January 2003
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (1/31) Lucky by Alice Sebold.

    A few months ago, I read Alice Sebold's first novel, "The Lovely Bones," and was absolutely floored by her almost magical way with words. Sebold is an incredible writer -- capable of both intense emotion and hilarious wit, sometimes at the same time. The story was that of a murdered little girl, narrating from Heaven as her killer is brought to justice.

    Having now read Sebold's first non-fiction book, this memoir of her rape at age 18, I now know why she was able to create such an enormously visceral and immensely powerful story about an innocent young girl whose life was taken away from her. As all good writers do, she wrote what she knew.

    Alice was walking alone on campus when she was attacked, beaten, and raped. She was a virgin at the time -- had never had any sexual encounters at all -- and I can't even begin to imagine how painful this would have been for her, on so many levels. But this book doesn't just talk about the rape itself or the trial that followed when, six months after the attack, she ran into her rapist on the street and miraculously managed to get him arrested. It's also about her life as a young girl -- the things that shaped her -- and how the rape itself changed, but did not destroy, the woman she later became.

    Alice Sebold's spirit will blow you away. And her writing here is as powerful as any I've ever encountered. She made me gasp in horror. She made me laugh. She made me angry, anxious, and afraid. And she made me absolutely ache for her. This woman is utterly amazing, and when I finally put this book down, I couldn't think of a woman I have ever respected more. Highly, highly recommended.

  • (1/27) Out on a Limb by Joan Hess.

    Entertaining and silly (in a good way) mystery featuring Hess regular Claire Malloy, amateur sleuth, professional bookshop owner. When Claire gets home from work one day to find an infant on her doorstep, she knows her world is about to get all crazy again. And before she has time to process the fact that a teenage mother she met once has now entrusted her with her child, she finds out that her 70 year-old friend Miss Parchester has chained herself to a tree in protest of a proposed housing development.

    The next day, the teenage mother (Daphne) has been arrested for murdering her father, the rich contractor in charge of leveling the trees for the housing development. Claire is trying to find out if Daphne is innocent, in the hopes she might not actually have to raise the foundling herself, and Miss Parchester is still out there chained to a tree, sipping tea and . . . possibly seeing the murderer fleeing the scene of the crime?

    Claire is as witty and sarcastic as ever and this was a delightful romp (although occasionally some of the yuks fell flat or seem forced -- only occasionally, though). I mean, plot aside, it was just FUN. And plot not aside, it was also a pretty decent murder mystery. Recommended!

  • (1/22) Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande.

    Fascinating collection of essays telling dramatic stories of patients and doctors, deadly mistakes, and the challenges every surgeon faces on a daily basis. But not just your ordinary set of gripping medical tales (though, that too) -- Gawande goes a step beyond mere storytelling and really delves deeply into an examination of the many ethical issues surrounding modern medicine. What to do when a patient, allowed to choose between treatment options, makes what the doctor knows is not the right choice? How surgeons have to hurt or even kill some patients before they can master a skill -- and what that can do to them over time. And, something I found particularly interesting, the fact that "Medicine's ground state is uncertainty. And wisdom -- for both patients and doctors -- is defined by how one copes with that."

    This was an incredible book that anyone interested in medicine absolutely must read immediately! I learned a ton from Gawande and left this book not only with an education in various surgical procedures and medical conditions, but with an entirely new perspective on doctors in general. Absolutely wonderful and HIGHLY recommended!

  • (1/17) The Curve of the World by Marcus Stevens.

    Lewis Burke, a salesman for Coca-Cola, is on his way to Africa to make a sales pitch when the airplane he's in begins to sputter and smoke and the pilot has to make an emergency landing on a remote, deserted airstrip in the middle of the Congo.

    Before the passengers and crew have time to process what's happened, though, Congonese rebels have taken over the plane. Lewis, terrified that the heavily-armed soldiers are going to shoot them all, makes a mad dash for the forest surrounding the airstrip and, miraculously, is not followed into the bush. After a few hours of running, he realizes he can stop and rest for a moment, and that's when reality sinks in. He may not be a hostage anymore, but now he's alone in a rainforest with nothing but his passport and the clothes on his back. Lost in the middle of the Third World.

    Meanwhile, his wife Helen and young son Shane have gotten word about the hostage situation. After finding it nearly impossible to get any information, Helen decides her only real option is to pack Shane up and actually GO to the Congo to try to find her husband herself. Dazed, they board a plane themselves, land in Kinshasha, and begin trying to navigate in the extremely foreign world around them.

