Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

BOOK: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (2014)

July 15, 2014

cantwetalkRoz Chast is one of my favorite cartoonists of all time — her work is frequently featured in The New Yorker, among other places, which is also where I read the excerpt from this book that made me run right out to grab a copy.

This powerful, loving, hilarious, and tender memoir is about the end of her parents’ lives, and the challenges brought forth both by grief and practicality. Spanning their last several years together, from the day she first began to realize they were in a sudden decline, to their final months in an assisted living residence, the memoir features not only Chast’s graphics, but also photographs, copies of her mother’s handwritten (and delightfully rhyming) poems, and little pieces of history and memory.

The decline hastened after a fall — ain’t that always the way — and both her parents never really recovered from the resultant trauma (mom got hurt, dad got scared). Nothing in this book is something you haven’t encountered, either in your own life as a caregiver for an elderly loved one, or through the stories of loved ones who have done that themselves.  But it’s the way it’s told here that is so enriching, enlightening, engaging.  Chast is a beautiful writer, something it’s easy to forget when you simply look at her art, which leans toward the scribbly side (though I love it, don’t get me wrong). Her insights are bottomless and her love for her parents, especially her difficult and somewhat cold mother, comes sharply ringing through both the text and the drawings.

This is a powerful and richly emotional book, and it made me laugh out loud to boot.  Definitely going to be in this year’s top ten list for me, and I bet if you read it, you’ll feel the same.  Highly, highly recommended!

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BOOK: Roosevelt’s Beast by Louis Bayard (2014)

July 1, 2014

beastI’m a huge fan of Louis Bayard’s writing and storytelling — two of his novels, in fact, so enthralled me I remember exactly where I was when I finished them (The Pale Blue Eye and The Black Tower).  When I saw he had a new novel out — a fictionalized spin on a true story I had read a non-fiction book about and loved a few years ago (River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard), I thought, man, somebody up there likes me. . .

Or. . . perhaps not so much? I’ll try not to take it personally.

Both books (this one and the non-fiction River of Doubt) are about the trip to the Amazonian jungle Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit took just after Roosevelt lost his bid for reelection in 1913.  Joining up with Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon, the plan was to explore the headwaters of the Rio da Duvida, which they intended to trace all the way to the Amazon River.  In the real story, Teddy becomes so sick a few weeks into the trip with a mysterious infection and fever he can barely move on his own, forcing Kermit to to care for him day and night — ultimately saving his father’s life.

In Bayard’s fictionalized version, Kermit and Teddy, just beginning to fall ill, get separated from the group and are kidnapped up by a local tribe.  Living with the tribe after being kidnapped herself at an early age is a young woman, the daughter of a missionary, who is the only person able to communicate with the two men.  She translates the tribe’s directives: they’ll be permitted to leave only if they can find and kill the terror-inducing monster who has been brutally attacking and murdering their people.  The tribesmen themselves are too afraid to go after it themselves, but T.R. and Kermit, avid hunters their entire lives, agree right away to the deal, believing the tribe is just a bunch of superstitious fools being spooked by some boring ol’ jaguar. It’ll take them a day to catch and kill it and then they’ll be on their way home — no big. I mean, obviously it’s something like a jaguar, right? There’s no such thing as monsters, for pity’s sake.

Their self-assuredness falters fast, though, when they get their first look at a victim — eviscerated, flayed, and essentially licked clean from the inside out, with not a single track to be found around the body.  It’s as if the creature came down from sky, hovered to kill, then flew off again without a trace. They’ve never seen anything like it before, but promise to fulfill their part of the deal so they can get the hell out of there.

As the two men struggle to figure out what is really going on, a romance between Kermit and the young lady begins to develop, and we also get a very intriguing look inside Kermit’s mind (he’s sort of the narrator, though it’s not a first-person narrative).  This is the part I enjoyed the most about the story — the characters, their insights, and their relationships.  Kermit Roosevelt was an interesting guy, stuck playing second fiddle to the more famous Roosevelts in his life, which, coupled with bad genes, led to a lifetime of crushing depression and alcoholism that ultimately drove him to commit suicide at age 54.  Though this work was fiction, it was clear Bayard had done a lot of research into the two men’s relationship, and I enjoyed the dynamic very much.

The problem: Bayard is famous — to me, anyway — for writing fairly serious fiction featuring historical people or characters and typically a mystery-type plot.  The Black Tower, for example, is about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s son Louis-Charles, as well as the notorious Eugène François Vidocq, career criminal and (ironically) the first director of France’s Sûreté Nationale.  His novel The Pale Blue Eye, another detective story, features a young Edgar Allen Poe as its central sleuth, and his book Mr. Timothy is an exploration of what kind of young man little Tim Cratchit, from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, might have grown into.

[SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading now if you plan to pick this one up!]

For that reason, what I was expecting with this novel was something rooted fairly firmly in reality. Roosevelt’s Beast, however, takes what could have been a rich fish-out-of-water story exploring the superstitions of an Amazonian tribe and the mythos of a famous American family, and turns it into total hokum instead.  Which would’ve been fine if the hokum were interesting, but it was more cheesy and ridiculous than gripping and thought-provoking.  I can see that it was at least partly an attempt to provide an explanation for Kermit’s suicide, but of all the fascinating ways his death could’ve been explored, this is the least fascinating one I can imagine.  Instead of feeling authentic, it mostly just felt ludicrous — a waste of an otherwise interesting character.  And what a weird veering from the norm for Bayard, too. While I’m the first person to offer kudos to an established author trying something new, the new thing still has to earn those kudos by not sucking.  Not earned here.  Not at all.

