May 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(5/27) Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Hunt for the Nation's Most Elusive Serial Killer by Robert Graysmith. (read me!)

Until David Fincherís movie came out (I still havenít seen it, but am eager to), Iíd never really heard much about the Zodiac killer. Iíd seen Dirty Harry and knew it was loosely based on Zodiac, but that was about it. Reading descriptions of the Fincher movie got me intrigued. I typically am not that into in serial killer stories, as the entertaining part of a mystery for me tends to be the motive, and serial killers seen to all have the same motive -- theyíre all just really, really nuts. That said, the Zodiac killer seemed a bit more complex, if only because he got the entire nation wrapped up in his case by sending (to the San Francisco newspapers) complicated ciphers and codes he claimed would reveal his identity.

This non-fiction book is written by a political cartoonist from the SF Examiner who was fascinated by the Zodiacís letters and ciphers and ended up spending over a decade researching the crimes, talking to suspects and witnesses, and working on his codes (ultimately, Graysmith ended up cracking the one coded message nobody else, including the FBI and CIA, had managed to break -- pretty cool, if you ask me). Overall, I found the tale of the Zodiac killer fairly creepy, and the parts of the book that focused on his actual crimes and taunting of the newspaper and cops were fascinating. But at least a quarter of this book was boring as hell, especially when we got into the late 70ís and early 80ís, when the Zodiac all but disappeared and Graysmith focused more on dissecting various suspects and theories. This could've been interesting in the hands of a stronger writer, but Graysmith is a political cartoonist, not a reporter, and it really shows. Nevertheless, this book is worth picking up if youíre curious about the story of the Zodiac killer, and may make an interesting companion to the movie if youíve already seen it and want to learn more. Other than that, though, nothing much else to see here, and I'm pretty unlikely to pick up Graysmithís follow-up to this book, Zodiac Unmasked. Oh, who am I kidding -- I probably WILL pick it up. But I'll have only myself to blame if I end up not liking it all that much either!

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(5/22) Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande. (read me!)

I should probably confess right off the bat that I'm a huge fan of Atul Gawande. I read his first book, Complications, a couple of years ago and have been a regular reader of his articles for and The New Yorker ever since. The man is not just a respected surgeon, or simply a guy with a lot of interesting things to say -- he's also, in my opinion, a phenomenal writer, able to take the most complex medical concepts or procedures and make them completely accessible and fascinating to the average reader.

This book is based on Gawande's theory that the best medical advances stem from doctors who strive constantly and consistently to DO BETTER. Not satisfied with current knowledge or techniques, they continually strive to blaze new trails and find new ways to improve the quality of life for their patients. As examples, Gawande describes in detail several fascinating facets of medicine, starting with the advances in war medicine that have saved thousands of lives in Iraq -- lives that would've surely been lost for good in Vietnam -- and taking us into the worlds of cystic fibrosis clinics and, particularly fascinating for me, obstetrics. I could barely put this book down once I started, not just because the topics were so engrossing, but because Gawande is just simply a really, really good writer. I can't fully explain what it is about his writing that makes me want to keep reading, but he's definitely got whatever that somethin'-somethin' is, and all I want when I'm done reading one Gawande piece is to get my hands on another one, STAT.

So, if you too are interested in health and medicine, and you have no idea who Gawande is, get hot! You can find a lot of his articles for free on the web, including many chapters of this book (see and do a search for his name). And if you like what you see, hie thee to the library or bookstore for the rest. Definitely, definitely recommended!

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(5/14) Natural Selection by Dave Freedman. (read me!)

Okay, as you guys know, I'm a sucker for movies (and books!) about killer sharks and other monstrous beings. That's why, when I heard about this novel, which is about a gigantic "new" (fictional) species of manta ray that learns how to fly and breathe air like a mammal and then gets really, really hungry for people, I couldn't resist, even though I knew it couldn't possibly be any good. As it turns out, it's not as abominable as I expected -- that is, it IS pretty abominable, but it's also fairly entertaining, despite the fact it's loaded with erroneous science, clichéd characters, and has an ending that made me roll my eyes so often I worried my face might freeze that way.

