July 2004
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (7/26) Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood by Julie Gregory.

    I picked this book up at the library because I recently read a novel about Munchausen by proxy and it piqued my interest. I wanted to learn more about MBP -- how it manifests itself, what kinds of things cause this kind of behavior, what life is like for a family that has a mother that suffers from this condition. But I got a lot more than I naively bargained for. Because what life is like for a family with a mother who has MBP is, in a word, unfathomable.

    This book is the harrowing story of a horrific childhood, told by a survivor who has an utterly remarkable level of insight and wit now that she's grown up and trying to come to terms with what happened to her. To be honest, I think it's a miracle Gregory got out of her youth alive, after years and years of horrific abuse by both her sadistic and unbalanced parents. This book will just break your heart as you watch this little girl do anything to please her mother, ANYTHING. She will go along with the lies, she will squeeze her eyes shut during the painful and unnecessary medical tests, she will cry and beg when her mother threatens to kill herself because another doctor has refused to continue doing procedures on an obviously healthy girl. And when she comes out at the other end and finds out there's a name for what happened to her, no amount of validation or therapy will completely take away the effects. Effects I'm not sure she's even conscious of. Because even though she's written this memoir -- gotten the story out, gotten it down, "come to terms" with it -- she's peppered it with pages from her medical record. At first, I thought that was was kinda cool, but I gradually came to realize it meant more than it appeared to on the surface. Julie is still trying to convince herself it all really happened. Trying to convince US it all really happened. It's something she herself mentions at the end of the book -- the guilt she struggles with for finally telling on her mom, the doubts she feels when she finally moves away (her mother couldn't really have been THAT bad, could she?). It's those medical record pages, more than the honest, painful writing itself, that really gives you a glimpse into the endless suffering that mother inflicted on her little girl.

    I recommend this book to anyone curious about Munchausen by proxy. But be prepared -- this is a story that is going to weigh heavily on you for a long time after you're done with it. I really hope Gregory writes another installment in her life story soon -- I'd like to know how things get resolved with her mother (I won't say more about that so as not to "spoil" the ending for you), but even more than that, I really just want to make sure she's still doing okay. [Note: a couple of days after I posted this, I found Gregory's web site: http://juliegregory.com. If you're curious about what happened after the book too, check out it's "update" section.]

  • (7/23) The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton.

    This book is a collection of eleven spooky stories written by Edith Wharton, the author of "Ethan Frome" and "The Age of Innocence." In the postscript, she confesses that for most of her life, she was so scared by ghost stories that she couldn't even sleep in a room that contained a collection of them. But she apparently got over this fear, because some of these stories are pretty darn creepy! They're not all hits -- some of them end abruptly without enough explanation about certain plot points (which annoys me) and some just aren't that scary. But I really enjoyed this, and so many of the stories were so well-written (and, in some cases, funny), that I'm thinking I should look for more of her short fiction and maybe even catch up on some of the novels she wrote that I never got around to reading. Recommended to anybody who is a fan of ghost stories (as I am)! Great for a dark, rainy night when you're home alone and the power goes out. Mua ha ha ha ha ha BOO!

  • (7/21) The Aerialist by Richard Schmitt.

    Pretty entertaining and well-written novel about a guy named Gary who kind of stumbles into a job in the circus. He starts out at the very bottom -- as a bullhand (the guy who cleans up the elephant dung) -- but when he sees the wirewalker perform one night, he decides to give that a try and discovers he has a real knack for it. Practicing out of sight so his boss won't see him, Gary gradually becomes so good at it that he is moved into the world of the performers. But in the meantime, we get a close-up look at the behind-the-scenes action at a circus -- what happens after the shows -- right down to what riding a train full of tigers and elephants is really like.

    Told in story-like chapters, Schmitt describes an almost magical existence. Gary starts out a hapless loser, but in the circus he finally finds his niche, moving up the ladder almost by accident as he trips into lucky situation after lucky situation. The story slows down a bit in the middle, but for the most part is pretty entertaining and amusing. I think all fans of circus novels will get a kick out of this one. Recommended!

