Sunday, June 24, 2018

Book Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich


Author: Emily Ruskovich
Publisher: Gale Group
Date of Publication: November 7, 2017
Pages: 336

  I am honestly not completely sure how I feel about this book.  I read it because it was nominated for the Best First Novel by an American Author Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America (it eventually lost that honor to She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper).  Also, one of the main characters suffers from hereditary pre-senile dementia.  My mother died of complications of Alzheimer's disease, so memory loss and literary depictions of it interest me.  Then, reading little bits of this I realized that Emily Ruskovich is a very talented writer and her lyrical writing style drew me in.  So, it was with great anticipation that I began reading Idaho.

   For starters, the writing does not disappoint.  The author maintains a very high level of interesting and eloquent descriptions, especially of the harsh life in the Montana mountains.  Her characters are complex and intriguing, even mysterious at times.  The main two characters, Wade (who spirals downward with dementia) and his second wife Ann, are unforgettable.  The author deftly reveals tragedy after tragedy in each of their lives.  It is obvious early on that something horrible happened between Wade and his first wife Jenny.  The central theme is Ann trying to decipher exactly what happened and how.  The cause of death of one of Wade and Jenny's daughters and the disappearance of the other are the central mysteries of Idaho.

     The book succeeds magnificently in its depiction of dementia, not only in how the sufferer feels and copes but in how the disease devastates the lives of those who care about them.  The angst Wade feels as he realizes he is losing his grip on reality and the terror Ann experiences as Wade becomes violent and dangerous are gripping.

     My only gripe about Idaho, but it is a major one, is that there is a very open ending to the story.  Maybe the author is leaving room for a sequel or maybe she wants us to use our own imagination to finish the story.  I was a bit angry at the end that there were so many loose ends.  But maybe that's just me.  This book is very valuable in its depiction of a desperate dementia patient and the devastating impact on his family and community.  For those who have not lived with this first-hand, Idaho gives very empathetic insights into what is becoming a very common crisis.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Book Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Author: Douglas Preston
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Date of Publication: September 5, 2017
Pages: 407

     Douglas Preston is a multi-faceted and accomplished writer.  He has written articles for "National Geographic" and "The New Yorker" as well as non-fiction best sellers (The Monster of Florence).  He is also the co-author with Lincoln Child of a best-selling detective series.  He uses all of the tools in his toolbox for The Lost City of the Monkey God.  It has all of the detail and science contained in a serious periodical piece, the pace and style of the best fiction, and it tells a truly fascinating (and true) story to boot.

     The Lost City chronicles an expedition to find the legendary "White City" in Honduras.  For five hundred years people have speculated on the existence of a huge lost city in the rain forest which had been the home of a vanished culture.  Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes reported hearing of a vast community with great wealth and from this the legend grew.  Over the ensuing centuries various researchers, archeologists and explorers hypothesized on the location.  Interest in this lost city increased in the 1990s and several attempts were made to find it in the early 2000s.  It wasn't until the advent of lidar technology (lidar is an acronym for light imaging, detection and ranging) that a credible location for the White City could be defined.  The author adroitly explains this space age technology and how it has been used to find historical sites buried in sand in the Middle East.  Science readers will appreciate this chapter.   Preston goes on to describe how lidar was used in the Honduran rain forest and how it helped pinpoint a possible location for further exploration.  It was film maker Steve Elkins, fascinated by the legend of the lost White City, who proposed using lidar to try to locate it.  It was Elkins who finally got this expedition together once the possible location was discovered with lidar.

   Once the planning and funding of the expedition was arranged, Preston was invited to join the team as a journalist.  Permission from the Honduran government was finally obtained (politics is politics, regardless of what country) and the expedition was on.  What follows is a vivid portrayal of a wild experience worthy of an Indiana Jones movie!  Dilapidated helicopters delivered a motley group of scientists and academics deep into an impenetrable jungle.  Camp sites were protected by incompetent and corrupt members of the Honduran armed forces.  Danger was around every tree.  Here is how Preston describes what happened on his first night in the jungle:  "Eager to record some of the stories being told, I hurried back to my hammock on the other side of camp to fetch my notebook.  My new headlamp was defective, so Juan Carlos loaned me a crank flashlight."  Needless to say, Preston got disoriented in the dark, lost the trail but finally found his way back to the campsite.  "Thrilled to be safely back in camp, I circled the hammock, probing the wall of forest with my light for the path that would take me to where the rest of the group was chatting.  On my second circle of the hammock, I froze as my beam passed over a huge snake."  It was a fer-de-lance, one of the largest and deadliest of the venomous snakes indigenous to the area.  "It was staring at me, in striking position, its head swaying back and forth, its tongue flicking in and out.  I had walked right past it - twice."  An unbelievable two page description of bringing the six foot snake down follows.  This description is more frightening than anything every written by Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe or anybody else for that matter!

