Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Breakdown by Sara Paretsky

Imagine a book club of girls, some from an exclusive private school with billionaire parents and others from a charity school with parents who might not even be in the country legally. Imagine them meeting at midnight, in a cemetery, preforming some home-grown ritual to shape shift into ravens. Now imagine that close by a man is found with a stake in his heart.

This is how Breakdown by Sara Paretsky opens, but barely scratches the surface this deliciously complex story. A story that includes a right-wing media personality spreading prejudice and innuendo, a Jewish billionaire who doesn't want to talk about how he survived World War II, a man with the intelligence of a five-year-old who has been a locked ward for thirty years, and more dead bodies than can easily be counted.

Sara Paretsky is my new favorite mystery writer.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Some Like It Hawk by Donna Andrews ****

Meg Langslow is in the middle of everything that happens in Caerphilly, VA. So when Caerphilly Days, one of those celebrations of local entertainment, crafts, and food the exist primarily to attract tourist dollars, is planned to raise money for the bankrupt town, she is everywhere, especially in the Courthouse basement when the body is found.

While it is mostly silly and fun, Some Like It Hawk by Donna Andrews is a murder mystery. The good guys are the small town folk of Caerphilly, and the bad guys are the Evil Lender who want to foreclose on the municipal buildings. The town clerk is barricaded in the court house basement and supplied through a antebellum tunnel. Tunnel access is through a trap door with a VERY squeaky hinge. Thus the free entertainment (see above) is auditioned mostly for volume ... bag pipers, 1812 Overture, cloggers, heavy-metal band, church choir, etc. Silly and Fun.

"Parsec Science Literacy Award" in honor of Star Wars' confusion of parsec (3 1/4 light-years or 19 trillion miles) with a unit of time: In this book we have: "Light-years ago, before the murder," yet another confusion with an astronomical distance with a unit of time.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore ***

The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore is a wonderful little book of essays on different stages life from conception to death.

I particularly recommend the chapter on children's libraries and literature. Evidently Stuart Little by E B White was denied even a mention for the Newberry Award because of its controversial first sentence,
When Mrs Frederick C Little's second son was born, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way.
Later editions responded to the criticism by changing the word "born" to "arrived."

I love books of rambling biographical anecdotes and historical trivia. For example, Kleenex was to remove makeup until they realized people were using it to blow their noses. Since the author is a Harvard History professor and a New Yorker Staff writer this should have been one of my favorites.

However, as the book unfolded, I became overwhelmed with its political agenda. If your favorite conspiracy theory to explain the political problems of the last 50 years (in the US) is the Nixon Southern Strategy, then this is the book for you.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Come Home by Lisa Scottoline *****

Jill Farrow's ex-husband William Skyler is dead. Her estranged stepdaughter Abby believes he was murdered and Jill's history with William certainly supports the idea that someone could have murdered him. Under different circumstances Jill might have celebrated his demise, but with Abby so upset, she decides to answer the question: What happened?

How did her dishonest, manipulative, scheming, get rich quick, forever broke ex suddenly have a big house, no mortgage, and expensive cars? Who was his mysterious business partner Neil Straub? Nothing was made easier when Abby disappears and her fiance Sam threatens to leave unless she drops the investigation.

Come Home by Lisa Scottoline is first of all a fast-paced murder mystery with enough twists and turns to keep any mystery reader happy and turning pages.

Jill Farrow has two sides. On even hours she, in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, is an astute observer of details and a fearless investigator. But during the odd hours, she is hyper-emotional and introspective, worrying each action in terms of its effects on the people around her (Sam, Abby, her daughter Megan, her other stepdaughter Victoria, her pediatric patients, office staff, ... the list seems endless) is a way reminiscent of the most dramatic soap operas. To Scottoline's credit, the latter does not over shadow the former.

An excellent mystery for all readers.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Data, A Love Story by Amy Webb *****

Imagine the good news: you're successful, analytical, and smart, and the bad news: you're single and dateless. The obvious solution: online dating, except this doesn't work.

In Data, A Love Story, Amy Webb attacks her problem like another consulting job with requirements, experiments, data collection, analysis and execution. In a story that's part memoir and part advice, Webb recounts her investigation of online dating circa 2005.

Typical of her approach is the creation of ten male profiles. These men interact with almost 100 women aka "the competition." From this she comes up with rules ... some surprisingly precise (3-5 picture, 90-100 words), but other that are more general ...
Keep language aspirational, optimistic and positive.
The beauty of this very readable, enjoyable book is the emphasis on Amy's story, her failures, successes, and mostly her ability to face each setback as a learning opportunity that should be approached with data and humor. The heavy-handed advice is kept to a minimum and relegated to the appendix at the end. Bottom line: a lovely story of a strong woman in the 21st century.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite by Matt Kaplan***

The thesis of Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite by Matt Kaplan is that all monsters in fiction relate back to real-life experiences and the science of the time. The first corollary is that when science changes, monsters change.

A nice example is dragons. The author traces fire breathing dragons that live in caves back to methane leaks and open flame lights. As our understanding changed, dragons become less dangerous and scary, and dragons assumed more friendly and/or humorous roles. The book includes similar analyses of King Kong, Griffins, Minotausr, Werewolves, Zombies, etc.

The book is packed with many examples from ancient literature and mythology to contemporary movies and fiction.This book is a broad application of the "monsters as responses to science" thesis. My only concerns is that the hard science and pop science (aka untested/illconsidered hypothesizes) are mixed indiscriminately. This made for an uneven read.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates ***

I never expected to mention Joyce Carol Oates (uber-literary Princeton professor of creative writing) and Roald Dahl (one of the best in the long line British children's authors from Lewis Carroll to J K Rowling) in the same review. However, Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates and Matilda by Roald Dahl share the common plot of a precocious girl born into a horrific environment who rises way above her circumstances, in part by self-teaching herself to read and reading voraciously.

Beyond this they diverge. As befitting a children's story, Mathilda ends before puberty with a positive "living happily ever after" resolution. While the story of Mudwoman, aka Jedina Kreack, aka Jewell Skedd, aka Mudgirl, aka Meredith Ruth Neukirchen, aka M R, goes on to middle age ... where in modern literary fashion, it abruptly stops.

Both M R and the author are academics are Princeton University, making one wonder about the autobiographical nature of this late-life novel. However, ignoring this and commentary on the War on Terror, and Women's, Religious, and Class conflicts, M R herself starts out as a heroic character rising above her misfortunes, but as the story unfolds it becomes harder and harder to separate fantasy and reality.

In one segment, M R butchers another professor and dumps the resulting plastic bags of body parts at dumpsters around town. Throughout the novel M R's life is punctuated by real and/or imagined horrors done to and by M R. In the end, along with M R, I found it difficult to differentiate reality from fantasy, and my sympathy for this increasingly crazy woman waned.

More importantly to me, the initial M R is a success (President of Princeton University) and self-determined. Her motto for travel is "Arrive early. Bring work." However, as the story unfolds she becomes (or is revealed to be) powerless in the face of male society, or her innate femaleness, or her growing insanity. By the end, I cold care less which it was.

I'm sure this is a literary masterpiece, destined to become a classic, but like many such books foisted on unreceptive high school and college students, it requires more from the reader than might be reasonably expected.