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Archive for the ‘Jeanette’s Picks’ Category

The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

Gordon “Rank” Rankin, Jr., is incensed when he starts to read a novel by a college friend, Adam Grix, whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years, and finds himself unmistakably but very imperfectly portrayed in the novel. He sits down at his computer and fires off email after angry email to his old friend, over a three month period, trying to set the record straight, trying to put into words the events of his life that led to the fateful night in their second year of college when Rank left their circle of friends and never went back.

Rank is particularly incensed that Adam mentions, in the early part of his novel, that the character’s mother had died. “It did nothing,” Rank writes to Adam. “[i]t was just a thing that had happened to this guy – his mom died, by the way. Background information. It’s mentioned once and never again.” Rank is furious that his mother’s death could be portrayed as no big deal.

Rank was always big. His size led those around him to see him more as an intimidating physical presence than as a deeply thinking, caring soul. When he was young, everyone perceived him to be older. Inside the body of a man, his teenage self hadn’t matured into someone who could stand up to those who wanted to use his bulk for their own purposes. His “tiny screaming lunatic” father, hopping around and complaining about the “punks” who frequented his Icy Dream ice cream parlor, got Rank to intimidate older classmates who would, simply by being teenagers, scare off family type clientele.

One of Rank’s punches in the Icy Dream parking lot, when Rank was fifteen, resulted in brain damage to a “smart-ass town punk” he’d known all his life. That moment, when Rank heard the sound of Mike Croft’s head crack against the pavement, was the beginning, he realized later, when the gods started messing with him. His life became like the board game from the seventies, Mouse Trap, where a “series of random plastic doodads” were “set up to interact with one another in frankly stupid and unlikely ways (the boot kicks the bucket, out of which falls the ball, which rolls down the ramp), and at the end of this rickety and dubious process, down comes the mousetrap.”

Rank’s emails to Adam are at times hilarious, but often, and in the long run, downright heart-breaking. Rank can’t escape his body and can’t escape how people react to his bulk. He gets a hockey scholarship to college – based on his bulk and on a letter from his high school coach and social worker, Owen Findlay, the social worker assigned to him after he busted Mike Croft’s head – and still his life seems scripted by uncaring gods playing around to see what he would do. He feels forced to give up that scholarship when he’s asked to butt heads with the opposing team; he will not relive the experience with Croft. He falls in with a group of friends — geeky, frail Adam in particular — with whom he shares stories from his life. He tells Adam about Mike Croft, about his mean little father, about his mother and about her death. He now writes to Adam: “I pulled off hank after bloody hank of flesh and just handed them over and you were so coy, you averted your eyes and pretended to be embarrassed like the rest of them when really you were squirreling away all those hanks and secretly stitching them together and building Frankenstein’s monster.”

We never read what Adam writes back to Rank, but we know he stops replying soon after Rank starts. It’s okay, though. We let Rank write his life’s story to his once-friend, and read the “bloody hanks of flesh” that make up his life. Rank gets it all out, all the anger, all the history. It’s tempered with love, but you don’t notice it until you’re finished and you sit there stunned and almost in tears.

I listened to this book as an audiobook download. The narrator, Macleod Andrews, is a perfect reader for the book. The book itself lacks some of the normal punctuation one would normally expect in a novel, but this is a series of emails – relatively well-punctuated and correctly-spelled emails — but still emails where the tense and voice may change depending on the tone. On second listening, and in skimming the text, I have to say this has become one of my favorite books of all time. It’s probably one of the most entertaining and raw portrayals of a character I’ve ever encountered.

Check the WRL catalog for The Antagonist (Book) and OneClickDigital The Antagonist (Downloadable Audiobook).

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ice_storm_dvd

DVD

I don’t remember why my husband and I first watched the DVD The Ice Storm, but it was probably because we were enjoying movies directed by Ang Lee  (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Pushing Hands; Brokeback Mountain, and others). We had been through Williamsburg’s ice storm of 1998 and knew how dangerous it could be. The movie wasn’t so much about the storm itself, but about two troubled white, middle-class, nuclear families in suburban New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1973. The emotional impact of the movie was shattering.

Events take place when the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal are topics on the news. The sexual mores have loosened considerably from the constraints of the 1950s and have not yet been walloped by AIDS. The Hoods, Ben and Elena, have two teens: a boy in boarding school, Paul, and a girl in middle school, Wendy. The Carvers, Janey and Jim, have two boys: strange, pensive teen, Mikey, and pre-teen, Sandy, who likes to blow things up. Throughout the course of the Thanksgiving week, each person in each family, except Paul who is away, explores his or her sexuality with others in the other family.

