April 2006
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(4/29) A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard. (read me!)

This extremely short little book is said to have attained the largest circulation of any other literary venture during the lifetime of its author. It's a book my dad gave my brother when my brother was a teenager, and the other day, when they were talking about it and I asked what it was, my brother loaned his copy to me. The book actually contains what began as an essay in the author's own little self-published magazine. When people began to read it, it took on a popularity Hubbard had never anticipated, and soon he was receiving requests from all over the world for reprints. To this day, apparently, people will talk about taking "a message to Garcia," using the expression as a phrase for "getting it done without being a pain in the ass about it." It's a concept I can totally appreciate, having worked with a colleague in the past who drove me bananas by being completely incapable of carrying out ANY task without dragging it out with a bunch of ridiculously unnecessary questions about every single detail of the job. Dude, take the time to think about it yourself for a minute, work out your own details, and then just GET IT DONE. And that's what this story is about.

It's the true tale of a young soldier during the Spanish American War who was given an order by his boss to take a message to a man in Cuba named Garcia. The young soldier essentially saluted, turned around, and took off with the message, without stopping to ask any questions ("Why?" "What's in the message?" "What should I do if. . .?" "Who's this Garcia fellow anyway?" e.g.). The soldier goes to Cuba, tracks down Garcia, and hands over the message. Then he returns to his post and resumes his usual duties. Get it, got it, did it, done.

What is this story supposed to tell us? It's supposed to tell us, hey, take the time to think for yourself for a change, and spare everybody else the task of having to do all your thinking for you. Oy, if only there had been a tactful way for me to present a copy of this book to that old colleague of mine -- she could've really used the wake-up call! The message of this book is a good one and I think it's great my dad gave it to my brother when my brother was a teenager -- perfect timing. It's an idea I'll definitely keep in mind for when/if I have my own kids.

Incidentally, if you've read this book, you might be interested in the other thing my brother passed along to me, which was a printout of an essay called "How I Carried the Message to Garcia" written by Andrew Summers Rowan (the young soldier from Hubbard's book). Hubbard's book is more about the metaphor itself; this essay is about what actually happened to Rowan on his quest to track down Garcia and deliver the message. It can be found on the web at http://www.foundationsmag.com/rowan.html. Recommended!

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(4/27) Puppets by Daniel Hecht. (read me!)

This novel started out fairly well -- it's well-written and has an intriguing set of characters. But by the halfway point, my attention was starting to drift and I couldn't help but think this book was about 150 pages longer than it needed to be. It's about a hot dog cop, Mo Ford, the kind of stereotypical cop who follows gut instincts and doesn't care too much about the rules, who stumbles into the case of a lifetime. A couple of years ago, an extremely violent and cruel serial killer was captured by a crack FBI team. The killer, nicknamed Howdy Doody, after the famous TV puppet of the 50's, tortured and controlled his victims for days, hanging them up with strings attached to their limbs and forcing them to carry out specific tasks. Finally, the killer made a mistake that led to his arrest and conviction.

But now, Mo has been called in to investigate a murder he discovers is startlingly close to the Howdy Doody crimes. Is it a copycat crime? Or did the original killer have a partner who is still out there? As he investigates, Mo begins to discover this case goes a lot deeper than usual. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Vietnam War, and to a deeply buried secret about U.S. government experiments with mind control. Suspects abound, since suddenly it seems like every member of the FBI task force served in some suspicious way in Vietnam. With so many secrets and complexities, will Mo ever be able to figure out what's really going on? Or will he, or his new forensic psychologist girlfriend, be the next one of the puppet-master's horrific marionettes?

It's not a bad plotline, and though the premise seems kind of out there in terms of massive government conspiracy theories, it's probably not really that much of a stretch (that is, I wouldn't be surprised to hear the government has done extensive testing with mind control theory). But the problem with this novel is that it just has too much stuff crammed into it. There's a whole subplot involving Mo's ex-girlfriend and her dealings with voodoo that has nothing whatsoever to do with the main storyline and takes up space that simply doesn't need to be taken up. The novel is too long -- too loose. A better editing job would've made this novel much stronger and much more intriguing and suspenseful.

