Book Reviews

By Carolyn Piper


Catching Up

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

There now. Do I have your attention?

If not, according to Sara Nelson author of So Many Books, So Little Time; A Year of Passionate Reading, I certainly should.  In this book Ms. Nelson tells the tale of her resolution to read a book a week for a year, AND keep a diary about her project. Her book is a funny, informative, and insightful wherein compulsive readers will meet a soul mate, in the person of the author, as well as themselves and their reasons for reading. As a bonus, they are also provided with book titles galore, not to mention some very sound advice on books, authors, reading and life.

Mailmen who run over the heads of seven-year-olds can be found in her entry for November 25th.   It comes from the opening of a novel, which all in all Sara was less than enthusiastic about, but whose first lines, none the less, have landed a place on her all time best list for beginnings that keep you reading.

My brain cells came to full attention when I read this chapter, because I too have such a list—first lines that simply compel me to read one. In fact, one of the items on my list is the same as one on hers. It comes from a novel that is one of my favorites, The Lovely Bones, by Alice Seybold, and reads: "My name is Salmon like the Fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered." This novel, by the way, is for me, a twofer, as it also contains my all-time favorite ending line: "I wish you a long and happy life."

But, leaving this particular topic aside, (which granted, is hard—do any of you recall the opening line of Moby Dick: "Call me Ishmael?" and do any of you think you could have plowed on ahead, back in high school, quite so willingly without it?) for what Ms Nelson is up to really in her highly readable book, is an attempt to answer the question: "Why do we read?"  Or to paraphrase, what makes a person such a passionate reader that they, like myself, are so insanely addicted, that they read, even between traffic lights, and are almost never seen without a book at hand, "just in case?" Just what that just in case situation might be I have never really defined, but I take no chances of it happening and carry a book everywhere anyway.

Following Sara during her year of intense reading provides some very interesting answers to those questions, including the likening of compulsive reading to a disease, though that may be going a tad too far, enjoyable an activity as it is. But then, so too I suppose, also enjoyable as it may be, is eating without restraint. Nothing is free in life—though reading, library card in hand, comes close.

It is refreshing to me these days to read about reading, because I am coming off a year where I learned anew to appreciate reading time as it was so hard to come by. During this time I missed my old schedule that allowed me to fit my usual book quota in without difficulty. Instead I have had more than a year devoted to hearing loss, as I served as planning chair to the ALDAcon that was held in Burlington, Vermont. It was a fascinating experience, and I loved every minute. But I was as busy as I have ever been in my life. Even so, I admit, in as much as I was still breathing, for the loss of that aptitude is all that will stop my reading habit--I DID manage to enjoy more than a few books, and want to list for you briefly a few titles that you might find of interest yourselves, or use as a gift idea.

I am, as some of you may remember, one who enjoys non-fiction a bit more than fiction—which Ms Nelson does NOT, though her own book is decidedly of that persuasion, and a darn good argument for the genre. In any case, starting with the shorter list for fiction, here, with some comments, is what I have been reading during the year or so.


The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  To be honest I have thus far only read the introduction—with which I fell totally and completely in love. It is, I can feel, going to be a great read.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This was a book that I could not put down. Its premise is so different, and its execution so deft that one is drawn immediately into the story. The title character is a man destined to hop through time due to a genetic defect. Good writers, not necessarily great ones, but good solid entertaining ones, ask the question, "What if...?" and then proceed to answer it. The result is a protagonist who appears, and disappears, in the life of his wife to be at all stages of both their lives. How the author kept the plot line in coherent order I know not—I am just glad that she did. This is not great literature—but it is a really really fun, and an honest-to-goodness, page-turner novel.

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason.  Another fun book, somewhat akin to The De Vinci Code, but for me far more interesting. It veers into everyday college life to its detriment, but is rescued by a very intriguing historical puzzle. All in all I would call it a more grown up version of Dan Brown's bestseller.

The White by Deborah Larson.  This is the first novel by an accomplished poet, whose literary roots show in her lyrical prose. The White is a harrowing tale of the capture of a white family in early frontier times. Only one in the family, a daughter, Mary, lives long past that capture to experience a new life as an adopted member of the Seneca tribe. Based on a true story, and incorporating interviews the real Mary gave towards the end of her life, the novel is engaging, even as it fails to fully capture Mary, who said of the interviews she gave: "I did not tell them who wrote it down half of what it was." Lacking that, Larson none the less comes up with a good, solid, entertaining book, even as it is just a bit short in making us understand, and really feel on an emotional level, who Mary becomes and why.

