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Monday, March 28, 2011

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Who else but Mary Roach would write a book like Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (#56) and make it interesting, funny and touching, all at the same time?  Most of this book is taken up with how cadavers that have been donated to science are used to advance scientific knowledge, medicine and safety issues.  Ms. Roach very much admires these anonymous people who have donated either their entire body or parts of themselves through organ donation to make life better for others.  As she says in her introductory chapter, if you're dead, why not be useful?  Ms. Roach also discusses body disposal for those of us who would rather skip the donation part.  There are some interesting alternatives out there.

Other authors could have made a book about cadavers both dreary and repellent.  Yes, there are some rather unpleasant things described, but the subject is handled with a great deal of wit and humor.  How do car manufacturers make us safer in a crash?  How can letting bodies decompose help determine time and cause of death for forensic scientists?  What's involved in a successful organ transplant from the donor perspective?  How do bodies or parts of bodies provide learning tools for medical students or experienced surgeons learning new techniques?  Does any of this make you reconsider what you might do with your own body when you die?

If you find these questions interesting, than Stiff should be on your reading list.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Captain Alatriste

Once again, thanks, NPR Book Notes, for introducing me to a new dashing hero in Captain Alatriste (#55) by Arturo Perez-Reverte.  Think of a Spanish version of The Three Musketeers (especially the Oliver Reed, Michael York, Fay Dunaway, Geraldine Chaplin movies) set in Madrid in the early 1600s, and you'll get an idea of what this book is like.

Captain Alatriste is home from the wars in the Netherlands and is relying on his wits and his sword to earn himself a living.  One of his friends, the constable of Madrid, approaches Alatriste with what he claims is an easy job.  Alatriste agrees and is escorted to a meeting with two masked, but apparently high ranking men plus another soldier of fortune like himself.  They are told that the job is to rough up two Englishmen and make sure that they obtain the documents the Englishmen are carrying.  However, their original orders are changed by a powerful member of the Inquisition.  He wants the heretics dead, or else.  Captain Alatriste begins to smell a rat, but it is too late to back out, and the other man seems not to have a problem with their new assignment.  Needless to say, things do not go as planned at the ambush, and Alatriste soon finds himself on the receiving end of their employers' wrath.  What is really going on here?  And will he survive?

Captain Alatriste is not a very big book, but it is an exciting read.  Costume dramas aren't in vogue right now, or this would make a really good movie.  The narrator of the book is Diego Alatriste's young page, Inigo Balboa, who is telling the tale many years and adventures later.  Alatriste himself is surrounded by his crowd of friends of poets, priests and painters.  Although he is a modest man himself, he has managed in his career to date to meet many prominent and powerful people who owe him gratitude and more.  In this book, he meets several more.  And Inigo himself meets his nemesis for the first time, the mysterious and beautiful golden-haired girl.

I'm not familiar with Spanish poets of the early 17th century, but the book is sprinkled with some of their work in a way that keeps the plot moving along nicely, plus a brief appendix containing more of this poetry.  No wonder this series of books translated from the Spanish has been so popular abroad.  Perez-Reverte has one more American fan.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Electric Barracuda

Two books about Florida, but Tim Dorsey gives us an entirely different view of the state in his latest Electric Barracuda (#54) than Karen Russell's lyrically beautiful, if offbeat glimpses in Swamplandia!.  Both describe the isolation of the Everglades, the essential lawlessness of the place and the fringe elements of society that inhabit the area in and around the Everglades.  But that's where the resemblance stops.

Dorsey's Serge A. Storms is at it again as he blogs about his Fugitive Tour of Florida with his sidekick Coleman.  (Just how many cans of beer can Coleman stuff in his teddybear backpack along with all the other pills and pot he carries?)  Of course the joke is on Serge because the authorities really are on his tail as he leapfrogs about the state.  His nemesis Mahoney is two steps behind Serge as he leaves his trademark trail of inventively executed felons behind.  Some surprising family twists and turns take this story to places I never saw coming.  Highly entertaining!