But the story is much more than about sex, and the sex certainly isn’t a feast of sensual stimulation. Almost the opposite, the sexual encounters are interrupted, fumbled, “awful” or, after the fantasy of the encounters have been built up, they don’t take place at all. The real story is of the emotional relationships between each of the characters. The actors are extremely good at showing these changing relationships. The cast includes top-rated actors Kevin KlineJoan AllenTobey MaguireChristina RicciElijah Wood, and Sigourney Weaver. Katie Holmes plays a rich, sort-of girlfriend of Paul’s. There are some very funny scenes, mostly of adolescents being adolescents, such as Wendy’s giving grace, “Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday. And for all the material possessions we have and enjoy. And for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands. And stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed.” Her father’s reaction, “Jesus! Enough, all right? Paul… roll?”

One of the key scenes in the movie is a neighborhood “key party,” where men put their car keys in a bowl and, at the end of the party, after much drinking, their wives pull out random keys, and, at least in theory, go home with the owner of that set of keys. Meanwhile, there is an ice storm outside. The roads are slick, the power goes out. The adults are high or drunk at the party, and their children are left at home, within walking distance of each other’s houses. What could go wrong?

ice_storm_book

Book

After watching the movie a second time, I decided to read the book, by Rick Moody, on which it was based. Although there are a few plot differences between the book and the movie (and the name Carver is Williams in the book), both are excellent in depicting the members of these two families. Each uses a different medium to portray the individuals and the dynamics between them. Moody’s words are a joy to read. “The idea of betrayal was in the air. The Summer of Love had migrated, in its drug-resistant strain, to the Connecticut suburbs about five years after its initial introduction. About the time America learned about the White House taping system. It was laced with some bad stuff. The commodity being traded was wives, the Janey Williamses of New Canaan. The payoff was supposed to be joy, but it was the cheapest approximation of exalted feeling. It was just a demonstration of options, nothing more.”

The characters in the book, notably, are less attractive and more “real” than those in the movie, and I was thinking that if readers have to “like” characters to enjoy a book or a movie, they may want to stick with the movie.  If you want to get a real depiction of changes some families were going through in the early 1970s, you may want to read the book. The language in the novel is frank and raw, but intricate and beautiful in places. Ang Lee’s theatrical adaptation, however, is also very good, distilling Moody’s words into a stunning visual portrait.

Check the WRL catalog for the DVD The Ice Storm.
Check the WRL catalog for the book The Ice Storm.

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hotzone

Can you imagine what it’s like to die from Ebola? Do you know what filoviruses like Ebola and a sister virus, Marburg, can do to a body? If you read The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, you’ll have a vivid idea. The images will stay with you for a very long time, and you’ll have a good understanding of the horror that people in West Africa are going through right now. In a blurb, Stephen King wrote that the first chapter is “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life.” I couldn’t agree more.

Preston brings his superb descriptive skills to this non-fiction book, part of his Dark Biology series. “Ebola Zaire attacks every organ and tissue in the human body except skeletal muscle and bone. It is a perfect parasite because it transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles.” If you don’t want to read more like that, you may want to avoid this book and stick with the description of Ebola on the WHO website, “…fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding (e.g. oozing from the gums, blood in the stools)….”

The Hot Zone was published in 1995 and was a #1 bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list. It is now back on some non-fiction bestseller lists, as fears may be warranted that the outbreak in West Africa is out of control; the disease has spread to thousands of people and through at least five countries.

Last month, two U. S. aid workers in Liberia who contracted Ebola were brought back to the U. S. for treatment. Everyone involved understood that Dr. Kent Brantley and his colleague Nancy Writebol were infected with Ebola, and they were “transported with appropriate infection control procedures in place to prevent the disease from being transmitted to others.” Each was transported using an Aeromedical Biological Containment System, “a sort of framed tent made of thick, clear plastic with a negative-pressure, HEPA-filtered air supply designed to keep the [airplane] cabin clear of infections.” The two were taken to the isolation unit at Emory University Hospital where patients are sealed off from anyone not wearing protective gear. Both eventually recovered.

