September 30, 2006

Killer Smile

Note: This review appeared in my monthly newsletter (May 2005). Apologies to those who have already read it.

Killer Smile by Lisa Scottoline
Rating: A (5/5 Excellent)
Top Ten List for 2005

Look out, Stephanie Plum! Mary DiNunzio may not have a gun-toting grandmother (or two hunks to vascillate between), but she's a tough cookie with a keen sense for solving a mystery, not to mention a wonderfully dry sense of humor. I enjoyed the mystery while learning a bit about the Italian-Americans who were interned during World War II. Will definitely read more by this entertaining author.

Favorite passage:

I believe in justice. And in love. And in *not* getting over it, because that's too much to ask of a human being." Mary collected her thoughts. "Getting over it is the wrong thing to want, anyway. You should never expect to get over it, the best you can hope is to live past it. And you go on. Your past becomes a part of you, you just fold it into the gnocchi dough and keep rolling.

From Booklist:

In the latest installment of Scottoline's best-selling series starring the all-female Philadelphia law firm of Rosato & Associates, young Mary DiNunzio takes center stage. Mary has taken on a pro bono case representing her "peeps"--an Italian American business group (the circolo) working on behalf of the estate of Amadeo Brandolini, who committed suicide while interned during World War II. The estate seeks reparations, and Mary feels drawn to the case, so much so that others fear she's obsessed with it. Under the guise of taking a vacation, Mary visits the site of the internment camp in Montana where Amadeo killed himself and finds herself with still more unanswered questions. Interesting author's notes at the end of this engaging drama disclose Scottoline's own discovery of her grandparents' internment, lending this unusual story a welcome authenticity. Expect another hit from Scottoline, who has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that legal thrillers are not a male-only subgenre.

Dear Zoe

Note: This review appeared in my monthly newsletter (April 2005). Apologies to those who have already read it.

Dear Zoe, by Philip Beard
Young Adult/Contemporary Fiction
Rating: A (5/5 Excellent!)
Top Ten List for 2005

It's been completely unintentional that I've picked up so many books dealing with grief in the past few months. I'm especially amazed that Dear Zoe, is so similiar to The Usual Rules which I read last month. Obviously there are differences, but both deal with tragedies that occur on September 11th and involve the loss of a family member (one directly with the World Trade Center attack and the other simply a coincidence of the date). Both are Young Adult fiction in which the main characters are young girls who eventually go to live with their fathers at some point, leaving behind a younger sibling. I was very impressed by Philip Beard's ability to capture a young teenage girl's voice with such credibility.

Readers of The Usual Rules won't be disappointed. Dear Zoe, is a marvelous coming-of-age story that just happens to deal with a family death as well. In some ways I think I liked it more than Maynard's. Perhaps because it wasn't so wrought with overwhelmingly realistic memories of that horrible day in our history. While I was moved to tears, it wasn't until much further on in the book. The Usual Rules broke my heart page after page from the get-go.

Book Description:

Hours away from pushing the button on a self-publishing deal, lawyer-turned-novelist Philip Beard was won over by the combined efforts of a bookseller, a sales rep, a publisher, and an agent, and brought the book to Viking. With its extraordinary backstory already covered in Publishers Weekly’s "Hot Deals" column, Dear Zoe has got built-in buzz that’s just going to keep growing. Beard’s stunning debut is an epistolary novel written from fifteen-year-old Tess DeNunzio to her little sister Zoe. After Zoe’s accidental death on September 11, 2001—a day so many others died—Tess’s family is numbed by their personal tragedy. Already acutely aware of her odd place in a home where her mother and stepfather now have children of their own, Tess begins her letter as a means of figuring out her own life—from her two-hour-a-day hair and makeup ritual to her complicity in Zoe’s death. Only after she moves in with her real father, a well-intentioned deadbeat, and stumbles into a halting romance with the sweet but aimless boy next door, does Tess begin to open her heart once more. Not since The Lovely Bones has there been a study of grief, adolescence, and healing that rings as true as Dear Zoe. In Tess, a girl on the verge of womanhood, Beard has crafted a pitch-perfect narrator and a debut novel of rare power and grace that will remain with readers long after the book is put down. - Author Profile and interview

September 29, 2006

The Usual Rules

Note: This review appeared in my monthly newsletter (March 2005). Apologies to those who have already read it.

