Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Imagine the most boring John Hughes film never made…

Why We Broke Up
by Daniel Handler
Art by Maira Kalman
Release date: 12/27/2011

“Dear Ed,

In a sec you’ll hear a thunk.”

So begins Daniel Handler’s (AKA Lemony Snicket) latest YA offering, Why We Broke Up. The aforementioned “thunk” is the sound of a heavy box flung by Min Green hitting the porch of her ex-boyfriend, Ed Slaterton. The 350-page novel is comprised of the long, long, long letter that she includes as she returns to him the minutia of their relationship. This relationship is recounted from start to finish in the letter/novel through Min’s apparently photographic recall. Scattered throughout the text are Maira Kalman’s charming illustrations of the contents of the box, which range from bottle tops to ticket stubs to clothing.

With all the drawings and white space throughout the book, it isn’t really a full 350 pages, and yet it felt longer. It was written as an angsty, teen, stream of conscious rant, and it was chock-full of pointless filler, such as detailed descriptions of dozens of fictional films, made by fictional people, starring fictional stars. You see, Min’s the substantive one in the relationship. She’s “different.” Ed’s a popular jock, co-captain of the basketball team. They’re from different worlds, with different friends! And yet they struggle to make it work.

I’ve never been an adult that had the slightest problem reading and appreciating YA or children’s fiction, but this was just an overly drawn-out, boring, and humorless waste of time. Ultimately, I found it unsatisfying on every level. And that, Daniel, is why WE broke up.

Note to parents: This novel includes frequent obscenities, underage drinking, references to drug use, lack of respect for parents and authority figures, and teen sex.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Too much... something

Too Much Stuff
by Don Bruns

I had been looking forward to reading Too Much Stuff, my introduction to Don Bruns' work. I love both comic novels and treasure hunts, so I thought this would be a sure-fire winner. Ever the optimist, in this case I was mistaken.

Too Much Stuff is, I believe, the fifth sixth novel in Bruns' Stuff series. While it's true that I have not entered this series with the characters' full back stories and histories, I have a very difficult time imagining it would have made a difference in my enjoyment of the novel. The protagonists at the center of the series are 20-somethings Skip Moore and James Lessor. They're high school grads that have been bumbling their way through a series of menial jobs. Now they've decided they're going to be private detectives. They got the licenses and placed the yellow pages ad. This leads to their improbable first job, helping track down a fortune in lost gold in the Florida Keys.

The blurb from Mystery Scene Magazine promised me "witty dialogue and likeable, wacky characters." Well, I suppose that first person narrator Skip was ok, but violent, cop-hating, married woman-chasing James left me rather cold. As for the dialogue, it was about as far from witty as I can imagine. Sophomoric is more like it. In fact, that's really the best description for these two characters. They are so unbelievably unsophisticated (emphasis on the unbelievable) that the prospect of valet parking throws them completely for a loop. I get it that these are working class characters, but, what? They've never seen a movie? I simply don't find stupidity, ignorance, and a lack of sophistication to be a recipe for hilarity. What it is is tiresome.

And perhaps I could have gotten past the cast of not very interesting or likable characters, and the decidedly unfunny comedy, if only there had been a great mystery plot. But the simple truth is, I was bored. The pages plodded, the dénouement was telegraphed, and surprises were rare. It was a short novel, but it was work to get through it.

The publisher recently offered the first novel in this series as a Kindle freebie and I downloaded it, but somehow I doubt I'll be revisiting this series. I'm glad others have enjoyed the novels, and goodness knows that humor is subjective. This stuff, it seems, is not for me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The romantic writer, the unruly muse, and the reality of the wife

Mr. Fox
by Helen Oyeyemi

Generally speaking, most fiction worth pursuing is on my radar, but somehow both Helen Oyeyemi and her latest novel, Mr. Fox, passed me by completely until they showed up on’s Best Audiobooks of the Year list.  (And rightly so, reader Carol Boyd gives a standout performance.)

Mr. Fox is different.  It is the story of the love triangle between a writer and his unruly muse (Always an excellent starting point!) and his flesh and blood wife.  But don’t for a minute think things are as straightforward as all that.  The love triangle and the muse’s struggle for independence are merely the base of a novel comprised of constantly shifting stories, each of which feature an iteration of writer St. John Fox and his imagined perfect woman Mary Foxe.  In one, he’s a psychologist and she a model.  In another, they are children in an African village.  In one he’s an actual fox and she an old woman.  The imagery of all things foxy is pervasive, from foxes both human and animal to foxglove flowers and foxholes.

