Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Murderous Procession / Ariana Franklin (352 p.)

The fourth book in Franklin's "Mistress in the Art of Death" series finds medieval pathologist Adelia Aguilar enjoying a quiet domestic life in a small village in England, surrounded by her daughter, her lover, Rowley, the Archbishop of Albon, her friend Mansur, a Moor, and various others she has picked up on the way. Her domesticity is shattered when Henry II, who originally requested her services from Palermo and now refuses to give her a passport to leave England, asks, or rather commands, her to accompany his ten year old daughter Joanna to Sicily for her wedding with William II. Adelia is thrilled to be going back home until Henry informs her that he will be "safekeeping" her daughter with his queen consort Eleanor, currently under house arrest (albeit quite a splendid house). Henry, you see, does not want to lose his female pathologist. Adelia reluctantly sets out on the journey, accompanied by Rowley, who wants Adelia out of England because someone, unknown to her, has been trying to kill her. The journey turns perilous for all involved when Adelia's would-be killer joins the large traveling party and people start to die.

Franklin is a master at weaving historical fact into her narratives, and includes a section of author's notes at the end explaining the historical context of the novel. Palermo in the twelfth century did accept females as students, and it was famous for its work in anatomy and pathology. Similarly, other events and people scattered throughout the book are based in historical fact and woven into the fabric of the novel. I would suggest that if you haven't read the other novels in the series that you do not start with this one, but rather with the first, Mistress of the Art of Death. Franklin leaves us this time on a cliffhanger, so here's hoping the next book comes soon!

The Devil's Bones: a Body Farm Novel / Jefferson Bass (320 p.)

The Devil's Bones is the third book in Jefferson Bass' Body Farm series. Jefferson Bass is the writing team of journalist Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass, forensic anthropologist and founder of Tennessee's world famous Body Farm, a forensic "lab" where donated bodies are left in the open to study what happens when bodies decompose under varying conditions. In this third novel, the protagonist, Dr. Bill Brockton, is involved in two forensic cases: one, in which Mary Latham, a well-liked local Knoxville woman, is found burned to death in her car; and another involving a disreputable Georgia crematorium. Also returning is Dr. Brockton's arch nemesis, Garland Hamilton, who killed Brockton's lover and tried to frame him for the murder. Up for trial, he escapes and carnage ensues as he plots his revenge.

I always enjoy Bass' books, due to the detail of the forensic anthropology and the realistic depiction of the capabilities of forensic science. The science is always spot on and I learn something new every time I read one of his books. His character, Dr. Brockton, is engaging and human, not a superman but a smart, normal professor with an unorthodox profession. That being said, I found the revenge plot with Hamilton a little tedious, and easily the least intriguing part of the book. I would have much preferred he stick to the cases and the forensics. I should also say that these books are not for the squeamish--I wouldn't recommend them to people who don't like discussing dismembered body parts, maggot-riddled corpses, or bodies exploding in the sun. However, if, like me, you find that stuff fascinating you'll like this series of books.

In the Shadow of Gotham / Stefanie Pintoff (400 p.)

Reminiscent of The Alienist, Stefanie Pintoff's debut novel features Det. Simon Ziele, formerly of the New York City police, who has moved to a small town in Westchester County after the death of his finacee in a tragic ferry accident. It is 1904. Ziele is pulled back to Manhattan whenthe brutal murder of a brilliant young female mathematics student in his sleepy town leads to the patient of a controversial criminologist and psychologist, Alastair Sinclair, a professor at Columbia University. Sarah Wingate's murder closely resembles the deranged fantasies of a man Sinclair has been studying, and who is now missing. Ziele, with the help of Sinclair and Sinclair's widowed daughter-in-law Isabella, weaves through turn of the century New York City, its back streets, brothels, rich and poor, powerful and not, trying to find the killer and bring him to justice.

