January 2006
Book Reviews by Meg Wood



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(1/29) Night by Elie Wiesel. (read me!)

Wow, how do you even begin to describe a book like this one? This memoir, written about the year Wiesel spent in a concentration camp as a teenager during World War II, is one of the most horrifying Holocaust survivor tales I've ever encountered. And it's not just because Wiesel describes things none of us can even begin to imagine -- live babies thrown into pits of fire screaming, a train ride in which a hundred men go into a car and only twelve come out alive at the end, boys tearing each other apart for a single crust of bread. But because the person telling us this story is himself only a boy -- a boy seeing things that no boy, no man, no human being, should ever have to see. A boy who began his fifteenth year an avid studier of the Kabbalah, and who ended it believing that God had forsaken all Jews. Ended it, indeed, hating God almost as much as he hated the Germans who were responsible for the brutal murder of almost everyone he knew and loved.

This memoir ought to be required reading for every person on the planet -- a constant reminder of what can happen when we stop caring about the protection of innocents. In the beginning, when the concentration camps are just a rumor in his village, Wiesel says to his father that he doesn't believe the stories he's heard about the murder of the Jews -- the world would simply never allow that sort of thing to go on. The sad truth is that the U.S. and other Allied countries DID know about the extermination of the Jews in Germany, long before we bothered to do anything about it. Even more tragic is the fact that this scenario, stunningly, is still happening all the time around us, as the U.S. and other rich, powerful nations stand by and watch country after country in this world commit the ultimate crime against humanity -- the crime of genocide. Shame on us. Shame on us. Shame on us. How can we let that happen, when we've read books like this one? When we've seen footage of genocide on the nightly news, when we've seen the murder of innocents? How can we continue to pretend it's simply not our problem? Aren't we alive? Aren't we human beings? Don't we have a responsibility to protect each other?

Anyway, if you've never read this book before, I strongly urge you to. As a reminder. As a warning. As a plea. As a call to action, perhaps. This book will change you. Don't let yourself become complacent about the things going on in this world. Our leaders don't seem to learn from history -- perhaps that should be our responsibility instead.

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(1/27) No Man's Land by G.M. Ford. (read me!)

This is the latest installment in Ford's mystery series featuring disgraced-reporter-cum-detective Frank Corso. The others have been terrific -- great plots and wonderful characters. But I'm sorry to say that this one totally blew chunks, as the kids used to say. Has Ford finally lost his touch?

It begins with a prison riot. An ex-military genius named Driver, convicted of the murder of his cheatin' wife (yawn), has teamed up with an animal named Kehoe and orchestrated the takeover of one of the toughest prisons in the country. His demand? He wants Frank Corso delivered to him. And every hour Frank doesn't appear, he'll kill another prison guard live on television for the whole world to witness.

Frank, who wrote a book about Driver years ago shows up on cue, unsure what to expect, but not particularly concerned that he's putting himself in danger. Pretty soon, however, he finds himself in the middle of Driver's plan to bust out of the prison and make a break for Canada. Driver decides to take Corso along as a hostage, saying that he wants Corso to tell his story once again. Alas, what this new story actually is, nobody seems to know. Including me.

The problem with this whole mess is that there's absolutely no point to it whatsoever. I started thinking that, surely, Driver must have some good reason for breaking out and wanting Corso with him. Perhaps he's been wrongfully convicted and wants Corso to help him expose the truth? Perhaps his goal is to expose the brutal, torturous conditions he suffered through while in prison? But, no, there's nothing like that going on here. Because, apparently, Driver only wants to break out so he can. . . go have sex with his own mother? Wha. . .?

The lack of an actual cohesive plot would've been okay had this at least been an interesting character study. But it's not that either. Ford doesn't make this novel about the characters -- instead, it's essentially just one big long chase scene. We learn nothing new about Corso. We learn even less about any of the other characters. There is no depth here whatsoever. Even worse, for some reason, Ford throws in a tiny subplot involving a modern-day "Badlands" couple -- a young man and his teenaged girlfriend on a killing spree. The only purpose THIS storyline seems to serve is to provide the opportunity for Ford to slam on women's victim groups. What the heck was he thinking?

Is it well-written? I suppose you could say that. But this book is as light as a blank piece of paper -- and about as interesting. The man gets one more chance to prove to me he hasn't lost his touch, or I'm outta here. (And p.s., Ford, bring back Meg Dougherty, because she adds a vital dimension to Frank and without it, he starts to act like a caricatured Tough Guy.) Borrrrrring!

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(1/24) Pain-Free Arthritis: A 7-Step Program for Feeling Better Again by Harris H. McIlwain, MD, and Debra Fulghum Bruce, MS. (read me!)