Here is an illustrative exchange between writer and muse:
’Mary, I think I know what we’re trying to do with this game of ours.’
‘Tell me.’
‘We’ve been trying to fall in love.’ 
She raised her eyebrows.  ‘With each other?’ she asked coolly.
‘Would you let me finish?’
‘With pleasure.’
‘We’ve been trying to fall in love, yes with each other, but we’ve been trying to take some of the danger out of it so no one ends up maimed or dead.  We’re trying for something normal and nice.’
Mary folded her arms.  ‘That is not what we’re trying to do.’
‘Oh, what then?’
‘Your wife loves you.  Turn to her properly.  Stop fobbing her off and being a counterfeit companion.  It would be good, if after all this, just once you wrote something where people come together instead of falling apart.  Just show me you can do it and I’ll leave you alone.’
‘But I don’t want you to leave me alone.’
As you can see, the dialogue is witty as hell, and aside from the brilliant dialogue, the book is a joy to read from start to finish.  Oyeyemi’s prose is lovely.

As much as I read, there is an element of free association when I consider books.  This novel has an unusual structure, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.  I found myself thinking of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.  The two novels are completely different, but each features a base story fleshed out by many changing tales that, just as you get into them, end suddenly.  Actually, Oyeyemi’s version isn’t quite that cruel.  There is a completeness or arc to each of the stories contained within Mr. Fox, but still be prepared for a novel comprised of different stories connected only by themes, and what the tales themselves reflect upon the internal lives of the three individuals at the center of the novel.  What an amazing way to illuminate her characters!

What Oyeyemi has done is impressively complex and sophisticated without being in any way onerous for the reader.  In fact, there is a lightness of tone, and a slight air of whimsy to the proceedings despite frequently heavy subject matter.  Mr. Fox is full of fable, fairytale, and elements of magical realism.  There is a delightfully comic and romantic core to this tale, and yet, in addition to romance, these stories feature recurring themes of violence against women, death, and the pain of love.

Oyeyemi is a delightful discovery!  With three prior novels and surely a long career ahead of her, I look forward avidly to exploring her work further.

Monday, December 12, 2011

John Grisham isn't taking things too seriously

The Litigators
by John Grisham

There may be no literary cachet to this admission, but I've always enjoyed John Grisham novels. They're fun, they're entertaining, and Grisham rarely lets me down. A lot of his novels come packaged with a message, but his latest, The Litigators is really just a romp. It opens with successful bond lawyer David Zinc "snapping" on the way to his 80-hour-a-week job. Instead of the office, he spends the day in a bar getting absolutely blotto and reevaluating his life. Clearly changes have to be made. Still enormously inebriated, David staggers into the offices of Finley & Figg. If you were being charitable, you might call them "ambulance chasers." Senior partner Oscar Finley and junior partner Wally Figg are a couple of hustlers scraping by in their street practice. They aren't too picky about their cases, and don't loose any sleep over legal ethics. What other law firm would actually hire a drunken lunatic with no relevant experience?

Finley and Figg would because Wally insists that their ship is finally going to come in in the form of a huge mass torte case against a drug manufacturer. This case may indeed be their ticket to the big time, but all meal tickets come with unexpected complications. I've made the premise of this novel sound light, and it is, but things do get heavier as the story goes along. It's a good yarn, but the real strength of this novel is the characters. It's hard not to root for David to find his way as he swims with the sharks in treacherous legal waters. Wally is a larger than life and deeply flawed character, but it's hard not to root for him, too--for the entire firm of underdogs. Even a bar patron with a walk-on role held me captivated. The story moves quickly and the end is satisfying.

I was looking for a light vacation read and The Litigators was exactly what the doctor ordered. I shall look forward to seeing the film (that is surely in the works) some day.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"I hate therefore I am"

The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco

The quote above tells you almost everything you need to know about the protagonist of Umberto Eco's latest novel. Set in 19th century Europe, Captain Simonini is an equal opportunity misanthrope, and early in the novel there's a lengthy diatribe against not only the Jews (always very much at the center of Simonini's hatred), but also the Germans, French, Italians, priests, Jesuits, Masons, women, and several other groups in asides. Simonini expounds, "They say that a soul is simply what a person does. But if I hate someone, and I cultivate this grudge, then, by God, that means there is something inside! What does the philosopher say? Odi ergo sum. I hate therefore I am."

I think it took me about three attempts to make it past these over-the-top opening salvos of hatred, and a smarter reader would have quit, but Eco has defeated me in the past, and I was determined to read this entire book. Why? Why? The Prague Cemetery is a dense, complex, convoluted tour through 19th century European history. (I strongly recommend that you acquire a Ph.D. in the subject before you sit down to read.) Simonini, it seems, is--Forrest Gump-like--at the center of almost all major events, and pretty much behind every conspiracy of the era.

As you may have gathered above, he is not a good guy. At one point he justifies: "Yes, I admit it. In my conduct toward my would-be Carbonari comrades, and to Rebaudengo, I did not act in accordance with the morals you are supposed to preach. But let us be frank: Rebaudengo was a rogue, and when I think of all I have done since then, I seem to have practiced all of my roguery on rogues." Yeah, right.

