June 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(6/26) The Only Best Place by Carolyne Aarsen. (don't read me!)

Oh man, this book made me really, really angry. It started out pretty entertaining, which is why I ended up reading the whole thing, despite the misgivings that started to kick in right around page 200 (which, right around page 250, slowly began to turn from simple misgivings to stunned horror). It's about a young married couple, Dan and Leslie, who are struggling with a variety of issues in their marriage (infidelity on the husband's part, and a loss of their business in Seattle) when they decide the best thing to do for their finances and their family of four (two kids) is to go live on the farm where Dan grew up. The farm, in Montana, has been struggling for a while, and Dan wants to return -- for a year only, he promises -- to help his mother get the farm back into good shape so she can sell it. Leslie is 100% city girl, an emergency room nurse and a lover of Seattle, and she agrees to the move as long as Dan swears -- really swears -- that it's temporary, that he'll be compensated for the work he does to the farm, and that they will not touch the thirty-thousand or so dollars they've worked so hard to save for their dream house.

The problems start almost immediately. Leslie doesn't know anything about farming, and Dan's mother and one of his sisters are overbearing, judgmental, and just outright nasty people to be around. Everything Leslie does is wrong, and she feels lambasted and criticized at every turn, with no one there who truly supports her, including her husband. Speaking of her husband, Dan gets back to the farm and almost immediately begins to renege on every promise he made to his wife -- including essentially robbing the dream house account of $19K, without talking to Leslie first, so he can buy a tractor, and telling Leslie he has decided he does not want to return to Seattle. He doesn't support his wife's struggles against his mother's callousness, and when Leslie decides she wants to return to work at the local hospital, the one place where she does feel she fits in, he acts like a big stupid baby about it and essentially tells her doing so will destroy their family.

Things go rapidly downhill from there. By the end of the book, Leslie has turned into a Stepford Wife, suddenly turning to religion (turns out, this is a Christian book, though after finishing it, I'm pretty dubious that its author actually knows a damn thing about Christian values) and falling in love with the farming life and her husband all over again. The reason this SO sickened me was because it made me realize that all along, Leslie was actually being portrayed sort of as the enemy of Christian ethics. She wanted to work instead of care for her children -- well, she'll soon learn that's not acceptable. She didn't want to go to church -- well, she'll soon learn the option is being alone and miserable. She wanted a husband who honored and respected her, instead of failing to support her, cheating on her, and flat-out stealing the money she'd worked so hard to earn for their future -- well, she'll soon learn she's to OBEY her husband, and that questioning his actions only leads to marital strife and unhappiness. She didn't like the judgmental way she was treated by her husband's mother -- well, she'll soon learn that his mother was RIGHT and that she ought to listen to her more often. Not only that, two characters in the book start out acting like non-Christians, and that's when they're supportive of Leslie, and then radically reveal themselves to be Christians after all, immediately snatching back their support of Leslie in the process (I'm referring to Dan and Kathy here, if you've read the book). What is this really telling us about Christian values, I ask you? The "good" Christians in this novel are mean, duplicitous, judgmental, and, in Dan's case, adulterers and thieves. The "bad" Christians (Leslie, e.g.) are struggling to do all the things that are actually good, in my opinion -- trying to raise her kids to be happy and making decisions based on what's best for them instead of what her mother-in-law wants, trying to maintain her own personal identity while also fueling her relationships and marriage, trying to adapt to a radical change in her lifestyle to support her spouse, etc.

All in all, this novel left me feeling queasy and utterly, completely offended. I think all Christians should be outraged by the message of this novel, and that goes double for any Christians who are also feminists (and yes, there actually are Christian feminists!). Ugh, I can't believe I held this book in my hands and found myself ENJOYING it for the first half. I think I need a shower.

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(6/24) Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. (read me!)

