October 2005
Book Reviews by Meg Wood



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  • (10/28) Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army by Kayla Williams. (buy me!)

    Well now, here's a book I'm sure has pissed off a lot of people. It's a memoir about Williams's experiences serving as a specialist in Military Intelligence (she was an Arabic translator), a post she held for five years, one of which was spent in Iraq. The stories she tells aren't really about the war, though -- at least, not the war we see on CNN every night. Instead, what she focuses on is what it was like to be a young, petite woman serving in the Army alongside a bunch of likewise-young, male jerks. If all her stories are true, then she suffered through some of the most disgusting, despicable sexual harassment I've ever heard tell of, and she suffered it at the hands of just about every male soldier she served with.

    But, I had some problems with this book. My first problem was that I feel like the greatest memoirs are the ones that leave you feeling like you've just gotten inside the head of someone interesting. That you've spent six hours reading their most sacred thoughts. That when you are done, you actually know them. Williams is a mediocre writer at best, though, and what's worse, her personality and attitude -- reserved and kind of standoffish -- make it impossible for you to ever feel like you have virtually stepped into her shoes. And this is why I said, "If all her stories are true. . ." up there. I couldn't get a sense of Williams at all -- I couldn't tell if she was telling me the whole truth or not. And that kind of made me feel uncomfortable. This is not to say I don't believe her -- I'm perfectly willing to believe her. But was I getting the full story? Was there more going on than she was telling me about?

    However, the most serious problems I had with this memoir had to do with some of the things she says both about herself and about the women serving alongside her. She begins by making sure we all know just how attractive she is -- how she's always been the kind of gal who turns men's heads. And she talks about how powerful that made her while in the Army, especially when she was overseas in Iraq -- how easy it was to use her good looks to get what she wanted from the men. She even confesses to being flirtatious upon occasion. But, first of all, that's no kinda attitude for any intelligent woman to have. And secondly, where was all that power when she was being harassed? She just -- kinda takes it. And then she wonders why it keeps happening to her over and over. Okay, I can understand that, particularly during wartime, the last thing you want to do is piss off the guys who are watching your back. I understand why she so often chose to just let it go. But she lost pretty much all my sympathy when she next began to accuse the women serving around her of making it harder for ALL women in the service by doing things like making jokes about PMS or crying in front of others. Far more damaging, in my opinion, is a woman who thinks her good looks can be used to manipulate others -- and a woman who is continually harassed by men, even nearly sexually assaulted, and doesn't take any steps to make it stop. Well, at least not until the book deal comes along.

    I guess what I'm saying is that I found this book profoundly unsatisfying and more than a little annoying. I couldn't help but think, "Dang, the men get 'Jarhead' and we women get THIS?" "Jarhead" (by Anthony Swofford, a Marine) was an intense, intelligent memoir full of keen observations and insights -- insights that just totally blew away my misconceptions and challenged me to think hard about the complexities of war and the military. This book is. . . well, the phrase "verbal swagger" keeps popping into my head when I think about it. Williams is all about showing off and judging others -- she never turns any of that "insight" onto herself. Even when she participates in the verbal abuse of a POW, the only introspection she engages in is to ask a single, rhetorical question: "Gee, I wonder if that made me complicit?" Well, hell yeah, it did, dumbass. And you're complicit when it comes to the sexual harassment for the same exact reasons. You participated in it -- you actually fed into it -- and then you ignored it instead of taking a stand. I can't help but think that Williams, for all her macho showboating, is actually just ridiculously insecure. And man, bummer that she's the female soldier who got into the memoir game first. Because it may convince readers not to try the next one that comes along.

    I don't know. I just don't know what to think about this book. I was a military kid who grew up surrounded by men serving in the military. I had nothing but the utmost respect for every single one of them. Maybe that's making it hard for me to picture so many of them as being total assholes. But at the same time, I just have to say this is one of the worst memoirs I've ever read. I'm sorry I read it at all, to be honest, because all it did was make me feel disdain for the author, which is a feeling I don't actually enjoy, particularly when it comes to someone who's served in the military. Should've quit in chapter one when she was gushing over how gorgeous she was -- should've known then she wasn't the kind of gal I wanted to get to know any better. Will I never learn?