I made a list with my husband of some of the out-of-the way places Serge mentions in his book as future destinations for day or weekend trips as we checked out locations on our Florida map and Triple A guidebook.  Thanks for reminding me that we have so many more places to explore in our adopted state, Mr. Dorsey!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Mary Roach does it again in Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (#53).  Ms. Roach hits the nail on the head with the title of this book; it is curious what people decide to research about sex, and the methods they use to pursue their studies.  Because of all the taboos surrounding the subject, the studies discussed in this book are either so disguised as to be incomprehensible to the grant and funding agencies (but not to Mary!), or so "out there" that you wonder "What on earth were they thinking?!"

Mary, as always, chimes in with her witty and humorous observations.  (It's hard to think of her as Ms. Roach after reading this book.  She certainly does take her research seriously!)  My husband asked me several times while I was reading this book "What are you laughing at?".  It's Mary's take on what could otherwise (unbelievably!) be a dry and academic subject.  Thanks to her for once again blending scientific data with layman's language to create an entertaining book.

Friday, March 18, 2011


I've never read anything quite like Swamplandia! (#52) by Karen Russell.  Although she's written critically acclaimed short stories, Swamplandia!  is her first novel.  I had read about this book in NPR Book Notes, and it kept popping up on my Amazon and Barnes & Nobel websites.  After I read the blurbs, I decided I had to read this story because it was set in Florida, where I live. 

On the surface, this book is about a family-run alligator wrestling theme park on an island in the Ten Thousand Islands group off southwest Florida.  At one time, Swamplandia! was nationally famous, with Hilola Bigtree's featured act of high diving into a pool full of alligators and then swimming the length of the pool.  The father, the grandfather and the three children all participate in the shows until Hilola becomes ill and dies.  Things fall apart then, and The World of Darkness, a rival theme park, opens on the mainland.  The core of the book is how the children respond to the changes around them.  Since the family's circumstances aren't exactly normal, neither are the kids' reactions.  Ava, the youngest, hoards a special alligator in hopes that it will restore the family fortunes.  Kiwi, the brilliant oldest son, runs away to earn money at The World of Darkness and in order to study the enemy.  Osceola, the middle girl, becomes obsessed with contacting the souls of dead boys her own age so she can "date" them.

Ms. Russell, a Florida native, has gleefully mixed the geography of southern Florida to create a fantasy landscape, but the descriptions of the Everglades, the "River of Grass" are so beautiful and compelling, you find yourself itching from the mosquitos.  Even though what is happening to the family is grim, the evocation of people, places and events is fanciful.  You keep asking yourself, "Could this have happened?"  In this case the cover art and preface quote from Alice In Wonderland suit this text beautifully.

At our Literary Circle last night, we were discussing the fact that by reading only "classic" books this year that were mapped out a year in advance, we had lost the spontaneity of reading things that really interested us, and that kept us turning the pages to find out what happened next.  In other words, we missed reading a really good story.  That's just what Karen Russell has produced.   I'd encourage you to read this book, especially if you're a Floridian.  Let's give Ms. Russelll a reason to keep on writing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bless The Bride - A Molly Murphy Mystery

Rhys Bowen adds another episode to the lively Molly Murphy saga in Bless The Bride (#51).  Molly is a young Irish woman who has arrived in New York City in the late 1800s under questionable circumstances.  She has to fend for herself, and she knows a life in service (if she could even find a job) would not suit either Molly or her potential employers.  Instead, she finds herself hooked up with a Private Investigator, and takes over his business when he dies.  Along the way, Molly has met up with a unique mix of villains, acquaintances and friends, not to mention the on-again, off-again romance with the dashing police Captain Daniel Sullivan. 

As Bless The Bride opens, Molly is only a few weeks away from her wedding to Captain Daniel Sullivan.  He thinks that August is a perfect time to move Molly out to Westchester to stay with his mother in the cool country air.  The two women can complete plans for their wedding as they get acquainted, and give Daniel a chance to renovate Molly's little house in Greenwich Village.  With friction between Molly and her future mother-in-law, it hasn't proved to be a particularly happy time for Molly, and she's longing to return to the city.  Her neighbors Gus and Sid give her the perfect excuse when they want to hold an engagement party for all their bohemian friends who won't be invited to Molly and Daniel's wedding.  There's also the matter of an urgent commission that has been dropped off with Gus and Sid by an emissary for a wealthy man who won't take no for an answer. 

