What's Jennifer been reading? And what are her favorite books?

Welcome to my books page. Here, I list what I'm currently reading, what I've read recently, and my favorite books of all time. I reserve the right to list only what I'd like to share here, so you might not see me update this page for everything I read, only what I think is worth putting up for the world to see. If I don't finish a book listed as "Currently Reading", or really dislike it, I may simply decide not to put up a review for it.

If you like what you read here, consider going to Amazon to make a purchase, either from that link or from a book title. I get a little bitty commission when you make a purchase after clicking through my page. (For more info about this page and Amazon Associates, please see my disclaimer at the bottom of this page.)

Currently reading: the latest issue of Maisonneuve, my favorite magazine.

May 2005

coverSpoken here: travels among threatened languages by Mark Abley (2003). I minored in linguistics, and unfortunately we really didn't talk much about sociolinguistics: the study of how languages are used by groups of people, or in the case of the languages presented in this book, not used. Abley is wonderful at getting inside the heads of the people he meets, and finding out how they feel about their languages. Among the languages he profiles are well-known examples such as Welsh, Provencal, and Yiddish, as well as little-known Northern Australian aboriginal languages, Native American and Native Canadian languages, and languages rarer still. On his travels, he sketches perceptively the casual speaker as well as the language activist, proposes reasons for what's happening to the various languages, and compares situations across cultures; in fact, you have to read this one cover-to-cover, there are so many comparisons in each chapter to what you've already read. This book is almost enough to make me sign up for the next available sociolinguistics course. A fascinating read for the casual reader as well as lovers of linguistics, travel writing, and sociology.

coverDavita's harp by Chaim Potok (1985) follows a young girl, Ilana Davita Chandal, in the years leading up to World War II in New York. Potok works magic as he writes in the first person voice of a child, enabling us to see what she sees and somehow to understand what she only grasps slowly. (He isn't as convincing as Davita becomes a young woman, but there the male author had a tougher job, understandably.) Davita's parents are heavily involved in the Communist movement, and her life is a jumble of Party meetings, frequent moves when the meetings become too much for the neighbors, and murmurings of revolution. Her Jewish mother has rejected the religion of her oppressive eastern European upbringing, and her father is a New England gentile, an idealistic journalist whose travels take him to the center of war. She doesn't feel like she belongs anywhere, but a diverse set of family friends and relatives help give her the guidance her parents can't always provide. Davita finds her way to Judaism in a long, roundabout way, and finds in it the strength to cope with her life's twists and turns. This is NOT a proselytizing novel; it's a novel about how change comes slowly or quickly, but it comes. Definitely my favorite book so far this year.

The Courts of love: a romance of medieval France by Peter Bourne (1958). (No picture available) If you've seen 1950's "medieval" movies, and read a few "historical" romance novels, you've read this book: feisty heiress is kidnapped by hardened warrior, they begin to soften to one another, he rescues her a few times, she fools him and escapes, he re-kidnaps her and delivers her to evil older lord, they meet up by chance a few years later, and they realize they're in love. Of course that's when the real action begins, as the heiress is now married to the evil older lord. Does true love conquer all? You betcha. This is actually worth reading if you're interested in courtly love; the author provides a reasonably accurate portrait of how courtly love worked in medieval France, and of Queen Eleanor and her patronage of the arts, her conflicts with her family, and her philosophy of love. Otherwise, the dialogue isn't too stilted, the coincidences aren't too unbelievable, and the writing is actually pretty good on a page-by-page basis. Enjoy it for what it is: a historical romance perhaps 1/2 cut above the rest.

April 2005

coverThe Object stares back: on the nature of seeing by James Elkins (1996). I was expecting something compatible with my background in cognitive psychology. What I got was as close to a book of pure philosophy as I think I ever want to read. Elkins, an art professor, delves into the question of what exactly is going on when we see something, how our eyes manage to filter out the things that aren't important to us, and how our unconscious minds direct our seeing. He uses photographs and concrete examples, and his writing is descriptive enough, and self-reflective enough, to engage the reader-for-fun. Now that I'm done with it I guess I don't find myself thinking about it much. But while I was reading, it, it held my attention.

coverBarrel fever by David Sedaris (1994). I got this book of stories and essays primarily because of Sedaris' successful readings on public radio, and especially after hearing him read from his hilarious "SantaLand Diaries" (included in this book). I still think he's one of the funniest people doing anything anywhere today. But his story style got old very quickly: first person, unusual person who doesn't realize they're unusual, interacts in unusual ways with family or strangers, gets even more seriously unusual (often to the point of committing a crime or hurting someone), and that's where we leave the person. Examples: the editor of a homophobia newsletter is adrift in his own world of "oppression" and decides to victimize someone because of it; a teenager writes a work of gay pornography and decides a little research is in order; a racist housewife's baby is killed by her husband's Vietnamese love-child....Not only did this start to grate on me, I found it depressing and uninspiring, despite the quirky prose and the humorous turns-of-phrases every few lines. I think this is the last David Sedaris book I'll buy, despite the huge success of the more recent ones. Some things, I don't need in my life.

March 2005

coverThe Grand complication by Allen Kurzweil (2002). I'm surprised I didn't read about this one on my various library-related listservs or blogs. Alexander Short is a librarian at the New York Public Library, married to a paper-artist Frenchwoman to whom he is unable to make love. His life takes an unusual turn when an eldery, eccentric book collector hires him to determine the missing object that should reside in his enigmatic antique glass case. Alexander uses his research skills, intuition, and the contents of the old man's library to determine what should be there; what's harder is trying to lay his hands on it. Along the way he wonders if his client is what he says he is, and whether he's being used.

I'd love to pick this book apart for library inaccuracies, but the truth is that Kurzweil gets the details roughly right, just doesn't connect them to anything larger in librarianship. Alexander is anal-retentive and offbeat, but doesn't remind me of any librarian I know. His NYPL is a dark vault where the books must be protected at all costs, librarians routinely staff the call desk, and the maintenance man turns out to know more about the library than anyone else. Sounds like "one-library syndrome": this book was written by a person who's only worked at one library and doesn't have a library degree, who knows one place well, but is unable to connect the particulars to the greater world of libraries. It's not wrong, it's just not generalizable. It does, however, make a good backdrop for this book. Aside from anything library-related, you may not love the characters, but the mystery will pull you along.

coverA Cook's tour by Anthony Bourdain (2002). Ostensibly, Bourdain convinced his publishers to spring for a world tour on the gimmick that he wanted to search for "the perfect meal". His sense of humor throughout implies that he knows the perfect meal is a mirage, shimmering on the next horizon. This doesn't keep him from eating his way around the world, however, having such adventures as eating a roasted sheep in the desert with Tuareg nomads, bar-hopping in Spain in search of the world's best tapas, going shot-to-shot on vodka with his new Russian friends, or avoiding--then savoring--the fabled stinky durian fruit in Vietnam. Like any good food or travel writing (and this is both), Bourdain's strength is in the way he throws himself into new situations, surrounds himself with interesting people, then describes them to a T. Bourdain's not a good boy--he drinks, he smokes, and if you can't stand a little profanity, this is not the book for you--but his personality shines, and he's obviously in his element researching and writing this kind of book. A Cook's tour is worth it for the chapter entitled "Very, very strong" alone (you'll see what I mean).