  • (10/24) Physical Evidence by Thomas T. Noguchi, M.D. and Arthur Lyons. (buy me!)

    Librarian blogger Jessamyn West made a reference to Thomas Noguchi's novels on her books page a couple of months ago, and as a fan of forensic mysteries, I was pretty psyched to have discovered another series I'd missed. As it turns out, though, this novel was a bit of a disappointment. It was entertaining enough, but didn't really knock my socks off.

    The plot focuses on regular character Dr. Eric Parker, former chief medical examiner of Los Angeles (Noguchi himself was LA's chief ME and performed autopsies on all kinds of famous people, including Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, and John Belushi). Parker is now a forensic private investigator, and his current case involves the mysterious deaths of several people at a local nursing home -- and the subsequent transfers of their bodies to a private cryogenics facility called Freeze Time.

    The problem with the novel was that the story just wasn't all that engaging. It's the same plot we've seen a gazillion times in medical thrillers -- and by that I mean, pretty much exactly THE SAME PLOT. Additionally, it's a lot lighter on the science that I'd hoped for. That said, I DID enjoy this and will definitely look for others in this series soon (this one was number three, by the way). Recommended to other fans of the genre, particularly if you're in the mood for something light and easy.

  • (10/20) Mars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis. (buy me!)

    It took me a little while to get into this sci-fi novel about a struggling expedition to Mars. The writer uses a narrative style that I found kind of choppy and hard to focus on, in that each chapter is only about one to three pages long and the point of view changes with each one. But after about the first fifty or so pages, I got so sucked into the main story that I began to comfortably sink into Landis's style. And ultimately, I ended up really enjoying this!

    It's about a small group of astronauts who successfully land on Mars -- the third of three planned expeditions, and the only ones to actually make it there alive. At first, everything seems unbelievably amazing -- to be on Mars, wow, what a rush! But then the other shoe drops. The only way they can get home is to travel hundreds of miles across the treacherous Mars terrain to get to a small ship left behind by one of the earlier teams. And, as if that weren't bad enough, that ship can only fit three of the seven team members. Let the conniving, finagling, and backstabbing begin! And meanwhile, throw in some cool science and some pretty exciting action/adventure!

    It's hard for me to find sci-fi novels that I really like -- I really only like ones about space exploration, and they can't be too wild or far-out either. So, hitting upon this one was pretty fun for me (my mom recommended it -- thanks, Mom!). If you like these kinds of things too, definitely put this one on your list. And hang in there if you get off to a rocky start with it like I did -- it really does steady out a bit after the first quarter or so. Recommended!

  • (10/17) The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. (buy me!)

    Okay, this is probably not going to win me any friends, but you know what? I didn't think this novel was all that great. I found it entertaining enough, but not nearly as amazing as everybody else seemed to think it was. Aside from the gimmick that serves as the framework for the plot, I didn't think anything about it really stood out. The writing's only okay. The characters are charming enough. And the love story is tolerably bittersweet. But eh. I couldn't get too fired up about this one.

    The gimmick is really the only thing that makes this novel worth reading (and even then, I say again: eh). A librarian named Henry hits early middle-age and suddenly becomes a sort of accidental time traveler. All of a sudden, he'll find himself disappearing from one time and place, only to reappear in a completely different one (nekkid!). Periodically, he encounters himself (having sex with a younger version of himself at one point -- kind of weird). And periodically, he also encounters his future wife, Claire.

    He first meets Claire when she's about six -- or, I should say, she first meets HIM when she's about six. And over the years, she falls in love with this enigmatic naked guy who keeps popping in and out of her world. When she finally tracks down his real-time self, he doesn't know her because, in real time, he hasn't begun to time travel yet. And all this mind-bending time travel stuff makes for the only truly interesting aspects of the story (for me, anyway). Time travel stories can easily end up being illogical or overly convoluted, and, to Niffenegger's credit, this doesn't really happen here. She's got a future in sci-fi if she ever wants one, is what I'm sayin' here.

