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 July 2008 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

 

When You Are Engulfed In Flames


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by David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company, $25.99
388 pages
ISBN
978-0-316-14347-9

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Public radio and New Yorker regular Sedaris returns with a collection of 22 essays. Trapped next to unpleasant woman on an airline flight, he spins elaborate fantasies about how he could prove to her that he’s not a jerk. But because she’s asleep, he ends up taking out his frustration by calling her names in the blank spaces of the New York Times crossword. He ponders an expensive, “distressed” cashmere sweater that looks like it was wrestled from the mouth of a tiger and decides that for half the price he could have paid for a tiger to chew a regular sweater and wrested it back himself, “but after a certain age, who has that kind of time?” We learn of his experiment with the Stadium Pal, an “external catheter” (something for men to pee into when a bathroom isn’t available— “Five glasses of iced tea followed by a long public reading? Thanks, Stadium Pal!”). His speech to graduating Princeton seniors recalls his days at the school . . . thousands of years ago; the good old days when failing students were “burned alive on a pyre that’s now the Transgender Studies Building” and you could major in alchemy. In the genre of Humor Essayists With Quirky Takes On Life, there is David Sedaris . . . and then there is everybody else. Even if you aren’t gay or don’t live in France occasionally traveling to the U.S. to promote your books and appear on NPR, the laughter (sometimes of recognition, sometimes of the absurd) he sparks is universal.

 

 
         
 

Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life


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Ed. by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant
Rutgers University Press, $19.95
262 pages
ISBN 978-0-8135-4318-5

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

You would imagine that a university teaching position would be the perfect job for a new mother to have. After all, professors really only “work” (lecture) a few hours a week, and aren’t all colleges at the forefront of progressivism with flextime, health insurance, and maybe even lactation stations? This collection of three dozen short essays (ending in a couple of “Momifestos”) paints an entirely different picture: one in which academe has yet to fully adjust to having women present at all, let alone those with interests and responsibilities outside the ivory tower.  

The requirements of achieving tenure (the sacred academic state wherein your job is more or less absolutely secure) within five years of starting a faculty position seems to be the biggest difficulty since it is nearly impossible to do research and write while also caring for a small child—even if you have an involved partner. The contributors write of trying to time their pregnancies in order to take advantage of summer vacation and other breaks. Guilt is a frequent theme. Does leaving academe to raise children mean you are rejecting all that your mothers and “sisters” sacrificed to get you there in the first place? On the other hand, why bother having children if they’re going to be raised by a day care center? Contributor Jamie Warner and her husband endlessly debate whether or not to have children. In what is the book’s most crucial and telling line, she writes that their indecision comes from “the same skills that got us our degrees and jobs in the first place:  fertile imaginations, a compulsive need to make lists, the ability to see problems from a variety of perspectives, and worst of all, the need to question societal norms.”

 

 
 
         
 

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes


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by Jim Holt
W.W. Norton and Company, $17.95
160 pages
ISBN:  978-0-393-06673-9

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

A skeleton walks into a bar an orders a beer and a mop. Jim Holt’s short (too short—you can read it in an hour and a half . . . two hours if you take time out to e-mail your friends a couple of its best bits) history of the joke starts out in ancient Greece and hurtles forward to the present day by way of Queen Elizabeth I, Sigmund Freud, and U.C. Berkeley. “Don’t cry,” said a man on a ship in a storm to his slaves.  “I have freed you all in my will.” The first joke book may have been ordered assembled by Philip II of Macedon (382 – 336 B.C., father of Alexander the Great), but, alas, it was lost. Much of what has survived from antiquity are sex jokes since that’s something we’re all interested in and to which we can all relate. Italian collections were translated into English, but the best bits were cut out by bowdlerizers, thus launching the careers of modern-day joke hunters who scour ancient libraries for missing punch lines as well as the earliest known form of something you heard in the schoolyard in sixth grade. Freud believed that jokes, like the unconscious, were a path to our true, inner selves. How did Mr. and Mrs X become so wealthy? Either he laid by a bit of his earnings or she has lain back a bit and earned some extra. Holt demonstrates that, like magic, we love to be tricked by verbal wordplay.

 
 
         
 

The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey


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by Edith Hall
Johns Hopkins University Press, $35.00
296 pages
ISBN:  978-0-8018-8869-4

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Homer’s Odyssey gave us the archetype for nearly all of fiction:  someone must go somewhere and do something. Approximately 3,000 years old, this epic poem of Ulysses’ (a.k.a. Odysseus’) return home after the Trojan War and his numerous adventures along the way set the stage for everything from Shakespeare to O Brother, Where Art Thou? British scholar Hall takes 15 aspects of the Odyssey and traces their permutations from ancient times to today. The result is engrossing and enlightening. 

