April 2003
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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  • (4/27) The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir.

    I've been reading this book in pieces -- a chapter here and there -- for about the last two months. And not because I wasn't enjoying it. More because I didn't want to carry it around and abuse it the way I normally abuse paperbacks since it was a loaner from a friend (though given how long I've kept it, she'll probably never loan me another book again, despite the fact I returned this one in pristine condition!). I'll admit it, though -- at first I was a little wary of this book. I never took British history in school, so I knew almost nothing about QEI. I was thus a bit worried this book might be over my head. Or, worse yet, that it might bore me to tears. But i was wrong on both accounts. First of all, I had absolutely no trouble following any of the history and I learned a ton -- not just things about Elizabeth herself, but about the politics in general during that time, the culture of that era, and quite a bit about what happened in England before Elizabeth showed up. And boring -- no way! Not only was Elizabeth a pretty fascinating character, but this book if full of war, romance, passion, murder, and even a bit of psychological suspense (is she nuts? did she really DO that?). Weird is a skillful writer and this book flows smoothly over the path of Elizabeth's life. A fascinating work -- it's even inspired me to look for Weir's other nonfiction book about British royalty, "The Six Wives of Henry VIII." Watch for a review of that one coming soon! Recommended!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (4/26) Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by G. Critser.

    Pretty disturbing non-fiction work looking at the "obesity epidemic" in America. Critser talks about several factors leading to the ever-expanding waistlines of today's youth and their parents, and also takes a close look at why the working poor seem to be the hardest hit. Snacking, sodas, fast food, portion sizes, mixed messages, school lunches, cheap fats, corn syrup, and cultural shifts are all to blame, not to mention a host of political forces that keep lowering the bar on fitness standards in this nation. While at times I felt like Criser's conclusions were somewhat simplistic, overall I thought this book was a very powerful compilation and examination of the latest research on our nation's weight problems. It's definitely a wake-up call for us all -- if I had it my way, it would be required reading for all parents in particular. Recommended!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (4/24) The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve.

    Interesting and intriguing novel about a photographer who arrives on Smuttynose Island, off the coast of Maine, to research a centuries-old crime. She has convinced her husband (Thomas) and his brother (Rich) to join her on the expedition, to turn it into a vacation of sorts, and Rich has brought along his girlfriend Adaline. As Jean immerses herself into the details of the old murder, which turns out to be the story of a crime of passion that took the lives of two women, she herself begins to enter dangerous emotional territory. Because it seems like something strange is happening between her husband, Thomas, and Rich's girlfriend. Her suspicious eventually erupt into jealousy, and ultimately propel Jean to the verge of actions she never would've thought herself capable of -- actions that end up having disasterous consequences.

    I saw the movie version of this film a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. The book is quite different from the film, though they share the same essentials plot-wise. For one thing, the book has an extra character -- Thomas and Jean's five year old daughter is along with them on this trip. And for another, we really get into Jean's mind a lot more. So, her actions are almost more predictable as well as more shocking, if that makes any sense at all. I really enjoyed both the book and the movie, and recommend either or both to fans of intense psychological dramas or mysteries. Very entertaining, lyrical, and thought-provoking.
    [FICTION]

  • (4/22) Population: 485. Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time by Michael Perry.

    When Perry returned to his small childhood town, New Auburn, Wisconsin, after 12 years away, he quickly joined up with the town's volunteer fire and rescue department. Six years later, he'd begun to understand that even small towns contain big risks -- both physically, something he learned from seeing accidents and injuries all the time as a rescue worker, and emotionally, something he learned when he realized how much heart and soul he had invested in New Auburn and its people. This is a collection of Perry's essays on his experiences as a volunteer EMT, but they aren't just about emergencies and victims -- they're also about his life there and the wonderful, bizarre characters that lived there with him. The stories are sometimes a bit on the lengthy, boring side, and at times the book seems dizzyingly disjointed, but for the most part, I found Perry's tales to be entertaining and amusing. Probably a good book if you are looking to just dip into something every now and then instead of making a real time investment in a sit-down-and-read-it kind of book.
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (4/18) Back Story by Robert B. Parker.

    Spenser is back! And, happily, he's the same as ever -- clever, funny, and great in the kitchen. He and Susan have been living the quiet life lately, grieving over the death of their beloved dog Pearl, when Paul Giacomin, the closest thing Spenser's ever had to a son, shows up with a friend who needs some help. Her name is Daryl Gordon and she's spent most of her life motherless, after a shooting in a Boston bank took her mother's life 28 years ago. Haunted by the loss, and by the fact no one was ever convicted of the murder, Daryl has finally gotten up the gumption to ask for help. She hands Spenser all the payment she can afford (six Krispy Kreme doughnuts) and asks him to find her mother's killer.