The book was enjoyable read with a few quibbles; I found some of the exposition to be a bit obvious, as when Ziele launches into the history of the use of fingerprints, and found an occasional off-key note when language or situations seemed more modern than authentic for the time period (did they really have trash cans on the street in NYC in 1904?) It was also fairly easy to spot the killer half way through the book, even if, like me, you don't necessarily read mysteries to try to figure them out. However, the characters were interesting, with great potential for future stories, and Pintoff's knowledge of NYC at the turn of the century brings the city to life on the page.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Tortilla Curtain / T.C. Boyle / 355 pages

I was anxious to read this title after learning it was a former One-Read title picked by the regional library. It did not disappoint: the Tortilla Curtain was a well-written compelling view of 2 families from vastly different worlds. I was pulled in right from the start as one of the characters (Delaney) is jolted out of his comfortable upper-class world through an accident. His and his wife's (Kyra's) point of view is a familiar American one. However, the book also weaves the story of two homeless illegal aliens: Cándido, a thirty-three year old and his 17 year-old common-law wife, América.

The novel twists and turns and does not fold itself neatly into a feel-good narrative for which you might hope. Instead, it can be downright uncomfortable, as the Mexican couple's struggle to survive imparts a jarring triviality to the Americans' worries and "traumas." Each character undergoes tribulations that challenge and transform his or her world-view, not always for the better.

My husband and I listened to this audiobook (CD's checked out from Daniel Boone Regional Public Library) and were pleasantly surprised to learn that it was narrated skillfully by the author himself. We're looking forward to reading/hearing other titles by this author and would recommend the Tortilla Curtain without hesitation.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Into the Minds of Babes / Lisa Guernsey / 287 pp.


Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to age Five espouses the moderate view of limited and content-appropriate television usage for young children. It is written accessibly and is a nice mixture of entertaining anecdotes and scientific studies. It is a quick read, and can also easily be skimmed. While much of the scientific findings are common sense (young children often imitate what they see on TV), anyone reading this book is sure to be surprised and/or vindicated by something. This book is full of practical advice, including what programs are good/bad for teaching children various things (e.g. vocabulary, social intelligence, problem-solving).

Some random things I found interesting from this book:

  • Background noise (from radios, TVs, flight paths, city noises) has a strong negative affect on the ability of children to acquire language skills.

  • The heavier the child, the more likely her or she has a bedroom TV set” (229).

  • From a study of 1,000 children from various countries, researchers have found that children do not “show signs of understanding the purpose of advertising” (222) until they are 7-8 years old. Children, even up to the age of 12, have a hard time differentiating advertising from content on web pages.

  • In 2002, two researchers at the University of Connecticut decided to compare data on speech and language tests from sixty children ages 3-4, factoring in how much television-including educational television-they had watched. They found no correlation to any skill related to language development, save one: the children who watched the most television performed worse in tests of grammar than the other children in the sample. Grammar, it seems, is something that children need to hear and practice in real time situations, where what you say is contingent on what someone else says and vice versa” (148)

Book links: Amazon, Merlin

How To Have Style / Issac Mizrahi / 214 pp


How To Have Style has a basic premise: give 12 women advice to stretch their fashion limits and spruce up their wardrobe, documenting the process with plenty of pictures. I am not usually one for fashion books, but I enjoyed this one and thought the clothes were wearable and the author's advice mainly good. If you like looking at lots of pictures and saying, “who would wear that!” or “I want that!,” you would probably enjoy this book.

Book links: Amazon, MOBIUS

note: For page count, some adjustment might be needed for the pictures.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Help / Kathryn Stockett / 464 pages

What bothers me about much of fiction through the ages is the upper class perspective. Growing up poor myself, I always wonder about the perspective from the lower class. What are the hopes and dreams of the servants, for example, who frequently only appear as plot devices and stereotypes?

Undoubtedly, such a novel wouldn’t be as light-hearted as other fiction. There would be tales of survival and sacrifice, far removed from the romantic antics or obsession over social appearance often seen in the upper class novels. Throw racism from decades ago into the mix and you might have some pretty grim reading.

But The Help was one of the more compelling novels I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. The backdrop is the 1960’s segregated South, when the Civil Rights movement is slowly making inroads into Mississippi society. It takes the perspective of three women: two maids (Aibileen and Minnie) and one white college graduate (Skeeter), daughter of a well-off cotton farmer. Their stories interweave together as they become united in a common goal.