The ancient Greek stage versions of the story emphasized the tale’s comedic aspects and ended up establishing the template for nearly all humor to follow, while a Word War Two radio drama paralleled Nazi-occupied Greece with Penelope’s palace “occupied” by suitors. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man journeys through America searching for identity, and feminists around the world explore gender politics via the long-waiting Penelope. Salman Rushdie views post-9/11 America as the wounded Cyclops, blindly throwing rocks in the general direction anyone who might try to hurt it again. Hall’s in-depth study of 2001: A Space Odyssey begins by noting that Ulysses was an archer and the film’s hero is Dave Bowman; likewise the Cyclops that Ulysses defeated has become the one-eyed (-cameraed) mad computer HAL 9000. But, more importantly, through our first steps into space, all humanity becomes Ulysses on a quest that will surely bring the unexpected—and we will take the Odyssey with us.

 

 
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

Sagramanda


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by Alan Dean Foster
Pyr, $25.00 US
ISBN-13: 978-1-591024-88-0

reviewed by Terry Persun

 

 

This novel of near-future India offers the reader an exotic location for some very shady business deals. Taneer has stolen some important information from the company he worked for. Not only has the company hired someone to find him, but also Taneer’s looking for a buyer for the information he stole. To make matters worse, Taneer’s father is looking for him, too. It appears that Taneer has started a relationship with an ‘untouchable’ and this puts a strain on the family pride.  

While this is going on, there is also a serial killer on the loose, and Chief Inspector Keshu Singh is tracking her down. Finally, a rogue tiger has been killing people along the perimeter fence that surrounds Sagramanda.  

The story switches point of view from one character to another so that the reader gets a greater sense of the danger that befalls each of them. Near the end of the novel, all the characters mentioned, as well as a few more, come together in what appears to be only an exchange of information – but it is much more than that.  

A surprise ending lets the reader know why the information Taneer stole was so important and how he escapes all the problems he has gotten himself into. This novel is a fast read, and an enjoyable read.  Alan Dean Foster has created a believable and fun world to explore.

 

         
 

Missy


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by Chris Hannan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux  $24.00
295 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-374-19983-8

reviewed by Judy Bryant

 

 

Dol McQueen, the heroine of Missy, is as flawed and irrepressible a young woman as you will find in the Wild West of the 1860’s. A flash-girl, or prostitute, she finds herself in possession of a fortune’s worth of stolen missy – liquid opium. “Gonged” on a combination of alcohol and missy herself a good deal of the time, she sets about trying to find a place to sell it before it is stolen from her or she is killed for it. Traveling with her east from California to “the States” is her friend and fellow flash-girl, Ness, who is determined to use her share of the fortune to leave the flash life. Riding along is Dol’s wayward mother whom Dol hopes to save from her downward spiral of a life. The difficulties that pursue them – including a band of feral children, an assortment of hostile Indians who steal their mules, and some renegade soldiers - only add to the heat and desperation that accompanies them. But Dol is a feisty, crafty young woman, full of humor and determination. Chris Hannan gives her the flat deadpan delivery of a stand-up comic: “You won’t find better company than Adolfo Nieri if you want to be alone.” And a perseverance that is amazing: “There’s no quit in me or I would have given up when I was ten.” He captures beautifully the wild lawlessness of the time and the area, showing both the buoyant optimism and the terrifying freedom. The image of a band of feral children crossing the desert, each playing a different instrument to let Dol and her cohorts know they were coming for them, is not soon forgotten. This is a wild tale of loss and hope, of courage and craziness. It’s a picture of the West that you won’t soon forget.

