Thursday, June 28, 2012

Say It Ain't So, Joe

Calico Joe
by John Grisham
Reviewed by Steve Thomas

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but if you can’t, then what’s the point of a cover? Isn’t it there, much like a movie trailer, to entice you to read it by giving you a key scene, a character, or a general sense of the book? A well-designed cover dares you to judge the book it surrounds.
By its cover, there’s no denying that Calico Joe is a baseball novel; the cover is dominated by a soaring baseball and a baseball field. Grisham is leaning on a bat in the author photo. The story hinges on player Joe Castle breaking arcane records, which the narrator details in play-by-play commentaries.

And Grisham’s name is also on the cover, which gives the reader another opportunity to make judgement calls. Is the story about a lawyer? Well, no, but Grisham has shown that he can write serviceable non-legal stories in the past, like A Painted House and Skipping Christmas. The fact that it isn’t a legal thriller actually attracted me to it, because I’ve found his legal work to be overloaded with a dour cynicism of late. Plus, I loves me some baseball.

The narrator is a bit dull and two-dimensional but he’s really just there to facilitate the story of his father, a pitcher for the Mets, and “Calico Joe” Castle, a wunderkind player, and how their careers intersect and end in tragedy. No surprises await the reader, as the story progresses as expected, but it is entertaining enough for a quick summer read, though the non-baseball fan may want to keep his distance.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's always Armageddon somewhere

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
by A. S. Byatt

Byatt's Ragnarok is that rare book that I pick up with no expectations, no preconceptions. I hadn't read any reviews, wasn't even aware that it had been published when it simply appeared on the new book display at my branch one day. When I finally got around to reading it, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had read this story before.

Of course I had. "Ragnarok" is an Old Norse word meaning "the fate of the gods" or, more broadly, "the end of the world." Byatt's book is a fanciful recasting of the mythological stories in the Poetic Edda, a collection of heroic and mythological poems from medieval Iceland and the main source for the study of Norse mythology. The poems in the Poetic Edda encompass the whole span of the world's existence, from its murky beginning and the long age of gods and giants to the current age of humans and the coming cosmic war that will end in a welter of fire and ice and blood and the complete destruction of all that ever was. As a erstwhile academic who specialized in Germanic mythology, I have read the Eddic poems more times than I can count. Those ancient tales are stuck in my head for good and always. But that's not what I'm talking about.

Byatt frames her ecologically engaged retelling of the Eddic myths within the story of an unnamed young girl evacuated to the safety of the English countryside during the Blitz in World War II. The girl (known only as "the thin child") bides her time in rural exile, waiting only for her airman father to return home from the the burning skies over North Africa and Italy. She finds no solace in the church her schoolmates attend and no wisdom in the books they must read. But then she is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods (a translation of a translation of the Poetic Edda) and at last sees a world she recognizes: rich and mysterious, beautiful and terrible, and shot through with apocalyptic violence. She's hooked as surely as the Midgard Serpent on Thor's fishing line, and she immerses herself wholeheartedly in the Edda's perilous realm. The girl's obsessive reading is no escape, but rather a way to try to find sense and meaning amid the oppressive reality of global, industrialized war.

And there's the familiar part. Stop me if you've read this before: it's the Second World War and a young person is traumatized either by the experience of the Blitz or by the loss of home and family when she is packed off to the safety of rural England, and while there she stumbles into a hidden world whose terrors and mysteries are a dark reflection of the outside world. Sound familiar? Of course! It's C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and John Connolly's Book of Lost Things. Move the setting to the Spanish Civil War and it's Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. Make the protagonist a teenaged American soldier captured in the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned in Dresden during the Allied firebombing of that city and it's Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Or remove the element of real-world war completely and it's the Harry Potter series.

I don't know what to make of this pattern, and I'm sure that my list captures only a fraction of all the books and movies that follow it. So keep your eyes open; you never know when a story will lead you down the rabbit hole and show you the world as it truly is.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Audio: Curiosity Killed the Dog?