Recently here in Seattle, our city suffered a terrible tragedy when our zoo's baby elephant died suddenly in the night. I remember when Hansa was born -- the way the city simmered with anxiety while her mother Chai was pregnant, knowing she had lost babies before, and then exploded into glee and pride when we heard she'd carried her tot to term and given birth to a goofy, awkward, little wrinkled bundle of joy. There was a contest to name her, won by a little local girl who chose the name Hansa, and for the last six-plus years, she has given us all a little lift of happiness every time we've seen her at the zoo or on the news -- her playfulness and her spirit and her persistent and utterly adorable aforementioned goofy awkwardness never failed to entertain and move us. You couldn't look at her and not chuckle, nor could you see Hansa interacting with her family and not marvel over the amazingness that is the elephant. This city loved its baby, and it's been a hard few weeks for a lot of us trying to get used to the idea that she's gone and we don't know why or how or what we can do to make sure this never happens again.

So, it was with some poignancy that I finally picked up Gruen's novel Water for Elephants. Unfortunately, despite all the positive reviews I'd read of it, I found it pretty disappointing. I'm starting to think, though, that perhaps that's appropriate -- this novel is a lot like the very circuses it tells us about: a lot of flash and drama, but not really a whole heck of a lot of substance. There's very little that's original in this novel, and what IS original is pretty melodramatic and cheesy. That said, I did enjoy reading it. I love stories about old circuses, like HBO's Carnivale or Amanda Davis's (far superior!) novel Wonder When You'll Miss Me, and it was nice to be transported back into that world for a little while again.

Water for Elephants is a story told in flashbacks by a 90 year old man named Jacob now living in a retirement home and beginning to feel the isolation that comes from losing ties with one's past. His story begins in the 1930's, with both his parents being killed in a car accident about three weeks before he graduated from Cornell with a degree in veterinary science. Completely freaked out, he ends up running away from school and one night, on a whim, he jumps on a moving train. Without reading the side of the car first.

When he recovers from his death-defying leap, he realizes he's just hobo'd his way onto a circus train, and the next thing he knows, he's been given a job as a vet for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Almost immediately, Jacob takes a serious disliking to his boss, a paranoid schizophrenic with a serious mean streak named August. And, to make things even more complicated, he also finds himself madly in love with August's wife, Marlena (one of the performers). The circus is in constant financial flux, but Uncle Al, the owner, thinks he's finally found the act that will save them forever when he lucks into the acquisition of an elephant named Rosie. Al puts August in charge of training her, but her inability to follow directions only inflames August's temper the more. It isn't until Jacob stumbles across Rosie's secret language that the act finally comes to fruition. But by that time, too many tempers have been flared, and a final, violent showdown seems unavoidable.

It sounds entertaining, and it was -- I really did enjoy a lot of this novel while I was reading it. But unfortunately, Gruen's writing is only so-so, and in many places, her use of the lingo feels forced, like she'd spent a lot of time with vocab flashcards learning words like "rube" and "kinker" and she wanted us to make sure WE knew she'd done all her homework. She does the same thing with dramatic events too -- it felt like she'd read all the old true and crazy stories about things that happened behind the scenes at circuses and had tried to cram each and every one into her own tale.

The end result of all this forced authenticity was a novel too full of action (and excessively cheesy anthropomorphism of the animals, which was really getting on my nerves by the end) and not nearly enough sympathetic or relate-able characters. We're supposed to believe Jacob and Marlena fall madly in love with each other -- desperate, painful, exciting, life-changing love -- but I never felt that at all from either character. And I think we were supposed to hate August and cheer his final payback as well, but I just felt bad for the poor guy. Paranoid schizophrenia, untreated, would be a torturous condition, and he lost everything, including his life, to the disease. How am I supposed to hate a character like that? He may have been a cruel monster, but it wasn't because of choices he was making freely. I just felt sort of sickened by the way this character was treated by Gruen. About the only character I did feel an emotional pull to was Jacob's roommate, a midget named Walter, and also the elderly Jacob, whose emotional struggles in the retirement home felt very true to life to me.

Though, for the record, LAMEST ENDING EVER.

In any case, if you're looking for something light for the summer, you could do a lot worse. Fans of Carnivale will probably enjoy elements of this novel just like I did -- Gruen did really do a good job at describing the circus acts and settings themselves, even while she fell down on the job of actually telling a solid story with strong characters. I can't exactly recommend it, but I'm also not at all sorry I read it either. Pfft, fat lotta help I am, eh?