    Though Spenser usually charges a bit more than pastry for his services, he takes the case for Paul's sake. It turns out the bank was held up by a revolutionary group calling themselves "The Dread (sic) Scott Brigade." They've taken credit for the robbery and can only be the ones responsible for the shooting too. But after only a little digging, Spenser quickly realizes that what happened that day involves more than just a bunch of hippies who lost control and shot an innocent bystander. Because all of a sudden, a mob boss is threatening Susan's life if Spenser doesn't stop digging. And the FBI is being curiously unhelpful as well.

    Another witty, entertaining mystery from Parker, who is one of my all-time favorite authors. Getting my hands on a new Spenser novel makes my whole day. And this one is a strong addition to the series with plenty of laughs, twists, and turns. Recommended!
    [MYSTERY]

  • (4/16) The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

    I hardly know where to begin in describing this book, which I spent almost a whole week reading and almost never stopped thinking about. It's a novel about a young man, Richard Pepen, who finagles his way into an exclusive Greek program at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. He is one of only six students in the class and is the only one who hasn't come from an extremely-upper class family. His classmates fascinate him -- they are mysterious, enigmatic, and brilliant. And it is no surprise that this young man from a poor California town is thrilled when they quickly accept him. For the same reasons, it's also no wonder that he is later completely unable to see any of them for who they truly are (and, as it turns out, since Richard is the narrator of this story, neither are we). He is quickly blinded by his first impressions, coupled with his desire to share in what seems to him to be an absolutely idyllic intellectual lifestyle.

    But the group quickly latch on to Richard, too, equally intrigued with him as he is with them. And as the school year progresses, they all become tight friends, drinking and partying all the time, swapping Greek homework, intellectualizing over beers in the country. There's Francis, a lanky gay man with a quiet manner and a bitter wit. There's Henry, the group's "leader," so to speak -- the one unanimously considered to be the most brilliant of the bunch. Then there are the beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla. And finally, there's Bunny -- the oafish imp.

    At first, life with his new friends makes for the next six months of Richard's life. But then something changes -- Richard is let in on a dark secret that slowly begins to erode the facades of each of his "perfect" friends. Facades he never knew existed, even as they are breaking up, until they practically crash right down at his feet. And, as if the content of the secret isn't hard enough for them all to bear, one of the group, Bunny, is growing dangerously lax about keeping the secret to himself. If he isn't stopped soon, they may all end up in jail, Richard included. When he finally blurts the secret out to Richard, thinking Richard didn't know yet, the group decides they must take action. And a few weeks later, Henry comes up with a plan they think might actually work. They lay in waiting for Bunny alongside a cliff he likes to walk near and when he comes upon them, Henry stands up and pushes Bunny over the edge with barely a flick of his wrist.

    Richard, still blinded by his reverence for his strange new friends, struggles with what's happened, but for the most part attempts to soothe everybody else's nerves and talk himself into believing everything that happened HAD to happen. But things don't end up going quite as easily as Henry planned. The Feds start poking around the case and it ends up taking the town much longer to find Bunny's body than they had planned for. As easy as it was for them to actually push Bunny over the cliff, the group one by one start losing their calm self-assurance. They start to bicker. Charles starts drinking heavily. Camilla stops talking and ultimately moves into a hotel to be with Henry. Henry attempts to maintain control over them all and fails. Francis starts making passes at Richard. And Richard sleeps all the days away in a drugged-out stupor, unable or unwilling to confront what's happened and do anything about what's going on. As they all struggle to hold themselves together until the investigation passes, Richard's world steadily begins to crumble and by the end, the friendships he thought he'd made for a lifetime have vanished. Henry decides there's only one real way out of the situation, and his solution to the problem changes everything for all of them, forever.

    This book was just incredible. The plot was complex and well-drawn and I was totally fascinated by all the Greek and Latin stuff. And talk about suspense -- I could hardly put this book down! The writing is wonderful -- Tartt is a witty and enormously talented author, and this book reads more like literature than your typical thriller. And while there were a few things about the book that bothered me (too many allusions to "The Great Gatsby," for one, and the sudden revelation of Henry's true character was almost TOO sudden -- it wasn't led up to in such a way to make it both surprising AND believable, somehow), overall this is one of the best books I've read in awhile. It's pretty rare that I have to shut myself in a room so I can finish a book without a single interruption, but once I got to the last 100 pages of this novel, I COULD NOT STOP. Any fan of great writing and killer suspense will be thrilled by this one. I look forward to reading Tartt's latest novel, "The Little Friend," which has also gotten great reviews. HIGHLY recommended!
    [FICTION]

  • (4/8) Chopping Spree by Diana Mott Davidson.

