Thursday, October 30, 2008


Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson was originally published in 1998. My paperback copy is 372 pages. This is an alternate history science fiction novel. In 1912, after shimmering aurora-like lights played across the sky world wide, almost all of Europe disappears and is replaced by an alien, primeval wilderness. This event is eventually called the Miracle. In the first part of the book, an expedition is assembled to explore the new continent, called Darwinia. Guilford Law witnessed the Miracle as a boy and he is the photographer of the expedition. We eventually learn that Darwinia is not what it seems to be and several characters, including Guilford, are not who they seem to be.

Wilson's novel held my attention and had great promise until the middle, where it takes an abrupt turn in the plot. One reviewer adeptly described this twist in the middle as resembling The Matrix meets The Lost World. For me, the fusion of the two stories was unsatisfactory. As I see it, Wilson could have improved the novel by going one of two ways. He could have stayed true to the Lost World storyline or more fully developed The Matrix-like angle. It's not a bad novel, but it had the potential to be so much better. Rating: 3.5

Description from cover:
In 1912, history was changed by the Miracle, when the old world of Europe was replaced by Darwinia, a strange land of nightmarish jungle and antediluvian monsters. To some, the Miracle is an act of divine retribution; to others, it is an opportunity to carve out a new empire.

Leaving American now ruled by religious fundamentalism, young Guilford Law travels to Darwinia on a mission of discovery that will take him further than he can possibly a shattering revelation about mankind's destiny in the universe.

"Guilford Law turned fourteen the night the world changed." opening sentence

"But the event itself, the terrible knowledge of it and the diffusion of that knowledge across what remained of the human world, lacked parallel or precedent." pg. 4

"From Berlin, Paris, London, all the capitals of Europe, the rippling light enclosed the entire span of the sky." pg. 4

"It was not what a forest ought to look like or smell like, and - perhaps worse - it was not what a forest should sound like." pg. 12

"Buckley felt a prickle of heat and pressure as the creature pierced the cloth of his trousers and then the skin above his knee with the point of its daggerlike muzzle." pg. 13

"...the sheer enormity of what has happened began to emerge....there was no Ireland, no England, no France or Germany or Italy... nothing but wilderness north from Cairo and east at least as far as the Russian Steppes. as if the planet had been sliced apart and some foreign organism grafted into the wound." pg. 15

"... Europe transformed, the miracle continent the newspapers still called Darwinia." pg. 22

"The generally accepted explanation for the Miracle was that it had been just that: an act of divine intervention on a colossal scale." pg. 47

"The summer of 1920 was a chill one, at least in Washington, for which people blamed the Russian volcanoes, the fiery line of geologic disturbance which marked the eastern border of the Miracle and which had been erupting sporadically since 1912..." pg. 105

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Snow Angels

Snow Angels by Stewart O'Nan was originally published in 1994. My hardcover copy has 305 pages. This first novel by O'Nan looks at a slice of time in fifteen year old Artie's life when his parents marriage disintegrated. At the same time it follows the story of Annie, Artie's former babysitter, and her failed marriage and murder. With haunting and true to life characterizations, O'Nan seamlessly weaves the two stories together. Rating: 4.5

Synopsis from cover:
"Western Pennsylvania, 1974. On a snowy winter afternoon, the winter of his parents' breakup, Arthur Parkinson's high school band practice is interrupted by the sound of gunshots. Too close for deer hunting, it is the sound of the murder of Annie Marchand. Once Arthur's babysitter, and the object of his childhood admiration, Annie is a young woman for whom life didn't turn out quite right, who could find no one to blame, and who could not keep herself, or her loved ones, from harm.

With exquisite feeling and perfect pitch, Snow Angels weaves together two haunting stories: Arthur's account of how his family fell apart and everything went wrong the year he turned fifteen, and the shifting-focus story of Annie Marchand and the broken life she cannot seem to reassemble - a story that will draw Arthur into its deepening eddy as it nears an inevitable conclusion.

At once deeply moving and darkly funny, Snow Angels is a virtuoso performance, an extraordinary first novel from a unique and masterful talent."
"I was in the band the fall my father left, in the second row of trombones, in the middle because I was a freshman." first sentence.

"Beside me Warren Hardesty muttered something - a joke, a rejoinder - and then we heard what I immediately gunshots. A clump of them. They crackled like fireworks, echoed over the bare trees on the other side of the highway. They were close. The band turned to them in unison, something Mr. Chervenick could never get us to do." pg. 3

"What we had heard was someone being murdered, someone most of us knew, if dimly. Her name was Annie Marchand, and I knew her first - years before this - merely as Annie the babysitter." pg. 4

"My mother and I never talked about what happened.... I now see that she (and myself, though I did not acknowledge it at the time) was going through her own slow tragedy and needed her grief for both herself and me." pg. 10

"I know that once we touch down I will not be able to think clearly, that every remembered Pizza Hut and body shop, every stretch of road I know intimately, will stun me like love." pg. 16

"Looking down at the farms and fields, the two schools separated by the interstate, the black bean of Marsden's Pond, I think that....if I concentrate on the details I will be able to make sense of the whole, that I will finally understand everything that happened back then, when I know that I can't." pg. 16

"My mother insists that the snow never left that winter. According to her, the first flurries struck in mid-November and we didn't see grass again until spring." pg. 107

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull

Movie night:

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull


Saturday, October 25, 2008

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin was originally published in 2005. My paperback copy has 719 pages, including notes and index. Winner of the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, for Biography, this is the definitive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It is a great example of a well researched and carefully written biography, however, it is also a massive, very thorough biography. If you are simply mildly curious about Oppenheimer, then you might want to consider a less detailed account of his life. Excellent biography Rating: 5

personal note: It was quite interesting to note that the Oppenheimer family originally owned the Van Gogh painting, First Steps (After Millet) and later brother Frank had to sell it due to his being black listed and unable to find work as a physicist. I have had a print of this painting in my home for years.

