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Monday, January 31, 2011

Spider Bones

In Spider Bones (#37), Kathy Reichs presents another intriguing mystery which highlights the work done by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command or JPAC.  When a body in a pond in Quebec is identified by fingerprints as a marine who died in Vietnam forrty years previously,  Dr. Brennan is sent back to her home turf in North Carolina to find out who is actually buried in the marine's grave.  The action moves to Hawaii where identification of missing and recovered military personnel is done.  This is familiar territory for Ms. Reichs who has served as a consultant to JPAC herself.

To flesh out this story, Temperance Brennan has brought her grieving daughter with her to recover from the loss of a close friend in Afghanistan.  When Detective Ryan calls from Quebec to check on the progress of his drowning case, Temperance learns that her ex-lover is having problems of his own with his newly clean drug addicted daughter.  What else can she do but invite them both to Hawaii to share their house?  In the meantime, the flamboyant Medical Examiner in Honolulu refuses to take "no" for an answer on a case she has asked Temperance to consult on.  A dangerous case, as it turns out, for all involved.  With Ryan's help, Temperance manages to finally put all the pieces together and bring closure to several families. 

This is a satisfying read that opens a small window on the work of some of the dedicated professionals involved in recovering and identifying missing personnel from WWII, Korea, the Cold War and Vietnam - "Until They Are Home".

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Altar of Eden

Altar of Eden (#36) is James Rollins' book published in 2010.  I heard him speak at my library's annual author event Bookmania! last January, and he discussed this book.  Rollins, who is himself a veterinarian, said he was always being asked by his fans when he was going to write a novel that featured animals.  This book is his answer.

Altar of Eden is a stand alone thriller whose heroine, Lorna Polk, is a veterinarian who is called in by the Border Patrol to investigate an abandoned trawler with a cargo of exotic animals found in the Louisiana bayou.  Jack Menard and his team have discovered some disturbing evidence aboard the boat and need Lorna's expertise in endangered species and genetics to help them figure out what is going on. But of course, these are no ordinary exotic animals as they soon find out. A huge cat has escaped but left her saber-toothed cub behind.  And what about the featherless parrot that soothes himself and the other animals by reciting an endless (and accurate!) numerical string of pi? But other mysterious forces are equally determined to keep these animals' existence a secret and will stop at nothing to leave no traces and no witnesses behind.

Although this book does deliver a page-turning thriller with its usual high body count, Mr. Rollins has provided more of a back story with Lorna and Jack.  Their history is revealed as the story progresses with a couple of satisfactory twists.

If you liked Mr. Rollins' other books, you'll enjoy Altar of Eden.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Clara And Mr. Tiffany

In Clara And Mr. Tiffany (#35), Susan Vreeland introduces us to Clara Driscoll, a real employee of Tiffany Studios, and probably the person who first conceived of the idea of stained glass lamp shades.  Ms. Vreeland became interested in her after visiting recent Tiffany exhibits in New York in which Clara's work was displayed.  The discovery of Clara Driscoll's letters in 2009 detailing her own life and work at Tiffany's clinched the idea of writing this book.  Although this is a work of fiction, Clara's friends and associates are also real people, and the bones of the story are based on the factual records.

In the novel, Clara is portrayed as having a special bond with Louis Comfort Tiffany, one that was eventually betrayed both over the male union's efforts to oust the women, and later by the pressure to sacrifice the artistry of original design to the profitable high output items.  In her personal life she suffers from failed relationships, making her career a substitute.  At the same time Clara struggled with the administrative headaches of recruiting and retaining talented women in the workshop.  Reading about the individual and team processes involved in creating a two dimensional window or the even more complex three dimensional lampshades helps you to understand how this creative passion could consume Clara.
I will definitely be heading to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum in Winter Haven, Florida to feast my eyes on Tiffany's output.  It has one of the largest collections of Tiffany objects, and is just about to open a new section of the museum featuring Laurelton Hall, Louis Comfort Tiffany's extravagant home.  If you would like to see photos of some of the objects Clara's group of women worked on that were discussed in Clara And Mr. Tiffany, you can see them on the museum website:  Morse Museum - Tiffany Collections

If I could afford it, I would probably collect glass.  My grandmother had one of Mr. Tiffany's lamps.  The church I attended in Massachusetts had several Tiffany windows; I remember touching (!) the drapery in an angel's gown and wondering how they put the folds in the glass.  This book helped me understand that.  I've watched glass being blown by local craftsmen, and in studios in Murano, Italy.  The best place to go, though, if you're interested in watching these artists at work is the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington.   Their Hot Shop has featured artists who blow glass, with cameras showing you closeups on large monitors, and someone who explains what is going on at any given time and answers questions from the audience.   I've included a link to their site so you can check it out for yourself: Museum of Glass

Now if only I could find a similar place to watch the stained glass process...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Anyone But You

I do like Jennifer Crusie's sense of humor.  In this reprint of 1996's Anyone But You (#34), she refers to this light-hearted romance as "Fred's book".  Fred is a pound dog - morose, overweight, part beagle, part bassett, and the perfect companion for a newly-divorced forty year who has sworn off men.  So of course Fred is the means of hooking up Nina with her much younger downstairs neighbor - a buff ER doctor trying not to cave in to family pressure to specialize in a more lucrative branch of medicine.  You know how the book is going to end, but the fun is in getting there. 