    The problem for me was that the novel is really more about the love story than it is about the time travel. And the love story just didn't do it for me. There are all kinds of metaphors to be had here -- Claire's whole life ends up being about waiting, for one thing. Waiting for Henry to appear. Waiting for him to disappear. Waiting, waiting, waiting. I'm sure book clubs are having a great time with this. But love stories really aren't my thing, I guess, and I just didn't end up feeling strongly enough about either character to truly lose myself in their worlds.

    Maybe it was all the hype -- people have been telling me I'm going to love this novel for months now, always the kiss of death for me when it comes to movies. But I simply didn't find this book to be all that groundbreaking or wildly brilliant. More than anything else, I think I'd simply describe it as "pleasant." I enjoyed it, but it won't be on any of my favorite-books lists. Eh. Feh.

  • (10/10) Everything You Pretend to Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask by Nancy Rommelmann. (buy me!)

    This is an extremely entertaining and engaging non-fiction book that answers all the ridiculous foodie questions you've always wanted to ask. Stuff like, "What IS a gefilte fish?" or "How can wine have legs?" But it's not all just silly fun -- there's actually a lot of great information in this little book. Stuff every cook, even us amateurs, will find enlightening and informative. Each question is answered pretty briefly, so it never gets tedious or bogged down with anything too complex. And Rommelmann's writing style is light-hearted and fun, too. I just thoroughly enjoyed this! It would actually make a darn good gift for any friend or family member who you know likes to spend time in the kitchen. Hmmmm, I think I may have just finished my Christmas shopping for the year in one fell swoop! Yes! Recommended!

  • (10/6) True Enough by Stephen McCauley. (buy me!)

    Over the last couple of years, a genre called "chick lit" has become extremely popular in the world of fiction. It's so popular, and so prevalent, that Entertainment Weekly even devotes an entire section of their book reviews to that genre about once a month. I've read a number of chick lit novels, though, and have never really understood the appeal. Most of them lack a sturdy plot and seem to rely instead on the funniness of the characters and the relatively random things that happen to them. This is okay when it's truly funny, but most of the time, the schtick gets old about halfway through, and since there's rarely a solid storyline to fall back on, I often get bored and end up quitting. As a result, the very words "chick lit" kind of make me cringe.

    Until now. Now, I'm not sure this novel really qualifies as "chick lit," to be honest, but it shares some of the same qualities I described above. The plot of this novel is really secondary to the characters and their quirky lives. The difference here is that McCauley is just incredibly talented and his writing style is truly, TRULY hilarious. This is the funniest "chick lit-esque" novel I've read since "Bridget Jones's Diary." And that's true praise coming from me, because I loved that ridiculous book.

    The story, secondary though it may be, is about two middle-aged, successful adults -- a TV reporter named Jane and a biographer named Desmond (who is gay). As the novel opens, they are complete strangers, each trapped in a life that by all outward appearances is completely ideal. Perfect jobs, perfect spouses/partners, perfect families, perfect health. The problem? They both feel smothered by how stagnant their lives have become. Like they've settled for less than they meant to. Mid-life crisis, anyone?

    In an attempt to revitalize, at the very least, her career, Jane comes up with the idea to produce a series of TV specials on mediocre, washed-up, demi-celebrities. One hit wonders. Awful authors. Forgotten actors. While researching one of them, she meets Desmond, who just so happens to be working on a biography of a has-been singer who disappeared from the limelight several decades ago. The two end up collaborating, and soon set out on a quest to track the old lady down. As they become friends, they begin to better understand their lives, their relationships, and their places in the world.

    There's a pull quote on the back of the paperback edition of this book from The New York Times that perfectly sums up how I felt about it. It says, "McCauley wants nothing more than to entertain us, and if that's become an old-fashioned thing to do, it may be because few writers do it well." So true. I really enjoyed this and will definitely be seeking out more from this author soon. Recommended!

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