Monday, December 31, 2007


Title: Pride and Prescience: or, A Truth Universally Acknowledged
Author: Carrie Bebris

This one's all spoilers.

Set in the period after Darcy and Elizabeth's marriage, this takes the existing characters on a few weird adventures. Darcy and Elizabeth are apparently now re-imagined as crime-solvers, and they get involved trying to figure out what's wrong with Miss Bingley, who is very disturbed following her marriage to an American landowner. I liked the concept initially, but then the plot got rather quirky. There's a professor of magical studies (not in so many words, but he studies things like tools of medicine men and stuff), and Elizabeth and Darcy quarrel over the existence of supernatural powers, and then it turns out that Miss Bingley's problems are the result of wearing a cursed ring (her wedding ring) that allows the possessor of the mate (in this case, her evil husband) to control her actions, and he's been trying to use her to kill off her siblings and then herself so he can have all the Bingley money - plot contrivances that include an overturned carriage, setting fire to Netherfield, a suicide attempt, and a dazed walk through a bad part of town at night. But Elizabeth saves the day in the end, gets the ring off Miss Bingley's finger, and survives a semi-violent confrontation involving Darcy versus the bad guy. Mr. and Mrs. Hurst (facing scandal from Hurst's gaming debts) take Miss Bingley (ok, fine, Mrs. Bad Guy) to the continent and are hopefully never heard from again.

I'm debating requesting the next in the series. I like Darcy and Elizabeth, but if this is any indication of what the other 2 books in the series are like, I have low expectations.

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posted by ket at 5:32 PM


It all started with this one...

Title: Mr. Knightley's Diary
Author: Amanda Grange

12 hours before boarding a bus for a 5-hour trip, I needed a book. The library was closed (boo!), so I grudgingly went to the bookstore.

A desperate search for something worth buying took much longer than I'd hoped, and I ended up going with this one, for lack of any other options.

The book itself was rather enjoyable, though certainly not worth $14 to me. Seriously, you wonder why nobody buys books anymore? There's a reason I go to the library - it's FREE, and even paying a few fines is way cheaper than $8-14 per (paperback) book.

But I digress.

It's Emma, retold from Mr. Knightley's view - you know, the classic Jane Austen story known to modern audiences only as the inspiration for Clueless. Girl attempts to control the lives of everyone she knows, then once she's failed miserably, she realizes she loves the man who's known her forever, who promptly proposes.

While reading, my main thought was that, though I'm generally familiar with Emma, it'd be better if I remembered more of the details. That, and (spoiler!) Grange has Knightley fall in love with Emma practically at the start of the book, and even reveals it to his friends in town. I always thought of it as a very complex friendship, which he eventually realizes is love much further along in the story. It's a whole new plot when he's secretly in love with her the whole time.

And yes, it was the convention of the time, but the older man marrying innocent young girl just seemed creepy here - he's 37 to her 21 at the end of the story, and they even talk about how he, as a young man, had played with the toddler/baby Emma. Ewww. Not to mention that his younger brother is married to her older sister.

But back to a previous point: that it'd be more enjoyable if I knew the initial story better. Did I go out and buy the book Grange wrote before this one, Mr. Darcy's Diary? Hell no. But I did check the library catalog for it...

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posted by ket at 5:12 PM


Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Middle Sex

Title: Middlesex
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Bookmark: Half of a postcard from Howard Hanna bragging about how they sold a house near us and how they can help us find the right buyer for our home. We rent. Through Howard Hanna. Morons.

Calliope (also, "Callie" or "Cal") Stephanides tells the story of how she came to have a defective gene. She starts with her grandparents who were born in Greece and then forced to leave when the Turks ransacked the country. They were married on the ship over to America. What no one but Cal knows is that Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides were actually brother and sister. No one told them the reason the church forbade incestuous relationships. They did not know that babies born of such parents often had problems, defects, conditions.

Left and Desdemona stay with their cousin, Sourmelina (a woman actually attracted to women more so than to men) and her husband, Zizmo. Both couples conceive a child on the same night.