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(6/19) Cold Company by Sue Henry. (read me!)

Another in Henry's series featuring Alaskan musher Jessie Arnold, this one opens with the discovery of a skeleton buried on Arnold's land and soon spirals into the story of a killer who seems to be copycatting Alaska's most notorious serial murderer, Robert Hansen (a real serial killer from the 1980's who used to kidnap women and let them loose in the wilderness so he could hunt them like animals). Though these novels aren't mind-blowingly brilliant, they're always engaging and satisfying. And on a hot day, reading about snow and sled dogs kind of makes for a nice change of scenery, I have to say! So, I definitely recommend this and all the others in Henry's series (especially Murder on the Iditarod Trail, which was also made into a pretty decent TV movie starring Kate Jackson back in 1996). Hey, look! Finally a book review that's short and to the point! Don't get used to it!

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(6/17) Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection by John E. Sarno, M.D. (don't read me!)

I don't remember where I read about this book, but it was clearly in some publication I trusted, because otherwise I never would've bothered to check it out (I don't usually read a lot of self-help books). I've had chronic back pain for about thirteen years, after having a disk partially removed from my spine when I was 19 (following an injury), and over those thirteen years, I've tried gazillions of different treatments for that pain, none of them giving me very lasting results. One of the things I've come to learn as someone with chronic pain is that your brain really does have a great deal of control over how much you hurt and when. Though most psychiatrists seem to be against the concept in general, I've found that denial is not just a river in Egypt, but also a fairly effective way to get through the day. I do my best to distract myself when I'm in pain, and to try not to let that pain dictate what I do or when I do it. It's not always easy -- I once read a description of chronic pain being like a heavy, unwieldy suitcase you can never set down, and that's pretty apt. But over the years, I've gotten a lot better at compartmentalizing when necessary so I can get on with a happy life.

That said, I've been recently experiencing a major uptick in my pain, and I've been pursuing some new treatment options (including acupuncture, which I start this week). This book intrigued me, as I really do find the brain's control over the body utterly fascinating, and I thought it might be interesting to learn a bit more about how that might actually work (especially given the intriguing new research on using fMRIs as a form of biofeedback-like treatment for pain).

Unfortunately, this book reads like pseudo-science written by a guy trying to make a looooot of money off the desperate. Though it purports to heal your back pain without "drugs, surgery, or exercise," in reality, at least half the book is filled up by a ridiculously extensive listing of all the diagnoses and treatments traditional doctors hand out when a patient comes to them with chronic pain -- arthritis, fibromyalgia, scoliosis, tendonitis, etc. Sarno doesn't believe in any of them -- not the diagnoses, and not the treatments. Instead, he thinks they're all the same thing, a condition he calls "Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS)." But does it strike anybody else as odd that he spends half the book describing in great detail all the stuff he doesn't believe in? Because, personally, that made me suspect he ran out of relevant content pretty quickly and didn't think he could make enough money off a book that was only thirty pages long. Not a good sign.

More importantly, after mucking through all this extraneous stuff, there's something quite significantly missing: an actual treatment plan or program of Sarno's own design. We're told that our minds are in charge of our bodies and that TMS is caused by a lack of oxygen in our muscles, but we're never really told what we can do with this information now that we know it. I've since read that one of Sarno's patients created a companion book that more clearly details Sarno's treatment plan -- a "workbook" of sorts with all the steps or exercises you implement in order to cure your pain. But, to be honest, I'm already feeling disillusioned about Sarno's theories -- I feel like his book misrepresented itself, telling me right on the back cover in boldface type that I "don't have to take it anymore." In reality, I apparently not only have to take IT, I also have to take its companion workbook as well. Which Sarno didn't even write himself! All in all, what this book reminded me the most of is Oprah's latest fad, The Secret, which attempts to convince its followers that all it takes to be rich, healthy, and successful is positive thinking. Sorry, but I think that's bullshit. And, unfortunately, that's kind of how I feel about this book too. Bummer.

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(6/11) One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick. (read me!)

