Monday, August 30, 2010

Beyond the Body Farm

Beyond the Body Farm by Dr. Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson
HarperCollins, 2007
Hardcover, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780060875299
very highly recommended

The Dead Do Tell Tales...
A pioneer in forensic anthropology, Dr. Bill Bass created the world's first laboratory dedicated to the study of human decomposition. Bill Bass's research at "the Body Farm" has revolutionized forensic science, helping police crack cold cases and pinpoint time since death. In this riveting book, the bone sleuth explores the rise of modern forensic science, using cases from his career to take readers into the real world of "CSI."
Some of Bill Bass's cases rely on the simplest of tools and techniques, while other cases hinge on sophisticated techniques Dr. Bass could not have imagined when he began his career: using computer data and video image processing to help identify murder victims; harnessing scanning electron microscopy to detect trace elements in knife wounds; and extracting DNA from a long-buried corpse, only to find that the female murder victim may have been mistakenly identified a quarter-century before...
My thoughts:

I previously read Dr. Bass memoir, Death's Acre, after it was published in 2003. Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science is another collection of specific cases that complement his memoir.

This is not CSI (see the last quote). This is an account of how real forensic anthropologists work when trying to solve a case or answer a question. It's a fascinating insight into the science involved and how science has advanced over the years.

While I don't think this book is for everyone, if you are interested in how forensic anthropologists work and don't mind a few grisly details, you will find this book well worth your time. Although I would recommend Death's Acre first, this is a stand alone nonfiction book on forensic anthropology.
Very highly recommended


One of the most important lessons I've learned during my career is that justice is a team effort. In the course of any given murder case, that team may include uniformed police officers, plainclothes detectives, crime scene and lab technicians, fingerprint experts, medical examiners ("forensic physicians," you might say), firearms and ballistics examiners, toxicologists, forensic dentists, and DNA specialists.
From a broader perspective, though, forensic teamwork extends not just across scientific specialties but across decades of research and innovation. pg. xiii

Not surprisingly, when we began our research program back in the early 1980s, our experiments were designed to answer some very basic questions: How long does it take the arms to fall off? When does the skull start showing through? At what point is a body reduced to bare bone?.... Fairly quickly, though, our research projects became more sophisticated, and we developed timelines and mathematical formulas that could help us estimate, with surprising accuracy, how long someone had been dead once we obtained temperature records for the days or weeks prior to the body's discovery. pg. xvii

[W]hen people fill out the forms to donate their body to the Body Farm.... what they are actually agreeing to donate is their skeleton... pg. xix

In the chapters that follow, you'll see how things we've learned at the Body Farm have helped us identify the dead, figure out what happened to them, and in many cases (though, sadly not all) bring killers to justice. pg. xxii

One of the most revolutionary changes in forensic science in recent decades has been the advent of DNA testing; the ability to chart any person's genetic makeup - to take a genetic "fingerprint," essentially - and compare that with all sorts of forensic evidence, ranging from body fluids (including blood, saliva, and semen), to hair, to skeletal elements such as soft tissue, teeth, and bones. pg. 29

There's such a gap between how forensic science is portrayed on TV and how it is practiced in real life, and in real murder trials, that beleaguered police officers and prosecutors have given the gap a name - "the CSI effect" - and almost anytime one of them utters the phrase among colleagues, head-shaking and eye-rolling and muttering are sure to follow. pg. 163

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Firefly Lane

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
St. Martin's Press, 2008
Trade Paperback, 528 pages
ISBN-13: 9780312537074

From the Publisher
In the summer of 1974, Kate Mularkey has accepted her place at the bottom of the eighth-grade social food chain. Then, to her amazement, the “coolest girl in the world” moves in across the street and wants to be her friend. Tully Hart seems to have it all - beauty, brains, ambition. On the surface they are as opposite as two people can be: Kate, doomed to be forever uncool, with a loving family who mortifies her at every turn; Tully, steeped in glamour and mystery, but with a secret that is destroying her. They make a pact to be best friends forever; by summer’s end they’ve become TullyandKate. Inseparable.
Spanning more than three decades and playing out across the ever-changing face of the Pacific Northwest, Firefly Lane is the poignant, powerful story of two women and the friendship that becomes the mainstay of their lives.
For thirty years, Tully and Kate buoy each other through life, weathering the storms of friendship - jealousy, anger, hurt, resentment. They think they’ve survived it all until a single act of betrayal tears them apart...and puts their courage and friendship to the ultimate test.

My Thoughts:

Firefly Lane can be described as a re-adaptation of Beaches with an over abundance of period-appropriate product placement.

Publishers Weekly wrote: "Hannah goes a little too far into Lifetime movie territory in her latest, an epic exploration of the complicated terrain between best friends-one who chooses marriage and motherhood while the other opts for career and celebrity." Exactly. There is no new territory covered here. Exploring conflicts between women friends who choose a career over motherhood and marriage has been done countless times. This takes any poignancy out of the story because you know what's going to happen. It just makes the novel overlong and formulaic.

While I applaud the fact that Hannah did research for the book and set the story in a specific time, she went W-A-Y over the top in the obsessive name dropping of a wide variety of brand names, songs, clothing, and TV shows for each decade. At first the over abundance of 70's product names brought about some nostalgia, but felt forced and odd. Then it just went over the top, became distracting, and was, ultimately, darn annoying.

I will admit that the story flows well and is an easy, compelling read. The themes of betrayal and reconciliation, while very recognizable, are also very apparent. My biggest problem is that I didn't like either woman. I didn't like them as teens (since I am just a little older than these characters are supposed to be, I can tell you that I wouldn't have liked them in the 70's either) and I didn't like them as adults. I couldn't see WHY they were friends and why they remained friends. That simple fact alone detracts from anything Hannah did right in the book.

Rating this one is a problem. I did finish it, although I considered tossing it aside several times and there may have been some eye-rolling too. But... I did finish it.
Recommended - if you like chick-lit and Lifetime movies

3/7/11 update: My mother (in her 70's) read this book and really enjoyed it and the writing of author Kristin Hannah.