Funny, sexy and a pleasant way to give your brain a vacation.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


James Rollins labels his book Sandstorm (#33) the Prequel to the Sigma Series.  I haven't been able to read this series in order, but this is the last Sigma book I've read.  I'm now caught up.  This one starts out in Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, and then cuts to the British Museum in London, but the bulk of action in this story takes place in Oman, on the Arabian Pennisula.  The plot turns on a scientific anomaly connected with the lost city of Ubar.   This was the place Lawrence of Arabia dubbed the "Atlantis of the Sands" and was recently rediscovered in Nicholas Clapp in the 1990s. 

A mysterious explosion in the Kensington Collection at the British Museum sets an international cat-and-mouse game in deadly motion.  As with all of Mr. Rollins' books, the action is fast-paced, page-turning, and cliff-hanging with a high body count.  It's entertaining, of course, but you also do learn a few things along the way, and Mr. Rollins does suggest further reading for those who are interested in the topics and places mentioned in the book.

I think the Arabian Pennisula is fascinating.  Didn't you love A Thousand and One Arabian Nights when you were growing up?  I've decided, though, that if I were ever fortunate enough to visit there, I'd much prefer to go there via Oman rather than Saudi Arabia!  It just so happens that in the last two weeks I've read about the Rub' al-Khali, or the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Penninsula, twice; in Sandstorm and Zoe Ferraris' City of Veils, where much of the climactic action of the books takes place in the middle of a fierce sandstorm.  What are the odds in two such otherwise different and recommended books?

Friday, January 14, 2011

American Fascists - The Christian Right and the War on America

I was looking for a different book by Chris Hedges when I came across American Fascists - The Christian Right and the War on America (#32).  I have to say that this is one of the most frightening books I have read in a long, long time.  Not because I think Mr. Hedges is a fanatic; just the opposite.  I think he's the voice of reason.

He discusses the attempts by the Christian Right to dismantle democracy and an open society in America by seizing political power and allying themselves with wealthy right wing corporations.  Sounds far-fetched, doesn't it?  But you can see it happening if you follow the news.  There are "family values" candidates who advocate private education (vouchers) and home-tutoring at the expense of public schools or funding for schools so that they can teach their own curriculums of Creationism, pseudoscience and intolerance for anyone who is the least bit "different" from their own mold.  Their ProLife candidates want to make abortion illegal, or at the very least cut all public funding.  This precludes women's rights to determine what happens to their own bodies, yet they will not fund welfare or WIC (Women, Infants and Childrens nutrition programs) to ensure that these unwanted children can have any kind of a decent life.  In fact, they refuse to support any public funding for those who most need it in our society - the poor, th sick, the homeless, the unemployed.  Witness what happened in December of this year when the Republicans refused to extend unemployment benefits.  There was a strong swell of support for this among Republicans and the tea party. The wealthiest corporations are busy outsourcing jobs to countries without labor unions or any other protections for their workers so that they can maximize their profits.  Those who are out of work as a result deserve it, according to the Christian Right worldview because wealth is a sign of God's favor to those who are "saved".  That's the double whammy - control people's lives through political power while enslaving them by ensuring that they cannot make a living wage or receive benefits in the service jobs that manufacturing has left behind.  If you think that to yield your own conscience to the dictates of the leaders of this movement who will determine for you just what "sin" is (including not sending pots of your own money to support them) you'd fit right in.  Conforming is important.

In other words, if you are a woman, a Muslim, a Catholic, a Jew, a mainline Protestant who is "not Christian enough" because you do not think the Bible is to be taken literally, or gay, lesbian, intellectual, free-thinking or a host of other "unacceptable" character traits, you are a target for the Christian Right.  It might be a good thing to know what you are up against.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

City of Veils

City of Veils (#31) by Zoe Ferraris is her second book, a mystery set in present day Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  Although this book could be read and enjoyed by itself, I would strongly recommend reading Finding Nouf first, as the stories of two of the principal characters are continued in City of Veils. 