Milton and Tessie are born.

Then Milton and Tessie marry, thus keeping poor Cal's defective gene in the family.

While growing up, Callie soon realizes something isn't quite right with her body. She also finds herself attracted to females.

Then, when she is 14, she finds out she is a hermaphrodite. A male, but with nether regions that haven't, and won't, completely develop.

Her parents take her to a specialist who determines Callie's raising has led to her being a girl. Surgery is scheduled. In a meeting with Callie one day, the doctor steps out of the office and Callie reads her chart. There she learns that she is really more of a male. So the newly self-designated "Cal" runs away, hitchhiking across the country to California. There, after a few failed attempts to live on his own, he becomes part of a freak show that includes another hermaphrodite and an individual in the midst of the male and female sex transition (Ellie and her electric Eel!). They bare all for the entertainment of the paying customers.

Then the freak show is raided by the police and Cal returns home.

And, of course, Cal has never been able to have a meaningful relationship. There is always the barrier of his secret. Then he meets Julie Kikuchi. Will she be able to love Cal once he reveals his secret? Read the book to find out.


posted by Kate at 4:55 PM


Friday, December 07, 2007

Way cooler than "The Octagon"

Title: The Pentagon: A History
By Steve Vogel

I'm not sure why I read this book. But I don't mean that in a bad way. It's about the Pentagon, which I've never actually been to, though I live nearby and pass it frequently; plus I have no ties to the military. I'm pretty sure I read some sort of book recommendation in a newspaper or something, thus triggering the request from the library.

And then I started reading this large, heavy book - it's very dense, since it's non-fiction, but rather fascinating. I had no knowledge of the building's history, and suddenly I was spouting gratuitous facts in random conversations ("The Pentagon is five-sided because of the dimensions of its original site!").

As it turns out, The Pentagon was constructed in the middle of WWII. The war department was running out of space, and Gen. Somerville decided that they should build a massive, permanent building just over the Potomac in Virginia. His chosen site was, essentially, across from the Lincoln Memorial, at the point where the Memorial Bridge crosses into Arlington Cemetary, at the foot of the hill housing the Lee mansion. And the site? Bounded by a few roads and boundaries, a five-sided building was the best option for maximizing land usage (they actually tried drawing up several geometric shapes, and it was by far the best), especially since Somerville was supposed to keep the structure to 4 stories (so that all the iron that would have been used in a taller building could be used for warships instead). Massive protests ensued as to the proposed location, and it was subsequently moved to it's current spot, an area next to the former airport known as Hell's Bottom. Of course, the design phase for the building was moving at an incredible pace - something like 6 weeks total to design a 4 million square foot building. And that's why it's still a pentagon - they didn't have time to redesign it. It has concentric rings and spokes to minimize travel distances between opposite sides. The pace was so ridiculous that they designed construction in 5 phases (essentially each corner) such that people could move in and start working before the place was finished! They worked in a construction zone, known as plank-walkers because they literally walked on planks to cross the muddy ground around the building. There's anecdotes of offices being accidentally filled with cement when workers on the roof forgot to close off a ventilation duct, and it essentially had a terrible reputation.

Three months after groundbreak, the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor. Suddenly there was an immense amount of support for construction - since all the able-bodied men were off at war, the thousands of workers were, well, not the cream of the crop. But they got it done - the construction of the whole thing took something like 17 months!

Vogel has tidbits about probably hundreds of random people - snapshots of their daily lives as related to the Pentagon, including construction workers, draftsmen, and the plank-walkers. A military reporter for years, he also tracked down some of the initial architects and their descendants. Incidentally, one of the men in charge of Pentagon construction, Gen. Gage, was also in charge of the Manhattan Project - how's that for an impressive resume?

Following completion, which occupies at least half the book, Vogel covers a few major events through the years, such as the Vietnam protest held at the Pentagon in the 60's, leading to the renovation project started in the early 1990's. My favorite part about the renovation was how they discovered all sorts of things not on the blueprints; they found roofing materials between the 4th and 5th floors in much of the building, since it was originally only going to be four floors, then Somerville talked his way to 5 after they had started finishing the roof on top of four. Rather than waste time taking it up, they just put the next floor on top.