coverExtra life by David S. Bennahum (1999). This author is too young to write an autobiography, and his writing style betrays this. It's full of hyperbole, repetition, and precious pauses to reflect on something only he sees as important. But computers are a young science. Whether or not you like the writing, Bennahum succeeds at his goal of chronicling how computers and computer games grew up as he did, in fits and starts. The story begins when he finds a rudimentary video game in a bar in France as a small child, and ends with his becoming Super User in his high school computer lab, just as the culture of shared computer use is beginning to crumble. Along the way, we learn way too much about what was going on inside his head, and possibly too little about the concurrent evolution of computer technology and culture. You get the feeling that the author pitched this book idea by claiming it'd be everyone's story, not just his (in fact I have a dear friend who claims his life story is just like Bennahum's), but there's only so much to be gained by evoking memories in the brains of computer geeks, especially if that's the only selling point. I don't recommend this book, unless you were a computer geek in the 70's and 80's and love reading about other computer geeks' experiences as they were growing up.

February 2005

coverStarship Titanic by Terry Jones (1998). Paced differently from Douglas Adams' works, this novel nonetheless manages to evoke Adams just when you least expect it. The rest of the time, though, is a bit of a disappointment. Four humans are inadvertently picked up by a huge interstellar luxury spaceliner, only to discover that the ship a) isn't finished and b) was never meant to be finished, since a huge bomb was planted aboard by saboteurs. The bomb--not exactly a "smart bomb" model--can be easily distracted if someone's there to talk to it. But the earthlings, and a randy journalist from the ship's home planet, have their time otherwise occupied as they couple and re-couple, resist romance, give in to it, and generally do everything they can think of to get an upgrade to first class (perhaps the beds are bigger there?). The ship itself, and its various robots and half-constructed amenities, are the funniest thing going in the book (this is an obvious nod to Adams) but the characters are shallow, over-earnest, and poorly developed. I didn't mind spending a day on this, but unless you're really intrigued by the idea of a Douglas Adams idea as realized by Monty Python's Terry Jones, skip this one.

coverHow to read a french fry by Russ Parsons (2003). Kitchen science fans: this will scratch where it itches. It's a cookbook, yes, but with only a few well-chosen, illustrative recipes. What this mainly is, is a guide to why food does what it does in the kitchen. It isn't the only book to tackle this topic, but it's the easiest to read, and the most fun. There are chapters on starches and how they react with other foodstuffs/with heat/etc., gluten and breads/cakes/pastries, meat and its composition (and why the old maxim of "searing in the juices" will never work), frying and what it does (and how to get the perfect french fry), emulsifiers like eggs, and the life cycle of fruits and vegetables. Apply the science in your kitchen by using the illustrative recipes at the end of each chapter, and this would seem to be an excellent basic course in cooking science. (I didn't make more than one or two of the recipes; one flopped due to my own miscalculation, and one was fine.) Overall: a fun and interesting read, but don't buy it just for the recipes.

January 2005

coverKatish: our Russian cook by Wanda Frolov (1947). Ruth Reichl, the food writer whose memoirs are reviewed below, edits the Modern Library Food series. So far (this is the first I've read) this seems like a dependable series. Frolov introduces us to her family in 1920's Los Angeles; they didn't need a cook, but the redoubtable Aunt Martha insists that they try out Katish, a Russian emigree. Katish turns out to be a plump, cheerful widow as sweet as her burnt sugar pudding, as ready to help other immigrants as she is to nurture the family. Katish's adventures in her new country read a bit like Pippi Longstocking: the bewildered-but-delighted family soon feels she is one of their own, but Katish always has another little quirk or misperception to add a dash of confusion to life. The recipes are copious and well-explained, though they often include directions or ingredients that may seem odd to the modern cook (Maggi seasoning? Pork fat? Strained cottage cheese?). Everything looks cookable, if a little more fussy than many modern cooks would prefer. The only area lacking is any information about Russia and its history in the time period, but you get the feeling the author didn't care about Russia so much as its food and its emigres. Katish is a lot of fun, a light read with recipes to make you drool.

December 2004

coverFlorence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley (2004). I picked this up on the freebies table this fall when I was volunteering at Wisconsin Public Radio. It turned out to be enjoyable: Florence, a high-ranking official at the U.S. State Department, loses a female friend to Islamic misogyny, and drafts a radical plan to emancipate the women of the repressive (and fictional) Middle Eastern country of Wasabi. Before she knows it, a mysterious figure named Uncle Sam is financing her entire plan. Along with a whiny (but polyglot) gay co-worker, the hottest PR guru in the world, and a sexy ex-CIA agent, she sets up a modern women's TV station across the border in Matar (pronounced "mutter"). Despite Matar's reputation as the Las Vegas of the Middle East, politics are rampant, and soon Florence must rescue herself, her man, and her idealism from cell phone bombs, a narcissistic Emir, and possible torture. This is an interesting mix of traditional adventure novel and cultural/political commentary. The dialogue is snappy and sarcastic, the characters are slightly hooded as though they are too cool to be completely explored in a novel, and the ending wraps up neatly. An entertaining read.

coverMonsoon diary: a memoir with recipes by Shoba Narayan (2002). I like food writing in general, and have recently been on an India kick. This entertaining memoir takes the author from her choru-unnal ceremony (in which she, as an infant, eats her first bite of rice and ghee) in India, all the way to her marriage and life in the U.S. Narayan introduces her extended family, full of interesting characters, as well as people from the neighborhood. Most importantly, she introduces India, and its humor/smells/temperatures/tastes, to the beginning India buff, very effectively. Every chapter ends with a recipe; I'm not actually into Indian cooking, so I haven't tried any, but they look eminently workable for a thoughtful cook willing to check at an international grocery for the less American ingredients. Narayan's account of life at Mt. Holyoke on a much-worked-for scholarship (which she got, indirectly, through her cooking!) is perhaps the best part of the book, focussing on what she perceives as the main differences between the American and Indian character. This book is a love letter to the food and culture of the author's childhood, and a very absorbing one. Follow it up with the movies Monsoon Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham.