The novel is an autobiography of sorts, as there is some confusion as to Simonini's identity. He seems to be possibly inhabiting the same apartment? body? mind? as a clergyman named Abbé Dalla Piccola. Simonini's memory is full of holes, which Dalla Piccola seems to be able to fill, as he inserts his own recollections into Simonini's written document. Does this sound confusing? You have no idea. "Abbé Dalla Piccola seems to reawaken only when Simonini needs a voice of conscious to accuse him of becoming distracted and to bring him back to reality, otherwise he appears somewhat forgetful. To be frank, if it were not for the fact that these pages refer to events that actually took place, such alternations between amnesiac euphoria and dysphoric recall might seem like a device of the Narrator."

On the subject of "events that actually took place," pretty much all of the history (if not the stories behind the events) took place, and in fact, according to Eco, Simonini is the only fictional character in the entire novel. So, those European history Ph.D.s are really going to have a field day. For the rest of us, not so much fun, I have to say.

If it's not yet clear, I hated this book. I violently HATED this book! Reading it gave me PTSD. I know, you're wondering why the three stars? Well, as much as I hated it, I can't actually tell you it's bad. Eco is a brilliant, talented writer. I simply can't imagine why he chose to use his talent to tell this particular story. Here are some of the issues I had with the novel:
  • The required knowledge of history was oppressive. Without that knowledge, the novel was almost impossible to follow and/or appreciate.
  • The cast of thousands, all with multi-syllabic foreign names, was impossible to keep track of, especially as characters would reappear decades after their last appearance in the book.
  • Despite the sheer amount of stuff that happens within these pages, the story moves at what, for me, was an excruciatingly slow pace. I'm not actually sure how Eco managed that.
  • Not only is the central character a truly awful human being, there really is no one to like or care about much in the book.
  • While at first I was able to shrug off the anti-Semitic content of the novel, after 464 pages of the most vile garbage imaginable, it really, really got to me. As a Jew of European descent, no matter how ridiculous and over-the-top the hatred was (from all characters, not just Simonini), I know that everything Eco wrote was very reflective of the attitudes of the era. It made me ill. Make no mistake; I don't believe Mr. Eco is an anti-Semite. I just didn't need to read this hatred. It hurt me.
Umberto Eco is a great writer, but any way you chose to look at The Prague Cemetery, I don't believe to be among his strongest works, and it is certainly not one of his more accessible titles. Despite Mr. Eco's talent, I can't recommend this book to anyone. And it'll be a long time before I decide to read him again.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

It's not a masterpiece, but it's fine airplane reading

by Michael Crichton & Richard Preston

I was, and am, a huge fan of Michael Crichton's work. I never had very high expectations for this final novel, but that's no reflection on the choice of Richard Preston to complete the work. In any case, for better or worse, Micro lived up to my tempered expectations.

Like several of Crichton's earlier novels, Micro has a high concept hook. Most nanotech companies fabricate on a nano scale, but Nanigen MicroTechnologies has developed revolutionary shrinking technology. Not only can they reduce machines and robots, they can reduce living beings and then return them to full size. I won't get into all the details of the novel's set-up, but seven graduate students learn about this technology the hard way once they become a threat to Nanigen's president. Seven against one is much easier to manage when the seven (and one unlucky Nanigen employee) are half an inch tall. Before they can be dispatched quickly, however, the students escape into Hawaii's verdant "micro world."

Crichton's strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller remain consistent. His primary characters are more archetypes than individuals. Rather than Rick, Erika, Amar, and Karen, these students quickly show themselves to be the Leader, the Warrior, the Know It All, the Weasel, and so forth. Each has an assigned role to fulfill. Some barely live long enough to become typecast, because the micro world is treacherous. When you're half an inch tall, a beetle is not unlike a rhinoceros. Luckily, these students are unusually well prepared to survive their hostile surroundings--or unusually well informed about the danger they're in--depending on how you look at it. Among them there are experts in insects and arachnids, poisons and venoms, and the chemical defenses of plants and animals.

Crichton is great about translating the wonder of science. His amazing shrinking technology won't send me running to the textbooks this time around, but there's still plenty of gee whiz science to be enjoyed in Micro's pages. More than that, he effectively shows the beauty as well as the horror of the situation his characters are in. As for the horror, I have to admit that I found it especially disturbing this time out. I have no special fear of dinosaurs, but I am absolutely phobic about spiders and insects. There are scenes that I definitely could have done without reading, and if this is an issue for you as well, be forewarned.

Much like Jurassic Park, Micro has a picaresque quality, with its protagonists leaping from one threat to another. I hate to say it, but the plotting was pretty by the book. There was a police procedural subplot that never really went anywhere, and true surprises were few and far between. Despite this, I read the novel easily in a day (instead of saving it for my Thanksgiving flight like I was supposed to). Once I started, I didn't want to stop reading, and the pages flew past swiftly.