And then there was 9/11.

The plane actually struck the only section where renovation had been completed, which turned out to be a blessing. Reinforced windows and other improvements helped contain the destruction, and many employees had not yet moved back in. Much of the section was completely demolished, and rebuilt in record time. This was also the impetus for Vogel to start writing the book; as a military reporter, he covered the events following the crash, and became more curious, as a good reporter should.

The renovation of the entire building continues; though the initial construction took 17 months, renovation is scheduled to take about 17 years. Granted, it doesn't help that the hastily constructed building didn't really meet any building or safety codes prior to the start of renovation...

Vogel gave a talk about the book recently at the National Building Museum - usually I avoid book talks, since I rarely read books that are associated with them, but in this case, I had to go. It was pretty neat - he provided some insight as to his research and motivation, plus took questions from the audience, many of whom were retired military who had worked in the Pentagon.

If you're looking for something non-fluffy, I'd say read this one.

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posted by ket at 4:18 PM


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas

Title: Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library
Author: Don Borchert

Borchert writes about life working in a public library, regaling the reader with tales of horrifying items found in the book drops, evil children, druggies, gangs, patrons who will go to unbelievable lengths to get out of paying fines, and more.

Along the way he explains some of the inner workings of the library - library fines, weeding, mending, Friends of the Library, book sale donations, and the Reference Desk. For me, this got a slight bit tedious (although his take on it was quite humorous at times) but that's probably because I've been working in libraries for 11 years. About 9 of of those were spent at a public library, and while we did not have quite the assortment of patrons Borchert has experienced, we did have our share of "oddballs."

Borchert tells the tale of a woman who would get a new library card each time she remarried (4 as of the publication of his book). She would innocently claim she had never had a library card before. With the new last name and address, she was hard to trace. Her previous cards would all have huge fines due to unreturned items.

Huge fines boggle my mind. I manage to accumulate fines ($3 currently at my place of work - whoops), but hundreds of dollars? Really? How do you get so irresponsible? My favorite at the public library where I worked was a family where both parents and each child (4? 5 kids?) had a card. All but one card had $50 - $150 in fines on them. When they stopped in and tried to check out items, they'd hand the circulation worker card after card until they found one either with fines under the limit, or close enough that they could pay it down to check out items. Honestly.

Borchert does also tell some more positive tales, such as the neglected kid who finds friends in the library and a tenacious lady in her late fifties/early sixties who is forever researching various topics. One day, after looking into the cost of paying someone to do some remodeling for her, she decides she's going to do it herself, and wanders into the library to request books on the topic. When Borchert questions the wisdom of this decision - after all, she has no experience - she replies. "I can stick my head underneath the kitchen sink with a flashlight and save a few hundred bucks, or I can sit on the sofa and eat buttered popcorn and watch television. Please. Shoot me now. Have you watched television lately?" The remodeling goes smoothly.

All in all, a rather entertaining nonfiction book.

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posted by Kate at 10:21 PM


Saturday, December 01, 2007

O, Take Me Not to Dublin...

Title: Dubliners
Author: James Joyce

Life in Dublin used to suck. People were poor, grimy, and foolish. The Catholic Church made life miserable. The British government made life miserable. Life was miserable. If you were lucky, you had a brief moment of epiphany when you realized just how miserable your life really was.

It was always worse than you thought.

The end.

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posted by Elizabeth at 3:02 PM


Crime Has Never Paid a Reader So Well

Title: The Best of Rumpole
Author: John Mortimer

I take up my pen at this advanced age during a lull in business (there’s not much crime about, all the best villains seem to be off on holiday in the Costa Brava), in order to write my reconstructions of some of my recent triumphs (including a number of recent disasters) in the courts of law, hoping thereby to turn a bob or two which won’t be immediately grabbed by the taxman, or my clerk Henry, or by She Who Must Be Obeyed, and perhaps give some sort of entertainment to those who, like myself, have found in British justice a lifelong subject of harmless fun.