But this wasn’t the first time the Ebola virus was in a host in the United States. The last known time, the subject of this book, was in 1989 when the virus was found in the Reston [Virginia] Primate Quarantine Unit, a now-closed building that housed research monkeys. These monkeys were imported from the Philippines. At first, no one knew why the monkeys were getting very sick and dying. The staff knew something was horribly wrong, so the on-call veterinarian, Dan Dalgard, contacted experts at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, about an hour away. The virologist at USAMRIID, Peter Jahrling, “was surprised and annoyed when, the next day, a few bits of frozen meat from Monkey O53 arrived at the Institute, brought by courier. What annoyed him was the fact that the bits of meat were wrapped in aluminum foil, like pieces of leftover hot dog. … [T]he ice around [the monkey meat] was tinged with red and had begun to melt and drip.” If either party had suspected a filovirus was in play, strict isolation precautions would have been used, but they weren’t. Anyone who had any contact with the monkeys or samples—those who fed the monkeys and cleaned the cages, the veterinarians, the courier—could have been infected with the virus.

In striking detail, Preston describes the process of, and the people involved in, the diagnosis and the eventual disposition of the 450 monkeys housed in the building. Once you start reading, you will not want to put the book down.

There are other sections in The Hot Zone besides “The Monkey House.” Part 1, “The Shadow of Mount Elgon,” describes the 1980 infection and death of a Marburg virus patient, called Charles Monet in the book, a Frenchman who lived in Kenya. He and a friend took a New Year’s Day trip to nearby Kitum Cave. Preston describes the beauty of the African land and shows how interesting the cave—in a bat-filled, petrified rain forest—must have been. About a week after the cave exploration, Monet got a headache. He spiked a fever, became nauseated, and his personality changed. I will leave it to the reader to read how his transformation continues; the text is absolutely not for the faint of heart.

Check the WRL catalog for The Hot Zone

WRL also owns The Hot Zone as an ebook.

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cuckooLula Landry, a beautiful mixed-race supermodel, has fallen to her death from her third-floor flat onto the snow-covered walk in a posh section of London. The paparazzi and press go wild; everyone in the world is shocked. A woman who lives in the same building swears she heard a male voice arguing with Lula right before the fall, but the police investigate and determine Lula’s death a suicide. The witness, they conclude after lengthy investigation, is either a delusional coke-head or is in it for the publicity; she could not have heard anything through the triple-glazed windows of the high-end flats.

Three months later, young Robin Ellacott, newly engaged and newly arrived in London, is working for a temp agency as a secretary and is thrilled to find that her new assignment is for a private investigator, as she has always secretly wanted to be a private eye. Her first encounter with her new boss, the large, hairy, one-legged veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike, however, is not a pleasant one, and she learns on the first day of her week-long assignment that Strike is in a great deal of debt, is getting death threats from a former client, has only one current client, and is apparently living in his office.

It is fortunate, then, that a new client shows up at Strike’s meager office. The brother of Lula Landry, John Bristow, is convinced that Lula’s fall was not suicide, and has come to hire Strike to investigate. Strike at first says no; his conscience tells him he cannot take the money to investigate something that he is confident has been so thoroughly looked into that any investigation on his part will change the outcome. Bristow, fuming, says he had been willing to pay double Strike’s fee. Strike relents, his debts and living conditions weighing into the decision.

J.K. Rowling can create wonderful characters, and many populate this mystery novel. Almost anyone Strike and Robin look into in the course of their investigation could be a suspect: Lula’s rock star ex-boyfriend Evan Duffield; film-producer and neighbor Freddy Bestigui; Rochelle, a down-and-out friend Lula met in rehab; Guy Somé, a designer for whom Lula modeled; American rapper Deeby Macc who was supposed to stay in the flat below Lula’s the night she died; relatives, drivers, doormen, fellow models, and even strangers could have had a motive. As I listened to this audiobook, I was constantly changing who I believed the killer was, or even if there was a killer.

The reader for the audiobook, British actor Robert Glenister, is excellent. Though I am no expert on British accents, from my point of view, he nailed the various accents. I could easily tell who was speaking, and his inflections added so much to the story that I would recommend listening to the audiobook over reading the book for the immersive pleasure of Glenister’s outstanding storytelling.

According to news reports, a sequel is planned for publication in 2014. I am hoping Rowling, either using her own name or that of her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, will continue what promises to be an excellent mystery series where the complex, very likable, and extraordinarily adept Cormoran Strike and his proficient and enthusiastic assistant Robin Ellacott investigate many more cases.

Check the WRL catalog for the print version of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Check the WRL catalog for the compact disc audiobook version of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Check the OneClickDigital catalog for the downloadable audiobook version of The Cuckoo’s Calling

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amy_falls_downIn 2008, I wrote a review of The Writing Class, by Jincy Willett. That story revolved around Amy Gallup, the aging teacher of a writing class in which one of the students turned out to be a murderer. Willett’s latest novel continues Amy’s story, but does not involve a murder. As in her previous book, in Amy Falls Down, Willett dispenses fiction writing advice to readers while constructing a biting satire of the publishing industry.