Preston appears to have done a good job finishing what Crichton left behind. There is no feeling that this is the work of another author. Still, I do find myself wondering how the novel would have differed had Crichton written it all. Alas, we'll never know. If you're a hard-core Crichton fan like me, by all means read this novel. Just don't expect this final work to be the man's masterpiece. And even if you're not a hard-core fan, if the premise sounds fun to you, you could do a lot worse for airplane reading.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

It’s time to admit that I like zombies

Zone One
by Colson Whitehead

For the past year or so, I’ve been reading and reviewing all of these zombie novels with the caveat that “I’m not a zombie fan.”  While it’s true that I’ve never seen any of the classic films, I think it’s time to admit that I AM a zombie fan.  (But please don’t chip away at my vampire denial.)  I’ve read take after take on the end of the world, and each one is compelling in its own way.  There’s something elemental in the horror of an end by zombies.  Do I believe this could ever happen?  Absolutely not.  But in the hands of a talented writer, anything is believable.  All is believable.  Perhaps I am too willing with my suspension of disbelief, but this is the stuff of nightmares.

Much has been made of this “literary” foray into the horror genre.  In addition to being a zombie fan, I am also a fan of literary fiction, and I love that serious writers are now being allowed to practice their craft on a broader range of genres and are exploring plot-driven stories in addition to character-driven fiction.  This is a win/win trend for both readers and writers.  Ironically, reading this beautifully-written exploration of the apocalypse made me reflect less on how good it was, but more on how good a lot of the zombie novels I’ve been reading have been.  (Sophie Littlefield’s Aftertime Trilogy in particular comes to mind.)  There’s just something deeply touching in these fights for survival, and I think a lot of apocalyptic writers are really plugging into something powerful and profound.

Certainly I count Colson Whitehead among their number.  Whitehead’s tale centers on a character identified only by his nickname, Mark Spitz.  Want to know why he’s called that?  Read the book.  As the novel opens, the worst has passed.  The zombie plague has come, many have died, and society is taking its first baby steps towards rebuilding.  Mark Spitz’s tale is told in a non-linear fashion, as he attempts to move forward despite suffering PASD (because the world has moved beyond “post-traumatic” to “post-apocalyptic” stress disorders).  As he observes the new world around him and performs his duty of putting down zombie stragglers in a reclaimed lower Manhattan, he reflects on what he’s witnessed, who he’s left behind, and on what he’s survived while doing his “cockroach impression.” 

Glancing over the reader reviews on Amazon before I sat down to type this, I have to admit that I’m surprised by the harsh criticism that many have brought against the novel.  Some had issues with the non-linear nature of the story-telling, some felt it didn’t move fast enough, some thought the author was “showing off” or using “absurdly big words,” some seem to simply hate New York.  There were many complaints about the protagonist, and I’ll admit that he’s not a dynamic character.  He’s a traumatized everyman chronicling a dying world.  Don’t go into this expecting an upper.  There are more critical reviews than complimentary, and many of them are thoughtful and articulate.  All I can tell you is that I disagree with these criticisms.  I read this book in two days, and despite the depressing story told, I didn’t want to put it down.  I was very invested in the fates of the primary and secondary characters.  Whitehead’s prose was a pleasure to read without being overly ornate or intrusive in any way. 

And one last thing—this is one of those rare novels where the author had me hanging on his words until the very last page.  And those final words were just so… perfect.  They gave me chills.  I read them over several times.  The end of this novel was amazing, and I simply don’t know how it could fail to impress.  But that’s opinions for you.  If you’re prepared to read a heavy, disturbing, and, yes, horrific tale, I’d highly recommend this novel.  But you might want to survey some other opinions of this polarizing book before you take my word on it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mailbox Monday: The giving thanks edition

Well, it's a few days early, but I'm ready to celebrate Thanksgiving!  It's my favorite holiday, and the only one that I never miss spending with my family.  I'm flying home to DC on the red-eye Wednesday night.  That's tough, but once I'm there, I get to stay for ten whole days!  So, I'm looking forward to seeing lots of family and friends, and eating a really great meal.  (My family can cook!)

Also, there is one thing I'm looking forward to on my red-eye flight--finally getting to read the new (and final) Michael Crichton novel, Micro.  Truthfully, my hopes aren't super high for the book, but it's still very special to me.  I never articulated it until he passed away, but Crichton was a hero to me.  I thought he was Human 2.0.  He was brilliant and talented and handsome and really, really tall!  I'd started reading his novels before I was ten years old, and they gave me decades of pleasure.  And this is the very last new one.  Sort of.  Sort of because it was finished by Richard Preston, but sort of for another reason as well...

When Michael Crichton passed away, I learned of a little-known pseudonym that I'd neither heard of nor read before.  He published eight novels under the name John Lange, and within 48 hours of his death, I'd acquired six of them.  I had one shipped all the way from England.  Hopefully, one day I'll dig up affordable copies of the other two, but for now I have a secret stash of unread early Crichtons.  I've only read one, and I'll be rationing out the remaining titles for the rest of my life.  That, my friends, is true fandom.  But for now, I'm thankful that I'll be reading his final work this week.

