August 2003
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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  • (8/26) If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell.

    I saw "Evil Dead" for the first time only about a year ago and absolutely loved it. The greatest campy horror movie of all time! And that lead actor guy was pretty darn cute, too. I started to look into the possibility of featuring Bruce Campbell as a Boyfriend of the Week, but then when I rented "Evil Dead 2" and found myself majorly confounded by the whole thing, I kind of set the idea aside for awhile, figuring I'd pick it up later on, once I figured out what the heck that movie was all about.

    Then I forgot all about it. Until about a month or two ago when my brother told me about this book he was reading, a memoir written by that guy from "Evil Dead." He said it was hilarious, and since a few readers had written to suggest it too, I finally went out and picked it up. And boy, were you all right about this one -- it is not only absolutely hilarious, but it's a fascinating and highly entertaining look at all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes of independent films. Especially independent, low-budget, BAD films (my favorite variety!). I'm dying to rent "Evil Dead" again, having read all about what went into its production. And my plan to feature Bruce as a Boyfriend has been renewed (watch for that coming soon!). Recommended to all fans of Bruce and his work, or just anybody desperately in need of a few hearty laughs. This was a blast!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (8/23) The Canal House by Mark Lee.

    Photojournalist Nicky Bettencourt's career is fizzling out, so when he's offered a job working with a reporter infamous for risk-taking and excitement, he immediately agrees to join him in the fray. The reporter, Daniel McFarland, wants to go to Uganda to track down and interview the despotic leader of a rebel militia, despite the fact everybody he has talked to about it has told him the man will kill them both on the spot. Daniel has made a career out of ignoring such warnings, though, and Nicky is both intrigued and a little desperate, and so, they're off.

    The job takes them to a refugee site, where victims of the militia have been getting medical treatment. There they meet Julia Cadell, an idealistic doctor that Daniel instantly connects with. She tries to talk them out of their plan, but fails, and Nicky and Daniel set off on foot through the wilderness to try to find the militia's camp.

    They return a few days later, unscathed and successful. But though Daniel and Julia increasingly feel drawn to each other, when their pilot returns to take them home, Daniel boards the plane (Nicky lets an injured woman take his spot on board, while he stays behind with Julie to take more photos). That's when something happens that changes Daniel forever -- the plane goes down and only he survives. And suddenly this detached adrenaline junkie has a whole new perspective on life.

    From there, the novel takes us through the intense love affair between Daniel and Julie, and their close friendship with Nicky. As the characters move from London, to Italy, and finally to the war in Indonesia, they each undergo a radical emotional transition. By the end of the novel, each has come to an internal crossroads: Daniel must choose between the risks of his job and the people he loves; Julie between her old, safe life and the thrills she feels with Daniel; and Nicky finds himself growing out of his shell and turning into a person who finally understands what truly makes life worth living.

    Not only was this novel an eloquent and original story about three characters and their intense internal evolutions, but it's also a riveting adventure story. The sections set in Africa and Italy in particular just blew me away -- the descriptions of the land and the people were so vivid and detailed I could practically smell the breezes and feel the dirt under my feet. Lee is a journalist himself, and has obviously been to all these places and shared some of these same experiences. He tells his story using words, but it immediately became a living, breathing entity for me -- no small feat in fiction. Though I will admit I thought a few places in the novel were a little on the slow side, the rest of it stands as one of the best books I've read in a long time. Very, very highly recommended!
    [FICTION]

  • (8/18) The White by Deborah Larsen.

    In 1798, sixteen year old Mary Jemison was taken from her home in Pennsylvania by a Shawnee raiding party. Her parents were murdered and scalped, but Mary was given to a Seneca family whose son, roughly Mary's age, had been killed by whites several months before.

    Though at first Mary resists her new life, she gradually begins to accept her fate, marrying a Delaware warrior and becoming close friends with the Seneca tribeswomen. This novel is a fictionalized retelling of this true story, and primarily focuses on the inner workings of Mary's mind as she struggles with the two sides of her identity -- her desire to stay white and her growing respect and love for her new Native American world.

    I really enjoyed this book, but do have one complaint. The novel, which is relatively short, is written in a very Spartan style, and while I realize that sixteen year olds aren't terribly observant, I would have liked to see more detail about the Seneca culture and the environment Mary finds herself in. The book's focus is on what's going on in Mary's mind, but since she's just a kid, that stuff doesn't really amount to all that much, and what's there wasn't terribly unique, either. But though I found the book a little unsatisfying overall, I still was entertained and definitely recommend it.
    [FICTION]

  • (8/17) Riptide by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

    Exciting novel about ancient buried treasure and the elaborate, and deadly, underwater puzzle that has to be cracked in order to get to it. I was a little disappointed by the ending - what they lead you to believe is some kind of sea creature turns out to be something far less interesting (and not actually any more believable). But all in all, this was an entertaining beach-book type novel - great for a summer weekend. Recommended!
    [FICTION]

  • (8/12) Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

    I don't think I had the reaction to this book that most people who read it did. All I've ever heard about this book, by the author of "Into Thin Air," a book I absolutely loved, is that this is an incredible tale about a young man who followed his beliefs to the very core, even though they ended up costing him his life.