As it stands, the only thing that really kept me reading was Mo himself -- though he's a bit of a cop cliche, I really liked him a lot. So much so, actually, that I'm planning to read the other novel in this series, Skull Session (which came out before this one, but chronologically comes after it). If that one is as rambling as this one was, however, I may not have the patience to sit through it. We'll see. If you do decide to give this one a shot, though, here's a tip: skim through any chapter that appears to be about Carla, the ex-girlfriend. That whole storyline is completely superfluous.

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(4/19) Never Change by Elizabeth Berg. (read me!)

Every time I start reading a novel by Elizabeth Berg, I think to myself, "Why haven't I read everything this woman has written yet? She is AMAZING!" And every time I finish one, I remember why. She is, hands down, one of the most powerfully emotional writers I've ever experienced, and I always finish her books feeling somewhat drained as a result. I mean that in a really good way, though. Even when her books make me cry, it's a profoundly positive experience somehow. I absolutely adore her writing. Not just her words, but the way she treats her characters with such intense respect and love. Like she's a mother to them all. Like they can do no wrong, even when they're doing all kinds of wrong. I can't explain it, really. But I have loved everything I've ever read of hers, and recommend her to others often.

That said, I will confess that this wasn't my favorite of the ones I've read so far. It did make me cry, but my response kind of surprised me not only because I knew how it was going to end the moment I read the plot description on the book jacket, but because I was constantly aware of the fact I wasn't really bonding with one of the characters. The story is about a 51 year-old single woman, Myra Lipinski, who has never been able to get close to people, but is content with her life nevertheless. She works as a visiting nurse, going to the houses of various patients who need her, and in the evenings she spends time at home alone with her dog Frank. But one day, everything in Myra's world is turned upside down when she's assigned a new patient and he turns out to be the boy she was madly in love with in high school, Chip Reardon. Chip is now in his 50's as well, also unmarried, and he's dying from an aggressive brain cancer.

Almost immediately, Chip begins to bond with Myra. He's unhappy with the way his parents are babying him and pressuring him to get treatment when he really wants to go out on his own terms. He begins pulling away from them to spend more and more time with Myra, and soon the two fall in love. But while I ached for Myra -- I really bonded strongly with Myra -- I never felt Chip come alive in this novel (sorry for the irony of that statement). I kept thinking he must be trying to manipulate Myra for some reason; his affections didn't feel real and neither did his ultimate transformation. I can't put my finger on just why, but I simply wasn't able to connect as fully with this story and its characters as I have with other novels I've read by Berg.

Anyway, regardless of this, it is still a really good novel. If you've never read any Berg, though, I'd recommend starting with something else. Perhaps her short novel Durable Goods, which is the first in a trilogy about a military family (written from the point of view of the young daughter). Or, if that doesn't sound good, go to my Book Search page and do a quick search for Elizabeth Berg's name in the Author box. Pick a novel, any novel! Heck, I'd read Elizabeth Berg's grocery lists if I could, and what's more, I bet they'd make me cry. Sometimes, you just want to read a sappy chick novel, you know what I mean? And they don't get any more wonderfully and warmly written than these. Recommended!

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(4/17) Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up? by John Callahan. (read me!)

A couple of years ago, I read quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan's autobiography, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot and loved it. It immediately made me a huge fan of his cartoons, and I've been an admirer ever since. I hadn't thought to see if he'd written any other books, but the other day was poking around in Jessamyn West's books page (she writes my favorite library blog, Librarian.net) and was surprised to see she'd read and enjoyed this one. I immediately got it from the local library and finally sat down to read it today. It's just as great as his other book, and almost more fun as it's primarily about the cartoons that got him the most angry letters from readers (the letters are also included, which makes it that much more entertaining). It's pretty amazing how many non-disabled people write to him irate that he's making fun of people in wheelchairs -- some of them don't even seem to know he's a quad himself. And I just cracked up at some of the most offensive ones. Oh man, that Martin Luther King Jr. one practically made me pee my pants!