     There is a lot here for history buffs as well.  Preston educates the reader about "Pre-Columbian" and "Post-Columbian" eras in Central America and also about Mayan and other native cultures.  Many artifacts were discovered in the areas pin-pointed by the lidar scans and knowledge of the history and culture of the area was critical when trying to elucidate their origins and time period.

     The story doesn't end with the expedition.  For months after everyone returned, more and more of the explorers became sick with fevers, muscle aches, cramps and skin lesions.  This included Douglas Preston who came down with the illness while on a holiday with his wife in Switzerland and France.  Several chapters follow which discuss various tropical and infectious diseases.  Eventually the National Institute of Health became involved and the responsible parasite was finally identified and proper treatment prescribed. 

     In summary, this book was exciting, fascinating, educational and scary.  Often all at the same time.  I can't recommend it highly enough. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Book Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing

Author: Peter Swanson
Publisher: HarperCollins
Date of Publication: February 2, 2015
Pages: 416

     I enjoyed Peter Swanson's first effort, The Girl with A Clock for a Heart so much that I purchased his second book and devoured it as well.  I was thrilled that The Kind Worth Killing is even better!  The author uses a multiple viewpoint format for a super twist on the story line of Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train.

     The narrative starts slowly and innocently enough with a conversation between two strangers which starts in an airport lounge in London and continues on a trans-Atlantic flight to Boston.  Ted Severson's tongue becomes a little loose after a few martinis and he tells Lilly Kitner about his wife's affair with a contractor building their summer home in Maine.  Talk turns to murder and Lilly almost jokingly agrees to help with the deed.  This strange association continues in the weeks after with clandestine meetings between the pair.

     The story line moves from flashbacks to Ted and his wife Miranda's courtship and marriage and Lilly's college romances and their subsequent tragic endings to the present day infidelity, subterfuge and murderous intent.  There are also chapters told from Miranda's viewpoint which really turn this story on its head.  What separates this novel from the cliche of a plot to murder an unfaithful spouse are the twists and turns in the plot which are masterful.  The story caroms at high speed and with truly unanticipated shocking turns, creating an arabesque plot which is as entertaining as it is
truly surprising.

    I found the writing to be excellent.  The characters are all terribly flawed but extremely well developed.  The most captivating character is, not surprisingly, Lilly, who utters this memorable line:

"Truthfully, I don't think murder is necessarily as bad as people make it out to be. Everyone dies. What difference does it make if a few bad apples get pushed along a little sooner than God intended? And your wife, for example, seems like the kind worth killing."

     The structure of the of the book is similar to the successful technique used in The Girl with a Clock for a Heart.  Instead of being formulaic, however, the author uses and refines the technique (flashbacks/multiple viewpoints) and creates an even better novel than his first.  Both are exceptional in my view and I recommend both highly.  Hopefully, the inevitable movie versions of these two stories live up to the quality of the novels.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Book Review: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

Dreamers of the Day

Author: Mary Doria Russell
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Date of Publication: December 16, 2008
Pages: 288

     If you are not familiar with Mary Doria Russell, she is a very versatile author who has published science fiction, westerns and historical fiction.  All of her books are well written and are character driven.  She is also very entertaining to follow on Facebook.  Dreamers of the Day was published in 2008 and is a historical novel set in the early 20th century.  

     The main character is Agnes Shanklin, a spinster who lives in Cleveland, Ohio.  The first section of the book describes her early life with a domineering, belittling mother and her family's battle with the Great Influenza of 1918.  Agnes is her family's sole survivor.  In the final two thirds of the book Agnes takes control of her life, decides to travel and arrives in Egypt during the Cairo conference in 1921. There she is caught up in a fantastic cast of historical characters including T. E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, his wife Clementine and Lady Gertrude Bell.  Agnes finds herself embroiled in conversations regarding rule of the Middle East following World War I.  Arab self-rule comes in conflict with British, French, Jewish, Palestinian and German interests in the area.   The Cairo Conference of 1921 was held from March 12-30 and was convened by the British to sort out conflicting policies regarding the Middle East.  The outcome of this conference defined British and French jurisdictions and created the country of Iraq.  It has been said that you cannot understand the modern conflict in the Middle East without first understanding the politics and the aftermath of World War I and this book helps shed light on that subject.  