That said, though the silly plot was a major distraction from the novel’s strengths, there were still many strengths to this novel.  The writing is great, as usual, the characters are great, as usual, and the setting is almost a beast all its own.  Some of the subplots, especially about the young woman’s life with the tribe, were very authentic in feel and expression.  Though I was disappointed overall, I didn’t HATE this novel. I read the whole thing and I was entertained.  My problems were largely problems of expectations, I suspect.  I still very much love Louis Bayard.  I just hope this isn’t the start of a new kind of trend for his writing.  Because, honestly?  I really, really liked the old kind of trend for his writing.

If you’ve never read any Bayard, I’d suggest The Pale Blue Eye as a great starting place, by the way.  Good old fashioned detectin’. Save this one for last, if you get around to it at all.

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BOOK: Hollow City (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children Book 2) by Ransom Riggs (2014)

June 22, 2014

hollowcityThis novel, the sequel to Riggs’ super-creative but slightly underwhelming 2011 novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, was as entertaining as the first book, but unfortunately also as problematic.

The story starts up where Peregrine left off — Miss Peregrine’s home for wayward “peculiars” (children with magical abilities) has just been bombed, and our intrepid heroes, a set of youths ranging in age from baby to teen, are on the run.  Miss Peregrine herself is trapped in bird form, leaving the kids on the loose, running from monsters, with no adult to guide them.

Desperate for help, Jacob, Emma, and the others head out in search for other peculiars who might be able to help them — particularly to help restore Miss Peregrine to her human body before she is stuck as a bird forever.  Their journey takes them through every kind of terrain there is: on trains, on boats, through forests and the Blitzed streets of London, and more, traveling through a range of time loops, encountering a range of characters.

The story in the sequel was more engaging than the one in the original — for me, anyway.  The characters all knew each other this time around (in the first book, Jacob was an outsider coming in, and the focus was mostly on him), which lent itself to deeper explorations of their selves and their relationships.  But the gimmick gave me the same issues; the inspiration for both these novels is a set of old (real) photographs the author has collected over the years in which tricks with light and exposure have resulted in various oddities: a boy with no feet, a girl who appears to be floating, an object dangling in open space suggesting an invisible person at play, that kind of thing. It’s such a great, creative, clever idea — but it’s unfortunately overused to the point of incoherence in both novels. In this one in particular, it didn’t take long before I started to feel like Riggs had begun with a stack of pictures he desperately wanted to work in, but which he increasingly realized didn’t quite fit with the story.  Instead of letting them go, though, he simply had characters appear and disappear out of the blue, serving no real plot purpose, just to provide the excuse to share the nifty pics with his readers.

It reminded me of a writing exercise I used to do in high school where the teacher would give us a list of 10 random words and tell us to write a short story that incorporated them all. Invariably, this results in at least 1 or 2 places, sometimes more, where you introduce a concept you never would’ve put in there had it not been for the requirement to make it work.  This type of exercise never — NEVER! — results in a brilliant piece of writing.  It’s an exercise — it’s not meant to create a final product.

But that’s the part I think Riggs hasn’t quite caught on to.  Great idea, but you have to be incredibly careful with the execution or else what you end up with is a story about a kid named Roger who finds the bones of a dinosaur (which he names a “thesaurus flex”) buried deep in the earth, tucked inside a Styrofoam cup (at least, this is the story I ended up with when I was asked to write a tale that included the words “thesaurus,” “flex,” and “Styrofoam,” among others).

Still, despite the occasional distraction of the gimmick, I enjoyed both these novels and am definitely game for what looks like it’ll be a third (the second certainly sets us up well for a third, anyway). Even if you end up not digging the stories, the photographs themselves are fascinating, making the first one well worth a peek if you haven’t already checked it out.  Sort of recommended?  I guess?  Sure, why not.

[FICTION]

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BOOK: The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell (2010)

May 20, 2014

reapers

Recently, I read an article somewhere about someone involved in zombie stuff (an author? a scriptwriter? an actor?  God, I’m old and my brain sucks. . .) who said this was, hands-down, his favorite zombie novel of all time.  I Googled it, having never heard of either the title or author, and found numerous other reviews, all raving about the writing, the language, the characters, the atmosphere, the creativity of this book.  So, naturally, I immediately put it on hold at the library, tearing into it (pun intended) the second it arrived.

While I can say I definitely found this novel highly entertaining, and I devoured it (pun intended) in about 24 hours, I’m a little concerned those reviewers were all missing part of their braaaaaaaaains (pun intended).  Not only is the story about as derivative as they come (yawn), but the writing style and the language were kind of clunky, and I had some problems with the main character and elements of story as well.

That main character is Temple, a 15 year-old girl born into the world post-zombie-apocalypse (WWZ, so to speak, happened 10 years before her birth, so we’re 25 years into it by the time the book opens).  What makes that interesting is that it means she has no nostalgia for the way the world once was, giving her a perspective we don’t often see in these kinds of stories.  She had a little brother — at least, she thinks he was her brother — but he’s long gone and she’s been alone for years, drifting from place to place, exploring with no plan or agenda, and dodging and killing “meatskins” as she goes.