 

 
         
 

Close


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by Martina Cole
Grand Central Publishing  $24.99
500 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-446-17996-6

reviewed by Judy Bryant

 

 

If you need another Sopranos fix, Close is a possible drug of choice. Set in the tough and dreary streets of London in the 1960s, the first half of the book follows the rise of Patrick Brodie. A charismatic ganglord of Irish descent, Patrick oversees the trafficking of drugs, prostitution, alcohol and book making with a menace and violence that keeps his enemies and pretenders to the throne at bay. Married to his beloved Lil, he fathers five children before he is murdered in an horrific slaying on his son Patrick Jr.’s tenth birthday. What follows is Lil’s half of the story as she must do whatever is necessary to keep the family “close.” This is not a book for the faint of heart. Blood, violence, torture, death and outright evil are constant companions in the lives of the Brodie family. There are often moments when you wish for less in-your-face violence and more character driven scenes. The attempts to explain what drives these people too often lack the subtlety, conflict, and humor that, even while making your skin crawl, endeared us to The Sopranos. In Close the family and story hurtle along in a scary if predictable manner, but you do stay for the ride. If you can stand the brutality, it’s a mesmerizing and frightening depiction of the underworld life. And let’s face it; it’s going to make a hell of a good TV series.

 

 
         
 

Devil May Care


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by Sebastian Faulks
Doubleday Publishing, $24.95
304 pages
ISBN: 9780385524285

reviewed by Brian Mercer

 

 

Double-O Seven is back and in the hands of new James Bond author Sebastian Faulks Unlike previous Bond authors John Gardner and Raymond Benson, who chose to propel Bond into modern times, Faulks picks up Ian Fleming’s legendary protagonist where the original author left him, in the mid-1960s and in the midst of the Cold War.  Set in France, Persia, and Afghanistan, Devil May Care centers on Julius Gorner, a psychopathic heroin producer bent on destroying Great Britain.  Fortunately, Bond is there to intervene alongside his dazzling, Russian-born accomplice, Scarlett Papava, who together must stop a plot that could result in a devastating nuclear conflict between the UK and the Soviet Union.  

Faulks isn’t just picking up the James Bond mantle here but writing as Ian Fleming, mimicking Fleming’s style and storyline.  With respect to style, Faulks makes a credible effort to adapt Fleming’s voice and, indeed, is probably a better writer (though I realize it is sacrilege to say). In Devil May Care, Faulks dispenses with the exhaustive inventory of every drink and morsel that Bond puts into his mouth, details for which Fleming was notorious, and sticks with pithy prose that is more likely to appeal to the sensibilities of modern readers.  His storyline is a mixture of Fleming’s literary creations combined with the over-the-top antics that we’ve come to expect from the Albert Broccoli films, with a bit of Dickensian coincidence thrown in for good measure.  

For the most part, I enjoyed following Double-O Seven on another adventure, although Fleming’s Bond, with his ability to spot a room’s tactical advantage at a mere glance, who could sum up an adversary’s weakness simply by observing his gate or idiosyncrasy of dress, is not Faulks’ Bond, who unconditionally accepts several completely improbable coincidences that would have had Fleming’s Bond instantly on alert.  Nevertheless, whether you’re a fan of the books or the movies, there is something for everyone here; just don’t expect Bond to be as mentally sharp as he was in his youth.

 
         
 

Superpowers


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by David J. Schwartz
Three Rivers Press, $14.95
377 pages
ISBN:  978-0-307-39440-8

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

When five college kids each receive a superpower, they do exactly what anyone would do:  don spandex and start saving people. After all, that’s what superheroes are supposed to do, right? Now endowed variously with invisibility, telepathy, flight, speed, and strength/indestructibility, these University of Wisconsin students do a little research (Alan Moore’s Watchmen and the latest issues of Daredevil), plot a little strategy, and get to it—even though, as they note, Madison is sorely lacking in supervillains. But there are still robberies to foil, sinking ships to save, and suicides (thanks to the telepathic Charlie) to prevent, all the while balancing classes, work, and family. Caroline flies to and from her job as a waitress. Super-fast Jack finds his running burns up so many calories that he’s always hungry. Invisible Harriet thinks she got the least-interesting ability. The book’s emphasis on the everyday makes this more Spiderman than Fantastic Four, especially with these amateurs learning the hard way that sometimes stepping into a crime can only make some matters worse. What some call “clichés,” I call “the demands of the genre.” So, of course, our heroes will stir up the ire of the police and the curiosity of a college newspaper reporter. This is not an angst-riddled, post-modern take on a band of dark knights; it’s a comic book in novel format. It’s fun. Just like it’s always been fun to wonder what you would do if you had these powers.

