Monday, June 17, 2013

Lost at Sea, Jon Ronson

Having been a fan of Jon Ronson's writing for years, I was thrilled to read this collection of articles. They do go back some time, so some were familiar, but I loved the way they were grouped, and of course many were new to me. Especially strong entries included Santa's Little Conspirators, about the Alaskan town of North Pole, and Blood Sacrifice, about people looking to donate organs. As always Ronson finds the unusual, and writes about it with humor, wit, and empathy.

The Uninvited, Liz Jensen

In Jensen's new novel, The Uninvited, children across the world are committing horrifying murders of adults, while somehow sharing dreams and knowledge across continents. At the same time, protagonist Heskith, a pattern-spotting genius on the autistic spectrum, is tracking bizarre events of corporate sabotage.
Jensen's fantastic writing elevates her books- this was a chilling, thrilling, horrifying look at how the planet could try to shake off our civilization, and it left me reeling and looking into some of the ideas in her book. Her last book, The Rapture is still my favorite of hers, but each of her books stands strong and her unusual protagonists add so much depth to what could, in lesser hands, be a standard eco-disaster thriller/horror story.

Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami , Gretel Erlich

While Gretel Erlich obviously feels deeply about Japan, and her experiences there both before and after the tsunami, I did not enjoy this book at all.
I was hoping to read about the tsunami and learn about the geology, the earthquake, the people, the effects, Fukishima, the radiation, and the aftermath, like Douglas Brinkley's book The Great Deluge covers Hurricane Katrina, but this is not the book for that.
This book instead felt (to me) very self absorbed and even upsetting- as soon as the disaster happened, this writer rushed there not to help, or even, apparently, effectively document what was going on, but rather to experience the drama and tragedy first hand, and to write some Japanese style poetry about her feelings about it all.
I found the book to be weakly written, in terms of factual information and also in narrative structure, I found the poetry to be mawkish, and I found the entire book to be unsettlingly condescending and a nasty piece of culture-vulture disaster-tourism work.

This is Running For Your Life: Essays, Michelle Orange

A singularly talented voice.
Michelle Orange's propulsively readable essays take the reader across the globe, and through time, but always returning to define here and now.
Her writing offers insights both into pop culture, as in her beautiful and grateful piece on "The Uses of Nostalgia and Some thoughts on Ethan Hawke's Face", and into her own background, but always with a wider perspective. The melancholy and elegiacal "One Senior, Please", about her grandmother's fading days is both intensely personal and a wider view of how geriatric people are viewed and treated in our society, and Orange uses film to frame her experiences.
This is the kind of writing that makes one's hair stand on end.
Brilliant, thought-provoking, and memorable.

Angel Wings, Howard Kaminsky

When murdered prostitutes start being found in Providence, made up to look like dead angels, Detective Danny Martell is on the case. But when his wife, Linda, disappears and then is found dead in what seems to be a copycat killing, his involvement becomes much more personal.
This could have been a solid noir thriller, but the protagonist, Martell, is absolutely vile. He barely mourns his wife, his detection skills and work ethic are weak, and half the book seemed to be given over to describing delicious sounding feasts of Italian food on Federal Hill.
Should have been a cookbook- would have left the reader with more satisfaction than the half-baked ending.

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation , Dan Fagin

This was a tour de force of narrative nonfiction, somehow going into medieval dye-making history at the same time as being as readable as a John Grisham courtroom drama and as gripping as any eco-thriller, with the additional impact of being a true story.
This was easily one of the best non-fiction books I've read this year, and one I've recommended to more people than I can remember.
A cautionary tale of pollution, company towns, and industry's toxic legacy, this wonderful book is a "must-read" for, well, everyone.

French Twist: An American Mom's Experiment in Parisian Parenting , Catherine Crawford

This book, along with Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting and The Panic-Free Pregnancy: An OB-GYN Separates Fact from Fiction on Food, Exercise, Travel, Pets, Coffee, Medications, and Concerns You Have When You Are Expecting are the only books I could recommend to any parent!!!
Children live up to (or down to!) expectations, and this witty and charmingly self-depreciating book offers gentle but sound advice to American parents on how to buck the trend to raise self-centered little heathens.
We have been raising our daughter with the European-style expectation that she will be, and that she wants to be, a civilized person, and lo and behold, she acts like one at 2. I am sure there will be tough times ahead, but that is when I will re-read this book and re-set my shoulders, straighten my spine, and try to set an example for her.
Great book, and one I think should be required reading!

Frozen Solid, James Tabor

This book has gripping descriptions of the South Pole research stations, and the claustrophobic setting adds ambience to an already chilling (excuse the pun!) bio-terror thriller.
Top virologist/epidemiologist/extreme diver Hallie Leland is sent to the ASRS- the Amundson-Scott Research Station- known to the scientists there as ARSE, to replace a dead colleage and friend. When Hallie arrives, she finds that the station is home to more than neurotic researchers and dedicated scientists- it is also hosting a deadly disease.
Hallie must find out what is going on, in time to save the station- and the world, but this clever thriller offers some thorught-provoking questions about what "saving the world" might mean.
A solid entry into the world of icy thrillers, along the lines of The Trudeau Vector (a North Pole thriller!)

