Blogging for a Good Book
The first word that comes to mind when picking up Rachel Rising is — macabre. Flipping through the matte black and white pages will guarantee a similar response. This tale is not for the faint-hearted or those who are not fans of Edgar Allan Poe.
Rachel was normal before this tale began; she had a good life with friends and a loving Aunt Johnny. Unfortunately, her luck runs out even before the beginning of this twisty tale when she wakes up in a grave . . . her own grave.
Instead of being a blue-eyed beauty, Rachel now has permanently blood-shot eyes and unnatural bruises around her throat to match. Not exactly the warm and friendly look she remembers. Further, she discovers that she’s been “dead” for a total of three days, and to top it all off, everyone keeps saying she’s not Rachel. With these elements in play, the story unfolds around Rachel’s investigation into her peculiar situation. A new woman in town hints at being the reason for Rachel’s new appearance, and suggests that they used to be friends.
The setting captures the essence of a small town, complete with the close ties and secrets that bind together the lives of those who abide there. Moore skillfully weaves an impending sense of doom over his characters’ heads. No one is safe from the strange events occurring in this town, and this is illustrated through the trouble that befalls Rachel’s friends. Regrettably, Rachel’s business could kill you or worse — bring you back from the dead.
Moore creates a suspenseful and dynamic tale that ponders the question of what happens when you die, and consequently incorporates timeless stories that encircle mankind. In fact, the wonderment of Moore’s story is that it feels timeless and as if this could happen in any town.
Fair warning: the work is not a stand-alone, so don’t stop after the first volume if you enjoy this tale. The ongoing nature of the series and the wait for the next issue are the only negative qualities — besides the amount of tragedy. Questions raised in the first volume will remain unanswered for a while. Overall, the series is worth the wait.
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“Witty” and “entertaining” are not words I would expect to use to describe a book mainly about resuscitation, but Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead is definitely both. Author David Casarett manages to be droll even about death: “I’m watching his respirations (nil), heart rate (zero), blood pressure (zip), and EKG tracing (flat). It’s a textbook case of someone who is undeniably and incontrovertibly deceased.”
Casarett is a medical doctor who explored historical resuscitation techniques (good and bad) and interviewed doctors, researchers, and cryogenics enthusiasts among others to bring us up to date on modern research and techniques. Laugh-aloud moments include when he tries an old resuscitation technique of lying face down on a trotting horse and nearly suffocates himself.
The book tells stories about many individual people who have been brought back for a second chance at life after being resuscitated, such as “The Ice Woman” who was submerged under ice for eighty minutes in Norway but survived. For those interested in the idea of never dying there is a section on cryogenics. Casarett’s verdict is mostly negative, because the problem with freezing a living thing is that ice damages the cells. Some animals, such as wood frogs, can manage to survive a type of freezing but “science has yet to adequately preserve anything much bigger than an acorn.”
The book is at times hilarious even as it imparts solid scientific information about things like the electrical rhythms of a beating heart. It also raises important philosophical, ethical, and even religious questions about dying and end-of-life care. Casarett concludes that resuscitation techniques have changed all of medical practice because: “The most exciting thing about this safety net is that most of us have been affected by it. If you’ve undergone any procedure as an outpatient, for instance, that procedure was possible because of advances in life-saving technology. Procedures like wisdom tooth extractions or endoscopy or even hernia repairs that used to be conducted in the operating room can now be conducted in an outpatient surgical suite.”
Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead will be a hit with readers who enjoy quirky science books like Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars or Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, or What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe.
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Yesterday’s book, What If?, claims in its subtitle that it will provide answers to “Absurd Hypothetical Questions.” Science is all about hypothetical questions because scientists are always asking “Why?” about all aspects of nature and life, and then asking “What would happen if I change something?” Sometimes a question may seem absurd on the surface but the answer may provide a an interesting, profound or counter-intuitive glimpse into the nature of reality. Scientist and author Kent A. Kiehl seems to have asked, “Are psychopath’s brains different from normal people’s brains?” Being a clever scientist (and apparently a man of great persuasive powers) he took fMRI machines into prisons and concluded that “Yes, psychopath’s brain structures and functions definitely differ from normal brains.”
Kiehl has published many scientific papers, and one published a few months ago says that the abnormal brain structures associated with psychopathy can be detected in adolescence. It is not ethically clear what society can do with this information. “Psychopath” is a word used popularly to describe mentally ill people–often people the speaker doesn’t like! Before I read this book I didn’t realize that psychopathy is measured by a standardized test used by psychiatrists and psychologists with a fair degree of consistent results. Psychopaths are estimated to be less than 1% of the general population, but they may constitute up to 35% of the prison population. Obviously, not all psychopaths are criminals but a lot of criminals are psychopaths. Psychopaths can be the very bad people of popular myth and culture. Kiehl gives numerous examples of murderers and rapists who simply could not understand why their actions were bad and elicited horror and condemnation from other people (and society at large).
In the past it was very difficult to measure the internal and real-time workings of a brain. Electrical activity could give researchers an idea of what was going on but mostly functions and structures could only be measured when the brain wasn’t working, that is, after the person was dead. An fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine can measure the blood flow in real time within a living subject, and increased blood flow means that the person is using that part of their brain. Kiehl uses this to examine how psychopath’s brains react differently to normal people’s under certain stimuli.