November 2004

coverThe Ig Nobel prizes: rewarding the world's unlikeliest research by Marc Abrahams (2004). I picked this up on a whim at the Detroit airport, after realizing that I was about to finish American Gods and I would need something else to read right away. This was not the best choice. A quick read (240 pages in a 1 1/2 hour layover and a 50 minute flight), this book presents some of the more bizarre of the Ig Nobel prizewinners in various categories. Ig Nobel originated with the Journal of Irreproducible Results, later known as the Annals of Improbable Research, a scientific journal publishing real research articles that are funny in some way. What makes AIR so hilarious is that the articles are written by scientists, for scientists, in hardcore science language and format. Unfortunately, that's what's missing from this book, which gives only summaries, written in wry and slightly precious language for the layperson. Even the bibliographies, often the funniest part of the articles, are skipped entirely. I felt (appropriately enough, since I was travelling by plane) like someone fed pretzels when she really wants coq au vin. As a past reader of AIR, this book made me want to read AIR, but it didn't make me want to keep reading the book itself.

coverAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman (2002). One day out of jail, Shadow learns his beloved wife a) was cheating on him with his best friend, and b) has died in a car accident. His whole world is gone. A strange man named Wednesday offers him a job, and he accepts, but what follows is nothing like the conventional crime novel that the opening resembles. Wednesday and his scattered cadre of unusual friends introduce Shadow to the idea that the gods of foreign cultures are at war with the false gods of modern America, preparing for the ultimate battle for the soul of America.

Take whatever level of interest you have in this book after the preceeding, and multiply it by at least ten, because you're going to love this book. It's gorgeously written and gloriously conceived, without ever being pretentious. (Heck, it's mostly set in Wisconsin; an early scene takes place at the House on the Rock in Spring Green, and all descriptions of it are perfectly true as well as perfectly suited to a fantasy novel!) The joy comes in meeting the gods and understanding what each stands for, while appreciating the quirky characters who embody them. Shadow's strength in the end will awe you. This is a must-read for anyone who's into fantasy, religious or cultural studies, or just plain excellent writing.

October 2004

coverThe Treasure of Montsegur by Sophy Burnham (2003). If you can get around the fact that the main character is a little TOO human to be likeable, you might like this. The Treasure of Montsegur tells the story of a woman who may or may not have been at the siege of Montsegur, a mountaintop fort in southern France where 200 people were killed and the Cathar religion pretty much ended in the mid-1200's. Jeanne, who was adopted by a Cathar holy woman after she was found in a field after the massacre at Beziers in 1209, is raised like a good Cathar girl, and becomes involved with both the heretics' cause and a man who captures her heart. Most of the story is told in flashback, when she is an old woman who is barely able to remember what happened at Montsegur. She forms a relationship with a stranger, for safety, without telling him she is a heretic, and their relationship is perhaps the best part of the story. The ending has a touch of ambiguity, so if you hate not knowing what truly happened, this might not be the book for you. But it is rich in period detail, brings to life some of the beliefs and practices of the Cathars, and the love story with Jerome is sweet.

September 2004

coverThe King's shadow by Elizabeth Alder (1997). This is the somewhat-conventionally-written story of Evyn, a Welsh teenager and budding bard during the 11th century, who loses his tongue to brigands in a terrible misunderstanding. His uncle, fleeing justice, sells him as a slave to the Lady Ealdgyth, the lover of Earl Harold (the future King Harold of England). He is a maimed thrall, but in a modern turn, the Lady takes a liking to him and makes sure he learns to read, write, and attend Harold as a page and then squire. Evyn adores Harold as a second father, and takes part in battles with him, including eventually the ultimate battle in 1066, where Harold loses England and his life to William the Conqueror. Each character is painted as supremely good or nefariously evil; there aren't too many shades of gray in this young adult novel. But the main character, while not complex, is likeable, and the plot carries you along effectively to the predetermined end. The fighting scenes in particular are well-painted. This isn't a remarkable novel, but if you enjoy 11th century history, you'll like this.

coverChasing the heretics by Rion Klawinski (2000). The Albigensian Crusade in southern France (1208-1229) wiped out the Cathars, a Christian sect that espoused nonviolence, vegetarianism, reincarnation, and religious healing. The northern knight, Simon de Montfort, waged a pitiless war against the heretics, largely to gain himself and his family lands in the south. In Chasing the heretics, the author travels the path of the various battles and conflicts, visiting the castles, forts, and massacre sites that trace the history of the Crusade. His voice is in turns that of the homey traveller (as he gives his impressions of each town, and falls in love with Toulouse) and of the historian, giving abundant facts. Oddly, these roles don't conflict. Klawinski takes the kind of trip every SCA member dreams about, meeting up with unusual people, unexpected traces of history, and towns where the inhabitants have no idea of the carnage once perpetrated there. In the process, he gets us thinking about the very nature of time and history. An absorbing read.

coverInstructions for visitors by Helen Stevenson (2002). A young, flawed Englishwoman finds the place she's meant to be: a fictionalized southern French village. This is another "cast of characters" novel: for example, Gigi, the chic ex-girlfriend of Helen's current beau, who can only express affection by dressing people in clothes from her high-fashion store. There's Luc, the love interest, part of a large and confusing family, self-absorbed but charismatic, dentist by day and painter by night. Helen tries to navigate friendships, writing, playing piano, and just living in a place she loves, where everyone knows everything about her and it seems that everyone has slept with everyone else. She writes better than she leads her life, and she never quite manages to integrate herself with the village, but she does find ways to share her love for the village with others. A carefully-written and amiable memoir--yet another way to fall in love with France.

coverThe River midnight by Lilian Nattel (1999). After I got it through my head that the story was going to be told nine times in the perspectives of nine different people, I was fine. This is a delightful resurrection of a town that never was: a fictional shtetl (eastern European Jewish village), circa the late 1800's, called Blaszka. Its inhabitants come vividly to life: the stubborn midwife, the loner water-carrier with the pet pig, the young American transplant ready to infect everyone with Socialism, the barren woman who wonders what's wrong with her, and the lone Rabbi trying to manage a town that's down on its luck...and more. These sound like stereotypes, but by the end of the book you'll feel you know each one intimately: their wishes, hopes, relationships, secrets, and prayers. The narrative is shot through with historical detail and moments of joy (religious and otherwise); the dialogue smacks of everyone's Yiddish grandma: tough, sarcastic, but soft inside. Absolutely worth the read.

coverThe Man who ate everything by Jeffrey Steingarten (1998). You have to respect the determination of the author, a food critic for Vogue, who lists his personal gross-out foods in the introduction (e.g., Indian desserts, anchovies, kimchi, insects, dill, lard, and more) and then proceeds to learn to love them all. In 15 pages. The rest of his essays are equally audacious and hard-working: Steingarten chases down the earliest known ice cream in the Greek islands, goes truffle hunting at midnight in the Piedmont, researches everything nutritionally known about salt, attends a rigorous training course for waiters, and gets to the bottom of all possible varieties of ketchup. (The results make for a handy shopping guide.) All of this is never less than fascinating, though I was disappointed in a few cases to find some essays dated, even for the publication date of the book. (The chapter called "La Regime Montignac", about the author's attempt to follow a low-carb Atkins precursor diet, is both quite relevant and way out-of-touch with modern trends, having been written in 1994.) All in all, a witty, fact-filled read. I'm hoping to read his next book shortly.