I am also thankful, as noted earlier today, to have joined's Top 100 Reviewers for the first time.  It was a long-term goal, and it feels good to have met it.  I'm less thankful for the miserable cold I'm currently suffering from, but if I can get through the next 48 hours, I'm golden.  I'm super thankful that my office is closing at noon on Wednesday, and that I won't have to return for 12 days!  And on that note...

I've Got Your Number
by Sophie Kinsella
Release date: February 14, 2012
Source: Paper galley from publisher

I read Confessions of a Shopaholic a few years ago and kind of hated it.  I thought the protagonist was an idiot.  But, as you've gathered, I've been desperate to lighten my reading and this fit the bill.  It was a pleasant surprise.  I started reading it as soon as I opened the package.  Review to come soon.

The Winters in Bloom
by Lisa Tucker
Release date:  September 13, 2011
Source: Finished hardback from publisher

I'm not sure why Simon and Schuster sent this book months after its release, and after I read and reviewed a galley, but, okay.  Thank you.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl
Release date: August 3, 2006
Source: sale

I've been meaning to read this much-lauded novel for the past five years, and in addition to going on sale this week, I just learned that Pessl's second novel will be published this coming spring.  I now have a deadline.  Must read this book!

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger
by Stephen King
Release date: June 24, 2003
Source: Free anniversary money from

Since reviewing 11/22/63 on, a bunch of strangers have been leaving comments on my review telling me that I have to read the Dark Tower novels.  I've always been a little wary of them, but I'll try to get to this one before the year is out.

Anne of Green Gables
by L.M. Montgomery
Release date:  1908
Source: $.99 Kindle purchase

I've never read this classic, and it was suggested by helpful reader friends to assist with scrubbing the Umberto Eco from my brain.  I'm reading it now and it's delightful! 

Live and Let Die
by Ian Fleming
Release date: April 5, 1954
Source: Kindle Daily Deal ($1.99)

Just over a week ago, my friends Melissa and Mike convinced me to give James Bond films another go.  They were right; the re-make of Casino Royale with Daniel Craig was the best Bond film I've seen.  It was during this discussion that I said I really needed to read Fleming's original novels.  Now I'm one step closer.

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
by Stephen Sondheim
Release date: October 26, 2010
Source: Finished copy from publisher

Not only does the new Michael Crichton go on sale tomorrow, the new Sondheim does, too!  It's the second volume of his collected lyrics/memoir that began with this volume last year.  I was hoping the kind folks in Knopf publicity would honor my review request, and they did.  Sort of.  Someone SNAFUed and sent me last year's book instead of the new one:  Look, I Made a Hat.  Hopefully, I'll acquire a copy soon.  Look for the bold pink cover; it'll be a popular gift title this holiday season.

Books finished this week:

I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella
Too Much Stuff by Don Bruns

Currently reading:

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen

So, what have you been reading?   What books have you acquired this week?  What will you be reading during your holiday travel/time off?  Please let us know in the comments.  And happy Thanksgiving to you all!


I have a cold, and no two ways about it--I feel like death on a trisket.  I'd like to be at home in bed, but it's Monday morning and I'm at the office.  But there's one piece of news that's brightening my otherwise dreary day.  Today, for the first time ever, I am ranked at #100 among's nearly 9 million reviewers.  Beneath my name, there is a little badge that says "Top 100 Reviewer."

It's a stupid thing.  When I wrote my first review about five and a half years ago, I'm sure I didn't even realize that Amazon reviewers were ranked.  But as you start moving up in the rankings, it's hard not to notice or care at least a little.  Getting to #100 has been a goal for a while.  It was hard work.  I'll probably slip back out of the top 100 by tomorrow, but then I'll get back in.  I don't know how hard I'll try to stay in the top 100.  But for today I'm in and I feel proud.

Thanks for every "helpful" vote that helped me on my way!

Friday, November 18, 2011

33 years later, it’s still inconceivable

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown
by Julia Scheeres

On November 18, 1978, the day of the Jonestown massacre, I was nine years old.  I vaguely remember the news stories, but I’ve always wanted a more adult understanding of these inconceivable and tragic events.  I don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction, but Julia Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown seemed like exactly what I had been looking for.

The book takes its title from an eerie 1975 Jones quote, “I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me.”  And it delivers on what it promises in the title, starting with “hope.”  Scheeres describes Jones’s early life in Indiana, and the way he was drawn to the church from childhood.  By the time he was a teenager, he was preaching on street corners.  And he was preaching a fairly radical (for the times) message of inclusion, integration, and racial tolerance.  This was the philosophy on which he founded his first church in Indiana in 1954.  Reverend Jones’s attitudes about race were ahead of his time, and he quickly built up a devoted, multicultural flock.