Early on in the novel, Temple encounters a small community of survivors and decides to join them, at least for a little while. A little respite from the road.  She gets a nice dinner, some fresh clothes, a bed to sleep in, and she makes a friend right away in an older woman who immediately takes a liking to her.  But that first night, one of the men in the community breaks into her room and tries to assault her.  Temple ends up killing him while fighting him off, and when she tells the woman what happened, the woman packs her up into a car and sends her screeching off into the night, no time to lose.  Because the man had a brother, you see — Moses Todd — and, as Temple herself points out, Southern men mostly “just sit around waiting for somebody to kill their brother so they can get started on some vengeance.”

And thus begins the central story line — Temple on the run from Moses, a man with an obvious conscience who, in fact, takes a strong liking to Temple and even tells her his brother was a worthless human being — yet irrationally seems compelled to kill her anyway (despite saving her life first a number of times). This plot point was one of my biggest problems with the novel, frankly.  It didn’t feel legitimate and it ended up being all too convenient more than once.  Attempts to explain Moses’s behavior are unsatisfying, and more often than not, the conflict felt like a lazy way to keep everybody on the move more than an exploration of whatever emotional or situational complexity might drive a man to kill a girl he didn’t really want to kill, simply because she stabbed his awful brother he didn’t even like in an attempt to protect herself.

As the chase continues on, Temple encounters a few other pockets of survivors, including a family holed up in a mansion and subsisting largely on booze and denial, a mentally challenged man named Maury she kind of adopts, and a group of mutants who have discovered they can shoot themselves up with zombie spinal fluid and . . .  turn themselves into really disgusting subhuman beings (??).  That was another little plot twist I had some issues with — interesting concept, I suppose, but why?  The mutants don’t seem to be benefiting from this behavior in any obvious way — the injections are excruciatingly painful, and then their skin starts to rot and fall off and they’re ugly and smell bad.  Attempts to explain this again fall flat — something to do with religion?  Or family unity?  What?  And just how did they discover this technique in the first place?  Someone had a few too many beers and thought to themselves, “Hey, let’s try shooting ourselves in the back of the skull with zombie spinal fluid!”  Mrrrrrah?

Even more problematic for me, though, were the little things.  Like the fact we’re 25 years out of civilization, yet everybody still has indoor plumbing (complete with running water), electricity, and working gas pumps.  That would be infinitely doable if you were in a small community of survivors and one of you used to be an engineer — but Temple has hot baths and turns on lights everywhere she goes, pretty much.  And she can discard a car and simply pick up another one, finding it still operational even though it may have been sitting around idle for a decade or more.  Just how does that work?

Now add in the fact Temple is uneducated and illiterate, yet talks like a scholar (with a thick and contrived Southern accent, mind you).   “Patina”?  “Convivial”?  What gives?  Again, there’s no attempt to provide an explanation for this — yet there was the perfect opportunity.  There’s a scene in which she thinks back about the man who cared for her as a child, and if the author had had him rattle off a few 25 cent words, I would’ve been satisfied she’d learned them all from him.  But if you’re a loner in the world and you can’t read, you aren’t learning the word “convivial,” I’m sorry.  Not to mention the description a school of fish in a pond as “disco-lit.”  Oh really?  What is this thing you call a “disco”?

Temple’s journey is a journey of redemption, especially after she picks up Maury and flashbacks about her little maybe-brother begin to flit in and out — in that way, it does have some real meat on it (pun intended).  But while I liked the spare writing style generally (authentic grittiness in places, especially since it doesn’t use punctuation), it was definitely clunky and overdone more often than not, and the story is about as been-there-done-that as they come, right down to the mutant family from Wrong Turn showing up there at the end.

It’s a noble attempt to do something different, and again, the main character’s distance from life as the reader knows it was an inspired way to go, but there are just way too many problems with this novel for it to be one I can recommend as the “best zombie novel” ever written.  If that’s really true, then the genre is in desperate need of some new flesh (pun intended).

[FICTION, HORROR, ZOMBIES]

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BOOK: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (2010)

May 7, 2014

ifyoufollowme

When I was in the sixth grade, I spent a year living in Iwakuni, Japan (my dad was in the Marine Corps and there’s an air base there), a tiny little town in southern Honshu.  Ever since that incredible experience, which I could talk about for hours, the memories are still so sharp, I’ve loved stories about Japan, especially ones about outsiders — gaijins out of water, so to speak  — who are confronted by the unique, often beautiful and befuddling cultural aspects of that unique country.

I found this novel sitting on the “free paperbacks” shelf at my local public library a while back and snatched it up when I saw it was just such a story, and, man, am I ever glad I did.  Despite the fact it’s got some problems — more on those in a moment — this is a highly entertaining novel, and one that feels extremely authentic too (partly because it’s based on the author’s own experiences).  Even better, it really took me back to that extraordinary year of my youth, and I loved the excuse to reminisce with myself about it.  (Oh, the Hello Kitty.  So much Hello Kitty. SO MUCH HELLO KITTY!)

The protagonist is a 22 year-old American woman named Marina, whose father recently committed suicide.  The emotional whirlwind that triggered makes it impossible for her to stay put, so she and her new girlfriend Carolyn, whom she met in a bereavement support group, decide to apply for jobs teaching English in Japan, each landing gigs (at two different schools) in the tiny village of Shika.

Shika is initially a respite for Marina, as she relaxes into the distance between her new life and the ghost of her father, but as she begins to settle in a bit more, the culture shock starts to take its toll and haunting memories and what-ifs about her dad flood back in.  Turns out, you can’t run away from grief, a lesson Marina is about to learn the hard way.

