August 2005
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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  • (8/30) Travels with Alice by Calvin Trillin.

    I haven't actually read much Calvin Trillin, except for the occasional essay in a magazine here and there. But when I saw this book sitting on the "recommended" shelf at my local public library, I thought it might make for a good introduction. And I was right, though not for the reasons I thought. Having just read a Bill Bryson travel book, I think I was expecting pretty much exactly the same sort of thing. And I think that's why, after I read chapter one of "Travels with Alice," I almost put the book down and quit reading. Because Trillin doesn't write about travel the way Bryson does. In fact, when Trillin writes about places he's been, he could almost be writing about any ol' where -- the essays in this book are far more about him and his family than about their actual experiences in Europe. Well, it's about him, his family, and food, I should say, because Trillin is very, very, very fond of food.

    The thing is, once I let go of the "travel book" concept and just read this for what it was (see above re: essays about family and food), I really started to enjoy it. Trillin has a very wry sense of humor -- it's a much more subtle sense of humor than Bryson and not as likely to make you snort loudly with glee as you read, but it's still very, very funny in its own way. And his stories are entertaining and unique. Not a book to pick up if you are hoping to learn anything significant about various countries and their cultures, but definitely a good choice if you're in the mood for some intellectual-esque laughs and a light read for your next plane trip. I'll definitely be looking for more books by Trillin soon, now that I've gotten acquainted with his style and his personality. I think we'll get along swimmingly. Recommended!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (8/26) Much Ado in Maggody by Joan Hess.

    Engagingly written, but ultimately pretty ho-hum mystery featuring Hess's series regular, small town police chief Arly Hess. The story opens with a local woman, Johnna Mae, storming into Arly's office to demand that her boss be immediately arrested. Turns out she had missed six weeks of work, due to an emergency C-section, and when she returned to the bank where she'd been head teller for years, she found she'd been replaced by a young, snotty hotshot named Brandon Bernswallow, the son of the bank's chairman. Arly insists she can't do anything legally about it, so Johnna Mae promptly gets in touch with the head of an organization called Woman Aligned Against Chauvinism in the Workplace. When WAACO shows up in town and rallies the women into a massive protest, it sends Maggody's quiet, Southern residents into a tailspin of chaos. And things only get worse when, during the protest, the bank catches fire and the Bernswallow's dead body is found in the ashes.

    It's a fluffy mystery, riding more on cutesy Southern charm than actual plot. And while that works for it for the most part -- I read the whole thing, after all -- I got pretty tired of it fast. Plus, the climax of this mystery is about as anticlimactic as they come. Yawn city. Anyway, I remember enjoying a previous installment in this series, so I'll try one more before giving up on it for good. But this is definitely one you can pass on.
    [MYSTERY]

  • (8/23) The Girlfriends' Guide to Baby Gear: What to Buy, What to Borrow, and What to Blow Off! by Vicki Iovine.

    My twin sister is pregnant with her first child and I've been excitedly buying lots and lots of books and other baby- or pregnancy-related stuff for her over the last couple of months. When she recently mentioned that she had absolutely NO idea what stuff she needed to be buying for herself, I remembered that I'd seen this book at the bookstore the last time I was buying a copy of Iovine's terrific pregnancy book, "The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy" (a book I give everybody I know who is pregnant because I think it's hilarious and fun). I didn't know if it was any good, but figured it couldn't hurt, so I went out and bought a copy of it for her a couple of days ago. Before sending it, I decided to read it myself, and I'm glad I did! I don't have kids myself, but I'm fascinated by the whole pregnancy experience, and I learned a lot about baby STUFF from this book. Plus, it's written in typical Iovine style -- funny, clever, and at times just wonderfully irreverent. I hope my sis will find it as entertaining, not to mention informative. And if you've ever been pregnant, I'd love it if you'd email me with your suggestion for two or three items you couldn't have lived without when your baby came. We can use all the information we can get! Recommended!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (8/21) The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.

    To be honest, I had a hard time picking this book up. My Mom had passed it on to me saying she'd just loved it, but I kept reading the description on the back and thinking, "Eh, maybe later."

    Finally, I decided to just give it a try, and as soon as I picked it up, I pretty much couldn't put it back down. I can't put my finger on just why, but this novel is just compulsively readable. The writing flows and flows, even though the story itself isn't really all that original. It's about two generations of an Indian family who have transplanted themselves to America. It begins with the young newlyweds, Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, who move to an East Coast college town where Ashoke (the husband) has taken a job as a professor. There, they have two children -- first a boy named Gogol, who is the main character of the novel, and then a girl named Sonia, who was, I confess, a bit of a disappointingly flat character for me.