Honestly, my life would be so much darker without the periodic foray I make into the whimsical and wonderful world of British humor.

Rumpole is a new character for me, although I know more intelligent folk are familiar with him through PBS. A humble criminal defense lawyer toiling away in the British legal system, he appreciates a good bottle of claret, cigars, Wordsworth, and the rule “innocent until proven guilty.” While invigorated by delivering a blustering defense in court, he doesn’t actually much like the law and makes it a point to never plead guilty. And this, of course, makes me like him very much.

The Best of Rumpole is a collection of short stories selected by Rumpole’s creator, John Mortimer. The stories are amusing, witty, and short – the perfect length for a daily commute or that empty hour before bedtime that used to be filled by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (Oh boys, where have you gone?) Populated with characters ranging from the mildly ridiculous (Rumpole’s colleague Claude Erskine-Brown) to the bossy (Rumpole’s wife Hilda, a.k.a. She Who Must Be Obeyed) to the shamefully incompetent and ignorant (pretty much every judge Rumpole encounters), the stories hum with the fun of gently mocking the absurdities of the British legal system.

If you can stomach spending so much time with a lawyer – even one as rumpled, witty, and wise as Rumpole – these stories are recommended. As for me, I’ll definitely be revisiting the Old Bailey in his company.

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posted by Elizabeth at 2:53 PM


They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky

Title: They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky
Authors: Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak

I was fast: that was my gift. If I did something bad, I would run. If something bad happened to me, I would run too. That night all turmoil broke out, I ran, like my mother had told me…

The recent genocide in Darfur is not the only bloodbath that has wracked Sudan. From 1983–2005 the Second Sudanese Civil War was waged between the northern Arab-dominated government and the southern non-Arab peoples. Still ongoing in some regions, the conflict has killed more civilians than any war since WWII. Along the way, some 27,000 boys either were orphaned when their parents were murdered, or displaced when they fled the government’s attacks upon their villages. Today, they are known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky tells the stories of three of those boys, whose childhood and adolescence were spent wandering from Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenya in search of family and a home.

This was a fascinating read, particularly because the authors (now living in the United States) are near my age. Benson, Alephonsion, and Benjamin were 5 to 7 years-old when they fled the government's attack upon their farming villages in the 1980s, and their youth was spent either in refugee camps, seeking refugee camps, or fleeing refugee camps. Individually, they each walked nearly 1,000 miles. The dangers they faced were formidable. The desert menaced them with snakes, lions, hyenas, scorpions, and the ever-present threat of death from thirst. In the refugee camps, starving adults wouldn’t hesitate to steal food or a scrap of blanket from a child. Death from disease or starvation was never far away. And as the boys grew older, they faced the equally-dangerous prospect of being impressed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to fight on the front lines of the war.

Benson, Alephonsion, and Benjamin tell their stories with the straight-forward innocence of children caught up in a whirlwind of death and destruction they can’t possibly understand. Not found in these pages is either political analysis or, aside from what the boys' own experiences testify to, an extended condemnation of the easy-to-condemn Sudanese government. (These are the same people who recently wanted to flog a British school teacher for naming a teddy bear Mohammed.) Rather, TPFOUFTS is a straight-forward tale of survival, courage, and the importance of family.

Most importantly, Benson, Alephonsion, and Benjamin prove that humanity can survive even the most wretched circumstances. Throughout the horrors they endured, the boys were supported by the unbreakable bond of family. Benson and Alephonsion are brothers, and Benjamin is their cousin. Although often separated on their journeys, the boys never forgot or stopped searching for each other. They cared for and defended each other when possible, and placed the well-being of family above all other concerns. In a time when they had nothing else to rely on, family was truly the only thing they had.

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posted by Elizabeth at 1:59 PM


Special Indeed

Title: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Author: Marisha Pessl

Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.

“Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond – James Bond – you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began – with a wheeze.”

