Posts filed under ‘Reviews’

Review: Tales of a Female Nomad

nom1.jpgI’ve always identified with the more romanticized versions of nomads and vagabonds: gypsies, pirates, river rats, camel caravaners. Wanderlust is as much a part of my genes as my hair color; in me it has been dilluted a bit from the previous generation, but it is still there, still very much a driving force in my personality. To help satisfy my wanderlust on a limited time- and money-budget, I often read books that transport me around the world. Stories of women striking it out on their own especially intrigue me – probably the result of long hours spent daydreaming about where Agatha Christie spent those ten days.

A year or so back, I fell in love with a collection of personal essays by women who had traveled the globe. It was called A Woman Alone, and my only complaint with it was that I couldn’t follow each of these women beyond their brief chapters.

From that book, I came to Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World, a book that let me do just that. It is the story, thus far, of Rita Golden Gelman, a children’s book author who divorced herself from a “normal” life and became a citizen of the world. Her journey starts in Mexico, where she lives among rural villagers and learns how to assimilate into the culture. From there she goes to Guatemala, and then to Nicaragua. She spends six weeks in Israel, where she learns things she never suspected about her heritage, then heads to the other side of the world to the Galapagos Islands.

From there, Gelman travels to Indonesia, ends up in Bali, and there finds a place where her restless heels feel at home. When she first arrives, she has no idea that she will spend the next four years there, and that she will return there again for years to come. In Bali, Gelman finds her spiritual center as well as her center as a storyteller. Her Bali chapters completely transport the reader to the island, and when she leaves you feel as though you, too, have spent the most important part of your life there. Next she moves to Seattle, then New Zealand, and finally to Thailand, where her descriptions of the food are so delectable that you can practically taste it.

Her adult children don’t understand. Her friends think that her money might be better spent on therapy. Meanwhile, she is becoming the sort of human that we are meant to be but which is repressed under a heavy cloak of the American “dream”. Traveling like this gives her true freedom:

I’ve discovered a new way to live. My life is endlessly fascinating, filled with learning, adventure, interesting people, new and enlightening experiences. I laugh, sing, and dance more than I ever ahve. I am becoming the person inside me…. I’m existing on less than $10,000 a year, including airfares. I’m embracing life….

Tales of a Female Nomad is one of those rare travel books that keeps you engaged and enthralled from beginning to end. Written in the first person present, it has a feeling of motion and immediacy that seduces the imagination and truly gives the sense of being there oneself. Gelman is a real woman, not a superheroine – she offers up all of her fears, fitness issues, and critics in an honest depiction of what it is like to give up everything you have known in exchange for an entirely new way to live.

Gelman’s journey begins when she is 48 years old, and has not yet ended. The closest thing she has to a permanent residence is her website, which is updated blog-style. As of her most recent post, she is in Seattle, working on a cookbook. Last October she spent time in Tanzania, Kenya, and Nairobi. What an extraordinary life… and an exceptional book.

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August 10, 2007 at 3:56 pm 6 comments

Review: Happy Hour at Casa Dracula

happy-hour.jpgOkay, how’s this for a cover blurb? “Vampires. Margaritas. Mayhem. What’s a girl to do when she’s hidden away at the home of sophisticated vampires and her ex-boyfriend wants to drive a stake through her heart?”

Yeah. Pretty bad, huh. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t trust a book by its cover blurb. (Dear gourd, but cover blurbs are awful. Do these people even pretend the read the books?) So when I came across Marta Acosta’s Happy Hour at Casa Dracula, with its stylishly designed cover art and attractive $3.99 bargain bin pricetag, I gave it the benefit of a one-chapter doubt. By page 23 I’d come to the conclusion that it was at least good enough to fill some of the time before All Together Dead comes out in paperback.