Description from cover:
J.Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress. In this magisterial acclaimed biography twenty-five years in the making, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin capture Oppenheimer's life and times, from his early career to his central role in the Cold War. This is biography and history at its finest, riveting and deeply informative.

"Robert Oppenheimer's life - his career, his reputation, even his sense of self-worth - suddenly spun out of control four days before Christmas in 1953. Opening sentence, preface pg. ix

"As the tide of anticommunism rose in postwar America, Oppenheimer became increasingly aware that 'a beast in the jungle' was stalking him. His appearances before Red-hunting congressional investigative committees, the FBI taps on his home and office phones, the scurrilous stories about his political past and policy recommendations planted in the press made him feel like a hunted man. preface pg. ix

"Those years were some of the finest of his life. That they were so easily used to silence his voice a decade later is a reminder of how delicately balanced are the democratic principles we profess, and how carefully they must be guarded." preface pg. xi

"Some knew him as their gentle teacher and affectionately called him 'Oppie.' Others knew him as a great physicist, a man who in 1945 had become the 'father' of the atomic bomb, a national hero and emblem of a scientist as a public servant. And everyone remembered with deep bitterness how, just nine years later, the new administration....had declared him a security risk - making Robert Oppenheimer the most prominent victim of America's anti-communist crusade." pg. 3

" 'I was an unctuous, repulsively good little boy...My life as a child did not prepare me for the fact that the world is full of cruel and bitter things.' " pg. 21

"Robert's seemingly brittle and delicate shell actually disguised a stoic personality built of stubborn pride and determination, a characteristic that would reappear throughout his life. pg. 21

"Robert seemed to divide the world into people who were worth his time and those who were not." pg. 72

"His physics was good, but his arithmetic awful." pg. 88

"Students felt free to interrupt Oppie with a question. 'He generally would answer patiently....unless the question was manifestly stupid, in which event his response was likely to be quite caustic.' " pg. 170

"Years later, Oppenheimer claimed wryly that, 'The government paid more to tap my telephone than they ever paid me at Los Alamos.' " pg. 405

Friday, October 24, 2008

Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?

Trish at Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’? is giving away a copy of The Likeness by Tana French! She rated it 100 out of a 100 so it looks like a winner. Go visit her to read the details.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stewart O'Nan fan club

The Stewart O'Nan fan club is now in session with two new book reviews.

Last Night at the Lobster

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan was originally published in 2007. My hardcover copy has 146 pages.This is a brilliant, exquisitly crafted novel. It rings true on every page. It's short, but every word was carefully chosen and every description is perfect. In Last Night at the Lobster we are following the day of Manny, the manager of a Red Lobster on its last day of business. We're privy to his thoughts as he follows his routine and company policies, as he manages the employees who do show up, and as he deals with the snow outside that is developing into a blizzard. A perfect novel. Rating: 5

Perched in the far corner of a run-down New England mall, the Red Lobster hasn't been making its numbers and headquarters has pulled the plug. But manager Manny DeLeon still needs to navigate a tricky last shift. With four shopping days left until Christmas, Manny must convince his near-mutinous staff to hunker down and serve the final onslaught of hungry retirees, lunatics, and holiday office parties. All the while, he's wondering how to handle the waitress he's still in love with, his pregnant girlfriend at home, and where to find the present that will make everything better.

Last Night at the Lobster is a poignant yet redemptive look at what a man does when he discovers that his best might not be good enough.

"Mall traffic on a gray winter's day, stalled. Midmorning and the streetlights are still on, weakly....The turning lane waits for the green arrow above to blink on, and a line of salted cars takes a left into the mall entrance, splitting off as they sniff for parking spots." pg. 1

"He could be a broker, or a floor associate from Circuit City taking his coffee break, except the nametag peeking from beneath his unzipped leather jacket features a garish lobster above his name: MANNY." pg. 2

"Two months ago Manny had forty-four people working for him, twenty of them full-time. Tonight when he locks the doors, all but five will lose their jobs, and one of those five - unfairly, he thinks, since he was their leader - will be himself. Monday the survivors will start at the Olive Garden..." pg. 3

"Their SUV's chew through the snow and plug the parking spots, for one day justifying their pricey four-wheel drive." pg. 30

"Someone's going to show up, and if no one does, we're still going to be ready for them. We're still in business, and we're still getting paid." pg. 57

"He wants to believe that with another cook - someone with more patience and less of a temper - Fredo would have made it, but he's never worked with a cook like that. Honestly, a cook like that probably doesn't exist. Pg. 58

"[A]s he's standing there he notices the ceramic holder that should be full of sugar and Equal and Splenda and Sweet'n Low packets has been picked clean - always a danger with these cottonheads, their memories of the Depression pushing them beyond thrift into greed." pg. 66

The Night Country

The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan was originally published in 2003. My hardcover copy has 229 pages. This is a ghost story, but the ghosts, the three teens - Marco, Toe, and Danielle - who died a year ago in the accident the story hinges on, are simply observers of the living. Marco is the narrator. The three people whose actions they follow closely are Tim, the only unharmed survivor of the crash, Brookes, the cop who was first on the crash scene, and Kyle's mom, the mother of the brain-damaged teen. O'Nan's descriptions are, as usual, exquisite, and he sets the tone perfectly. Rating: 5

Synopsis from cover:
At midnight on Halloween in a cloistered New England suburb, a car carrying five teenagers leaves a winding road and slams into a tree, killing three of them. One escapes unharmed, another suffers severe brain damage. A year later, summoned by the memories of those closest to them, the three who died come back on a last chilling mission among the living.