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Review by DeAnna Espinoza

Audiobooks can get you through a long commute to work each day or can bring your family together on a long car ride. Either way, they are much different from their written counterpart because of one important factor - The Reader. The reader of an audiobook can make or break a great title and once you've found a good reader you may find yourself listening to other titles they've read based solely on their quality performance. One such audiobook, performed by Jeff Woodman, for your daily commute is Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. Woodman embraces the role of Christopher, a 15-year-old autistic boy, who wishes to do detective work and uncover the mystery behind the killing of his neighbor's dog. Instead, Christopher finds himself tangled and confused in the web of lies surrounding his mother's death. Because the book is written in first person, the listener has the advantage of seeing the world through the eyes of Christopher - feeling the confusion and scariness of the world most people take for granted. Woodman is superb in his portrayal of all the characters in Curious Incident and can be heard in the equally good audiobooks of Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Presidential Tragedy

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

You may not start this book with interest in the 1880 Republican Convention and the choosing of their presidential candidate, but as soon as you begin it's sure to spark an interest. Author Candice Millard makes the bygone political event thrilling, and the excellent narrator of the audiobook gives voice to the feeling.

James A. Garfield is chosen as the nominee in an upset. Most people assumed Ulysses S. Grant would be nominated once again, including several very powerful political figures of the day. It's for this reason that Garfield begins his term as president with plenty of enemies, and they make it their mission to block his every move. It seems that presidential politics was a difficult game even 132 years ago.

The book describes Garfield's development from inquisitive child to exemplary, and humble, adult. He undergoes an unlikely, meteoric rise to political prominence only to be cut down by a megalomaniac assassin and certain unfortunate medical practices of the time. (Few doctors of the time followed antiseptic procedures. Because who believes in "germs" anyway?)

Alongside this main story we get chapters on medical science of the day, the quarreling among Garfield's physicians, Alexander Graham Bell's attempts to find the bullet lodged in the President's back, and the bizarre life story of the self-aggrandizing assassin Charles J. Guiteau.

All in all an engaging exploration into one of our nation's tragedies.

Review by Danny Hanbery

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Science Fiction Classic

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Review by Tony Vicory

When people are in love, they often make hyperbolic promises. “For you, I’d swim an ocean!” “I’d climb the highest mountain!” “I’d do your taxes!” Of course, these promises very rarely come to anything, and most of us would probably back off should the chance to fulfill them actually arrive. 

However, for Captain John Carter of Virginia, an earthman mysteriously transported to Mars, a promise made is a promise kept, and for his beloved, a princess of that distant planet, he’ll cross dangerous terrain, defy gravity, do battle with monstrous hordes, and topple ancient civilizations — just to win her “incomparable” hand. (No wonder this Southern gentleman is science-fiction’s most enduring hero, and one of literature’s finest, not to mention the inspiration for Superman, Star Wars, Avatar and countless other pale imitations.) John Carter’s debut in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ timeless adventure novel, A Princess of Mars, stands tall even today, over a century after its original publication in 1912, and packs more romance and thrills into its 198 pages than most books deliver in twice that count. Never mind the cheesy cover. Never mind the recent film adaptation. Never mind that voice in your ear saying, “I’d sooner crack open my own skull!” A Princess of Mars is one of the best books you’ve never read: a classic for the ages, filled with chivalry and passion, suspense and derring-do, humor and — well, the occasional ten-legged space dog. Sure, it’s a hard sell, but give it a few chapters; chances are, you’ll find it even harder to put down.

Request it here

Monday, June 11, 2012

Man's Best Friend

Soldier Dogs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Take a good look at your dog. Do you think they can be trained to sniff out explosives, narcotics, IED's, or perform patrol duties? Are they resilient enough to work in 100+ degree heat? Do they always obey your commands?

Soldier Dogs by Goodavage explains the history of U.S. war dogs, and shares how soldier dogs are selected, trained, and what type of duties they perform. Each duty is accompanied by a definition. Different branches of service may use soldier dogs differently. Some dogs are only trained in one purpose, while others may be trained to perform multiple duties. Goodavage explains what the military are looking for in solider dogs, and how they are utilized. It is amazing what these dogs can do.

