March 2003
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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  • (3/23) Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

    Absolutely wonderful novel about two thieves, a young lady, and a scheme. The two thieves are Gentleman, a handsome, devious, 28-year old, and Sue Trinder, a young woman he convinces to help him out. The lady is another young woman about Sue's age, Maud Lilly, who lives way out in the country with her uncle. And who stands to inherit a fortune as soon as she marries.

    The scheme? Send Sue off to the Lilly household where she will become Maud's maid, befriend her, and pull their relationship along so that Maud come to depend on and trust her comletely.

    Then Gentleman will show up, under the guise of a job with the uncle. He'll seduce Maud and then, with Sue's help, convince her to run away and elope. Once wed, Gentleman will steal the fortune, get rid of Maud by having her institutionalized at a mad house, and then pay Sue 3000 pounds for her trouble.

    Sound intriguing? It gets better. Because things don't actually end up going as planned. Completely engrossing and very crafty, intelligent novel. Very highly recommended!
    [FICTION]

     

  • (3/18) Possession by A. S. Byatt.

    I both liked and disliked this novel, which about everyone I know has read and adored. The first time I started it, I ended up giving up on it after the first fifty pages, which read like a novel by Harold Bloom (a famous literary critic, who has never written a novel, and if he had, I'm sure it would've been extremely tedious). But I picked it back up after about a week, promising myself I could skim anything I wanted to.

    Because the actual plot really appealed to me -- two scholars find a set of letters written by two poets 130 years ago. Love letters. And as the scholars try to piece together what happened, the begin to fall in love themselves.

    And wow, did it turn out to be pretty wonderful once I started skipping the stuff that bored me (no offense to A.S. Byatt or fans of Harold Bloom). The moment I finished it, I rented the movie, which was pretty decent, considering how much they had to chop out of the story to make the movie fit into two hours. The movie was a bit on the overly-mushy side, though, but I can't really hold that against it. Given my penchant for smooching scenes.

    Great writing, great story, great characters, great imagination. If you've tried and failed to read this one, give it one more shot using my boredom-elimination technique. It's well worth your time, especially if you are a romantic lit major.
    [FICTION]

     

  • (3/15) The Best American Non-Required Reading by Dave Eggers (ed.).

    Collection of twenty-five of the best literature from mainstream and alternative American periodicals, compiled by Dave Eggers, author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." Some of the articles were ones I'd heard a lot about but never managed to dig up, like Michael Finkel's "Naji's Taliban Phase." Some were articles later expanded into a book, like Eric Schlosser's "Why MacDonald's Fries Taste So Good" (the book was "Fast Food Nation," by the way). And some are just funny or clever essays, fact and fiction, that stand out on their own.

    All in all, a great collection. I usually skim collections and skip over a lot of things that don't interest me, but I read every article in this one straight through and enjoyed them all. Recommended! And hope it turns into a series just like the "Best American" series that inspired it!
    [NON-FICTION]

     

  • (3/11) Plane Insanity by Elliott Hester.

    Flight attendant Elliot Hester's compilation of dozens of hilarious essays and stories about his experiences at 30,000 feet. Most of the essays in this book are things you may have read before -- a lot of them have been published on Salon.com and Hester is a syndicated travel columnist these days in addition to his day job in jets. But if you've never experienced his sharp wit and sharper tongue, you're in for a few belly laughs and groans. And also, you may never think about flight attendants in quite the same way ever again. Recommended to frequent fliers and anybody else who could use a few good laughs while squished into one of those tiny seats in coach!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (3/8) Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington.

    In 1931, Australia issued a government edict calling for all mixed-race aboriginal children to be gathered up, taken from their black parents, and sent to white settlements for "assimilation."

    This book is the true story of three young aboriginal girls (Molly, the author's mother, Gracie and Doris) who were taken to the Moore River Native Settlement in August of 1931. There, they were forced to leave behind all aspects of their native culture. If they even spoke a single word of their own language, they would be punished. The goal was to make this children as "white" as possible. And as if being ripped from their families and forced into a culture they didn't understand wasn't torture enough for them, the settlements themselves were like horrible POW camps, complete with padlocks, solitary confinement, little and often nearly inedible food, and guards who would hunt you down without mercy if you tried to escape.

    Yet escape is exactly what Molly, Gracie and Doris did. After only a short time at the settlement, the three girls planned and executed a daring plan. Once beyond the walls, they headed straight for the "rabbit-proof fence," a fence that stretched nearly 1000 miles through the desert, and one they knew would take them all the way home. Eluding capture for days on end, they managed to walk those 1000 miles, surviving on the little food they could catch and wearing only the clothes they'd had on their backs when they'd gotten free. Their story is just plain amazing. Because not only did they do this once, but when they were captured by the guards once they finally got home, they broke out of the Moore River settlement a second time and did it all over again.