A strange and unsettling ghost story in the tradition of Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson, The Night Country creeps through the leaf-strewn streets and quiet cul-de-sacs of a bedroom community, reaching into the desperately connected yet isolated lives of three people changed forever by the accident: Tim, who survived intact but lost everything; Brooks, the cop whose guilty secret has destroyed his life; and Kyle's mom, trying to love the new son the doctors returned to her. As the day wanes and darkness falls, one of them puts a terrible plan into effect, and they find themselves caught by a collision of need and desire, watched over by the knowing ghosts.

Macabre and moving, The Night Country elevates every small town's bad high school crash into myth, finding the deeper human truth beneath a shared and very American tragedy. Stewart O'Nan once again gives us an intimate look at people trying to hold onto hope, and at the consequences when they fail.

"Come, do you hear it? The wind - murmuring in the eaves, scouring the bare trees. How it howls, almost musical, a harmony of old moans." opening sentences

"Never mind that it's all gone, the white picket fences easy-to-clean vinyl, the friendship quilts stitched in the Dominican, this is still New England, garden-green, veined with black rivers and massacres." pg. 4

"Look around now. Do you remember any of us? Your face has changed; ours are the same, frozen in yearbook photos in the local papers, nudged up against the schoolboard news, the football scores, the library booksale. One week we're history, martyred gods, then forgotten." pg. 5

"There's a reason we call on you, why this night comes again and again, bad dream within a dream. You think it's torture but you know it's justice. You know the reason. You're the lucky one, remember? You live." pg. 7

"It's not so much that he wants to die as not exist like this anymore." pg. 26

"Like a five-year-old, he loves fast food and cartoons. He sleeps under life-sized pictures of people he doesn't know, among CDs and video games he no longer plays." pg. 35

"He thinks he's doing it for her, for us. How do you convince someone they're wrong about the only thing in the world they're sure of?" pg. 44

"We stand around him like doctors, like angels, waiting for the dreams to begin, the sirens and screaming tires, the night country flying in his headlights as we chase him, racing to the tree. It might seem like revenge, except it's not ours. Brookes is easy to haunt. We don't have to bring him nightmares. He has his own." pg. 99

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Miss Wyoming

Miss Wyoming by Douglas Coupland was originally published in 1999. My hardcover copy has 311 pages. Although this was entertaining, it was not my favorite Coupland. There were some good descriptions, nice parallel storylines, and some interesting characters, but it just fell a little flat for me. This could be due to reading All Families are Psychotic right before it, but, all in all, it will never be one of my favorite Coupland novels. Rating: 3.9

Synopsis from cover:
Susan is a former child-beauty-pageant contender. John is a hard-living movie producer. She walks away from a plane crash without so much as a scratch. He comes away from a near-death experience with a unique, vivid plan.

Susan refuses to spend one more day peddling herself for cheesy TV sitcom parts and takes advantage of a very weird situation to disappear. John turns his back on a hedonistic life making blockbuster action flicks. Shedding their self-made identities, each sets out on an uncharted course across the Gap-clogged, strip-mall landscape of California, searching for the thing - Love - that neither has ever really known, but that they now think they just might, actually, desperately want.

"Susan Colgate sat with her agent, Adam Norwitz, on the rocky outdoor patio of the Ivy restaurant at the edge of Beverly Hills." first sentence

"Commercials are weird. You can go be in a reasonably successful TV weekly series for years and nobody mentions it to you, but appear at three A.M. in some god-awful sauce plug and people phone to wake you up and scream, 'I just saw you on TV!' " pg. 7

"The producer's Prince Charles spaniel had the runs, which had the hotel management badgering him with phone calls and door knocks while Susan was bravely making the most of stale coffee-tea-or-me jokes written by USC grads weaned on a lifetime of Charles in Charge, plus four years of Gauloises and Fellini ephemera." pg. 14

"A brief survey of her body showed she was unscratched, yet it appeared to her that all the other passengers were crushed and broiled and broken along a debris path that stretched half a mile across the sorghum field hemmed with tract housing." pg. 16-17

"Eugene went through life like a Great Dane or a speeding ambulance, exacting the unfettered awe of whomever he passed." pg. 86

"[S]he looked at high school as a numbing, slow-motion prison to be endured only because her depressingly perky and unimaginative parents refused to make an effort to either enroll her in gifted-student programs or permit her to skip grades, which they worried, ironically, might cripple her socially. Her parents viewed high school as a place of fun and sparkling vigor, where Snapple was drunk by popular crack-free children who deeply loved and supported the Coolidge Gators football team." pg. 244

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi Movie Marathon night:

One Body Too Many
White Zombie
Black Dragons
Invisible Ghost
The Corpse Vanishes

Friday, October 17, 2008

All Families are Psychotic

All Families are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland was originally published in 2001. My hardcover copy is 279 pages. This book reads like the satirical storyline for a dysfunctional soap opera family. Copeland's wry wit is present in smaller doses than found in previous novels. This is an enjoyable read, however, if only for the twists and turns of the plot and to discover what new mayhem is happening next to the Drummond family. Rating: 4 Review
Canadian author Douglas Coupland's seventh novel could be subtitled When Bad Things Happen to Bad People. As the estranged members of the Drummond family straggle into Florida for youngest sister Sarah's impending space shuttle launch, we only begin to glimpse the true meaning of the word dysfunctional. The family, plagued by terminal disease, financial disaster, felonious activity, infidelity, and violence, is forced--by a series of ever more fantastic occurrences--to attempt to deal with each other. That would be an easier task if they didn't loathe one another with a ferocity usually reserved for war criminals. It's not quite Jerry Springer-style tabloid TV set in Disney's Haunted Mansion, but the family members do muster the strength to insult, assault, and infect one another with abandon. With the exception of the family matriarch, Janet, they are unappealing and selfish, but without Machiavellian brilliance. Instead, they're inclined toward out-and-out stupidity, blinded by self-interest rather than enlightened by it. As they bumble through misadventure after misadventure, there seems to be no reason to cheer for them. Even Sarah, the family's shining star, has her dark side.

