Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Self-Made Man

I listened to the audio version read by the author, Norah Vincent. Vincent went undercover as a man, to experience what she felt would be a life of privilege and ease. She found it wasn’t so easy as she had pictured, though. Vincent’s experiences as “Ned” tend toward the extreme: bowling leagues, high-pressure sales jobs and “men’s movement” retreats. It’s perhaps not surprising that little is said of ordinary, well-adjusted men. When Ned goes looking for extremes, he’s bound to find them. Still, Vincent’s observations of men’s interactions and the cultural expectations of them are often interesting, insightful, and vibrant.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Suite Francaise

You may have heard about this one. Irene Nemirovsky planned to write a five-part novel set in occupied France during WWII. She wrote the 1st two parts but was then arrested and taken to Auschwitz where she died a short time later. Her daughters, who survived the Nazis, carried her papers with them for years before realizing what they actually contained. Suite Francaise is the first two parts of the novel; what a pity the work went unfinished. Nevertheless, SF is wonderful. Her descriptions are beautiful and vivid. The first novella, if you will, follows several families and individuals as they flee the Nazi invasion of Paris. In the second, the French farmers try to carry on with life in the French countryside during the occupation by the German invaders. In both stories, the focus is on individuals and how they handle life as prisoners in their own country. In both stories you gain insight into the human realities of living through a war.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

Author Mary Roach takes a quick stroll through the work of a variety of researchers trying to discover the undiscovered country. She interviews experts on reincarnation, near-death experiences, spirit mediums and others. Much of the research she examines is surprisingly un-flaky, though it does tend to reveal much more about the living than it does about the dead.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Looking for Alaska

This young adult novel by John Green (not to be confused with the 2001 nonfiction title about the state by Peter Jenkins--also a good read, I might add) won this year's Prinz Award for best YA literature. A teen boy, Miles, attends a boarding school in the South and is taken under the wing of Chip, his roommate, and Alaska Young, a wild young girl who lives life with a recklessness that fascinates Miles. Reading this as an adult, I found some of the situations similar to many coming of age in a private school novels and, thus, somewhat predictable. Teens will, however, be taken in by, for instance, the constant rivalry, complete with pranks, between the haves and the have-nots. But Green has some surprises even for adults making it worthwhile reading for both adults and mature teens.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Devil in the White City

Here’s a strange one. This book, by Erik Larson, follows two concomitant story arcs. On the one hand, a group of America’s leading architects comes together to create the 1893 World’s Fair. On the other is the career of H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer. Both stories unfold in Chicago at the same time, and the juxtaposition is jarring. That World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition, was a remarkable feat of design and engineering even by today’s standards: a pristine and elegant white city on the shore of Lake Michigan. It was described as a city of dreams and fantasy. How odd that just a few blocks away, Holmes, likely lured by the promise of so many vulnerable out-of-town visitors to the fair, constructed his “castle,” a structure of sheer malevolence, with twisting, dead-end passages, a gas chamber, a dissection room, and a crematorium. As it happens, both stories are fascinating, and together offer a valuable insight into a period in which America was feeling intense growing pains.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger

This is another nonfiction work by the author of The Perfect Storm. The story is about the murder of Bessie Goldberg, a woman who lived in Belmont, a suburb of Boston. Junger was a baby at the time and his parents had an art studio constructed at the back of their house so his mother could work and give lessons and take care of him. One of the workmen who was there alone for a number of days was Albert DeSalvo, who turned out to be the Boston Strangler. The Jungers lived a short distance from the Goldbergs in Belmont. The day Bessie was killed, DeSalvo was working at the Jungers and no one was home to verify his presence for the time of the murder. Roy Smith, hired to help clean the Goldberg's home, was blamed for the murder. Junger investigates the details of the murder, the two men and the times they lived in. This book is excellent! I listened to the audio and the narration by Kevin Conway was brilliant. If you listen to it, which I highly recommend, check out the cover art on the book - I'm into cover art lately and this is perfect!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


I was eager to read Philip Roth's new novella, Everyman, having thoroughly enjoyed his 2004 Plot Against America. Silly me. There is no comparison. The new book is 182 small pages of one man evaluating his rather full life (and his deteriorating body, in roughly equal portions) and finding both pathetic.

Everyman is named after the medieval morality play, and both works remind us that "you can't take it with you." In the classic's case, beauty, wealth, wisdom, even family remain behind, and only one's acts of love endure when we leave for the big banquet in the sky. In Roth's writing, his hero loses it all, too, but he never got his invitation to the final party. Life boils down to clogged arteries and frustrated longings. "Death is death and nothing more." If this is the Everyman for our times, heaven help us!

Sea Dragons: Predators of the Ancient Oceans

Paleontologist Richard Ellis has compiled a fascinating study of the various creatures that plumbed prehistory’s depths. There were the long-necked pliosaurs (like all those drawings of Nessie), the dolphin-like, but gargantuan, icthyosaurs, and the enormous crocodile-like mososaurs. Any of the critters he examines through fossil records would make the dreaded great white shark look like a kitten by comparison. Along the way, he touches on the running debate over whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded, and what caused their mass-extinctions and why whatever that event was spared so many other life forms. This book is a little dense for casual reading, but those interested in the scientific study of dinosaurs won’t be disappointed.