They used to be called the Firefly Lane girls. That was a long time ago—more than three decades—but just now, as she lay in bed listening to a winter storm raging outside, it seemed like yesterday. opening

For most of the country, 1970 was a year of upheaval and change, but in the house on Magnolia Drive, everything was orderly and quiet. Inside, ten-year-old Tully Hart sat on a cold wooden floor building a Lincoln Log cabin for her Liddle Kiddles, who were sleeping on a tiny pink Kleenexes. If she were in her bedroom, she would have had a Jackson Five forty-five in her Close 'N Play, but in the living room, there wasn't even a radio. pg.5

But Tully knew better. Somehow today she'd done something wrong, been bad. Next time her mommy came back, she'd try harder. She'd promise to be the president and she'd never, ever say she was sorry again. pg. 11

But things change fast. She knew that now. A horse could get old overnight and go lame. A friend could become a stranger just as quickly. pg. 16

And her clothes: low-rise, three-button jeans with huge, tie-died wedges of fabric in the seams to make elephant bells, cork-bottomed platform shoes with four-inch heels, and an angel-sleeved pink peasant blouse that revealed at least two inches of stomach. pg. 18

Mom touched her hand gently. "It's never good to sit around and wait for someone or something to change your life. That's why women like Gloria Steinem are burning their bras and marching on Washington."
"So that I can make friends?"
"So that you know you can be whatever you want to be." pg. 22

Within a week, Kate became cool by association. Kids raved over her new look and didn't turn away from her in the halls. Being a friend of Tully Hart's meant she was okay. pg. 45

Then he left her there, standing alone, surrounded by word ghosts, things she could have said. pg. 161

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Hunger Games Series #3
Scholastic, August 2010
Hardcover, 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780439023511
Young Adult novel
highly recommended

Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has survived the Hunger Games twice. But now that she’s made it out of the bloody arena alive, she’s still not safe. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge. Who do they think should pay for the unrest? Katniss. And what’s worse, President Snow has made it clear that no one else is safe either. Not Katniss’s family, not her friends, not the people of District 12. Powerful and haunting, this thrilling final installment of Suzanne Collins’s groundbreaking The Hunger Games trilogy promises to be one of the most talked about books of the year.
My Thoughts:

Mockingjay is the 3rd and final book in Collins' successful YA Hunger Games series.
Although I don't anticipate having any spoilers, if you are planning to read the series, feel free to skip my thoughts.

A whole lot was expected of Collins in this third book - and she does deliver in many ways, but also falls a little short in others. She does succeed in wrapping up the story line and draws it all to a conclusion that will satisfy may fans of the series. Although I found the whole "team Gale or team Peeta" mania, well, silly, I can see where it could be a burning question for YA readers. I don't have any problems with how she concluded the story.

Part of my problem with the completed series is two fold.

My first problem is the fact that Katniss doesn't seem to grow as a character at all in this third book. While this could be understandable, I was expecting a greater indication of growth and maturity after the first two books. Mockingjay is actually much more plot driven than character driven.

My second issue all stems, and perhaps unfairly, back to the fact that this is a YA book. The plot and language are simplified. It is a quick and easy read. (Don't let the number of pages throw you off. It's not a densely pack book. The type and spaces between the type are both large. This time the simplified language and large type were noticeable to me.) No matter how many adult fans are out there, this is still a YA book. And, again, Collins doesn't break any new ground with this series - the plot has been done before. All in all, I think The Hunger Games was the best book in the series.

In the end the Hunger Games is a very successful YA series, I would say for ages 14 and up due to the violence. Adults may prefer to read Battle Royale. I think I am done with YA books now.
highly recommended


I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather. opening

The memories swirl as I try to sort out what is true and what is false. What series of events led me to be standing in the ruins of my city? pg.4

The citizens of District 12 had no organized resistance movement of their own. No say in any of this. They only had the misfortune to have me. Some survivors think it's good luck, though, to be free of District 12 at last. To have escaped the endless hunger and oppression, the perilous mines, the lash of our final Head Peacekeeper, Romulus Thread. pg. 6-7

What am I going to do?
To become the Mockingjay... could any good I do possibly outweigh the damage? Who can I trust to answer that question? Certainly not the crew in 13. I swear, now that my family and Gale's are out of harm's way, I could run away. Except for one unfinished piece of business. Peeta. pg. 13

To keep me alive? And then I understand. The Games are still on. We have left the arena, but since Peeta and I weren't killed, his last wish to preserve my life still stands. His idea is to have me lie low, remain safe and imprisoned, while the war plays out. then neither side will really have cause to kill me. pg. 30

"I'm going to be the Mockingjay." pg. 31

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Simple Plan

A Simple Plan by Scott Smith
Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 1993
Hardcover, 335 pages
ISBN: 0679419853
very highly recommended

From the Publisher

It All Seemed So Simple...
Two brothers and their friend stumble upon the wreckage of a plane-the pilot is dead and his duffle bag contains four million dollars in cash. The men agree to hide, keep and share the fortune. But what started off as a simple plan slowly devolves into a gruesome nightmare none of them can control.
My Thoughts:

Have you ever dreamed of winning the lottery and planned what you would do with the money. What would you do if you were faced with a real temptation? Let's say you found a bag full of millions of dollars in a wrecked plane in a remote area. Would you report the accident? Turn in the money? Would you be tempted to keep the money, if there was little chance your crime would be discovered? That's the tantalizing premise of A Simple Plan... and the plan does seem simple, at first, but as with many seemingly simple plans, things can run amok quickly and any semblance of control can spiral out of control as one mishap leads to another.