    Another in the highly entertaining and magically delicious series of Goldy the Chef mysteries. This one has Goldy all set to provide a lavish buffet for the opening of an old friend's mall when she discovers the old friend murdered -- stabbed with one of her own kitchen knives. Whuh oh! Before she even knows what's going on, her assistant, the highly entertaining Julian, has been arrested for the crime, and Goldy is hooked on caffeine, buzzing around the investigation like a crazed caterer-bee-thing-on-stimulants. It's not the best mystery I've ever read -- not much in the way of dramatic tension this time -- but I still love Goldy and her recipes so much I hardly care about the rest of it. Highly recommended to fans of silly romps.
    [MYSTERY]

  • (4/6) Nights in Rodanthe by Nicholas Sparks.

    Okay, so, books by Nicholas Sparks are always best-sellers and two of them have been made into major motion pictures. So, for the sake of well-roundedness, I decided it was probably about time I picked one up. This one sounded pretty okay -- it's about two older people who meet while they're alone for a weekend at a B&B in Rodanthe and are caught during a hurricane. Trapped together, they begin to talk, and they immediately connect, falling in love by the end of the weekend and promising each other that in a year, they'd reunite for good (the male half of the couple has to go to Equador for the next year to work with his son).

    Only, of course, this wouldn't be a tragic love story unless somebody died, and the man is killed in Equador only weeks before he was due to return to her. The woman is both devastated and inspired by her loss. Their love has changed her and, despite her grief, she is grateful to have known him, for he had given her so much.

    And blah, blah, blah. In movie form, this might have been more touching. The way two people look at each other sometimes reveals more about their emotions than anything they could ever actually say. But in book form, this was a ridiculously trite and cliche novel that was totally unbelievable and corny. I found the fact that both these people were SO in love with each other -- believed they were meant to be together forever -- after only one weekend together to be a remarkably forced construct. A week together maybe. But two days? Not to mention the fact they were both so obviously reeling from devastating divorces at the time they met. Am I the only one who couldn't stop thinking "rebound"?

    Plus, the writing was SO heavy on the cheese. Even the descriptions of the rain on the windows just screamed "tragic romance" to me. Now, don't get me wrong. I LOVE romantic novels. I've read many of them and you've heard me rave about how totally wonderful they were. But I don't read many "romances," which is what this is. And this is why. This was just formulaic supermarket-check-out fluff. Intelligent readers would do better with some of the other romantic novels I've written about (at the moment, the only one that comes to mind is "The Monk Downstairs" -- now THAT was romantic!).
    [FLUFF]

     

  • (4/2) The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman.

    On September 23, 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman was playing Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp Minor live on Polish radio when the Germans marched into Warsaw and began to shell the crap out of it. Mere hours after he finished pounding out his music, trying to make himself heard over the bombs, the radio station itself was completely destroyed. And not long after that, Szpilman and his family and friends were rounded up and thrown into the first in a group of Jewish ghettos in Warsaw.

    At first, Szpilman was able to use his fame as a pianist to finagle thee necessary work permits he and his family needed in order to stay alive (prove to the Germans that you can work and maybe they won't think of you as being so expendable). But eventually, they were all seized and taken to a train bound for one of the concentration camps. At the last minute, a friend pulled Wladyslaw out of the line, saving his life, just as the rest of his family was pushed into a rail car. He never saw them again.

    After that day, Szpilman went into hiding. Some of his non-Jewish friends were able to help him with gifts of food or money, or tips on safe places to hide. But it didn't take long before all the non-Jews were forced out of Warsaw too. And then Szpilman was on his own, hiding in abandoned warehouses, starving, and constantly on edge, waiting for the Germans to find and kill him. More than once, he thought about suicide, but his will to live, and to one day be able to play music again, kept him going. And ultimately, it was his love of piano that saved his life.

    This was an extremely interesting and moving book. At times absolutely horrifying. At others, immensely inspirational. Szpilman wrote it immediately after the war and you can tell this not only from the vivid details, but from his obviously shell-shocked tone. And the heavy sadness that hangs over every single word. I haven't seen the movie yet, but am not almost afraid to. This story was hard enough to hear in my own mind -- I'm not sure I could handle seeing it played out in living color. An excellent book and an invaluable record of a history we must never, ever forget.
    [NON-FICTION]


    All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
    Email -- meg@megwood.com
    Web -- http://www.megwood.com


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