I was recently diagnosed with arthritis in my spine (the likely result of the surgery I had on my back when I was 19 to fix a disk injury). My immediate response? As a medical librarian? Hit the books! This one caught my eye at the local library because it addressed a lot of elements other books weren't focusing on as much -- preventitive measures, an anti-inflammatory diet plan, and lengthy descriptions of a variety of alternative therapies to help manage the pain.

I'm actually pretty skeptical of a lot of alternative medicine. But I'm willing to put my faith into any therapy that's been thoroughly researched and demonstrated to be effective. Which is why I appreciated the fact that this book didn't just tell me acupuncture or chiropracty would help -- it also cited research studies that have proven those positive effects. If an alternative therapy wasn't supported by a legitimate research study, it tells you that too.

I haven't decided to jump into the things this book advocates just yet, but my list of potential therapies to research further has definitely gotten longer as the result of reading this. Plus, I have some hope that there IS a therapy out there that can help me -- that by itself will do me a lot of good. Definitely a book I'd recommend to anyone who has recently received a diagnosis of arthritis (including rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, both of which are also covered) and is looking for ideas on things to try. Well-written and extremely thought-provoking.

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(1/22) Dancing Barefoot by Wil Wheaton (with illustrationsn by Ben Claasen III). (read me!)

This slim volume contains a handful of (true) stories from Wil's blog (wilwheaton.net) that didn't make the cut for his longer book, Just a Geek. The stories are sweet, but I kind of felt about them the same way I feel about the "deleted scenes" on most DVDs -- they were cut for a reason. These stories were a bit hit or miss for me -- a bit too cutesy or sappy and not nearly as funny, original, or insightful as the ones in Geek. And the book itself is sort of, well, almost juvenile in appearance, with excessively large text and overly cartoonish, not to mention pretty much irrelevant, illustrations. Anyway, I DID enjoy this -- as a big fan of Wil's blog and of Just a Geek, I'll take anything I can get. But I'd recommend this only for die-hard fans. I don't think others will be too impressed, and I could see it actually souring them on Wil's writing prematurely.

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(1/20) The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. (read me!)

When I first began to read this novel, I was almost giddy with delight. It had so many things going for it. I love stories about small towns, especially small island towns. I love stories about mothers and daughters. I love stories about monks (and nuns too, actually, though there aren't any nuns in this one). But what's more, I was just really enjoying the writing. For the first time in months, I had dragged out my writing journal (where I copy passages from books I read that I really love) and copied out a paragraph that I had found strikingly good (as well as funny). I started this novel on a stressful day, and, an hour into it, suddenly found myself able to relax. The writing was so lyrical, so smooth flowing. So soothing.

Alas, by the middle, things had changed. The writing, so nice in the beginning, started to feel heavy-handed and flowery by the halfway point. Practically every other sentence has a metaphor in it, as though Kidd had just learned what they were and how useful they could be for creating vivid imagery. And what's worse, this novel quickly sank into a lackluster, unoriginal, unbelievable, and sappy romance story. It went from feeling like literature (of a modern sort) to me, to feeling like a treacly Nicholas Sparks novel. That's NOT a compliment.

It's the story of a middle-aged woman, Jessie, stuck in a stagnant marriage and wondering how she got to be so damn dull. One day, she gets a call from one of her mother's old friends, Kat, and learns that her mother has finally lost her mind. A bit off her rocker since Jessie's father died in a fiery explosion decades ago, Nelle has veered into serious psychosis, walking into work one day, picking up a cleaver, and calmly chopping off her own finger.

Jessie rushes back to the small island town where she grew up, and where her mother and her quirky, "Ya Ya Sisterhood" buddies still live, and she begins trying to figure out what's going on with Nelle. Being away from her marriage finally helps Jessie come to terms with the fact she misses feeling the freedom of solitude. But, of course, solitude schmolitude, she says, when a sexy monk from the abbey next door starts coming around. Jessie and the monk soon fall in love -- and by "soon" I mean, "they have one two-minute conversation and suddenly are pining for each other like teenagers." Blah blah everything starts to fall into a mess of personal confusion blah blah. Should Jessie throw her life and her marriage away for Brother Thomas? Should Thomas give up God to be with Jessie? And why on earth does that dingbat Nelle keep chopping off her own fingers? The answers to these questions varied from cheesy, to trite, to utterly ridiculous. And by the end, I was simply glad it was finally over. So I could go throw up.

Now, my question is: Is "The Secret Life of Bees" like this too? Because it's been on my to-read list for months now and I haven't gotten around to picking it up yet. If you've read both it and this one, and you felt the same about "Mermaid" as I did, but loved "Bees," email me and let me know? Otherwise, I think this'll be it for me and Ms. Kidd. It's just not my kinda thing.