I thought Smith did a good job creating tension in this novel of suspense. The plot, although seemingly simple, was full of unexpected twists and even those that were predictable were handled well. Smith delves into the ethics and morals of how an ordinary man might react when faced with an unbelievable temptation. And how this temptation might change him. Even when the actions of the characters were gruesome, they were still believable as the characters lose control. (I did have to suspend disbelief that crimes weren't discovered, when, in reality, they very likely would be.) This novel literally kept me reading all night.
very highly recommended


My parents died in an automobile accident the year after I was married. They tried to enter I-75 through an exit ramp one Saturday night and crashed head-on into a semi hauling cattle. opening

My brother and I had never been close, not even as children, and the gap between us only grew wider as we got older. By the time of the accident, we had very little except our parents left in common, and their sudden deaths eased whatever weight this might've normally held. pg. 4

"It's money," Lou said, smiling up at Jacob. "Look." He leaned the bag forward.
Jacob bent over and squinted at it, his mouth dropping open. I looked, too. It was full of money, packets held together with thin paper bands.
"Hundred-dollar bills," Lou said. pg. 19

And it was like magic, too, like a gift from the gods, the ease with which a solution came to me, a simple plan, a way to keep the money without fear of getting caught. I could just sit on it, hiding it away until the plane was discovered. If someone found the wreck and there was no mention of a missing three million dollars, I'd split it up with Lou and Jacob and we could go our separate ways. But if, on the other hand, it seemed like someone knew the money was missing, I'd burn it..... Up until the very instant I gave Lou and Jacob their shares, I'd be in complete control. I could erase my crime at a moment's notice. pg. 23

Looking back on it now, after all that's happened, it seems insane with what little fear I picked this path. pg. 23

We were trapped, I realized; we'd crossed a boundary, and we couldn't go back. The money, by giving us the chance to dream, had also allowed us to begin despising our present lives. pg. 105

The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup

The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People
by Susan Orlean
Random House Publishing, 2002
Trade Paperback, 311 pages
ISBN-13: 9780375758638
highly recommended

From the Publisher
... Meet more than thirty-five of
Susan Orlean's favorite people from the well known (Bill Blass and Tonya Harding) to the unknown (a typical ten-year-old boy) to the formerly known (the 1960s girl group the Shaggs).

Orlean transports us into the lives of some rather eccentric individuals, like the man who has spent thirty years selling nothing but ceiling fans; or Bob Silverstein, maker of the Big Chair the creme de la creme of oversized chairs used for novelty photographs at carnivals. Others are living highly unusual lives, like Cristina Sanchez, the eponymous bullfighter, the first woman to become a matador in Spain; or the African king who drives a taxi in New York City and keeps his throne in his living room..... Orlean writes with such insight and candor that readers will feel as if they've met each and every one of these unconventional folks.

Susan Orlean brings her wry sensibility, exuberant voice, and peculiar curiosities to a fascinating range of subcultures sports and music and hairdressing and real estate, among others. The result is a joyful, luminous tour of the human condition via an eclectic array of people, as seen through the eyes of one of America's most entertaining and original literary journalists.
My Thoughts:

This is a collection of published pieces (from 1986 - 2001) written by Susan Orlean, that focus on people, character studies. As she said in the introduction: "For this book, though, I decided to gather together only pieces that center on people, to present an assembly of the various characters I've profiled so far in my career. There is nothing harder or more interesting than trying to say something eloquent about another person and no process is more challenging. (pg xv) In the back is a list of the stories included, along with the magazines and the date of the issue when the stories originally appeared.

I thought most of these profile pieces were interesting - some more than others. All in all it was a nice collection of Orlean's writing. The fact that Orlean is a very good writer elevates most of these stories above the ordinary. Highly Recommended


...I wanted to write about things that intrigued me, and to write about them in a way that would surprise readers who might not have expected to find these things intriguing. introduction, pg ix

Depending upon who you ask, The Shaggs were either the best band of all time or the worst. pg. 15

If I were a bitch, I'd be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He's friendly, good looking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He's not afraid of commitment. He wants children - actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun. pg. 27

The Hana girls dominate Maui surfing these days. Theory has it that they grow up riding such mangy waves that they're ready for anything. pg. 39

Jill Meilus is a New York City real estate broker. Like Superman, she can see through walls. Walking down a Manhattan street with her is a paranormal experience. pg. 73

The gospel audience is probably the poorest of any mass audience in the country, and there are a thousand ways, like working at a Kmart or doing construction, that most gospel singers could make more money than they do by singing gospel; and most gospel singers don't make enough from their music to live on. pg. 86

Diana Epstein recently bought seventeen thousand buttons, sight unseen, from the city of Tempe, Arizona, and the other day she invited us over to watch as she opened boxes, suitcases, and an entire trunk full of buttons to find out what she now owned. pg. 134

Kwabena Oppong, who is the king and supreme ruler of the African Ashanti tribespeople living in the United States of America, has a throne in his living room. pg. 201

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Phytosphere by Scott Mackay
Penguin Group, 2007
Mass Market Paperback, 376 pages
ISBN-13: 9780451461582
highly recommended

After settlement negotiations between humanity and the alien Tarsalans go horribly wrong, the Earth is engulfed in a mysterious green sphere-blocking all sunlight from reaching the surface. Only two scientists-one isolated on the Moon's lunar colony, the other trapped on a dying Earth-possess the minds and the means to destroy the sphere before it renders the world completely barren...
My Thoughts:

Phytosphere is a tale of alien invasion and postapocalyptic survival in the distant future. And, why yes, it is a good combination.

When negotiations for immigration rights fail, the alien Tarsalans surround the Earth with a mysterious green, light-blocking shroud, dubbed the phytosphere. The Tarsalans consider the phytosphere a teaching tool, while Earth considers it a declaration of war. The action follows the Thorndike brothers, Gerry and Neil, as they try to discover a way to eliminate the phytosphere. Gerry is on the moon when the Phytosphere is put into place while Neil is on the Earth. Also stuck on the Earth is Gerry's family, wife Glenda and their two children.

The group on the moon trying to discover a way to eliminate the phytosphere follows Gerry's leadership at first, while on the Earth, Neil, Gerry's arrogant brother and scientific advisor to the president, summarily discounts any information that comes from the moon, believing he is the only one who could possibly discover a solution. The back and forth debate on how to destroy the phytosphere between the brothers could have easily become boring but Mackay keeps the story moving along by following Glenda and her children's harrowing tale of survival amidst chaos as society breaks down. Glenda's story really is the more compelling one until the end, and it creates some real tension and a sense urgency for one of the brother's to discover a solution.