Before you know it, Molly has landed herself in the middle of case in Chinatown in a time of extreme prejudice against the Chinese.  Of course the case isn't what it was originally presented to be, and she soon finds herself in pursuit of a runaway bride.  Molly tries to back out of a case where she feels she's in over her head, but finds she can't.  In fact, her investigation is crossing tracks with a case Daniel is working on, and the last thing she wants is for him to find out she's taken on one last case.

Rest assured that Molly's career won't end with her marriage.  The Secret Service already has a discreet job for her after her honeymoon...

Monday, March 14, 2011

High Style - Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

High Style - Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#50) by Jan Glier Reeder is a gorgeous coffee table book if you enjoy looking at clothes.  When the Brooklyn Museum decided to transfer ownership and care of their costume collection to the Metropolitan Museum, Ms. Reeder spent three years assessing and documenting it before the physical transfer, so she is intimately familiar with the clothes and accessories.  She's highlighted several designers and high points of the collection which spans a time period from the 1760s to the 1960s in different chapters with a brief essay introducing each section.  Mostly, she lets the clothes speak for themselves.

I look at a book like this and I know that I was born in the wrong century.  I find today's clothing so very, very boring.  It's probably been a couple of decades at least since I've leafed through a copy of Vogue.  Yet I can look at a photo of a full, sweeping lilac ball gown (1862 - 1865) by Charles Frederick Worth and leave it open on my coffee table for a week because I love to look at it, and think how clever he was to include two separate bodices: one bare shoulders version for the ballroom, and one with a high neck and long sleeves for a dressy, but daytime occasion.  Or admire the elegance of an afternoon dress (1875) in green and navy.  How I wish I could see the front of that dress!  What would it have been like to be able to wear some of these fabulous dresses?  I know, I live in a fantasy world.  I never could have afforded clothes like this, but if you are going to dream, why not outfit yourself in something really well-made and sumptuous?

There are also some interesting historical items in this collection: a dress that Queen Victoria is wearing in a family christening photo that is almost as wide as it is tall; a beautiful linen evening shirt that belonged to Czar Nicholas II; and a gorgeous evening ensemble that Ava Gardner wore in the movie The Barefoot Contessa

And did I mention that there's a whole chapter on shoes?  That chapter does include some of the strangest looking footgear I've ever seen.  I'm not sure how the wearer would walk confidently in sandals designed by Victor in 1940 with their cantilevered heels.  They are based on Venetian chopines of the 17th century (There's a photo of a pair included in this chapter, and I'm not sure how they managed either without falling over backwards!).

My one complaint about this book, (and it's a big one) is that for many of these incredible creations, only one photo is provided.  Ms. Reeder frequently mentions the three-dimensional aspect of clothing, and that these dresses were designed to give different silhouette and interplays of light and color depending on the angle the observer.  She describes how the skirt is draped on one side, but you never know what she's describing because there's no picture.  Of course, that's equally true when you attend a costume exhibit; clothes are displayed on mannequins that are pushed up against a wall, or into a corner. It would be so nice to be able to walk all the way around to really study the beauty of the design from all angles.  Oh well....

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

You've probably noticed by now that I enjoy reading series of books.  Most of these tend to be mysteries.  I think what I like best is learning a little more about the main character(s) in each outing.  It's like visiting with an old friend who still has the ability to surprise and delight you.

A Red Herring Without Mustard (#49) by Alan Bradley falls into this category.  Flavia de Luce makes her third appearance in this book.  Flavia is an eleven year old English girl living in the deteriorating ancestral home Buckshaw just after WWII.  Her mother disappeared in a Tibetan climbing accident before Flavia was old enough to remember her.  Her two older sisters band together to torment Flavia on a daily basis, while her father is so caught up in his stamp collection he barely notices the girls are alive.  Before you feel too sorry for Flavia, though, bear in mind that she is a chemical prodigy with her uncle's lab and equipment at her disposal, and that the company she enjoys the most is her own.  She is intelligent, inquisitive and thoroughly provoking.   She reminds me in some ways of Wednesday, the little girl in the Addams Family cartoons.  Flavia would fit right in there.

This time she visits the chuch fete, where she challenges the gypsy who is telling her fortune.  Flavia manages to set the tent on fire and stops to secretly watch the havoc she's caused when she notices a few odd things.  Flavia is sorry about the fire, so she invites the gypsy to camp on Buckshaw land.  When she returns to the gypsy's caravan before dawn, she finds the old woman badly beaten and clinging to life.  Flavia fetches the doctor and is instrumental in saving the woman's life, but she just can't help poking her nose in and investigating...