Threshold by David R. Palmer (1985). Palmer's earlier book Emergence is reviewed below, among my favorite books. Is this as good? Not in the least. It reproduces all the potentially irritating aspects of the first book (plucky hero can't help but succeed, constant science tie-in that skirts the edge of believable, cutesy turns-of-phrase every ten words) and removes everything that was good about it (likeable hero complete with flaws, believable love interest, plausible geopolitical back story). What's left is the author's sci-fi wet dream, without any interesting plot turns whatsoever: a golden-boy multi-billionaire who's conquered everything in his path discovered he's being challenged to harness heretofore unknown sources of magical energy and save the planet Earth. How does he discover this? A beautiful, naked blonde washes up on the beach of his private island, to become his co-traveler and personal bimbo. The majority of the book follows his travels across a huge planet in the form of a giant pterodactyl, killing and eating fellow animals. Is this starting to sound ludicrous yet? One of the book's too-precious premises: Earth's languages retain prehistoric memories of the elemental magical force, so, for example, the characters harness the forces of mMj'q for the purposes of finding the wWn'dt that will help them channel the pwW'r and become the universe's greatest wWyh'j and wWyhr laaq. (Pronounce them out loud. This is intriguing for exactly a page and a half.) In short: I'm quite disappointed. Skip this one (easy to do, since it's out of print).

August 2004

coverEyes of Amber by Joan D. Vinge (1979). After reading one of the novellas originally published in Eyes of Amber, in a sci-fi compilation book in high school, I forgot the name of the compilation and spent several years wishing to find "Tin Soldier" again. It wasn't until I was taking a tutorial in my college library that I discovered that sources exist to help you find a short story you once read: a short-story index, a union catalog...I eventually found a copy of Eyes of Amber at the Appleton Public Library. I was so proud of myself for completing my first on-my-own library search for something I really wanted, that I treated myself to a full photocopy of "Tin Solder" at 10 cents a page.

Years later I found an even cheaper (50 cents!) copy of Eyes of Amber in a bookshop in Bemidji, MN. I picked it up so I'd have an original copy of "Tin Soldier", but kept it on my "to read" shelf, thinking the rest of the novellas in the book must be just as good. They're not, but they're close. Vinge's short stories represent some of the best of science fiction. They're readable, they're original, the dialogue rings true, the science is solid. They deal with universal themes: the unbreakable bond between those who love each other, the definition of humanity, the nature of solitude, and what the inhabitants of other worlds might be like. Best of all, every story has a heart. "Tin Soldier", the story of a man made immortal by cybernetic implants and the space-travelling woman he loves, makes me cry every time I read it. But some of the others did, too. This book is highly recommended for anyone who likes (or like me, used to like) science fiction.

The Lionhearted: a story about the Jews in Medieval England by Charles Reznikoff (1944). (No Amazon entry for this one so far. Try your local public or academic library; I found this one at Memorial Library on the UW-Madison campus.) I'm teaching an hour-long class on medieval Jewish history in a couple of weeks at an SCA event. In my online catalog browsings, I came across this novel and thought it might be a fun way to get myself into the topic. It turned out to be an okay novel but an excellent example of Jewish martyrdom-oriented writing, an irritatingly omnipresent subgroup of fiction and non-fiction writing by Jews, about Jews. It sacrifices real characterization--and, ultimately, a real plot--to give its author a platform from which to recite the horrors visited upon European Jews in the Middle Ages. Entire scenes and conversations are included merely to allow Jewish characters from many different places (conveniently gathered in a small town in England) to discuss and lament the horrendous treatment of Jews in cities all over Europe.

I'm not at all denying this treatment took place. From what I understand, in places, it was worse and more frequent during SCA period than what Reznikoff presents. But I got the feeling that the main point of this book was not to entertain nor educate, but to immerse us in mourning for the injustices committed against the Jews in general (what an appropriate book to read around Tisha B'Av, huh?). And you can understand why someone would want to write something like that in New York City in 1944. But that doesn't mean it makes for good reading as a novel. If you're studying modern Jewish literature, this might be a good read for you, but otherwise, skip it.

coverParis to the Moon by Adam Gopnik (2000). You've heard Bill Bryson called "the thinking man's Dave Barry"? Well, Adam Gopnik is the thinking man's Bill Bryson. A step up in intellectual quality from most of what passes for travel writing, Paris to the Moon is wide-ranging and emotionally open. The prose challenges you; the author has read (and experienced) recent French history and expects the same from you. But even if you slept through that part of your college French class, you'll still enjoy Gopnik's tales of raising his small son Luke in Paris (especially Luke's consuming love for a Parisian angel named Cressida), and his characterization of Paris as a place where individual interaction is still prized above all else. Even Parisian shopping doesn't escape his journalistic eye. Now I want to go back to Paris too...*sigh*

coverThe Master pipers by George Sand (1853). I think I found out something. I think I found out I'm not crazy about George Sand. Yes, I can respect her oeuvre and many of the things she stood for. Yes, I can read the stuff (though I have never, and wouldn't want to, try to read it in French). But my G-d, did I get sick of the golden-locked shepherdesses, the manly woodcutters, the romantic intrigue, the folksy philosophy, the crotchety but well-meaning old people, the moralism, and everywhere nature, nature, with all its deities and mysteries and mists, until you find yourself scanning the Yellow Pages for a health club so you never have to exercise outside again. I'm glad I read this, but also glad it's over.

July 2004

coverThe Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland (2002). The 1998 movie Artemisia tells a slightly different story, but no matter--that's what happens when you try to tell a historical figure's personal story. Different people will extrapolate in different directions. No matter how you look at it, though, the story of Artemisia Gentileschi is inspiring: a woman who fiercely loved painting, enough that when her teacher raped her, she went through the ordeal of his trial but never considered giving up her art. She was the first woman painter accepted to the Accademia in Florence, and painted for many of the great patrons of 16th-century Italy. This novel takes some liberties with characters, creating (for example) two motherly nuns who help guide Artemisia's spiritual life, a series of unique women who serve as models for her painting, and a husband whose envy of her success keeps him from truly loving her. What results is a panoply of sympathetic and fully-drawn characters, and a realistic historical novel that is a joy to read from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

coverThe Illuminated soul by Aryeh Lev Stollman (2003). A mysterious, beautiful woman named Eva carrying a valuable medieval manuscript arrives in a small town in Ontario in the 1950's. A family puts her up in their boarding room and she charms the mother, the angelic younger boy, and the older boy (who is the narrator of the novel). This book left me somewhat cold. I enjoyed spending time with the characters, but when it was over I felt I didn't know any of them well enough to understand their motivations. (The only exception is perhaps the narrator, who, as an old man, has much to say about his studies of the brain and perception.) The book jacket claims the narrator "falls in love" with Eva, which is not true in my reading, but nothing else in the book explains his actions on the day she leaves. Overall I felt this book could have been longer and could have explained more. I don't normally feel that way about novels. Recommended only for those really, truly interested in Jewish small-town life in post-WWII Canada.

coverThe Mind's past by Michael S. Gazzaniga (2000). I picked this up while shopping in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC in May. In college I had a wonderful cognitive psychology professor (I took psychology of music, cognitive psych, and psychology of language from him) and since then I've enjoyed reading about related topics. Gazzaniga does a nice job of looking at the brain and its activities from an evolutionary standpoint, providing interesting examples from his research on split-brain patients and other researchers' work. His central thesis is that our left brains house a mechanism he calls an "interpreter", which works to bring the decisions, perceptions, and actions of the rest of our brain into our conscious awareness. I like this idea, and he does a nice job of explaining why he espouses this theory, while never trying to pin it down to a specific physical structure. This is not one of those books that absorbs you in the astonishment of science, but it's eminently readable and if you're like me and enjoyed cognitive psych class, this will build on what you already know.