Complicating things are the radical differences between American life and Japanese life.  First of all, there are the convoluted, impossible-to-decipher “gomi” rules, which have to do with garbage disposal (it’s a tiny island, after all — they don’t go in much for massive land fills over there), rules she can’t seem to get straight. This perpetually ticks off her neighbors, who keep complaining to her boss, who then keeps passive-aggressively writing her uncomfortable Japanglish letters about all her transgressions (he doesn’t want to “do a rude,” but he can’t seem to help himself).

Then there are all the Japanese people Marina works with every day at school — people she struggles to understand less in terms of the language barrier and more in terms of the sociological and psychological cultural constructs in Japan, which are far more foreign to her than Kanji characters ever could be.

Some of the parts of this novel that were a particular delight to me were things I remembered well from living in a small Japanese town myself, including the early morning blast of music coming from the factory down the hill, where the employees would gather outside before the start of the work day to all do calisthenics together, as well as the complexities of grocery shopping, where a failure to pay close attention can result in the regrettable purchase of a cantaloupe.  Did you mean to spend $35 on a melon?  I bet you didn’t.

Outside the pleasure of my own memories, there is also a moving, beautifully-written subplot about a little boy at Marina’s school whose older brother suffers from severe autism and who desperately wants to get away from his family and start a new life somewhere “else.”  The “else” he tries to get to appears to be the afterlife, though it’s not clear the little boy fully understands that (as he’s rocketing down a snowy hill on a sled headed straight for a tree).  The passages in which we watch him tighten his fists and rail against the struggles of his agonizing life — a six year-old boy, mind you — will stay with me for a long time, as will his mother’s terrified embraces every time she catches him as he starts to fall.

I also loved that each chapter opened with a Japanese term and its definition — one that would ultimately end up relating to the part of the story to follow.  One of those terms was “wabi-sabi,” which was not a phrase I’d encountered in Japan, but was definitely a familiar concept.  In the Girl Scout troop I was in that year, we spent an afternoon with a Japanese potter, who told us that, traditionally, Japanese potters would throw away or break pots they made that appeared to be flawless — because imperfection was what made a pot truly beautiful. This concept ends up being a pervasive theme in the novel — the notion of perfect imperfection. It’s a concept I really, really like, and one I don’t think we have over here in the U.S., where we constantly seem to be pushing for improvement in all aspects of our lives, rather than simply embracing our things/ourselves as they are.  A lovely philosophy, that one.  I aim to try to cultivate it.

Speaking of wabi-sabi imperfection, this is not a flawless novel.  In particular, I found the subplot involving Carolyn and Marina’s relationship frustrating.  What starts out as a complex  and intriguing element of the story, a relationship between two people who come together in one of the most painful emotional states there is (grief) and try to shake off that pain using each other primarily as a distraction from it, becomes increasingly unimportant, with Carolyn fading more and more into the background in a haze of jealousy and anger.  Meanwhile, both woman end up falling in love with men — men who have “rescued” them in various ways, both practical and metaphorical.  That was a bit on the disappointing side for me, I confess.  Though, perhaps it’s realistic; what the hell would I know.

Aside from that, though, I found this book engaging and entertaining, and loaned it to my mother the moment I was done, knowing would she would enjoy the triggering of so many memories of our own Japanese life as much as I did.  Anyone who has ever lived in Japan and loved it will find a lot to like here, and anyone looking for a good, simple “summer read” should throw this one in their pile too, I’d say.  Recommended!

[FICTION]

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BOOK: The Bear by Claire Cameron (2014)

April 19, 2014

thebearThis creative but ultimately ineffective novel begins with our narrator, 5 year-old Anna, happily snuggling up in her tent after a day of canoeing with her family to a small, forested island where they’re planning to camp for the weekend.  Held tight in one arm is her teddy bear Gwen; tucked in a sleeping bag next to her, her baby brother, 2 year-old Stick, obnoxiously snoring away as usual.

While she dozes off to sleep, Anna can smell bacon frying up and hear her parents laughing and talking in soft voices on the other side of the tent flap.  Tempted to pop her head out just to reassure herself everything is as it should be, Anna instead decides to be a “good girl” and stay in bed as told.  She cozies up to Gwen, whose smell she finds reassuring, and takes comfort in the fact “we are 4” (that is, her whole family is there).

Then suddenly the voices change and Anna snaps awake.  Her mother seems angry; her father’s tone drops low and quiet and calm.  Just as Anna starts to sit up to try to listen more closely, though, her dad comes bursting through the tent flap, looking furious (she thinks).  He grabs her and Stick, races outside, throws them both into the family’s oversized Coleman cooler, jams a rock into the corner of the lid to keep it propped open slightly for air — and then turns the latch to lock them in, hissing at them to STAY THERE.

Convinced they’re being punished, though what for, they have no idea, Anna and Stick lie quietly in the cooler for a while — a familiar place from their hours of playing hide-and-seek in it at home and so not immediately alarming to either of them.

But as time passes and she ceases being able to hear her parents, this lengthy time-out starts to seem unfair. Plus, they’re only 2, and Anna wants to be 4 again (this number thing recurs throughout the novel and was, I thought, an adept way to show Anna’s anxiety about being separated from her family).  Then Stick poops his pants — argh!  The stench is overwhelming and Anna wants OUT, so she calls to her parents at last, attracting instead the attention of what appears to her to be a big black dog.  The dog begins sniffing and pawing at the cooler, finally knocking it around so much the latch breaks (luckily, he doesn’t notice and instead goes back to smacking and crunching on what sounds to Anna like a meaty bone — it’s the same sound she’s heard when her neighbor’s dog Snoopy has scored a tasty post-dinner chicken leg, so she assumes her parents like the dog and have given him a treat).

