June 2003
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (6/25) The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert.

    In this wonderfully written book, Gilbert explores the fascinating true story of Eustace Conway, who left his home at age 17 to move into the Appalachian Mountains, where for the last 20 years he has lived off the land. He sleeps in a tepee, makes fire with rocks and sticks, eats what he forages and kills. And in his "spare time," travels all across the country trying to convince others that they can do it too.

    It's the story of one of the last true American pioneers, and it's told by a writer who is not only funny and intelligent, but who has a very strong emotional attachment to Eustace and his family. As a result, we really get a strong sense of Conway and his ideas about life. It's not a story being told by a distant observer, but by someone who is actually close to him. It's written by a friend whose admiration for her subject is palpable and infectious. And also, did I mention she's damn funny? Because she is.

    I greatly enjoyed this and found it inspiring as well. Eustace urges all he meets to slow their lives down. To step back from the material world and try to return to a lifestyle based on simplicity. He talks about how we should stop thinking about "reducing, reusing, and recycling," and instead think about "reconsidering and rejecting." And while I definitely have no plans to quit my job and move into a tent, I have gained a new perspective on my life thanks to Eustace, a perspective I hope sticks around for a long time. Recommended! And when you're done with this, make sure you immediately read Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" -- they make an excellent and humorous contrast to each other.


  • (6/22) More Than You Know by Beth Gutcheon.

    I read this book for the first time a few years ago and recently got the urge to pick it up again. And boy, I now happily report that it was just as great the second time through as it was the first time (though the first time, I actually gasped in fear audibly a few times and this time, I knew when the scary parts were coming and was better prepared for them). Here's my old review -- not much has changed!

    Hannah Gray, an elderly woman, returns to the house she summered in as a young woman and decides to tell us the story of the summer she spent falling in love and being terrorized by a ghost. Her story is separated by the story of a family who lived on the island across from Hannah's old summer houseover 100 years prior to that fateful summer. The love story is intense and unforgettable, the ghost story is scary as hell, and the connection between Hannah's ghost and the old island family that slowly emerges as the stories progress will totally surprise you. I could not put this down once I picked it up. It's FANTASTIC.

    Highly, HIGHLY recommended!


  • (6/21) Scott Free by John Gilstrap.

    Sixteen year old Scott O'Toole has parent problems. His mom, Sherry, a famous self-help book author, and his father, Brandon, went through a nasty divorce six years ago and have been bickering over Scott ever since. Brandon got custody, and Sherry has ever since felt threatened by his close relationship with their son.

    So, in an attempt to woo Scott over to her side, Sherry invited him for a week of skiing at a posh resort. But, as usual, she gets too busy with work to spend any time with him so, partly in anger, Scott jumps at the chance to skip town with a friend and go to a Metallica concert. The friend owns an airplane and the two decide to fly instead of drive because snow has closed many of the roads.

    A few hours later, the plane has crashed, Scott's friend is dead, and Scott is alone in the frozen wilderness with no supplies and no way to call for help. Luckily, he and his father had taken a survival course together and Scott remembers enough to be able to make a shelter and keep from freezing to death. But after three days with no food or water, he knows it's up to him if he wants to get out alive. He begins walking and, luckily, fairly quickly comes across the yard of a hunter's cabin deep in the woods.

    The good news is: someone's home! The bad news is, that someone turns out to be pretty strange. And then, pretty scary. And when Scott stumbles across something he wasn't supposed to see, the strange, scary man turns out to be something even more terrifying. Jar Jar Binks! No wait, I'm just kidding.

    I can't say this was a great book. The writing was mediocre and the whole subplot about the warring parents who learn they have to work together if they want to save their son is trite and cliche. Also, the whole scary cabin guy thing was a bit over the top. But regardless of its numerous flaws, I still enjoyed "Scott Free." I'm a sucker for a good wilderness survival tale, after all. If you are too, you might as well pick this one up. If not, I'd recommend not bothering with this one, as it has little else to offer.


  • (6/18) When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.

    It started when the men came one night and took her husband away -- the father of her two young children. Not long after that, the signs went up around town: all people of Japanese ancestry were to pack a single suitcase each and board a train headed towards a special camp built just for them.

    So, the mother and her two children did just that. The train was hot, the ride long. There wasn't enough food or water. And the camp -- an internment camp for Japanese Americans during WWII -- was almost insulting it its hypocritical attempts to seem friendly and hospitable. The armed guards who shot anyone who dared to touch the fences were "the safety council." The prisoners were "residents." Their tiny room with its single lightbulb and no heat was on "Alexandria Avenue," near "Elm Street" and "Cottonwood Way."