And, as it turns out, Happy Hour wasn’t half bad. The heroine, Milagro de Los Santos (literally “Miracle of the Saints”) is a sassy, smart Hispanic woman trying to make it as a writer, caught between the conflicting personalities of a fake leopard-clad sexpot and a young woman grieving over her one and only sexual encounter, back in college. The fact that she, and the book’s villain, attended “F.U.” contributes to the charm and silliness of this little beach read.

Milagro’s adventures begin with a lusty encounter with a mysterious stranger who turns out to suffer from a genetic disorder – leaving her infected with the selfsame disorder. The disorder causes photosensitivity, altered vision, fertility problems, great (if pale) skin, long life, and pica. Some members of his family embrace the fact that this makes them sound suspiciously like vampires; others – including Milagro’s new friend – reject it and try to live like more-or-less normal people. Unfortunately for them, there are bad guys afoot who want to do something vague and evil to them, and due to an inconvenient love triangle, Milagro is their lever.

Cue mistaken identity, secrets revealed, Mexican meals so scrumptious you can practically smell them off the page, sex, confused small-town goths, obvious but not awkward allusions to racism as experienced by Latinos and vampires, suspicious outsiders, blood-sipping, ridiculous circumstances that lead the heroine into unnecessary danger, even more ridiculous coincidences, love triangles that conjoin into love octagons, quasi-redemptions, and lots of references to Milagro’s exceptional tatas.

In the end, the book is (to repeat a word overused in this review) a tad ridiculous. But it’s a good sort of ridiculous, and the unusual combination of romance, vampirism, and Latina culture is a lot of fun. My only real criticism – and I’m not feeling too passionate about this – is Milagro’s character development. I kept wondering if she was bipolar, or maybe two different people, or maybe just slightly sloppily written. She is a respectable young woman trying to make it out on her own, an aspiring political-horror writer working as a literary consultant and gardener, trying to resolve her cold relationship with her mother, looking for that certain something that will pull her life together. And then, you suddenly realize that she is now something entirely different, in impractical loud shoes and clothes, highly-sexed, impetuous, and shallow. I think the aim was to illustrate the dichotomous nature of a young woman while highlighting the changes the infection wrought on her personality, but the end result is a trifle inconsistent.

Still – a fun book, and if Amazon is to believed, the first of more to come.

August 9, 2007 at 10:16 pm Leave a comment

Review: Fire

fire.jpgSummers in southern Idaho are dry, straw-brown, and reek of woodsmoke. Our winters are rarely wet enough to keep what seems like the entire state from burning down in the summer. It keeps young men and soldiers busy and the air filled with water- and retardant-loaded aircraft… and, inevitably, it claims lives. Practically everyone in Boise knows someone who is or was a wildland fire fighter or a smokejumper. As you drive around town, every temp agency has a sign out soliciting call center employees and fire fighters. We don’t talk about the fires that often; beyond the occasional comment on the fire helicopters or the poor climate, the topic rarely comes up unless something really dramatic happens. In 1989 – not the first nor the last time – something really dramatic happened, and I was excited and surprised to find it referenced and explored at the head of one of my $2 used books.

Sebastian Junger may have made his name with his The Perfect Storm, but his adventurous streak and probing pen have led him into hot spots – literal and figurative – across the globe. Fire is a collection of essays Junger has written chronicling some of the world’s most dangerous situations.

Fire sucked me in by starting with Idaho forest fires, a topic quite close to home, and then moving to a Colorado forest fire that I remember from my time (13 years?) there. From there, Junger zips us to the Caribbean, Kashmir, Kosovo, Cyprus, the Blackfeet country of the early 1800s, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan. He escapes injury and death, surviving to write exhaustively descriptive accounts of his adventures. By the end of the book, I was tired – the kind of tired you are after a upper-division crash course in international relations. Weeks later, the first and last essays are still sticking in my mind – I’ve learned more about the fire fighting culture in my own state, and about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, than I’d ever learned in years of watching the news.