Personally, I appreciated the hard science fiction elements along with the postapocalyptic tale. Mackay expertly wove the stories of the various characters together. The main characters were well developed and the suspense kept building right up to the end. (While I could get nit-picky over a few minor details, following my suggestions wouldn't have made the story any better.)
Highly Recommended


From his eighth-floor room in the Nectaris Buena Vista Hotel and Gambling Casino, Gerry Thorndike watched the shroud form over Earth. It moved with the slowness of a minute hand sweeping around a clock. opening

But the shroud persisted, and as he glanced toward the East Coast he saw, for the first time, an opposite edge, and understood that east would meet west, south would meet north; all the various blooms would join up, and darkness would entomb the Earth. pg. 5

"The Tarsalans unilaterally suspended immigration negotiations a couple weeks ago, and now they've gone and put this shroud around the Earth, and who knows when they're going to take it down?" pg. 10

"Wow," his voice suffused with soft and quavering reverence. "It's gotten a lot thicker overnight, hasn't it, Mom?" pg. 18-19

"But why bury food?"
"Because I don't want anybody coming into the house and stealing it."
"Why would they steal it?"
"Jake, how many times do I have to tell you? There are bad people in the world. And if bad people get desperate, they become extra bad. If this shroud lasts any length of time, everything's going to stop growing and food's going to run out. You think anything is going to grow with that thing in the sky? Plants need light to grow. Two weeks of total darkness, and that's it, there goes next year's crop." pg. 24-25

his wasn't like the regular and small disasters that befell people on a daily basis, making their lives miserable for a while, then finally drifting away like a bad dream. This was the Apocalypse. And she wanted food for when the Apocalypse finally came. pg. 25

Langstrom would have been a kindly old grandfather type if it weren't for something bitter in the eyes, and stingy about his lips. pg. 30

This particular brand of Armageddon, at least at first, was of a slow and creeping kind, but it was pernicious. pg. 85

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris
Trade Paperback, 464 pages
Berkley Books, 1996
ISBN-13: 9780425182123
highly recommended


She was the most beautiful film and fashion statement of her era, with or without the Givenchy designs. She was a ballet dancer, who never performed in a ballet. She was the world's highest-paid film actress, who never took an acting lesson. She was Audrey Hepburn, and she had the aura of a beloved real-life princess. With unprecedented access to family and friends, never-before-published photographs and meticulous research, biographer Barry Paris gives us a vibrant new portrait of Hepburn. Beginning with her childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland, he weaves the tale of her storybook career, its dizzying launch after the liberation, her title role on Broadway in Gigi, and her Oscar- and Tony- winning performances within the same year of her arrival in America. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, her star shone brighter with leads in Sabrina, The Nun's Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Wait Until Dark and My Fair Lady. In 1980 she met and fell in love with Rob Wolders, the widower of Merle Oberon. With his assistance, from 1988 until the end of her life, Hepburn became special ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund. Her trips to Ethiopia and Somalia demonstrated her whole-hearted and tireless commitment. Never before had so great a star so vigorously lent herself to such a crusade.

My Thoughts:

Barry Paris does a wonderful job collecting and presenting the facts in this complete biography of Audrey Hepburn. Paris' research was quite extensive and the book includes 57 photos, a filmography, source notes, bibliography, and an index. There are no great scandals or startling information in this account of her life because there really was nothing to disclose. Obviously, this well written biography will appeal to fans of Hepburn's movies and her later work with UNICEF.

Highly recommended


Audrey Hepburn is the biographer's dream and nightmare simultaneously. No other film actress was so revered - inspired and inspiring - both for her on-screen appearances and for her passionate off-screen crusade. Foreword, opening

But, by and large, she did not recall her early childhood fondly. She was a puny, introverted little girl who had trouble making friends and preferred the tomboyish companionship of her much older half-brothers. She cared much less for dolls, which "never seemed real to me," she said, than for animals. pg. 7

"Don't discount anything awful you hear or read about the Nazis. It's worse than you could ever imagine." pg. 21

Far better nutritionally was the food she and thousands of others received soon after from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the forerunner of UNICEF. Her commitment to that organization began then and there. pg. 32

Something was happening on a grander scale, and "the look of that girl" was making it happen. It had to do with the changing standards of beauty and with film and fashion overall, but perhaps most with the era itself. pg. 76

Marni Nixon remembers watching Hepburn the actress at work. "listening and carefully taking all their directions and then, after they were through, doing it exactly the way she wanted. Everybody around the room said 'Oh, isn't she wonderful, she took what I said to heart.' But to me, all she did was thread it through herself. She was just placating everybody." pg. 209

"It wasn't a put-on. she genuinely loved the beauty of small things. She was connected to the simplicity of how life could work and tried not to complicate it." pg. 324

"She was very shy, and she looked very frail. She did a tremendous job of calling attention to the plight of children in ways that nobody else could." pg. 350

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson
Broadway Books, 2006
Trade Paperback, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780767919371
very highly recommended

Bill Bryson’s first travel book opened with the immortal line, “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” In this hilarious new memoir, he travels back to explore the kid he once was and the weird and wonderful world of 1950s America. He modestly claims that this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting much larger slowly. But for the rest of us, it is a laugh-out-loud book that will speak volumes – especially to anyone who has ever been young.

My thoughts:

In this memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s-60s, Bill Bryson covers the gamete. Topics humorously covered include: baseball, the first TVs, soda pop and candy, vacations, Disneyland, Dick and Jane, strange relatives, movie matinees, paper routes, and visits to Grandpa's farm. He also injects some serious material, including nuclear testing, "duck and cover" drills (which I did as a child and, as he correctly notes, we'd all be dead if SAC base was hit anyway), Polio, and Communism.