Alas, it didn’t take long for “deception” to enter the picture.  Jones was a practitioner of faith healings.  While some may claim to have been genuinely helped by the man, his trickery in bringing about his so-called miracles is well established.  In addition to simple cons, Jones was a master manipulator.  He utilized all kind of tactics—from inducing paranoia to actually drugging people without their knowledge—all the while increasing his sway over his church-goers.  A few years after the Indiana church was established, he convinced a healthy percentage of them to pick up and relocate to rural Northern California to avoid a predicted nuclear explosion in Chicago.  The relocated People’s Temple thrived in Redwood Valley, California, before it eventually relocated yet again to San Francisco.

Scheeres reduces the epic tragedy to a human scale by introducing the reader to several individual church followers.  Dating all the way back to the Indiana church were sisters Hyacinth Thrash and Zipporah Edwards.  In Redwood Valley, grief led the entire Bogue family to the church.  In San Francisco, juvenile delinquent Stanley Clayton stayed on the straight and narrow because of the church community.  And Edith Roller, a well-educated, 61-year-old “opinionated loner” came to the church as an agent of social change.

Scheeres writes, “The world seemed to be imploding in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his message struck a nerve.  The headlines were saturated with death: Vietnam, nuclear war, murdered civil rights leaders, and student protestors.  Americans of every stripe were angry, insecure, afraid.  Gone was the Leave It to Beaver complacency.  The establishment fissured along with its enabler—mainstream religion—and people turned for solace to alternative sources of supposed wisdom, including gurus, spiritualism, astrology, and self-help.  The time was ripe for a self-appointed prophet like Jim Jones.”

Scheeres details the events that led inexorably to the Temple’s final move to Guyana and the shocking tragedy that occurred there.  She is assisted in this effort by new information in the form of thousands of pages of FBI documents that have recently been declassified.  The full perversity of what went on with Jones for years, and the crimes he perpetrated against his followers, is staggeringly difficult to believe: the sex, the drugs, the madness, and the abuse of power.  It’s a terrible, terrible story, and yet the book is a quick read—in part because the last 40-some pages of the book are made up of end-notes than can be easily skipped.

I think that Scheeres has done a reasonable job of relating the history in as impartial a manner as anyone could.  Following specific Temple members closely and watching their eventual fates unfold was an effective way to tell the story.  Where I felt let down was in trying to understand with any real depth the psychology of those involved.  I especially hungered for more information on what was going on inside Jones’s head, but that may be something we will never know. 

You couldn’t sell this story as fiction; it’s simply too unbelievable.  Looking back seems worthwhile, but in the end, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to have learned.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mailbox Monday: The thankfully short edition!

Yes, it's my favorite thing--a short Mailbox Monday post!  I've hardly acquired any books this week, and one is a leftover I forgot to list last week.  But that's okay; I don't think I'm going to run out of literature any time soon.

So, as you can see, I did get to the Peter Orner event last week, but didn't make it to Gregory Maguire over the weekend.  I had plans all set up, but I was visiting with a sick friend, and she needed me more than Mr. Maguire did.  I don't think there will be any other lit events of note before December at this point, or at least there aren't any currently on my radar.

Things are going to be a little hit or miss on my end for the next few weeks as well.  I'm leaving on a brief business trip this afternoon, and I'll be back on Wednesday night.  I'm in town for a week, and then I'm flying to the east coast to spend Thanksgiving (and the week following it) with my family and friends back home.  I've always got the best of intentions of keeping up my blogging while I travel, but my track record is abysmal.  So, if posting is kind of erratic for the next few weeks, you know what that's about.

Right now, I'm in search of a feel-good, happy book, or my head is going to explode.  I tossed aside the hateful Umberto Eco novel to read the awesome Stephen King novel in two days, but then I found myself doing anything to avoid finishing the cursed book.  I read David Benioff's excellent and horrifically disturbing and depressing City of Thieves--which was also chock-full of anti-Semitism, I might add.  Then, to lighten things up, I read a non-fiction book about the Jonestown massacre, A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres.  Finally, I just bit the bullet and plowed my way through the The Prague Cemetery.  Seriously, it was torturous--and not because it was a bad book, either.  You'll see a review soon.  The point is, I need to read something light and cheery.  I am open to suggestions!

by Hillary Jordan
Release date: March 4, 2008
Source:  Purchased at Books, Inc.

I probably won't get around to this in the immediate future, but maybe in 2012?

by Stephen King
Release date: November 8, 2011
Source: Purchased with credit

Yeah, yeah, this is old news already.  Does anyone else wonder why they didn't release this book two weeks later on 11/22/11?

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
by Alex Gilvarry
Release date: January 5, 2011
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

The tagline for this satire is:  High fashion and homeland security clash in a masterful debut.  That sounds worth checking out to me.  My friend Nicole is going to have a quandary, however.  Gilvarry is being compared to Gary Shteyngart and Junot Diaz--one of her most favorite and one of her least favorite authors.  What to do?