Anyway, if you're a fan of Callahan's, or of irreverent comedy in general, definitely put this and Callahan's autobiography on your list of things to read. You won't be sorry. Well, that is, you won't be sorry if you aren't easily offended, that is! Recommended!

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(4/16) Gravity by Tess Gerritsen. (read me!)

Wow, was this book ever a lot of fun! It's about a group of astronauts who are up on a space station working on a variety of research projects. One of the projects is a fairly simple one -- a scientist on the ground has sent up a sample of a single-celled organism she found in the deepest trenches of the ocean, and she just wants the astronauts to keep an eye on it up in space and see what effect zero gravity has on the little beasties. Little do the astronauts know, though, that the sample has been contaminated and now it's no longer the harmless entity they thought it was. When it finally gets loose, the crew begins to die, one by one, horribly and painfully. As ship's doctor Emma Watson races to contain the infection, her husband Jack, a doctor himself, is down on Earth struggling to find out the truth about the organism and to talk the government into letting Emma and the others come home before they all perish.

The writing here isn't brilliant -- there were a few places where it could've been tighter. For one thing, it was just plain stupid the way the crew, even the doctor!, kept tending to the infected patients with almost no protective gear on, despite the fact they'd already seen more than one person get infected when the bug burst out of a patient's body and shot out all over the place (no gravity, remember!). You're telling me that after TWO people are infected when the stuff gets shot into their eyes, the ship's doctor doesn't bother to put on goggles or a face screen before she tends to another patient in the throes of death? That's just plain lazy writing -- it's like Gerritsen just couldn't think up another mode of transmission, so she just took the easy route and had her previously intelligent character act like an idiot. I hate that!

But hey, it's not like I go into a Gerritsen novel expecting Tolstoy (I've read two others of hers, part of her series about a medical examiner, and they were both a little on the weak side as well). Nope, I go into these novels expecting them to be thrilling and fun, and this book sure fits that description. I love science fiction novels that are about space exploration, and I also love novels that are about infectious diseases -- put those two together, and I can't help but be excited and enthralled, regardless of the overall quality of the writing. Bring on the plague and zero gravity, I always say! So, if you've been looking for an extremely entertaining novel for your vacation this spring or summer, this is definitely the one for you. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole thing, and stayed up WAY past my bedtime two nights in a row because I simply couldn't put it down. Highly recommended!

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(4/14) Belly Laughs: The Naked Truth about Pregnancy and Childbirth by Jenny McCarthy. (read me!)

Frustrated with her stack of pregnancy books and the way they kept glossing over the BAD parts of pregnancy, McCarthy thought it was about time someone gave womenkind a book that laid it all out, hemorrhoids, poopin' during delivery, swollen blue labia, and all. This short book, the result of that desire, is comprised of about twenty two-page "essays" on a variety of awful aspects of pregnancy and childbirth.

It's a great concept, but McCarthy's humor just isn't really my thing. Her style is pretty juvenile, and she seems to think that all it takes to be funny is to put the REALLY GROSS PARTS in all-caps. In the hands of an author with more talent, though, especially one with a more sarcastic, sophisticated sense of humor, this book could've been a LOT funnier and also far more informative. No big loss here -- it's not like I expected much from Jenny McCarthy, after all. But if you're looking for a book that really tells it straight about pregnancy and is also funny and educational, definitely skip this one and go straight to the "Girlfriends' Guide" series by Vicki Iovine. I give her book, The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy, to everyone I know who gets knocked up, and it always gets rave reviews in return. My sister also says Iovine's book Girlfriends' Guide to Baby Gear was a lifesaver when it came time to start buying STUFF as well. Iovine is smart, funny, and irreverent -- the perfect balance in a book about what is a pretty weird experience overall! Nice try, McCarthy, and a noble idea. But I won't be looking for your sequel, I'm afraid.