Given such rigid parameters, I always assumed I wouldn’t have my Magnificent Reason until I was at least seventy, with liver spots, rheumatism, wit as quick as a carving knife, a squat stucco house in Avignon (where I could be found eating 365 different cheeses), a lover twenty years my junior who worked in the fields (I don’t know what kind of fields – any kind that were gold and frothy) and, with any luck, a small triumph of science or philosophy to my name. And yet the decision – no, the grave necessity – to take pen to paper and write about my childhood – most critically, the year it unstitched like a snagged sweater – came much sooner than I ever imagined.

The above paragraphs open Marisha Pessl’s wonderful novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. (And it has a fantastic website, too. Follow the link!) Reading them in the bookstore, I felt the “book bug” sleeping inside me stir and flutter feebly. My “book bug” is a finicky creature. He emerges only when I’m head-over-heels in love with a story, completely infatuated. Despite my reading addiction, this happens but rarely – maybe once or twice a year. So when my “book bug” begins to uncurl, I pay attention. I eagerly swiped my credit card for Special Topics and prayed that the story didn’t disappoint. After all, so many books have great pick up lines, but wilt pathetically halfway through the night. And nothing annoys my book bug more than being stood up by a date.

But hurrah, Pessl lived up to – indeed, exceeded – expectations! Special Topics is so much more than a one night stand. Funny, dark, and unabashedly literate, it might even be my new favorite book.

Special Topics is narrated by Blue van Meer, whose nomadic life has revolved around books and her obscenely intelligent father. For years, Gareth van Meer has flitted from college to college on a string of visiting professorships, dragging his daughter with him. As a result, the extraordinarily bright Blue is a perennial outsider, with more knowledge of history than people. She’s the type of girl who thinks the number pi is sexy, musing, “I think it would be sort of electrifying if some kid heatedly whispered it into my ear. 3.14159265…”

But everything changes when Dad enrolls Blue at the prestigious St. Gallway academy. The halls of St. Gallway are ruled by the Bluebloods, an exclusive clique that has gathered in fascination around the school’s enigmatic film teacher, Hannah Schneider (see, The Prime of Jean Brodie). For reasons unbeknownst, Hannah takes a liking to the motherless Blue and forces the Bluebloods to accept her as one of their own. The Bluebloods aren’t happy about it, but comply, giving Blue new clothes, new hair, and an entirely new appreciation of the different varieties of fine liquor.

But the fun turns sour when Blue finds Hannah dead, her bloated body hanging from a tree during a camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Was it murder? Suicide? Blue sets out to discover the “who, what, when, where, why.” And along the way, she inadvertently rips her life to shreds.

The plot is a noirish whodunit-bildungsroman. The characters are vivid and appealing – particularly Blue’s Dad, who’s the most amusingly arrogant asshole academic you can ever hope to meet. But Pessl’s gorgeous writing is what truly sets Special Topics apart – her gorgeous, gorgeous, oh-my-god-it’s-better-than-chocolate writing. Her use of words is acrobatic, virtuoso, and just so damn fun. Everything whirls and glitters, and I found myself laughing on nearly every page…when I wasn’t shuddering.

Special Topics has a uniquely witty, yet academic, tone. Blue lays out her history as if it were a class syllabus, naming each chapter after a great work in the literary canon that thematically connects with the chapter’s plot. (For example, the chapter where Hannah dies is called “Deliverance, by James Dickey.”) Literary and cultural allusions abound, and Blue continuously references sources – both of the academic and popular variety – as she relives her involvement with the Bluebloods and Hannah’s death. Some of these sources are a product of Pessl’s imagination, but since they’re universally humorous and clever, this only adds to the fun.

I’ll admit that Special Topics might not be to all tastes. Some might find Pessl’s writing annoying, or the plethora of references pretentious. But I adored Special Topics precisely for its flamboyant wordiness. The book is an escapist fantasy for the literary-minded, full of sparkling intellectual chatter. It’s smart, but never dour; erudite, but not preachy. I look forward to reading it again – and again – and again.

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posted by Elizabeth at 12:35 PM