The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard
Contemporary Fiction
Rating: A+ (5/5 Excellent!)
Top Ten List for 2005

I'm just barely too young to answer the question, "Where were you when JFK was assassinated?" yet I will never forget September 11, 2001 and where I was for as long as I live. Having lived through that terrible day, how could I possibly read a novel that deals with the 9/11 tragedy as seen through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old? Nothing prepared me for the grief and overwhelming sadness in the book, yet I appreciated and admired the work ("enjoy" or "loved" aren't the right words to express my reaction -- how can a novel in which the first 130 pages deals with the raw emotions of 9/11 be something I loved?). Yet, how was it possible that I could not put this book down in spite of its horrific subject matter? Actually, I did have to put it down a couple of times. The writing was so convincing that I found myself re-living that awful day and didn't want to go to sleep feeling so horribly sad. Yet this is so much more than a story about a family who loses a loved one in the tragedy of that day. It's a remarkable coming-of-age story in which Joyce Maynard captures the voice of a strong, young girl trying to put her life back together.

You could say I cut my parenting teeth on Maynard's column (Domestic Pleasures) back in the late 1980s. She's one of those writers I've followed, both in her personal life (used to subscribe to her printed newsletters and now occasionally check out her website) and her novels. While The Usual Rules is a work of fiction, I recognized bits and pieces of her own children in the characters of Wendy and Louie. Louie is a precocious 4-year-old and I could almost get angry at Maynard for using him to tug so hard at my heartstrings.

I found myself marking dozens of pages in The Usual Rules, the voices of each character ringing true. As sad and difficult (at times) as it was to read, this is one of the best books I've read in a long time. It moved me and made me think and made me appreciate my family and life. It will certainly wind up in my Top Ten for 2005. No doubt about it.

Some of my favorite passages:

Wendy was stunned. She didn't know that anything she read in a book could hurt so much. She reread the words, in case she'd got them wrong. It was as if someone she actually knew had died and, just as she would for someone she had known, she felt herself begin to cry.

How can it be, Wendy asked Alan, that you'll be reading this story that's so sad, it almost hurts to look at the words on the page? What happens to the characters practically tears your stomach out - and then the book is over. And the first thing you want to do is find another book like that.
Does God know about this? Louie asked. In the context of the page, this really made me choke up!

Sometimes it was a flash flood. Other times it came on like a slow-building rainstorm, the kind that gives you enough warning you might even have time to get inside before the clouds burst. Once it started, though, there was nothing to do but let the sorrow pound you like the most powerful current, the strongest waterfall. When the sorrow hit, small losses came crashing over you in one suffocating torrent.

Somewhere in the pile under the shards of melted computers and telephones and file cabinets and computer discs and air conditioners and intercom systems and water coolers and Xerox machines and red sandals and every other color sandals and every other kind of shoes, under the shredded remains of business suits and briefcases and raincoats and car keys, gym bags and diaper bags and bag lunches and half-finished books, business cards and charge cards and postcards and anniversary cards and maybe somewhere even a love letter, or one word from one, or maybe just a question mark, some where beneath a million other pieces of paper and metal and plastic and - her brain would settle on this image whether she wanted to or not - pieces of bone, too, flesh and bone, somewhere in there was a scrap of a scrap of a photograph of her own self, under the Christmas tree, smiling, with her baby brother in her arms. I really like the cadence of this passage.

In September, everything she loved - songs on the radio and clothes and flavors of ice cream and types of dogs, leaf piles and roller coasters and skating, and Japanese animation movies and sushi and shopping and the clarinet and splashing in the waves at Nantucket with her brother - had melted away, not gone maybe, but this was almost worse: still there, but robbed of any capacity to give pleasure, like a soup with so many ingredients that, in the end, it tastes of nothing, like what happens when you mix all the wonderful colors of paint and it turns out that together what they add up to is brown. Again, lovely cadence. - Author Profile and Interview

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Note: This review appeared in my monthly newsletter (Feb. 2005). Apologies to those who have already read it.

