Friday, July 22, 2011

Cutting for Stone

by Abraham Verghese
New York : Vintage Books, 2010 (originally published in 2009).

Marion Stone and his twin brother, Shiva, were born to a British surgeon and an Indian nun in the country of Ethiopia. Now 50, he reflects back on his life, his family, and what brought him to where he is today.

In this, my second attempt at reading this book, I found a much different reading experience than when I first picked it up a year and a half ago. Then, I couldn't get past the first hundred pages. As much as I enjoyed the prose and the vivid descriptions, those same vivid descriptions of surgeries and medical procedures did me in. This time, I knew better than to try reading this while eating lunch and actually got past my original stopping point in one sitting. The characters are raw, realistic people and while I didn't always approve of their choices from a moral standpoint, I found myself liking them and caring about them deeply. Marion's story is poignant, sometimes brutal, but ultimately beautiful.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Best American Travel Writing 2009

edited by Simon Winchester
Boston [Mass.] : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2009.

This collection of 25 travel articles written in 2008 is the tenth collection of Best American Travel Writing. A list was first culled by series editor Jason Wilson, and further pared down to the 25 articles selected by Simon Winchester. The collection begins with Winchester's introduction, an interesting short essay in its own right contrasting the American vs. British attitudes towards traveling the world, and bemoans the lack of geographic aptitude of Americans in general. The essays he has selected include a wide range of writing style, location, and purpose. It's impossible to succinctly summarize all twenty-five articles, so I will just focus on two to give a broad idea of the scope that is included.

One of the essays I thoroughly enjoyed was "The Mecca of the Mouse," by Seth Stevenson. Originally published on March 28, 2008, on, the article takes the metaphor of a religion to vacationing at THE vacation destination, Disney World. In a week of visiting, Stevenson sees several parks, and observes such things as the rides, the intended purposes of theme parks such as Epcot, and the people who visit (pointing out, for example, that a great many adults visit without kids at all). While I didn't always agree with his conclusions, he makes some good points regarding the artificiality of it all, and I found his article both entertaining and thought-provoking.

"Hotels Rwanda" by Jay Kirk, originally published in September, 2008 in GQ, is equally thought-provoking, though perhaps more sobering. The descriptions of where he goes and what he does with his three friends almost sounds like a bunch of college kids out for a lark, until you realize that his travel destination is Rwanda, only recently opened up to tourists since the genocide in 1994. History - and it is an odd thought to read of anything that happened in my lifetime referred to as "history" - has a way of intruding in his trip, striking an odd balance between having a good time, partying, and seeing endangered species in the wild, with the memory, horror, and memorials of ethnic tension, upheaval, and war.

Some travel purposes and destinations interested me more than others, but all were fascinating in their own way for highlighting a different facet of a region - ecology in Honduras, for example, or the government of Burma/Myanmar. While I still may not be the best at geography (I had to look up the locations mentioned in more than one essay), I really enjoyed this glimpse of a variety of regions around the world. It makes me want to read more globally, both in fiction and nonfiction, and maybe pick up another book of travel essays while I'm at it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Fire Watch

This collection of a dozen short stories is from the earlier part of Connie Willis's career. Most of the stories included were published between 1979 and 1984. Even though all are technically science fiction, they show quite a range for a young author, with their variety of points of view and theme.

I knew very little of what I should expect going into this short story collection. I only knew that the title story had some characters related to the time traveling books that I'd already read, and that St. Paul's Cathedral figured prominently. In fact, St. Paul's was why I read this book now: on my recent trip to London, seeing St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey in particular made me want to read as much fiction and nonfiction about London and England as possible. I'd rather expected most of the stories to be interrelated, but that was not at all the case. As in many short story collections, I liked some and hated others. "All My Darling Daughters" disgusted me and I nearly put down the collection for good there. But I'm glad I continued, because the last story, "Blued Moon," was light and funny and left a smile on my face. Most of the other stories were somewhere in between, making this a decent collection and worth a browse for those interested in '80s science fiction.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


by Gail Carriger
New York : Orbit, 2011.

As this is the fourth book in a series, there will necessarily be ***spoilers*** for earlier titles in the series. I highly recommend starting with Soulless, and catching up from there. :)

Lady Alexia Maccon nee Tarabotti receives a rather strange, somewhat garbled, message from a ghost near poltergeist stage (ie., not very lucid): the queen is threatened. The last time the Queen of England was nearly assassinated implicated the former pack of her husband, Lord Maccon. Alexia is eight months pregnant, but she won't let a little thing like waddling get in her way, so she dives headlong into an investigation. Meanwhile, her husband and a few co-conspirators have a rather unorthodox proposition regarding the unborn child, in a move to end the vampire assassination attempts on the baby - and, as an unfortunate side-effect, Alexia.

This fourth book was as witty and clever and ridiculous as ever. If you've read the other books - and I do recommend you read them in order, as there is both plot and character development along the way - you know the sort of story to expect at this point. I enjoyed learning some of the back stories of the characters as Alexia delves into the past of her husband and his former and current werewolf packs. My reaction to the book is a bit ambivalent, primarily because knowing what to expect was both its strength and weakness. I knew exactly what I was in for, and I still didn't entirely engage with the story, not being quite in the mood for this brand of silliness when I was reading. I will, of course, still gobble up the sequel as soon as it comes out.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Lost City of Z

by David Grann

In 1925, Amazonian explorer Percy Fawcett went on an expedition with his son, Jack, and Jack's friend, Raleigh Rimell. They were seeking a sort of El Dorado, what Fawcett termed the city of "Z," a place many in his time believed was mythical. For several months, family and newspapers received communiques - and then, nothing. Many bands of explorers have since gone in search of Fawcett, but none were successful.