The Psychopath Whisperer is a great book for readers who like to explore the emerging physical and psychological reasons why people act the ways they do such as Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom. Fans of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia or Hallucinations will appreciate that Kent Kiehl also uses profiles of real people. It will be interesting if you like reading true crime books like Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham. Also try it if you like fiction exploring the idea of inherited criminality, such as Defending Jacob by William Landay or The Dinner by Herman Koch.
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In the introduction to his unexpected bestseller, author, scientist and web-comic guru Randall Munroe says “They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong.” Working in a public library we don’t encounter stupid questions, a more accurate description may be tiring questions. What If’s questions (and answers) turn out to be neither stupid nor tiring, rather they are witty, thought provoking and often very, very funny.
Even the inside of the dust jacket is entertaining (certainly the first time I’ve ever encountered this in a book!). Munroe has drawn a map of the world, but the familiar shapes are not quite right. The key tells us it is “The World: After a portal to Mars opened at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, draining most the Oceans (sorry about that).” After the portal to Mars event there is, of course, a lot less water. There is now a West Atlantic and an East Atlantic, separated by dry land with mountains called (what else?) Atlantis. The mountainous island nation of New Zealand got a lot bigger with an entire new section labeled “Newer Zealand.”
The “Serious Scientific Answers” from the subtitle really are serious. Munroe attempts to answer questions using the best scientific knowledge currently available, and lots of scary looking math. He has a quirky style that he uses to answer some very quirky questions, such as: “How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?” This is the sort of question my sons asked all the time growing up, but they didn’t expect (well, I didn’t give) a serious answer. For this question, Munroe gives six pages of Serious Answer, including his famous stick-figure diagrams. (You’ll have to read the book to learn how many Legos you’ll have to acquire to avoid a transatlantic plane fare).
The Absurd Hypothetical Questions can be submitted by anyone through Munroe’s extremely funny, science-based web comic xkcd. I often enjoy the comic, but I admit that some of it goes whoosh straight over my head (these seem to be the ones that my nerdy children laugh hardest at). xkcd are purported to be the only letters in the English language that can’t be pronounced as a word (although I don’t see what’s wrong with saying “Ex, Kay, See, Dee”). Even Munroe finds some of the questions so bizarre that he doesn’t answer them. Some of these get their own sections called “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox,” including examples such as, “What is the total nutritional value (calories, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc.) of the average human body?” or “Would it be possible to get your teeth to such a cold temperature that they would shatter upon drinking a hot cup of coffee?” These are not things to try at home. As Munroe says, “I like it when things catch fire and explode, which means I do not have your best interests in mind.”
What If? is a great book for science fans and is fun to browse when you’re feeling like something lighter after plowing through six-hundred page scientific behemoths like The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee or Spillover by David Quammen. The questions may be absurd as the subtitle claims, but the answers are scientific and who knows, if you buy a copy for the stocking of your family nerd, it may spark (or rekindle) a lifelong interest in science.
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Knowing that David Quammen was such a great science writer I wanted to read his timely update about Ebola. In the introduction, Quammen acknowledges that this book is adapted from his 2012 book Spillover that I blogged about yesterday but Ebola is a much quicker read. It is still well worth reading even if you have read Spillover because of the updates. In early December as I write this, the current Ebola outbreak has killed over 6000 people (CDC – 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa – Case Counts). This means that this outbreak has killed more people than all previous outbreaks combined. Quammen’s expert and readable style is very matter of fact and it paints Ebola as a terrifying and largely unknown disease, even if it doesn’t spread much to countries outside the continent of Africa. It has “a case fatality rate ranging from 60 to 75 percent. Sixty percent is extremely high for any infectious disease (except rabies); it’s probably higher, for instance, than fatalities from Bubonic plague in medieval France at the worst moments of the Black Death.”
Ebola is currently being studied furiously but there is still much that scientists don’t know. For one, they are not sure what causes “the transitory nature of the disease within human populations. It disappears entirely for years at a time. This is a mercy for public health but a constraint for science” and why “Ebola viruses barely showed themselves anywhere in Africa for fifteen years (1976-early 1980s).” Quammen concludes that “We don’t even know if the past is a reliable guide to the future–that is, to what degree history and science can illuminate the Ebola events of 2014.”
There is sobering information like, “The higher the case count goes, the greater the likelihood that Ebola virus as we know it might evolve into something better adapted to pass from human to human, something that presently exists only in our nightmares.” This is terrifying when coupled with information like “the virus was mutating prolifically and accumulating a fair degree of genetic variation as it replicated within each human case and passed from one human to another.” We can only fervently hope that Quammen’s apt metaphor doesn’t come to pass: “Every spillover is like a sweepstakes ticket… Sometimes the bettor wins big.”
Oddly, even Ebola has facts that I found quirky: apparently when an Ebola patient develops the commonly annoying but harmless condition of hiccups, it usually means death is near.
Try reading Ebola if you like the history of science and history of disease books that I mentioned yesterday. If you previously read the bestseller The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, Ebola is a good update. Sadly, for the 6000 victims of this dread disease who have already died, and those yet to die, you may also be interested in reading Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus if you want to read about the scientific background of large events in the news.
