October 2006
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(10/22) The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel. (read me!)

Having loved Martelís novel The Life of Pi, when I saw this collection of short stories recently, I couldnít resist picking it up. And Iím glad I did, though I found this collection to be somewhat hit or miss. The title story was wonderful -- itís about two best friends (men) who, around age 20, discover that one of them is dying from AIDS. Infected by a blood transfusion a few years earlier after a car crash, the young man (Paul) was sick for so long without realizing it that the disease has progressed rapidly and he goes from diagnosis to hospital in only a few short weeks. In an attempt to cheer his friend up and give him something to do with the long boring hours of hospitalization, the other young man comes up with an idea. Starting with 1901, they will pick a major historical event from each year of the century and use it as a metaphor of sorts to tell the story of a fictional family -- the Roccamatios of Helsinki. Iíve read a lot of stories and seen a lot of movies about the slow death of a character from AIDS, but this one felt completely original and new (though as tragic and painful as these types of tales always are). I loved the way Martel used the charactersí choice of events for each passing year as a way to tell the reader what mood they were in (if they were feeling despair, the events were tragic; if hopeful, the events were inspiring, etc.). Thought this one was brilliant.

The next story was equally original and engaging. It was about an unusual orchestra playing an unusual song with an unusually discordant violin -- a performance that completely changes the outlook on life of one of the men in the audience. But the last two stories were kind of lost on me. The first is a set of about twelve different versions of the same letter written from a warden to the mother of a man whoís been recently executed. Each letter describes the execution in a different way -- sometimes the prisoner was calm, sometimes he was panicked, sometimes he ate a last meal, sometimes he didnít. I didnít really understand what Martel was trying to get at with this one. The warden didnít really seem to be attempting to feel out the best way to present the facts to the mother, and nothing profound was being sad about execution in general. So, what was the point here, exactly? And the final story was about a young man who finds a machine used to make mirrors and learns from his grandmother that the way it works is by combining sand and silver in the machine and then reading into it a series of memories. And then his grandmother demonstrates by telling the story of her relationship with his grandfather. But this one just didnít work for me either. The premise didnít make any sense, and the emotions seemed contrived. Nevertheless, this was an intriguing, creative collection that has just made me that much more excited to see what Martel publishes next. Recommended to all fans of Life of Pi, and to anybody else who enjoys a good yarn.

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(10/18) Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller. (read me!)

This is an interesting, but ultimately somewhat unsatisfying, memoir about Fuller's childhood spent growing up in Rhodesia during that country's civil war. There are some beautifully written descriptions of Africa (some of her metaphors for the sights and smells of Africa are breathtaking), as well as some heartbreaking passages about her mother's loss of three children and her resulting spiral into total mental and alcoholic breakdown. But for the most part, I have to confess I didn't find this book all that engaging or impressive. The writing style is somewhat stream-of-consciousness, but it has an amateurish feel to it and is choppy in a way I found kind of distracting. I have to wonder if the reason this book got such incredibly positive press is more because it's about an unusual childhood than because it's actually a brilliant book. Which is not to say that it's a BAD book. It just didn't have the impact on me I was expecting, given its subject (I have always been captivated by stories about Africa). In any case, I did enjoy it, despite my disappointment. And I'd recommend it to anybody else who is interested in true stories about life in Africa.

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(10/15) The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. (read me!)

A year after Roosevelt lost a third-party bid for the White House in 1912, he decided it was time to take on an adventure of a different color. So, he tossed together a group of people, including his son Kermit, and headed down to South America for a journey down an unexplored tributary of the Amazon known as the "River of Doubt." Leading the group along with Roosevelt is Brazil's most celebrated explorer, Candido Mariano de Silva Rondon. Rondon had made several attempts down the River of Doubt, most resulting in the deaths or near-deaths of dozens of his team members in a variety of terrible ways. For not only is the river packed with rapids and piranhas, but the Amazon itself is a killer rainforest full of hundreds of horrific ways to die. It's got everything from bugs to animals to snakes to bacteria to extremely angry natives with poison-tipped arrows. In fact, it's almost like the rainforest itself comes alive as a single predatory unit. And unprepared, unknowing explorers like Roosevelt and his team soon find themselves its prey.

This book is packed with fascinating information about the Amazon and its animals and people. But what's more, it tells an absolutely gripping tale of adventure the likes of which I haven't encountered in a very long time. Once I got into this book, I found it nearly impossible to put down -- I couldn't believe what Roosevelt and his team were going through, or that they kept on going even after the Amazon nearly took them out dozens of times over! It's brilliantly written, extremely well-researched, and just damn entertaining. Highly, HIGHLY recommended (and man, somebody needs to turn this into a movie ASAP!).

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(10/11) The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno. (read me!)

When Billy Argo was a boy, his parents gave him a toy detective kit as a gift. Thrilled by the idea of becoming a crime solver, Billy teamed up with his sister Caroline and their best friend Fenton and soon became the talk of the town. Solving mystery after mystery together with Caroline and Fenton, Billy finally felt he had found the one thing he was really good at. When he got older and graduated from high school, he quickly enrolled in college, leaving home to study criminology and begin his crime fighting career for real.

Left behind, younger sister Caroline struggled without her brother's leadership. She attempted to solve a few cases herself, but failed, and these failures coupled with an overall sense of loss eventually led her into a deep depression that ended with her suicide. When Billy finds out what happened to his sister, he too spirals into the darkness of depression and quickly ends up institutionalized.

Cut to ten years later when Billy is finally released from the hospital. He moves to a halfway house and soon befriends two local children. As he struggles with the grown-up world around him, Billy begins to slip back into his old boy detective role, attempting to find out what really caused his sister's death while he battles wits with an arch-nemesis who lives across the hall. Meanwhile, he meets a pickpocket named Penny and begins to fall in love with her, something that gradually begins to bring Billy back out of his own head and into the real world.

It sounds like a fairly straightforward storyline, right? Except this is one of the most unusual novels I've ever encountered. It's very hard to explain what I mean by that, but Billy's basically a crazy person, and a good 90% of this story is made up of stuff that clearly is happening to Billy in some alternate reality inside his own mind. At first, I wasn't sure I really liked this aspect of the novel, because the various storylines never seemed to amount to much. But despite the fizzling or loose ends, I ended up really loving the way Billy's imagined world and the actual world around him start to kind of weave together by the end, as Penny begins to ground him back into reality. This is not a flawless novel -- it might not even really be a "good" novel. However, it's extremely funny and sweet, and it's definitely throught-provoking as well. An interesting book. I'll definitely be reading more of Meno's novels soon.

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(10/2) The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne. (read me!)

I've read this little mystery novel before, by the famous author of the Winnie The Pooh stories, but it seemed like a great book to read again for my recent airplane trip to the East Coast. It's short, it's extremely engrossing, and I'd forgotten whodunnit! In any case, it's a classic murder mystery of the "locked room" variety, and it never fails to entertain me! I can't wait to forget the ending again soon, so I can pick it up and start over another time. Recommended!

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