    The story, a true one, is about Chris McCandless, a young man from the D.C. area who one day decides to leave his family, who he roughly judges as too hypocritical to be worthy of his love anymore, and sets off to try to live off the land. For the next two years, he hitches around the country, surviving as best he can, and then he heads for the Alaskan wilderness, where he hopes to live by hunting and gathering, the way the first pioneers to that part of the world must have centuries ago.

    Things don't go quite as planned, though, and Chris makes a handful of very stupid mistakes that end up costing him his life. Krakauer, who obviously admires Chris and what he tried to do, attempts to set Chris up on a pedestal, as someone people should strive to be more like. But he also talks about the other way people have reacted to Chris's story, which he originally wrote about in an article in Outdoor Magazine. Many people found Chris's arrogance regarding his ability to survive just plain disgusting and childish. He was willfully ignorant about how to survive in the frozen Alaskan woods, rejecting anybody's attempt to offer him advice or extra gear. He refused to take a map with him (an omission that ultimately can be blamed for his death), and he just marched into the wilderness completely convinced that he could survive using his wits and his wits alone. Which, obviously, did not turn out to be a justified conviction.

    But Krakauer dismisses that type of reaction as being, well, reactionary. Not to mention thoughtless and petty. He is clearly just as angry about the people who thought Chris was arrogant as those people are about Chris's arrogance in the first place, and I can't help but wonder if that's partly because Krakauer himself always wanted to try something like what Chris did, but just didn't have the ability to put aside his considerable intelligence long enough to convince himself he could do it. (His arguments against the position those angry people took didn't hold much water either - at one point, Krakauer argues that Chris clearly wasn't ignorant about how to survive in the wilderness because he did manage to live for two months before starving to death. Yet he was able to find game during that period, and also had a bag of rice he was chipping away at. When the game ran out and so did the rice, so did his ability to survive. Can you really argue he was skilled at survival, if he didn't actually make it back out of the woods alive?)

    Nevertheless, my reaction to this story didn't really fall into either of those two categories. Yes, I thought it was admirable that Chris wanted to try to live cleanly and simply. Yes, I thought it was incredibly stupid how little respect he actually had for the woods he wanted to live cleanly and simply in. But what really made me angry about Chris's lifestyle was not his arrogance about his abilities to survive, but his arrogance about his lifestyle in the first place. He rejects his parents for being hypocrites, treating them extremely cruelly, yet at the same time worships various literary figures (Jack London, Tolstoy, etc.) who practically were swimming in a sea of hypocrisy themselves. Then he goes around for two years telling people his way of life is the only legitimate way of life, and refusing to listen to anybody who tries to argue otherwise. He has no respect for anybody who makes choices that don't match his own. He is judgmental, sanctimonious, and, quite frankly, just an incredible jerk. His actions reminded me wholly of rabid Republicans, Bible-bashers, and even cultists -- he has absolutely no tolerance for anybody who isn't willing to become destitute and hungry, just like him.

    I think this was a very tragic book, a very tragic story. But, unlike Krakauer, I don't really have any respect for Chris McCandless. I feel badly for him, and even worse for his family, but I don't think he is someone who lived an admirable life. He was a selfish man, with the emotional maturity of an eight year old. He died alone and scared, and because he'd made some very dumb mistakes - mistakes he could have easily avoided had he taken the time to learn about where he was going. But what's just as bad was the way he lived - intolerant and closeminded. And that's just a lifestyle I have very little patience for. And, oddly, it's one that a number of people like McCandless seem to adopt (I'm thinking not only of the other examples Krakauer brings up in his book, but also of Elizabeth Gilbert's book "The Last American Man," about a man who is very similar to McCandless, and just as preachy about his beliefs). Ultimately, this book left me with a very hollow feeling.
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (8/7) The Martian Race by Gregory Benford.

    Terrific sci-fi novel about a small team of astronauts in the year 2016 who are dying to become the first group to explore the planet Mars. When NASA's program falls through, the Mars Accord Board, an agency dedicated to getting Earthlings to Mars, offers a $30 million reward for the first team to get to the Red Planet, study it, and return home with the data. Almost immediately, a multi-billionaire named Axelrod offers to fund the NASA group. Training begins quickly and since only one other group enters the race, it looks like Axelrod and the Consortium, as the NASA astronauts come to call themselves, will take the prize.

    Of course, none of that really matters to the astronauts themselves. And when they arrive on Mars with two years of geological and biological/chemical research stretched out before them, they're in absolute heaven.

    But things don't end up going quite as planned. The two years pass quickly and without any major discoveries. And, to save money, Axelrod had planned to have the team return home by using a NASA-abandoned ERV (Earth Return Vehicle) already on Mars. Only, two weeks before their planned launch date, they still have not been able to get the ERV to work.