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Zoonotic diseases are in the news and the news is not good. Sixty percent of human diseases are zoonotic–that is they are spread to humans from animals (at least at first). This includes terrifying rabies that everyone knows comes from the bite of an infected animal to diseases like flu that we think of as human. The evocative title of this book, “Spillover” is the actual scientific term used by disease ecologists for the moment when a pathogen passes from members of one species into another. I like books about animals. I’m all over cute and fluffy and I’m fascinated about the role that we play in animals’ lives. Spillover is a book about the role animals play in human lives and you may not sleep peacefully after reading it.
David Quammen spent almost a decade gallivanting around the world, interviewing hundreds of scientists, doctors and disease survivors as well as researching and writing Spillover. It is almost 600 pages, but I was unable to put it down as he talked about the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the origins of AIDS and ebola. I learned an enormous amount about virology, natural history and epidemiology. And if you are obsessed and super-nerdy (like me) you will enjoy Spillover’s 25-page bibliography of scientific studies that you can look up in PubMed.
Quammen has a gift for making the scientifically complicated understandable to the everyday reader. He has a poetic turn of phrase about viruses–“They can’t run, they can’t walk, they can’t swim, they can’t crawl. They ride”–that just highlights how scary they can be. I learned odd facts for instance that certain types of moths and tent caterpillars have outbreaks on trees some years. The caterpillars die back because they are killed by viruses that cause them to ‘melt’ onto leaves, and then the other caterpillars just eat them (yuk!) Thankfully, unlike the insects, we can change our behavior to protect ourselves from viruses!
I think the best quote from Spillover sums up human knowledge and control over zoonotic diseases in general. We think we’re ahead but we might not be. When asked a lot of questions about the Hendra virus in Australia, scientists answered: “We don’t know but we’re working on it.”
Spillover is a sure bet for readers who are fascinated by the role of diseases in human history. For nonfiction readers who have tried The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, or Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Or for fans of fiction such as Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks.
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I was up late, reading The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, and needed a snack before turning out the light. Lovecraft is heavy going, so I wanted something to restore my spirit: a grilled cheese sandwich. I found some Cabot’s Extra Sharp, bread, and butter, and fired up our trusty SuperLectric waffle iron. A few minutes later, the hideous excrescences of Lovecraft’s imagination were forgotten as I ate my hot, crispy, perfectly melted, dimpled grilled cheese.
Will it Waffle? has rocked my world. The waffle maker, which I used to haul out of storage on rare Sunday mornings, now lives in the middle of the kitchen counter, an essential part of my batterie de cuisine. It glorifies sandwiches, hash browns, fruit, and other things that I’d never thought to use it for. Right this very minute, I am thinking about trying waffleized churros for breakfast tomorrow.
Daniel Shumski is the genius who thought to ask, “What can I cook in a waffle iron besides waffles?” For several years, he has been blogging about his experiments in waffling, and Will It Waffle continues the project with a collection of 53 recipes. Any dish that is meant to be hot and crisp is better when cooked in a waffle iron — thanks to all that additional surface area. Ergo, waffled bacon, falafel, leftover mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and stuffing. These are actually some of Shumski’s less daring dishes. If you’re a thrill seeker, try throwing a soft-shelled crab or cookie dough into your waffle maker and see what happens. The book includes a short list of foods that won’t waffle, such as soup and drinks. Beyond these liquids, almost anything goes. There’s even a section where readers are encouraged to document their own waffle experiments. The message is clear: play with your food.
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Emily Anthes is a journalist who has written for many science journals including Wired, Discover, and Scientific American and also has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT. In this book, she explores the many ways in which animals are involved with the latest advances in biotechnology. She has a breezy, easy-to-understand writing style, and I was impressed with the breadth of her knowledge and research (includes over 40 pages of footnotes). I enjoyed reading about the specific contributions to this science that many animals like Jonathan Sealwart, an elephant seal, and Artemis the goat are making, and her visits to some of them were often quite humorous.
The production of genetically altered (transgenic) animals is perhaps the most controversial use of biotech. I was very interested in learning how some pretty-colored tropical fish won over a skeptical public in the U.S. to become the first and only transgenic animals sold in this country. These fish are called GloFish and they are derived from 2 types of tropical fish that are commonly sold in the US, zebra fish and white skirt tetras. What makes them unique is that they have an added dose of DNA from sea anemone or sea coral that make them glow in red, green and purple colors. I have enjoyed the aquarium hobby for years, and if GloFish can bring new people in to the hobby (like the author) all the better. I have also had my eye on one of the purple tetra GloFish and would like to add it to one of my aquariums. I just hope my 4 large angelfish don’t think he is a brightly colored dinner treat.
A much more promising use of these new animals is in “pharming,” where their DNA is manipulated so that their bodies can create medicinal properties. Transgenic goats can produce milk with elevated levels of lysozyme, which has been found to be an effective treatment for diarrhea, a deadly disease that kills over 2 million children every year. These goats have also been used to produce antithrombin, an anticoagulant that can successfully treat life threatening blood clots. It is unfortunate that none of these pharming techniques have been approved in the United States, though other countries like Brazil are taking the lead in this type of biotech.
I appreciated the author’s thorough review of the many ethical considerations in the use of transgenic animals and other types of biotech. She discounts the “Are we playing God” notion with these new animals by arguing that we have already tried to play God for thousands of years by manipulating the various types of animals through selective breeding. The results have not always been good, as is the case with canis lupus familiaris, the common dog, where we’ve created hundreds of unique breeds of dogs, many of which are saddled with crippling genetic diseases and conditions.