Throw in a baby abducted by the gypsies, another body, a strange religious sect that may or may not still be active in the neighborhood, antiques that mysteriously come and go, and some secret doors and passageways at Buckshaw, and you have another satisfying mystery cum chemistry lesson. 

I was really hoping even before I finished his first book The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie that Alan Bradley planned to write more about Flavia Sabina de Luce and so he has.  Another series to add to my favorites!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ghost In Trouble

Bailey Ruth is back on earth to help solve another murder in Adelaide, Oklahoma in Ghost In Trouble (#48) by Carolyn Hart.  She has to be the least scary ghost I've ever come across in literature, but then, she isn't supposed to be.  She is an emissary for the Department of Good Intentions.  Her problem is trying to stick to the Precepts laid down for emissary behavior.

In the third installment of Ms. Hart's series, Bailey Ruth Raeburn has been sent to keep an old adversary out of danger.  Kay Clark has returned to Adelaide because she suspects that Jack Hume, her old flame, has been murdered.  Bailey Ruth is just in time to stop her from becoming a victim herself.  But of course, Kay, being a rational human being, doesn't believe in Bailey Ruth, despite her appearances and disappearances.  By the end of the book, not only is Kay a believer in Bailey Ruth, but they've forged a bond and helped solve the murder.

It is always amusing how much of Bailey Ruth's time is taken up by imagining herself in exactly the right outfit for any occasion (She is a very stylish redhead, after all!) and for enjoying to the utmost her chance to taste the pleasures of earthly food and drink, especially Lulu's hamburgers.  Yet despite the fact that the subject is treated with a light touch, Ms. Hart still manages to plot a clever mystery that will keep you guessing until the end.  (Alright, I suspected who did it about three quarters of the way through, but it's nice to be proved right!)   If you haven't had the pleasure yet, don't miss the chance to meet Bailey Ruth in Ghost At Work, or in Merry, Merry, Ghost

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Curse The Dark

I had read about Laura Anne Gilman's series of mystery/thrillers on the NPR website.  Her characters use magic to complete their assignments in a world where Nulls (that's us regular folk) co-exist with demons, angels and other creatures of myth and legend.  My library didn't have the first book in Gilman's Retrievers series, so I started with Curse The Dark (#47).  That was definitely a mistake.  I felt like I came in in the middle of a complicated story, and I didn't get half the references or in jokes, nor frankly, by the end, did I care much.  Plus, it felt like it took me several months to finish this book instead of four days, which still was way too long.

I know these stories have received positive reviews from a number of sources, but I can't add mine.  Wren is a female retriever, someone with magical powers, who has the ability to retrieve (i.e. steal!) missing artifacts.  She does have a strong phobia that interferes with her work - she's terrified of flying.  When a lonejack like Wren is upset, watch out for any electronics in the neighborhood.  Shorting out a scanner in an airport security line may be one thing, but what if she can't stay calm during the flight itself?  That's where her partner Sergei comes in.  He's a very wealthy Russian art dealer who can handle Wren.  This is the book where Wren and Sergei realize that they're in love with each other.  Sort of.  The amount of time spent on Wren's angst about her phobia and her fixation on Sergei is excruciating. Please, get to the point, I kept thinking! There's very little action in the story, even though Wren and Sergei have to go to Italy on this assignment.  Someone is pulling strings and not telling Wren and Sergei what's going on.  People (and non-people - the fatae) turn up dead or missing.  Mysterious encounters take place at the agency that handed Wren her assignment, and which happens to be Sergei's former employer - The Silence.  None of these goings-on are explained or resolved in the course of the story.  Who wanted the artifact retrieved?  Does it matter that they ultimately destroy it after nearly being destroyed themselves?  Who is murdering lonejacks?  Why does the New York head of The Council of Mages (who may or may not be the Enemy) have a pointless walk on cameo at a wake at the end of the story? Is it just to set up the final meeting between her and the head of the San Diego Council in the Epilogue? 