The introduction, wherein Junger discusses the early stumbles of his career, is one of my favorite parts of the book. The middle of the book drags on a bit, in my opinion, and I found myself occasionally wishing we could move on to the next bit on the syllabus. Reading Fire, though, was never actually boring – and I felt throughout as though I were kind of there myself. It was at no point an easy read, and definitely falls into a more hardcore subset of “creative nonfiction” that won’t appeal to many readers. Those who enjoy the occasional reading challenge, like reading to learn, or are anxious to improve their sleep will almost certainly get a kick out of this deceptively slim volume.

Interestingly, I’ve read several comments/reviews about Fire by people who clearly only read the first essay or two, and think the entire thing is about forest fires. Don’t be misled: it’s war, territorial disputes, the wild American west, whaling, the blood diamond trade – all matter of different situations that inspire, in Junger’s words, “an utterly amoral sense of awe.” (Amoral, not immoral – an important distinction. :))

August 8, 2007 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Review: A Long Way Down

alwd.jpgTwo nights ago, my husband was reading The Time Traveler’s Wife (see my review) and I was reading Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. He spent the evening crying, and I spent the evening laughing, and by the time we fell asleep we’d both finished our respective books.

A Long Way Down is a book about four wildly different people who meet one another en route to ending it all. Jess is a somewhat manic teenager with some serious impulse control issues, even more serious reasons for her off-kilter state, and a sweet if misguided heart. JJ is the token American, a failed musician played in my mind by John Cusack as seen in High Fidelity. Martin is a disgraceful fallen celebrity, who fights redemption at every step, and yet somehow never quite does away with our sympathy. And Maureen is possibly the most realistic of the bunch, the single mother of a severely disabled child, desperate and at the end of her rope, who just wants a real life (and possibly the heart of the man who gave her the life she has).

The foursome meet atop a notorious suicide spot, spoiling one another’s dark moods, and agree to the first of what turns out to be an effective chain of delays. Jess, who seems to have the least reason to die, is the most determined to do so; the other three do what they can to keep her from wasting the majority of her life. (Later, of course, we learn that her motivation to die is greater than initially believed.) Outside of their conscious control, the quartet form a bond that gets them through the night, lands them in the tabloids, puts them on bad afternoon television, brings their personal dramas to a head, and, ultimately, saves – in a matter of speaking – their lives.

That “of course” in the previous paragraph is telling. A Long Way Down is slightly predictable, and there’d be no harm done if I told you exactly how it ended. Let’s just say fewer people die in this book than do in Harry Potter. The most interesting thing is, as I said before, the character of Maureen. Hornby so perfectly captures her character that I half-thought I was reading about a real woman. He paints with relatively few strokes, but what he tells, tells everything. Because of Maureen, this book is a hopeful book rather than just a dark comedy.

Having said that, I struggle to come up with A Long Way Down’s “point.” The first thing that springs to mind is that it’s a comment on suicide, and that people really oughtn’t to kill themselves because they might find that the chaos of their lives really is controllable with the right help/changes/attitude. Then again, I suspect that another reader might get the exact opposite idea from this story. I keep coming back to the title, wondering what exactly it is supposed to mean (beyond the obvious). To my mind, it reinforces my initial hypothesis: jumping from a ten-story building is, in fact, a long way down, and mightn’t you have time to regret it?

Ultimately, this book is worth reading if only for the laugh-out-loud lines masterfully sprinkled throughout the book, particularly in the first half. Hornby’s knack for gallows humor is enviable. Kudos also to the designer of the book cover; they say you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their shoes, and the cover speaks volumes about the characters.

August 7, 2007 at 11:30 pm 1 comment

Review: Living Dead in Dallas

ldidcover“Great food” can mean $100/plate fine cuisine in an exclusive restaurant, but it can also mean a perfectly deep-fried corndog at the fair when you’re starving and you’ve been dreaming of cornbread and frankfurters for days. What I mean is, it doesn’t have to be high art or good for you to be great – sometimes “great” is deeply satisyfing, delicious-down-to-your-toes, comfort food junk.