The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse , Sam Sheridan

The most paranoid man alive? or the most prepared?
This entertaining and disturbing book is part confession, part how-to, part amusing narrative of some extraordinary exploits! Sam Sheridan, a new father worrying about TEOTWAWKI - or, as most people call it, The End Of The World As We Know It - decides to get himself ready, by taking all the prepping courses he can.
From stunt driving to martial arts, to wilderness survival camp, Sheridan immerses himself in the nitty gritty of what it might take to be the guy who makes it to the end of the movie.
This was a super fun read, but also, if you're serious about getting a little more ready for whatever may come, Sheridan draws a pretty good path to acquiring the skills to survive in a world with zombies/EMPs/feral Mad Max-style biker gangs/breakdown of society, etc.
This will make a great gift to some of my more twitchy friends. ;)

The Tao of Martha, Jen Lancaster

Jen Lancaster's evolution from Bitter is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office to the domestic diva wannabe of The Tao of Martha has been a wonderful ride for readers, and this latest title had it's laughing til you think you'll cry moments!
Easter, especially- oh, even thinking of it is making me laugh.
As Jen Lancaster attempts to take on the Tao of Martha, she has some epic fails, but throughout, keeps her voice real, and when sadness touches her and her long-suffering partner Fletch, her writing takes on a new depth.
I have people lined up to borrow this one!

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 , Elizabeth Winder

This book is a fascinating glimpse into what the author argues is the most transformative time of Sylvia Plath's short life- the summer of 1953, she interned for Mademoiselle.
For fans of Plath, it offers a look into the true stories behind her only novel, The Bell Jar, and paints a portrait of Plath as an ambitious, high achieving woman, and gives the reader a look at Plath through the eyes of her contempories- the models for the characters Betsy, Doreen, and so on.
While much of this material has been unpublished, there is not a lot of substance to the book, and I wouldn't recommend it to a reader who wasn't familiar with at least The Bell Jar, but it is an excellent addition to any collection of works about Plath.
Some excellent tidbits of information- the background to the poem A Mad Girl's Love Song (one of my favorite pieces of Plath juvenilia) was a treat to read.

Everything is Perfect When You're a Liar, Kelly Oxford

I was unfamiliar with Kelly Oxford's writing, but hoped to enjoy her work as much as I do other blogger-turned-authors, and she did not disappoint!
Outrageous stories with a whistling air of danger behind them made me question her reliability as a narrator, but I suppose she addresses that right in the title!
Some sections were truly verging on the offensive, but Oxford's undeniable charm smoothed those edges, and I have already recommended it to several friends.

It's Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It: Misadventures of a Suburban Hunter-Gatherer , Bill Heavey

This was a very well written and well done book about how to see the food in front of our eyes, and how to go about eating it!
Bill Heavey, a sportswriter, takes on learning to forage, hunt, and fish, and in the process, learns and shares a ton of great information about the history of American food, the industrialization of the food industry, and how food and society can be intrinsically linked, as in the sections about the Gwich'in and the Cajuns.
More than an entertaining read, this surprisingly powerful books has me looking for local edibles in my own area, and thinking much more about what it means to eat locally.

You Are One Of Them, Elliot Holt

This was the best novel I've read this year, easily.
When 2 young girls write to Yuri Andropov in 1982, neither could have known that their lives would be changed forever.
The narrator's haunting voice leads the reader through a tangle of betrayals and deceptions, through Cold War D.C. to modern Moscow, and offers no easy answers.
Powerful and memorable, this is an exceptional debut from a talented novelist.

The Doll, by Taylor Stevens

Vanessa Michael Munroe, a gender-bending bad-a** James (or Jamie?) Bond, is on the case of The Doll Maker- a human trafficker specializing in captured-to-order women.
High octane, violent, and cinematic, this was a quick pulse-pounder, but the plot lacked meat and direction- this was the literary equivalent to a Michael Bay film- lots of explosions, not much characterization.
For a better (and more realistic, and therefore more disturbing) look at human trafficking, read Box 21: A Novel.

Crime of Privilege, Walter Walker

Reminiscent of Nelson De Mille, this is a great beach book.
Young student George is thrilled to be invited to a party at the home of the notable political Gregory family, until he witnesses 2 of the young Gregory scions taking advantage of a drunk girl. That one incident determines the course of his life, with the family's powerful influence steering his course the whole way, until the father of a murdered girl convinces George to risk his comfortable life to face the facts.
Tracking down witnesses, and being followed, George finds how far power and influence can reach, from Costa Rica to France and beyond.
This was a great, highly entertaining take on political scandals, and a dark look at what can lie behind a glamorous façade.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, by Elizabeth Silver

Thought provoking and disturbing, this novel raises questions about how one's childhood can determine one's future, and the seemingly inevitable damage one's family can inflict.
Noa's "innocence" is never in question, but the sad and tangled history leading up to her X-day is haunting, memorable, and makes the reader really think about capital punishment, and what justice really is.
Excellent first novel, recommend for readers of Jodi Picoult, and Anita Shreve, as well as fans of legal thrillers. If you like this, try William Landay's Defending Jacob.

Life is short, Laundry is eternal, by Scott Benner

This was charming, heart warming, and moving.
This father, who writes with such love, sounds like a wonderful man, and I'm so glad he shared his experiences as a parent. As a stay-at-home mom, I definitely related to many of his struggles with chores, but was most interested in his own story of how he came to shake off a difficult childhood of his own, to embrace fatherhood fearlessly.
This is very much a first book, very personal, and perhaps not the most literary book out there, but Scott's sincerity and essential goodness made this a treat to read.
Their family's battle with diabetes was eye-opening, and frightening, and I'm sure his blog is a great source of information and consolation for other parents dealing with that issue.
I did find him to be a little grating at times, addressing "you ladies", but given his sociocultural background, it was a wonderful effort, and I sincerely enjoyed reading it.