City of Thieves
by David Benioff
Release date: May 15, 2008
Source: Library

I remember all the buzz this novel had when it was published a few years ago, but it was my book group member Rachel who convinced me to read it.  It is as good as she said it was, but rather more disturbing than I expected. 

 Books finished this week:

11/22/63 by Stephen King
City of Thieves by David Benioff
A Thousand Lives: The Untold story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Currently reading:

I don't read anymore.

Okay, what awesome books did you acquire this week?  What have you been reading?  Please let us know in the comments!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Peter Orner gets launched San Francisco style

Earlier this week, I spoke of heading over to the Booksmith on Haight Street because novelist Peter Orner had a Wednesday night reading there.  You don't exactly have to twist my arm to get me over to the Booksmith, where everybody knows your name, and you're greeted like Norm every time you walk in the door.  (Do my references date me?)  And independent of my own interest, my BFF Jon called and said, "Have you heard about a reading by Peter Orner..."  So, it was decided.

I left work a little earlier than usual, and arrived at the bookstore about half an hour before the event.  The first person I saw upon entering the store was the charming and delightful Andrew Sean Greer.  I said "hi" to Andy, and we chatted for a moment before another gentleman approached him and I drifted off.  The staff were still setting up chairs--a lot of chairs--and then setting up setting up tables with beer and wine and food and sweets.  I hadn't realized until then that the event I was attending was the official launch party for Love and Shame and Love, and the Booksmith was really making an event of it.

Jon arrived as they were setting the final chairs, and we grabbed seats front and center in the first row.  I was enjoying chatting with Jon and the store staff and owners.  One of them, Christin, introduced me to the gentleman who had been talking to Andy Greer earlier.  His name is Evan Karp of the excellent Litseen website (along with several other media outlets in the city).  He was super friendly, and it was a pleasure to meet him.  I'm only shocked that we'd never met before. 

There's one thing I'll say about the San Francisco literary scene--they support their own.  It seemed like every writer in the city attended Peter's book launch.  The place was packed!  As always, it was fun people-watching.  I haven't read the novel yet--though that may be rectified over the weekend--but it's getting raves everywhere.  Nor had I ever met Peter Orner or heard him speak before, but both Jon and I found him delightful.  His personality comes right through on the video below, and he's kind of adorable.

After the reading and Q & A, Jon and I snarfed some food, and chatted with people we knew and people we didn't.  I found myself talking yet again to the ubiquitous Danny Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket).  When I commented that he's at the Booksmith every time I come there, he made jokes about being held hostage.  He said, "They treat me very well."  So, the Stockholm syndrome has kicked in.  Jon bought a gift book for a friend, and I finally got into the lengthy signing line.  I had a really pleasant chat with Peter when I got to the front of the line.  I apologized for sticking a Flipcam in his face as he was reading, and handed him my blogger card, explaining that I would post the video on Friday.  Peter said very kind things about the role of book bloggers in this day and age, and when he signed my copy of the book, he wrote, "With thanks for the work that you do!"  What a mensch

The first segment below is a warm introduction from novelist Tom Barbash.  As Mr. Barbash points out, Love and Shame and Love has been awarded the trifecta of starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist.  And guess what?  If you want a signed, first edition of this novel, I know a great independent bookseller where you can get one.  Other than that, I'm just delighted to share footage from a really enjoyable evening with you...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The past is obdurate

by Stephen King

Stephen King started publishing books around roughly the same time I started reading them.  It was the mid 70s, and I was a precocious young thing.  I was fearless, and man I loved what he was writing!  I haven’t read nearly all of his novels in the decades since, but enough to have a pretty good familiarity with the universe that his works share.  Now entering my more fearful middle age, I can tell you there is, oddly, something deeply comforting about submerging myself again in his rich, folksy world where heroes are heroic, all stories come full circle, and pretty much all nagging questions are eventually put to rest.

The hero of 11/22/63 is Jake Epping, and early on in this novel he is presented with something inconceivable, a sort of wormhole in time.  It leads from 2011 Maine to September 9, 1958.  You can visit the past for as long as you like—years—but when you return to the present it’s always exactly two minutes later.  Every subsequent visit is a “reset.”  You can change the past (and consequently the present), but as Jake learns, “the past is obdurate.”  It resists.

There’s more to the set-up, of course, but that’s all you really need to know.  Because with this portal to the past, Jake is set on a mission that would probably be the goal of most every person of a certain age—to stop the Kennedy assassination.  I don’t think it resonates quite so strongly with those of us who weren’t around to remember Camelot, but, sure, 11/22/63 was one of the most pivotal days in this nation’s history.  It’s a day that surely scarred the psyche of every American alive who remembers it.