  • (7/19) The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

    Pleasant little novel about Precious Ramotswe, a Botswanan woman who, after her father dies, decides to set up shop as a private investigator. Her cases start out pretty simple -- straying husbands, wayward daughters -- but gradually move up in intensity culminating in the search for a missing boy who may have been kidnapped by witch doctors.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but have to admit I'm a little mystified by the exuberant press it got. It's entertaining and simply, amusingly written. But the New York Times describes Mma Ramotswe as "the Miss Marple of Botswana" and I just don't think there's any comparison. The cases are all simple and fairly simply solved. Miss Marple? Hardly. But maybe I'm missing something?

    Anyway, I'll definitely look for others in this series. This novel is the first, and it's possible the others will have more interesting cases for Mma, now that her office and reputation have been established. I'll report on book two soon. Regardless, I definitely recommend this to anybody looking for a light, quick summer read. It's not the mystery for you if what you're after is Agatha Christie-style complexity, but if you just want a book that doesn't require too much in the way of concentration, you could do a lot worse than this one.

  • (7/13) Monday Mourning by Kathy Reichs.

    Thank God for Kathy Reichs, that's all I have to say. For years, I was a huge fan of Patricia Cornwell's series about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. But that series recently started to get unbearably sucky, a major disappointment to a big fan of mysteries about women and science. Luckily, Kathy Reichs swooped in with her delightful Tempe Brennan books and knocked me off my feet. And, what's more, the hits keep coming! This one, the latest in the series about our intrepid hero, a forensic anthropologist who splits her time between North Carolina and Canada, has Tempe finding the skeletal remains of three young women under the floor of a pizza parlor basement. Detective Claudel thinks they're ancient remains, not worth investigating. But Tempe isn't convinced. Using Carbon 14 testing, she's finally able to narrow down the decades in which the victims may have lived. And the more she learns about what happened to the them, the more horrifying this tale becomes.

    The story is riveting and the science is absolutely fascinating as usual. But what makes this series so great are the characters. I love Tempe, and I love that her relationship with Detective Andrew Ryan is just complicated enough to be interesting, but not so complicated that it seems like a melodramatic plot device. These people feel real -- which adds to the sense of nail-biting suspense the stories lay out. It's true I'm still reading the Kay Scarpetta novels as they come out -- old habits die hard. But I toss those down in disgust when I'm done with them now. When I finish a Kathy Reichs, I toy with the idea of starting over. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. This is the best mystery series I'm reading these days.

  • (7/7) Spiral by Koji Suzuki.

    This book, the sequel to Suzuki's novel "Ring" (which inspired the Japanese horror movie "Ringu" and the American stupid movie "The Ring"), is just as unbelievable, hokey, and entertaining as the first one was. Well, no, I take that back. It's actually even more unbelievable and hokey than the first one, and not quite as entertaining (due to some clumsy writing and some illogical and inconsistent plot elements). But it's definitely well worth your time if you're into somewhat ridiculous, ghostly thrillers.

    This one starts off with a medical examiner performing an autopsy on one of the tape's victims. In the body, he discovers a series of signs that a virus was the cause of death -- a virus similar to smallpox. Alarmed, he immediately begins calling around to see if there have been other cases in the area. And as he begins to collect names and information, he gradually begins putting the pieces together, discovering the videotape, its evil origins, and the story of its life so far.

    At the end of the first novel, we all thought the secret to surviving the tape's curse had been figured out. But things have changed in this one -- the virus has mutated, and the rules no longer apply. And while there are several things in the plot that make absolutely no sense whatsoever (but which are casually accepted by all the characters, which is almost as unbelievable), it's still a mighty entertaining ride. I probably won't race out to read the next one in the series ("Loop," due out in 2005), but I'm sure when I do get around to it, I'll have fun alternately rolling my eyes and turning the pages like there's no tomorrow. Recommended to fans of the first novel!

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

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