While most of this memoir was quite enjoyable, I do have a few issues with it. Some of these may be because Bryson moved to the UK as a young adult and has basically lived his whole adult life there. First there are still forty plus Younker's Department stores all over the Midwest (Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan...) and the one I often visited in the 60's still had a great book department, although it wasn't tucked away in a corner like the one in Des Moines apparently was. And his mention of Bishop's Cafeteria and the lack of chain stores in the 50's totally negates the fact that Bishops was a chain. As a child I personally loved going to the one in Omaha. There were other chain hamburger places too. Certainly they were not as prevalent as chains now, but they did exist on a small scale.

But, all in all, Bryson achieves a nice, pleasant, light hearted mix of stories with a minimum amount of serious social commentary, and most of the stories are presented in a conversational way, sort of meandering through several funny bits until he eventually reaches a conclusion. The stories are told from a child's point of view, or at least Bryson looking back at things now as he saw them then. While I basically enjoyed it, I can see that it might appeal more to a little bit older audience, especially baby boomers. It could also be that men are going to relate to Bryson much better than I did on some of the stories, especially those involving peeing on things, something young girls are not noted for doing.

Very Highly Recommended for baby boomers

(On a side note, my brother and I were just discussing the likelihood of nuclear fallout reaching where we grew up and it looks like we were right.)


“It’s a bit burned,” my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something — a much-loved pet perhaps — salvaged from a tragic house fire. “But I think I scraped off most of the burned part,” she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh.

Happily, all this suited my father. His palate only responded to two tastes — burnt and ice cream — so everything suited him so long as it was sufficiently dark and not too startlingly flavorful. Theirs truly was a marriage made in heaven for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad. pg. 15

Both of my parents had grown up in the Great Depression and neither of them ever threw anything away if they could possibly avoid it. My mother routinely washed and dried paper plates, and smoothed out for reuse spare aluminum foil. If you left a pea on your plate, it became part of future meal. All our sugar came in little packets spirited out of restaurants in deep coat pockets, as did our jams, jellies, crackers (oyster and saltine), tartar sauces, some of our ketchup and butter, all of our napkins, and a very occasional ashtray; anything that came with a restaurant table really. One of the happiest moments in my parents’ life was when maple syrup started to be served in small disposable packets and they could add those to the household hoard. pg. 17

So that was the end of the toity jar, though it worked out for the best as these things often do. After that, all my mother had to do was mention that she had something good in a jar in the fridge and my father would get a sudden urge to take us to Bishop's, a cafeteria downtown, which was the best possible outcome, for Bishop's was the finest restaurant that ever existed. pg. 19

The New Utica department store downtown had pneumatic tubes rising from each register: the cash from your purchase was placed in a cylinder; then inserted in the tubes and fired - like a torpedo - to a central collection point, such was the urgency to get the money counted and back into the economy. A visit to the New Utica was like a trip to a future century. pg. 22

The most striking difference between then and now was how many kids there were then. America had thirty-two million children aged twelve or under in the mid-1950s, and four million new babies were plopping onto the changing mats every year. So there were kids everywhere, all the time, in densities now unimaginable, but especially when anything interesting or unusual happened. pg. 36

It was an astonishment to me even when quite young to think that my mother and her siblings had come from the same genetic stock. I believe she may have felt a little that way herself. pg. 81

It turned out that children, with their trim little bodies and love of milk, were particularly adept at absorbing and holding on to strontium 90 - the chief radioactive product of fallout..... Visible fallout drifted down on six western states and two Canadian provinces - although no one officially acknowledged the fiasco and no public warnings were issued.... pg. 125

There is no more anonymous, mazelike, unsettling environment, especially to a dim, smallish human, than a field of infinitely identical rows of tall corn, each - including the diagonals - presenting a prospect of endless vegetative hostility. pg. 174

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
Ender Wiggin Series #2
Mass Market Paperback, 416 pages
Tom Doherty Associates, 1986
Introduction, 1994
ISBN-13: 9780812550757
very highly recommended

From the Publisher
Three thousand years have passed.... Ender remains young, traveling the stars at the speed of relativity, but a hundred years or more might pass on Earth while he experiences a month-long voyage. In three thousand years, Ender’s books The Hive Queen and The Hegemon, written under a pseudonym, have become holy writ, while the name of Ender itself has become anathema....
The only [sapient race], that is, until the planet called Lusitania was discovered and colonized. The discovery was seen as a gift to humanity, a chance to redeem the destruction of the Buggers. This time, the Starways Congress vowed, there would be no tragic misunderstanding leading to war. But once again men die, killed by the aliens in a rite no one understands. Ender, now known only as the Speaker for the Dead, comes to speak for those who have died and discovers that in order to tell the truth about them, he must unravel the secrets of Lusitania.
My Thoughts:

It is three thousand years in the future and Andrew Wiggins, Ender, is now a Speaker for the Dead. The alien race known as piggies have apparently murdered a xenologer studying them on the Catholic planet of Lusitania. Ender receives a request for a Speaker of the Dead and sets out on the long journey to answer the request, find some understanding of the act, and, perhaps, atone for his actions in the extermination of the bugger race. The theme is atonement. The question asked is: What is a community?

Speaker for the Dead is also both a Hugo and Nebula Award winner. It really is a rich novel with fine character development and a very satisfying plot. The slowly revealed explanation for the actions of various characters, human and alien, is very believable and consistent with the universe Card has created. Card has dropped the simple style he used in writing Ender's Game and has revealed the true capacity of his talent and ability in Speaker for the Dead. It is a more complex novel in every way.