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving
Contemporary Fiction
Rating: A+ (5/5 Excellent!)
Top Ten List for 2005


OWEN MEANY (we must always use the upper case for OWEN, because that is how he speaks) is a very small boy with A VERY BIG VOICE who has become an icon in American literature. Readers have bestowed a reverence verging on the worshipful regarding the book, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY.

When OWEN {spoiler removed}, he becomes convinced that he is an instrument of God and that only martyrdom will redeem his act. The story begins on that fateful day in 1953, but it plays out against the Vietnam War. Some readers believe it to be a novel about America's involvement in Vietnam, and it is, to some degree. Others proclaim it as a great religious novel, or at least one that examines religious beliefs and morality. That, too, is accurate. It is, as are all Irving's novels, a highly complex story with intertwining subplots, strange characters with dark secrets and Irving's very own entertaining and often hilarious narrative. Still others call it John Irving's greatest accomplishment, and some go so far as to say it is the best book they've ever read. However it is viewed, Armadillos, dress forms and Christmas pageants will forever summon visions of OWEN MEANY in the hearts and minds of millions of readers.

It's been almost five years since I first read this and I was a little worried about re-reading it for an online group discussion (some re-reads are just as good the second time around, but others are disappointing, leaving me to wonder if I should ever re-read a favorite and possibly spoil that first impression). Well, I need not have worried. I loved this book! I thought it was fantastic back in 1999 and loved it just as much, if not more, this second time around. Ironically, when I originally read it, I enjoyed the first half much more than the second. I preferred the humor that was so predominate when John and Owen were children and felt the second half was much more serious. This time, I preferred the second half and was slightly bored with the first. There was quite a lot of foreshadowing, yet in spite of it all I still could not for the life of me remember how the book ended. I suppose getting older and forgetful has its benefits. ;)

A Favorite Passage:

When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time - the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes - when there's a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she's gone, forever - there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.

September 28, 2006

More Banned Books

Thursday Thirteen

As promised last Thursday, here is my list (with three extra titles) of Banned/Challenged Books read as an adult:

1. The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger

2. Bless Me Ultima - Rudolfo Anaya

3. Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett

4. The Color Purple - Alice Walker

5. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zoa Neale Hurston

6. Lady Chatterley's Lover - D. H. Lawrence

7. In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

8. Candide - Voltaire

9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou

10. Harry Potter (series) - J. K. Rowling

11. The Giver - Lois Lowry

12. A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle

13. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

14. The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison

15. To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

16. Beloved - Toni Morrison

September 26, 2006

Fifty Acres and a Poodle

Note: This review appeared in my monthly newsletter (Feb. 2005). Apologies to those who have already read it.

Fifty Acres and A Poodle: A Story of Love, Livestock, and Finding Myself on a Farm by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Non-fiction (Memoir)
Rating: A+ (5/5 Excellent!)
Top Ten List for 2005

I read half the book the very first night and forced myself to slow down and make the remaining half last. I can't remember the last time I laughed and cried while reading a single page in a book. And not just an internal chuckle, but full-bellied out loud laughter. Other than the first few pages that reminded me of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum (the humor seemed a bit forced), this is a great book. Loved all the animal names, particularly Screech, Walter, Wilma, Marley and Irving. It seems to me a lot of good humor was centered around the animals. Readers who enjoy Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence) and Jim Mullen (It Takes a Village Idiot) will love this. I thought it was even better than It Takes a Village Idiot, which also dealt with a "big-city" couple moving to the country. The focus of Mullen's memoir was the humor in buying a "country home," whereas Laskas' delved deeper and handled several emotional issues, drawing the reader in closer, not glossing over the harsh realities of life, whether on a farm or in a city. I can't wait to read the sequel, The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and A Family. I read it in February and loved it. Click here for review.