The story focuses on a group of researchers who were hired by a dot-com rich dude to create "Manta World," an attraction that was going to serve as a manta-ray equivalent to Sea World and make them all rich. Unfortunately, six months in, the project was scrapped when the researchers were unable to keep the rays alive and couldn't figure out why. The dot-commie sends them all out on a boat to finish up their year-long contract doing some ray research, and while they are out checking plankton levels, they begin to learn about a potential new species of ray that has been spotted off the coast of California. A species evolving at an illogically rapid pace. They suspect this new species used to reside down at the bottom of the sea and that it has begun to surface in search of food after all its previous prey began to die from a rapidly spreading oceanic version of HIV called GDV-4. Once the new rays got a taste of life at the shallow end of the pool, though, they decided to take their evolution one step further, and within months, had transformed their bodies so they could both fly like a bird AND breathe air on land.

Sounds spiffy, right (I mean, except for the part where it sounds totally implausible)? Except there's one problem. These rays are enormous -- the size of small airplanes -- and they are also very, very hungry, and very, very smart. When one brave trendsetter decides to move out of the water for good and take up residence in a national park, the team of researchers moves to the park with it, hoping they'll be able to hunt it down before it kills again (bizarrely, three of the scientific researchers are also ex-military folks who are handy with automatic weapons -- I think Freedman has seen Aliens too many times). But it's at this point in the story that I started to lose interest. It was more exciting when they were on the water -- ocean exploration is almost as fascinating to me as space exploration, for all the same reasons (we just know so little!), and I feel like our lack of understanding about the oceanic world leads to a heightened sense of danger and suspense in that setting. Once they moved to land, it just. . .got really, really dumb and tedious. Not only that, but every character is a total stereotype, right down to the arrogant dot-com guy who thinks money rules the world, the stupid sidekick who turns traitor so he can get some attention, the awkward couple who start out hating each other and fall in love, and the 1/8th Native American guy who communes with nature and prefers a bow and arrow to a gun. *Insert eye roll here*

That said, this novel is fast-paced and has some truly interesting concepts and entertaining plot elements to it. If you're looking for something absolutely frivolous for the beach this summer, you could do a lot worse. I did find it amusing, incidentally, that the pull-quote on the cover says, "An awesome beach read." When I looked up the actual review this quote came from (in Publishers Weekly), I found the full sentence actually says: "Culminating in a cartoonish showdown, this Michael Crichton adventure wanna-be suffers from other odd plot elements, unconvincing romance and pedestrian prose, but it might make an awesome beach read." Kind of what I just said, albeit much more succinctly!

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(5/7) Winter of the Wolf Moon by Steve Hamilton. (read me!)

By now, I've read and reviewed so many of these Hamilton novels that I probably no longer need to tell you what they are! This is another one in the series featuring Alex McKnight, a retired police officer/ex-PI living in Paradise, Michigan. It begins with a young Native American women coming to Alex for help escaping her abusive ex-boyfriend -- an ex-boyfriend Alex happens to know well, seeing as he just spent the afternoon being creamed by him and his hockey team in a match on the ice. Alex, generous guy that he is, offers to let the woman spend the night in one of his cabins, telling her that in the morning he can start making some phone calls to try to get her some protection and help. But when he wakes up the next day, he finds the door of her cabin wide open, melted snow all over the floor inside, furniture overturned, and. . . nobody inside.

Pretty soon Alex and his friend Vinnie (who had been madly in love with the woman when they were both in high school on the reservation) are trying to track down the bad guy, both with and without the help of the local police department (who both like and hate Alex, depending on what's going on). And from there, you can probably guess most of what happens next. This was one of the earliest installments in the series (book two, I think), and I felt like it wasn't as strong as some of the others I've read -- the characters not quite as well-drawn, the witty banter a bit lacking, the plot somewhat familiar. That said, it was still extremely entertaining, as always, and definitely worth reading if you've been picking up others in the series. Recommended!

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(5/2) The Road by Cormac McCarthy. (read me!)