One of the most important factors to consider is how the biotech affects the livelihood of the animals involved. Bernard Rollin, a philosopher at Colorado State University considers their fate with his “conservation of welfare” ethic: “If you’re going to modify a line of animals, the resultant animals should be no worse off from a welfare point of view – and preferably better.” The author thinks that most pharming animals would be able to pass this test, since studies show that genetic alteration does little to curtail their longevity and overall health. But she gives numerous examples of transgenic animals that would fail this test, including transgenic mice produced in Chinese labs with thousands of different kinds of deformities caused by messing with one strand of their DNA.
If you read the book you will learn of other unique ways biotech is being used in the world of animals. You will learn why cats are far superior to dogs in the process of cloning. You will learn about a group of volunteers who helped design a prosthetic tail for a baby bottlenose dolphin after it got trapped and nearly died in a crab trap. And finally you will want to learn how a poor, lonely elephant seal got a name and got hundreds of friends on Facebook all through a sophisticated process of wildlife tracking.
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Elizabeth Banner has returned to her hometown of Virtue Falls to study the geology of the area. It was difficult for her to return home, what with everyone’s conviction that her father, once a respected scientist-now a convicted felon, murdered her mother 20 years ago in a jealous rage. Elizabeth copes with the whispers and speculation by relying on logic and facts, both in her work and her personal life.
The everyday routine of life in Virtue Falls is literally shaken up when a large-scale earthquake hits the area. Lives are lost; secrets are uncovered. And Elizabeth finds herself investigating her mother’s murder with the help of her ex-husband, Garik, a suspended FBI agent.
The book has short chapters, a lot of action, and plenty of secondary characters to keep it interesting. I particularly liked how Elizabeth developed a relationship with her father, and through his descriptions began to understand the truth about her parents’ relationship. I’m also a sucker for a love story, and I enjoyed seeing Elizabeth and her ex-husband rekindle their romance.
Fans of James Patterson or Nora Roberts should pick up Virtue Falls. Looks like this is the first in a new series–can’t wait for the next story!
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These intriguing disaster films are reviewed by Bud:
Aviation disasters have been much in the news this past year with the most prominent stories being the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 over the Gulf of Thailand and the loss of Malaysia Flight 17 over the Ukraine. The media made much of these tragic events and the public avidly followed the articles because, despite their grievous nature, stories of airplane accidents are inherently gripping. Air disasters occur rarely but when they do the destruction is usually so large scale and dreadful that our attention is just drawn to them.
The non-fiction DVD series, Mayday! Air Disasters shows just how riveting these occurrences can be. This documentary program, which also aired under the title, Air Emergency, profiles twenty-nine different disasters, most, but not all, aviation accidents. Some of the events covered are:
Unlocking Disaster During United Flight 811 from Honolulu to New Zealand, the door to the cargo hold spontaneously opened tearing off a piece of the fuselage in the process and sucking several passengers out of the plane. The parents of one of the lost passengers worked tirelessly to identify the cause of the accident and hold the aviation industry responsible.
Hanging By A Thread Aloha Airlines Flight 243 was flying 24,000 feet over the Hawaiian Islands when suddenly thirty-five feet of the plane’s upper fuselage peeled off, completely exposing the first five rows of passengers to the open sky. Can a passenger jet remain airborne with this much damage?
Out of Control Twelve minutes into a flight from Tokyo to Osaka Japan, JAL Flight 123 mysteriously malfunctions and for over thirty agonizing minutes plunges up and down as the anguished crew fight to regain control of the plane.
Fight For Your Life A suicidal company employee hitches a ride on FedEx Flight 705. Mid-flight he attacks the crew with hammers and a spear gun. The badly injured pilot looks for a place to land while his co-pilot, also seriously wounded, engages in desperate fisticuffs with their crazed passenger.
Falling From the Sky While flying from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, Australia, British Airlines Flight 009 begins experiencing very unusual phenomena. A strange haze drifts into the passenger compartment. A “brilliant, white shimmering light” appears to be clinging to the plane and 20-foot long flames start shooting from the engines which then proceed to shut down one by one.
Ghost Plane En route over Greece, tourist flight Helios 522 with 100 passengers on board cannot be contacted by anyone on the ground. Army jets sent to check on it find something very strange. The plane is flying normally but no one on board is moving. The plane’s occupants all appear to be unconscious or dead. What is going on?
These are just a few of the many intriguing stories covered in a series that totals 12 discs. The first part of each episode uses film footage of the actual incidents, interviews with the people involved and recreations to show what happened. The second part explains why it happened. The accident investigation process is fascinating as scientists and aviation experts try to determine exactly what went wrong.
You learn a lot about avionics, the airline industry and human behavior under extreme conditions. You also pick up some memorable, if occasionally creepy, factoids. Did you know that if you are unfortunate enough to somehow exit an airplane at 23,000 feet it will take you approximately four minutes to hit the ground?
This show proved to be compulsively watchable. It’s the best kind of reality TV because it’s both educational and entertaining and despite the potential for being lurid, is not exploitative or overtly gory. However, if you have a fear of flying, you may find it disquieting.
I’d recommend it for anyone with an interest in aviation, science or human drama.
