Wednesday, July 30, 2008

World Without End - Ken Follett

This long-awaited sequel, published 18 years after The Pillars of the Earth, takes place in the English town of Kingbridge, two centuries after the original. But, despite taking place at a different time, much of the basic story is the same. Instead of a church, the townspeople find themselves in need of a new bridge, and Merthin, a clever little red-headed fellow is just the one to build it for them. But, of course, nothing is that easy. There are politics involved, as well as scheming religious leaders who will do anything for a bigger chunk of power. As well as the architecture, much of this novel focuses on the medicinal landscape of the times - female herbalists labeled as witches, and the tension between common sense acquired by doctors on the battlefield and the esoteric belief in humors and bleeding subscribed to by the monks. When the bubonic plague strikes the town, Merthin's soul-mate, Caris, finds herself stuck in the middle of the debate - urging people to stay in their homes, and ordering the nursing nuns to keep their faces covered and hands clean when tending to the sick. The monks, on the other hand, believe that the plague is punishment for the sins of the people, and that the road to recovery can only be traveled by prayer and self-sacrifice. Once again Follett has created intelligent female characters thwarted by disgusting vengeful men. But, it all makes for a unputdownable knight-filled soap opera. I didn't think Follett would be able to match his original masterpiece, but I definitely was not disappointed. I can't wait for the third installment in 2026.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Good Bones and Simple Murders - Margaret Atwood

This book is just weird. I'm not exactly sure how to categorize it in terms of's a collection of short pieces that almost feel like writing exercises. Some start in the middle of a sentence and others fail to finish. Some are contained small stories, others are lists of ideas or little bursts of observation and stream of consciousness. There is a letter to Hamlet from his mother Gertrude, chastising him about his step-father. There are directions on how to make your own man. And, of course, in true Atwood style, there are a number of satiric bits about woman's place in society and coming to terms with relationships. There are flashes of brilliance in many of the pieces, but if Atwood's name weren't on the cover, I wonder how many people would bother reading this book. Good for a chuckle and a random thought, but nothing too lasting.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

American Youth - Phil LaMarche

American Youth begins with a tragic incident involving adolescents and a firearm. As the police investigate a young man named Ted, Ted's mother urges him to keep his mouth shut and protect himself. At the same time, Ted's confusion and guilt over the incident lead him to increasingly self-destructive behavior. He enters high school and befriends the American Youth - a vigilante group against alcohol, drugs, and the type of liberal thought that they believe is destroying America. Ted struggles to be understood by his father, enters into a semi-relationship with the ex-girlfriend of one of the American Youth leaders, and burns himself as an outlet for his pain (a take-off on the ubiquitous cutting I seem to see popping up all over books about teenage girls) all while continuing his hunting and shooting for sport lifestyle. This is a pretty short book, and LaMarche has packed in a dozen issues for young Ted to come to terms with. As a result, the narrative is a bit scattered. I felt like I would get a small glimpse into Ted's problems, only to have the story shift to yet another issue. Perhaps, in this way, it is like the real like of a teenager - filled with angst and turmoil, and no outlet for resolution. I could see American Youth as a good choice for a high school reading list - it has various avenues for generating conversation on hot-button issues, and leaves the reader with a sense of uneasiness - appropriate for a novel focused on the current state of American youth and politics.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Plain Truth - Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is one of those writers I turn to (like Anita Shreve) when I want a relatively fast read that I know I will get into quickly, will probably be about women, and will bring me out of a reading funk, if I happen to be in one. And, she seems to have a never-ending supply of books, so I feel like I can keep going back to the well again and again. This one is about an 18-year old unwed Amish woman, Katie, charged with murdering her newborn child. At first, Katie cannot acknowledge that she was even pregnant. She has no memory of how she got pregnant, of giving birth, or of anything that happened to the baby afterwards. Crack-defense attorney and distant non-Amish relative, Ellie, agrees to represent Katie. As part of the Court's agreement to allow Katie out on bail while awaiting trial, Ellie has to move to the Amish farm and adjust to a completely new lifestyle. Like many people, I do have a fascination with the Amish, and I was interested in the parts of the book that dealt with their reactions to Katie's charges, her shunning, and how Katie behaved vis-a-vis the expectations of her community. She has a brother, Jacob, who has been ex-communicated from the church because of his desire to go to college, and she has a pseudo-boyfriend who is confounded by the situation, knowing that he could not have been the father of the dead child. As Katie's memory slowly comes back to her in bits and pieces, her refusal to acknowledge her actions becomes a bit frustrating. And, I'm not sure if Picoult had a legal advisor on this novel, but Ellie probably violated 60% of the Rules of Professional Conduct during her representation of Katie, while maintaining that her actions were necessary to provide a stellar defense for her client. This, coupled with her juvenile romantic interactions with her ex-boyfriends (despite the fact that her character is 39 years old) made Ellie into a very unlikeable character. This book reminded me a lot of Chris Bohjalian's Midwives. It was not as compelling, but it had this did she or didn't she quality about it and I assumed it would end before we truly discoverd what had happened. Luckily, for me, Picoult did give us the real answer to the mystery in the final chapter, but it wasn't quite as satisfying as I'd hoped. Plain Truth served its purpose for me - but isn't one I recommend without hesitation.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Rain Storm - Barry Eisler