June 2004

The History of vanity by John Woodforde (1992). I picked this up at an SCA event and figured, even if it didn't seem to cover much info about SCA period, it would still be entertaining. Well, there comes a point when the author's breezy style stops being entertaining and becomes highly irritating. There are citations/endnotes and a complete bibliography, yet the guy writes like he heard all this information from a friend on the phone and can't wait to share it with us. He rambles away from the topic in each chapter, refuses to stick to anything like a chronology, rarely gives dates in context, and often has trouble putting together a clear sentence. I can only assume this is the British counterpart to poorly-researched "Did you know?"-type trivia books: they still do the research, they just write like they didn't. In the end I felt like I learned next to nothing and didn't have much fun doing it. I'd rather read American trivia books.

coverThe virgin blue by Tracy Chevalier (2003). I thought this was every bit as good as Chevalier's other recent period-setting novels, The Lady and the Unicorn (reviewed below) and Girl with a Pearl Earring. (And I'm not just saying that because one of the heroines has an affair with a dashing librarian!) Besides the usual historical tale, there is the added twist of an American woman named Ella living in France in the present day. She is there because of her husband's job, but finds herself without friends or focus, suffering from awful nightmares, and begins to do genealogical research--which takes her further from her husband and deeper into her French ancestry than she had expected. On the historical side, Isabelle du Moulin is a 16th century Huguenot who has always been shunned for her red hair and secret worship of the Virgin Mary. How these two women are tied together is a little far-fetched, but it has to do with motherhood and, at heart, what it feels like to be an outsider in your own home. The characters are individual and very French (the French ones anyway), and all in all I really liked this one. Recommended for anyone.

May 2004

coverThe Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough (1987). A romance novel for people who disdain romance novels. 33-year-old virgin Missy lives with her mother and aunt in genteel poverty in the early 20th century; all are members of the Hurlingford clan who rule the town of Byron in the Blue Mountains of Australia. But not all Hurlingfords are poor, just the widows and unmarried women, thanks to the schemes of unscrupulous Hurlingford men. Missy begins to turn things around for the Hurlingford women when two visitors arrive in town: the glamorous librarian Una, and the mysterious John Smith who seems to be moving in on Hurlingford territory. This is light reading, almost a fairy tale (especially towards the end), but lots of fun, and if you've never read Australian fiction before you'll enjoy the period and regional detail.

cover Tender at the bone: growing up at the table by Ruth Reichl (1999). I'm not normally very much into autobiographies, but I do like good food writing, and Reichl manages to combine both in this absorbing and well-written book. I don't know which I like more, the copious recipes and fabulous descriptions of the author's early life in food, or the cast of fascinating characters that have peopled her life. She writes sensitively about her mother's mental illness, growing up in New York City, her somewhat awkward girlhood and her travels as she comes to realize what her calling really is. This is the first of two autobiographical books by Reichl; her second (which I read first), Comfort me with apples: more adventures at the table, tends towards the self-absorbed but is still very readable, and continues where the first leaves off. The mark of a good autobiography is that you wish the author were somehow several people, so she could write more books about her life without running dry. I don't figure there will be a third book in the series, but I wish there were.

March 2004

cover Feed by M. T. Anderson (2002). Some of the most fertile ground in fiction is in Young Adult fiction, admit it. I've kept my eye on it all these years, though I haven't read enough. Feed was a remarkably lucky choice for re-entering the genre. It's told in the unsophisticated voice of Titus, a teenager who (like his family and friends) has spent his life hooked up to "the Feed", a computer network that feeds information, instant communication, entertainment and advertising directly into his brain. On a spring break jaunt to the Moon, Titus meets a girl named Violet, who strikes him as different; it turns out she spent much of her early life "off-Feed", which gives her a unique perspective among Titus' peer group. This very fact later threatens her health, giving Titus a reason to suspect the constantly-commercial Feed is not the sum total of life. There are a lot of cliches this plot could have fallen into, but it stays fresh, and the author refuses to give Titus any easy epiphanies. And it reads like A Clockwork Orange crossed with the song "Valley Girl". This is the first book I've read in one sitting in many, many years (not bad for 300 pages). Read it--you'll love it.

cover The Queen's fool by Philippa Gregory (2004). Not to be confused with Jane Yolen's excellent YA novel The Queen's own fool: a novel of Mary, Queen of Scots, though this one's excellent too. I especially liked The Queen's fool because--you guessed it--the heroine is a Spanish Jew, a Marrano (someone who has lived as a Christian but is guilty of heresy merely for having Jewish blood). What can I say, I'm predictable. Hannah, the heroine, has a spark of the supernatural about her: she has "the Sight", meaning she sees the future. Those who dislike the supernatural in novels, fear not, that's all there is, and "the Sight" isn't something she enjoys or cultivates. The plot: the likeable young Hannah is spotted at her father's bookshop by the powerful Lord Robert Dudley, who summons her to Court to act as the "innocent fool" to King Edward and then Queen Mary. Hannah navigates her way through a Court in constant change, managing to juggle her conflicting loyalties to Robert, Mary, Elizabeth, and (on the other hand) her father and her strong-willed intended husband. This was a fabulous read. Full of action, psychology, intrigue, and what seems to me to be impeccable history, The Queen's fool is recommended for any fan of historical fiction.

February 2004

cover Doomsday book by Connie Willis (1992). Several years ago I picked up The Plague tales by Ann Benson at the library. After trying valiantly to stay interested in it for a few days, I finally decided it was too slow and simplistic to hold my interest, and returned it. The author had to spell everything out, which took forever, holding up the action until she could stall no longer. Now, having found Doomsday book, I feel like I've found the book The Plague tales was supposed to be. Both have aspects of science fiction and of the medical thriller, centering around bacteria that ends up, through various human foolishness, in the wrong time period. But that's where the similarities end. Doomsday Book is absorbing, and wonderful, and full of action and beautifully researched period detail. If it occasionally strikes the reader as a little too English (the modern characters are always drinking tea and fretting about the rain or a cricket match), it can be forgiven. The story of Kivrin and her experience in medieval England, and of the simultaneous disease outbreak in modern England that almost strands her there, is absorbing enough--but the real gem is her somewhat frumpy tutor, Mr. Dunworthy, as he struggles to find out where/when she is and rescue her. Read it--every one of its 578 pages is worth it.

cover Complications: A surgeon's notes on an imperfect science by Atul Gawande (2002). The title should warn the squeamish and the scared that this is a book that will change the way they think about health care. Gawande presents a readable and honest look at the many ways modern medicine (and doctors) fail to be perfect: doctors may be learning as they go, miracle cures backfire, infections strike, patients are burdened with too much hope or too little, communication stalls or malfunctions; people make the wrong decisions, or the wrong decisions are made for them. His writing is remarkably good: clear, literate, ably getting across some important points. He even tackles, in discrete chapters, topics not often tackled in any kind of medical literature, such as the nature of nausea and vomiting (it turns out they are not precisely the same thing) and the practice of autopsies. This book is uniformly fascinating and, far from being depressing, gives you a rare and compassionate look into what it means to be a doctor--or a patient.