    And thus begins one of the most enthralling novels I've read in quite awhile. As Lewis fights to survive in the jungle, eventually teaming up with a 10 year old war refugee named Kofi, Helen and Shane struggle with African bureaucracy. Both Lewis and Helen spend much of their time thinking about each other -- and the bad way their last moments together had gone. They were on the verge of separating when Lewis began his business trip, and now that it looks like they may never see each other again, they have begun to realize how desperately they don't want to be without each other. How much they both need to keep their marriage alive, and how greatly they regret the way they've let it disintegrate right before their eyes.

    A tale of survival on so many levels, this book will make you gasp with its incredible descriptions of the African world. Its beauty. Its simplicity -- and complexity. The misery and war that has threatened to destroy the entire continent. And the amazing spirit of the people who have struggled to hold it all together despite the poverty and horror and pain all around them. Stevens has travelled extensively in Africa, something that is obvious not only from his descriptions of the land and its cultures, but from his powerful way of expressing the "otherness" that both Helen and Lewis feel when they are there. They stick out in Africa, are alienated, and not simply because their skin is a different color. Stevens is also married, which explains his incredible ability to convey the difficulty of keeping a relationship burning under the intensely stressful conditions of regular life, and his intense descriptions of the bond people form when they truly love each other wholly and with no hesitation.

    This is a gorgeous, moving, intense book. I absolutely loved it. A few years ago, I quit buying books and only started getting them from libraries, because I read so much I was running out of space for all the piles of text. This is a book I feel like I need to own, though. So I can take it down from the shelf sometimes and think about it again. So that I can loan it to people. And so that I can look at it and be reminded of the lessons it taught me about taking things for granted. Highly, HIGHLY recommended.

  • (1/10) If You Go Down to the Woods by M. R. D. Meek.

    When a 13 year-old girl, Elinor de Lisle, disappears, her parents go to Detective Lennox Kemp for help. Partly because they know he's a great detective, but also because they know he's discreet. See, Elinor's parents are very important people and they don't want to become town gossip, of course, especially since Elinor has only been gone for 24 hours and it could be that she's just off doing typical teenage-defiance stuff.

    Before too long, though, Kemp finds a trail of clues directing him towards Emberton Woods, a huge woodsy area on the outskirts of town where bad guys throughout the centuries have terrorized travellers, dumped their victims' bodies, or buried them in shallow graves. As the town becomes more and more poisoned by suspicion and anger, Kemp struggles to stay focused on Elinor's disappearance, despite the fact his own wife is about to have their first child and things all around him seem chaotic and in flux.

    This is the eleventh novel in the Lennox Kemp series, though it is my first. It really enjoyed it, too, despite the fact it was a bit slow in places. The plot was complex and well-developed and Kemp himself has a refreshingly ironic and entertaining view of his profession. Recommended!

  • (1/6) Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea by Tami Oldham Ashcraft with Susea McGearhart.

    When Tami and her long-time boyfriend Richard Sharpe set sail from Tahiti for a long boat trip together, they were looking forward to a romantic and beautiful vacation at sea. When a hurricane hit them out of the blue, however, things went from peaceful to harrowing . . .to horrifying. Richard sent Tami below deck while he stayed up top to try to save the sails. But before she had time to even process what was happening, she heard him scream. And then felt the boat roll over underneath her feet. When it righted itself, Richard was gone, the masts were all broken, the motor was lost, and the boat was filling with water.

    Despite her grief, fear, and injury, however, Tami overcame all odds. She pulled herself together, got out her sextant, and began working on the charts. After a few days, she was able to figure out where she was and which way she needed to go to get back to land. She rigged a small sail, began to ration her supplies (most of the food and water was lost or contaminated when the boat rolled), and waited for the wind to pick up. Forty-one agonizing days later, she hit civilization. She had survived.

    If you love these kinds of stories, which I very definitely do, this is a good one to add to your pile. It's a bit choppy at times -- she's a sailor, not a writer -- but Tami's story is powerful and her descriptions and energy will keep you turning pages. This was definitely a great choice for my holiday vacation -- a thrill a minute! Recommended!

  • (1/1) White Coat: Becoming a Doctor at Harvard Medical School by Ellen Lerner Rothman, M.D.

    Rothman's vivid and entertaining account of her four years at Harvard Medical School, this is a book I heartily recommend to anyone contemplating heading back to school to get an M.D. It's composed of short essays describing the various hurdles -- both educational and emotional -- all doctors-in-training must learn to leap over, but it also touches on more general issues of medicine today, like HMOs and assisted suicide. Rothman's anecdotes are at times funny, heartbreaking, horrifying, or all three at the same time, and anyone interested in what doctors go through to become doctors will get a lot from what Rothman has to say. I enjoyed this immensely and hope to hear more from this author in the future (how about a book on residency, Dr. Rothman?).

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

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