This is the third installment of the John Rain series - a half-Japanese/half-American trained assassin. This time, he's made his home in Brazil, hoping to blend in with the Japanese community in Sao Paolo/Rio and all places in between (it made me crave caipirinhas). But, not surprisingly, his Japanese employers will not let him off the hook so easily, and they have a lucrative assignment for him in Hong Kong. Eisler creates a bit of plot -- the target is an arms dealer supplying Southeast Asia and Rain isn't the only assassin on his tail. The other is a cunning and beautiful probable Israeli. Rain may finally have met his match. But, it's all just a ploy for Eisler to do what he does best - write long passages about mixed martial arts encounters and Rain's ingenious methods of surveillance and counter-surveillance. I had a hard time getting through this one, finding myself a little bored, though I loved the character of Dox -- a CIA sniper with a southern drawl. But, I've heard that this book is the necessary bridge from the two preceding books in the series to the three that follow. And, since I'm in for a penny, in for a pound, I plan to keep reading as long as John Rain keeps killing.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames - David Sedaris

I learned this morning that there are over 100 people on the waiting list at the library for this book. I wonder how many of them will be disappointed. I have heard many people say about Sedaris - "well, once you've read one book you've read them all." I don't necessarily think that's true, though he does bring the same wit and charm to all of his autobiographical collections of essays. This collection mostly takes place in France (with flashbacks to earlier times), where Sedaris lives with his partner Hugh - who is always presented as a completely rational. I would love to read a book of essays about Sedaris written by Hugh (assuming he can write), as I can't imagine any sane person living in the same vicinity of Sedaris's madness. This collection is not as humorous as ones I've read before - though it was good for a few chuckles on the stairmaster. I think this a collection I would recommend to established Sedaris fans - people who want to get to know him a little better. For first time Sedaris readers, I don't think this one will explain his immense popularity. But, since Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris has won me over as a fan for life, and I will continue to read his book as quickly as he can churn them out. Assuming I don't have to wait too long in the library queue, of course.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers

This book has been sitting on my shelves for years. For some reason, I never got around to reading it - but I have gotten to know more about the author, Dave Eggers, through his writing center in San Francisco, 826 Valencia (, and through his annual compliations of the The Best American NonRequired Reading books ( I knew that Eggers's parents both passed away within a short time of each other, and that he was tasked with raising his younger brother. I also knew that Eggers's sister later criticized the book stating that her role in her brother's upbringing had been grossly underrepresented in the book. The critiques of the book reminded me a lot of the whole James Frey fiasco and I think I was never in the mood to read a fake-memoir. But, I decided it was finally time. The first third of the book is quite engaging. Eggers tells the story of his family relatively straight-forwardly. He is accutely self-aware of his own indulgences and writes as if he is having a conversation with his readers. Just out of college, Eggers moves his then 7 year old brother Toph to Berkeley. Their older sister Beth attends law school at Boalt, and their older brother Bill moves to LA. As Eggers and Toph live in bachelor-like squalor, Eggers recounts all his failures as a surrogate-parent, while Toph speaks to him with the insight of a Jungian scholar. Eggers then recounts his failed attempt to be on the Real World San Francisco, and it is at this point that the narrative becomes almost absurdist. His dialogue is acknowledged as reconstructed and he delves further into his self-indulgent narrative - though presumably the fact that he recognizes it as such is supposed to be interpreted by the reader as charming. After finishing the book, I was curious as to what the Eggers family was up to. Sadly, I learned that the sister Beth overdosed on pills in 2002 (apparent suicide), that Toph ended up in college, and of course Eggers himself has continued to write and edit - for people that adore him and others who find him excruciatingly irritating. On balance, I think I like Eggers. His work at 826 Valencia is incredible and his writing style while grating at times is at least creative and different. I think I will continue to give him more time in my reading life by checking out his quarterly literary journal McSweeney's (

The Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett

I took a brief hiatus from the blog as I vacationed on Kauai for a week. I brought three long books to keep me occupied - and my husband was excited to note that he had already read two of them (and liked them both). The first, was The Pillars of the Earth - a book I had not heard of before a couple months ago when I requested it from the library. Come to find out since then that it has quite a cult following, and the only reason I've never heard of it is because I've apparently been living under a rock for the last 18 years. As many folks know, when it comes to things that everyone else in the world seems to love, I am highly skeptical and I look for any reason to criticize. But, I have to say that this book is without a doubt, the best one I have read all year - and I will add it to my favorite books of all time list. I am, however, at a bit of a loss as to how to describe it. It is ostensibly about the building of a Gothic cathedral in 12th century England - and amidst the plot, there is a lot of description about the various types of architecture, the development of certain styles (the flying buttress among them), and the intense labor and time it takes to built such a lasting monument. But, this is more a story about the people in the town of Knightsbridge and the never-ending political maneuvering it takes to obtain the power and money necessary to build the cathedral and stay alive. This book is filled with strong and clever female characters with fierce independence - which I loved, but given the times, they are often rendered powerless in the face of power-hungry savage males - which made parts of the book difficult to read. Follett does an incredible job developing his characters - even the ones you hate seem to have something in their background or belief system to make them marginally sympathetic. There are so many different ideas and plots woven throughout this book, that I can't begin to capture what was so amazing about it all. This book is a true epic - and one that you just have to read and see for yourself.