     An amusing secondary "character" is Agnes' noisy and fussy pet daschund Rosie.  Agnes goes everywhere with Rosie, including the Middle East.  The problems of traveling with this dog not only allows Agnes to meet some of the famous characters but provides several comic episodes as well.  Agnes and Rosie's excursion on the Nile in a fishing boat is a highlight of the entire book.

     Another hallmark of this author's books is her incredible attention to detail, a result of tireless research.  She has obviously done her homework here, presenting a mesmerizing tour of many famous sites, including the pyramids of Gaza and the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.  Agnes becomes very perplexed by the commercialism and crowded, tourist trap nature of the holy sites in Jerusalem (and this was in 1921!).  This is part of her description of visiting the Holy Sepulchre:

"The farther into the shrine we moved, the staler the air became.  Around the periphery of the shrine, the morning processions were assembling, and at least two kinds of incense began to waft toward us.  The cloying scents mixed with the sort of crowd odor that silently proclaims a variable devotion to the principles of good hygiene.  Arab workmen were taking a break from their morning's task, smoking hashish near a side altar.  Eating and joking, they contributed woozy laughter to echoing wails, a rumble of muttered commentary, and the occasional shocking guffaw.  Chants, chimes, and clanking metal chains added to a growing cacophony.  Prayers and conversations grew louder in response."

     Dreamers of the Day was entertaining and educational at the same time.  I enjoyed it quite a bit and would recommend it (and any other of this author's books) highly.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Book Review: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart

Author: Peter Swanson
Publisher: HarperCollins Publisher
Date of Publication: January 6, 2015
Pages: 304

     Go get this book and read it, mystery fans.  It has everything!  The characters are all well developed and engaging, the plot has a million twists and turns, the writing is crisp and entertaining and the pace is spectacular.

    George Foss is an everyman: a fortyish management type at a literary magazine headquartered in Boston.  He has an on-again, off-again girlfriend, a cat and a small apartment filled with books.  His life is pretty much on auto-pilot when his college girlfriend shows up at his favorite bar and asks for a favor.  Liana Decter was George's first love for whom he still carries a torch.  She is the ultimate femme fatale:  alluring, mysterious, sexy, the whole package.  The story then splits in two.  In flashbacks we learn of George's freshman year at Mather College, his torrid relationship with Liana and her presumed suicide at home in Florida over Christmas break.  He goes to her home to investigate and finds a tangled story of swapped identities, drug use and Liana's eventual disappearance.

     The contemporary story is that of Liana's return to George and enlisting him to return half a million stolen dollars for her.  This leads to a string of horrible complications for George, involving more identity issues, murder and mayhem.  The resolution of the two story lines is a bit of a stretch, but this entire story is a bit of a stretch:  a thrilling, entertaining and well written stretch!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: American Fire by Monica Hesse

American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land

Author: Monica Hesse
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Company
Date of Publication: July 11, 2017
Pages: 288

     Back in the Stone Ages when I was in medical school, MCV used to farm out third year students for a one month primary care experience.  I had the fantastic luck of spending the month of August, 1976 at the Northampton-Accomack Memorial Hospital in Nassawadox, Virginia.  There were four of us third-years there that month as well as a fourth year doing an elective.  As my first clinical rotation, this month was a genuine eye-opener.  There were no "real" doctors in the hospital from 11 P.M. until the morning, not even in the E.R.  The attendings all lived a minute or so away and one general surgeon would sleep in his R.V in the parking lot (no beepers - you just went out and pounded on the door if you needed him).  It was a unique and wonderful clinical rotation.  The internist I worked with (William Burton, M.D.) had been second in his medical school class at MCV (his wife was #1!).  I saw many things for the first time and learned a tremendous amount in one month.  I helped manage a lady with acute CHF, saw a Kaposi's sarcoma and even was sent in an ambulance to Norfolk with a variceal bleeder (one I.V. and one unit of blood, just in case she "broke loose").  We were also able to accompany a public health nurse by boat to Tangier Island to do house calls.  Just as enlightening as the medical education I received, I learned a lot of the history and lore of Virginia's Eastern Shore.  Much like current times, the economy was depressed and the locals were looking for new sources of jobs.  The young people were not returning home after college.  There was a huge influx of migrant workers every summer.  Most people ignored their health care until they were in advanced stages of their disease.  So, it is with this backdrop that you can understand that when I heard about Monica Hesse's American Fire, an account of a true story which occurred on the Eastern Shore, I ordered a copy and started reading it the minute it arrived in the mail.