For long-time readers like myself, there are some wonderful Easter eggs to be found in 11/22/63, tying back to past novels, and probably to future ones as well.  It’s amazing how King does that.  Characters I haven’t seen for decades make cameo appearances and gosh it’s great to see them.  If Mr. King has one skill above all, it’s the ability to breathe life into his characters.  No wonder they live on long after their stories end.  And it’s not just the characters that feel like old friends, it’s merely inhabiting the King-verse with its familiar town names, attitudes, and themes.  Like I said, comforting.

So, if it’s not obvious already, I loved this novel from start to finish.  Heck, I read 849 pages in less than 48 hours.  But Mr. King might have written this one just for me.  I have a thing for time travel stories.  In fact, 11/22/63 has several similarities with an old favorite I recently re-read: Replay, by Ken Grimwood.  The ideas of this novel are pretty compelling, and it’s not surprising that others have explored them.  Reading the two so close together made for an interesting counterpoint, and did disservice to neither novel. 

One more thing…  In recent years I’ve read enough Amazon reviews to see readers of more right-wing political ideologies decry Mr. King for letting his somewhat more left-wing politics and social agenda bleed into his work.  If that’s the sort of thing likely to bother you, be forewarned.  The man’s a bleeding heart (and I’ve got no problem with that).

Thirty-seven years and several dozen novels after his first, Stephen King is still finding fresh stories to tell in inventive ways.  Yes, those familiar echoes are there, but somehow Mr. King is keeping his prolific output fresh.  11/22/63 is a blast from the past.  I’m glad I got to travel there with a dear old friend.

NOTE: I am not averse to shilling.  If anyone feels inclined to give this review a "helpful" vote on, I will gratefully accept it HERE.  Thanks!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Science of Science Fiction

San Francisco's Mission District, it seems, has become addicted to "crawls."  Just a few weeks ago they hosted the huge Lit Crawl that ends the LitQuake Festival, and this past Friday night they hosted a Science Crawl.  What are they going to think of next?

My final stop on the Science Crawl was essentially the same as my final stop of the Lit Crawl, except this time I stopped a the bookstore side of Borderlands Books and Cafe.  Regular readers of this blog have heard me sing the praises of this independent specialty bookstore many times, but I won't let that stop me from doing it again.  Let me just say, if you have any interest in fantasy, science fiction, or horror, this store or their website should be destination shopping for you.  I'm not even especially fond of any of those genres, and I still consider it one of my very favorite spots in all of San Francisco.

In addition to the friendly setting and the interesting subject matter, there was another compelling draw to this particular event.  The three panelists were awesome!  I'd actually heard Scott Sigler speak very entertainingly at another Science Fest event earlier in the week.  The popular Porchlight Storytelling Series had half-a-dozen story-tellers (including a physicist, a neurologist, and a mathematician) speak on the subject of "epic fail."  Scott had told a story that wasn't science- or science fiction-related, but it was an epic fail.  (And if you're really curious about those stories, you may view them on my You Tube channel here.)

Now, I had the pleasure of hearing Mira Grant read at the Lit Crawl, where she definitely piqued my interest in her work.  So much so that I've already read and very much enjoyed Countdown, the novella that's the prequel to the series she's speaking about in the videos to follow.  It's only a matter of time before I break down and read Feed.  (And, yes, for a woman who claims not to be interested in zombies, I do read an awful lot of zombie books.)

Finally, there's Jeff Carlson, the author of one of the best opening lines of all time: "They ate Jorgensen first."  I ask you, how do you read that opening sentence and not want to read on?  Oh, you may not want to admit you want to read on, but you do.  Incidentally, that is the opening line to Plague Year, the first novel of a kinda fabulous nanotech trilogy.  As it happens, nanotech thrillers are one of my favorite things, and I went to a signing--at Borderlands Books, in fact--of Plague Year several years ago.  At that first signing, Jeff and I hit it off famously.  We discovered that we had several friends in common, and we have stayed chummy (mostly over email) ever since.  I have always been shocked that a guy who writes such sick, sick stuff is such a very, very nice guy.  Jeff and I hadn't had a chance to catch up face-to-face in literally years, so it was especially nice to see him.  (Sorry we went on and on, Mira!)

BTW, you'll be seeing more about Jeff on the blog in the near future.  I've got some books I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing shortly, and I also have an excellent story to share in a separate blog post.  It will be entitled:  How I tricked Jeff Carlson into killing me.  Look for it soon.

But enough about me and my murderous friends.  Let's get to the good stuff!  This was an awesome panel discussion!  Truly, it was the perfect way to end my Science Fest week.  I was so very happy to have a front row seat for this fascinating discussion among peers, and I'm so happy to be able to share the event with you.  These three writers are being billed as science fiction authors, but I think you could make a case that they're thriller authors and horror authors and probably many more classifications.  And if you're not interested in science fiction, thrillers, or horror, I'd recommend watching the first couple of minutes of this video just to see Frost, the coolest bookstore cat ever.  (When the video wobbles a little in the first section, it's because Frost is climbing up my shawl.)  Enjoy!