True to Coupland's style, the book reads lightning fast. The author punctuates his narrative with clipped dialogue and punchy exchanges that advance the palpable sense of unease and tension running throughout. And amidst the acrimony, Coupland throws a genuine caper into the plot, involving Prince William's farewell letter to his mother, Princess Diana. Add to that the oppressive heat and the postmodern, pop culture junkyard of Coupland's Florida setting, and the entire book brews and builds like a roiling tropical storm. --S. Duda

"Janet opened her eyes - Florida's prehistoric glare dazzled outside the motel window." opening sentence

"Wade, I'm not a saint. I've been holding stuff inside me for decades - girls my age were trained to do that, and it's why we all have colitis. Besides, a dash of spicy language is refreshing every so often." pg. 4

"The science fiction planet of Florida passed by the cab window: pastel-toned and smooth, one image dissolving into the next. The palmetto scrub landscape would, for no apparent reason burst into a cluster of wealthy superhomes here, then a burst of lower-middle class discount stores there - followed by a business park, followed by a tourist attraction." pg. 36

"Some years back, when she'd first begun tromping about the internet, she'd been flustered at how even the most innocent of words placed into a search engine triggered an immediate cascade of filth." pg. 37

"It was at the point where magazine articles, Doris Day films and her mother went silent." pg. 52

"All families are psychotic, Wade. Everybody has basically the same family - it's just reconfigured slightly different from one to the next." pg. 66

"So I think Daytona Beach is for all those people who run to the ticket both first on the morning after a lottery. They know that the really good beaches were swiped by rich people at least a century ago. They know this is the only beach they're ever likely to get - but they also think that maybe for once they'll get a deep tropical tan instead of burning all pink, and maybe for once the margaritas'll make them witty instead of shrill and boring...." pg. 177

Thursday, October 16, 2008

War of the Colossal Beast

Movie night feature, after the debate:

War of the Colossal Beast

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Good Wife

The Good Wife by Stewart O'Nan was originally published in 2005. My hardcover copy has 312 pages. This is the story of an ordinary woman, Patty Dickerson, a woman whose husband goes to prison for 28 years, leaving her to raise their son and just... survive, all while showing unwavering support for her husband. Patty struggles financially and emotionally, but always, always is the good wife to her incarcerated husband, Tommy. For his part, Tommy doesn't fully recognize the sacrifices Patty has made for him. O'Nan's sparse prose really adds to the tone of The Good Wife. At the beginning of the book there is more detail surrounding Tommy's trial. After that, as the years drag by we feel the bleakness of Patty's life of waiting for Tommy. Patty really is an unsuspecting heroine. Rating: 4.5

Synopsis from cover:
On a clear winter night in upstate New York, two young men break in to a house. Within minutes, an old woman is dead and the house is in flames. Across the country, a phone rings in a darkened bedroom waking a pregnant woman. It's her husband. He wants her to know that he and his friend have gotten themselves into a little trouble. So Patty Dickerson's old life ends and a strange new one begins.

At once a love story and a portrait of a woman discovering her own strength, The Good Wife follows Patty through the twenty-eight years of her husband's incarceration, as she raises their son, navigates a system that has no place for her and braves the scorn of her community. Compassionate and unflinching, The Good Wife illuminates a marriage and a family tested to the limits of endurance.

"Patty's asleep when it begins, waiting for him in the dark." pg. 3

"She has no idea that as she sleeps he's in another woman's bedroom; that a few miles across the fields he and his best friend Gary are fighting with this woman, who's woken from her own solitary sleep and attacked them with the first thing at hand - a glass of water." pg. 4

"Listen, me and Gary got in a little spot tonight. I'm in jail." pg. 9

"Mr. are charged by the State of New York with one count of murder in the second degree - " pg.23

"This part is new to Patty, and she realizes how little Tommy has told her about what actually happened." pg. 51

"She's so messed up over what's happening now that she doesn't see how things could get worse.
"The trial is mesmerizingly dull, an endless church service." pg. 101

"Unfairly, she anticipates the hours of letdown after she passes her stamped hand under the black light, and the guilt she'll feel for leaving him there. Later, in the truck, she doesn't speak, as if a careless word might break the delicate spell that holds them together. It's only when she clears the southern tip of the lake - twenty miles, a suitable period of mourning - that she turns on the radio and discovers, once again, that the rest of the world is still there." pg. 138

"She takes off her gloves and rubs her eyes, using the moment alone to recover, to change into the Patty they know." pg. 159

"She'll sleep, she thinks. The night will pass, if only because it has to." pg. 163

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Speed Queen

The Speed Queen by Stewart O'Nan was originally published in 1997. My hardcover copy has 212 pages. My personal Stewart O'Nan fan club is still in session. This book is dedicated to Stephen King, and for good reason. In the story Marjorie is sitting on death row, hours before her execution, answering questions about her life into a tape recorder for "the King of horror." As her story is slowly revealed, titles of Stephen King's novels are mentioned throughout the book. O'Nan gives Marjorie a unique voice and, again, this novel is different from the other books I've read by O'Nan. The one element they all share is O'Nan's ability to fully develop and give voice to unique characters. Rating: 3.9

Synopsis from cover:
Marjorie Standiford sits on Oklahoma's death row, hours away from execution, speaking into a tape recorder, telling her life story. She's answering questions about how she became the Speed Queen, one of the Sonic Killers - how mainlining speed with her husband, Lamont, and her lover, Natalie, grew into dealing, how dealing grew into robbery, and robbery into mass murder. She's telling her story because she wants to set the record straight, to correct the lies in Natalie's book, which became a bestseller.