Once again I also quite enjoyed Card's introduction to my copy of Speaker for the Dead. We may just be at the beginning of an Orson Scott Card reading frenzy here, but it's difficult to imagine that the next book can live up to the very high expectations set by Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. Both of them are very different books when compared to each other but both are also excellent. Both Wonder Boy and I agree that Speaker for the Dead is not just a good science fiction story, but it is an excellent novel across the board, compared to any book, any genre.
Very Highly Recommended


Not only did they have no parents, few science fiction heroes seemed to marry and have kids. In short, the heroes of most science fiction novels were perpetual adolescents, lone rangers who wandered the universe avoiding commitments. pg. xvi, introduction

For the first time since the Xenocide of the Buggers by the monstrous Ender, humans had found intelligent alien life. The piggies were technologically primitive, but they used tools and built houses and spoke a language. pg xxix, prologue

Rooter was at once the most difficult and the most helpful of the pequeninos. He was always there whenever Pipo visited their clearing, and did his best to answer the questions Pipo was forbidden by law to come right out and ask. Pipo depended on him—too much, probably—yet though Rooter clowned and played like the irresponsible youngling that he was, he also watched, probed, tested. Pipo always had to beware of the traps that Rooter set for him. pg. 1

“I know. You have no friends, you have no intimate associates, you go to mass but you never go to confession, you are so completely detached that as far as possible you don’t touch the life of this colony, you don’t touch the life of the human race at any point. From all the evidence, you live in complete isolation.”
Novinha wasn’t prepared for this. He was naming the underlying pain of her life, and she didn’t have a strategy devised to cope with it. pg. 14

“You can take the test.”
The words hung in the air.
“When?” she whispered.
“Tonight. Tomorrow. Begin when you like. I’ll stop my work to take you through the tests as quickly as you like.”
“Thank you! Thank you, I—”
“Become the Speaker for the Dead. I’ll help you all I can. The law forbids me to take anyone but my apprentice, my son Libo, out to meet the pequeninos. But we’ll open our notes to you. Everything we learn, we’ll show you. All our guesses and speculation. In return, you also show us all your work, what you find out about the genetic patterns of this world that might help us understand the pequeninos. And when we’ve learned enough, together, you can write your book, you can become the Speaker. But this time not the Speaker for the Dead. The pequeninos aren’t dead.” pg. 18

“But I meant—with the body—what should we do?”
“Nothing,” said Pipo. “The pequeninos have done what pequeninos do, for whatever reason pequeninos do it.” He helped Libo to his feet.
Libo had trouble standing for a moment; he leaned on both of them for his first few steps. “What did I say?” he whispered. “I don’t even know what it is I said that killed him.”
“It wasn’t you,” said Pipo. “It was me.”
“What, do you think you own them?” demanded Novinha. “Do you think their world revolves around you? As you said, the piggies did it, for whatever reason they have. It’s plain enough this isn’t the first time—they were too deft at the vivisection for this to be the first time.” pg. 27

They found him all too soon. His body was already cooling in the snow. The piggies hadn’t even planted a tree in him. pg. 30

"There is our dilemma. There is the problem. Was the act evil, or was it, somehow, to the piggies' understanding at least, good?" pg. 36

For he loved her, as you can only love someone who is and echo of yourself at your time of deepest sorrow. pg. 83

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ender's Game

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Ender Wiggin Series #1
Mass Market Paperback, 384 pages
Tom Doherty, Associates, 1985
Introduction, 1994
ISBN-13: 9780812550702
Very Highly Recommended

The Earth is under attack and the survival of the human species depends on a military genius who can defeat the alien “buggers.” Recruited for military training, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin’s childhood ends the moment he enters his new home: Battle School.
My Thoughts:

The alien "buggers" have tried to destroy the human race twice. Before they can launch a third and final battle, a new brilliant commander must be found to eliminate the threat once and for all. This creates the necessity for Battle School, where highly intelligent children are trained to be the soldiers and officers needed for the war. When tested, Ender exhibits the desired combination of compassion and cruelty needed in the great commander hey are looking for, so, at age 6, he is sent off to Battle School. Ender survives and excels at Battle School, despite his small stature and the fact that he is intentionally isolated, and allowed to be bullied and persecuted.

Ender's Game really is an incredible science fiction classic. Originally published as a short story in 1977, the rewritten novel is both a Hugo and Nebula Award winner. Ender's Game explores the question: what does it take to make a great commander? While you may or may not agree with the International Fleet's answer to that question in regards to Ender's training, you will never forget the character Ender Wiggins.

I don't know why I haven't read Ender's Game before now, except for the fact that I kept thinking I had read it.

The simple style in which Card wrote Ender's Game is particularly effective, especially since we are experiencing Battle School through the eyes of Ender, who is a very young genius. Often now considered a YA book, it is clear that there are many gifted children, or even those deemed "different" by their peers, who are going to really relate to Ender. I also very much enjoyed Card's introduction included in my copy of Ender's Game. I'm going to add a quote (found below) from it to my sidebar.
Very Highly Recommended - it really is a classic


In other genres, that desire is usually expressed by producing thinly veiled rewrites of the great work: Tolkien's disciples far too often simply rewrite Tolkien, for example. In science fiction, however, the whole point is that the ideas are fresh and startling and intriguing; you imitate the great ones, not by rewriting their stories, but rather by creating stories that are just as startling and new. pg. xii, introduction

I writing Ender's Game I deliberately avoided all the little literary games and gimmicks that make "fine" writing so impenetrable to the general audience. All the layers of meaning are here to be decoded, if you like to play the game of literary criticism - but if you don't care to ply that game, that's fine with me. pg xviii-xix, introduction

I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective - the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult's. pg xx, introduction

The story itself, the true story, is the one that the audience members create in their minds, guided and shaped by my text, but then transformed, elucidated, expanded, edited, and clarified by their own experience, their own desires, their own hopes and fears. pg. xxv, introduction

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”
“That’s what you said about the brother.”
“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”
“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”
“Not if the other person is his enemy.”
“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”
“If we have to.”
“I thought you said you liked this kid.” opening

The doctor was trembling; his voice shook as he spoke. “They leave these things in the kids for three years, what do they expect? We could have switched him off, do you realize that? We could have unplugged his brain for all time.” pg 3-4

Then Ender looked at the others coldly. "You might be having some idea of ganging up on me. You could probably beat me up pretty bad. But just remember what I do to people who try to hurt me. From then on you'd be wondering when I'd get you, and how bad it would be." pg. 7

