September 2005
Book Reviews by Meg Wood



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  • (9/30) Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.

    Extremely entertaining kids' book that serves as a prequel of sorts to J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan." As this story opens, Peter and a group of fellow orphan boys are being forced onto a rickety old ship, bound for a country where the boys will serve as the local king's slaves. On board, Peter meets a young girl named Molly and shortly thereafter, strange things begin to happen. Turns out Molly is a Starcatcher, a special race of people whose job it is to protect a magical substance called starstuff. On the ship is a trunk full of starstuff and pretty soon more people know about it than were supposed to. The next thing he knows, Peter is on a mission to help Molly keep the starstuff out of the hands of an evil pirate named Black Stache just as a storm comes up and crash-lands both ships (Peter's and the pirate's) on a deserted island. Shipwrecked together, Peter and Molly must enlist the assistance of some porpoises and mermaids to try to prevent the evil Stache from getting the trunk.

    The ensuing story begins cleverly filling in the blanks from the original Peter Pan tale-- why and how Peter could fly, why he never grew up, how Captain Hook lost his hand, and, just for kicks, where the Loch Ness Monster came from.

    My only negative comment is that it's not really a very inventive novel -- aside from the starstuff stuff itself, it's pretty by-the-book pirate action. But that's no big deal because by-the-book pirate action is always a hoot. Kids and adults alike will enjoy this one -- it was the perfect book to pick up halfway through my vacation. I hope Barry and Pearson do another one! Recommended!

  • (9/27) P.S. Your Cat is Dead by James Kirkwood.

    In this short novel, a relatively unsuccessful 30 year old actor goes off the deep end when, in a single day, he loses his job, gets dumped by his girlfriend, and has his apartment broken into for the third time in a month. Unfortunately for the burglar, this means he's in no mood for forgiveness, which is why, moments later, said burglar finds himself tied to a chair in the actor's kitchen while said actor smacks him around, zings a variety of cranky insults his way, and just generally has a complete nervous breakdown.

    The premise sounds funny but, alas, this book just didn't work for me. It relies heavily on the "insulting people is really hilarious" style of comedy, but I really only like that schtick when it's done insincerely and relatively impersonally, as in the sarcasm on the TV show "House." Here, it's just a nasty temperament and, what's worse, it's not even all that funny. More importantly, I didn't find myself able to relate to anyone in this novel, which ultimately meant I neither liked nor cared about either of the two protagonists. Fans of theater might enjoy it more, though -- Kirkwood is one of the original authors of "A Chorus Line" and this novel is peppered with theater references. But I'm afraid I just didn't get much out of it. Bummer.

  • (9/25) We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch.

    In 1994, the Rwandan government issued an order to its entire populace demanding that every single Hutu in the nation pick up a weapon and kill every single Tutsi. What resulted was one of the most horrific genocides in history, as over 800,000 men, women, and children were slaughtered in only 90 days. At the tail end of the massacre, American reporter Philip Gourevitch was in the country, witnessing the horrors first-hand and talking to Hutus and Tutsis on both sides of the conflict (including Paul Rusesabagina, the subject of last year's film, "Hotel Rwanda"). The personal stories that form the basis of this book are staggering, as is the information presented about the incredible non-response from the rest of the world (particularly the U.N.). The result is a book that is excrutiatingly painful to read. But as Gourevitch himself says in the beginning, what's even more shameful than actually wanting to know the gory details of a genocide is NOT wanting to know. Make sure you know. You can start here.

  • (9/23) Red Tide by G.M. Ford.

    Another in Ford's always-thrilling mystery series featuring "disgraced" reporter Frank Corso and his now ex-girlfriend, tattooed lady Meg Dougherty. This installment begins with Frank and Meg meeting up for Meg's first real art show -- Meg's a photographer and she's finally landed a show for Seattle's monthly Art Walk, so Frank has agreed to come support her, despite the fact they seem to be barely on speaking terms these days. Just as the show begins to pick up speed, photos selling left and right, federal agents storm the building and order everybody to evacuate to Safeco Field, ASAP. But since when could Frank just play along? Since nevah, I answer. So, he sends Meg home in a cab and then sneaks into the tunnels of the Underground Tour to get closer to downtown so he can see what's going on. And that's where he discovers the horrific truth -- a terrorist has just unleashed a genetically altered virus into the Seattle Metro bus tunnel, killing hundreds. As if that weren't bad enough, one of the suspects has a direct connection to Meg -- he's the old boyfriend who drugged and tattooed her all those many years before -- and pretty soon the Feds have dragged both Frank and Meg into the case, first as suspects, and then as their only leads towards finding out who is behind the terrible attack.