Marjorie's book will be better. It will be written by America's greatest story teller, the king of horror.

"Before I begin I'd like to say that I'll try to remember everything as best I can, though sometimes I know it won't be right. What you want to know about happened eight years ago, before I found the Lord. I was a different person then, a person I don't completely understand even now." pg. 3

"Like you asked me, I didn't look at the questions ahead of time. There's a lot of them. I'll try to answer them as best I can before midnight....Sometimes I might not say what you want me to, but I'm just going to be honest." pg. 5

"That was my nickname in the papers - the Speed Queen. I've always moved a little faster than the rest of the world. That's why I'm here, I guess. I don't always stop to think, I just want to go." pg. 7

"I don't know why we did it. Everyone asks me that. All I can tell you is that sometimes you just go off, you don't know when to stop. Later you come back to yourself, but sometimes you just go off to this other place." pg. 13

"I met Lamont Standiford for the first time on Friday, October 26th, 1984. I was working the swing shift at the Conoco on the Broadway extension. I was drinking then. Every night I drank a fifth of vodka." pg. 16

"People say it was all Lamont's fault, that he was the crazy one and we just did what he told us. I don't think that's true. It's easy to think that now. Like I said, it's different when you're there." pg. 33

"Sometimes in your books you make fun of religious people. You make them crazy or evil, like 'Children of the Corn' or Needful Things. I'd appreciate it if you didn't this once. just make me the way I am."pg. 41

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall was originally published in 2001. My hardcover copy has 423 pages. Edgar faces several insurmountable challenges in his early life and manages to survive. This is a dark story but is also funny and strangely enough, full of hope. Edgar is born on a reservation but after an accident he spends time convalescing at St. Divine hospital. It is here that the former doctor, Barry Pinkley, becomes a constant, somewhat sinister presence and where Edgar is given his typewriter as a gift and he makes a deodorizing urinal puke a good luck charm. Both are also sources of comfort. Next he is sent to live with an uncle and attend a school for delinquent Native Americans, Willie Sherman, where his life is full of abuse at the hands of other students. After a conversion to Mormonism, he moves to Richland, Utah, to live with a foster family. Finally, he moves to Stony Run, Pennsylvania. Rating: 4.5

Synopsis from cover:
With the inventive acuity of John Irving, this riveting picaresque novel chronicles the hopes and heartbreaks of Edgar Presley Mint. The trials of Edgar, half Apache and mostly orphaned, began on an Arizona reservation at the age of seven, when the mailman's jeep accidentally runs over his head. Shunted from the hospital to a school for delinquents to a Mormon foster family; comedy, pain, and trouble accompany Edgar through a string of larger than life experiences. Through it all, readers will root for this irresistible innocent who never truly loses heart, and whose quest for the mailman leads him to an unexpected home.

"If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head." opening sentence

"Everyone agreed that my survival was either an absolute miracle or a real happenstance, however you want to look at it, but there was also general agreement that simple survival was as far as the miracle would go: there was not chance on earth I was going to be anything but the mental and physical equivalent of a turnip." pg. 25

"If my life could be contained in a word it would be this one: accidents." pg. 29

"For me there is no such thing as forgetting, nothing is hazy or vague. I can remember it all: every name, every glance, every word, every throwaway scrap of a moment." pg. 38

"There's no such thing as feelings when you're a doctor. Everything is quantifiable, no such thing as mystery." pg. 77

"It was with the intuition of a child that I knew the arrival of Barry spelled the end of my short-lived happiness at St. Divine's. pg. 78

"My first day of school at Willie Sherman and I was about to realize that I was no longer Saint Edgar the miracle-boy, hospital sweetheart, beloved by all, but a walking target, a chicken among the foxes." pg. 99

"I typed because typing, for me, was as good as having a conversation. I typed because I had to. I typed because I was afraid I might disappear." pg. 139

"I was twelve years old and was going to become a member of God's own church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I had accepted God and He had accepted me." pg. 233

"Alan was the king of kid who was popular and well liked and managed not to have any real friends - he was just too righteous." pg. 337

Movie night:


Monster From a Prehistoric Planet

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: Crash of the Moons

The Phantom Planet

Friday, October 10, 2008


When confronting peer pressure, parents everywhere ask their children questions such as, "If your friends jumped off a cliff would you jump too?"

Thinking my college aged children were too mature and intelligent to succumb to this kind of peer pressure, I had to face the brutal truth this week.

Q: If your college friends decided to jump off the roof of a house on to a mattress,would you jump too?

A: Yes. Both of them.

Quotes from my daughter, Just me, who hurt her ankle jumping:

"It wasn't as much fun as I thought it would be."

"If this is the worst thing we do, you should be happy."

Edited to add:
It was apparently a big-blow-up-and-jump-on kind of cushiony
mattress, which is a bit better, in a way.
It has also come to my attention that Just Me and Wonder Boy think this post makes them appear stupid. I am truly sorry that they feel this way, but then, again, they did both jump....