This book is more than just an overview of U.S. war dogs. Goodavage shares the stories of handlers and dogs who have served (some of which are still serving) in Iraq and Afghanistan. These personal stories are touching and emotional.  The soldiers will say they are just doing their jobs, but to me, they are heroes. Goodavage includes pictures so you can see what type of work the soldiers perform.

If you are a softie like me, prepare to have tissues handy, because in war, there are always casualities.

View all my reviews

Friday, June 8, 2012

How the other half lives. . . on the other side of the world

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity 
by Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo has created something truly remarkable in her nonfiction work Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Narrative in feel, beautifully written, and based on exhaustive research, this book examines questions about poverty, democracy, religion, gender roles, education and the economy in the “New India” by narrowly focusing on the lives of a handful of slum dwellers. The residents of Annawadi are squatters living in shacks shadowed by the international airport and surrounded by luxury hotels, razor wire, and raw sewage. By closely following two families and several peripheral characters over a four-year span, the reader sees the world through their eyes and becomes invested in the ups and downs of their economic, political, and personal fates and fortunes. Teenage Abdul feeds his family of 11 by picking garbage 10 hours a day. Manju seeks to become the first female college graduate of the neighborhood while simultaneously filling her traditional role as daughter of the house. Fatima uses her body to earn love and respect while Asha hungers to be politically powerful in her sphere. Meena finds another way out.

The grinding poverty and the bizarre juxtaposition of old-world and modern is illustrated through details about their days—lining up for hours to get water, public open air toilets, substandard schools where the teacher has a seventh grade education, cell phones, TVs, Bollywood and video games.

This portrait of these real people is powerful and will bring a new perspective to many readers—not all of it compassionate. While thoroughly steeped in Indian culture, this book has broader implications, for, as the author reminds us, “what was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too . . . in Nariobi and Santiago, Washington and New York.”

submitted by Amy

Monday, June 4, 2012

A "Southern Gothic" drama set in England

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron

I don't recall why I picked up Coral Glynn in the first place, but I finally got around to reading it on a flight to Milwaukee and back because it fit perfectly in my carry-on bag. Turns out, it's a perfect summer read.

Coral Glynn is a nurse—young, single, attractive, but friendless and family-less—who arrives at Hart House in remote southern England in the dismal, rain-soaked spring of 1950 to attend to the estate's dying mistress. The scene is pure Gothic: a deathwatch in a half-deserted mansion down a lonely road surrounded by flooded marshland and dripping woods. And so are the characters, from the churlish housekeeper Mrs. Prence, who takes an instant dislike to the pretty young nurse, to the dowager's son, Major Clement Hart, tall, dark and handsome but grievously wounded in the war and stoically resolved  to living out his days in pain and solitude. Coral Glynn stumbles unwittingly into a simmering broth of betrayals, resentments and barely-kept secrets at Hart House and in short order finds herself engaged to Clement Hart and accused of not one but two murders.

Coral Glynn is no murder mystery, though. It's more like one of those great black-and-white dramas from the 1940s or '50s, filled with looming shadows, ominous silences and characters staggering under nameless curses of their own devising. Cameron's prose is so cinematic, in fact, that the early chapters actually played out in black-and-white in my mind before things suddenly burst into Technicolor brilliance as the setting shifts and time flashes forward later in the book. If you're a hardcore nerd like me, you'll be tempted to go back and re-read Coral Glynn with a pencil in hand to see how Cameron manages this trick. Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy the show.

Near the end of the book, a man finds himself unable to sleep after learning that a former lover had passed through town earlier that day and asked after him. As he slips out of bed, he caresses his wife's teary cheek and assures her, "I'm just going out for a little stroll." She, in turn, "laugh[s] quietly" and asks "Isn't that what God said, before he abandoned us all?" In a story driven by missed opportunities, serial abandonments and aggressive reticence, seemingly throwaway lines like that take on unexpected weight. Whether you read mainly for the story or for the prose, Coral Glynn will leave you impressed.