    But there was nothing hospitable about the way they nearly froze to death in the winters. Or the way they nearly died of thirst in the hot desert summers. Or the way "residents" who became ill were left to die. Or the way anyone who mentioned Hirohito or clung to their Japanese culture were deported. Or shot. The way the family's home was vandalized and looted while they were away. Or the way their father finally returned to them, four years later, a broken man.

    This may be a short novel, but it packs a tremendous wallop. From the simple, confused thoughts of the children to the fact the family is never even named, this novel brings to life this horrible part of our nation's past in a variety of subtle, powerful ways. Anyone studying the history of WWII would do well to spend an afternoon with this book. And may this novel serve as a reminder of what we're capable of when we are afraid. Then may it sadden us so deeply that we vow never to let this happen ever again. Highly, HIGHLY recommended!

  • (6/16) City of Masks by Daniel Hecht.

    Engrossing ghost story about a professional parapsychologist, Cree Black, hired by a New Orleans woman being tormented by a violent spirit that has invaded her family home.

    The house has been in the Beauforte family for generations, but stood empty for years after the murder of one of its tenants (the Beaufortes rented it out for a time to a TV news anchor and his family after the Beauforte matriarch, Charmian, had a stroke).

    Lila Beauforte, Charmian's daughter, decided to move back into the house with her husband Jack, hoping to recover a bond with her family and its lengthy history in the city. But almost immediately, she found herself hunted and tormented by a terrifying spirit. After a month of torture, she finally moved out, on the verge of a complete mental collapse.

    Desperate to help his wife, Jack agreed to let Cree come and work with Lila, despite his disbelief in her work and his suspicion that his wife is just plain nuts. Cree is not only a ghostbuster, though, she's also highly empathic. And not only can she sense quickly that the spirit exists, as well as the fact it has nothing to do with the murdered tenant, she gradually is able to actually hear its thoughts -- feel its emotions. She also makes a startling realization -- there are actually two ghosts in the house. Two spirits violently connected both to each other, and to Lila.

    I'm a sucker for a good ghost story and while I usually prefer a bit more in the thrills and chills department, I found the psychological approach to the story really unique and interesting. Cree is a fascinating and interesting character and the story was well-devolped and fast-pasced.

    The only real complaint I have is that the novel was about 100 pages too long. There are a lot of lengthy passages that are unnecessary to the story or its characters' development -- too much rambling on about New Orleans, Mardi Gras traditions, and various psychological concepts. And some of the stuff about Cree's past could've been touched on less frequently without altering its impact or relevance to the story. All these long, unnecessary passages got in the way of the plot at times which, especially towards the end when I was on the edge of my seat, really frustrated me.

    But ultimately, this is a book I greatly enjoyed. I'm looking forward to the next installment (and hoping it will be set in Cree's hometown, Seattle!) and recommend this to all fans of ghostly fiction.

  • (6/11) Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver.

    I'm not a big short story reader, usually. Which is odd because whenever I do pick up a book of stories, I end up really liking it (most of the time). I guess I just have to be in the right mood, and that that mood comes infrequently for me. But clearly, I've been in that mood all week this week, and a few days ago, I finally picked up this book, which I've had on my shelf for years now, and started to read it.

    I have greatly enjoyed most of Kingsolver's novels, especially the older ones, and I greatly enjoyed this collection of stories for all the same reasons. As usual, her writing here focuses mainly on women, especially women who have some connection to the natural world (other than just living in it) -- they're hippies, or they live in cabins somewhere, or they have somewhat annoying mothers who make necklaces out of animal bones and greeting cards out of bark. And, as usual, these characters are both tough and tender and Kingsolver's writing makes them come vibrantly alive. Fans of her novels will find much to love here too. And fans of short fiction ought to give this a try as well. It was nice getting to spend some time in Kingsolver's world again -- her novels sure are too few and far between! Recommended!

  • (6/7) Pure Drivel by Steve Martin.

    Short collection of some of Steve Martin's latest essays and short stories, many of which readers of the New Yorker will recognize. I've read a lot of Steve's stuff and not only is his writing often as funny as his comedic acting, but it's also witty, smart, and occasionally even pretty darn profound. Fans of the man and his often bizarre mind will greatly enjoy this collection. Recommended!

  • (6/4) Prey by Michael Crichton.