The Sookie Stackhouse books (more commonly called the Southern Vampire series) by Charlaine Harris are corndogs in the literary world. There’s nothing better on a gloomy day than curling up with one of these lovely little escapist romps. I tucked myself into Living Dead in Dallas the other day, and it quite hit the spot. I’d read most of the rest of the series before (Harris is one of the few writers I can bear to read out-of-sequence) and wanted to come back and fill in the chronological holes.

All of Harris’s heroines are refreshingly strong and interesting women, and Sookie is no exception.

Tangent: Only one thing bothers me about Harris’s books. What’s up with the heroines’ names? They’re all so goofy! Sookie Stackhouse – what kind of name is Sookie? Is that a real name? (I’m not making fun, I’m asking.) The Shakespeare series, set in a town called Shakespeare, features a heroine named Lily Bard. There’s another series with a heroine named Aurora Teagarden – and sorry, that’s just funny. 🙂

Okay, back on focus. Sookie is a survivor. She’s also a bartender, a telepath, and girlfriend of (in Living Dead) a vampire. It’s modern-day Louisiana with a twist – a Japanese firm figured out how to create synthetic blood, allowing vampires to stop preying on humans and, consequently, come out of hiding to join society.

Literary vampires are often allegorical, usually (it seems) representing gay people. In this series, the vampires (and the shapeshifters, fairies, witches, and other subspecies who share their world) are a perfect metaphorical minority. There are a lot of vampires in Harris’s Louisiana – a nod to Anne Rice – and they’re not always understood or welcome in the rural parts of the country in which much of the story takes place. Or, for that matter, Dallas – which is where this particular book is set.

A human organization, the Fellowship of the Sun, plays Ku Klux Klan to Harris’s night-dwelling minority. Because Sookie is a vampire sympathizer – and, in fact, is working for the vampires because of her telepathic gift – she is targeted by the Fellowship in this second book of the series.

The Southern Vampire books fall partially into the “fantastical romance” genre; vampiric hungers, to put it delicately, are both carnivorous and carnal. And I really don’t think that you can avoid the fantasy label when your main characters are mythical creatures; the books skirt around the horror genre by virtue of the fact that the vampires are protagonists. That, and the books are very funny. Moreover, the Southern Vampire books are murder mysteries. Ultimately, they’re that delightful sort of genre-bending book that gives ulcers to bookstore shelvers. (And, incidentally, book-shoppers. I never know whether to look in romance, fantasy, or mystery when I want one of these books – and the correct location is different at every store.)

You might like these books even if you aren’t a fantasy-type-person, but if the idea of telepaths dating vampires, were-critters running bars, fairies seducing humans, et cetera, just really doesn’t appeal, I totally recommend any of Harris’s other series. My second favorite set are the Lily Bard books.

I am overjoyed, and deeply wary, to learn that HBO is planning a series based on this series this fall. It’s to be called “True Blood” and stars Anna Paquin as Sookie (hmm – not bad) and Stephen Moyer as Bill (okay). The series will be written and directed by Alan Ball of “Six Feet Under” fame; I never watched that show, but people seemed to quite like it, so hopefully “True Blood” is in good hands. I’m always very nervous about film adaptations (small- or large-screen) of much-loved books… and I don’t even get HBO… so I’m not sure what to think about this. It’s good for Ms. Harris, though, so cheers!

August 4, 2007 at 1:46 pm 3 comments

Egads…

This one may have spoilers. I’m going to try to hide them, but it may not work. Read with caution.

The problem with reading HP7 quickly in the wee hours of the morning and then immediately blogging about it with a pulsing headache is that it is so easy to miss what should have been blindingly clear. Settling down for a much-needed lunch hour nap, it came to me like the voice of a smug lit professor who can’t believe he has to spell this out to sophomores. I’ve been discussing (elsewhere) the epilogue, and whether it was extraneous, too tidy, satisfying. I realize now that the romantic angle is incidental. The epilogue is ESSENTIAL, because it sets the stage for _____’s closing conversation with _____ about the Hogwarts Houses.