Eventually, Anna hears the dog leave, and she opens the lid to get out with her brother.

. . . And thus begins the story of a 5 year-old girl whose parents have just been killed (and eaten, ugh) by a bear and who is now alone in the woods with a 2 year-old and no comprehension whatsoever of what’s just happened or what might be coming next.

In theory, this is a truly incredible novel.  Anna’s narration is a fascinating mix of childish stream of consciousness and observation, giving us a close look at how a 5 year-old perceives the world.  The beginning of the novel and the end are the strongest, as we watch Anna struggle first with trying to figure out what’s going on and later with the confusing nature of her own emotional responses.

The problem with having a 5 year-old as your narrator, though, reveals itself once you get past the initial fascination with the idea of having a 5 year-old as your narrator. There’s a reason why 5 year-olds aren’t more widely published, after all, and that reason is that they aren’t terribly proficient writers.  As an experiment, The Bear is intriguing and unique.  As a novel, on the other hand, it’s easily four times too long.  This story would’ve been far more effectively told in a much shorter format — a novella or even a short story could’ve made it a piece of absolute genius.  Instead, the end result is weakened tremendously by the need to fill so many pages with the observations of a child who doesn’t really have anything to do or say.   Ever spend a lot of time with a bored kid?  It’s not usually when they’re at their most entertaining, know what I mean?

Though the end of the book is strong and moving, so much slogging through tedium was required to get there, any power it might have had was almost completely sapped by my increasing impatience overall.  If you’re looking for a good suspenseful story about two children who survive a bear attack, in other words, this is not the book for you. I feel like I read somewhere recently that there’s a plan to adapt this story for a film, though, and if that happens, I’d definitely be interested in seeing it — at its heart, this really is a very good story.  But it’s definitely the rare occasion where a novel that has a unique narrator, told primarily through that narrator’s thoughts, would actually make for a far stronger movie than book.

Despite my disappointment and frustration, I do think there’s some value to picking this one up; if you’re interested in the study of writing, for example, you’ll find a lot to chew on here (pun intended, sorry).  My advice?  Read the first and last 50 pages for the sake of the experiment, and save yourself 150 pages of Stick annoying his big sister by pooping all over the place. After all, if you have children, you probably get quite enough of that at home already.

[FICTION]

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BOOK: The Martian by Andy Weir (2011/2013)

April 1, 2014

martianAttention all fans of space-based science fiction: this book is a must-read!  It’s a must-not-miss!  It’s a must-buy!  It’s a must-call-in-sick-to-work-and-spend-all-day-reading!  It’s a must-everything!  IT IS A MUST!

This hilariously funny and absolutely fascinating story is about a botanist/engineer on a mission to Mars who gets separated from his crew in a disaster and ends up stranded alone. Mark Watney and his crewmates were on the planet’s surface when a dust/windstorm suddenly kicked up, with gusts so powerful they began to tip the MAV over (Mars Ascent Vehicle — how they get back to the mothership).  While racing to the MAV to evacuate before it got trashed by the storm, Watney was struck by a piece of debris that punctured his abdomen.  The force of the blow, combined with the minimal gravity of Mars, sent him flying into the swirling dust, and the damage to his suit knocked out his life support computer, sending faulty readings to the rest of the crew — to them, Mark looked dead; there was nothing they could do but leave him behind and get to safety themselves.

To Mark, on the other hand, Mark was very much alive — and now he was also stuck alone on the surface of Mars with no way to send an SOS to Earth.

After an initial round of losing his cool, Mark, an extremely sensible dude, pulls himself up and heads into the hab (a huge inflated tent where the crew lived and worked) to assess his situation.  He’s got about 9 months of rations, a gadget that recycles water from the air and his urine and makes it potable again, several bottles of emergency water, about 10 potatoes they were saving for a holiday dinner, plenty of air to breathe, and a reliable shelter.  He’s got tools.  He’s got a bag of dirt from Earth he was going to use in his botany experiments.  He’s got one HELL of a sense of humor.  And, most importantly, Mark’s got moxie.  As it turns out, moxie really comes in handy when you’re stranded on Mars.  It’s a life saver, in fact.

Figuring he’s now stuck there for somewhere around four years, when the next planned mission to Mars is scheduled to land, Mark begins putting his noggin to work to figure out how to make 9 months of rations last 48.  The novel is told primarily through entries in his journal, which detail his work (along with his random thoughts about Aquaman) as he begins working out how to convert Martian sand into soil he can grow Earth potatoes in, and then make enough water out of hydrogen, oxygen, and science (!) to water those crops indefinitely (without simultaneously blowing himself up <– the true trick to making water).

Meanwhile, alternating chapters come to us from Mission Control on Earth, where a satellite specialist has just taken a look at the latest pictures of the Mars hab, expecting to see it destroyed by the storm, and instead sees things that can’t possibly be right.  How did the rover end up connected to the hab’s air lock?  It wasn’t like that when the crew evacuat. . . holy shit, IS THAT MARK WATNEY?!

Eventually, Mark is able to rig up a way to communicate with Mission Control, and the various players, including his old crew, start working out a daring rescue plan.  Meanwhile, we get treated to what is easily the most thoroughly entertaining — funny, smart, sharp, fascinating, impossible to put down — novels I have read in a really long time.

Oh man.  Honestly.  I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a novel as much as I enjoyed this novel.  It’s THAT GOOD, people.

