehand with hors d'oeuvres and wine and afterwards with bite-sized desserts and champagne. The concert itself started off with the world debut of The Enlightened by Zhou Long, a reknown Chinese composer who is teaching now at UMKC. The piece was supposed to fuse Chinese musical tradition with Western symphonic instruments. It'll probably never make MY top ten list, but it did have a few interesting moments. Being the musical ignoramus that I am, I guessed it was one of those pieces where you can't tell even if the musicians do make a major goof, as long as they all end at the same take. The rest of the concert was really enjoyable. Stern sort of promised that both the orchestra and the audience would be stretching their musical wings the next few years so we should have some interesting times ahead.

Madame Bovary's Ovaries by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash

Depending on where you stand in the matter of Darwin and Evolution, you will either be fascinated by the premises of this book about character motivation in literature or you will hurl it across the room. The authors' take on the role of evolution however unintentional in Western literature may make you look at Hester Prynne and Captain Ahab in a whole new light. Using examples from the natural world (David is a biologist) and Western literature (his daughter Nanelle is an English major), the authors discuss just what Survival of the Fittest really mean to mankind. Chapter 6 gives you a really good reason to take up genealogy when they discuss The Aeneid! The literary range moves from the Iliad to Shakespeare, Jane Auten to Bridget Jones, with a large assist from Darwin and assorted animals. This is a witty book combining two academic fields that don't seem on the surface to be a compatible match. I enjoyed it.