I don’t remember why my husband and I first watched the DVD The Ice Storm, but it was probably because we were enjoying movies directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Pushing Hands; Brokeback Mountain, and others). We had been through Williamsburg’s ice storm of 1998 and knew how dangerous it could be. The movie wasn’t so much about the storm itself, but about two troubled white, middle-class, nuclear families in suburban New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1973. The emotional impact of the movie was shattering.
Events take place when the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal are topics on the news. The sexual mores have loosened considerably from the constraints of the 1950s and have not yet been walloped by AIDS. The Hoods, Ben and Elena, have two teens: a boy in boarding school, Paul, and a girl in middle school, Wendy. The Carvers, Janey and Jim, have two boys: strange, pensive teen, Mikey, and pre-teen, Sandy, who likes to blow things up. Throughout the course of the Thanksgiving week, each person in each family, except Paul who is away, explores his or her sexuality with others in the other family.
But the story is much more than about sex, and the sex certainly isn’t a feast of sensual stimulation. Almost the opposite, the sexual encounters are interrupted, fumbled, “awful” or, after the fantasy of the encounters have been built up, they don’t take place at all. The real story is of the emotional relationships between each of the characters. The actors are extremely good at showing these changing relationships. The cast includes top-rated actors Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, and Sigourney Weaver. Katie Holmes plays a rich, sort-of girlfriend of Paul’s. There are some very funny scenes, mostly of adolescents being adolescents, such as Wendy’s giving grace, “Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday. And for all the material possessions we have and enjoy. And for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands. And stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed.” Her father’s reaction, “Jesus! Enough, all right? Paul… roll?”
One of the key scenes in the movie is a neighborhood “key party,” where men put their car keys in a bowl and, at the end of the party, after much drinking, their wives pull out random keys, and, at least in theory, go home with the owner of that set of keys. Meanwhile, there is an ice storm outside. The roads are slick, the power goes out. The adults are high or drunk at the party, and their children are left at home, within walking distance of each other’s houses. What could go wrong?
After watching the movie a second time, I decided to read the book, by Rick Moody, on which it was based. Although there are a few plot differences between the book and the movie (and the name Carver is Williams in the book), both are excellent in depicting the members of these two families. Each uses a different medium to portray the individuals and the dynamics between them. Moody’s words are a joy to read. “The idea of betrayal was in the air. The Summer of Love had migrated, in its drug-resistant strain, to the Connecticut suburbs about five years after its initial introduction. About the time America learned about the White House taping system. It was laced with some bad stuff. The commodity being traded was wives, the Janey Williamses of New Canaan. The payoff was supposed to be joy, but it was the cheapest approximation of exalted feeling. It was just a demonstration of options, nothing more.”
The characters in the book, notably, are less attractive and more “real” than those in the movie, and I was thinking that if readers have to “like” characters to enjoy a book or a movie, they may want to stick with the movie. If you want to get a real depiction of changes some families were going through in the early 1970s, you may want to read the book. The language in the novel is frank and raw, but intricate and beautiful in places. Ang Lee’s theatrical adaptation, however, is also very good, distilling Moody’s words into a stunning visual portrait.
If you’re looking for plot-driven action, for big twists, or a wild climax, look elsewhere. Pete Hamill’s North River is a throwback, a lovely novel with sympathetic characters, steady pacing, a setting that feels lived in, and a story that will break your heart and then mend it again.
Set in 1930s Hell’s Kitchen, North River is the story of Jim Delaney, a doctor who was a little bit old for World War I, but went anyway, and sustained some injuries and emotional damage that stayed with him. When he came home, he found a distant wife who was angry that he had left in the first place. The two continued to drift apart, and as the novel opens, we find Delaney alone. His wife has gone missing and her status is unknown, although everyone fears the worst.
But Delaney doesn’t stay alone for long. His daughter, off on the chase for a revolutionary husband, drops off her toddler son Carlito on Delaney’s doorstep. Delaney is the kind of man who takes care of his entire neighborhood, but taking care of a baby who barely speaks English is another thing, and with help from neighborhood friends, he finds a woman, Rose Verga, to work as his live-in housekeeper and care for the child until he can convince his mother to return.
Over the course of the novel, the three begin to form familial bonds, but Hamill throws many obstacles in their way: a hostile crime boss made enemy by Delaney’s assistance to his rival, an old war friend; the differences of class and culture between Delaney and Rose; the steady, sometimes overwhelming of Delaney’s neighborhood practice and the often illiterate working class people who demand his time; the ghosts of past relationships; and the nagging possibility that Carlito’s mother will return and take him away just as Delaney and Rose have formed parental attachments.
Hamill captures the waning days of Tammany Hall politics, a time now dismissed as “machine” politics, but also an era with a positive side: people were still connected and looked out for each other in a way that modern citizens don’t often understand. These are characters who stay with you long after the book is put aside, larger than life, but completely believable. The story has crime, suspense, romance, and history, something to captivate almost every reader.
If you like audiobooks, I can also recommend that format. Henry Strozier’s voice captures Delaney’s world weariness perfectly and he does well with Rose’s Italian-immigrant English as well.
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Read North River in large print
Or try North River as an audiobook on CD
I’m not normally a fan of the mashup. The book that started the craze, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was well done, but in most of these projects, the best joke is in the title. Ian Doescher has created a happy exception, taking the scripts from George Lucas’s Star Wars films and translating them into iambic pentameter, making books worthy of both the Bard and the droids. It’s a fine marriage, with the melodramatic space opera of Star Wars suited perfectly for Elizabethan language.