    Wouldn't it be cool if scientists could create teeny tiny mechanical cameras, each the size of a single atom? You could program them to work together -- to swarm like bees, kind of -- and have them pull into a ball and effectively work like an eye that records images and beams them back to a compter. It's entirely possible -- scientists are actually working on stuff like that this very minute. And getting closer and closer to figuring out how to do it.

    But what would happen if the nanoparticles took their programming a step further? Started to evolve -- to reprogram themselves, to adapt? And then, what if they got out?

    This suspenseful, intelligent novel is about just such a scenario. A group of scientists working in an isolated lab in the middle of the Nevada desert have created these amazing machines and figured out a way to mass produce them. Inject them into a patient's veins and you can see right where a blockage is forming -- these tiny cameras are about to revolutionize medicine as we know it. But, before they realized one of their air-tight vents wasn't acutally air-tight, a swarm of nanoparticles escaped and now it's out in the desert buzzing around, reproducing, and adapting.

    And, trying to get back inside.

    While there were aspects of the plot of this novel that weren't all that original (scientists working on secret project screw up and secret project escapes and threatens to destroy the world, so scientists have to work together to try to destroy secret project before the rest of the world finds out what they've been up to -- heard it before? Yeah, me too.), the actual premise was pretty interesting. Crichton is such a great scientific dreamer and I found his explanations and descriptions of this technology fascinating -- enough so that I didn't really mind the fact the rest of the novel was something I'd read 80 gazillion times before elsewhere. It's essentially "Jurassic Park" with nanoparticles instead of dinosaurs, really. But while I was a little worried coming into this novel that Crichton might be going the way of Robin Cook -- turning into a total hack who can't even keep the details straight, let alone come up with an original idea -- my fears were completely unjustified. This is an entertaining and thought-provoking novel that science geeks everywhere will enjoy. Recommended!

  • (6/2) Sara Moulton Cooks at Home.

    From time to time, I like to watch Sara Moulton's cooking show on the Food Network. I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan, but I've enjoyed it the few times I've happened across it. So, when I heard she had a new cookbook out, I put it on hold at the local library. Sara seems to specialize in simple, accessible foods and cooking and as someone who prefers quick and easy over complex and showy, I truly appreciate her focus on recipes that don't take a lot of work, but result in great, healthy dishes.

    Her cookbook, however, didn't have much in it I found intriguing. There are barely any photographs of the food -- my favorite part of most cookbooks -- and the recipes were for things I just don't really eat -- squash soups, roast duck, flan, etc. Despite the lack of recipes I wanted to try, though, I did enjoy her personal anecdotes about family and cooking, and there are also a bunch of general cooking tips that I found interesting. All in all, I'd recommend the library approach to this one -- read it and return it.

  • (6/1) Avoidance by Michael Lowenthal.

    Jeremy Stull has two passions. Well, three really. The first is a passion for his summer job -- as a camp counselor at Ironwood, a camp for young boys in Vermont. It's the camp he himself attended as a youth and since the first day he set foot there, he's never been able to imagine life without it.

    His second passion is for his work the other nine months of the year. He's a graduate student at Harvard, writing his thesis on the Amish. In particular, those Amish who have been shunned. He even spends several months living with a devout Amish family and through them becomes acquainted with Beulah, a young Amish woman who was bannished from the community when her husband was shunned and she refused to respect the rules that said she must not touch him, speak to him, or even acknowledge his presence.

    Jeremy himself is about to learn a little something about confusing and bitter exile, though. Because his third passion is for Max, one of his campers, a young boy with a rebellious nature and a seductive charm. And though Jeremy struggles to remain in control, ultimately he is forced to confront both his reprehensible desires and their root -- a legacy of sexual abuse perpetrated by counselors on campers at Ironwood. Abuse he experience himself as a camper there -- abuse Max now says he is a victim of as well (not by Jeremy, but by another counselor there).

    This is an extremely well-written and thoughtful, intelligent novel that compares two communities where people are cast out when they let their passions overpower their sense of right and wrong. Where individual desire is grounds for exile, and all deeds must have the good of the group at heart. Though the situation at the camp is clearly far more disturbing than Beulah's shun-worthy crime, Lowenthal has a gentle touch with this topic. A non-judgemental touch that makes it hard not to feel compassion for Jeremy even while you recoil from his thoughts. And though this is ultimately a sad tale, Lowenthal is an incredible writer and his words will make you think as well as feel. Highly recommended! I'll be looking for more work by this author.

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