Well, at least I know the answer to that one!  It's a cliffhanger designed to get you to read the next book in the series.  Maybe you'll read on and tell me what happened.  As for me, I'm returning the next volume unread to the library.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Persuasion (#46), of all Jane Austen's novels, is my favorite.  Just about everyone has read or seen a version of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but mention Persuasion and most people don't have any idea that Jane Austen is the author.  Yet Anne Elliott with her blighted dreams and self-effacing manner is the heroine most deserving of her happy ending.

Anne, at nineteen, falls in love with a poor young naval officer.  She accepts his proposal, but is persuaded by her family and her mother's old friend, Lady Russell, that she would be throwing herself away on a nobody with no prospects in the middle of a war.  Anne decides, sadly, that they are right and withdraws from the engagement. 

The next eight years spent as a cipher in her own home are enough to convince Anne that she should never have taken Lady Russell's advice.   Her younger sister Mary has married a suitor that Anne has refused, and is wrapped up in the most important person in the world - herself.  Her father, a baronet, and her eldest sister are totally taken up with their looks, status and consequence in the world and are very well pleased with themselves to the exclusion of Anne.  In pursuit of a lavish life style, Anne's father and sister have frittered away most of the family's money.  They are forced to rent out the family seat Kellynch-hall to a mere admiral and take up residence in Bath.  Enter Anne's long-lost love, Frederick Wentworth, brother-in-law to the admiral come to stay at Kellynch-hall.  He is now a rich naval captain, a self-made man, ready to find himself a wife and settle down.  What could be more painful to Anne than to see him in company with close family connections when it appears that he has forgotten all about their past together?

The characters that Jane Austen draws in this novel are as sharp and comic as in any of her books.  Her father, the fop, with his plethora of mirrors; her sisters with aims of placing themselves in the best possible position in the highest of society; the scheming heir to the title, Mr. William Elliott; all are mercilessly skewered in this book.  The treatment that Anne receives at their hands makes you want to thump them all.  How did Anne turn out to be such a normal and nice person, valued by everyone, it seems, but her own family?  It must have been her mother who died when Anne was only fourteen who managed to keep everyone else in check. 

Since I was helping to lead the discussion on this book for the Literary Circle, I decided to watch a movie version of this novel as well.  I own three different BBC videos of this book.  (Of course I do!  I'm a Jane Austen fan.)  If you decide to watch one, I'd recommend the one starring Ciaran Hinds, which is the latest version as being closest to the story line.  The one starring Sally Hawkins really bothered me, because it makes Anne look like such a wimp, and she definitely was not!  Anne was constrained by the conventions of the time, but she had both spunk and determination.  If you aren't familiar with this book, watch the video version on YouTube, but give yourself the pleasure of acquainting yourself with Anne Elliott.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dog Tags

A book where the defense attorney is representing his client for theft and being an accessory to a murder - and it's about a dog?  This book I had to read.  It's David Rosenfelt's Dog Tags (#45).  Mr. Rosenfelt apparently has a lot of fans out there for his Andy Carpenter series, because I waited months to get this one from my library.  I can tell you after reading it, he's just added a new fan.  Actually, probably two new fans since I'm making my husband read it, too!

Andy Carpenter is a defense attorney who is reluctant to take on new clients because that means work.  He's independently wealthy, so he really doesn't need to.  His real passions in life are his girlfriend Laurie and dogs; Tara, his Golden Retriever in particular, and the Tara Foundation, which rescues dogs.  However, when one of his best friends, a cop, asks Andy to do a favor for a former partner and ex-cop, Andy can't really refuse.  When he finds out there is a dog involved, he's more enthusiastic.  The dog has been placed under twenty-four hour guard in a cage at the pound.  His owner Billy, the ex-cop and Iraq veteran, is more concerned about Milo's welfare than his own, and he wants Andy to get Milo out of there and into a safe situation.  Once Andy sets eyes on Milo, he's ready to do whatever it takes to help the dog.  Billy has been accused of murdering his former Army commander from Iraq, but he insists to Andy that he was only trying to steal something, and that Milo has succeeded.  As Andy gets drawn deeper into the case, more and more twists begin to unravel.  Andy believes that Billy is innocent of murder, but can he convince a judge and jury?  He'll need proof to do that.

It's an intriguing premise, told with wit and sarcasm.  I do enjoy a dollop of clever humor in my reading.  I can't believe I haven't found Mr. Rosenfelt before, but now that I have, it will be a pleasure to read the earlier books in this series.