The success of the project has encouraged Doescher to continue with the series. The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return are already available, and more are in process. If you know your Shakespeare even a little, you’ll catch references to his famous lines throughout the works, as in the Hamlet reference in the quote above or when Han Solo quips, “Nay not that: the day when Jabba taketh my dear ship/Shall be the day you find me a grave man.”
Doescher tackles the challenges of the project with panache. R2D2, for instance, begins speaking in iambic beeps and squawks, but then switches to Shakespearean asides to complain about the “prating tongue” of his pompous golden friend. These extras add extra dimension to the interior world of beloved characters, perhaps even improving on the original. When the action cannot be conveyed by character speeches, Doescher doesn’t fret, he brings in a chorus to inform the audience of necessary plot developments. The book is graced by illustrations in the style of Elizabethan woodcuts.
You know the story, you know the style, but this combination is clever and executed brilliantly. I suspect smart English teachers will be using these books to great effect for years to come, but why leave the fun for the classroom? Take it home yourself and enjoy the experience all over again.
Check the WRL catalog for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars
When it first arrived in 2008, Tana French’s In the Woods, the first book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, won many awards: the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry Awards for First Novel. I’m happy to report that it’s good enough to merit all that praise.
The story concerns two young partners on the Dublin Murder Squad, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox. The story is told from Ryan’s perspective. In his childhood, in the 1980s, Ryan and two friends were the victims of a crime near their home in the Dublin suburbs. The three went into the woods on a summer day, and two were never heard from again. Rob was found clutching a tree and unable to remember what had happened. He moved away, made a new life, and has become a relatively normal adult, a police detective hiding an important secret about his past. As the novel opens, over twenty years later, a call comes into the station. Another victim, a young girl, has been found at an archaeological dig near the same woods where Rob’s friends disappeared. Despite the danger to his hidden past, Rob convinces Cassie (who is the only one in the department who knows) that they should take the case.
The story goes two directions, alternating between the investigation into the contemporary crime and explorations of the past. Both are delicate affairs. Family may be involved in the new girl’s death, and political powers want the case cleared quickly so that property development can take place. Rob is fascinated by the possibility that the current crime is connected to his past, but must investigate gingerly for fear of being recognized by elderly and middle-aged locals who might recognize the current detective as the boy left digging his nails into a tree trunk. It’s a complex plot, but French handles it gracefully, presenting a plethora of well-drawn characters and interweaving story lines without confusion.
The relationship between Rob Ryan and Cassie is fascinating. They are professionals, and so close as partners that they haven’t quite registered that there is a romantic spark as well (or at least he hasn’t). But readers will pick up on it, and spend most of the book wondering whether the spark will ignite or the relationship will explode from all the tension.
Each book in French’s series (the fifth entry was recently released, and all have had strong reviews) is told from the perspective of a different member of the Dublin Murder Squad. It’s an approach I haven’t seen used since Ed McBain wrote his 97th Precinct series many years ago. I know that I, for one, will have to go on at least to book two, The Likeness, to hear Cassie’s side of the story.
Check the WRL catalog for In the Woods
Or try In the Woods as an audiobook on CD
Talk show monologues, celebrity gossip columns, even South Park episodes are full of jokey references to the quirky beliefs of Scientology and adherents like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. If you’re like I was, you laugh along with these, but don’t really know anything about Scientology. I watched The Master, a film with Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to try to get some insight. The film piqued my interest, but left me with more questions than answers.
As I learned while reading Lawrence Wright’s excellent Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, my confusion was no accident. Scientology is a slippery subject for at least five reasons. First, it’s not a religion in the traditional sense that many of us assume. In particular, there isn’t much reference to a god or gods in Scientology. Second, terminology within the religion is full of strange jargon that outsiders find hard to decipher. Third, even within the religion, access to beliefs is parceled out to each adherent as they gain different levels in a hierarchy. Fourth, the beliefs of the religion have shifted over time and continue to change. Fifth, and perhaps most central to the book, it’s not easy to leave Scientology, and life can get quite unhappy for those who divulge Scientology’s secrets publicly. Those who protect the religion aren’t above smear campaigns against Scientology’s critics, and there’s an organized campaign to put out favorable disinformation in response. Only the disgruntled are likely to go public, and they aren’t the most reliable sources. Add all of this up, and it’s no wonder that Scientology makes for a distinctly blurry target.
That’s why it’s so important that someone of Lawrence Wright’s stature and thoroughness as a researcher and writer took on the subject. Wright is an award winning journalist and writer whose previous book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, won the Pulitzer Prize. Wright spent years interacting with former Scientologists and pursuing queries with current adherents to the highest level. He’s not just repeating the gossip of a few disgruntled apostates. Everything in the book is carefully documented with multiple sources and the book was singled out for multiple awards, including a National Book Award nomination.
All of that makes this sound like a dreary tome, but far from that, it’s also a fascinating and highly readable narrative, covering Scientology from its odd beginnings, through years at sea where L. Ron Hubbard traveled on ocean liners, unable to find a country to call home for his religion, even as its beliefs developed in many strange directions. The tale continues into the modern era when celebrity adherents are carefully groomed, lavished with perks, and then kept cautiously in line, and on to David Miscavige, who took leadership in a late 1980s coup against Hubbard’s intended successors and continues to rule his flock with an iron fist.