    Mostly, the story is about what you'd expect it to be about -- the American-born generation thoroughly rejecting the culture of their parents, to the resultant misery of all parties. And the ending is also pretty much what you'd expect it to be -- the American-born generation finally realizing their parents and their parents' culture ain't so bad after all. Yet. . . there is just something almost magical about the way Lahiri tells the Ganguli's story. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a collection of short stories she wrote (which I hope to get a chance to read soon), and I could quickly see why. Her style really defies description -- it's fresh, almost lyrical, and, well, it's just really compulsively readable!

    Anyway, if you're in the mood for something well-written and a bit more serious than typical summer novel fare, give this one a try. I think you'll be as pleasantly surprised as I was. Recommended!
    [FICTION]

  • (8/17) I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson.

    After living in England for two decades, Bryson, his British wife, and his kids moved back to the U.S., buying a house in the small town of Hanover, New Hampshire. This book is a collection of short essays -- which I think may originally have been newspaper columns -- about the culture shock he experienced upon returning to the land of his birth. Bryson writes about everything that pops into his head, pretty much, and often with hilarious results. I cracked up at the essay about his barber, nodded in agreement with his ponderings about the War on Drugs, and had to hold back blasting laughter on the bus when I got to his story about the motels of his youth. This book isn't as good as some of his others, primarily, I think, because the others I've read have been more cohesive books about a single subject (instead of a collection of short musings). Many of the essays here actually seemed too short to me, or kind of choppy, and some of them weren't really all that funny or engaging. I'd still recommend "A Walk in the Woods" or "In a Sunburned Country" first, but this is a good one if you are looking for an entertaining book you can read in fits and starts. I should make Bill Bryson a Boyfriend of the Week one of these days -- he's just so perfect for me!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (8/14) Fury by G. M. Ford.

    This is the first installment of Ford's mystery series featuring journalist Frank Corso and his tattooed photographer partner, Meg Dougherty. I had read the second novel in the series a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it, but had completely forgotten about Ford until the other day when I came across this one on the shelf at the local library. After reading this one, though, I don't think I'll be forgetting about Ford quite so quickly again -- this novel is just really, really good!

    It begins with a young woman named Leanne Samples. A few years ago, Leanne was the key witness in the case against serial killer Walter Himes. But on this day, she has walked into the offices of the Seattle Sun (a newspaper) and told the editor-in-chief she has something important to say, and she's only going to say it to Frank Corso. Corso, though, is in seclusion, the result of a scandal he was involved with in New York City (he was fired from his job with the Times after writing a series of stories that turned out not to be true), and the only writing he does anymore is the occasional feature article for the Sun. But, when he hears it's Samples who wants to talk to him -- he had covered the trial of Himes for the paper so many years ago -- he agrees to meet. And then is absolutely floored when what he ends up hearing from Leanne is that she lied about everything on the stand. Not only had her testimony resulted in his conviction, but Himes is due to die by lethal injection in just six days, and Leanne's testimony had been the ONLY evidence the state had against him.

    As a journalist, Corso can't resist the excitement of a breaking story like this one, and neither can his editor. So, despite the fact they know all hell is going to break loose if they go to press, the editor sets Corso up with a freelance photographer and sends him out into the world to do what he does best -- find the truth buried deep, deep underneath a steaming pile of incompetencies, carelessness, lies, and murder. Lucky for him, the photographer ends up being Meg Dougherty, herself an outcast in the world because of a different type of media attention. She made the papers a few years ago when her boyfriend, furious that she was about to leave him, drugged her and then covered her entire body with crass, explicit tattooes, nearly killing her in the process. Together, Frank and Meg set out to find the real killer -- or killers -- and in the process end up pulling each other out of their self-made shells.

    Not only is the plot thrilling and the characters realistic and a pleasure to know, but the series is also set in Seattle, and I just really enjoyed the way Ford handles that aspect of it. A lot of times, I'm kind of annoyed by novels that are set in my town -- authors sometimes let the setting itself almost become a character, imparting to it far too much obtrusive importance. The end result can feel to me like hip-location name-dropping, which gets on my nerves all too quickly. But Ford's Seattle is merely background. If you live here, you'll recognize the places he occasionally mentions -- a restaurant here, a school converted into some shops there. If you don't live here, you won't even notice those things. And there isn't a mention of the Space Needle or Pike Place Market in the whooooole book. I approve! Anyway, this is a great series and I look forward to reading more from Ford in the very, very near future -- highly recommended!
    [MYSTERY]

  • (8/9) Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker.