"My name is Graff, Ender. Colonel Hyrum Graff. I'm director of primary training at the Battle School in the Belt. I've come to invite you to enter the school."
After all. "But the monitor-"
"The final step in your testing was to see what would happen when your monitor came off. We don't always do it that way, but in your case -"
"And he passed?" Mother was incredulous. "Putting the Stilson boy in the hospital? What would you have done if Andrew had killed him, given him a medal?"
"It isn't what he did, Mrs. Wiggin. It's why." pg. 19

"What is it like, there?"
"Hard work. Studies, just like school here, except we put you into mathematics and computers much more heavily. Military history. Strategy and tactics. And above all, the Battle Room."
"What's that?"
"War games. All the boys are organized into armies. Day after day, in zero gravity, there are mock battles..." pg. 23-24

"Anderson, think what we're going to do to him."
Anderson was defiant. We're going to make him the best military commander in history."
"And then put the fate of the world on his shoulders. For his sake, I hope it isn't him. I do."
"Cheer up. The buggers may kill us all before he graduates." pg. 36

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

This Must Be the Place

This Must Be the Place by Kate Racculia
Henry Holt & Company, July 2010
Hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780805092301
Very Highly Recommended

A sudden death, a never-mailed postcard, and a long buried secret set the stage for a luminous and heartbreakingly real novel about lost souls finding one another
The Darby-Jones boardinghouse in Ruby Falls, New York, is home to Mona Jones and her daughter, Oneida, two loners and self-declared outcasts who have formed a perfectly insular family unit: the two of them and the three eclectic boarders living in their house. But their small, quiet life is upended when Arthur Rook shows up in the middle of a nervous breakdown, devastated by the death of his wife, carrying a pink shoe box containing all his wife's mementos and keepsakes, and holding a postcard from sixteen years ago, addressed to Mona but never sent. Slowly the contents of the box begin to fit together to tell a story—one of a powerful friendship, a lost love, and a secret that, if revealed, could change everything that Mona, Oneida, and Arthur know to be true.

My Thoughts:

This Must Be the Place, Kate Racculia's debut novel, is the story of a widower, a past friendship, a mother and daughter, first love, and what happens when all these different worlds collide. Really, it's a hard novel to classify as it crosses genres. It's a coming of age story mixed with elements of chic lit, but it is also a plot driven character study. And, after melding elements from these different genres, it's really quite good.

All the characters aren't perfect so they feel realistic. (Arthur was annoying me at times, but he felt real.) The big secret will not be a secret to the readers because it is clearly foreshadowed, but experiencing the character's discovery as small details are revealed and explained is masterfully handled by Racculia. (I don't want to give any spoilers.) I appreciated hearing from the different character's point of view, and loved how all the little details and plot twists were slowly explained and revealed from each character's point of view. Racculia doesn't quite explain a remorseless, cruel act at the center of the novel, but we certainly come close to some measure of understanding.

As I was reading This Must Be the Place that I kept discovering little gems of writing that resonated with me - a sentence here, a turn of the phrase there. If I didn't consciously show self-restraint, I could have flagged many quotes throughout the whole novel. There is some humor, some touching scenes, some absurd events, some conflicts. I'm going to be looking forward to more from Kate Racculia in the future because I really enjoy the way she expresses herself.
Very Highly Recommended

Many thanks to Henry Holt & Company who sent me my review copy of This Must Be the Place.


Amy considered the postcard: a boardwalk scene. Throngs of people wandering in the sun. Sparkling blue ocean to the right, cheery awnings on the shops. She sniffed. The man beside her on the bus stank of tuna fish and cigarette smoke.
This must be what it feels like to die, she thought.
She was sore all over, sore and too tired to be scared. She suspected this was what it would feel like to die: to give up everything that came before, to just—cut it off. Tear it out. opening

She didn't know why she'd done it. She woke up early and knew today was the day (or rather, yesterday was the day; she'd been on this bus for something like twenty hours now), and when you knew something, there was no point in not-knowing it, just like there was no point in waiting. pg. 3

And he—Ray Harryhausen—had created them! Had built them, improbably, from wire and clay and plastic and feathers; built them and given them movement, and desire, and souls. Harryhausen, come to think of it, was the only god she had ever learned to worship; he created a world in his movies that captured her, that thrilled her, that felt like home. It was a world she'd spent her entire life trying to find.
And now she could see the doorway, just a little down the road, waiting for her to walk through.
She sat up and grabbed her pen.
Anyway, I left you the best parts of myself, she wrote. You know where to look.
There was nothing more to say. pg. 3-4

When Arthur asked Max why he let Manny go on thinking he liked the donuts—wasn't he worried some day Manny would discover the truth and be hurt?—Max shrugged and said sometimes you let the people you love believe what they want to believe. pg. 7

Arthur loved people. He didn't really understand them or feel like he belonged among them, even, but he adored being a witness to their existence. He loved how various they were, how fragile and tough and strange and each his own universe: self-contained and whole. He was a Watcher. Amy told him, one afternoon six months after they met, that he would be unbelievably creepy if he weren't so damned good. pg. 8

They'd see a hint of the person Jennifer would grow up to be, after she'd bested this phase of her life simply by outliving it. pg. 10

That was how Arthur Rook met Amy Henderson. Amy, who would sit down with him at a table in the sun, who would explain the difference between a double-double and a Flying Dutchman and then wipe a dot of ketchup from the corner of his mouth with her left fingertip. Who would teach him how to navigate, how to survive, how to fall in love with LA's charmingly daft will—finding its resolve to exist for its own superficial sake perfectly romantic and not a terminal fool's dying delusion. Who would teach him to fall in love with her. Who would be his friend and his lover and then his wife, who would be his home, who could create life from metal and rubber and wires for the sake of a few frames of film, and who would, at 7:48 on a Friday morning in early October, send ten thousand volts from the tip of the same finger that had wiped the ketchup from his lips through all the chambers of her heart.
Amy, who would be killed instantly.
Amy, who would make Arthur Rook a widower at thirty-two. pg. 13