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Prayer for the Dying

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan was originally published in 1999. My hardcover copy has 195 pages. Stewart O'Nan is truly one remarkable, gifted writer. O'Nan's decision to write it as Jacob Hansen in the second person was quite effective and unique. For a slim volume, it makes a huge impact. A Prayer for the Dying couldn't be more different from the other two novels I've read by O'Nan, but it is stunning. If there is a Stewart O'Nan fan club, I believe it is time for me to send in my membership. This is simply an incredible book. Rating 5

Synopsis from cover:
Dark, poetic, and chilling, A Prayer for the Dying asks if it's possible to be a good man in a time of madness.
Set in leafy Friendship, Wisconsin, just after the Civil War, A Prayer for the Dying opens harmlessly on a languid summer day; only slowly do events reveal themselves as sinister, bloom gently into a shared nightmare, as one neighbor after another succumbs to a creeping, always fatal disease. Our sole witness to this epidemic is Jacob Hansen, Friendship's sheriff, undertaker, and pastor, a man with a large heart and conscience. As the disease engulfs his town, breeding hysteria, Jacob must find a humane way to save hose he loves, short of calling up a full quarantine and boarding up the sick in their houses. And what of the tramps slipping nightly through the tinder dry woods, and the spiritualists on the edge of town with their charismatic leaders, Chase. Who will bury the dead properly, if not Jacob?
A Prayer for the Dying is a rare and scary book, Stewart O'Nan's most astounding achievement yet, a sunlit Gothic painted in shimmering prose that darkens and disturbs your complacency the further you go into it until - as in the best Poe and Flannery O'Connor - there is no going back.

"High summer and Friendship's quiet." first sentence

"The undertaking's easy; being a constable is hard." pg. 4

"That's the one thing you'll admit is strange about you: you don't like to be around horses anymore. It's understandable, having had to eat them during the siege, to burrow into their warm, dead guts for cover. but you don't like to talk about that, or only to Marta, who'd never let it slip." pg. 5-6

"You know Marta worries when you make too much of your faith, so you've taken to praying in your office when the cell's empty, the stone cold and hard on your knees." pg. 17

"You're hoping Doc will back off and say he could be mistaken, that the woman's symptoms could be anything. Diptheria kills quick, that's one thing you know." pg. 27

"You don't know how to argue; it's a weakness in you. After the war you lost the will to fight, the interest in getting your way in little things." pg. 28

"You already know. He means people who let their faith take the place of their reason, people who believe this world is just a prelude to another, more glorious life. He means people like you." pg. 42

"Sometimes you envy the Hermit's life, the simplicity of speaking only to ducks, water, sky. What a comfort it must be not to care, to be ignorant of your neighbor's worries. Insane, true, but a relief." pg. 43

"...what will that do to your faith? Is it so weak that the sorrows of this world can destroy it with one puff? You hope not, but maybe so. Maybe so." pg. 74

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread by Don Robertson was originally published in 1965. My 2008 HarperCollins paperback edition is 211 pages. Let me start out saying this book is a 5 and truly does belong next to other classics. I want HarperCollins to reprint the two sequels so I can continue to follow the life of Morris Bird III, a nine-year-old boy who discovers on the day he decides to skip school in order to visit a friend what it means to have self-respect and be brave. The setting is Cleveland in 1944, culminating on the day of the great gas explosion. While I can understand those who had two issues with Robertson's writing (his use of long paragraphs and toward the end of the book, each sentence in his long paragraphs switches to a different character), personally, I didn't have a problem with either and felt that the latter help create a sense of urgency. Find a copy of this book. Rating: 5

On a quiet autumn afternoon in 1944, nine-year-old Morris Bird III decides to visit a friend who lives on the other side of town. So he grabs the handle of his [sic] red wagon and, with his little sister in tow, begins an incredible pilgrimage across Cleveland . . . and out of childhood forever.
Set against the backdrop of one of the worst industrial disasters in American history, Don Robertson's enduring, beloved masterwork is a remarkable story of destiny, bravery, and responsibility, as fresh and relevant as when it first appeared in print.

"When the day was finished, two things had happened to the boy
First and most important, he had accomplished - in seeing his old buddy Stanley Chaloupka - what he had set out to do.
Second, he had behaved in such a way that the legless man had called him, for whatever it was worth, the greatest thing since sliced bread." pg. 2

"In his nine years, he had done all sorts of bad and stupid things. If he'd not made the allowances, he'd have gone crazy. Not that the allowances did away with the pain of Conscience, but at least they helped him somewhere in the region of his mind." pg. 6

"It wasn't until the day the gas tanks blew up that Morris Bird III really was able to make his peace with the salami sandwich incident." pg. 20

"This was because people, especially small boys, got a big charge out of calling him Morris Bird The Turd, or sometimes simply Bird Turd." pg. 27

Love and Bravery: Morris Bird III understood neither. Really understood, that is. He figured he had an idea of what they meant, but it was only an idea, not real knowledge." pg. 33

"The departure of Stanley Chaloupka in no way dropped the bottom out of Morris Bird III's life. He still had all the friends anyone would have wanted. The only thing was - he had no real buddy. The distance between a friend and a real buddy was large. With a friend, you had to watch yourself. With a real buddy you didn't." pg. 59-60

"Mrs. Dallas....said, 'one of the best feelings there is is the accomplishing of something that is difficult. It's something that's yours. It's something that no one can take away from you. And it's brave too, very brave. Determination means courage, and courage means you're a real person....It could be telling yourself you're going to walk a mile and then going out and walking it....It helps your self respect...' " pg. 69