Favorite Quote:

La bete du bon Dieu. A good God. A God who has placed me gently in this place. Well, maybe not gently, but affirmatively. I look beyond the ladybug, out the window. Beyond the window, I see Billy and Tom and the bulldozer. Beyond them, woods and sky and the vast brown unknown. And beyond that: spring. That's one thing you can count on. You can never know what's next in your life, but you can know that spring comes after winter. You can trust, even though it looks impossible right now, that the green and the pink and the purple will come. You can trust the rhythm of the seasons.

September 25, 2006

Read Banned Books

“[I]t's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.” — Judy Blume

September 23, 2006

One of Ours

One of Ours by Willa Cather
Classic Literature
Quit on 9/8/06
Rating: DNF

I had never heard of Willa Cather until we moved to Nebraska and I decided to take some classes at UNL. As I perused the class schedule, Great Plains Literature caught my eye and I was intrigued, so I eagerly signed up. We only read one book by Cather (My Ántonia), but I was hooked and went on to read Death Comes for the Archbishop, O Pioneers!, Alexander's Bridge and The Song of the Lark. I also attended a conference in Red Cloud, Nebraska (Cather moved there from Virigina when she was a young girl), the setting of My Ántonia.

My professor told us his favorite work of Cather's was One of Ours, so I added it to my shelves, hoping to eventually read it. Well, it's been just about 10 years since I aced took that class, so I decided to give it a read for my Classics Challenge.

Thank goodness Prof. Shively decided to assign My Ántonia instead of One of Ours. After 54 pages of dull and unappealing characters and plot, I set it aside. I even picked it up again, a few days later, hoping to find some reason to continue. Unfortunately, Claude Wheeler has nothing on Ántonia as a protagonist and the lyrical descriptions of the landscape failed to impress me, as they did in the other books I've read of Cather's (although it's always fun to read about Lincoln, depending on her details to help picture exactly where Cather's characters might be).

So, another one to go in my used bookstore box. Too bad. It has such a pretty cover.

The Mother's Recompense

The Mother's Recompense by Edith Wharton
Classic Literature
Quit on 9/7/06
Rating: DNF

Publisher Description:

Opening on the French Riviera among a motley community of American expatriates, The Mother's Recompense tells the story of Kate Clephane and her reluctant return to New York society after being exiled years before for abandoning her husband and infant daughter.

Oddly enough, Kate has been summoned back by that same daughter, Anne, now fully grown and intent on marrying Chris Fenno, a war hero, dilettante, and social opportunist. Chris's questionable intentions toward her daughter are, however, the least of Kate's worries since she was once, and still is, deeply in love with him. Kate's moral quandary and the ensuing drama evoke comparison with Oedipus and Hamlet and lead to an ending that startled the mores of the day.

I've enjoyed many of Edith Wharton's books, so I'm not going to feel guilty about giving up on this one in particular. The purpose for my Classics Challenge was to motivate myself to read more of my own books in an attempt to whittle away at my TBR shelves. I also wanted to read some of the more well-known works of literature that I somehow missed during high school and college. The Mother's Recompense falls in the first category, as I've managed to acquire many of Wharton's books over the years. Unfortunately, this book fails to entertain or educate and I readily dismissed it after 50 pages. The storyline is dull and unappealing and not worth my time. On the positive side, I'm glad it wasn't my first attempt at reading Wharton. Had it been, I doubt I would've tried anything else by her. Certainly not right away.

September 21, 2006

Banned Book Week

Banned Book Week begins this weekend (September 23-30). After perusing the list of books that have been challenged or banned, I came up with two lists of my own. For today's Thursday Thirteen, I've listed thirteen books I read as a child/teenager that have been challenged or banned. I'll share the books I've read as an adult in next week's list.

1. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck

2. Go Ask Alice -anonymous

3. Julie of the Wolves - Jean Craighead George

4. Forever - Judy Bloom

5. The Outsiders - S. E. Hinton

6. Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

7. Lord of the Flies - William Golding

8. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

9. The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

10. The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway

11. A Separate Peace - John Knowles

12. The Jungle - Upton Sinclair

13. Cujo - Stephen King

I can't imagine missing the experience of reading these wonderful books simply because a group of individuals decided (for me!) they are unfit to be read for one reason or another. I'd continue my rant against banning books, but I think I'd be preaching to the choir.