Along the way Wright catalogs Scientology’s odd collection of beliefs about reincarnation; its battles with psychology, the IRS, and the legal systems of many nations; its extortion of money from believers and extended investment in real estate; and most of all, its cruel treatment of adherents who fall into disfavor with the Church’s leaders and sustained campaign to keep them in the religion’s control. Wright debunks Hubbard’s many lies about his background. He shows how Scientology has extorted money from adherents by forcing them to take expensive classes and even making charges to their credit cards without permission. He documents Miscavige’s physical and emotional abuse of even his highest lieutenants. He reveals the lush treatment given to Tom Cruise, including the way that Scientology helped him procure a new partner after his split with Nicole Kidman. Most horrifically, Wright describes the way in which Scientology has broken the families of members, taken away children, mandated divorces and abortions, and imprisoned, tortured, starved, and brainwashed those singled out for punishment.
For a taste, check out this summary of some of its revelations, but to put yourself fully in the know, check out the book and read it in its entirety.
Check the WRL catalog for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief
Or listen to Going Clear on audio CD
For his combination of physical prowess, braggadocio, mental agility, and artistic flair, one can’t beat Cyrano de Bergerac. Add in the famous nose, with all of its comic exaggeration, and readers are in for a timeless treat.
De Bergerac was a real dramatist and duelist, immortalized (and fictionalized) 240 years after his death in a French play by Edmond Rostand. Those who know the story are most likely to know it from a film: the 1950 classic for which Jose Ferrer won Best Actor; the contemporary retelling Roxanne, which Steve Martin adapted and led in 1988; or the marvelous French film from 1990 featuring Gerard Depardieu. It’s the tale of a man with prodigious talents for dueling and bragging, but also for the facility of his tongue and pen.
Cyrano is in love with Roxane, but she doesn’t know, and makes him promise to aid and befriend the handsome Christian. Loyal to his promise, and embarrassed by his huge nose, Cyrano even goes so far to help the tongue-tied Christian to woo Roxane, figuring that at least he can express his love to her through another. His words succeed, but too well, as Roxane begins to love Christian’s words more deeply than his looks. War intervenes: will Cyrano and Roxane come together? Well, you’ll have to read the story to find that out.
While all three of the movies I mentioned are superb (and the filmed stage performance with Kevin Kline is no slouch either), I recommend reading Cyrano first to appreciate its linguistic force. There are two great adaptations in English. Many prefer the earlier Brian Hooker adaptation, but my favorite is by Anthony Burgess (of A Clockwork Orange fame), who retains the rhyme scheme and emphasizes humor at the play’s opening, drama at the finish.
Skim to one of the spots where Cyrano’s words tumble out in a torrent. Two of the best are in the second act: his list of ways to ridicule his nose and the “no thank you” speech, where he catalogs his reasons for being a soldier instead of a poet. If these sections don’t capture you, check your pulse. This is the ultimate work of bravado, of romance, of panache, a play that every reader should experience once for its exuberant joy and then again whenever a little encouragement is needed.
Check the WRL catalog for Cyrano de Bergerac
This young adult historical romance is set in 1523-24, embroidering on what little is known about young Anne Boleyn, before she ever caught the eye of Henry, King of England. Recently returned to the English court after years abroad, she is an outsider with the wrong looks and clothes, standing out for her French manners and fashion just in time for war with France, oops. Her tyrannical father is pushing her marriage to a boorish Irishman (actually, historically nicknamed James the Lame), and Anne is desperate for another choice.
Thomas Wyatt, playboy poet and professional flirt, offers to take on the project—for a wager—of elevating Anne’s social profile. With his savvy advice and very public attention, he can remake her into a centerpiece of the court. Only young Anne is never quite sure whether they are playacting. And even with her newfound status, nothing is simpler. Everyone who’s enamored is already married, or out of her social league… or the King of England. Who is, of course, sleeping with Anne’s sister.
Langshore writes a determined but vulnerable Anne who doesn’t have many options and hasn’t yet settled on a path of action. Her ambitions, her desire to be heard, her dysfunctional family, and, yes, her schoolgirl crushes are all very relatable, which is probably why her story has been retold so many times.
Tarnish is the middle book of three that are set in the Tudor court, but they don’t have to be read in order. Gilt tells the story of Catherine Howard, number five among Henry’s queens, and Brazen centers around Mary Howard, who married Henry’s illegitimate son.
Check the WRL catalog for Tarnish.
Miss Frederica “Free” Marshall is a suffragette, which, as she points out, is pronounced with an exclamation point. An investigative reporter for her own Women’s Free Press, she campaigns for the vote while fighting accusations of plagiarism, threats of arrest, and attempts to burn her home and business.
Edward Clark doesn’t really do exclamation points. After a harrowing experience abroad during the Franco-Prussian war, he’s a realist with a particularly dark view of reality. While he doesn’t have any problem with Free’s lady-empowering views, he doesn’t understand why she devotes time and passion to a cause so unwinnable, so much like “emptying the Thames with a thimble.”