It begins with a young woman's badly beaten body washed up on the beach and continues on to an American woman returning to Saudi Arabia to rejoin her husband.  He is late to pick her up, and then promptly disappears.  The connection between these two occurrences is painstakingly put together by the Jeddah police, where Katya, a female lab tech, is pulled in as an investigator.  She calls on Nayir, a desert guide, to aid her in the investigation, based on the work they did together in solving Nouf's murder.

The story by itself is intriguing, but the glimpses of Saudi life and culture make this book endlessly fascinating, and is enough to raise the hackles of any Western woman.  The ending of this book makes it clear that we have not seen the last of Katya and Nayir, and a good thing, too!

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Death In The Family

James Agee only wrote five books.  A Death In The Family (#30), even though it was not quite complete at the time of his death, won the Pulitzer Prize.  Read it and you'll know why.  This was my Literary Circle's selection for this month.  Several of us who had never read it before were really glad this book was chosen, and right away decided that we would need to devote at least two meetings to discussing it.  It is that rich.

A Death In The Family is literally about a death in the family and how the different members of the family are affected in the hours immediately surrounding that death.  The language conveys a sense of the time, the place and the multiple levels of emotion in prose poetry that is so vivid that you can taste the water from the hoses, hear the crickets and smell the spring and summer night air.  Samuel Barber was commissioned to compose Knoxville: Summer, 1915 from the words of the prologue included in this book.

If you're like me and have never read this book, prepare to be blown away.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Packing For Mars

How does Mary Roach do it?  Pack (pardon the pun!) so much interesting and entertaining information into Packing For Mars (#29), her book on the research and testing done in order to send humans into space.  As she points out, each stage of space exploration has presented its own set of challenges to be met and conquered.  What's the effect of gravity or weightlessness?  What will happen to the body's organs and circulation?  What if there's an accident?  What will they eat, and how do you deal with the waste products?  And how will the 500 day voyage to Mars change what we already have done for previous flights?

I'm not a science geek.  I don't usually sit around and read physics treatises for fun a la Liz Salander.  But I do have to admit that I have a Commander's Club Annual Pass for the Kennedy Space Center in my wallet.  I live where I can see the Shuttle launch.  I sit glued to NASA TV and watch while the astronauts are loaded in the Shuttle right through lift off.  Then it's out my patio door to watch it with my own eyes.  The houses in my neighborhood surround a large retention pond, and it's like watching gophers pop out of their holes to see all the neighbors come out to see the Shuttle.  My husband and I drove up to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the latest shuttle, Atlantis, drop like a rock out of the sky.  I've toured both Houston's Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center.  You get glimpses in both places of some of the testing done, and equipment used, but the exhibits usually focus on the technology, not the human/technology intersection.

Mary Roach answers many of the questions you may have always wondered about, but were afraid to ask.  She went right ahead and asked those questions, and fills in the missing voids (in some cases literally) based on her research, interviews and actual experiences where possible.  All in a way that made me frequently laugh out loud.  It seems instinctively to be an oxymoron: a humorous serious science book.  If only all knowledge could be transmitted so painlessly!  I'm on my way to reserve the two Mary Roach books that our library already owns.  Can't wait to read more by this author.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Bighorn

The title really says it all:  The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Bighorn (#28).  I saw this book listed in the New York Times Non-Fiction best seller list and decided to read it.  I'm not a Custer or Little Bighorn buff, but I've been curious about him and what happened to him ever since I read a child's biography of his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, so I've read a few books on the subject.  Nathan Philbrick does an excellent job of making the people and the events come alive. 

This is not a dull recounting of historical "facts" in chronological order.  Mr. Philbrick pulls you into the swirl of ambition, jealousies, vindictiveness and misjudgments on both sides that resulted in the debacle of Little Bighorn and culminated at the Battle of Wounded Knee some ten years later.  It's fascinating.  There is so much blame to spread around I wouldn't know where to start.

One of the features I particularly liked about this book is the abundance of photographs.  Custer and Sitting Bull are familiar faces, but it really helped me visualize the personalities involved by seeing their photos.  I could put a face on Benteen and Reno or the Indian scouts when they were quoted or described, making the narrative more vivid.  I also discovered that I had nightmares about some of the facial hair in fashion at that time in the cavalry.

I also learned a few things about the campaign that I had never known or realized before.  I had no idea what a crucial role the steamboat Far West played in the campaign, or the opening of that area of the West - the "grasshopper" technique that allowed these boats to pull themselves across the ever-shifting sandbanks of the rivers.  I did not know that Sitting Bull had tried at the beginning of the battle to negotiate peace with the Federals as he had finally come to realize that his way of life was ending for his people.  I always thought he was actively involved in the battle, but he basically sat it out.  Finally, it was ironic that officer George Wallace survived Little Bighorn, only to die at Wounded Knee, probably by "friendly fire".  Putting events in a different perspective definitely makes this book worth reading.

Visiting Little Bighorn is now on my "bucket list".