And Max would hope that his strange, quiet, runaway friend, wherever he'd gone, would be able to find his way back home.
But Arthur's home had ceased to exist. Its ghost had called to him and told him where to run. pg. 19

Oneida Jones was a freak. It was nonnegotiable. It was absolute. It was common knowledge among both her fellow classmates and the population of Ruby Falls at large, but it wasn't until after her twelfth birthday that she ever considered the possibility that it was something to be embraced rather than raged against. pg. 20

"Los . . . Angeles." Arthur Rook shrugged, anticipating Oneida's knee-jerk response, she realized, of So what the hell are you doing here? "I had to leave," he said. "I was tired of it." He shook his head. "You need a decoder ring to order a hamburger."
"Oh, come on," said Mona. "Everybody knows about the secret menu at In-n-Out."
At that, Arthur Rook's face turned ashen and his eyes lost their intense focus, flicked back and forth, shone. In the awkward silence that followed, Mona offered to show him his room and he agreed— a little too quickly, Oneida thought, for a man who claimed he was just tired. She wasn't sure which mystery bothered her more: what Arthur Rook was doing in Ruby Falls, or what her mother had said to make him look like he wanted to cry. pg. 31

The postcard was dated August 18, 1993. It read:
Mona, I'm sorry. I should have told you. You knew me better than anyone - I think you knew me better than me. Don't worry, I swear I'm happier dead. Anyway, I left you the best parts of myself. You know where to 35

When Amy, who hadn't even said good-bye, spoke to him in signs and wonders, he grabbed onto them with both hands. pg. 41

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Like It

After becoming a follower and reading the blogs I follow on Google Reader for several weeks the verdict is in:

I like it.

Why d
idn't I do this earlier?

(ED and Lori)

I thought I was being smart and saving time by reading the blogs I bookm
arked whenever I had time, but reading them in Google Reader drastically reduces the time it takes to read all of them. I can now add back many of the blogs I stopped trying to read, assuming I can find them all. I stopped regularly visiting some blogs because their pages loaded too slowly due to all the excess stuff on the sidebars and some because their posting was so infrequent.

The one thing I miss is seeing all of your sites as you designed them. I appreciate the individuality.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Altar of Eden

Altar of Eden by James Rollins
HarperCollins Publishers, 2010
Hardcover, 398 pages
ISBN-13: 9780061231421
very highly recommended

Following the fall of Baghdad, two Iraqi boys stumble upon armed men looting the city zoo. The floodgates have been opened for the smuggling of hundreds of exotic birds, mammals, and reptiles to Western nations, but this crime hides a deeper secret. Amid a hail of bullets, a concealed underground weapons lab is ransacked—and something even more horrific is set free.
Seven years later, Louisiana state veterinarian Lorna Polk stumbles upon a fishing trawler shipwrecked on a barrier island. The crew is missing or dead, but the boat holds a frightening cargo: a caged group of exotic animals, clearly part of a black market smuggling ring.
Yet, something is wrong with these beasts, disturbing deformities that make no sense: a parrot with no feathers, a pair of Capuchin monkeys conjoined at the hip, a jaguar cub with the dentition of a saber-toothed tiger. They also all share one uncanny trait—a disturbingly heightened intelligence.
To uncover the truth about the origin of this strange cargo and the terrorist threat it poses, Lorna must team up with a man who shares a dark and bloody past with her and is now an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, Jack Menard
My Thoughts:

The perfect summer read - a stand alone thriller from James Rollins! While the sigma Forces novels are good, I always liked the earlier stand alone thrillers just a little bit more. Altar of Eden introduces us to Dr. Lorna Polk, a veterinarian with the New Orleans Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, or ACRES. She is called in to help Jack Menard, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, as he explores a case of smuggling of exotic animals, which quickly points to genetic engineering. Action goes from the bayous of Louisiana to an island in the Gulf. I don't want to give away any of the story, but suffice it to say there is plenty of action and gun fights. There is also a nice blend of real science and information used to tell the story. Rollins excels at writing a good action/adventure thriller.
Very Highly Recommended - great escapism for a long summer day


The two boys stood outside the lion's cage.
"I don't want to go inside," the smaller one said. He kept close to his older brother and clasped tightly to his hand. opening

He understood nothing about what had happened. He knew only one thing for certain. He remembered the beast's ravenous eyes, shining with a cunning intelligence, aglow with a smokeless fire.
Makeen knew what he had seen. The beast known as Shaitan in the Koran - he who was born of God's fire and cursed for not bowing down to Adam.
Makeen knew the truth.
At long last, the devil had come to Baghdad. pg. 7

Though associated with the city's zoo, ACRES was not open to the public. Sheltered within a hardwood forest, the grounds included a few outdoor pens, but the main facility was a thirty-six-thousand square-foot research building that housed a half-dozen laboratories and a veterinary hospital.
The latter was where Dr. Lorna Polk had worked since completing her postgraduate residency in zoo-and-wildlife medicine. She oversaw the facilities frozen zoo, twelve tanks of liquid nitrogen that preserved sperm, eggs, and embryos from hundreds of endangered species... pg. 12

According to her boss, the Border Patrol had been searching the area following last night's storm surge. It was common for smugglers to work under the cover of storms to bring in drugs, guns, even human cargo. Early this morning, a team had discovered a trawler beached on one of the outlying islands. After investigating the ship, they'd made a call to ACRES. pg. 16

"Dr. Polk," he said stiffly. His accent grew thicker, more husky. "I called you here because... because I didn't know who else had the expertise to offer guidance about what we found." pg. 20

He led her along a row of cages, shining his flashlight into the shadowy recesses. Each enclosure held a different animal, some familiar, some exotic. But like the monkeys, they all bore some twisted abnormality. pg. 24

"This cub is something more than just an oversized jaguar," Lorna warned.
"How so?"
She stood up, carrying the creature, and ducked out to join Jack. "This is the cub of a saber-toothed cat." pg. 30