    Just as they are realizing they are stranded, at least until Earth can send them another ERV, two more events take place that end up changing everything. First, the rival team finally arrives and immediately begins trying to steal all the Consortium's work. They also complicate the Consortium's interpersonal relationships by offering to let ONE of them hitch a ride home on their ship. Then, Consortium biologist Julia stumbles across something miraculous -- LIFE ON MARS! The race to get a sample of the moss-like life and be the first ones home with it has begun -- and as the competition increases, so do the stupid mistakes. Soon, two scientists are dead, and one may have been infected with some sort of Martian disease.

    This was a riveting adventure story, with fascinating science, an exciting plot, and well-developed, likeable characters. A little repetitive at times, but overall, very well-written and enthralling. Recommended to fans of space-related sci-fi (the only kind I usually read)!
    [SCIENCE FICTION]

  • (8/4) Somebody's Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa by Tanya Shaffer.

    A few days ago, I finally got my hands on a copy of Paul Theroux's newest travel memoir, "Dark Star Safari." I had been eagerly waiting for it for months, despite the fact I've never been much of a Theroux fan. If I had to pick a favorite genre of non-fiction, it would definitely be travel memoirs about Africa, a continent I've been fascinated by for over a decade.

    But Theroux's book turned out to be pretty unreadable for me. First there was the fact that he spent most of the first 20 pages (as far as I got) complaining about how horrible Africa is these days. And then there was the totally annoying and wholly unforgivable fact that he used the word "crepuscular" twice in ten pages (honestly, that is just bad writing, man!).

    So, I set it back in my return pile for the library, and instead picked up this book, a travel memoir written by a woman who went to Africa for a year or so working on various volunteer projects that took her all over the continent. And what a joy! Yes, she talks about the problems Africa is facing -- some of the villages she stays in don't even have running water, let alone medicine, jobs, and the like. And so many of the people seem only to want something from her -- her shoes, her money, her sponsorship back to America.

    But those parts are short and carefully worded by a woman who clearly adores Africa and all its history, culture, and people. Instead, at the heart of her tale are the profound, complex, and sometimes challenging relationships she forms with a variety of people she meets during her journey -- people who will amaze and delight you. People who will touch you deeply and make you yearn for the kind of courage it takes to drop everything in your American life and go to a place where life is still simple, and perfect strangers will welcome you into their homes with open arms and smiles. This book was an absolute delight and Tanya herself is the perfect armchair travel partner -- funny and intelligent, empathic and kind. She sees a lot, and she openly shares it all with us. Highly recommended!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (8/3) Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk.

    Carl Streator is a lonely widower and middle-aged reporter who is assigned to cover a series of mysterious infant deaths blamed on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. After a few trips to interview devastated families, though, he begins to notice an unsettling coincidence -- every family with a dead child had the same book of children's poems open to the same page. Page 27.

    Carl quickly figures out that page 27 contains an African culling song that kills anyone it is read to. After testing this out on his meddlesome editor, Carl accidentally commits the poem to memory. With some horror, he realizes that with it memorized, he can kill people just by running the poem silently through his own mind. He teams up with a realtor -- Helen Hoover Boyle, who specializes in selling the same haunted houses over and over -- and the two of them set off on a road trip to track down and destroy every copy of the poem in the country.

    Of course, with Palahniuk at the helm, the story is only going to get stranger from there -- not to mention funnier. This was a wild and thoroughly entertaining ride. Great characters, hilarious writing, and, obviously, a highly original plot! Recommended, and you can bet I'll be catching up on Palahniuk's other works of fiction soon!
    [FICTION]

  • (8/1) The Martian Child: A Novel About a Single Father Adopting a Son by David Gerrold.

    Based on the true story of Gerrold's real adoption of a trouble 8 year old, this novel is so realistically emotional, I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't all true. The novel's David is, like the real David, a middle-aged, gay, science fiction author. After months and months of adoption applications, he is finally approved. And the moment he sees a photo of Dennis in a book of eligible children, he feels an instant connection. "This is my son," he thinks.

    But Dennis has had a pretty rough first 8 years of life and, as a result, is a pretty troubled kid. The two of them really hit it off, though, and gradually, they begin to trust, and then to love, each other. It's not a relationship without rough spots, though, and the main one is the fact that Dennis adamantly insists that he is actually from the planet Mars. At first, David chalks this up to an escapist fantasy for a boy who's had a tough life. But then, and here's where the novel starts to get a little tedious, David starts to believe it might actually be true. (And, unfortunately, spends far too much time giving this far too much thought in a way that doesn't actually seem to me to be very helpful for Dennis himself.)

    Yes, it's a little strange. But aside from the section there towards the end, it's a complete delight. David and Dennis's growing relationship is so intense and moving, their progression from strangers to family so fascinating, that it's easy to go along for most of the Martian ride. Plus, Gerrold is a funny guy, with a writing style that is familiar and charming. This was an extremely entertaining way to spend a few hours -- recommended!
    [FICTION]


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