I've been meaning to read Cormac McCarthy for years, ever since I read a review of one of his books (I forget which one) in which he was compared to my all-time favorite author, William Faulkner. Then I made the mistake of seeing the movie version of All the Pretty Horses, which was utterly awful, and that made mustering up the enthusiasm to try it or any of McCarthy's other novels out somewhat challenging. About a year or so ago, however, I started seeing reviews of this novel, all of which praised its originality, intensity, and readability. And though at first I wasn't sure it was for me either, seeing as how post-apocalyptic stories are pretty notorious for being depressing as hell and having miserable endings (two plot qualities I don't typically gravitate to), when I heard it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I decided enough was enough.

I finished the book on May 2nd, but it took me four days to get to the point where I felt like I might be able to write something about it. It simply had a tremendous effect on me, and I'm finding that effect very hard to put into words, for some reason. The story focuses on two unnamed characters -- a man of about forty and his son, who seemed to be about ten years old or so. Something happened just before the boy was born -- some kind of war, possibly nuclear, that has left the world completely burned. The vegetation is unable to grow back and the sky is still full of so much ash a decade later that it frequently blocks out the sun. When stores of food began to run out sometime after the original devastation, groups of starving, desperate humans banded together and became cannibals to try to survive, roaming the roads looking for unarmed, weakened people they can attack and devour. The father and son have managed to live this long, being fairly lucky when it comes to finding old canned goods, clothing, water, and blankets here and there. That said, the father is ailing and he knows won't make it through another freezing cold winter -- their last hope now is to try to make it to the Gulf Coast, where things might be warmer. Where water might be cleaner. Where they might find more food.

The hope, of course, is that while they are making this agonizingly-long trek on foot, they will encounter other "good" survivors. In reality, however, they are far more likely to encounter the animalistic "bad" guys instead -- and that they do, sometimes in scenes so horrific I may never shake them off completely (like the time they find a cellar door in an abandoned house and open it hoping to find food inside, but instead find a half-dozen naked humans, locked in there by a group of cannibals who are eating their various limbs and parts one by one).

The father carries with him a loaded pistol with two bullets -- one for each of them, essentially. And every day they walk, surrounded by danger in the form of the hungry, the desperate, the terrified, and the too-far-gone, the father finds himself forced to debate over and over in his head whether or not he will be able to end his son's life if necessary. What awaits them at the coast? Warmth? Blue water? Food? Good people? Hope? Or just more of the same: ash, darkness, dirty snow, incinerated life, agonizing death.

When I first began reading this novel, I was struck by the incongruencies of the writing style -- "struck" actually meaning "somewhat irked," if I'm to be honest here. It's full of intentional grammatical errors -- omitted punctuation, two words smashed into one, sentence fragments or run-ons, etc. -- and yet is clearly not being written from the perspective of an uneducated (third-person) narrator, as it's also full of some of the most strikingly brilliant and original metaphors and descriptions I've ever read. This didn't make sense to me at first -- if we were supposed to think of the narrator as an uneducated observer, perhaps someone who never had a chance to read great literature before it was all burned to ash, then he shouldn't also be allowed to write sentences like this: "At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death."

But only thirty or so pages in, I realized what was really going on here. The laissez-faire approach to grammar in McCarthy's writing style is nothing short of brilliant -- within just those few pages, it masterfully and effectively sets the perfect tone: a heavy feeling despair and desolation. In this destroyed world, things like grammar are not just unnecessary, but meaningless. Telling the story is what matters, but apostrophes, sentence structures, spelling, all that -- there's no reason, no point. It simply doesn't matter any more. In one scene, the father even comes across a pile of old books, picks one up, and describes its writing as "bloated," which, in my opinion, aptly put into words what McCarthy's anti-use of basic grammatical rules had already put into effect. Though a lot of reviewers have said this was the first one of McCarthy's novels that didn't remind them strongly of Faulkner, I could actually see the reason for those comparisons, as Faulkner is another writer who used not just the words themselves to tell his stories, but also the very structure and organization of those words.

In short, I thought this novel was every bit as brilliant as the rest of the world seems to think it is. And though it, like all post-apocalyptic novels, is depressing as all get-out and doesn't have a picture-perfect happy ending, it does at least have the ending it needed to have: an ending of hope. Oprah was right to choose this one for her Book Club -- not only is it highly readable and very accessible, but it is one of those books that you can talk about for hours and still not even come close to covering every aspect that warrants consideration. I haven't read a book that gave me such pause in years. Don't miss this one, people. Highly, HIGHLY recommended.

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