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(1/11) The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin. (read me!)

Daniel Pecan Cambridge, the narrator of this strange little novella, is. . . a little. . . odd. Okay, actually, he's totally nuts. Unable to hold a job because of severe OCD (I'm assuming it's OCD, as they never really say), he lives alone in a small apartment paid for by his grandmother. Every day is a day filled with quirks and routines -- if the lights are on in his apartment, the total wattage at any given time must add up to 1150, for example, and when outside, he must walk across every driveway he passes and cannot step on or over any curbs. Once a week, he is visited by a student psychologist, a woman he is trying to fall in love with but just can't quite seem to. And meanwhile, he's also developed weird relationships with an actress in his building, Phillipa, who he's been secretly drugging for months, and Elizabeth, a realtor he watches at work at the apartment complex across the street.

But, mostly he likes to ramble on about how intelligent he is, and how in control he is of his neuroses -- he's quite insistent about that latter point and, as we find out later, also quite right. He was rejected by Mensa after scoring only 90 on their IQ test, but insists that they just did the math wrong. And he's oddly proud of the fact that he was once a murder suspect, though he doesn't quite realize this is hardly the way to charm a lady during your first conversation with her.

His is an odd pathology -- one he's both aware of and unaware of it at the same time -- and Martin does a really great job of making him seem like a real person, not just as a caricature of OCD or mental illness (reminded me of "Monk" in that respect). In fact, Daniel seemed so real to me, after only a short time, that I started to feel pangs of guilt every time I caught myself chuckling at one of his oddities. After all, it's not his fault he's a few sammiches short of a picnic. And all he really wants is to be loved and understood -- is that really so different from the rest of us?

Another entertaining and well-written novella from one of my favorite ex-Boyfriends (I liked Martin's earlier one, "Shopgirl," as well). Definitely recommended!

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(1/9) Dare to Repair: A Do-It-Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home by Julie Sussman and Stephanie Glakas-Tenet. (read me!)

I got this extremely handy book as a Christmas present this year from my in-laws, who are awesome for getting it for me (I get fix-it books, my husband gets cooking ones -- we are so well known by our families!). Since my husband and I bought our first home last spring, we've had to make a number of both major and minor repairs. All our other books have focused primarily on the major ones, leaving us scrambling around for help with the simpler stuff, such as how to replace a doorknob. This book fills in those gaps by providing step-by-step instructions for the more basic fix-it-projects around the house -- how to clear a jammed garbage disposal, how to replace a wall switch, how to change your refrigerator's light bulb, etc.

It's very accessibly and humorously written, and my favorite feature is the fact that it provides a list (with identifying drawings) of every tool you'll need to have handy before you start each task (because, while I'm getting better at this, before I bought a house I didn't know a socket wrench from a sock monkey). It also has a great section on preparing a safety plan for your family, and another one on how to find a good contractor for those jobs that are just too far over your head.

I know I'll get a lot of use out of this book (and will be looking for the authors' similar book on basic car repairs next). Recommended to all other home maintenance rookies!

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(1/6) Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. (read me!)

Last week, my Mom and I rented the Anthony Quinn classic film, "Zorba the Greek." She'd seen it when it first came out (in the early 1960's) and remembered liking it, so we were both surprised to find ourselves utterly infuriated by the whole thing. I immediately vowed to read the novel the film was based on, to see if it was as awful a story as the one we saw on-screen -- but, I'm sorry to say that while it was slightly improved in print (primarily because we get to know the narrator a tad better), it still made me pretty darn cranky.

It's the story of a stuffy British writer, Basil, who decides to take a risk, move to Crete, and revive an old mine he's inherited. On his voyage there, he meets an old Greek guy named Zorba and is so thoroughly charmed by his vivacity that he ends up hiring him on the spot to help run the mine. The two men become close friends and eventually, we're supposed to believe, Zorba's lust for life begins to rub off on Basil, transforming him for the better.

The problem is, and this was particularly true of the movie version, neither my Mom nor I were convinced that Basil had changed much at all. And, in the meantime, he'd revealed himself to be a cowardly prick, pardon my French. He intentionally tries to hurt an old woman who has been doting on them by lying to her, saying that Zorba loved her and planned to propose. Then, he sleeps with the town widow only to stand by weakly when, the next day, she is nearly stoned to death by all the other men in the village (angry with her for rejecting them).

Thankfully, the novel is also about Zorba, who, despite the fact he's a pure hedonist, is a damn fine man by all standards. When he discovers Basil's lie to Madame, for example, he actually DOES propose to her so as to avoid breaking her gentle heart. And he's the only one who steps in and tries to help the young widow as well.