January 2004

cover The Lady and the unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (2004). Chevalier seems fascinated by the idea of the charismatic, imperfect artist and the unattainable women who become his muses. The theme she explored tentatively in Girl with a pearl earring becomes her obsession in The Lady and the unicorn. In a nutshell: the handsome, devil-may-care artist responsible for drawing the plans for the most famous series of tapestries ever, dreams of the daughter of his bourgeois patron, while seducing the blind daughter of the master weaver who will complete the masterpieces. Chevalier shifts voice with every chapter; luckily she seems to select the right voice to tell the story in most cases, though a few chapters sound like she's backtracking to give us more of a specific character. As usual, she's done her historical homework, and we get full visual information about things like the weaving process, the patron's hall, and the lives of the various servants. Despite the artist's various unlikeable qualities, I didn't wonder why people found him attractive. It was a pleasure to read this; though short, it really drew me into its world. It won't live on as a great work of literature, but it was well worth buying in hardcover, and I don't say that about much.

cover The mapmaker's dream: the meditations of Fra Mauro, cartographer to the Court of Venice by James Cowan (1997). This is one of those that has been in the back of my mind to read for several years. I found a cheap used copy and thought, "Hey, why not?". Here's why not: it's boring. It successfully conveys the life of a man in a monk's cell, thinking about the world outside his walls, by being--I say it again--boring. The premise: there's this monk who makes maps, and people who have traveled to faraway places come to see him and share their experiences and information for his maps. Never mind the potentially interesting visitors; this guy is absolutely fascinated with himself. In the process of the book, the barely-described people who come to visit the monk cause him to question his beliefs about cartography and the nature of the earth, and he spends about the last 1/3 of the book expounding in amazement about his newfound relativism. By the end of the book, he's decided to eschew facts in favor of a sort of addled individualism where he feels the world only exists in his own interior perceptions. As you turn pages, you're hoping they don't show a drawing of his map. Luckily, they don't. Even more luckily, it's a short read. If you really want to learn about traveling and travel accounts in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there are better books than this. Skip this one.

cover Population 485: meeting your neighbors one siren at a time by Michael Perry (2003). Perry is a native of New Auburn, WI, north of Eau Claire, and after living and traveling all over the U.S., he returned to live there and join the volunteer fire department, to work alongside his family in responding to the kinds of emergencies you don't think about unless you're a first responder. If you live more than 30 minutes from a metropolitan area, or north of Hwy. 29 in Wisconsin, you must read this book. You'll understand it in a way I probably can't, much as I try to see it from a rural point of view. (In some ways I'll always be a Madison kid.) But even if you aren't a rural soul, you can still read this entertaining and heartfelt book for Perry's vivid characterizations, strong feeling for human frailty and compassion, and wonderful turns-of-phrase. The man can write, and he can feel, and he can write about what he feels and it works. This is the best book I've read in at least a year. Take a look at his website at http://www.sneezingcow.com/, and for you ladies, there's a bio with picture here (he looks better in the author photo on the book, and even cuter on his segments on Wisconsin Public Television).

cover The Mays of Ventadorn by W.S. Merwin (2002). I thought this slim volume would be inaccessible, because it's written by a poet. It was a little inaccessible in the end, but not for that reason--the author writes clearly about a topic about which he obviously has a lot of passion (the beginnings of the troubadours in southern France). His personality comes through in his focus on the nature of place, and how a place changes/remains the same over time. He even speculates about the individual troubadours and their friends and families, introducing us in the process to the concept of the "vidas", or troubadour biographies written within a few years after their deaths. But in the end I wanted to know more about the writer himself: what made him decide to buy the house near Ventadorn, how this move affects his family and how he pursues his craft, and why all this was so important to him. Maybe I've been reading too many cute "how I moved to a backwards but beautiful small town in Italy/France/etc." books. This was worth it, but only if you like the history of the troubadours.

December 2003

cover Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure (2003). I've read a few books in the "Travelers' Tales" series (notably the excellent Traveler's Tales Food: A Taste of the Road) and really enjoyed them. There is something to this whole armchair traveling thing. This was a quick and fun read, but none of the stories really grabbed me. Some even seemed gratuitous, like a shortie about a huge dildo (really!) that haunted a Mexican van tour, or the story of a photographer who had a diarrhea episode while trying to "get the shot" at the largest gathering of people in the world, a mass religious parade in Calcutta. There must have been so much more to these trips than just the toilet humor. (Let's not even discuss the man who discovered that modern synthetic exercise underwear collects bad, bad odors--odors which he proceeds to spend two stifling paragraphs describing. There was nothing else to this story. Why was it included?) That having been said, I would recommend this book for someone who likes travel-writing snippets. There are some entertaining characterizations of faraway places and unusual travel companions (NOT the dildo!!!). Or, get something else in the Travelers' Tales series. I've got my eye on Provence and the south of France: true stories. I choose to believe there will be less underwear involved in that one.

(By the way, there were no hyenas in Hyenas laughed at me and now I know why. I'm just now realizing this.)

November-December 2003

cover Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1) by Neal Stephenson (2003). Um. Uh. I just finished this and I'm not sure what to say about it. I might just apply some adjectives to get me rolling. Rambling. Long. Heavy. Flippant. Of questionable historicity. Entirely unlike The Diamond Age. It has its sexy parts and its poignant parts, and gosh can Stephenson put together a funny and genial turn of phrase, but, um, what the heck is this? I feel like I've lived a month in a bookstore that has nothing but pirate stories, antique scientific texts, and 1890's pseudo-gothic fiction, flipping through no more than ten pages in a row of any one book. I also feel like I've met several characters that actually mean something to me (Daniel Waterhouse, in particular, is very finely drawn, especially for a character who does not so much take action as creatively allow action to be taken around him). However, those characters have been moved around Europe and New England for 944 pages now with not too terribly much happening to them. I realize that this is Book One of a trilogy, but please, did we need to devote the ENTIRE first book to character exposition? Or is what happens to the characters in Quicksilver actually meant to resemble a plot? If so, the book is a failure. If not, well, it's pretty well-done.
My advice: get it in paperback. The hardcover edition is so heavy, the only way I could read it was while lying on my belly and elbows in bed. My neck has a permanent crick. And my Uncle John hates the deckled-edge pages.