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(4/11) Dead Whales Tell No Tales by Ron Lovell. (read me!)

A couple of weeks ago, I read Lovell's mystery novel, "Murder at Yaquina Head." While I didn't think it was the best written mystery of all time, I thoroughly enjoyed the storyline, the characters, and especially the setting. In terms of those elements, this installment in Lovell's Thomas Martindale series is another success. This time, journalism professor Tom Martindale is asked to give a lecture on writing about oceanography and marine animals at a conference in Newport, OR on whales. There, he meets for the first time a fellow professor, Howard Phelps, who begins his own lecture by acting like a complete jerk. The next thing Tom knows, Phelps has been murdered and Tom's old girlfriend, another speaker at the conference, is jailed for the crime. But Tom doesn't think Susan did it and the more he investigates, under the guise of writing an article about the conference, the more he finds out about Phelps's rather shady past -- and a whole host of people who might have wanted him dead.

Again, I'd say that the writing here is not terribly strong -- it could've used some tighter editing, and Lovell has a tendency to tell more than show at times. But it's definitely very readable, and I thoroughly enjoyed the information about whales and the little lesson on the history of whaling in Japan and North America. I also loved the Newport, Oregon setting, as that's a town I'm familiar with (my parents live near there). Definitely a series I'll keep reading, and I recommend it to all fans of light, simple mystery stories as well.

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(4/2) My Friend Leonard by James Frey. (read me!)

I know, I know, big fat liar and whatnot. But here's the thing -- despite all the hoopla surrounding James Frey, I still can't get past the fact that I really, really enjoyed A Million Little Pieces. I thought the story was moving and engrossing, fiction or nonfiction, and I thought the style was original and brought forth an emotional intensity unlike that of any other memoir I've ever read. So, I've been on the hold list for this book, the sequel, ever since I read the original, and when it finally showed up for me at the local library, I ran out and got it, came back home, and immediately dove in.

Unfortunately, this book is nowhere near as good as its predecessor. I enjoyed it for the most part, but this time around, the style didn't feel right to me, based on the events it was being used to describe. Frey's writing style, one I've dubbed "Commas, Eh Who Needs 'Em?", is extremely good at conveying a sense of urgency or fear or passion. It's very powerful at getting across an almost mentally-ill feeling of frenziedness. This style works well when Frey is describing situations that warrant that kind of emotion -- pretty much the only kind of situations there were in his first book.

In this one, though, Frey has started to live a relatively normal life again, and it's simply not as effective a style when he's describing what it's like to go blow a gazillion of his illegally-earned dollars on his first Picasso drawing. Or what it's like to go out for wildly expensive dinners and sleep in wildly expensive hotels. Or what it's like to take his dog for a walk. By the end of the book, when life starts to settle into something fairly good for Frey, this style began to feel inappropriately maudlin to me. A stronger writer would've altered his style as he altered his story -- to make the two elements work together better and convey a stronger sense of the changing emotions and conditions. Instead, Frey just decided he liked his style and he was stickin' with it, regardless of all other factors. Not impressive.

That said, I barely put this book down after I started it, and it made me fall in love with Leonard all over again, despite the fact I grew extremely suspicious by the end of the strong similarities between the character of Leonard and that of another gentle giant Mobster we all know and love, Tony Soprano. Hmmmm. Nevertheless, I didn't go into this book expecting a true story -- who would at this point? -- and taken as a novel, I was happy enough to go along for the ride. The ending made me cry, and I hope that if Leonard really did exist, he's having a great time with the ladies (and gents) wherever he may be. Recommended to anybody who didn't get all het up about the whole rotten mess. And I hope Frey will put this incident behind him soon and get back to work on his next writing project. I, for one, would like to see what else he's got in him.
[FICTION] or [NON-FICTION] You be the judge.

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All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
Email -- meg@megwood.com
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