Inspirational story: The Martian started out in 2011 as a self-published e-book Weir sold on Amazon for about a buck.  As word of mouth spread, more and more copies sold, piquing the interest of Random House who finally offered Weir a book deal last year.  That was quickly followed by a movie deal, no doubt partly inspired by the success of the film Gravity. In other words, the novel this computer nerd guy thought only his mom and best friends would buy has just exploded all the way to Hollywood — pretty darn great.  Now, here’s hoping he’s already hard at work on the sequel (I’m totally game for a sequel, Andy!).

MUST!!

[SCIENCE FICTION]

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BOOK: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink (2013)

March 18, 2014

fivedaysOn August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.  Most of us know what happened after that, when the levees failed, the city flooded, and over 14,000 people ended up trapped in horrific conditions at the Super Dome for days without any supply drops or rescue attempts, thanks more or less equally to the innumerable failures of both federal and local government and the sheer magnitude of the disaster at hand.

Fewer people, however, know about what was going on in the hospitals of the region, which, unlike the rest of the city, were not under mandatory evacuation and thus remained full of patients and staff (as well as family members and dozens of pets), struggling on as the power went out, the water began to rise, supplies got low, and life support machines failed.

This book, which began as a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative news article for the New York Times and ProPublica, tells the story of the most infamous of those hospitals, Memorial Medical Center, where, weeks after Katrina was over, details about a series of “mercy killings” hit the media.

It’s the story of a group of doctors and nurses struggling to care over a hundred of patients, many of whom had life-threatening conditions, as the air conditioning went out (resulting in temperatures of up to 110 in some parts of the building), water became contaminated, food got scarce, the plumbing failed, the stench of human waste and dead animals thickened the already-stifling air, and violence broke out all around the city outside.

It’s also the story of a hospital (one of many just like it) that was completely unprepared for a disaster of this scale.  Despite all the federal funding and training for terrorist attack readiness post-9/11, most of the hospitals in the New Orleans region hadn’t bothered doing much prep for natural disasters, particularly floods.  And even fewer had given any thought to what might happen if the power went out and stayed out. (In many cases, hospitals even kept their back-up generators in the basement or on lower floors, where they were almost immediately incapacitated by water as soon as the levees broke.)

It’s ALSO the story of Tenet Healthcare and the federal government — two forces that could’ve acted much more quickly and efficiently and saved countless more lives if they hadn’t had their heads so far up their butts.  Tenet, the corporation that owned Memorial, even received numerous phone calls at their Texas HQ early in the week from people and organizations with helicopters offering to assist with rescue efforts — offers they rejected, telling people the federal government was in charge and they could do nothing.

Helicopters did finally start landing at Memorial a day or two after the levees broke.  But by then, the staff were so overwhelmed and underprepared they hardly knew how to respond.  Elevators were out, so every patient evacuated had to be carried up numerous flights of stairs by staff (one reason given for leaving obese patients out of the initial rescue plan), and there was a total lack of leadership.  The whole place was in chaos.  Ultimately, a decision was made to get the healthiest people out first — the opposite of standard triage and not something that had ever been discussed and formalized outside of an actual crisis situation.

By Thursday morning, five days after the hurricane had struck and the levees broken, the sickest were dying, and two doctors and a handful of nurses made the decision to euthanize several of them rather than let their suffering continue, something they did without consent from the patients themselves or their family members.  After all, they’d been euthanizing pets for several days already and for the same reasons — imminent, painful death and fear they’d be abandoned to die alone (pets were not being allowed on the helicopters or boats, and the sickest of the patients were theoretically too ill to be safely moved).  Was the animals’ suffering somehow more worthy of mercy? Was that mercy at all?

By the time everyone finally got out, there were 45 corpses in Memorial — dramatically more than at any other hospital affected by Katrina.  Forensic pathologists found deadly levels of pain killers and sedatives in several of the dead, including one man who had reportedly been in relatively stable condition, but weighed over 300 pounds.  Was he euthanized because nobody wanted to try to carry such a heavy man up the stairs?  It’s impossible to know for sure, but I definitely got the distinct impression Fink believed that played a part, though I’ll also say one of the most powerful elements of this book is Fink’s relatably authentic tone — compassionate, confused — and her clear lack of clarity in her own opinion on what happened.

This book is extremely detailed, based on interviews with over 500 people and covering not only the actual events in the hospital, but the entirety of the aftermath, when Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses were accused of the first-degree murder of four patients by the state attorney general, much to the horror of many who felt they did the best they could under the unfathomable circumstances.

Though a Grand Jury ultimately refused to indict, the debate about whether or not euthanasia was the right move continues, and only gets more complicated, in my opinion, the more you learn about what actually happened.  For that reason alone, I think this book is an extremely important one.  It really challenged my thinking on the subject (I went into the book confident the doctors had made the right choice — and left it a little less certain, while simultaneously recognizing the value of hindsight in regards to that, something the doctors and nurses in the moment didn’t have).

This book is incredibly hard to read — it’s heartbreaking, terrifying, discouraging (especially the epilogue, where Fink describes the myriad ways in which hospitals appear NOT to have learned any lessons from Katrina), and tragic.  But it’s also fascinating and a good reminder of what happens to human beings when they are put in desperate situations — both the bad and the good. (And there was a lot — a lot, a lot, a lot — of good, too.)  Though it has a few weak spots — Fink is at her best when describing the situation inside the hospital, but much of the middle-to-end portion of the book, focusing on the investigation and Grand Jury case, gets bogged down by repetition and relatively unimportant detail — overall, this is a powerful book — well-written, extraordinarily well-researched — and a vital record of one of the most heinous natural horrors this country has seen.