    Now, Ford's novels have some consistent problems and they resurface here as well. The primary one is that I sometimes feel like he uses cheap tricks in his plots to advance the storylines -- things I have a hard time believing are possible or would actually ever happen. A good example of this in "Red Tide" is, in my opinion, the resurfacing of Meg's old boyfriend. To me, it seemed like an unnecessary and stupid coincidence that served simply as a lazy way to get Meg directly involved in the case. However, despite this minor flaw, Ford is an excellent and gripping storyteller and I have thoroughly enjoyed all the Frank/Meg novels I've read. If you liked any of the others, definitely don't miss this one; it's got one of the most harrowing plots of them all (though I may be biased since I use that same bus tunnel all the time!). But if you haven't read any of Ford's novels before, don't leap into the series here -- start with the first one, "Fury," so that you can get all the background on Frank and Meg's relationship and personal histories. This is a great series for all mystery fans!

  • (9/19) The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

    Various people have been telling me I needed to read this novel for months and months now. But while I'd picked it up a few times, I just couldn't muster up any enthusiasm for it. A novel about Afghanistan? Eh.

    But last week, a reader of my site finally got me intrigued and when I found myself on Orcas Island last weekend with a three hour wait for the ferry ahead of me, I finally pulled it out and began to read. I didn't put the book back down until we were in the car driving home nearly four hours later, and even then I had to force myself to let it go (I get car sick if I read while on the road). Over the next couple of days, I read this book every chance I got. It was addictive -- I couldn't stand to be away from it. It is, quite simply, one of the best novels I've read all year.

    The story begins in Afghanistan in the 1970's -- before the Russians, before the Taliban. It focuses on two boys: a privileged Pashtun named Amir and his friend (and technically, his servant), a Hazara (a lower class ethnic minority) named Hassan. The boys are best friends, but it's complicated for Amir. For one thing, Hassan is subservient to him and at times almost stiflingly loyal. For another, Hazaras are almost universally disdained in Afghanistan and Amir is embarrassed to be seen playing with him by others. Amir has power over Hassan -- he has the power to hurt him. And even though he loves Hassan -- we know he loves Hassan -- he sometimes can't resist the urge to bring him pain. Additionally, Amir's entire childhood has been spent in constant struggle for his father's attention, and when Baba praises Hassan or goes out of his way to include him in things, it infuriates and hurts Amir deeply. It's a complicated relationship, but one we quickly realize goes deep for both of them.

    Then one day it all falls apart. A horrific act of violence drives the two boys, and ultimately their families, apart forever, just as the Russians begin their invasion of the country. Hassan and his father are left behind as Amir and Baba flee to the United States and settle into new lives. For years, Amir is haunted by his role in the tragedy that befell Hassan. He manages to build a life for himself, falling in love, getting married, publishing his first novel, but the weight of his past grows more and more crippling with each passing success. So, when, almost twenty years later, he is offered a chance at redemption, Amir finds himself drawn back to his war-torn homeland, risking his life to save his soul and taking us into the terrible world that was Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

    This novel is just brutally, staggeringly tragic in so many ways. Terrible things happen to people -- to little boys. Things that should never, ever be allowed to happen. And yet, just as you start to feel like you can't take it anymore, these little pieces of hope start to fall into place. The writing is enthralling -- it completely transports you. And the story will make you cry -- a thousand times over. But, ultimately, I came away from this novel with a better understanding of the Afghan people. What they've lost. What horrors they've seen. What beauty they once knew. So, hang in there. Don't give up on this novel when it starts to get too hard to experience it -- the ending brings with it a tiny victory and, as small as it is, makes the whole journey worth taking. I can't recommend this book highly enough to you guys. Don't be an idiot like me -- make this one a priority.

  • (9/16) As I Live and Breathe: Notes of a Patient-Doctor by Jamie Weisman, M.D.

    As regular readers of this site have probably noticed, I'm a huge fan of the doctor-memoir genre, and I've read a number of those types of books over the years. I was especially intrigued by the premise of this one, though, because Dr. Weisman is not just a doctor -- she's also a patient. A patient who has been in and out of hospitals and procedure rooms her entire life for treatment of a rare defect in her immune system that leaves her vulnerable to a wide and often horrific array of nasty ailments. It's a treatable condition, she says, but not a curable one. And her experience on the other side of things, I thought, might give her a truly unique and interesting perspective.

    Alas, I have to confess that while her perspective IS unique and interesting, I don't think it's made her a better doctor. Which is not to say she's a BAD doctor, but instead to say I don't think it's given her a step up in terms of understanding and compassion. Instead, it seems to have led to her a place where she can't help but compare each patient's own medical problems to her own, and rare is the patient who actually trumps her in terms of misery and pain. This struck me early on in the book, in the chapter in which she describes her experience treating a man who was dying from a lifetime of alcoholism. Instead of being truly compassionate about his obviously painful and difficult life, she can't help but rail against how unfair it is that he could've been completely cured if only he'd stopped drinking. She says things like, "If there were something I could give up, something I could stop doing, to make this go away, wouldn't I do it? Wouldn't I never have another glass of wine, another cup of coffee, another chocolate bar, ice-cream cone, strawberry?" Ice cream cone? Chocolate bar? Alcoholism isn't about choosing to keep drinking -- it's about the complete loss of that choice. And while I understand her frustration -- this is not a unique sentiment in regards to addicts -- I was disturbed by this reaction. Shouldn't a doctor know better? Shouldn't a doctor know that it's not that simple? When she later went on to talk about the cost of treating certain types of patients and wondered whether anyone would ever say it's a waste of money to treat someone like this unrepentant alcoholic, it felt disturbingly clear to me that she actually believed that it was. That that money was better spent on HER medical condition -- treatments that cost, she said, between $25-50K a year -- than on this guy who didn't have the willpower and strength to just quit eating his metaphoric ice cream cone.

