April 30, 2007
"Bel Canto" by Ann Patchett
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, begins at a dinner party – a birthday celebration for a wealthy, Japanese industrialist, being held at the vice president’s home in a Latin American country. Rich and power guests (diplomats, businessmen, etc.) were drawn to the party with the thought of doing business with the honored guest – he was drawn by the opportunity to have a famous soprano sing for him. All this changes, though, when the party is disrupted by a group of armed terrorists who arrive, planning to capture the country’s president. The president isn’t in attendance and what follows is the story of captives and terrorists as their forced cohabitation stretches from hours, to days, to weeks and on into months. Cut off from the outside world, except for a Swiss Red Cross negotiator who visits regularly and carries lists of demands between the terrorist generals and the government, the captors and hostages become an unlikely community as the roles each member plays changes them from their lives before the armed compound became their world. This book is so beautifully written, that I was hooked by the language and images before I had finished the first paragraph.
April 23, 2007
“Murder at the Portland Variety” by M. J. Zellnik
“Murder at the Portland Variety” by M. J. Zellnik takes place in Portland, Oregon in 1894. Libby Seale is a seamstress working at a local vaudeville theater, the Portland Variety, where mysterious deaths of two young dancers have occurred. The police declare the deaths accidents that happened, probably while the dancing girls (considered women of ill-repute) were being hauled to the docks in failed abductions by white slavers. Angry at this lack of concern for justice, Libby decides to investigate the murders herself. She enlists the aid of Peter Eberle, a local newspaper reporter in her efforts and together they explore the seedy side of a fast-growing town. Secrets from her past come back to haunt Libby as her feelings for Peter grow and as she faces the consequences of running away from her family in New York. This is the first in a fairly new series that combines a plucky heroine with life in a young western city.
April 16, 2007
“Personal History” by Katharine Graham
This autobiography by the former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham won, and deserved, a Pulitzer Prize when it was published a few years before her death in 2001. As a prominent female publisher working in turbulent times, Graham certainly led a memoir-worthy life. The early chapters of the book deal with her wealthy girlhood and privileged adolescence are frustratingly laden with famous names and personalities, but this becomes more tolerable as the story moves forward.
As Graham comes more into her own in the story, the book also comes more into focus. The book smoothly explores her development into a wife/mother/Washington D.C. hostess and so the reader is able to better understand the total upheaval in her life when she suddenly must take over as publisher of the family’s major metropolitan newspaper.
Graham’s candid language and blatant acknowledgment of her early struggles in managing the newspaper make her a far more human figure than in the first chapters of the book. In discussing events befalling her paper: the Pentagon papers, Watergate, a pressmen’s strike, it is clear that Graham’s first concern is the Post. Not the prestige of the job, not her own reputation, but the success and security of the Washington Post.
Katharine Graham definitely lived a life worth reading about, and thankfully, she has done an excellent job of writing about it.
Sara, reference assistant
April 09, 2007
"The Pirates" by Gideon Defoe
If you are only interested in serious literature, you will want to skip right over this blog entry. Gideon Defoe’s pirate stories, two bound in the same book, “The Pirates: In an Adventure with Scientists,” and “The Pirates: In an Adventure with Ahab” are just pure, silly fun. These stories recount two of the many adventures of the Pirate Captain and his crew. (Since the Pirate Captain has trouble remembering names, the crew go by descriptions and include such fine men as his second-in-command the scarf-wearing-pirate, the pirate with gout, the pirate in red, the pirate with the nut allergy – well you get the picture). In the first story, the pirates meet up with Charles Darwin and the in the second they go hunting the great white whale for Ahab. In both they sing a lot of shanties and discuss how much they love ham. These are wonderfully silly stories with great footnotes.
"Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" by Bella DePaulo
As a long time single myself, I was intrigued by the possibilities the title of this book suggested. Here was another educated always single reviewing and addressing our social bias against people who chose not to couple or marry. And there is a bias, both in everyday existence and in government structures like the tax system. DePaulo does a good job of listing and illustrating these biases in a relatively concise fashion. Unfortunately, she also clearly has an axe to grind, and her rage at the situation colors much of her interpretation of daily life and slights toward singles that may or may not be there. I needed to remind myself to sit back and not let her rabidity put me off of her main arguments, which are very valid.
I was also hoping for more constructive input regarding building a fulfilling single life within our current social structure, but there was relatively little material there on what makes single life "happily ever after." De Paulo spent her time speaking against the established paradigm, even in the chapter "The Way We Could Be" that was a prime spot for a new vision of singledom.
So, on the up side De Paulo presents a lot of relevant, valid, and interesting food for thought on the bias against singles in our couple-centric society. On the down side, you have to dig through a lot of angst to get to the relevant material. It's worth a look, especially if you're a sociology buff, but brace yourself for a somewhat less than stimulating read.
April 02, 2007
You Suck: a love story" by Christopher Moore
I thoroughly enjoyed this comic novel, the story of two young vampires trying to survive in San Francisco with the help of their sixteen year-old human minion, "Abby Normal". Abby, the sobriquet of a vampire-wannabe goth who attends Allen Ginsburg High (Go, Fighting Beatniks!), is one of the funniest in a cast of great characters. (All week now I've been quoting her reaction to finding the nine local Starbucks closed on Christmas: "Crushed by the iron hand of the baby Jesus".) The heroes, their 'victims'(including Chet the huge cat) and their enemies are all entertaining when taking center stage. My biggest quibble: the Deus ex Machina, or in this case Demon ex Machina, isn't really explained. (Okay, maybe that's the nature of a DeM, but it is glaring here.) I suspect that reading the preceding story of some of the major characters, "Bloodsucking fiends : a love story", may clear that up and I'm certainly planning to find out. "You suck" leaves the door open for a sequel.
“Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon” by Charles Slack
This biography of renowned miser Hetty Green is interesting because of its subject’s wealth and thrifty habits; but what I found even more interesting was how the author tried to highlight Hetty’s humanity and failed.
Hetty Green lived from 1834 to 1916 and was born into a Quaker family who happened to control the wealthiest whaling company in America. She inherited her family’s money, some of it through an aunt’s will, on which Hetty allegedly forged the signature. She went on to multiply that early fortune through good investments and extreme thrift, including bringing buckets of dry oatmeal to her bank, where she would add water and heat it on the radiator in order to avoid a restaurant bill.
Hetty is plain old cheap, and she tends to be pretty nasty about it. But author Charles Slack is determined to bring out her human qualities. He plays up the fact that when she was living in various tenements in Hoboken to avoid paying residency taxes, she gave savings banks with a dollar inside to some neighborhood children. Slack’s anecdotes meant to highlight her kindness are overwhelmed by the very nature of her character.
The author’s attempt to redeem Hetty Green’s legacy fail; there aren’t enough positive stories about this woman to stretch this book beyond its slim 226 pages. So while it’s not a very successful as a biography, it is a pretty good story about America’s cheapest and most forgotten tycoon.
Sara, reference assistant