Also, Clark is secretly Edward Delacey, Viscount Claridge, whom everyone knows to be missing in the Siege of Strasbourg and believes to be dead. (Yes, it’s a “Surprise! A lord!” romance!) Being a viscount is something else Edward doesn’t have any patience with, so he’s reinvented himself as a metalsmith, a forger, and an all-around scoundrel. Sharing a mutual enemy, Edward and Free engage in bouts of flirtation via blackmail and reverse blackmail.
This is a surprisingly lighthearted and joyful book, skating very lightly over the history of struggle and suffering that inspires it—wartime firebombings and the investigative exploits of women like Nellie Bly and Josephine Butler. Milan, in her author’s note, actually calls it “as much an alternate history as it is a historical romance.” Great women characters have been true of every one of Courtney Milan’s books I’ve read, but with a suffragette main character, this is unsurprisingly the most overtly feminist of her romances. The “huzzah” moment in this book isn’t even to do with the romance, it’s Free’s rousing explanation of just what she’s trying to do with her thimble and the Thames.
Check the WRL catalog for the ebook of The Suffragette Scandal.
I’ve been enjoying this rambling tour of the Paris art world in the 1860s and ’70s, when the established traditions of great painting were under siege, and newcomers wielding their paintbrushes like floor mops were revolutionizing, or possibly just ruining, French Art.
It’s organized loosely around the careers of two painters, figureheads of the opposing schools. Ernest Meissonier paints musketeers and subjects from history, in moments that impart a moral lesson. Edouard Manet depicts absinthe drinkers and prostitutes, a contemporary crowd in modern dress (or inexplicably nude while picnicking). Meissonier, passionate about historical accuracy, collects period dress and weaponry to create military re-enactments on canvas, laboriously layered with great detail and rewarding examination with a magnifying glass. Manet, if his critics are to be believed, slops the paint (or coal dust) on with a floor mop, approximating a scene without finishing it. Are first impressions good enough? They are for the painters who are not yet called the Impressionists, a disgruntled but passionate lot of struggling artists who are repeatedly rejected from the Paris Salon or whose paintings are “skyed,” hung so high on exhibition walls that no one can see them.
Call me old-fashioned, but I have to side with Meissonier, who is described as one of the best-selling painters you’ve never heard of. You have to respect an artist who, after his scale model of a battlefield is ravaged by mice, recreates it in full size in his yard, dragging heavy carts around to furrow the ground and strewing bags of flour about to simulate a snowy landscape. (Fortunately, he resembles Napoleon enough to model for his own paintings.) He has the local cavalry charge about on maneuvers so that he can get a better idea of how to paint horses in motion. And here comes a generation that paints wisps of colors and calls it an “impression”!
Well, history and auction prices have come down on the side of the Impressionists. But King immerses you in their controversies with great relish, including the politics of the Salon de Paris, the juried exhibition that could make or break a painter’s career. Such passions! Paintings are assaulted with walking sticks, styles are derided with great energy and imagination in the (censored) press. “This is the painting of democrats,” writes a Salon director about the new style, “of men who don’t change their underwear.” There are fisticuffs over newspaper reviews! Duels are fought!
A wealth of anecdotes, mingling history, art history, and biography, cover a lot of ground but not very deeply. This is the kind of book that adds to your to-be-read pile with tantalizing references to people and subjects you now need to know more about. Or you could go from here to Christopher Moore’s irreverent but wildly enthusiastic novel of the same time period, Sacre Bleu.
Check the WRL catalog for The Judgment of Paris.
WRL also owns the audiobook.
In this young adult mystery, Abigail Rook, a young woman recently arrived in New England in 1892, apprentices herself to a detective of the supernatural. Author William Ritter owes a double thanks to the cover artist, for the gorgeously eerie book jacket, and to the publicist who decided to market the book as “Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes.”
The character of R. F. Jackaby deliberately evokes Conan Doyle’s detective, if Watson had ever been turned into a duck. (Jackaby’s previous assistant is “temporarily waterfowl.”) Aloof, inscrutable, and garbed like an eccentric in a wild hat and scarf, Jackaby sweeps around the city of New Fiddleham dealing with the domovyk, kobold, or pixies that the police force overlook. The police may not be fond of him, but his esoteric skills and bottomless pockets full of tuning forks and gizmos for spying the unworldly make him an invaluable asset when a serial murderer preying on the city seems to be not a man, but a monster.
Narrator Abigail is resourceful, a paleontologist’s daughter who took off to see more of the world than her staid English upbringing could show her. She quickly adjusts to sharing her living quarters with a ghost, not to mention to encounters with bridge trolls and a perfectly chilling banshee. Like any good Watson, she grounds her employer in the mundane world, noticing the overlooked details and trying to be as helpful as one can be when one’s boss is dogged by unsettling paranormal occurrences and doesn’t know how to give a straight answer to a question:
“How many people have you got living here?….”
“Well… that depends on your definition of people… and also of living.”
I’m honestly not sure why the novel is set in America, as its inspirations are so very British, and the humor has a decidedly English twist, a reined-in Douglas Adams voice: “Across town, Mr. Henderson–the man who had heard the banshee’s silent scream—spent the evening dying. To be more accurate, he spent a very brief portion of the evening dying, and the rest of it being dead.”
Quirky and occasionally touching, this is a promising start to a series with spooks and derring-do that should appeal to fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood and Company.
Check the WRL catalog for Jackaby.