Harry Potter 7 is the lynchpin in a brilliant, ingeniously-crafted, long-resonating message about choice.

This isn’t a fantasy series. Its not even a kids book, in the common sense of the phrase. This is a non-author’s daring stand against a bleakening future, against apathy and selfishness. And it’s BEAUTIFUL. Millions of children will internalize the Harry Potter myth, will latch onto one character or another as a small part of their psyche, and by that will come to unconsciously understand that we have CHOICES.

We have the choice to be good or evil, to do harm or good, to be brave or craven. More importantly, we can choose to CHANGE. We can choose to turn the darkness in ourselves into light.

We’re all human. We are all of us going to hurt one another, cheat, fail, turn tail and run, betray, wound, disappoint, misplace (dis)trust, fall from grace. But we can choose to get back on the broom, return to our friends, beg forgiveness, devote our lives to rebalancing the equation.

I am thinking, and I can’t come up with a SINGLE CHARACTER of any note in the HP saga who isn’t given at least one moment of choice, an opportunity to turn around. Not all of them make worthy choices, not all of them make unpredictable ones. But every single one of them chooses: whom to love, to trust, to join, to leave. They change the road they are on. ___ returns to the front lines and rejoins his estranged friends. _____, against all odds, turns his back on his livelihood and joins his family for the final battle. _____ chooses his child over one last adventure. The students of Hogwarts choose to take a stand rather than give in to enormous power and pressure. It’s every single character. It’s the entire story.

And even when a choice doesn’t turn out the way we hope, we’re told in the epilogue, it is still within our power to take THAT and make it work for good.

The Sorting Hat represents destiny, and seems an inevitable thing – but it listened to an eleven-year-old boy who preferred Gryffindor over Slytherin. It bowed to free will.

Harry Potter is a seven-volume saga about “Invictus.”

Brilliant. I was appreciative before, but now I’d really like to shake Rowling’s hand. What a masterpiece. I know there are lots of you out there who are kind of indifferent about the books… but you might give them a shot. There’s something more to these books than the hype and the movies and the merchandising. These books just might accomplish something.

Update: If you liked this review, consider clicking here and giving it a “thumb’s up” by clicking on the little symbol in the lower lefthand corner. I submitted it for the LibraryThing Harry Potter 7 review contest, even though I don’t strictly think it’s a true review – it’s more formal than most on there, though, so why not?

July 25, 2007 at 12:02 pm 2 comments

Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife

We are driving down a fairly ugly stretch of eastern Washington highway, and I am grateful that my dog is standing on the middle console between my husband and I, because maybe that means he won’t notice that I am surreptitiously bawling my eyes out. I’ve reached the end of The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, and although I knew what was coming, I am shocked and sick with grief.

Books don’t ordinarily get to me like this one has. In fact, the only other time I can remember out-and-out crying over a book was my first time through Where the Red Fern Grows, and at the time I was convinced I’d caught a virus, because come ON, I just didn’t cry over books like that. I’m not a crier, period. But those stupid heroic coonhounds got to me, and so have Henry and Clare.

Damnit.

Time Traveler is the story about Henry, a “chronologically impaired” librarian who spontaneously and unwillingly time travels. [Ed. note: You could probably come up with a really hilarious webcomic or story based on that sentence.] If you’ve read Job: A Comedy of Justice (a great favorite of mine) you’ve been exposed to this phenomenon before, although with slightly different quirks. In Heinlein’s novel, the time traveler can take with him anything he is clutching. In Niffenegger’s, only Henry himself time travels. Anything around him – people, clothing, even things as firmly attached as dental fillings – is left behind. Another difference is that Heinlein’s time travelers proceed from place to place, not returning to the place they were before; Henry yo-yo’s back to the “present” at the end of every trip. His unique circumstances allow him to visit with past and future selves; he is also able to meet with his wife, Clare, as a young girl.