"Conducting a field trip was probably as enjoyable for a teacher as carrying an armful of warm snakes..." pg. 77

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach was originally published in 2003. My paperback copy has 294 pages. I read Stiff with equal parts fascination, amusement, and queasiness. Stiff is a very interesting and engrossing nonfiction book. Roach explores the various ways cadavers have been used, from teaching anatomy, to crash tests, to cannibalism. Roach is funny, of that there is no doubt, and her humor made the book easier for me to read. I will admit that even while laughing at Roach's witticisms and being totally fascinated with the information, I also experienced an almost constant feeling of nausea with hints of revulsion. Rating: 4.5

Synopsis from cover:
Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers - some willingly, some unwittingly - have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.
"The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back." opening

"This book is about the sometimes odd, often shocking, always compelling things cadavers have done." pg. 10

"There are those who will disagree with me, who feel that to do anything other than bury or cremate the dead is disrespectful." pg. 11

"For those who must deal with human corpses regularly, it is easier (and I suppose, more accurate) to think of them as objects, not people." pg. 21

"Medical schools have gone out of their way in the past decade to foster a respectful attitude toward gross anatomy lab cadavers." pg. 38

"Over the past sixty years, the dead have helped the living work out human tolerance limits for skull slammings and chest skewerings, knee crammings, and gut mashings: all the ugly, violent things that happen to a human being in a car crash." pg. 87

"Until recently, the process was known among transplant professionals as an 'organ harvest,' which had a joyous, celebratory ring to it, perhaps a little too joyous, as it has been of late replaced by the more businesslike 'organ recovery.' " pg. 168

"_____ is not a doctor, or not, at least, one of the medical variety. He is a doctor of the variety that gets a Ph.D. and attaches it to his name on self-help book covers." pg. 191

"In the grand bazaars of twelfth-century Arabia, it was occasionally possible, if you knew where to look and you had a lot of cash and a tote bag you didn't care about, to procure an item known as mellified man.... Mellified man was dead human remains steeped in honey." pg. 221

"It took a month and a half for compost guy to complete his return to the soil. Evans was pleased with the result, which he described as 'really dark, rich stuff, with good moisture-holding capacity.'....Evans was living in Lawrence, Kansas, at the time..." pg. 265-266

Sunday, October 5, 2008


What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy by Gregory Maguire was originally published in 2007. My hardcover copy has 295 pages. This is an easy to read novel recommended for grades 5-8. I found this book in the clearance section of my local used book store and picked it up simply based on the premise that a "rogue tooth fairy" would be in the story. The rogue tooth fairy is presented in the story told within the novel itself. In What-the-Dickens, ten year old Dinah Ormsby, along with her older brother, Zeke, and almost two year old sister, Rebecca Ruth, are riding out an awful storm with their twenty-one year old cousin Gage. Gage decides to tell them a story to keep their minds off the storm, a story about What-the-Dickens, a "lost" skibbereen, or tooth fairy.

What-the-Dickens can be reviewed in two ways, either as a story for the intended age group or as a novel adults will be reading. If I were to review this book for adults, I would agree with other reviews that say the main story, framing the tooth fairy tale, is weak and it has a host of other problems. But, as a 5th grader the storm story would be a perfectly logical way to lead into the fairy tale part. I really rather enjoyed it.... with the exception of Maguire's apparent hint of animosity toward homeschoolers, as shown in the quote below, which I'm chalking up to pure ignorance on his part. (Come on writers, educate yourself before you write about or think it's cute to mock a group of people.) I guess, if you want a Maguire book for adults, pick up Wicked or Mirror, Mirror. This one's for the kids. I'm rating What-the-Dickens a 3.9 and recommend it to the young side of it's intended audience, 5th graders. However, I'd likely recommend The Borrowers to the same group before What-the-Dickens.

Synopsis from cover:

"On the darkest night, amidst a terrifying storm, Dinah's parents go missing. While anxious Dinah and her brother and sister worry and huddle for warmth, their cousin Gage tells them an unlikely story - about tooth fairies, known as skibbereen, who are living in warring colonies right in the neighborhood. According to Gage, the skibbereen put those teeth to good use. And Gage has meet them. Dinah is skeptical, but as the story unfolds and the storm rages on, she begins to believe.

By turns touching and comic, What-the-Dickens is a decidedly imaginative journey into myth that could only have been penned by that premier interpreter of the fairy-tale world, Gregory Maguire."

"By evening, when the winds rose yet again, the power began to stutter at half-strength, and the sirens to fail." opening sentence.

"The Ormsbys sequestered themselves in a scrappy bungalow perched at the uphill end of the canyon, where the unpaved county road petered out into ridge rubble and scrub pine." pg. 5

"Dinah and her big brother, Zeke, were homeschooled. This they were frequently reminded, kept them safe, made them strong, and preserved their goodness." pg. 5

"Dinah was glad that they'd pushed the sofa against the front door as a protection against burglars. This left plenty of space in the middle of the room to play picnic or Israelites in the desert of the Donnor Party." pg. 5-6

"Skibbereen are never seen by humans. Didn't your mother ever teach you anything?" pg. 89

"And when Edith read her story....the first lone skibberee, the First Fairy, the foundress of our species, listened to it. From whatever realm of faerie she had accidentally blundered, she had to make herself up anew in this new world. So she listened hard. And she began to evolve, because stories work their magic that way. They build conviction and erode conviction in equal measure." pg. 114-115