I guess the problem I had with this story simply had to do with its nasty temperament. Kazantzakis is FROM Crete, but he clearly had nothing but disdain and disgust for its people -- every Cretan character in the novel (and film) is portrayed as a horrifically greedy and cruel animal, and, frankly, Basil himself isn't much better. He's an awful, awful person and I couldn't for the life of me understand how Zorba could stand to be around him. And though I recognize that the point of making all the other characters look like scum was to make Zorba seem all the brighter -- the antithesis of Basil, of the Cretans -- I couldn't help but wish we'd gotten to read about him in a different place surrounded by different people. People who didn't make me wish they were real so I could kick them in the shins and throw a drink in their faces. Maybe the story is just too dated now -- maybe that's why my Mom liked it in the 60's but couldn't stand it in 2005? Because, to be honest, I hated both the movie AND the book. Hated! 'Nuff said!

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(1/4) A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. (read me!)

Wow, did this book ever blow me away. I had put off reading it for a really long time, since dealing with stories of addiction is kind of my day job (I'm a substance abuse librarian). But I had it out from the library (in paperback) when I started packing for my Christmas vacation, and I decided to throw it into my bag since I didn't want to lug any hardbacks onto the train with me. I read a few other books on my trip first, but started this one on the train ride home. And I pretty much didn't put it down from that moment on. It's one of the most intense, powerful, and engrossing memoirs I have ever read -- just absolutely brilliant in every possible way.

It's the true story of Frey's six weeks in drug rehab. It opens with him waking up on an airplane, covered in blood and vomit, with absolutely no idea where he is, how he got there, or where he's going. When he gets off the plane at the other end, his parents are there and they promptly drive him to a clinic. At first, James rejects the very idea of getting better -- for one thing, the counselors tell him AA and the Twelve Steps are the only way, and he simply refuses to believe that is true. He doesn't accept that there is any kind of "Higher Power" out there, let alone one that would be interested in listening to him whine and make excuses all day, and he says if that's really the only way anyone ever gets better, then that's it -- he's going to die.

But, slowly, James begins to make strong friends at rehab, his two closest being an older man named Leonard, who he knows is involved with organized crime and who becomes a second father to him by the end of the book, and a woman he's not supposed to know at all named Lily (men and women are forbidden to mix at the clinic but the two fall in love anyway). The more time James spends sober, the more he begins to realize the damage his addictions have done (to him and his family) and how much he wants to overcome those addictions and live a normal, healthy, happy life. Though he rejects the notion of the Twelve Steps, he finds strength from the Tao Te Ching, and eventually, he decides he's simply going to will himself not to drink or do drugs ever again -- a technique that apparently was successful for him since now, twelve or so years later, he's a sober, published author with a few screenplays under his belt and a new book out ("My Friend Leonard," which starts up where this one leaves off). As if that weren't enough, he's also the first modern-day writer Oprah has featured in her book club since the Jonathan Franzen incident of 2001 drove her back to the classics.

What I found the most amazing about this book, aside from its gut-wrenching story, is its unbelievably intense writing style. Frey writes with a completely raw, emotional voice that at times feels almost out of control -- like water gushing from a broken pipe. In some passages, he gets going so quickly and with so much energy and desperation that he omits punctuation altogether, creating an effect that actually felt somewhat like addiction to me. It's fast, uncontrolled, desperate, passionate, and go go go. After only a few pages, I was so hooked, I couldn't bear to set this book down until it was all over. I've never read anything that made me feel quite like that before. It's one of the most unique voices I've encountered in a really long time.

"A Million Little Pieces" is the first book I've read in 2006, but I won't be surprised if it also ends up being the best book I've read in 2006. Check back in 12 months and see if I'm still raving about it incessantly. And, if you haven't read it yet yourself, get your hands on a copy as soon as possible. This book is incredible. Highly, HIGHLY recommended!

Addendum (1/29/2006): Despite all the scandal and hoopla surrounding the veracity of elements of this book (see The Smoking Gun report on Frey's lies), I still stand by my original description of this book as a unique, powerful piece of writing. Fiction or non-fiction, I still think it's damn good. It's a shame Frey felt the need to lie -- something that I feel is more a part of the pathology of his addiction than it is some cosmic character flaw -- but regardless, I do believe that the meat of this book is true. And I'm willing to forgive Frey for manipulating my emotions so unfairly, as long as he's learned something from this experience (and after being utterly humiliated on the Oprah Winfrey show, let's hope he has). That said, I'm unlikely to read the sequel to this memoir, "My Friend Leonard," as it's about the time Frey spent in prison, something we now know never even happened, and that's enough to make me doubt the truthfulness of anything else he might have to say about himself at this point. But if Frey publishes a work of bonafide fiction next, I'll be first in line to check it out. I think he has a terrific voice and style, and I'm willing to give him a chance to prove himself to me one more time.

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