Intrigued by the mystery, David Grann started researching Fawcett and his obsession with "Z." Grann intersperses a biography of Fawcett with his own search for answers, first through historical documents and then through a visit to the Amazon himself. Fawcett is a fascinating man to learn about, a complex character who on the one hand is a product of his times, growing up in Victorian society, and on the other was a bit of a maverick. I'm not sure I can fully understand the sort of all-consuming passion and obsession that would lead one to drive into the Amazonian jungle and make geological observations, let alone search out a city that many scientists of the day didn't believe existed. I found the dual narratives jarring at first, especially in the beginning when both stories sort of started in the middle, and then backtracked, but once I was a few chapters in, I adjusted and really enjoyed the narrative.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette

by Jeanne Birdsall
narrated by Susan Denaker
New York : Random House/Listening Library, p2011.

In their third adventure, the Penderwick sisters are going on vacation. Their father and Ianthe are going on their honeymoon to England, Rosalind is going to New Jersey, and the other three girls are going to Point Mouette with their Aunt Claire. This leaves Skye as the OAP (oldest available Penderwick). She's not sure she can do it. What if something goes wrong? What if Batty's inconsolable, or drowns, or blows up?

Reading the Penderwick books reminds me of Otis. When I was a young kid, my family used to go to a family member's summer homes in this small town in the Berkshires. It was way in the woods, far from "civilization" and trouble and worry and real life, but it was an indelible part of my childhood summers and I have so many great memories of spending time with family there. Reading the Penderwicks is sort of like that. They're a generally happy family with small family woes, but somehow removed from Issues and violence, and it's just plain hard to be stressed when you listen to their everyday, modern-but-no-cell-phones stories. Is the plot line sometimes predictable and sappy? Well, yes, but who really cares when you're enjoying the interactions between Skye and Jane while the latter goes slightly gaga over a boy, and Batty tries to convince her older sisters that she really does enjoy music, and all the other true-to-life family interactions that made me laugh? I can't stay stressed when I read this books, and I loved every minute of the audio production.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

As You Like It

by William Shakespeare
New York, N.Y. : Penguin Books, 2000.

Orlando's older brother, Oliver, has been trying to kill him, and his newest idea is to have a wrestler take him out. But then Orlando not only wins but catches the eye of the daughter of the banished Duke, with consequences Oliver could never have foreseen.

Though I have all of Shakespeare's plays on my "life list" of books I would like to read, I only moved this one in particular up the list because I saw it performed when I was in London a couple of weeks ago. It's a very interesting experience reading a play that I have once seen performed, and it really brings home the fact that plays are meant to be seen rather than read. Overall, while I enjoyed reading the original and imagining the possibilities of alternative interpretations of lines, they're certainly lacking in the personality that the actor/actress brings to the role. Some of the lines that seem confusing reading just make more sense with actions to go with them. It was also interesting to note that while the production really showed me how bawdy some of the lines were, the notes in the play that I read were generally unhelpful in this area (which, depending on your point of view, could be a good thing). I probably wouldn't read the play again, but I would definitely watch another performance!

Friday, July 8, 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog

by Connie Willis
New York : Bantam Books, 1998.

About fifty years in the future, time travel is not only a reality, it's how historians work - by going back into the past and observing events. Note the key word: observing. They cannot create paradoxes by getting involved or taking things forward in time, or the entire space-time continuum might break down. One of these historians, Ned Henry, is overworked and "time lagged" due to Lady Schrapnell's insistence that everything be perfect for the recreation of Coventry Cathedral down to the last detail. In particular, was the bishop's bird stump present when the cathedral was bombed during the blitz? He's so tired he can barely function, so when one of the historians in the Victorian time period takes something forward in time, he's sent back to get his rest in a place Lady Schrapnell can't find him, and repair the damage all in one.

Up until a few years ago, I had almost never read a science fiction book, and I asked a friend and co-worker to recommend a book that is a good introduction to the genre. This was her recommendation for me, and I have to say it was spot on. It's a light, funny story that still has a lot to say when you think about it, with a little bit of chaos theory and theories of history thrown in, as well as more than a few nods to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, to Say Nothing of the Dog. If, like me, you have never read that book, never fear - there's plenty of fun to be had in this story in its own right and those (and other) literary references can go straight over your head. Though it's not quite as much fun to reread, it remains one of my favorite science fiction stories.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


by Marilynne Robinson
Toronto ; New York : Bantam, c1987, c1980.

Our narrator, Ruth, and her sister Lucille have been abandoned by many in their lives. The first to leave them was their mother, who dropped them off at their grandmother's house, and drove into the same lake that claimed her father and a whole train full of people many years ago.

It's hard to explain what this story is about since there is very little in terms of plot. These are Ruth's often poetic reflections on living, loss, abandonment, and loneliness. It is atmospheric and melancholy. The lake itself has a presence as strong as any character. The writing is superb, but you have to have the patience (and I admit I often do not) for a slow unfolding and revealing of character rather than a conventional storyline. If you do, however, you're sure to be rewarded.