    When I heard Robert B. Parker, the author of one of my favorite mystery series (the Spenser novels), had written a WESTERN, I was pretty excited. I love Westerns and I love Spenser, and since every other series Parker has written has pretty much been a Spenser series (even his female sleuth Sunny Randall is actually just Spenser in a dress), I was looking forward to seeing what he could do with a transplantation of my favorite sarcastic tough guy from modern day Boston to the Old Wild West.

    True to form, one of the two main characters in "Appaloosa" is very, very Spenser-like, though I will confess it took me over half of the book to decide which one it was (it's Hitch). But the bad news is, this is really not a very good novel. It's got one of the oldest, most overdone Western storylines in the book -- the stereotypical "good guy" is hired by a town to rid them of the stereotypical "bad guy," although in this novel, the "good guy" is actually a team of two: Virgil Cole, an infamous lawman, and his big-strong-silent-type sidekick Hitch, a crack shot with an eight gauge (though, as Cole himself says, it's hard NOT to be a crack shot with an eight gauge). As if that weren't unoriginal enough, none of the characters themselves are unique in any way, shape, or form either. The prostitute with a heart. The "lady" who's a tramp. The cowardly politicians who don't quite know what to do with themselves. I'd say it felt like a homage to the genre, except that it's not accurate enough. The characters don't talk right -- they talk like Spenser -- and not a single person in this novel is real enough to care about.

    The ending made me think this is likely to become another one of Parker's series, and maybe it'll improve as he gets a little more practice. But before he writes the next one, he needs to watch some episodes of "Deadwood" and stay away from old movies that will just reinforce the same tired old storylines and stereotypes this novel was mired in. All in all? Major disappointment.
    [FICTION]

  • (8/7) What? Dead. . .Again? by Neil Shulman, M.D.

    The other day, I caught part of the movie "Doc Hollywood" starring Michael J. Fox on television. I hadn't seen it for a really long time and I knew I wouldn't have time to watch the whole thing that day, so I decided not to watch it and instead to rent it the next time I was at the video store. But as I was about to change the channel, I noticed something in the opening credits that I hadn't seen before -- the fact that the movie was based on a novel by the producer, Dr. Neil Shulman. Ooh, a book! I love books! So, I immediately put it on hold at the library, and decided to read it first and then watch the film again. Which is essentially how I just spent my weekend. Well, that and a lot of yard work and minor household repairs. Ah, homeownership.

    The book is extremely entertaining, though I think the movie is actually a little bit better (partly because I have a huge crush on Fox, but also because there's a little more structure to the plot in the movie version). For those of you who haven't seen the film or read the book, it's about a big city doctor (Otis Stone in the book) who is driving through Alabama on the way to his new big city job when his car breaks down and he finds himself stuck in a small town named Grady. The local auto repair place doesn't take credit cards or checks, so the Doc finds himself having to work out the bill in trade, by putting in some hours at the local hospital. For a big city boy, the snail's pace of the world in Grady is absolutely torturous. But after finding himself repeatedly unable to leave town, for one reason after another, Dr. Stone comes to the realization that he just may have found his niche.

    Both the book and the movie are extremely engaging and funny, and I really enjoyed them. If you haven't encountered either version of this story, I highly recommend you pick one format and get crackin'! Just good old-fashioned fun.
    [FICTION]

  • (8/2) Waiting for Birdy by Catherine Newman.

    This witty, entertaining memoir charts the year Newman, a columnist at BabyCenter.com, was pregnant with her second child, a little girl she nicknamed Birdy. As she's struggling with her pregnancy (oh, the puking!), she's also raising her three year old son, Ben, an insanely inquisitive little boy who at times drives her absolutely insane with his ridiculous, neverending questions. Newman is a really talented, hilarious writer and all mothers will get a kick out of reading this book. On the other hand, I'm not about to send my twin sister, pregnant with her first child right now, a copy of this one -- I think she'd panic. I have a cat who often does the feline equivalent of the incessant "Why?" thing, and I can tell you right now, I have at times entertained images of chucking her into the neighbor's yard so she and their little yappy dog can drive each other insane, AND I GET CAN SOME FRIGGIN' PEACE. Imagine me with a "Why?" type child. IF YOU DARE.

    On the other hand, Ben's pretty adorable and even I was thoroughly charmed by his completely naked affection for being completely naked. Not to mention the fact he loves his parents so much he was literally DEPRESSED about being away from them all day long while in school. That's so cute! Okay, maybe I could handle it. Maaaaaybe. Anyway, recommended to fans of the mommy memoir genre -- one of the most entertaining ones I've read myself.
    [NON-FICTION]

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