Recommended, though if you can’t bring yourself to read the whole book, I’ll let you off the hook as long as you read the original article, located online here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/magazine/30doctors.html?ref=sherifink.  It’s worth your time, and it’s important.  So.  Read it.

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: Sycamore Row by John Grisham (2013)

February 26, 2014

sycarmoreI’m not a big John Grisham reader — over the years, I’ve probably only picked up two or three of his books and while I’ve enjoyed them, I’ve never really been full-on bitten by the Grisham bug.  I’ve seen almost all of the movies based on his novels, though, and typically have liked them better than the books they were based on — as with Stephen King, I’ve often felt Grisham is a better storyteller than he is a writer.

I picked this one up, in fact, because I had just seen the Matthew McConaughey film A Time to Kill recently for the first time in years, and I had forgotten how good it was. For those who have forgotten or never saw the film/read the book, that story is about a young  Mississippi lawyer, Jake Brigance, defending a black father, Carl Lee Hailey, on trial for capital murder after killing the two racists who brutally assault his little girl.

Sycamore Row is a sequel to A Time to Kill, picking up a few years later.  Brigance is enjoying a booming career, thanks to his success in the Carl Lee Hailey case.  Also thanks to that case, he’s become the most trusted advocate for African American families in the region. It’s that reputation that undoubtedly made Seth Hubbard choose Jake to be the executor of his estate — a selection Brigance discovers the day after Hubbard’s suicide, when he receives a letter from the dead man in the mail.  The letter tells Jake to read the enclosed document — a handwritten will — but keep it a secret until the day after his funeral.   Then Jake is to file it with the court and get ready to defend it tooth and nail.  Why?  Because first Seth Hubbard changed his mind, and then he changed his will — his estate, all $24 million of it, is no longer to be equally divided up amongst his two (bratty) children, but instead to be given, almost in full, to his black housekeeper Lettie Lang.

CUE SHOCK AND AWE! KABOOM!

As soon as the funeral is over, a huge legal battle erupts as the family members ousted by the new will try to claw their way back in.  Their father was dying of cancer and had prescriptions for heavy-duty pain medications; he can’t possibly have been in his right mind when he wrote this cuckoo-crazy new will, they argue.  Add to that the fact a previous employer of Lettie’s, another elderly person, had done almost the same thing decades earlier, not to mention Lettie’s no-good husband’s massive gambling debts, and it sure looks like Lettie may have intentionally influenced Seth’s choices at the end when he was blitzed on medication and blinded by intractable pain.

Yet as Jake and his old mentor Lucian look into the past for answers, the reason Hubbard made the decision he did becomes clear.  It’s a decision rooted in guilt over an incident a generation before his own, involving both the Hubbard and Lang families, a plot of land, and a hangin’ tree.  Over the span of the novel’s story, as more is revealed both about the past and about the present, the question becomes less, “Does Lettie Lang deserve the money?” and more “Will the people of Clanton —  white OR black — stand for letting a black woman become the richest person in town?”  The answer to the former might be an easy “yes,” but the answer to the latter is a whole lot more complicated — especially in Ford County, Mississippi.

Despite the fact Grisham goes a little overboard here and there with the drudgery of probate law (I mean, thanks for striving for realism, and all, but you could strive for a little less realism next time, sir. Because: zzzzzzz . . .), this is a really entertaining, well-written novel.  It clearly sets up the Brigance character for future novels, as well — something I’d definitely welcome after reading this one.  Solid, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

Recommended!

[FICTION]

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BOOK: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

February 10, 2014

unbrokenThis absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing book tells the absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing story of an absolutely incredible, wonderful, amazing man named Louis Zamperini.  And did I mention it was absolutely incredible, wonderful, and amazing?  I did?  Well, okay, then. Good. Let me tell you why.

Louis Zamperini was born to a family of Italian immigrants in New York in 1917.  When he was but a wee two years of age, his family moved to Torrence, California.  Because nobody in the Zamperini family spoke any English when they arrived in the Sunshine State, Louis, a somewhat passive, quiet kid, became a frequent target for bullies as he grew up.  After grinning and bearing it for a few years, it finally occurred to him that the best way to silence those bullies was to put his fist through their teeth — and once he realized how effective that was, Louis spent many of the ensuing years getting himself in perpetual trouble.

Finally, his older brother Pete, exasperated by his younger brother’s behavior, tried to rein Louis in by getting him involved in sports.  He talked Louis into joining him on the school’s track team, where Louis quickly discovered he had an incredible talent for running.  During his high school years, he made and broke several national and international track records, and by the time he was 19, he was on his way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Louis didn’t win in Berlin, but he came close enough to know he was good enough to win next time if he kept at it.  So he set his sights on 1940 and started training even harder.  As war began to break out worldwide, however, the 1940 Olympics were first moved and then canceled.  Then came Pearl Harbor, and Louis’s sights were redirected to a new target — war in the Far East.

Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in September 1941 and became a bombardier for the B-24 Liberator, one of the most deadly planes in WWII — for its crew, I mean, not just for those with the misfortune of being underneath one when it dropped a bomb.