My Dad, a retired colonel (A-4s forever!) in the US Marine Corps, loaned me this book a month or two ago. I'd seen Fick on television doing an interview and had mentioned it to him and lo and behold, he'd not only read his book, but had a copy of it lying around. Dads rule! I don't read a lot of military non-fiction, and I was a little worried that, as a result, I might not really "get" a lot of this book (I don't speak the lingo very well, despite the fact I grew up surrounded by it), but Fick is such a terrific writer that as soon as I picked this up, I had a really hard time putting it down again.

It begins with a young Nathaniel deciding to join the Marines and being sent to Officer Candidate School, followed quickly by The Basic School when Fick is assigned to the infantry (a coveted position). Most of his education involves repetitive and sometimes seemingly-useless drills (like learning how to be a paratrooper, even though it's almost certain he'll never need that skill), as well as the kind of hazing he says he really only expected from college fraternities, not the more "noble" or "serious" Marine Corps he'd heard about as a civilian. But though he begins with complaints about the training, what he discovers later on is that that incessant drilling is what, in a nutshell, saves Marines' lives in combat.

After finishing his education, Fick is quickly put in charge of a squad of Marines and, as 9/11 has just taken place, sent off to Afghanistan, and then eventually to Iraq. Most of the war sequences focus on Fick's frustration at not getting to fight (or, even worse, having to fight his own commanders in order to get things done he feels are important, like saving the lives of two civilian boys accidentally shot by his Marines), his confusion over orders that make little sense to him, and his intense desire to keep his Marines safe and get them back home "physiologically and psychologically sound." But the more he's put into stressful or life-threatening situations, the more he comes to understand and value what it is his leaders have taught him. As he says himself at one point, "Marine training is essentially a psychological battle against the instinct of self-preservation." Instead of giving in to urges to panic or flee like the rest of us probably would when we suddenly find ourselves under attack, Fick's training clicks into place automatically, like a robot running through a sequence of if/then commands, and it's that ingrained training that saves not only his life over and over in the field, but the lives of his subordinate Marines as well.

This book is one of the more complicated military memoirs I've read -- by comparison, Anthony Swofford's Jarhead is almost simplistic in its focus on Marine Corps culture and swear words. Instead of writing a book about the Marines Fick encounters themselves, he instead focuses more on what it takes to be an intelligent leader in command of a group of soldiers. He begins to realize that while honor and valor are vital in war, there's a lot to be said for careful thought and reasoned logic as well -- two things he found frustratingly lacking in some of his own commanders at times. That said, Fick is extremely humble -- he's a listener and observer more than an opiner, and his descriptions of the complexity of fighting in Iraq, a war where soldiers seem to spend more time doing civic duties than actual fighting, was poignant, intelligent, and extremely balanced, as well as, to be honest, pretty professionally unapologetic.

Overall, while I did find some of this book a bit over my head, Fick does an excellent job at making the vast majority of it extremely accessible to the layperson. He's an articulate and eloquent writer, with a real knack for storytelling. I was both fascinated and impressed by this book, and I really hope that Fick is hard at work at more. I definitely recommend this to anybody who is interested in the current situation in Iraq, or in what it takes to be a member of one of the most elite and respected fighting forces in the world, the United States Marine Corps. Ooh-rah!

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(6/7) The Deprivers Steven-Elliot Altman. (read me!)

Hmmm, well, here's another novel I enjoyed as I was reading and then decided wasn't all that good once I was done -- I guess June's just gonna be one of those kinds of months, eh?

Of course, all throughout my reading of this one, I knew it was fairly ridiculously unoriginal. But it was still pretty entertaining, at least until I got to about the 2/3rds mark and the plot began to lose my interest. If you've seen the X-Men movies, you already know most of what's going to happen, and fans of Heroes will also recognize themes and issues too. This story is about a group of people who begin to discover they have powers -- whenever they touch someone (skin-on-skin contact, like a handshake), they deprive them of a sense for a specific amount of time. Sometimes that time is fifteen minutes, sometimes it's forever. Sometimes the sense taken is sight, sometimes hearing, sometimes one's sense of direction or balance. The government calls it Sensory Deprivation Syndrome, or SDS. Those with the condition call themselves Deprivers, or Deps for short.