Drowning Ruth by Christina Swartz. An Oprah book choice, which both engages and entertains. I don't remember the plot totally, but I do remember enjoying it, and while it is a sad story at times, all is well in the end.

Pompeii by Robert Harris.  I like history. And because of that I loved parts of this book. The writing is adept enough, but it is the historical perspective, the suspense within it, even given that we all know exactly what is going to happen, that made this book so enjoyable to me.

Any new Harry Potter that came down the pike.


Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. This, non-fiction fan that I am, was one of the finds of the year for me. Ehrenreich has the knack for writing entertainingly on the most serious of subjects, including this one. Determined to find out if it is possible today to survive on the earnings of an entry-level job, she travels the USA attempting to do just that. The news is not good. The writing is superb.

The Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson.  There are books, such as Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, that leave you wondering why on earth people do some of the risky things that they do. This is one of them. During a dive deep into the depth of the Atlantic off the coast of New Jersey, an unknown German submarine is found. Identifying it in the end, cost the lives of more than one of the crew—and provides, for the reader, a jaw-dropping tale one can hardly believe. The Piper men really liked this one.

A Language Older than Words by Derrick Jensen. To quote Publisher's Weekly, "...the extraordinary journey of one man striving to save both his own spirit and that of our planet...Jensen's book accomplishes the rare feat of both breaking and mending the reader's heart." This is a long slow read which bubbles over with the exploration of human and animal (is there really a difference?) life, while the author copes, as we all do in one way or another, with wounds deep within both himself and our world.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. What we have here is a historical tour de force relating the building of the Chicago World Fair of 1893, as well as the daily life during its run, coupled with the tale of a resident psychopath—who traps and kills his victims within eyesight of the fair. A fascinating, if somewhat difficult to take at times, read from both a historical and psychological point of view.

John Adams by David McCullough is everything its reviews and awards indicate, and as a bonus, is written in a way so as to fascinate even those not usually enamored of history or biographies. It reveals, among other things, that Thomas Jefferson, who, to our great good fortune, was one of our founding fathers, and also, hands down our best looking president, as well as a Clintonesque charmer—even if we leave Sally Hennings out of it, who would have been right at home in this world seemingly filled with the likes of Donald Trump.

Personal History by Katherine Graham. Katherine Graham, owner of The Washington Post, is gone now. Luckily for us she has left us her Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography, which she penned without help from the usual ghostwriter. It is at once the story of a woman moving from one social age to another, and a country doing the same.  I urge you, especially the ladies, to read this one.

Father Joe by Tony Hendra. Recent revelations/accusations by Hendra's daughters do not dent the fact that in drawing a picture-perfect character sketch of a most unusual man, Hendra has given us a gift to be savored.  Father Joe, in Hendra's skilled hands, comes to life as a man that will leave you wishing you too had had the great good luck to have as a friend and advisor in your life, and shows us that love is still what really matters in this world. Hendra, to quote the New York Times Book review, has fashioned one of the best spiritual memoirs of recent date.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I admit it. Bryson is one of my favorite authors, and I would walk more than a mile in a raging hurricane to get my hands on a new release of his the very instant it hits the stores. Like his previous books, this one is funny, filled with Bryson's inimitable humor and curiosity. It is, however, I must admit, perhaps best suited to those of us with a sharp interest in science.

A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain. Those of you who read and enjoyed the very popular ("never order plain chicken on Mondays...") Kitchen Confidential, may well like this book by the same author as much as I do. Determined to search the world for a perfect meal, Mr. Bourdain is this time headed out to sample unbelievable things in unbelievable places. Bourdain can be tiresome after a while—given his cocksure and rather too studied rakish persona, but while one can't help but suppose that his wife must be long suffering in the extreme, one would bet she is also never ever bored. Nor are we.

A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Egger.   The title tells it all—and is ALMOST a dead-on summation of this very sad, very very funny, and very, very very human tale of a twenty-something man, who on the death of both of his parents, sets out to raise his twelve year old brother.

Tao Te Ching, translated by Man-Ho Kwok, Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay, calligraphy by Kwok-Lap Chan. This is a beautiful book. It is visually enchanting, and is also translated in a way which results in its being the most accessible—and lovely—version of the Te Ching that I have in my collection. This book would make a great gift for those who have an interest in Asian studies, religion or philosophy. Paperback only.

Did I say I was too busy to read this past year? Guess not. I am hopeless. No matter what happens to me I seem to always find time to read. And someday you will no doubt find me rocking away in the corner, walker at my side, and always, always, with book in hand.

* The  Miracle of Life by Edgar Mint.


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