Not only was the B-24 infamous for bursting into flame for no apparent reason (never MY favorite quality in an airplane), but its design made it nearly impossible to ditch or belly-land  safely in an emergency — the fuselage almost always busted into pieces, busting the crew into pieces along with it.  Shortly after the plane was introduced, there were several incidents in which the tails or wings just fell off in midair, also not a terrifically confidence-inspiring quality in a bomber.  Many B-24 crew members began referring to the plane as “the Flying Coffin,” and for good reason:  in the three months in which Louis and his crew trained to fly, 3,041 AAF planes met with accidents stateside, killing an average of nine men a day.

Overseas, so many B-24s went down during the war, and so often over the ocean, that the military began assigning ships runs below the air routes where the planes most commonly flew — an attempt to try to rescue more crash survivors from the sea.

Though Louis and his crew had a lengthy streak of good luck after joining the fighting, when their first plane was badly damaged in battle, they were assigned to the Green Hornet, a B-24 notorious among the other pilots for being a wreck in the sky, ready to fall apart if given so much as a sideways glance.

The Hornet quickly lived up to its reputation when Louis and his crew were sent out on a rescue mission looking for the crew of another plane that went down over the water. Mechanical issues forced the pilot, Louis’s friend Allen “Phil” Phillips, to ditch the Hornet in the sea.  As predicted, the plane broke apart, killing almost the entire crew. There were only three survivors — Louis, Phil, and a new crew mate they barely knew, Frances “Mac” McNamara. The men managed to pull themselves into a lifeboat, but they had almost no supplies whatsoever — a few candy bars, a couple of small containers of water, a bunch of fish hooks, and that was about it.

Surrounded by sharks, including a few big ones that periodically tried to leap into the boat for a better chomping angle (OMG, EEP!), starving, dehydrated, and quickly covered in painful, festering salt-induced sores, the situation could not have been more dire.  Yet somehow, Louis, Phil, and Mac managed to hold on.  Quick thinking and quicker hands allowed them to catch some fish and birds to eat, as well as rain water to drink every now and then.  They even managed — miraculously — to avoid getting shot when a Japanese fighter plane strafed them TWICE from above.  Knowing that keeping their brains sharp was critical to their survival, Phil and Louis spent endless hours telling each other stories, quizzing each other on trivia, singing, and keeping each other’s spirits up.

The record for survival on a lifeboat at sea before Louis’s plane went down was something like 35 days.  The Green Hornet’s survivors made it 47.  (I repeat: FORTY. SEVEN. DAYS!)

Believe it or not, things only got worse from there.  Because while they were, thank god, eventually rescued, their rescuers were a  group of Japanese soldiers, who quickly shuttled the already-dying men off to a series of brutal POW camps in the region.

For four more years (I repeat: FOUR. MORE. YEARS.) the men were starved, beaten almost constantly (especially Louis, who was a favorite target of one particularly brutal guard), refused medical care for diseases like dysentery and malaria, and forced to work themselves nearly to death.  Not only that, but once the Japanese found out Louis was a famous American Olympian, life for him became even more hellish.  Knowing they could use Louis’s fame to their advantage, the Japanese didn’t report his identity to the Red Cross as they were supposed to, and instead let his family believe he was dead for years. Eventually, they tried to torture him into becoming a propaganda tool for the Japanese military.  When he refused, he was starved and beaten even more.

AND, PEOPLE?  THAT IS JUST THE BEGINNING OF THE HELL THAT MAN ENDURED.  I’ll stop there, though, and let you discover the rest of Zamp’s story on your own.

In all my many years of reading true stories about wars, veterans, heroes, and survival against all odds, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a story more amazing than this one.  Louis Zamperini is. . . I mean. . . seriously, words fail me.  All I can come up with is “amazing.”  I keep saying “amazing.”  Because he is AMAZING.  (Note, by the way, that I said “he is” right there. You may find that tense reassuring as you read — I know I did.)

That said, it’s not just the story of Zamp’s (amazing!) life that makes this book as impossibly hard to put down as it is.  A huge part of the credit for that also has to go to author Laura Hillenbrand.  I was familiar with Hillenbrand’s name — she wrote that extremely popular book about Seabiscuit a few years back — but I hadn’t read any of her work before.  And WOW, no wonder Seabiscuit and Unbroken are both still bestsellers  (Unbroken, in fact, has sold so many copies so steadily for so long that the publisher STILL hasn’t released it in paperback — why bother when the $30 hardcover keeps selling like hotcakes three-and-a-half years after being published?).

Hillenbrand is a phenomenally talented writer — it’s no stretch to say she’s one of the best non-fiction writers I have ever encountered, in fact.  Her stunning descriptions of both place and people transport you right into their worlds, and her clear affection for her subjects creates an authentic emotional connection from the very first page (I can’t remember the last time a book made me work quite so hard to keep from crying all the time, by the way — and those were fought-back tears of both the sorrowful and joyous variety, depending on the chapter).

Additionally, there were times I came across a sentence in this book that was so finely crafted I had to stop and read it again (and sometimes: again and again).  What a rare gift, writing like that. What utter, pure, complete pleasure that is.  I cherished every single word of this wonderful book. and I can’t wait to read more by Hillenbrand as soon as possible (starting with Seabiscuit and ending with everything else she ever writes as long as we both shall live, amen).  The lady is a goddamn genius.

Amazing man, amazing writer, amazing story, amazing book (soon to be what I hope is an amazing movie, by the way).  If you read one book this year, MAKE IT THIS BOOK.  I promise you, you will not be sorry.  Louis Zamperini will change your life; he certainly changed mine.  I turned the last page of Unbroken 3 weeks ago and I haven’t gone a day without thinking about it since.  When was the last time you read a book like that?  Such a gift, that man, his story, this book.  I am beyond grateful.

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