September 17, 2006

The Optimist's Daughter

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
Classic Literature
Finished 9/13/06
Rating: C (3/10 Ho-hum)

Publisher Description:

The Optimist’s Daughter is the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, a young woman who has left the South and returns, years later, to New Orleans, where her father is dying. After his death, she and her silly young stepmother go back still farther, to the small Mississippi town where she grew up. Alone in the old house, Laurel finally comes to an understanding of the past, herself, and her parents.

“The best book Eudora Welty has ever written.” - The New York Times Book Review

It seems a bit sacrilegious for me to give such a low rating to an esteemed author. (And to a Pulitzer Prize winning book, to boot!) But unfortunately, The Optimist’s Daughter didn’t do a thing for me. I didn’t find Welty’s prose lyrical or evocative. The plot, such that it was, was dull and unremarkable. I found it difficult to care about any of the main characters and the supporting cast failed to come to life, forcing me to flip back and forth in an attempt to refresh my memory as to who was who.

On a positive note, I didn’t hate the novel and would like to give Ms. Welty another chance. (Pretty big of me, eh?) I have a lovely copy of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty and should think that out of 41 stories, I might come across one or two that will leave me with a better appreciation of this author’s works.

September 15, 2006

The Year of Pleasures

Note: This review appeared in my monthly newsletter (Jan. 2005). Apologies to those who have previously read it.

The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg
Contemporary Fiction
Rating: A+ (5/5 Excellent!)
Top Ten List for 2005

I certainly didn't intend to read two books about widows within the same month. Nonetheless, Good Grief seemed more "fluffy" than The Year of Pleasures. Both women moved quite a distance from the home and community they shared with their husbands, embarking on a new life and livelihood, yet that's where their commonality ends. Unlike Good Grief, which I wasn't that impressed with until it redeemed itself in the second half of the narrative, The Year of Pleasures had me from the very first page. While I thought Good Grief was a decent read, Berg's character dealt with the same issues so much more maturely. Maybe I could relate more to Betta's loss since I'm closer to her age than Sophie's in Good Grief. Or maybe I just hope I would behave with more dignity than Sophie did.

Someone recently asked what questions I would ask of my current read's author. I said I don't think I'd ask her anything, but rather tell her that I love her books and that she always manages to create female characters that I feel I know or would want to know. She can write about the simple act of preparing a meal or unpacking a moving van full of household items and cause me to nod my head in agreement. I love Berg's descriptive voice, pulling me into a home rather than a house. In my mind's eye, I recognize the furnishings, get ideas for my own home, irrationally wish to talk to the main character, if only to say, "Yes! I know exactly how you feel!"

My book is littered with post-it notes like a trail of breadcrumbs marking my way back to the beginning, there to remind me of something someone said or did which caused me to nod my head or quietly mutter, "yes" or "me, too" (for example, the meditative quality of washing dishes by hand). As I turned the final page, I literally whined, "Nooooo!" for I thought I had more time with Betta and didn't realize the remaining pages were the customary "acknowledgments," "about the author," "about the type," etc. Had I not promised the book to a dear friend, I'd start all over and read it a second time. Instead, I'll wait patiently for the laydown date (I had an Advanced Reader Copy) and rush to my local brick & mortar to pick up a beautiful hardcover copy for my permanent collection. This is definitely a keeper, as are all her books.

I could've easily finished the book in one sitting, but chose to put it aside every few chapters, so as to savor the experience. I feel like Berg has returned to her earlier style of narrative. Her previous novel, The Art of Mending, was quite good, but lacked that special magic in which I feel so connected to her characters and their emotional dilemmas. A Year of Pleasures will no doubtedly wind up in my Top Ten for 2005. (And it did!)

September 12, 2006

Top Ten for 2005

In no particular order, here is my Top Ten list for 2005. My original reviews will follow in the days to come.