It’s not a science fiction story; I’m not sure what it is that it is. It’s patently a love story, and what makes it such a good love story is that it’s not rose-tinted. Henry and Clare have a completely realistic series of average-couple problems, aggravated by the special complications of Henry’s condition. Theirs is a believable courtship and marriage, which is probably why it rings so close and true to my heart. When something bad happens in a romance novel, it doesn’t resonate, because that’s not a real relationship in the first place. When something bad happens in a book like this, it feels like it could have been happening to you.

(My husband points out that he could tell things were going badly in the book because I kept turning to him and repeating, “I’m glad you’re not a time traveler.”)

So yes: a love story. But also a science, or perhaps a chrono-philosophy, story. Time Traveler touches on the nature of time, about morality and situational ethics, about cause-and-effect, and about responsibility of knowledge. It is also arguably a book about theology and spirituality, although the characters are not at all religious. The issue of predestination is a major player in this novel. It’s a story about survival, and the way people react to differences and unfamiliarity. It is a story about running. And by the end of the story, Alfred Lord Tennyson is whispering ’tis better to have loved and lost… in your ear, and if you are like me at that moment, you’ll want to slug him in the mouth and tell him how wrong he was.

This isn’t a particularly challenging book, and it is so engaging and well-written that it will seamlessly suck you into its reality and keep you motivated to read it in a single sitting. (You may, if you share my geeky inclinations, be tempted to pause from time to time to map out the chronological loops. I wouldn’t recommend trying; you’ll give yourself a headache.) If I haven’t already made it abundantly clear, though, it packs a helluva wallop. This isn’t the book to read on the subway on the way to a job interview or a date. It probably isn’t the book to read while your significant other is on a business trip, either. Ideally, you’re going to want a warm blanket, a pint of ice cream, a box of kleenex, and your loved one’s knee within ready reach for this sucker.

Thinking about The Time Traveler’s Wife has led me to two questions.

Why is this a book club book? I’ve definitely read books that begged discussion. A popular example is the Harry Potter series; it’s great fun to sit around with other fans and discuss the hidden messages, philosophies, motivations, possibilities. But there are other books that don’t need dissecting, that in fact suffer by it. Some books are intellectual exercises, and other books are emotional experiences. The Time Traveler’s Wife should be, in my opinion, felt rather than analysed. It washed over and into me. I turned past the end-of-book acknowledgments and found myself reading several pages of inane book club questions, pushing the reader to probe the characters and their relationship. I was – well, I was offended. It felt like standing at someone’s deathbed, moments after the fact, and cross-examining the deceased’s loved ones on minutia of the life spent. Try as I might, I cannot imagine sitting around discussing this book. Sitting in a room together clutching hot cups of tea pretending not to be crying again, damnit while desperately searching for topics of conversation that will get this book off my mind – I can imagine doing that. But not dissecting it. Not analysing it. That’s saying something for me; I analyse everything.

Which brings me to… what defines a “good” book? In one sense, I’m entirely ready to bestow that label here. I was glued to Time Traveler’s Wife for the length of time it took me to read it, and two days later it’s still haunting me. It was beautifully written, impeccably crafted. It’s definitely a “top shelf” book. And yet – I hate it. I hate what it has done to me. I felt physically ill after I finished it, and finally started reading another book to get the first out of my head. If I stop reading something else, though, this story slips right back into my brain and kicks me in the gut. Can a book be GOOD if it makes you feel heartsick for days? Or is it good by definition if it can have that kind of impact? Is there a distinction – or should there be – between a well-written book and a good book?

Don’t get me wrong. This is a new favorite – and, incidentally, one of my forgotten/unread books I challenged myself to read, so it’s a doubly good choice.

July 24, 2007 at 3:52 pm 9 comments

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