The normally withdrawn Amy, a writer who had a few titles celebrated twenty or so years ago, has agreed to give an interview to a reporter from the San Diego paper doing a “where are they now” series about local authors. Before the interviewer comes for the afternoon appointment, Amy takes a Norfolk pine out to her raised garden. Keeping an eye on her aging basset hound, Alphonse, and her mind on other things, she loses her balance and falls, hitting her head on the bird bath. The interviewer comes and goes, and Amy later finds she has given a somewhat crazy interview that makes her sound like a quirky genius. Thanks to the Internet, her interview goes viral, and she becomes a celebrity. Her old agent Maxine calls her up and gets her booked on popular radio and television programs, and once again— twenty years since she was celebrated for her literary skill—she is in the public eye.

She does not like what the industry has become, where hot, new fiction is churned out rapidly and is pushed aggressively by publishers even if the books are drivel. The interviews she gives and the things she says on the panels that Maxine lines up for her are not just funny, but are inspiring to readers like me who love good writing and roll their eyes at most mega-best sellers. “Suppose there were a de facto moratorium on the brand-new printed word. Suppose all we were left to hold in our hands and read were the books that were already out there,” Amy says during one interview. The interviewer asks, “Wouldn’t that be terrible?” Amy replies, “For the first time in a hundred years, readers would have time to read all the books they’d been meaning to get to and the tens of thousands more that they never even heard of. Nosebleed-inducing farces. Horror stories guaranteed to rob us of sleep. Pulse-pounding page-turners. Sprawling, sumptuous histories. Best of all, those books that critics have told them were essential to our lives. Insightful novels of intoxicating ferocity. Intoxicating novels of ferocious insight. There’s a million of them and each one ‘compelling.’”

In some of the interviews, Amy discusses the state of fiction with a young, mega-bestselling writer and an old, alcoholic author who used to be lauded for his literary talent. She also stays in touch with some of the students from her old writing class and newer students who join them at a newly-established writers’ retreat of sorts at one of the older student’s houses. Each student has a unique personality and favors a different type of writing, which Amy skewers or admires as she reads from their manuscripts.

There are unexpected plot twists, especially near the end, that keep the book from merely being a polemic on the publishing industry. And while the novel is funny, there is a strong, emotional thread throughout as Amy frequently remembers her late, gay husband Max and his death from AIDS several years earlier. The book is hard to characterize. It has a pink cover, and, as I told anyone who saw me reading it, “I do not usually read pink books.” It may be packaged for women, but it should be a treat for anyone who loves books, especially anyone critical of pop best sellers and how they’re hyped.

Check the WRL catalog for Amy Falls Down.

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windup_girl

Blister rust. Cibiscosis. Genehack weevil. Plant and human diseases mutate quickly in the 23rd century, where genehacking by the powerful calorie companies runs the economy. Staying ahead of the plagues can cause otherwise honorable people to justify acts they would never believe they were capable of committing. Major cities, including New York and Mumbai, were drowned as the planet heated; the capital city in Thailand is protected by levees and pumps. Fossil fuels were mostly spent out generations ago. Most power is now human- or beast-created and stored in springs; computers are driven by treadle; radios are hand-cranked. Bicycles, ships, and dirigibles provide transportation.

Anderson Lake manages the SpringLife kink-spring factory in the capital city of Thailand. Megadonts, huge beasts of burden that have been genehacked from elephants, power the factory. SpringLife kink-springs, when finally manufactured, should hold and disperse many more joules than regular springs. This huge factory, with its workers, its megadonts and their handlers, is failing, though Anderson keeps it running. It’s a cover for his real purpose in Thailand. He works covertly for AgriGen, a calorie company based in Des Moines. He’s in Thailand to figure out how the kingdom is growing disease-resistant crops independently of the calorie companies. Potatoes, tobacco, and other nightshades flourish in the markets in Thailand—how can that be when most natural plants succumb to the diseases that thrive and mutate in the age of genetically modified produce of AgriGen, PurCal, RedStar, U Texas and other calorie companies?

Emiko is a windup girl—one of the New People—a genetically modified humanoid “born” in a crèche in Japan and bred to serve her master. She began her life as a kind of secretary for her owner, Gendo-sama, but after he brought her to Thailand on a business trip, he discarded her; dirigible fare back to Japan is exorbitant and Gendo-sama, who had once told Emiko she was beautiful and perfect, found it more economical to simply purchase a newer model once he got back to Japan. As an unnatural species, Emiko is illegal in Thailand, but Raleigh, her new owner, pays bribes to the Environment Ministry to keep her in his club.  She earns her keep as an entertainer in a sexually humiliating show for the pleasure of the patrons of the club. For the most part, Emiko can blend in with humans, though her engineered stutter-stop motions give her away, and her specifically designed small pore structure, fine in cooler Japan, causes her to overheat in Thailand.