     American Fire is, first and foremost, the story of Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick.  Both of these people are Eastern Shore locals and had a colorful past.  Charlie had frequent run-ins with the law and owned an auto body shop.  Tonya was a nursing assistant and single mother who had a party-girl reputation.  They formed an unlikely couple and then proceeded to become serial arsonists.  They burned many of the unoccupied farm buildings as well as several homes and businesses.  Over eighty fires in all were started.  They managed to elude a massive effort by local and state police as well as F.B.I. and A.T.F. to stop them.  The author does a very creditable job of creating non-judgmental character studies of both of these people.  One of the problems the police had was defining a motive but Hesse does ferret that out by the end of the book.  There are many other fascinating character studies in American Fire, including the volunteer firemen and the police officers involved.

     Just as important as the character sketches, though, the author manages to paint a very stark and realistic picture of the Eastern Shore.  She traces the history of the area, including it's rich farming traditions and its short-lived era as a vacation destination.  She elaborates on the current economic woes which define this area as well as many rural areas in modern America.  In some ways, this book could be viewed as a companion to J.D. Vance's Hillbilly ElegyBoth books give a harsh view of a distressed and hopeless slice of America.  Hesse's views however are balanced.  She recognizes the charms of living in area such as the Eastern Shore as well as the challenges:

"I went to Accomack County and I found endless metaphors for a dying county in a changing landscape.  There were endless metaphors that went the opposite way, too: rural life as a fairy tale, better than the rest of the country.  The reality is probably somewhere in between.  The people who lived in Accomack were happy to live in Accomack.  It wasn't small, it was close-knit.  It wasn't backward, it was simple.  There weren't  a hundred things to do every night, but if you went to the one available thing, you were pretty much guaranteed to run into someone you knew.  As economies change, as landscapes change, nostalgia is the only good America will never stop producing."

     The author also includes an entertaining chapter on infamous "Crime Couples", including Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow Gang, the "Barbie Killers" Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, and Leopold and Loeb.  She describes a shared psychotic disorder, folie a deux (madness of two), which is applicable to these famous cases as well as the Eastern Shore arsonists.  There is also a fascinating chapter on the subspecialty of arsonist profiling.  Using a computer program and the locations of the crimes, police are able to pinpoint where the arsonists live.  In this particular case they narrowed it down to one residential block (which was accurate) but still couldn't identify the culprits even though everyone on the block, including the perpetrators, were interviewed.

    Monica Hesse is a feature writer for "The Washington Post" and has written this book and Girl in the Blue Coat, an Edgar winner for Best Young Adult Mystery.  She has created a stellar entry in the genre of creative non-fiction with American Fire.  I enjoyed it from a nostalgia point of view as well as from the fact that it is a very entertaining and informative read.  

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Stanford Freshman Required Reading List (2017)

     The Stanford Freshman Summer Reading List - 2017

      Stanford University assigned three books to their incoming freshman class.  Wanting to be as well read as these eighteen and nineteen year olds I decided to read them as well.  I read them for two reasons.  First, I thought I might learn something.  Second, I wanted to see what someone, or some committee at Stanford felt was important for their incoming freshmen to know.  So here are my thoughts regarding these three books, all of which were superb in their own way.