Independence Day

Independence Day by Richard Ford was originally published in 1995. My paperback copy has 451 pages. Independence Day was the Pulitzer-Prize Winning novel for 1996. Independence Day is an account of one Fourth of July weekend in the life of Frank Bascombe. Because Independence Day is a sequel to The Sportswriter, I made sure I read The Sportswriter first. One need not do this. In fact, I think I'd recommend just reading Independence Day and then deciding if you want to read a prequel. Independence Day is a completely realized novel and stands firmly on it's own. I also think I would have enjoyed the character of Frank Bascombe more if I had started with Independence Day. After reading The Sportswriter and immediately following it with reading Independence Day, I became a bit tired of Frank mid-way through Independence Day. Since Independence Day is the better of the two novels start there. The other option would be to read The Sportswriter and wait a month or so to read Independence Day, which will work quite nicely because Independence Day is set five years after The Sportswriter. I hope that was confusing enough for my readers. The nub of all of this is that I would not recommend reading the two novels one right after another. Rating: 4

Synopsis from cover:
In this visionary sequel to The Sportswriter, Richard Ford deepens his portrait of one of the most unforgettable characters in American fiction, and in so doing gives us an indelible portrait of America.

Frank Bascombe, in the aftermath of his divorce and the ruin of his career, has entered an "Existence Period," selling real estate in Haddam, New Jersey, and mastering the high-wire act of normalcy. But over one Fourth of July weekend, Frank is called into sudden, bewildering engagement with life.

Independence Day is a moving, peerlessly funny odyssey through America and through the layered consciousness of one of its most compelling literary incarnations, conducted by a novelist of astonishing empathy and perception.
"In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems." first sentence

"[F]alling property values now ride through the trees like an odorless, colorless mist settling through the still air where all breathe it in, all sense it, though our new amenities - the new police cruisers, the new crosswalks... - do what they civically can to ease our minds off worrying, convince us our worries aren't worries, or at least not ours alone but everyone's - no ones - and that staying the course, holding the line, riding the cyclical nature of things are what this country's all about, and thinking otherwise is to drive optimism into retreat, to be paranoid and in need of expensive 'treatment' out-of-state." pg. 4-5

"A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you'll never adapt to coming toward you on the horizon." pg. 5

"And yet, and yet, even a good idea can be misguided if embarked on in ignorance." pg. 15

"Unhappily, the Markhams, out of ignorance and pigheadedness, have failed to intuit the one gnostic truth of real estate...: that people never find or buy the house they say they want...The premise is that you're presented with what you might've thought you didn't want, but what's available, whereupon you give in and start finding ways to feel good about it and yourself." pg. 41

"What we all want, of course, is all our best options left open as long as possible; we want not to have taken any obvious turns, but also not to have misread the correct turns the way some other boy-o would." pg. 57

"The truth is, however, we know very little and can find out precious little more about others, even though we stand in their presence, hear their complaints, ride the roller coaster with them, sell them houses, consider the happiness of their children - only in a flash or a gasp or the slam of a car door to see them disappear and be gone forever. Perfect strangers." pg. 76

"You're one of those people who think God's only in the details....You invent things that don't exist and then you worry about being denied whatever they are." pg. 254

"A walk-thru of an empty house you expect to rent (and not buy and live in till you croak) is not so much a careful inspection as a half-assed once-over in which you hope to find as little as possible to drive you crazy." pg. 417

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Sportswriter

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford was originally published in 1986. My paperback copy has 375 pages. When I picked up Ford's Independence Day, I noticed that it was a sequel to The Sportswriter so I decided to read The Sportswriter first. Ford is a masterful writer, which is helpfully highlighted in this slow moving story that is set over one Easter weekend. Ford gives us in Frank Bascombe the inner thoughts of a flawed hero, an every man. This story is supremely well-written but can be slow as molasses at times. It does hold your attention, though. Rating: 3.9

Synopsis from cover:
As a sportswriter, Frank Bascombe makes his living studying people - men, mostly - who live entirely within themselves. This is a condition that Frank himself aspires to. But at thirty-eight, he suffers from incurable dreaminess, occasional pounding of the heart, and the not-too-distant losses of a career, a son, and a marriage. And in the course of the Easter week in which Richard Ford's wonderfully eloquent and moving novel transpires, Bascombe will end up losing the remnants of his familiar life, though with spirits soaring.

"My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter." opening sentences.

"For now let me say only this: if sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined." pg. 4

"I know that you can dream your way through an otherwise fine life, and never wake up, which is what I almost did." pg. 10

"She said it was a mistake to have made as few superficial friends as I have done in my life, and to have concentrated only on the few things I have concentrated on - her, for one. My children, for another. Sportswriting and being an ordinary citizen. This did not leave me well enough armored for the unexpected, was her opinion. She said this was because I didn't know my parents very well, had gone to a military school, and grown up in the south, which was full of betrayers and secret-keepers and untrustworthy people, which I agree is true, though I never knew any of them. All that originated, she said, with the outcome of the Civil War. It was much better to have grown up, she said, as she did, in a place with no apparent character, where there is nothing ambiguous around to confuse you or complicate things, where the only thing anybody ever thought seriously about was the weather." pg. 13

"Dreaminess is, among other things, a state of suspended recognition, and a response to too much useless and complicated factuality. Its symptoms can be a long-term interest in the weather, or a sustained soaring feeling...." pg. 42

" '...I don't really want a response from you. And I know you don't like confessions.'
'No, I don't....I think most things are better if you just let them be lonely facts.' " pg 93-94

"I have become more cynical than old Iago, since there is no cynicism like lifelong self-love and the tunnel vision in which you yourself are all that's visible at the tunnel's end." pg. 172

"....looks, in other words, like private death, though I have a feeling he is here to share some of it with me." pg. 181

"In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they're sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away - lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can't do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble." pg. 223