When Anderson meets Emiko, Emiko reveals a vital clue to him about the plague-resistant foods, and he tells her something that changes her life forever—and ultimately leads to a rebalancing of power between the Thai government and the calorie companies.

Anderson and Emiko are just two of the many complex characters in the richly-developed Thai kingdom of the future that Bacigalupi has created. Anderson’s assistant, Hock Seng, a “yellow card” refugee from an environmental disaster in Malaysia, has plans and secrets of his own. The head of the White Shirts, the Environment Ministry enforcers, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and his lieutenant, the unsmiling Kanya Chirathivat, play their parts in this dense and detailed world. Trust and loyalty, kamma or karma, love, regret, and identity are themes that run throughout the novel. Religious beliefs and practices—Christian and Buddhist—have evolved also with the changing environment. The world described in The Windup Girl seems frighteningly possible as we ignore environmental concerns and allow corporations to patent seeds and genes.

The Windup Girl is novel that can be read multiple times without losing its surprises. It’s one of the best novels I have read in many years. It tied with China Miéville’s The City & the City (also a great novel) for the 2010 Hugo Award for best novel.

Check the WRL catalog for The Windup Girl.

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story_earth

Robert M. Hazen’s exciting explanations of how the Earth and its geologic and biologic systems formed and changed had my head spinning with growing knowledge and dawning comprehension. About five billion years ago—several billion years after the Big Bang, which Hazen explains well enough for me to finally grasp, somewhat—an event such as a shock wave from an exploding star caused a cloud of gas and dust to collapse into a star system, our Solar System. “Like a twirling ice-skater, the big cloud rotated faster and faster as gravity pulled its wispy arms to the center. As it collapsed and spun faster, the cloud became denser and flattened into a disk with a growing central bulge—the nascent Sun.” Scientists can’t say for sure how the planets formed, but because all the planets more or less rotate in the same direction and are more or less on the same plane, Hazen explains, most scientists speculate that the planets formed from the same rotating gas and dust as the Sun, and were not objects hurtling through space captured by the Sun’s gravitational pull, as was once thought.

The Earth has gone through many drastic changes since forming. The names of the chapters in The Story of Earth illustrate this: Black Earth: The First Basalt Crust; Blue Earth, The Formation of the Oceans; Gray Earth: The First Granite Crust; Living Earth: The Origins of Life; Red Earth: Photosynthesis and the Great Oxidation Event; The “Boring” Billion: The Mineral Revolution (Surprise: these billion years were anything but boring!); White Earth: The Snowball-Hothouse Cycle; Green Earth: The Rise of the Terrestrial Biosphere. I’ve never really imagined our planet as anything other than a grey ball of rock slowly turning blue and green as life began. This book shows how that view is far from accurate.

The Moon, too, has changed over the billions of years. Did you know that it is moving away from the Earth by about 3.82 centimeters per year? Scientists know this because Apollo astronauts left mirrors on the surface of the moon in the 1960s and 70s, and scientists measure the distance very accurately by bouncing laser beams off them. If the moon is moving away from the earth at that rate, can you imagine how close the moon was to the earth 4.5 billion years ago? It would have looked gigantic. The surface of the Moon was quite different back then, too. According to Hazen, “The early Moon was a violent body of intense volcanism, quite unlike the static silvery-gray object we see now. Its surface would have appeared black, with glowing red magma-filled cracks and volcanic basins easily visible from Earth.” Hazen explains the current theory of how the Moon was formed by what he calls “The Big Thwack,” or the giant impact theory.

4.5 billion years is an unfathomably long time. In 283 pages, Hazen is able to clarify to someone like me, who never took many science classes, the current theories of how Earth and the Moon formed, how life began, how mineralogical forces influence life and how life in turn influences mineralogy, and many other fascinating phenomena. One of the more interesting sections was of the Great Oxidation Event, something I had heard about but had never understood. He writes about how he and his colleagues figured out that many of the minerals we see today—turquoise, azurite, malachite, and thousands of others—could never have occurred without the Great Oxidation Event, and thus how such minerals would never be found on a non-living astronomical body like the Moon or Mars.

If you have an interest in this planet on which we’re living, and you want to know more about how it got here, how it has changed throughout the estimated 4.5 billion years since it formed, and where it may be going, read this book. It’s fascinating.

Check the WRL catalog for The Story of Earth

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