October 2003

cover Spotted in France: a dog's life...on the road by Gregory Edmont (2003). Cute. Cuuuuuuute. An American man with next to no personality goes on the road in France with a scooter and a preternaturally intelligent purebred Dalmatian dog. (How smart is the dog? He rides the scooter too.) The whole premise vaguely irked me through the first few chapters, but as the story unfolded and more characters were brought in (making up for the narrator's blankness), I began to enjoy it. Bonbon, the elderly bombshell whom Gregory and his dog JP are going to visit, sticks out as a particularly unique character. JP himself actually becomes less freakish and more doglike as the book goes on. There is a surprise happy ending, but by the time you reach it, you're just waiting for everything to be tied up in a nice neat little package. You know it couldn't be otherwise; everything about this book yells IT'S GOING TO TURN OUT FINE IN THE END. Read if you love dogs, are interested in the south of France, or just like quirky travelogues.

August 2003

cover Daily Life During the Spanish Inquisition by James M. Anderson (2002). Persona research for the SCA. Lots of specific details about when my SCA persona's father's family left Spain (in 1486, he was 19; left Zaragoza in Aragon with his family just before the town enforced expulsion of the Jews; managed to get to Marseilles where Eliane's mother lived, and they got married and moved north). Wow! My persona is taking shape. This book does cover all the way to the end of the Inquisition in Spain in the 1700's, so SCA readers, be warned that this covers more than just pre-1600. Some generalities are made involving details that are most likely post-1600. Be careful and watch for dates.

July 2003

cover Distant Music by Lee Langley
I'm still on my historical-novels-set-in-Portugal-in-SCA-period kick. This is a fine example of that category. A girl named Esperanca, living on the Portuguese island of Madeira in 1429, begins an unusual relationship with a scholarly Jewish sailor named Emmanuel. Aspects of their friendship are then carried forward to later incarnations of the same people (usually with the same names) in Faro in 1489, in Lisbon in 1855, and in present-day London. Bits of the London scenario in particular are ingeniously woven throughout the book in short bursts, made mysterious by their brevity, and we don't crack the mystery until the author is good and ready. This might be frustrating for some, but I didn't mind. In fact I enjoyed the whole book. Langley makes each character believable both as an individual and as a descendant or reincarnation of one of the earlier characters. Overall this book is more psychological drama than historical novel; I could have done with more period detail. But the love story made me cry, and I read the last 2/3 of the book in one sitting, unable to put it down. Is that recommendation enough for you? (2003)

Gave up on My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk. I'm sorry, but if I get halfway through the book and I'm still confused as to the motivations of the main four characters, that's it. It wasn't the mystery I was confused about (I figured out whodunnit fairly early on), it was whether any of the main characters were sincere or not. Maybe I'm naive, but I think most readers want to be able to trust that the character's self-exposition is largely truthful and doesn't leave out anything vital. A person needs something solid to depend on in a story. I got the feeling that the characters' guarded nature, while it might have been a cultural quirk (they're Islamic characters in 13th-century Istanbul), was not just part of the story--it actually extended to me as well. And if I can't get to know the characters in a novel, well, I'm no longer interested. (2002)

June 2003

cover The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler
A young man in Lisbon in 1506, whose beloved rabbi uncle is bizarrely murdered on the eve of a religious massacre, is driven to discover who the murderer is. You don't have to like the main character, who starts out a devout and logical fellow and ends up losing his faith and, it might be argued, his soul. To me, disappointing though it might have been, it was a believable transformation in light of what this man went through. The mystery plot dominates and complements, but doesn't overwhelm, the character plot. This book is particularly good on period detail, including descriptions of the customs of the Portuguese Jews at a time when to be Jewish was to risk your life, the lifestyle and tools of those who illuminate books and worship the written word, and more. I really enjoyed this. (2000)

May 2003

cover The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco by Marilyn Chase
An okay read. The author is manifestly a journalist rather than a novelist; her strength is in her copious research, not her knack for narrative. Her tale emphasizes the personalities of two men who, at different times, led the fight against the plague during its worst outbreak in San Francisco: Joseph Kinyoun and Rupert Blue. Her main thesis seems to be that you gotta be diplomatic and energetic to do public health work in a big city. Huh, imagine that. I don't mean to imply this was a boring book, though. Did you know there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco in the early 1900's? I sure didn't, and that's what makes this book interesting: all its facts about how the plague arrived, how early bacteriologists fought to learn how it was transmitted and to control its vectors, and how the machines of big-city commerce and politics can conspire to thwart the best of intentions and cover the truth. (2003)

cover Walking to Canterbury: A Modern Journey Through Chaucer's Medieval England by Jerry Ellis
I liked this guy, and his idiosyncratic journey from London to Canterbury on foot, in spite of myself. Ellis is a middle-aged American with both English and Native American heritage. Early on, he explains in detail his spiritual need to connect with the places and symbols of both his native lands, and though he continues to insert little new-age spiritual moments throughout the book, I didn't find them irritating once I started to view them as his personal asides rather than hippie babblings. (Your mileage may vary on this point.) He spends 3-4 pages at a time recounting history (some of which seemed naively understood to me, but hey, if I want straight historical fact, I can look elsewhere), but most of the book relates his experiences on the road and observations about people he met, places he got to know, and feelings he had. If you like travel writing, you'll be fine with this. (2003)

Favorite Books

cover Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I actually haven't read this book since high school, but I read it four or five times during high school. It's the ultimate blithely apocalyptic novel: people are engineered into classes by the factories that manufacture them in huge glass containers, work in pseudo-communist bureaucracies, and are taught from birth that pleasure is the only principle. They live to have neat, tidy, antiseptic sex and take 'holidays' away from conciousness by taking a drug called soma. Bernard is just starting to question his world, Lenina is a quintessential member of her society and very 'pneumatic', and a woman who has lived with Native American 'savages' and her son hit the peaceful society like a quick-burning wildfire. A very scary and suggestive book that whispers loudly in your ear. (1932)

Emergence by David R. Palmer
I can't tell you how many times I've read this book, and every time is like the first time. Unlike the pessimistic future depicted in Brave New World, Emergence is a book full of hope. After a bionuclear war, Candy, an 11-year-old girl with a host of unexplainable talents and abilities (she is a black belt in karate, she taught herself shorthand in one day, she can see in the infrared spectrum, she reads at high speed, etc.) sets out on a journey across America to find out a) if she's the only person left alive and b) if not, why not. In the process she finds out some amazing things about herself and others like her, meets friendly and not-so-friendly fellow survivors, goes into space and comes back, and forges a relationship with a young soulmate--her second soulmate, I should say; her first is her "idiot twin", Terry, the hyacinth macaw bird. But Candy's adventures are not nearly so interesting as Candy herself, who is a mix of preternatural intellect, stick-to-it-iveness, curiosity, adult understanding, almost Vulcan logic and clearheadedness, and buried (but frequently evident) preteen worries. And don't worry, you'll get used to her shorthand writing style. (1984)