1. The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg
2. Fifty Acres and A Poodle by Jeanne Marie Laskas
3. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
4. The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard
5. Dear Zoe by Philip Beard
6. Killer Smile by Lisa Scottoline
7. Ghost Rider by Neil Peart
8. Table for Five by Susan Wiggs
9. An Unfinished Marriage by Joan Anderson
10. The Cape Ann by Faith Sullivan

Honorable Mentions

11. Monkeewrench by P.J. Tracy
12. Live Bait by P.J. Tracy
13. Dead Run by P.J. Tracy

September 10, 2006

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Classic Literature
Finished 9/6/06
Rating: B+ (7/10 Good)

I became intrigued by Sylvia Plath after watching Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of the famous poet in the biopic, Sylvia. After watching the movie, I stumbled upon a copy of Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963 in a local used bookstore and spent several weeks reading through Plath’s letters to her mother, brother (Warren) and Mrs. Prouty (Sylvia’s benefactress) during her university years and subsequent life married to poet Ted Hughes. I never finished the book, but my interest in Plath has remained strong.

I was a little worried about finally reading The Bell Jar for my Back-To-School Classic Challenge. I didn’t want to experience the same disappointment I’d recently felt after reading a much-hyped Fahrenheit 451 and I wasn’t sure if the subject matter would prove to be too depressing.

Neither concern was realized, as I found The Bell Jar very readable and quite illuminating of Plath’s personal struggles with depression. Plath does little to disguise the identity of her characters in this fine novel, which is very much an autobiographical work about a young woman dealing with severe depression, suicidal tendencies and, ultimately, a complete breakdown.

Favorite passages:

There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: “I’ll go take a hot bath.”


The day I went into physics class it was death.

A short dark man with a high lisping voice, named Mr. Manzi, stood in front of the class in a tight blue suit holding a little wooden ball. He put the ball on a steep grooved slide and let it run down to the bottom. Then he started talking about let a equal acceleration and let t equal time and suddenly he was scribbling letters and numbers and equal signs all over the blackboard and my mind went dead.

I haven’t read anything else by Plath, but I’d like to take a look at her Ariel poems and perhaps a biography about her life after she and Ted were married. Until then, I plan to watch Sylvia again, now that I’ve learned more about the writer’s life since my first viewing. I considered renting The Bell Jar, but the reviews are terrible so I’ll sit tight. Options rights for a re-make were purchased by Julia Stiles and IMDB shows a 2008 “in development” date, so we shall see. Could be good!

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Classic Literature/Science Fiction
Finished on 9/3/06
Rating: C (3/10 Ho-hum)


I’ve had this book in my stacks for years. It was never assigned reading in any of my high school or college courses, but over the years I kept hearing great things about it from booklovers like myself and was looking forward to finally reading it as part of my personal Back-To-School Classic Challenge.


Not only is it difficult to write a review about a book I didn’t care for, but there’s an additional struggle to review a world-renowned piece of literature that has been taught, analyzed, discussed and reverently admired since its publication in 1953. I suspect anyone of any intellect knows the basis for the Bradbury’s dystopic work concerning censorship. Yes, I’m intimidated! Especially since I didn’t think it was half as good as I anticipated. What’s wrong with me?? How could I not like a book about books?! And especially a book about what happens to people's minds (and to freedom in general) when governments ban them!

Publisher Description:

Guy Montag was a fireman whose job it was to start fires…

The system was simple. Everyone understood it. Books were for burning… along with the houses in which they were hidden.

Guy Montag enjoyed his job. He had been a fireman for ten years, and he had never questioned the pleasure of the midnight runs nor the joy of watching pages consumed by flames… never questioned anything until he met a seventeen-year-old girl who told him of a past when people were not afraid.

Then he met a professor who told him of a future in which people could think… and Guy Montag suddenly realized what he had to do!

While reading Fahrenheit 451, I was reminded how much I enjoy science fiction, specifically the extrapolation that's so much a part of that genre, and which Bradbury uses to demonstrate his incredible insight into the future. The wall-size, interactive TVs and in-ear "seashell" radios (so much like today's iPods and other media players) described in Guy Montag’s world are no longer electronics of the future, of course, but commonplace in today’s society. Very cool that someone in the early 50s could imagine a world with such advanced technologies. Certainly makes me wonder what our world will be like in 2050.