    I'm sure she'd deny this, and I'm sure when you're her patient, you don't encounter any of this type of sentiment directly from her. But it made me feel uneasy all the same. I think if I'd had an appointment with her before reading this book, I would cancel it after I was done. I'd be unable to talk to her frankly about my own ailments, all the time wondering if she was just rolling her eyes mentally, thinking, "She thinks she's in PAIN? She doesn't know what pain IS!" I'm sorry Weisman is so sick and has had such a difficult life. It's a truly awful, unforgiving disease and I admire her strength and persistence and her refusal to let her condition pin her down. But I'm not sure she's a better doctor because of her experiences. Is it just me? Or did others feel this way about it too?

  • (9/14) House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

    I'm not even sure how to BEGIN describing this book which is, quite simply, the most bizarre and completely wonderful thing I have ever read. In fact, I think the only way to describe it at all is just to say it completely kicked my ass. Because it really did. My ass has been kicked. Massive kickage of my ass has ensued. Kick to the ass to the my oh my.

    But that doesn't make for much of a book review, so instead here's my attempt at explaining what it's about -- try to stay with me because this book really defies accurate retelling. It's sort of made up of two stories being told simultaneously, neither one of which is actually true, though one is true in the context of the novel itself (but the other one isn't). The first story, the main part of the text, is a manuscript written by an old man named Zampano that is a critical examination of a spooky documentary called "The Navidson Record." "The Navidson Record," in turn, is a film made by a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer named Will Navidson, about his family's extremely bizarre and utterly terrifying house. The film started when Navidson got the idea to make a movie about the changes a family undergoes as they move into their first home. But he soon discovers something odd about the house -- for one thing, the inside of the house measures wider than the outside. And for another, suddenly one morning, there is a door and a hallway that were not there the night before.

    Navidson enlists the help of an explorer-scientist named Holloway, who takes a team into the hallway and never comes back out. And things only get creepier and more disturbing from there.

    Meanwhile, the second story in the novel is unfolding -- in the footnotes of the original text. This story is about of a twenty-something-year old named Johnny, who found Zampano's text and is putting all the pieces of it together into this book. But the more Johnny examines the book and investigates the story, the less balanced he himself becomes mentally, and soon the footnotes are expanding and shrinking into horrific tales of screams and fear -- just like the house. Johnny's losin' it as he reads Zampano's manuscript, and at a certain point (right around the scene where they hear the SOS being banged against the walls, actually), I have to say I was a little bit concerned I was going to lose it myself.

    This novel is brilliantly put together -- some pages only have one word on them, some sections of text are written backwards, things are missing and you have to fill in the blanks yourself to keep going, etc. It's made to look like what it's supposed to be -- a collection of notes and scraps Zampano had lying around his apartment that Johnny has pulled together into a semi-cohesive whole. It's just really one of the most experimental and fascinating things I have ever encountered. One of the things I loved the most about it, actually, is that it takes us back to a time of horror fiction when the scariest thing about the story was that you didn't know if anything scary was even really out there. Instead of confronting us with monsters in the closets or mutants with chainsaws, all we ever encounter that truly seems undeniably scary is a growling sound deep within the shifting walls. But even that could just be the house itself, as it grows and shrinks and moves around. Is there something to be afraid of? That question alone becomes the terror. And holy crap, did it spook me the heck out.

    If you like scary stories, you should absolutely race out to get your hands on a copy of this one. It's a horking huge massive long book, and it will take you a while to read it. But it'll be worth it, I assure you. And even if you don't like scary stories, it's worth flipping through it just to see what the book itself looks like, because it's unlike anything I myself have ever seen. Reading it is an experience I will not soon forget. GodDAMN, it just kicked my ASS. Is all.

  • (9/3) If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska by Heather Lende.

    Lende is a newspaper reporter in the small town of Haines, Alaska, where her beat includes the area's obituaries and a regular gossip column called "Duly Noted." This wonderful nonfiction book is a collection of stories about daily life in Haines and the wide variety of people Lende has gotten to know through the process of writing their loved ones' obits. The stories, separated by reprints of Lende's gossip column, range from funny (locals being impressed by the sturdiness of the Unabomber's cabin) to heart-wrenching (a local family loses their young son when his fishing boat goes down at sea -- a chapter that made me cry, I'll confess), and with every well-written word, Lende makes her town and her neighbors come vibrantly alive for us.

    I loved every bit of this book and was incredibly sorry to see it end! I've always been drawn to Alaska and I confess that after reading this, my lust for the frozen North is stronger than ever. I wonder if my big-city reporter husband would consider writing for the Chilkat Valley News? Eh, probably not. But one sure can dream, and that's something Lende and her wonderful book have definitely made all the easier. Highly, highly recommended!

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