cover Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Perhaps my very favorite book ever, my mom gave me this when I was maybe 8 years old. I remember staying up nearly all night to finish it when we were on a family trip to Cape Cod and my sister fell off her bed onto a sharp air vent and cut her side. My dad took her to the emergency room (nothing serious) and I, worried without really knowing it, soothed myself with this book long into the night. It spoke directly to me, it seemed. Harriet is a young writer and self-proclaimed spy, peering into the lives of her neighbors after school. She is always free to speak her mind in her beloved notebooks, but gets on her classmates' bad sides when they steal and read the private thoughts in her notebook. Harriet is as authentic a kid as you'll ever meet in fiction. (1964)

cover The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
It needs no introduction, the five-volume trilogy: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe, and Everything; So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, and Mostly Harmless. (You can now get all five together in paperback, with a few extras: The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.) I got the first two books for my 10th birthday from an old friend, Katey Haley (now called Kate), with whom I lost touch in middle school, and I didn't read them for a couple of years, but when I did...! There is still very little funnier to me than Arthur's irrational desire for tea, which leads him to tie up the Heart of Gold's onboard computer trying to fabricate some while Vogons unexpectedly attack the ship. In case you are not familiar with the canon, the story centers on Arthur, one of the last Earthlings alive when Vogons destroy the earth to make room for a hyperspace bypass, and his friends Ford (wandering journalist), Zaphod Beeblebrox (two-headed, three-armed megalomanic), Trillian (quietly brilliant earthling), Marvin (woeful android), Fenchurch (mysterious and lovable girlfriend to Arthur), and assorted wonderful lifeforms. Ever wonder what people mean when they talk about that hilarious English humor? This is it. (1979)

cover Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
This book continually suprises me with its mixture of superficial cuteness and deep happiness. Most of the characters are complete techies, but you don't need to be a computer geek yourself to enjoy it. Twentysomething Daniel, pale and flabby from his job at Microsoft (coders NEVER get outside...!), writing in a scattered diary in his insomniac hours, discovers that he really can have a life when his enigmatic genius friend Michael decides to start up a company producing a modeling program and game based on Lego blocks, and hires Daniel and his friends to help. In the process, Daniel's various friends and family slowly rise from the depths of depression and uselessness in various ways, and discover a family unit and a kind of joy all their own. (1995)

cover The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Don't even bother asking if it's as good as the movie...it predates the movie by a good 14 years. William Goldman (who has written several movie adaptation novels that are usually a notch above the movie in quality) gives us "the 'Good Parts' version of S. Morgenstern's classic tale of True Love and High Adventure" (title page). Of course, there is no S. Morgenstern, and no 'unabridged' version--it's a little like those 18th century novels where the author claimed to have found the manuscript in a trunk on a ship from Africa or something. Yeah, right, Africa, whatever. Anyway, if you like the movie, you will go nuts for this book, which goes much more deeply into the history of Buttercup and Wesley's relationship, evil Prince Humperdinck's motivations, Inigo's quest for the Six-Fingered Man, Fezzik's amazing life as a child prodigy and giant in Turkey, etc., than the movie does. (1973)

cover A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle
The third in a slowly expanding series that started with the classic A Wrinkle in Time and continued with A Wind in the Door , this is definitely my favorite in the series (let's not even mention the silly Many Waters , a later book, in which the insipid twins Sandy and Denys travel back to Biblical times. Yawn.). The first three books get more complex as you progress through them, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the culmination, in which the now-teenaged Charles Wallace, still a genius but growing into a man, travels through time on the back of a winged unicorn. He goes 'within' various people to discover the truth about a dictator intent on conquering the world, a mystery which unravels through the traces of a family of good and a family of bad and their actions throughout history. Charles Wallace's sister Meg, star of A Wrinkle in Time, is at home awaiting the birth of her first child, but follows Charles' travels through a mind contact called kything. This powerful novel is not for children; I didn't understand it until I was in college. But kids over 13 or so can enjoy it on a certain level even so, finding the parallels between the names and stories from the various time periods. (1978)

cover Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
I found this book in B'nai B'rith Beber Camp's 'library' (actually a smelly, dusty room containing the left-behind summer reading of three generations of campers and staff, plus some moldy volumes of the Encyclopedia Judaica ) and promptly stole it. It's really the format that makes the book. (If you've seen the movie, which was indeed well-done, you have not seen 10% of this book.) Kaufman tells the story by including snippets of Sylvia Barrett's first year teaching in an inner-city New York high school in the early 60's. These snippets include, but aren't limited to, memos received from Syl's fellow teachers and school administration; verbatim 'transcripts' of class discussions in which Sylvia's voice struggles to be heard; doodles by her students and would-be beau Mr. Barringer; the students' private notes, class assignments, and anonymous slips left in the class 'suggestion box', and, especially, Sylvia's increasingly weary letters to friends. She tries to cope with students' insolence, bad attitudes, wrongheaded attempts to please her, mental problems, personality flaws, delinquence, and even suicide attempts, and in the end...no, I won't spoil it for you...! (1964)

cover Vox by Nicholson Baker
Okay, I'm a 21st century librarian, and Baker is the world's most vocal proponent of the Traditional Library: all the classics & nothing else, no books EVER get removed from the collection, and a monolithic card catalog swallows up paper and student work hours like a bottomless pit in the middle of the library. Ah! But we are not here to go into Mr. Baker's and my various differences of opinion. Instead, I'd like to discuss my favorite of those of Baker's novels I've read: Vox, a much-ballyhooed short novel consisting of an animated and meandering conversation between two embarrassed but frank '90s single people, over a phone-sex chat line. In the process, they make each other laugh, they're creative, they fudge out exactly how much they want to reveal of themselves to each other, formulate fantasies to tease and amuse and arouse each other, discover what turns the other on, talk about nothing serious but somehow everything important, and maybe, perhaps, fall in love a little. Yes, there is erotica in here (nothing compared to Baker's later novel, The Fermata , which is unfortunately not as heartwarming), but those who are already familiar with the world of erotica will not be shocked--on the contrary, they'll be pleasantly aroused. (1992)

cover The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Raskin was a Milwaukee writer. All her manuscripts are held at the Cooperative Children's Book Center in Madison, down the hall from the library school in Helen C. White Hall. From time to time when I was in library school, I had an urge to venture down the hall and tell the director of the CCBC that I really, really needed to see the manuscripts for The Westing Game for some important reason. I never did get up the nerve. I realize now that I could have just asked for them. 20-20 hindsight! In any case, this slim little volume (the paperback edition I have is under 1 cm. thick) packs a huge wallop: 16 apparently unrelated people gather to take apartments in a new lakeshore building outside of Milwaukee, near the mysterious Westing mansion, and are named in Westing's will when he suddenly dies. Westing's will sends the whole motley group on a chase to find out which of them killed the old man. On the way to a shockingly logical solution, bombs blow up, crutches are gaily painted, lies are told, relationships of various kinds are forged, hair is cut stylishly, fortunes are made and lost, mistakes are revealed, and people learn the value of community in the most roundabout way. Can you believe this is a kids' book? Ignore that fact and jump in--I guarantee you won't be sorry. (1978; received the Newbery Medal)

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