     The first one I read was Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones.  This was a National Book Award Winner in 2011.  It has been described as "the first great book about Katrina" ("The Boston Globe").  I found it more of a crystal sharp, eyes-wide-open view of poverty in modern America.  You can read as many books about poverty which you can find and none will make you feel the experience as well as Salvage the Bones.  The story is set in coastal Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005.    It is told through the eyes of an unforgettable 14 year-old African-American girl.  She lives with her three brothers (two older and one much younger) and her father among chickens, fighting dogs, broken down cars and trucks and a dilapidated house.  What sets this novel apart is the quality of the writing.  There isn't one false word or phrase.  Each paragraph packs an emotional punch.  The author's doesn't just tell us about poverty in rural Mississippi, she shows it to us through her vivid descriptions.  This ability enables the setting to almost become its own character.  The land and location certainly set the stage for the lives these people lead:
"The few dirt-scratched yards and the thin-siding houses and trailers of Bois Sauvage seem a sorry match to the woods, like pitting a puppy against a full grown dog.  Here, there are swimming holes that are fat puddles and some the size of swimming pools fed by skinny clear creeks, but the earth makes the holes black, and the trees make them as filthy with leaves as a dog is with fleas.  There are clusters of magnolias that are so tall and green and glossy, they are impossible to climb, and the air around them always smells like peaches.  There are oaks so big and old that their arms grow out black and thick as trunks, which rest on the ground.  There are ponds that are filled with slime and tall yellow grasses, and at night, frogs turn them teeming, singing a burping chorus.  There are clearings where deer feed, startle white, and kick away.  There are  turtles plowing through pine straw, mud, trying to avoid the pot."

   The author deftly counterposes daily life for this way below the poverty line family and the father's sense of urgency regarding the impending hurricane.  The final chapters tell of Katrina's arrival and are riveting.

     The Sixth Extinction is a work of non-fiction written by Elizabeth Kolbert, a journalist who currently is a staff writer for "The New Yorker."  She is not a scientist by training but very adroitly makes her case that we are living in an era of mass extinction.  This would be the sixth such event in earth history.  She illustrates her points by personal research including, for example, time spent in Central America examining the disappearance of thousands of species of frogs.  I expected this to be a diatribe regarding climate change but refreshingly, it is not.  She does have chapters on our current climate condition, but she does so without standing on a soap box.  The chapter on acidification of the oceans (CO2 absorption from the atmosphere) and its effects on coral reefs and the ecosystem which relies on them was clearly written.  The other chapter which in my opinion was extremely well done was the one on invasive species and how this has changed environments and native species all over the world.  This process has been accelerated in our lifetime by globalization.  She notes that the most invasive species ever has been homo sapiens:

"Before humans emerged on the scene, being large and slow to reproduce was a highly successful strategy, and out-sized creatures dominated the planet.  Then, in what amounts to a geologic instant, this strategy became a loser's game.  And so it remains today, which is why elephants and bears and big cats are in so much trouble...  Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it's not clear that he ever really did."

 Kolbert not only explains what is going on in our environment today but draws parallels to the five other eras in history when major species extinctions have also occurred.  This book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2015.

     Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing made the biggest impression on me.  This epic story relates a multi-generational slave saga, starting in Ghana in the late 1700s.  The main characters are two half-sisters, one of whom marries a British officer and into a life of privilege.  The other is sold as a captive by a warring tribe and shipped to America.  Chapters follow descendants through major events in history, including the slave experience in Mississippi, the American Civil War and into modern times. These stories are not told in direct chronological order, but interconnect and the ending chapters are back in Ghana.  The characters here are exceptionally well developed and captivating.  I was reading this novel at the time of the events in Charlottesville in August.  Homegoing gave me insight into how reminders of the pre-Civil War South could be enormously hurtful to descendants of slaves.  The slave experience is woven in the DNA of African Americans and this book helped me appreciate that fact.  I am aware that unless you are Native American, we all have an immigrant heritage.  My great grandparents immigrated from Ireland during the potato famine in the 1880s.  My great grandfather worked as a blacksmith in Richmond.  I am also well aware that many ethnic groups faced the obstacle of prejudice in subsequent generations.  I don't think any of these equates with the slave experience and this book enormously helped me understand that.  It doesn't answer the question of what to do with Confederate statues, but at least it makes the issue make sense to me.

     So, all three of these books were excellent and presented the Stanford freshmen and me with lots to think about.  I would imagine that whomever assigned these books generally wanted their freshman to have an awareness of the larger world.  The two novels certainly give insight into poverty and the heritage of slavery.  As Stephen Covey has written: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."  These books give the reader incredible insights and would seemingly help develop empathy.  The Sixth Extinction gives a broad view of environmental processes and concerns without a political agenda. Again, this would seemingly serve the purpose of helping a young person become aware of issues outside of the college campus.  I enjoyed reading all three of these books and yes, they made me think and rethink some of my opinions.  I recommend all three very highly.