    The problem with this book is that my three paragraphs above are not only a lot better written, but also a lot more exciting. The beginning of the book is focused on setting the scene -- Pilkington talks a lot about the history of white settlements in Australia and their impact on the aborigines. And while I found this information extremely interesting, I was a little bored by the dryness of Pilkington's writing. But I figured once she really got into the story -- the story of her own mother's incredible adventure -- Pilkington's words would really come alive. Yet somehow, when she finally did move into Molly's story, she still writes as though she works for a history textbook corporation. Her style is bare-bones, choppy, flat, and unfeeling. And it really surprised me, given her obvious emotional connection to this tale.

    Not only that, but this book is only about 100 pages long -- in the hands of a more talented writer, it would've been twice that -- packed with vivid descriptions of the setting and real insight into the girls and what they were going through. Instead, I was barely able to form any pictures in my mind as I read this. And the girls remained paper cut-outs -- flat and motionless.

    I'm glad to have learned about these three remarkable girls and their truly incredible story of courage and strength. But this is definitely one case where I wish I'd just skipped the book and gone straight to the movie, which has earned raved reviews far and wide. And that makes total sense to me. Freed from Pilkington's stilted voice, nothing short of total ineptitude could keep this story from being powerful and moving. I can't wait to see it -- I'm looking forward to really getting to meet these girls. To see what they went through. To get a sense of the emotions they must have felt -- the fear, the sadness, the confusion, and finally, the determination that led them all the way home. You can bet I'll be first in line when it hits video. And I'd recommend you skip the book altogether and get in line with me.
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (3/4) Joy School by Elizabeth Berg.

    The second in the trilogy about young Katie, daughter of a distant, sometimes kind of abusive, Army father, this book begins where "Durable Goods" left off -- Katie and her father are moving to a new town (in Missouri) and Katie's sister has run off to Mexico with her boyfriend to get away from her dad and his totalitarian rule over their family. Katie isn't too happy with her new school, where she is having trouble making solid friends, or with her new neighbors, who keep putting mean notes in the bush outside her window. And she struggles with the confusion of puberty and the fact her sister left her right when she needed her most. But when she accidentally falls through the ice while skating by herself, she meets Jimmy and immediately falls in love with him. He's much too old for her, and also married, but she is entranced. As their relationship unfolds, so too does Katie's awareness of the pain and intensity first love can bring. Especially when that first love is unrequited.

    This is another wonderful exploration of what it means to be a girl growing up without a mother and raised by a father who just doesn't really understand. Berg is a beautiful writer and her characters spring to life with a single sentence, a single thought, a single motion. All three books in this series are really short (about 200 small pages), but they are jam-packed with intensity, hilarity, and agony. I highly recommend the full set to anybody who loves coming-of-age novels. (Note, don't watch for the third novel to show up here soon -- I read it first, several months ago!).
    [FICTION]

  • (3/2) Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

    When I picked this book up at the library last week, the librarian said, "You're going to love this book, but it's not what you're expecting!" And she was totally right, too. When reviewers of late have talked about the plot of this novel, which just won the Booker Prize, they usually say this: it's a book about a boy trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific -- with a tiger."

    And it is indeed about that. But before you even get to the lifeboat, you get to go through a lengthy tale about a zoo in India, and all the animals contained therein. This section is partly there at the beginning of the book to explain why there is later a tiger and a kid out in the middle of an ocean (they were going to Canada on the same ship which sank). But Martel mostly uses the first section of the novel to take us through the boy's father's zoo, stopping every now and then to tell us some amazing things about the creatures that live there. The zebras, the orangutans, the hyenas, the three-toed sloths. It's a wonderful, unfocused, wandering, leisurely trip.

    And then comes the next section, when a ship sinks and a boy leaps onto a lifeboat already occupied by a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a gigantic Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Let the games begin!

    Martel is a delightful writer -- witty and clever -- and after I was a few pages into this book, I started to ration it so it wouldn't end so soon. My only criticism is that Martel starts with the overused, always hokey construct of the main character telling his story to the "author" of the book (who is a fictional character himself). This is totally unnecessary and doesn't add anything of any substance to the novel. And also, it's a bit on the pathetic, "I couldn't think of another way to start my novel" side of things. Nevertheless, it's hard to hold a grudge against an author who so brilliantly holds your attention. And I also loved it that by the end of the novel, the boy's experiences started to get weirder and weirder and you had to start wondering if they were really happening, or if he was just delirious. Nothing better than being unsure about whether or not something THAT fantastic (as in fantasy-tastic) could really be real. Especially if they are fascinating and secretly, you think, possible.

    Fans of zoos, animals, boys, tigers, boats, survival skills, adventure stories, and delicious wanderings of a great mind will absolutely love this novel. Fans of straight plot-driven novels that never dare go off the beaten path will give up on it after page ten. Lucky for me, I'm fans of both types of book. Woo hoo! So easy to please! Never read anything like this before -- and can't wait for Martel's next.
    [FICTION]


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