I’m glad I finally got around to reading this, if only because I now have a little more knowledge about the particulars of the book, giving me one more chance to answer an Arts & Literature question correctly and beat my husband at Trivial Pursuit!

September 4, 2006

Birds in Fall

Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 9/2/06
Rating: A (9/10 Terrific)

Publisher Comments:

One fall night off the coast of a remote island in Nova Scotia, an airplane plummets to the sea as an innkeeper watches from the shore. Miles away in New York City, ornithologist Ana Gathreaux works in a darkened room full of sparrows, testing their migratory instincts. Soon, Ana will be bound for Trachis Island, along with other relatives of victims who converge on the site of the tragedy.

As the search for survivors envelops the island, the mourning families gather at the inn, waiting for news of those they have lost. Here among strangers, and watched over by innkeeper Kevin Gearns, they form an unusual community, struggling for comfort and consolation. A Taiwanese couple sets out fruit for their daughter’s ghost. A Bulgarian man plays piano in the dark, sending the music to his lost wife, a cellist. Two Dutch teenagers, a brother and sister, rage against their parents’ death. An Iranian exile, mourning his niece, recites the Persian tales that carry the wisdom of centuries.

At the center of Birds in Fall lies Ana Gathreaux, whose story Brad Kessler tells with deep compassion: from her days in the field with her husband, observing and banding migratory birds, to her enduring grief and gradual reengagement with life.

Kessler’s knowledge of the natural world, music, and myth enriches every page of this hauntingly beautiful and moving novel about solitude, love, losing your way, and finding something like home.

In spite of the tragic subject matter, I fell in love with this quiet, entrancing story and Kessler’s beautifully evocative prose. I found myself reading very slowly, savoring each and every sentence as if they were rare stones, polished to perfection. I also found myself thinking of Ann Patchett’s group of hostages in her exquisite novel, Bel Canto, and how Kessler’s disparate group of family members was thrown together unexpectedly and abruptly just as were Patchett’s: They began as complete strangers, yet over the course of the days and weeks spent with one another, new relationships and friendships emerge in the shared despair and ultimate loss of hope; in the end, their lives were forever changed.

A couple of favorite passages (there were several others, but I hate to spoil their discovery for those wishing to read the book themselves):

She stood and unzippered her knapsack. She’d brought hardly any clothing – just a long print dress. She was still wearing the same sweater, the same Levi’s, the same bra she’d worn since leaving New York City. Somehow to change her clothes, to shower (even to eat) seemed a kind of betrayal, an acceptance; and if she could only ignore the exigencies of her own body, she might outwit the deadly hours that kept slipping past.


The pianist was clearly accomplished, that much was obvious to all. But what drew them at first to the library was the sound of the nocturne, what kept them there was the realization that the Bulgarian was the musician. He played with his eyes clamped tight, tears moistening his cheeks. And the others listened and wept too, openly or to themselves, for even though the Bulgarian hadn’t spoken to any of them the entire time on the island, it seemed that he was the most articulate, the most expressive of them all; that heretofore, his silence had meant more than all their accumulated words combined.

While certainly a somber read, Kessler deftly handles the poignant portrayal of grief with tender care, masterfully weaving scholarly details of ornithology and the migration of birds with the loss of human life in a plane crash. I came to care for the sympathetic characters, many of whom have lingered in my thoughts since finishing the novel. It would be false to end such a story with a happy ending. However, Kessler leaves his readers with a sense of peace, and perhaps with hope that a happy ending isn’t entirely implausible in the future of those left behind.

September 3, 2006

Invitation to Provence

Invitation to Provence by Elizabeth Adler
Contemporary Fiction/Romance
Quit on 8/29/06
Rating: DNF

Pretty cover.



Kind of like eating Cool Whip straight from the container. The first few bites taste great, but after a while one starts longing for something with a bit more substance... say, strawberry shortcake.