 
         
 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society


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by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Dial Press, $22.00
275 pages
978-0-385-34099-1

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

Set in 1946 England, this epistolary novel tells the story of young writer Juliet Ashton, who strikes up an unlikely correspondence with Dawsey Adams, a dockworker living on the island of Guernsey. The two share an appreciation for the nineteenth century essayist Charles Lamb. Letters between two people talking about books can be charming in very small doses, and, in any case, 84, Charing Cross Road has already been written. Fortunately, the authors soon open up the world of Guernsey to its other inhabitants and history. The island was invaded by the Germans during World War II. When it failed as a staging area for the British mainland invasion, both the British and their German occupiers suffered. Through Dawsey, Juliet learns of the titular Society, which was part reading group, part mini-resistance. Letters between the Society’s members and Juliet paint the full gamut of war-time experiences. Not everyone maintained the fabled stiff upper lip, and various small mysteries and complications slowly reveal themselves. Meanwhile, Juliet has boyfriend trouble, tours to promote her latest book, and battles the nascent tabloid press. Despite the seriousness of some of the events, the book remains amusing and sweet; “cozy” without ever becoming cutesy.

 

 
         
Young Adult

 

 
 

The Inferior


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by Peadar O'Guilin
David Fickling Books, $16.99
448 pages
ISBN: 
978-0385751452

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

Stopmouth lives in a strange, brutal world where he and his tribe—a small band of about 3000 humans—hunt other groups of intelligent (and terrifying) creatures for food.  They also regularly trade their old, weak, and injured villagers to these other species so that neither group is forced to eat its own.  Stopmouth, considered a weaker member of his tribe (and named after his own stutter), faces a grim future.  Then suddenly one day a beautiful woman falls into his life, apparently straight from the sky, and Stopmouth’s fortunes are changed forever. 

Clues abound that there is more to Stopmouth’s world than meets the eye.  The tribe lives in a decaying city, and no one knows who built the city, or why.  No member of the tribe has ever traveled very far beyond its walls.  Some readers may be disappointed to discover that this title is the first in a planned series, so the ending is not as satisfying as it might be.  Still, The Inferior’s blend of fantasy, science fiction, action-adventure, and horror could make this series popular among teen boys. 

 

 
         
 

Travels of Thelonious: The Fog Mound, Book 1


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by Susan Schade and Jon Buller
Aladdin Paperbacks, $7.99
214 pages
ISBN 978-0-689-87685-1

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

Although the target audience for Travels of Thelonious is eight- to twelve-year-olds, this clever and amusing blend of prose and graphic novel is enjoyable for any age. Sometime in the future when humans exist only in stories, the talking animals of the Untamed Forest debate whether humans ever really existed. Thelonious Chipmunk (how many kids will get that sly reference?) is one animal who believes they did, and when a terrible storm washes him away from the Untamed Forest to the City of Ruins, he begins an adventure that will answer the question once and for all. As the story unfolds, it shifts between regular text with illustrations to the familiar panels and word balloons of a comic book. The illustrations have a classic style, with hatching and crosshatching, done in simple black and white with the addition of a single shade of blue; it’s interesting how the careful use of that single color adds so much depth and atmosphere. Details of the world Thelonious lives in surface throughout the story, as the feisty chipmunk and his new friends try to solve the mystery of what happened to humans. Although some interesting tidbits are learned, many more questions arise, pointing the way to the next volume. I would particularly recommend this for kids of the target age that are not reading as much or as well as they should; the illustrations should make the book accessible, but the regular text will still make them do some work. Enjoy.

 

 
         
 

Almost Alice


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by Phyllis Reynolds Taylor
Atheneum Books, $16.99
272 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-689-87096-5

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

This is the 23rd volume in much-loved series of books chronicling the life of Alice McKinley, a girl growing up in suburban Maryland. Each novel covers a couple of months, and now she’s at the end of her junior year in high school. While each book is self-contained, these later volumes have much more emotional resonance if the reader has been with the characters for a while. The ordinariness of the situations in which she finds herself means that young readers can more easily relate to her than, say, the urban haute bourgeoisie of Gossip Girl. While far from perfect—the outrageously embarrassing situations in which Alice and her friends find themselves are an integral part of the series—Alice is at heart a decent kid. If she serves as a role model, it’s for her bravery, loyalty to her friends, and willingness to learn from her mistakes. This volume intertwines the Sadie Hawkins Day dance, the spring musical production of Guys and Dolls, Gay and Lesbian Day of Silence, battles on the school newspaper, and the return to Alice’s life of her ex-boyfriend Patrick. He’s also not entirely perfect. He’s on-again/off-again, and he’s as vague about his feelings as any teenaged boy. But he models the importance of having a plan for the direction of your life. Surprises will come along (including a big one to Alice’s friend Pamela near the book’s end), but it’s important to choose your future before it chooses you.

 

 

 

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