There are suspenseful, anxious moments, as you might imagine in a novel where the threat of brutal violence from the Ku Klux Klan overshadows a whole race. But there are also comic moments, especially revolving around, well, rogue toilets. And there are hopeful moments, as the characters make decisions and take steps to improve their lives.

If you like writing, this book might inspire you to look around your universe and uncover the hidden. What assumptions do you live by that blind you to the reality around you? Perhaps an individual cannot totally transcend the limitations of their culture, but they can glimpse the blind spots and injustices of the status quo.

I listened to the unabridged audio version, which has different narrators for each of the characters. I can’t recommend this audio version highly enough, which I downloaded from our local public library (Daniel Boone).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Empire of Illusion / Chris Hedges / 240 pp.


Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle discusses style trumping substance in American Culture. Despite the title, this book does not look at the decline of reading or literacy rates, but at the rise of people’s demands for entertainment-value in general. I found this book to be a surprising mixture of conservative and liberal views. Even if one does not agree with everything in the book, it is an interesting read and sure to prompt discussion and debate. I would recommend this book with the caveat that it contains explicit content.

Chapters and some of their key topics:

1. The Illusion of Literacy (professional wrestling/entertainment)
2. The Illusion of Love (pornography/violence)
3. The Illusion of Wisdom (higher education/entitlement)
4. The Illusion of Happiness (positive thinking/workplaces)
5. The Illusion of America (politics/capitalist system/corruption)

Links for this book:
Amazon, MERLIN
note: This book was
finished in November.

Don’t Make Me Think / Steve Krug / 197 pp.


Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability is a fun and quick introduction to web usability filled with easy-to-understand examples and illustrations. As the book is mainly about what works and what doesn’t on websites from a design perspective, the only background you need to enjoy this book is occasional Internet usage. While this topic has the potential to be dry, this book is a surprisingly quick read and contains a nice amount of humor and interactive elements. I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about web usability.

One of my favorite quotes: “It is always interesting to watch Web designers and developers observe their first usability test. The first time they see a user click on something completely inappropriate, they’re surprised. (For instance, when the user ignores a nice big fat ‘Software’ button in the navigation bar, saying something like, ‘Well, I’m looking for software, so I guess I’d click here on “Cheap Stuff” because cheap is always good.”) The user may even find what he’s looking for eventually, but by then the people watching don’t know whether to be happy or not.”

Links for this book: Amazon, MERLIN, eBook
note: For page count, some adjustment might be needed for the pictures.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Sunborn / Gregory Benford / 436 p.

I picked up The Sunborn on a rushed descend-and-grab mission to Columbia Public Library, just before it closed for the night, so that I'd have something besides the South Carolina history item (review coming later) to read on the way to a conference in Charleston, SC.  As it turned out, this sci-fi paperback was anything but light reading - for one thing, it was written by a physics professor and contains diagrams of the heliosphere. 

In much of science fiction (or at least, much of that genre that I read), fairly ordinary human dramas of the political, military, social or sexual kind are played out against a background of some future, spacefaring civilization, or some other universe and cast of characters and species.  But in this novel, the scientist-astronauts deal primarily with problems of...science.  (Imagine: the two main characters are female scientists, including one of reproductive age, and there's no romantic or sexual plot at all, for a change!)  Sure, some of the most amusing moments deal with interpersonal tensions between the explorers and the corporate and political interests "Earthside" in the mid- 21st century, and their troubles with information overload and battling bureaucracies, but that's all just background noise compared with the tumbling cascade of events that begins when weird electric energies on Mars and vast, methane-based...um...entities on Pluto show signs that seem, beyond all human expectation, remarkably like intelligent life.

By the end of The Sunborn, the characters still seem hardly more than sketches, yet deep questions of philosophy and even glimmers of theology are sparking through the pages, spiraling at once outward to the cosmos and inward to the memory and art.  I came away thinking, "Now this is true science fiction, worth every diagram."