All the usual mutant-human themes pop up here -- the Deps suffering emotionally from not being able to touch or be touched (like Anna Paquin's character in X-Men), the ones who use their skills for evil instead of good, the ones who wish to be cured and those who value their uniqueness, and the politicians trying to segregate and quarantine the Deps as panic spreads among the "Normals" via misinformation and/or malice.

Despite the lack of originality, though, I still enjoyed this novel until we got towards the end, when the plot began to lose me (we got away from the characters themselves and deep into the government conspiracy, which I found a lot less intriguing). The writing isn't great, but it's engaging enough, and it was nice to pop back into this type of sci-fi now that it's summer and I'm starting to really miss watching Heroes every Monday night. I'll definitely be looking for more by this author, if only because I read online that this was actually one of his weakest novels, which gives me hope that I may like the next one better. That sounds promising. If you've read and enjoyed any of his other novels, please let me know (meg@megwood.com)!

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(6/1) You're Not You by Michelle Wildgen. (read me!)

It took me a really long time to write this review -- I finished reading this book on June 1st, but didn't start writing this until June 7th, which is unusual for me. The problem was that the entire time I was reading this novel, I absolutely loved it. The writing was incredible -- great images and great descriptions and just great SENTENCES, and I'm a major sucker when it comes to solid writing. But as soon as I turned the last page and closed the book, stepping out of the sentences and beginning to think about the actual story, I began to find flaw after flaw. And now, seven days later, the quality of the writing has faded for me, and I'm struggling to find much to say about this novel that isn't really negative.

It's about a 20-something college student, Bec, who is struggling with a whole host of issues. She's in love with a married professor and carries a lot of shame from that, and she's majoring in business but isn't at all interested in it. One day, she sees an ad in the paper looking for a home health aide, "no experience necessary" (which should've been my first clue that this novel wouldn't make a whole lot of sense), and she decides to see what that kind of job is like. She shows up the next day at the house, and finds living there a couple about 10 years older than she is, the wife of which, Kate, has ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and is in a wheelchair. Kate is beautiful and classy, and her husband is friendly and charming, so Bec decides to take the job. But the closer she gets to Kate, the less like herself she begins to feel, as she spends more and more time essentially BEING Kate -- doing her chores, cooking her favorite dishes for her friends, translating her broken speech for others. Eventually, Kate's relationship with her husband crumbles, and then a few months later, Kate passes on. And Bec suddenly finds herself thrust back into her own life, as lost and confused as ever.

It sounds okay written out this way, though I'd argue it's hardly an original concept. I also found the ALS stuff interesting, though I have no idea how accurate or realistic any of it was. But the problems are many-fold. I couldn't relate to any of the characters at all -- most of them, in retrospect, seemed too much like "characters" instead of like people. And a lot of the transitions Bec goes through also felt very constructed to me, particularly her revelation at the end that she's destined to become a chef -- a revelation she comes to after spending an afternoon chopping shallots in a restaurant. We're supposed to breathe a sigh of relief here -- YES, Bec has finally figured out what she wants to do with her life! Except that, based on what we know of her so far, the truth is, Bec will probably stick with that job for about a year and then flail around, quit, and end up back at wishy-washy square one. It seemed to me she'd learned nothing about herself from her experiences with Kate, nothing about relationships, nothing about life. I closed this book and then thought to myself, "Okay, now, wait -- WHAT was the point of this story?" And what ALS patient in their right mind would hire someone with no experience to care for them 12 hours a day? Am I wrong in thinking that seems like a ridiculous plot construct?

In any case, I'd like to repeat that Wildgen is a very talented writer -- whether or not she's a talented storyteller, however, remains to be seen. I will definitely be watching for her next novel, and keeping my fingers crossed that she only gets better with time, life, and practice. If you're interested in what ALS is like, this might be an interesting book for you to pick up. But aside from that, I'm just not sure I can really recommend it. I hate books that feel pointless, no matter how brilliantly they may have been written. I wanted to take something away from this one, and I just. . . didn't. Do with this information what you will.

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