September 1, 2006

Guest Columnist

I'm very pleased to present a special guest columnist from Smart Computing Magazine. Enjoy!

Editorial License
Each Month
October 2006 • Vol.17 Issue 10
Page(s) 92 in print issue

Editorial License

The Gerbilization Of America

It all started back in the ‘90s, as the World Wide Web for the first time opened up the Internet to millions of us who were neither academics nor engineers. By the end of the decade, practically everyone had a Web site. I know of house plants that have Web sites. (“Welcome to! My name is Doug. I’m a ficus belonging to Wanda Krieglehamer of Van Nuys, Calif. Currently, I am dropping leaves at the rate of three per hour, unless the cat walks by, at which point my shedding increases dramatically. Click here to meet Todd, the philodendron.”)

A case in point. . . . We have working here an otherwise perfectly normal, very intelligent young writer who—for reasons best known only to herself—oversees a Web site called It’s devoted to . . . um, gerbils. (You know, gerbils? They’re little furry rodents; they look kind of like hamsters that’ve been on the South Beach Diet for a very long time. Of course, real pets view gerbils as nothing more than highly mobile snacks.) Now, this writer (no names, of course, but her initials are Kylee Dickey) operates on behalf of a small herd of gerbils named Pippi, Samantha, Hope, Maeby, and Nellie. All five of the little darlings are very cute, in a warm, fuzzy, nose-twitching, snack-like sort of way.

You and I may think it’s silly, but here’s the thing: These gerbils get fan mail! When’s the last time you got fan mail? Little kids from around the world write letters to them. They ask if it’s true that gerbils like to take sandbaths (yes, they do), they ask how to tame a gerbil (I suggest a very tiny whip and chair), and they ask if it’s OK to use pine bedding for their gerbils (no, because pine bedding sold in the United States can make a gerbil sick). And the gerbils answer the letters! Here’s one from Pippi in response to a child asking about handling techniques: “Dear C.: You can pick up most rodents by their tails, but not gerbils. If you tried to pick me up by my tail, you little brat, I’d whip around and bite your nose and rip it right off your smarmy little face! Then I’d run to your bed and vomit all over your pillow. By the way, I can get out of that stupid cage any time I want, you know, and sooner or later, you will have to sleep. . . .” [Letter edited for clarity.]

And now, as if the proliferation of Web sites weren’t bad enough, we have blogs. Essentially, blogs are online journals that cover really important issues such as politics, computers, literature, and the designated hitter rule. (And also some truly silly things such as calculus, ice hockey, and rap music.)

I can understand the urge to blog. We all have things to say, and the Internet is the perfect medium: It’s fast, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t care if you’re an idiot. And after all, a blog is really nothing more than an electronic version of the journals written throughout history by such luminaries as Samuel Pepys, James Boswell, Charles Darwin (and several other Darwins, in fact), Richard Henry Dana, Henry James, and countless others who contributed greatly to science, literature, and . . . well, journal-ism. (Although we should probably keep in mind that many of those people—though not Henry James—could actually write, of course. This no longer seems to be a prerequisite.) For whatever reason, people have always written journals and diaries and we have always hungered to read them.

But, as with Web sites a decade ago, it’s gotten out of hand; everyone now has a blog. (My wife began the decade as a confirmed technophobe; she now has three blogs.) The Internet is being “blogged down” (so to speak) by millions of people incessantly journaling about everything from rock collecting to rock music to Knute Rockne. But it doesn’t stop there. All of these bloggers include in their blogs links to other blogs they happen to like. Thus, checking one blog leads to a myriad of other blogs, each of which—naturally enough—includes links to still more blogs. You have to follow all of these links, of course. What if one of them went to something interesting and you missed out? (Sure, the odds are against it, but it could happen.)

Where will it all end? Between blogs, cell phones, email, text messaging, and the rest, millions of people are communicating like mad; it’s a veritable communicative frenzy. I wonder if anyone is actually saying anything.

by Rod Scher

Rod Scher is a former software developer and a recovering English teacher. He's also the publication editor of Smart Computing and will no doubt continue in that position until such time as his boss reads this column. Contact Rod at